Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Anaconda, Montana

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On TV here in Big Sky Country, as elsewhere in this land, the meat puppets are engaged in a frenzy of speculation on what might be called Debtmageddon. Just when you thought you were safe here on earth, another horrible deadline looms, one after which the world as we know it will cease to exist, they say.

One of the more risible lines I hear often is how, if the budget impasse isn't solved somehow, consumer credit interest rates are going to skyrocket. That makes me rethink my naive preconceptions, because I figured interest rates were in the stratosphere already. Silly me, assuming that 19.99% per annum, with ceilings of 30% or more, was already enough to make even a Shylock blush. Apparently, if Obama and the Teapartiers can't get their heads together by August 2, your interest will go up even higher. What those heights might be, God only knows. Maybe 10% per week, collected in person by a guy named Vinnie. Meanwhile the poor beleaguered banks, to make up for the extra expense of having to hire all those goombahs to collect their vigorish, will have to lower the amount they pay on savings accounts from the current rate of practically nothing to, well, nothing.

Somebody in a speech (I think President Obama) harked back to the Eisenhower administration recently for purposes of putting our financial situation into context, and my memory carried me to the days when the local bank on Dixie Highway actually paid little old me something like 4% interest on my tiny savings account. I have no idea what the credit card rates were then, since such things barely existed, but I'm betting they were in the single digits--still enough for banks to make a handsome profit and to ensure that the bank president would be the richest guy in town, but not quite enough to make him, as is now the case, richer and more powerful than God.

The other thing that amuses me as I hear it repeated by the Barbie and Ken dolls who give us our news is the fictitious idea that the American people are now demanding that their elected officials act like adults and compromise for the good of the country. Of course if people hear this kind of nonsense often enough, they come to believe it, and indeed to think they came up with the idea themselves, this being the essential nature of propaganda. But the notion that we want our two political parties to agree on things is not and never has been the case. What the American people want now, and what they've wanted since the dawn of partisan politics (some time during Washington's second administration in the 1790s), is for the elected officials they don't like to grow up and start acting like the ones they do like.

With all this in mind, I suggest that everyone quit worrying and above all quit watching the news, and let the folks in Foggy Bottom do what they're going to do anyway. If we voted for assholes (and in 2010 boy did we ever) then we should expect to be governed by assholes. In other words, relax, just as we did when they were predicting the end of the world in May. If the worst happens, we're all screwed anyway. If it doesn't, we'll never notice the difference.

And one more thing. I'm tired of all this talk about trillions of dollars. Forget trillions. I'm waiting for the first quadrillion dollar deficit. Bring that bad boy on. (Just like I'm skipping the 4G network, whatever the hell that means, and waiting for 5G, or 6G.)

Back to Montana. When I was a kid in music class in elementary school, we had a book full of songs that practically nobody sings any more. In some cases that's absolutely a good thing. Songs like "Old Black Joe" and "Camptown Races" are mercifully laid to rest. But one of my favorite songs from that book started,

I'm Captain Jinx of the horse marines
I feed my horse on corn and beans.
I like young ladies in their teens
'Cause I'm the pride of the army.

I always enjoyed that one because I felt then, as I do now, that it captured the essence of what it means to be a military officer. Or a Mormon or a U.S. Congressman for that matter. But another ditty that's come to mind recently is about the very wild west in the grip of which I find myself at this moment. Maybe some of you will remember this one:

My home's in Montana, I wear a bandanna,
My spurs are of silver, my pony is grey.
When riding the ranges my luck never changes,
With foot in the stirrup I'll gallop away. (Etc.)

Anaconda, Montana is, or was, a copper mining town. They mined it and above all they smelted it. The process of smelting copper ore created--as solid, liquid, and/or gaseous byproducts--things like sulphur dioxide, mercury and other heavy metals, and arsenic, the fumes of which wafted through the air like the smell of money, at least for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which owned the town. Anaconda Copper's history reads like a who's who of notorious capitalists, as the company passed through or was pawed by the sticky fingers of folks with names like Hearst, Rothschild, and Rockefeller. Although the grass and trees refused to grow to any extent in Anaconda, and people routinely died of cancer, the money grew and the mining and smelting processes created lots of jobs for Irish, Italian, and Welsh immigrants. When the smelter closed in the 1980s, many jobs were lost. On the other hand, as I see it, many lives were saved.

