Canyons – Part II: The Grand Canyon

As I wrote yesterday, the canyon is deep – one mile down from the southern rim where we were, and even deeper from the northern rim which was as much as two thousand feet higher. The canyon is wide averaging about a mile, but actually varying in width from a half mile to eighteen miles. We could have gone to the north rim, but we were assured by several people we spoke to that the views from the south rim were more exciting.

We arrived at the Grand Canyon East Entrance Station in mid-afternoon. We had to pay a park fee again as we had to in Bryce Canyon. However, if we had our receipt from Bryce Canyon (as I did), we could use it as a credit for an annual fee to get into any federal park for a year. Since the cost of the annual fee was but a little more than the cost of the entrance fees to the two parks, we quickly agreed to purchase an annual pass. The deal paid off quickly when we visited two other federal parks on our way back to Toronto.

As in Bryce Canton, there were a number of points from which to view the canyon. At Bryce Canyon we had looked at the huge gorge from Sunrise Point, Bryce lodge, Sunset Point where we had returned in the evening, Inspiration Point and Bryce Point. That was it. We decided not to go to the end of the road, a further eighteen miles, to Yovimba Point or Rainbow Point. We were totally satisfied with different perspectives from different locations at what was effectively different seats at the top row of the red rock amphitheatre.  

Our first sight of the Grand Canyon was from Desert Point, which you reach very soon after you pass the eastern entrance into the park. It had the watchtower designed by Mary Colter, whose structures were inspired by the architecture of the Puebloan people who occupied the Colorado Plateau. We would encounter several of her other structures, particularly Hopi House at the Verkamp’s Visitor Center, in about the middle of the public road on the south rim of the park. (More on this later.) The tower, as did Hopi House, was designed to blend into the rock rather than stand above it. The walls were textured as the rocks used in the construction had no pattern we could discern but seemed as random as the rockscape around. The rocks used were not shaped but inserted as they were found. Menno, who is our dry rock specialist and built the wall around our front garden, would be extremely impressed by the structure.

From the tower with its high band of white decorative rock, in fact, from the rim itself, you could see the Colorado River bend and twist as it moved westward. I actually enjoyed the view from the rim itself rather than from the small windows in the tower. However, to our surprise and amazement, we were initially disappointed – no, that is not the correct word – less enthused than we had been with Bryce Canyon. The Grand Canyon lacked the combination of intimacy yet large scale, the range of colouring and shapes that we viewed in Bryce Canyon. We thought, as well, that our expectations had been too high. We were somewhat taken aback.

One could not be disappointed. The views were spectacular. What we did not know was that, for us, the view from Desert Point was the least interesting of all the various perspectives from which we viewed the canyon. And there were many, very many. Far more than at Bryce Canyon. As we stopped at one after the other, skipping only two because we wanted to check into our hotel well before dark and get a good rest. Each had its unique vista and each was far more intriguing than the initial view from Desert Point.

At Navajo Point, just about a mile further into the park, the view was much better, if only because we had better perspective and could see both east and west of the canyon. Further, we were able to view the rock formations closer at hand. At Lipan Point we walked out to what was in effect one end of the top of an amphitheatre that went back in the direction from which we had come. We had both proximate and distant depth. Below us was an abandoned old copper and silver mine.

Each time we returned to our car, we drove through juniper and pinyon pines and it looked like the park workers raked the floor of the forest presumably to prevent fires. In fact, for one stretch we observed piles of underbrush, fallen branches and twigs that had been gathered in heaps, presumably to be hauled away. The greenery of the forest stood in such stark contrast to the rock formations.

I only wished that I had visited the canyon when I was younger, when I could have climbed down – or, more importantly, climb back up – the sides of the canyon along well-worn but nevertheless treacherous paths. I was not surprised to learn that over 770 people had lost their lives since the canyon had been opened to tourists. An average of 12 lose their lives annually, but only 2-3 from falls; many more die from dehydration. Nevertheless, the dangers are not to be underestimated. And in only a few select locations are there barriers along the rim.

