May 21, 2017

Napa icon & journalist L. Pierce Carson passes away at 76

NAPA, Calif. - I landed in the Napa Register newsroom in April of 1973. The Watergate political pot was coming to a hard boil. L. Pierce Carson would run home at lunchtime all summer, watch part of the hearings  on television and come back, breathless about what was going on.

L. Pierce Carson
He ran home because he didn't drive, didn't own a car, and was the most skilled guy at bumming rides I have ever met.

He was also one of most skilled journalistic-style writers I have ever met, skilled in a low-key way.

My first encounter with Pierce came weeks after I started a quasi-internship in the newsroom. I had graduated with a degree in English and thought all paragraphs had to be looooooong affairs (300 words was a nice length), strewn liberally with semicolons and other grammatical flourishes.

After being shredded publicly numerous times by the late Harry Martin, then city editor of the Napa Register, Pierce secretly looked over a story I had typed, made some alterations and had me retype it before I turned it in.

It flew past Martin and into the newspaper - my very first byline.

With Margrit Monday
And so I started studying how Pierce would write stories about county government, stories that could have been so dull without his touch, but were as interesting as fiction I was reading. He had a bagful of writing tricks, plus he knew his stuff. I studied his style and learned well.

Several generations of students at CSU Chico and CSU Sacramento learned the LPC writing method in my journalism classes, not always knowing where it came from.

My favorite image of L. Pierce Carson is of him challenging someone in the Register advertising department to a duel right in the middle of the newsroom. They retired to their desks, returning with umbrellas, which they poked playfully at each other to the delight of the newspaper staff.

Pierce won the duel by making the ad salesman laugh so hard he couldn't hold his umbrella.

Rest in peace, L. Pierce Carson. And keeping 'hooking' paragraphs the way you taught me.






May 11, 2017

'Then Came Bronson' star Michael Parks pulls away for last time

   POINT RICHMOND, Calif. - I have television and film actor Michael Parks to thank for my moving to California in 1970.
     No, he didn't offer me a job, cash, or even talk me into to fleeing the Rust Belt Village of Lakewood, NY.
     What he did do was star in a television program called Then Came Bronson that probably launched thousands of guys like me on wandering trips around the country.
     I just happened to land in California.

     The opening episode actually begins in San Francisco - not that far from where I am writing this today.
     His character was emblematic of a generation of young men who were convinced that something out on the road was calling them. It certainly grabbed my attention from the first episode.
     But at the time the program was getting underway, so was my young family.
     Married with a three-month-old infant son, a motorcycle like the one driven by Michael Park's character was an unlikely vehicle for the three of us.

    So the compromise vehicle was another icon of the era - a beat up VW microbus, complete with a peace symbol painted on the front in place of the metal VW symbol. That peace symbol was painted over just before we left NY for points west.
    Watching the iconic film Easy Rider convinced me a slightly less 'in-your-face' vehicle might get me through some of places that sported signs in those days that said things like "NO HIPPIES ALLOWED" and "YOU WANT EAT HERE? GET A HAIRCUT."
     The details of that sojourn will take an entire book to tell.
   
     Michael Parks died earlier this week. He was 77 and had a fabulous film and television career acting in many great roles.
     But for me, he will always be Bronson on his motorcycle.
     In the video clip below (at about 1:12), a tired commuter driving a station wagon pulls alongside at a stoplight and asks Bronson where he's going.
     "Oh, I don't know," Bronson says. "Wherever I end up, I guess."
     The commuter responds, "Man, I wish I was you."
     "Really?" Bronson says. "Well, hang in there."
     Well, hang in there, Michael Parks, wherever your celestial motorcycle is taking you.
     I'll hang in here.
     Maybe someday we'll meet up going down that Long Lonesome Highway.