As a means of subsisting, I'm not sure having a job is necessarily all it's cracked up to be. For centuries the English and European aristocracies have lived quite comfortably without having any jobs at all. And behold the fowls of the air, for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, as the Good Book says. We should start seriously questioning the politicians who promise to create jobs for America. They could be trying to kill us. Perhaps they're the real subversives.

Well, I digress again. On a cool sunny day in Anaconda, I decided to climb what's known as the "A Hill," the slightly vulgar name for one of the now quite grassy peaks overlooking the city from the south. It's called that because along the side about three-quarters of the way up there's a large white letter "A," perhaps fifty feet high, made of boulders painted white. It signifies Anaconda, and especially Anaconda High School. There's also a "C" hill next to it, for another school, which I think is Catholic Central. I'm told the high school kids go up each year to repaint the "A" and no doubt also to drink and carouse. I took a steep one-lane road about halfway up the hill, then began pulling myself up a very steep and perilous incline of stones about the size of trap rock, hanging on to aspen saplings and a stout walking stick for support. I think only someone at least half drunk and embued with the sense of immortality that the very young have would be foolhardy enough to try to carry paint while climbing up there. From right next to it, the "A" doesn't even look like a letter, just a large collection of white rocks about a foot in diameter shaped and held in place at the appropriate places by railroad ties anchored by heavy rebar. Up beyond the "A" another few hundred feet is the top of the hill, which affords a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains, some still snow-covered, as well as the town sprawling at its feet looking tiny and the smokestack of the defunct smelter that once spewed out the toxic lifeblood of the city.

The Anaconda of today is only a remnant of its former self, with the typical half-empty downtown of the typical American industrial skeleton. A low mountain of inert jet-black tailings, the slag that remains when all the copper has been gleaned from the stripped rock by whatever means, runs for the better part of a mile along Montana Route 1 on the way into and out of town, defying vegetation to even consider rooting in it. The tailings look like pebbles of anthracite coal. The closed Anaconda smelter and its environs today are a gigantic superfund site, an inherited liability for the oil giants ARCO and its parent BP, who bought it just a few years before the operation closed down.

The sky in this part of Montana is clear and sweet and the rivers run reasonably clean, all things considered, and the mountains and valleys are beautiful. The miners and smelter workers are gone. Elsewhere in Montana, and throughout the Rocky Mountain states, copper is still being mined and smelted, as it must be, as it has been for 10,000 years or more. Also, quite extensively, down in the Andean countries of South America, where Anaconda Copper has long been doing its capitalist magic for the benefit of the Indians and mestizos of that area. Copper for electric wiring, for roofs and plumbing. Copper for brass and jewelry. But not here in Anaconda, where even the slot machines in the city's dozens of small low-stakes casinos rarely accept the copper coin of the realm any more. I don't know if the machines take only paper money or if they accept Social Security checks as well. That wouldn't be a bad idea. Maybe they've already thought of it somewhere else.

If Debtmageddon comes and those government checks stop, it'll be another nail in the coffin of Anaconda. But not a copper nail. No more copper here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Sublime

Southern California

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

We recently had an opportunity to visit Zion National Park in southern Utah. Beautiful red rock formations and mountains abound. The journey to there from greater LA was a bit like going from the sublime to the ridiculous and back out the other side to the sublime again. That's if you're not a gambler.

Interstate 15 is the artery that carries the eastbound traveler out of the suburban congestion of the metropolitan area and into the desert north of Barstow. There the brown hills and salt flats of the Mojave are a reminder that this whole place was pretty much desolate and scrubby a century ago, when San Francisco was the Golden State's center of wealth and finance and culture (such as it ever was). Back when someone could put this line into a clever song:

She hates California, it's cold and it's damp,
That's why the lady is a tramp.

I puzzled on that for a while when I first heard it until I remembered that the center of gravity, as it were, of this state didn't really begin to move south down the Pacific coast until the 1920s, when the movie industry hit its stride. So when Lorenz Hart wrote those words in the 30s, it was a holdover from the days when eastern women of quality would go only to the northern part of the state if they came out here at all. And some remnants of that dichotomy exist to the present day. Money is certainly to be made hand over fist in the southern part of the state, but it's still to a great extent considered the fruits of ostentation and poor taste, comparatively speaking. In northern California (which, like northern Michigan, comprises a good two-thirds of the land mass of the state) the money has always seemed to smell a little better, as if scraping it raw from the ground made it cleaner: gold, silver, and silicon, as opposed to Goldwyn, the silver screen, and silicone.