Even when you stand on the rim and in the few places you can watch hikers on the path below, either the Bright Angel Trail just near the Maswik Lodge where we parked on the second day, or the South Kaibab trail near Yaki Point that we also saw on the second day (hikers can even get permits to camp overnight on the lower part of the canyon), you do feel you are somehow on the rim of one world with another rim of a different world in the distance. I think, since the day was clear, we could see for about fifty miles, perhaps more. Though you face only sky and rock and empty space, I felt as if I was looking at a physical replica of current politics in America.

The colours, though not as bright and spectacular as those in Bruce Canyon, were, however, more nuanced, crimson and beige, vermillion and grey, walls with deep alcoves rather than ribs. At many points, rock formations blocked our view of the Colorado River below. And when we did see it, the river looked more like a stream. And though we were told at one point by another visitor that those were rapids in one section below, all I could discern was a shift in colour to a grey-white. The river is too far below to be imposing.

Again, I wished I were younger. I wished I could raft down the Colorado River, gripping the shaft of my paddle in my left hand and my right over the end as I tried to stay in the raft and not fall into the rapids and strike my head on a rock. I was told that those in rafts are now required to wear head safety gear. If I fell in, would I pop up next to the boat or have to get to one of the shores as the rapids pulled me downstream?

I did not trust myself. When I was at camp in the summer as a nine-year-old going off to a canoe trip, the huge backpack holding our food supplies shifted when the canoe was hit with a wave, not a huge wave, but a wave nevertheless. I did what I was told not to do and my body went in the same direction as the food pack. I caused the canoe to flip.  A very auspicious beginning for a canoe trip and my unforgiving fellow campers who teased me for the loss of their pancake flour and other valuable ingredients.

Our lake had only been one mile wide and two miles long. The Grand Canyon itself ran for over 270 miles and the river for a much greater distance. The scale is overwhelming. The road on the southern rim covers perhaps 20-30 miles or so, a very small part of the canyon. The bus trip we took on the second day covered 8 miles. The spatial magnitude of the place is overwhelming.

But so is the temporal one. I was told that the Canyon itself exposes one-third of the historical formation of our earthly planet. For although the bottom of the canyon goes back 350 million years, the sandstone layer, the bright angle shale and the limestone levels go back, respectively to 550, 540 and 530 million years ago. The other 10-11 layers stretch back 250-350 million years. The gorges form an intriguing labyrinth which we only glimpsed rather than explored.

Go if you can when you are young. The geographic formation ranges over four states – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona with all kinds of places far from the horde of tourists that visit the canyon like ourselves. Even the domesticated part of the canyon that we did visit was so vast that it never seemed crowded. It was a pleasure to see how respectful and sensitive the tourists were to protecting the fragility of this geological masterpiece. There were no papers or plastic bottles strewn about. Perhaps the visitors had been intimidated by the canyon itself rather than the signs.

On the second day, we parked our car outside the Maswik Lodge (there are four or five lodges on or near the south rim, but we stayed at a hotel outside the park) and took the bus to explore the western end of the road on that relatively small part of the rim open to tourists, about eight miles to Hermits Rest. The views were surprisingly even better from Trailview Overlook and Powell Point where there had even been a uranium mine below started at the height of the Cold War. Hopi Point was even better; you can see a tall mesa standing all by itself in the middle of the canyon, Mohave Point and Pima Point are must stops.

It was from Mohave Point that we had the best view of the Colorado River and even what we were told were the rapids. We stayed on the bus and did not disembark and wait for the next bus at The Abyss. By that time, it was afternoon and we had not yet had lunch. After we returned from Hermits Rest (was it there rather than in the Hopi House that I saw the enormous Colter-designed stone alcove and huge fireplace?), we had lunch at the historic lodge, the El Tovar Hotel built on the very rim. It was similar to the huge log resorts built by the Canadian National and Pacific railway companies in Canada. But the best part was Hopi House next to it. Again, it was designed by Mary Colter. The tourist trinkets and paraphernalia were, like the house itself, not your typical array of Chinese-sourced offerings.