December 22, 2016

David and Goliath: The perfect book to read in these times

POINT RICHMOND, Calif. - David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants is a book tailor-made as we enter the Trump Era - whatever that may hold.
     This 2013 book, authored by The New Yorker staff writer Malcom Gladwell challenges readers to look at perceived disadvantages and how they often are - in fact - the opposite.
Malcolm Gladwell
     The first segment of the book (as you guessed) looks at the familiar Biblical tale of David vs. Goliath, a story that has morphed over the last 2,000 years to refer to any situation where smaller, arguably weaker opponent takes on a seemingly much more powerful foe.

     But anyone who has studied David vs. Goliath in detail knows that Goliath never really had a chance when he stepped out into the Valley of Elah and issued his famous challenge, "Choose you a man and let him come down to me," Goliath roared. "If he prevail in battle against me and strike me down, we shall be slaves to you. But if I prevail and strike him down, you will be slaves to us and serve us."
     Historians say Goliath was likely at least 6 feet, 9 inches tall was wearing full body armor, a bronze helmet and carried a spear, javelin and a sword. Goliath - and the Philistine army behind him - expected a similarly outfitted warrior to step out. (Think Russell Crowe in the movie Gladiator.)
     But David was a slim youth. He declined to take a sword, shield or armor. Instead he picked up five stones, ran at the giant and launched a single stone from his sling. It caught Goliath square in his forehead, knocking the giant to the ground. David then rushed up, seized Goliath's sword and cut off Goliath's head.
     Game over.

     In Biblical times, armies had infantry, men on horseback (and chariots) and a third group that would be in today's terms called artillery: archers and slingers. David was a slinger and a deadly one. A good slinger could seriously hurt - or kill - an opponent up to 200 yards, with the stone traveling at a speed equivalent of 34 meters per second. Per second.

     "Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an opponent with a .45 automatic pistol," historian Robert    Dohrenwend is quoted in David and Goliath.
      But Gladwell's book only uses this Biblical tale as way to get into a fascinating book. David and Goliath takes the reader on a wild political, social, cultural ride through more than a dozen situations and examples in which a supposed much-favored opponent loses what should have been an easy victory.

     Some it is the element of surprise. Some of it comes from what we might consider perceived disadvantage - like dyslexia. Many great artists are reported to have some dyslexia for example.
     David and Goliath is also about how the powerful are sometimes proven to be truly weak when they don't understand what they are really up against.  The British Army in Northern Island during The Troubles, is a classic example and featured prominently in the book.
In the final section of David and Goliath, Gladwell sums up with a focus on a French village's stubborn and clever resistance to the Nazis that resulted in saving the lives of many hundreds of Jews from being sent to concentration camps.

"David and Goliath has tried to make plain
 that wiping out a town or a people or a movement is never as simple as it looks. 
The powerful are not as powerful as they seem - nor the weak as weak."

     David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants is highly recommended reading, particularly if you find yourself feeling powerless in the face of the political, social and cultural maelstrom lurking over the horizon.
     Read the book, figure out your psychological (and political) sling. And be ready to use it.



December 15, 2016

If there's a Union in heaven, they're probably co-presidents

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The number of good people who died in 2016 is mind-boggling. Probably a lot of jerks bought the farm, too.

So be it.

But today I found out - months late - that an amigo from Sacramento State named Jim Chopyak had passed away in October. Damn it. He was one of the good guys.
Jim Chopyak (Photo by State Hornet newspaper)

When I got to know Jim, he was president of the Sacramento State Chapter of the California Faculty Association. During his term - and forever after - I always called him "Mr. President" when we met. It cracked him up every time. But he was an excellent president and deserved the approbation for life.

I stood with him during numerous faculty vs. administration battles - including on the picket lines. We won some, we lost some. But Jim never dwelled too much on the losses. He was too eager to support the faculty and the students - and to get onto the next skirmish.

He wasn't particularly political. Few musicians are. He was a musician and music professor/scholar with a strong background in Asian culture. We once crawled around a replica ship of a Christopher Columbus' vessel, La NiƱa, at the Port of Sacramento on a Sunday tour. He had his family with him because it was ostensibly a children's trip to see history. I think he was the biggest kid on the boat.