Well, back to the trip. Out across the windy flat desert heading northeast to Nevada, mountains pushed back miles from the roadway, the towns become little oases, few and far between. In fact, the city of Baker is about it, amid signs with happy-go-lucky names promising death and damnation, visions of dried bleached bones dancing in the shimmering distance. Baker boasts the Mad Greek Restaurant and the Bun Boy Motel on its strip, reminiscent of the lonesome ports along I-10 in the New Mexico and Arizona desert, like Lordsburg and Quartzsite. Then, just when the arid desolation is becoming beautiful in its own right, Joshua trees and cacti and sagebrush thickening the gray-brown earth, the Nevada state line comes into view, and it's as if someone slapped up a third-rate theme park in the middle of absolutely nowhere. This town, bearing the unlikely name of Primm, has exactly one thing going for it. It welcomes you to a state where gambling is legal everywhere. To celebrate this crossing of the invisible line from massive San Bernardino County--where the powers that be unreasonably refuse to let you flush your money down an assortment of thousands of twinkling tinkling shitholes leading to the coffers of the Mafia--into Clark County, Nevada, they put up a few places for folks who can't wait another half hour to get to Las Vegas. I imagine that back before Indian casinos this spot on the state line was a Big Deal, being the first legal gambling venue the poor casino-starved Californians saw, and some of them stopped to dump their money right at the state line. Why wait?

Why wait indeed, unless of course you came to see Las Vegas. Lenny Bruce said that Miami is where neon goes to die. If so, then Las Vegas is where it goes when the boatman has taken it across the River Styx--the entertainment capital of the afterlife. Englebert Humperdinck, Wayne Newton, the Blue Men, Penn and Teller, Siegfried and ...ooops. And the New Mr. Vegas, comedian George Wallace. The good stuff. And if you can hold on to your wallet, it's a fast freeway drive on up the 15 from the state line. But if you're not interested in seeing a city where the streets are paved with Elvis impersonators and little Latin American conscripts handing out ads for call girls--if it's pure, unadulterated odds-stacked-against-you gambling you crave, then you might as well stop at Primm, or for that matter at any 7-Eleven along the highway throughout the great state of Nevada.

One of the little delights awaiting the traveler, after the long urban expanse of greater Las Vegas and an hour of desert on the other side, is the 25-mile chunk of I-15 that cuts through northwest Arizona on the way up to Utah, winding through the steep Virgin Mountains. This is excellent preparation for the beauties that lie ahead, because Utah is a beautiful state. I confess that my prejudices against the Mormons have kept me largely ignorant of the Beehive State until relatively recently. Contempt prior to investigation is never a good thing. So what if Brigham Young and his band of merry pranksters got here first? And small wonder that they liked what they saw. For mountain majesty there's no place like Utah, as far as your humble narrator can tell. Colorado is great, but east of Denver it tapers off so quickly into rolling prairie nothingness that you have to keep looking over your shoulder to make sure you didn't imagine what you were marveling at just hours earlier. Utah, on the other hand, is pretty much all mountains.

I'll let the photos speak for themselves, and for me, since when it comes to gigantic natural phenomena I'm generally left speechless. So far I haven't become bored with mountains of any sort, whether made of bare red sandstone or whatever it is, or covered with trees and shrubs. So much time as a comparative flatlander has made me easily impressed with these geological dimples. I can only imagine what I'd think of Katmandu.

One of the things that helps make the pristine beauty of the steep rocks and canyons in a place like Zion appear even greater by comparison is the cramming together of people from all over the country and the world who have come to gape. Japanese with their maniacal photographing of everything. Germans with their inveterate hearty love of hiking. Serious families of east Indians, the men walking ahead, the women young and old showing bits of brown back and midriff beneath drapes of cotton print material. And of course the rest of us, dressed as if we were getting ready to clean the garage or work on the car, wearing ball caps indoors and out, even while we dine, like the utter boors we've all become. Mixtures of man alive, as Captain Beefheart said, packed into buses chugging through gorges and canyons cut over millions of years by a nature vastly superior and utterly indifferent to the sights and smells and silliness of all its puny transient species, especially to this swarm of beings that glorifies itself to the point where it imagines it can make more than a brief miniscule difference to anything at all on this planet.

The sublime, the ridiculous, the sublime.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Last Duchess

The Southland

Sunday, July 10, 2011

There's a guy out here on one of the public TV outlets named Huell Howser. Locals will know and understand immediately the full implications of that statement. He's a tall and very affable fellow in his mid-sixties with a full head of white hair, which he keeps clipped to something just a bit longer than a crewcut. He looks and sounds like what he is--a news reporter gone slightly stocky and more than a bit batty. Though he still has his east Tennessee twang, he's been here in the Southland, as they call southern California, for many years, and appears Monday through Friday at 7:30 in the evening for a half hour dedicated to visits to slightly less-known areas and points of interest throughout California.