The Grand Canyon was America on a widescreen – its enormous divisions and the rocklike hardened views of the different sides. But a little historical digging proved the Canyon was rooted even deeper in the history of America and infused with its psyche. The Grand Canyon was a product of the tension between a collective good and individualist enterprise, in particular, the rivalry between the Santa Fe Railway that still brings tourists to the Grand Canyon and the pioneering Ralph H. Cameron who eventually succumbed to the machinations of his larger corporate rival. The Canyon has a history of mining, but of failed mines, not because of the quality of the metals recovered, such as copper, which were of extremely high grade, and some high grade silver, but the large cost of mining in the area and, even more importantly, transporting the ore to the distant refineries from the depth of the gorge.

I was also offended to learn that after Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 declared the Grand Canyon a national monument, a decade or so later, the first nation that lived and farmed on a section of fields beside the Colorado River just where we were looking down below were forced by the federal government to relocate because the Parks Authority did not want year-round residents to live in the park. Yet lodges for tourists were allowed to be constructed along the south rim.   However, wildlife survives. But other than some deer and the unusual Abert grey squirrel, with its long ears and rust back, we saw very little wildlife. Perhaps if we had had a wide ride down the Colorado River itself we would have seen much more. Perhaps we were spoiled as we saw deer on a daily basis in British Columbia. Hopefully, our grandchildren will survive global warming and be able to visit one of the world’s great wonders and see more animal life.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Canyons – Part I: Bryce Canyon

Michael row the raft ashore – Hallelujah
Michael row the raft ashore – Hallelujah
Sister help to guide the raft – Hallelujah
Sister help to guide the raft – Hallelujah
Colorado River’s chilly and cold – Hallelujah
Colorado River’s chilly and cold – Hallelujah
Chills the body but warms the soul – Hallelujah
Canyon is deep and canyon is wide – Hallelujah
Milk and honey on the other side – Hallelujah.
As I stood on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, this is the version of the folksong, “The River is Deep” that kept going through my head. The canyon is deep – one mile down from the rim. The canyon is wide – ten miles across on average. The Grand Canyon is one of the most spectacular geographical formations that one can see and visit on this wondrous planet of ours. It had been a lifetime dream of mine to visit and after 81 years I was finally here.

It had taken two days to arrive from Salt Lake City after hearing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on Sunday morning at their weekly Music & the Spoken Word concert. Some of those songs sung that morning also echoed in my mind, particularly the Gaelic tune, “Morning Has Broken” and Lionel Bart’s lyrics “Who Will Buy” from the musical, “Oliver.” I no longer remembered the hymns – I think they were hymns – that were sung.

That’s not quite true. I do not remember the titles or the verses, but I do recall a few of the sentiments expressed in the final hymn – or was it a folksong that I had not heard before? I remember taking umbrage at the depiction of all the skies as empty when on our travels we had found some of our greatest thrills watching the clouds – stretched out and fluffy, layered levels of black and white, ominous rolling dark skies filling the skies before us. The skies were never empty. On the prairies and on the high flats of the Western plateau they had been dramatic and beautiful. The sky was anything but empty, even when there was not a cloud in the midst of a vast azure vault.

For there were the birds. “See the crow.” “Did you see that turkey vulture?” “There’s a hawk. There’s a hawk.” Nancy’s eyes needed to be on the road but they never stopped perusing the sky before us and spotting birds that it always took me a minute of two to locate, often missing sight of them by the time I became oriented.

I remember a sentence in that final hymn sung by the Mormon Choir, obviously to heaven and the next life rather than to the sky and to the joys of this life: “There is nothing here that deserves my joy.” I googled the sentence, but could not identify the song, so I possibly remembered the line incorrectly. But not the sentiment. The hymn put down this life in comparison to the one that would follow. What nonsense! This world, the sights of this world are absolutely glorious. The skies are not empty, and there is joy to be had in everything you see in nature around you in Utah and in Arizona and in Colorado. The sites are awesome. The light of the sun is not feeble but variable and warm and uplifting. My God would not want me to deprecate nature like that hymn did.

We had traveled south from the flat plateau up through the Pahvant Range and drove by Big Black Candy Mountain, though I could not identify it as we whizzed past.
But, the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

We drove through the Tushar Mountains and up onto the Markagunt Plateau turning off Highway 15 before the highway reached Cedar City in Utah. We then headed towards our destination, Ruby’s Inn in the Bryce Canyon where my youngest son had booked us as a convenient, and perhaps interesting stopping point between Salt Lake City and the Grand Canyon.

