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Posts Tagged ‘California’

Extreme Remedies

December 7, 2015 | by

George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, forty years later.

George Jackson

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on the French revolutionary Madame Roland, here.

On August 21, 1971, George Jackson pulled a pistol on his wardens at San Quentin, the notoriously racist maximum-security prison to which he’d recently been relocated. When the news broke that he’d freed several of his fellow inmates, presided over the slashing of eight prison officials’ throats (six guards and two trustees), and then died under heavy gunfire while sprinting to freedom, it provoked a strange mixture of shock, anger, revulsion, and grief. Gregory Armstrong, Jackson’s editor at Bantam, would later confess to a reporter how relieved he was that he hadn’t followed through on his offer to help the younger man escape. Bob Dylan wrote a protest song in Jackson’s praise. (“He wouldn’t take shit from no one / He wouldn’t bow down or kneel / Authorities they hated him / Because he was just too real.”) Jackson’s attorney, Stephen Bingham, under suspicion of having smuggled in the escape weapon, fled the country for thirteen years. Huey Newton gave Jackson a long, effusive eulogy (“he lived the life that we must praise”). A group of Black Panthers imprisoned in Folsom advised his parents to “take pride in the fact that you have a large strong family of budding warriors.”

Since the 1970 publication of Soledad Brother, his ferocious, disquieting collection of letters from prison, Jackson had been an international celebrity. In his introduction to the book’s first printing, Jean Genet insisted that the collection “must be read as a manifesto, as a tract, as a call to rebellion, since it is that first of all.” Abdellatif Laâbi read the letters admiringly during his own imprisonment; they let “one follow,” he told his wife in 1975, “the transformation of a man who challenges a new kind of slavery, strips its mechanisms down, and keeps his dignity intact throughout the worst kind of ordeal.” The day before Jackson’s death in 1971, Derrida wrote Genet a long letter worrying that the introduction hadn’t done justice to the dire situation Jackson’s writing was meant to expose. “With the best intentions in the world,” he cautioned, “with the most sincere moral indignation in the face of what, in effect, remains unbearable and inadmissible, one could then lock up again that which one says one wants to liberate.” Read More »

Glutton for Punishment

November 18, 2015 | by

Fat City and the dark night of boxing’s soul.

From an Italian poster for Fat City.

Boxing and cinema are so perfectly mated that if the sport didn’t exist Hollywood may well have invented it. Its tropes—man’s internal struggle with his demons, his past, and his station, all externalized in a desperate fight against an opponent who could be a drinking buddy but who stands, right now, in the way of dreams, success, and validation—dates back to Homer, and they’re ready-made for the movies.

The reality of boxing is, of course, not so clean. It’s brutal, unforgiving, and easily corruptible; the runway to the ring littered with broken bodies, shattered lives, and buckets of blood. Redemption? That’s only in the pictures. Which is not to say boxing films avoid hard truths about the sport. Gangsters, hucksters, bums, schemes, and death abound, especially in the titles released in the forties and fifties. But Hollywood approaches the inherent danger and venality of the fight game cautiously, never staring too long into the abyss. To do so would be to stray too far from the formula: audiences should go home cheering, if not for a champion then for a guy who failed stoically and with class. No one wants to spend time—or, more importantly, money—on a downer. Read More »

California Street

July 24, 2015 | by

Learning to surf in the sixties.

Grajagan, Java, 1979. Courtesy of Mark Cordesius

For my eleventh birthday, my father took me to the Dave Sweet Surfboards shop on Olympic Boulevard, in Santa Monica. From the rack of used boards, I chose a solid, sunbrowned 9'0" with blue-green paneled rails and a fin built with at least eight different types of wood. It cost seventy dollars. I was five feet tall, weighed eighty pounds, and could not reach my arm around it. I carried it to the street on my head, feeling self-conscious and scared of dropping the board, but as happy as I had ever been.