With Huell Howser, you just love him or hate him. It's hard to be indifferent. You either think he's a complete moron or you groove on his goofy ebullience. I am in the latter camp. I'm trying to think of people to compare him to. He's a beefier Marlon Perkins on lots of caffeine without (necessarily) the animals. Or a skinnier George Pierrot, showing up in person and just loving the countryside and the food and the ambiance and the people. He fairly explodes with wide-eyed innocence and enthusiasm over things that for the average jaded viewer and but for his nearly giggly excitement would be only mildly interesting. To paraphrase slightly the words of Robert Browning from My Last Duchess, "He has a heart--how shall I say?--too soon made glad, too easily impressed; he likes whate'er he looks on, and his looks go everywhere."

Huell's been everywhere in California, from the redwood forests to the Mexican border, over a twenty-year-plus career at public TV station KCET that followed stints as a regular news reporter in Nashville, then New York and LA. After his arrival on the coast his infectious enthusiasm and insouciant love of regular everyday stuff and people combined with his new-found love of California, and he created a program called "California's Gold," where he visits scenic locales, fairs, small and large towns, and, well, just about every damn place and thing in the state. And when he gets there, dressed in shorts or slacks topped with solid-colored straight-cut tropical shirts, he just enjoys himself, whether he's sitting on a pile of old tires, visiting a store that sells hundreds of brands of soda, or looking out over a spectacular vista. There's no other way to put it. They guy just has a good time. He's famous all over the state. Matt Groening's regard for Huell Howser has even resulted in several references to him on "The Simpsons."

I recently saw an episode of "California's Gold" where he was visiting the Point Bonita Lighthouse at the Golden Gate in San Francisco. It stands out on the ocean at the mouth of the Golden Gate, which isn't the bridge but the rocky strait between the San Francisco and Marin Peninsulas leading in from the Pacific to the Bay. The iconic bridge spans the inner edge of the Golden Gate, hence its name. Anyway there's an old lighthouse out there on the ocean side, and Huell and his intrepid cameraman are following a park ranger out to it, across a small pedestrian bridge. Along the way he keeps repeating, in the tone and cadences a kindergarten teacher might use, "So, when you say Golden Gate, you're not talking about that"--pointing behind him eastward to the big orange suspension bridge in the distance--"but THIS body of water, which is also the Golden Gate." The ranger affirms the fact, and Huell Howser shakes his head in genuine amazement and disbelief, as if he's just been told there's a race of twelve-fingered trolls living deep under the bridge on which he's standing. Then he says, "Wow. That's a-MAZ-ing"--his trademark phrase--"so wait. So this little foot bridge we're crossing now to get to the lighthouse is the original Golden Gate Bridge then, isn't it?" As he glances at the camera, eyes twinkling and a good-natured smile playing on his lips, you know that he's not at all amused by his own cleverness but is simply bowled over by the uncanny banal serendipity of it all. No child over the age of four could be this ingenuous, this wide-eyed, this utterly impressed by the mundane and the beautiful in felicitous juxtaposition to one another. And somehow, even as you're laughing at him, you're infected by his enthusiasm.

Of course my attraction to him is based in large measure on the fact that he's a kindred spirit. As I write about Irwindale or Lucky Baldwin or the End of the World Dude in Hollywood I imagine that old Huell's been there ahead of me, enthusing away on the very same subjects, and there's a pretty good chance he has. I approach Huell Howser with a fascination that I imagine to be akin to his own feeling of wonder about all that surrounds him. A diminished sense of excitement, or God forbid a tinge of cynicism, would be disrespectful.

Like some of the great television personalities of my own past and perhaps yours--people such as master Detroit home improvement huckster Mr. Belvedere or the great Ron Popeil touting the Showtime Rotisserie--you tend to watch Huell Howser not so much for what he's showcasing as for how he does it. You get the feeling he could become thrilled by an empty box and that after you were done making fun of him you'd have a respect for brown corrugated cardboard you never had before. That's AMAZING, you'd say to yourself, as you gazed reverentially at the container, shaking your head in almost stupefied awe. You mean to tell me this box is empty, and that it's made of cardboard?!? Wow!

That's amazing.