What luck! The Pink Cliffs of that canyon on the Paunsaugunt Plateau are spectacular. We had been impressed by Rattlesnake Pass and Hot Springs, Glenns Ferry and the Snake River several days before. But they shrunk into irrelevance when we saw Bryce Canyon. It was at the end of a road. We had to backtrack about 20 miles the next day to get back on Highway 89 heading south to the Grand Canyon. But it was worth every minute, every second. If you are ever in or near southwestern Utah, do not miss Bryce Canyon.

I had never heard the word “hoodoo” before; these were the “Legend People” for the Paiutes who lived in the canyon when the Europeans arrived only about one hundred and fifty years ago. They were products of the voodoo magic of the earth’s formation – red rock bagels on top of pink monumental rocks in the natural amphitheatre that had been carved out of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, weirdly, the “home of the beavers.” There were no trees to gnaw through, no place to build dams or to build beaver houses like we find under our dock in Georgian Bay. Spires rise from the rock formation and the rock sides of the canyon look like a series of wide fins piled row on row.

Earth and water. Water and rock. There is virtually no soil to absorb the water. The porous rocks permitted rivulets to gather into streams and then gushing flash floods as the water eventually collected in rivers to first form gullies and eventually canyons. You can imagine the water collecting and massing and forming columns of water, shot out of the rock like water from a firehose, but carrying rocks and debris to wear away the dolomite and limestone and provide its weathered appearance. Given the different density of the different types of rock and the stones made from silt and mud, differential erosion results in red rock textured as you have never seen it before or anywhere else.

Perhaps even the winds rushing down the cavernous gaps also pocketed the rocks to give them their texture. However, I am sure that water was the prime artist, water that flows, water that freezes and cracks the rock, and water that melts and rushes to find its way to the sea. I daresay in all my travels around the world, I have never seen rock pinnacles like the ones in Bryce Canyon, including the spectacular vistas of The Grand Canyon. They were like an unorganized array of solid red wine glasses sitting on top of the plateau.

When we arrived in Bryce Canyon, we were hit with what was called a monsoon, but the rain was light and fine rather than heavy and pouring. Evidently, the storms can be fierce with high winds and even hail that further pockmarks the rocks. But we never experienced that even though we were there in the right season.

Bryce Canyon, unlike the Grand Canyon, does not overwhelm you with its size. It is, of course, enormous. But it is also intimate. In late afternoon when we first saw the canyon, the light reflected off the red rock provided shadows and shading. It stirred the blood and excited the soul.

Later that evening after dinner, we went back to the canyon to see the night sky. Contrary to the promotional material, I do not think we saw as many stars as we were used to seeing on a dark night in Georgian Bay. But there was a sliver of a new moon and perhaps we did not allow enough time for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. We had a long day and were tired.
However, never had we seen the big dipper loom so large and so close and so bright. The Georgian Bay skies are full of stars, but the milky way keeps its distance. In Bryce Canyon, the sky approaches and embraces you.

With that embrace, we went to bed in Ruby’s Inn to head to the Grand Canyon the next day.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part II: Quentin Tarantino’s Latest Film – The Message of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino (T) is a fabulist. He makes movies. He does not depict real life. Nevertheless, in writing fiction in this genre, the tale is intended to provide a message to guide our behaviour. This is not how T is generally perceived. Most see him as portraying gratuitous violence. But the film deliberately plays with violence and, in doing so, violates and inverts the traditional Hollywood parable.

The film is a nostalgic throwback. In spite of the activity of the civil rights movement and President Johnson’s momentous legislation following the assassination of John Kennedy in the 1960s, the culture of Hollywood was generally blind to issues of race. Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical comedy, Putney Swope, about a black advertising executive does mock Hollywood’s white power structure, but T’s film follows the general Hollywood pattern of the time and absolutely ignores the fact that the Manson Cult was infused with racism. It believed intently that the purpose of killing whites was to blame the murders on the Black Panthers and set off a race war. The blindness to race is mirrored by Tarantino’s blocking out the issue. His nostalgic memory is very selective.