His death also brought back memories of another CFA union president and faculty member with whom I shared more than a few bruising faculty-administration battles - Jeff Lustig.

Jeff died four years ago and his death was a big blow to everyone who knew him. He had strong union roots and loved politics and political battles. He could be very persuasive with his foes. And if gentle persuasion didn't work, he used rhetoric like a framing hammer.


These two former colleagues of mine were proof that we are stronger together - in union - than separately. I think that's one reason why a month ago I joined the Communication Workers of America, an AFL-CIO affiliate that's big in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In the wake of the Trump election, it seemed like exactly the right thing to do.

Rest in peace Jim and Jeff. And organize those angels. We're going to need a lot of divine intervention to get through the next four years. 

November 23, 2016

The Christ depicted in 'Zealot' would be at Standing Rock

POINT RICHMOND, Calif. - If the title of this book: Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan seems oddly familiar, it could be because Aslan was roasted by Fox News when this NY Times bestselling-book first came out several years ago.

Well, sort of roasted. In the end, he skillfully demonstrated that Fox News interviewers need to prep more thoroughly - especially if they expect to debate someone like Aslan.

Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan is a theologian - raised as a "lukewarm Muslim," he says.  The trigger word Muslim sent a Fox News interviewer into a such a paroxysm she never asked a serious question about anything in this well-documented (and equally well-written) tome.

Of course, it's also doubtful she read a line of book, outside of the cover and jacket blurb. Here's the link to the interview: FOX NEWS.

It's too bad someone at Fox didn't read the book throughly before the interview. Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is a fascinating review of the era, taking into account the centuries of myth-making that followed Christ's death. It tracks - through examination of documents and a dissection of the Christian Gospels - what transpired up to the Crucifixion and in its wake. It was researched over two decades and has a 60 pages of notes and bibliographic references, at the end of the book.

No, I did not read all of those. But the ones I did were fascinating.

The generally accepted view of Christ as a gentle shepherd of men is replaced in this book by a portrait of a man heavily involved in the politics of the turbulent first century - as were most Jews struggling under the Roman Empire's heavy yoke. The landscape in the time of Christ was alive with rebels, bandits and lawlessness - most directed at the Romans.

Christ - as the book explains in detail - was a zealot for the people. If the Christ portrayed in Zealot were alive today, he would have been on the next bus to Standing Rock to be alongside the Native Americans fighting against oil-company goons.

As others have done in earlier books about Christ, Aslan traces the deliberate transformation of the historical Zealot-Christ from revolutionary to a more ethereal religious figure whose belief system and teachings would not be of any threat to the state.

Evangelicals might hate this book. Historians likely love it.

Zealot is worth a read regardless of your religious orientation. Even the most hardened of atheists will likely find the history fascinating.

The photo/graphic below is not from Aslan's book, but summarizes some of the events...













November 18, 2016

A cure for that election depression: Watch the film 'Casablanca'

POINT RICHMOND, Calif. - If you happen to be one of the many millions of Americans suffering from election depression try the Casablanca cure.

Casablanca finale at the airport
No, you don't have to actually go to the Moroccan city, though getting that far from the U.S. for a vacay, while Donald Trump reverses the last 100 years of American civilization, is tempting.

Really tempting.

Instead, watch the 1942 film Casablanca. Maybe watch it a couple of times, at least long enough to learn to sing along with La Marseillaise.

Maybe watch it with a few friends so you can all boo the Nazis and cheer for the Free French.

Ingrid Bergman
Trust me on this. Casablanca tells us that we beat the Nazis before. We can do it again in the 21st century. If you don't feel that way from watching the film the first time, repeat until you  do.

You haven't ever seen Casablanca?

Mon Dieu!

Well, the film is set in Casablanca (Where the $%*&;#+! else?) just before the U.S. jumped into World War II.

The owner of a swanky bar (played by Humphrey Bogart) is nursing a broken heart, broken by Ingrid Bergman who plays the role of an idealistic young political activist, whose activist husband is being hunted by the Nazis. The bar is a hotbed of politics, intrigue, and features great characters.