It wasn’t an easy winter, trying to learn to surf. Even though the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” (“Let’s go surfin’ now / everybody’s learning how”) was on the radio, I was the only kid at my backwater school who had a board. We spent most weekends in Ventura, so I got in the water regularly, but California Street was rocky and the water was painfully cold. I got a wet suit, but it had short legs and no sleeves, and neoprene technology was still in its infancy. At best, the little wet suit took some of the sharpest chill off the afternoon wind. My father liked to tell a story about a day when I got discouraged. From the warmth of the car, he had been watching me flounder—I imagine him smoking his pipe, wearing a big fluffy fisherman’s sweater. I came in, my feet and knees bleeding, stumbling across the rocks, dropping my board, humiliated and exhausted. He told me to go back out and catch three more waves. I refused. He insisted. I could ride them on my knees if necessary, he said. I was furious. But I went back out and caught the waves, and in his version of the story, that was when I became a surfer. If he hadn’t made me go back out that day, I would have quit. He was sure of that. Read More »

Rout the Kimmie in the Boat

July 16, 2015 | by

A glossary of Boontling.

William-Wallach-Duff-Home-instrimental-in-boontling

The William Wallach Duff home, whose residents, per local lore, were instrumental in developing Boontling.

Between 1880 and 1920, the residents of a relatively isolated Northern California town called Boonville spoke a secret language. Boontling, as the locals called it, was an elaborate jargon developed either by the men working the hop fields who wished to keep their conversations private, or by women who wanted to gossip unobtrusively about a young lady who had found herself kaishbook (pregnant). Whatever its origins, the language soon spread through the small community, who used it to confuse outsiders. The lexicon included phonologically changed words borrowed from regional Appalachian dialect, Spanish, and the local Pomo Indian language; it later expanded to include invented figures of speech, nouns turned into verbs, onomatopoeia, and other neologisms.

In 1971, Charles C. Adams, who was widely recognized as an authority on the dialect, published Boontling: An American Lingo, a linguistic and historical study on the slang, which came complete with a dictionary. Here are a few of our favorites: Read More »

Life and Loves

June 4, 2015 | by

Hugh_Bolton_Jones_1900_On_the_Green_River copy

Hugh Bolton Jones, On the Green River, 1900.

The other day, I mentioned my grandfather’s fondness for a certain line of poetry: “Hie me away to the woodland stream,” he would say whenever the brook in the nearby woods was running.

We walked that way almost every day on my visits to California—my grandfather was a great walker—but some summers it was too dry, and the brook was just a dusty furrow. Sometimes we walked around the lake at the Naval Postgraduate School, or on the beach. Always, his strides were so long you could barely keep up. Sometimes, we couldn’t, and he’d move far ahead of us, hunched, hands thrust into the pockets of his flight suit. Read More »

The Golden State’s Golden Age, and Other News

January 27, 2015 | by

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John Van Hamersveld and Victor Moscoso, The Who with Fleetwood Mac Shrine Auditorium poster, 1968. Image via It’s Nice That

  • From the department of own-horn-tooting: Looking for something to read today? Try The Paris Review. But you didn’t hear it from us: “One thing I’d like to have on my blanketed lap today,” Dwight Garner wrote, “is the new issue of The Paris Review. That journal has found its mojo, in a big way … The new one has among other things a warm and wise interview with the memoirist and essayist Vivian Gornick that’s worth the price of admission alone.”
  • India’s Jaipur Literary Festival is advertised as the largest free literary festival in the world. “This year it attracted an estimated 80,000. And on the fourth day, with 20,000 packed into the disorderly old palace complex where it is held, and the queues for entry still growing, the police abruptly closed the gates. They feared a stampede was coming. But who were these people? And what were they coming for?”
  • A new book looks at midcentury graphic design in California, which had a sensibility and influence all its own: “Fuck New York. Fuck Europe. We’ll figure out what art is.”
  • Whither the ukulele? It began its life as a piece of exotica and then, in the hands of Tiny Tim, descended promptly into kitsch—but some say it’s enjoying a revival. “The ukulele still plays its role as everyman instrument quite convincingly.”
  • Today in people who are wrong: “Today’s minor arts, I think, include theater, ballet, opera, symphonic music, and literary fiction. These still include small audiences whose members are not also creators, audiences who patronize these arts in part out of an inherited feeling that these are superior to movies or genre fiction … The literary novel, too, may be on its way to losing its minor art status and becoming a pure hobby.”

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