Oh, and the film features great music, too, including the classic, As Time Goes By.

The Nazis are as despicably evil as you can imagine. And the heroes are, well, damned heroic.


I'll admit to having watched this film probably 20 times. And tonight - if I can get Amazon.com to cooperate - I'll put one more notch in the film canister with another viewing.

And when you get to the end of the movie, I'll bet you'll be ready to sign up to join the Free French garrison at Brazzaville. I always want to.

  Vive La France! Vive La Democracie!

Below is a short video clip of the scene in which Victor Lazlo (Ingrid Bergman's on-screen spouse and hated by the Nazis) uses La Marseillaise to rouse the crowd. It gets me on my feet every time, too.
















October 18, 2016

'Death Comes For The Archbishop' compelling with amazing style

POINT RICHMOND, California - The novel Death Comes For The Archbishop came my way via a New York amiga, Nebraska-raised.

It was one of two books she pushed across the table to me while sat in a Burdett, NY bistro, talking about my planned cross-country, Travels with Charley (minus Charley) trip.

I cracked the book just once, sitting on the shore of the Platte River in eastern Nebraska, where a butterfly landed on my shoulder and sat as if it were reading the book with me. Anyone who has ever read much Carlos Castaneda knows exactly how much that freaked me out.

But as the Butterfly and I read for just a few minutes, I realized that Death Comes For The Archbishop was a book I wanted to read carefully, thoughtfully, not trying to sandwich the rich language in during short stops as I was spinning Michelin tires across the United States, taking the nation's pulse.

It proved to be a good call.

Death Comes For The Archbishop is one of Willa Cather's classics originally published in 1927. If Willa Cather's name is familiar, it's likely because you might have read one of her other novels, My Antonia. I confess that it was a required book in some high school class of mine. But I doubt I read much of it.

This novel is pretty much the antithesis of the kind of books I snatch off the bookshelves at the public library. It's slow-paced, full of history, full of rich detail that includes sight, smell, taste, sound and cultural critique.

It's no Jack Reacher novel.
Willa Cather

And it's fabulous.

That slow-paced history and detail is weaved into a compelling tale of friendship, the growth of the West in the U.S., and the influence of the Catholic Church in a growing nation. And it's done in a writing style that I can only describe as dreamy. It's the kind of writing that wraps itself around you so firmly the rest of the world slips into the background.

It is one of those books you never want to end - particularly given where it's headed as stated in the novel's title.

Death Comes For The Archbishop is recommended reading. And if I get up the courage to tackle My Antonia - many decades past when I first spied it - I think it will be good reading, too.

Thanks for passing it to me, Wrexie.


September 30, 2016

Back in Pt. Richmond singing 'Sweet Home California'

POINT RICHMOND, Calif. - My Travels With Charley, minus a dog named Charley, ended Tuesday about 4 p.m. when I pulled into the swimming pool parking lot at Brickyard Landing where I hang my West Coast hat.

And there Adm. Fox was sitting on curb, waiting to film my return, strategically placed near the gate to the pool where she knew I would want to plunge immediately.

I have a notebook full of observations about people, places, things and bad food - lots of bad food. But one overarching word can be applied to the weather conditions of the entire trip from Valois, NY to Long Island to all points west:

HOT

A cooling trend in Ashland, Nebraska
And while heat was always a likely factor - given that my Little Red Pickup is sans air-conditioning - it was exacerbated by a problem with the driver's side window. About 200 miles short of Edwards, Colorado, a gust of high plains wind blasted the half-rolled down window, knocking it completely out of its track. An emergency roadside repair got it rolled back up tight. But because the truck is (to say it politely) somewhat aged, repair is not simple and couldn't be made without a completely unknown delay in my travels.

The last time the window needed repair, just getting parts took more than a week.

Thus, the balance of the trip, the driver's side window was rolled up tight - no matter how freakin' hot it was.

Coming down the hill from Lake Tahoe into California, it hit 100 degrees just east of Sacramento.

Since arriving at the West Coast Fitz-Fox compound, I have been organizing my notes, thoughts, and sleeping a lot. (Not necessarily in that order, either.) I still have no idea, exactly, what (if anything) I'll be writing about my land voyage across I-80.

But my WRITE ON column in the Finger Lakes Times (set to be published later today) gives a preview of a small slice of life of America I found in my 3,800+ miles of driving.

Some of it was pretty and uplifting. Some of it was not.

The famous 'Dan Ryan Expressway' in Chicago, temp 98 degrees - and a traffic jam

September 23, 2016

A narrative forms at the edge of the Rocky Mountains

STERLING, Colorado - What I had planned for this cross-country trip - and how it has turned out - not surprisingly have been so different, that if I compared the two side-by-side on a sheet of paper, I doubt I would find a resemblance.

Still, just like John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, 'we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."

And so it has been since leaving Valois and then launching from Hewlett, NY where in August 1970 my first sojourn west began in a blue 1964 VW bus.

It's dangerous to attempt analysis based on part on just bits of data. And that's what I have, bits of data: conversations with people at restaurants, highway rest stops, gas pumps, motel lobbies and even a car repair shop. People do like to talk.

Just say hello and ask how their day is going. Then stand back.

When the Little Red Nissan had to get its fan belt tightened a notch or two after driving through broiling temperatures, I chatted for the better part of an hour with a fellow who delivers private cars back and forth across the country. I say chatted. Actually, I was his audience. I don't know what he takes to keep him awake for driving 16 hours per day. But it was coursing through his veins when he offered up a monologue that even had the Nissan dealership clerks and car sales people stopping to listen.

As my days on the road were rolling around in my sleeping brain last night, the thread of a narrative about this trip emerged in the middle of the night. My hotel neighbors to the south decided to have a family brawl (likely over which Fox News channel to watch). I saw them in the lobby earlier but couldn't place their Southern U.S accents. But it was twangy strong at 2 a.m.

Then the family with young children staying in the room above decided to practice the Bristol Stomp - or something similar about the same time.

Awake and wondering if the plaster on the ceiling might start snowing on my head, I began to see the outline of a story.

If only I had written it down concisely when it was so clear.

Perhaps it will come back to me as I roll into the Rockies in a few hours, heading for Vail and Edwards, Colorado to visit son Jason. The air and altitude might jar my memory while I try to forget the voices of Lurleen and Lester arguing in the room next door last night.

I do remember some of the actual dialogue - but I'll save those colorful colloquial phrases for another time.

By the way, do you think "Id-jit" might mean idiot? Hmm...






September 21, 2016

From NYC to Nebraska to Infinity and Beyond!

ASHLAND, Nebraska - OK, the Infiinity and Beyond might be a bit of a stretch. But being well west of the Mississippi in the Heartland it feels different - and the same, too.

I am holed up for one more day at Eugene T. Mahoney State Park in a lodge overlooking the Platte River. Quite a view, quite a park, too. And the little town of Ashland, three miles away, is so Mayberry, that the people even talk like the characters from that TV show. The cops, however, stop people for running stop signs. No Barney Fifes running the gendarme shop in this town of 2,700.

After leaving NYC and my stop in Bloomsburg, Penn. I barreled the rest of the way dodging rainstorms with stops in Fremont, Ohio and Rochelle Illinois before getting here.

Thursday and Friday I expect to be in Western Nebraska at a place called Lake Ogallala, a place we stopped at in 1970. It's the place where I swore I would never use a gasoline lantern again. That story is for another day.

And then to the mountains, Vail and Edwards, Colorado to be exact, to visit with son Jason

Below are four photos: The view from the lodge deck where I am writing this, the temperature yesterday in downtown Ashland, a photo special for Scott Adams and Brett Beardslee, and one last shot from a Mexican restaurant in Rochelle, Illinois as evidence life on the road can be filling. 

Very filling.

And there I had probably the best margarita I have imbibed in a loooooooong time.