The film is also probably very personal. Does T anticipate his own obsolescence just as Al Pacino, as his agent, predicted the future for Rick Dalton? After all, Hollywood, T’s home turf, is a town that was amalgamated to be part of Los Angeles and Prospect Avenue was renamed Hollywood Boulevard. Hollywood was also a name for the film industry itself as well as a term that evokes the smell and the taste, the feeling and the flavour, the spirit and the tone of Hollywood at the same time as it connotes the flash and vulgarity, indecency and bad taste of tinsel town. Hollywood is also the granddaddy of all the other centres of the film industry around the world – most famously, Bollywood in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), but also, to mention only a few of the very many metonyms inspired by Hollywood, Follywood in Columbo in Sri Lanka, Pollywood in the Punjab, Lollywood in Lahore, Wellywood in Wellington, New Zealand, and even, appropriately, Hillywood in Rwanda.

But T inverts the characteristics connoted by “Hollywood.”. For the vulgarity and obscenity are attached to the occupiers of the Spahn Ranch, the “hippy” members of the Manson cult. When an adolescent “Pussycat” is hitchhiking and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth picks her up, she takes him to the ranch. It turns out that Cliff once worked as a stuntman there. Pitt becomes suspicious. He knew George Spahn from the old days. He learns that the ranch is now occupied by hippie squatters who exchange sex with the owner (and others) as they serve as tour guides to inquisitive outsiders curious about the place where westerns were once made. Spahn, as it turns out, is now both blind and has lost his memory. Cliff Booth cannot restore either. But T can make a film that recalls that wondrous period of a purportedly innocent Hollywood.

Hollywood started as a ranch, the Hurd Ranch, in 1886. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Hollywood became a town. Then the town was amalgamated with Los Angeles and, by the end of the 1960s was occupied by squatters, the dirty and immoral Manson gang and cult of hatred. Contrary to T, they blame movies for their adopting violence. T has dedicated his film career to proving that portraying violence is just entertainment. The problem is not Hollywood, but the vulgar and obscene and hateful people currently in occupancy. Hollywood itself has pure frontier origins.

The film is not just entertainment. It is a didactic parable, as I indicated at the beginning of my last blog. When one thinks of parables, those of Jesus may come to mind first, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (15:11-32). In this movie, Cliff Booth is the good Samaritan who has redeemed his early suggested sins (Did he really kill his wife?) by helping others – picking up strays hitchhiking on the side of Sunset Boulevard but refusing to have sex with an underage hippie. He is the one who goes out of the way to try to help the blind owner of the Spahn Movie Ranch who has been stripped of the control of his ranch, and left as a lost soul, an outcast even of the outcast hippies. He cannot even recognize Cliff and Cliff, in the end, cannot help him. But T can, at least for the “blind” audience for Hollywood films.

Cliff qualifies as a Good Samaritan, not only because he tries, but, in the end, succeeds in saving the life of his employer, whereas the priest preserving the authority of the past (Rick Dalton) and the prophet (the Levite) anticipating the future (T himself in a transvestite dress – Sharon Tate), cannot. Cliff, who lives in the present, can. Thus, Cliff provides a clear and unequivocal message of hope to the rabbi who asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” and answers through his actions that it is anyone nearby whom I live with, live next door to or just come across. In the end, Cliff fulfills his ultimate purpose by saving the soul of Rick Dalton who may lose his career as a villain in cowboy flicks but gains an after career in spaghetti westerns in Rome and, later, as an advertiser of T’s own fictional brand of cigarettes.

Cliff is Adam who leaves the paradise of the mansions at the top of the hill to enter a plebeian Jerusalem or real gritty Hollywood at the bottom, a Hollywood that leads further down, even below sea level, to a Jericho which will open the gates of creativity to the rest of the world. For the issue is not simply acting well in fantasy performances, but acting well in the real world. Cliff is the model of a redeemed man who now uses his command of extreme violence to bash to a pulp an evil female killer’s head. Brad Pitt does not simply portray a do-gooder, for that is not T’s or Hollywood’s version of a Christ figure.

There is also the parable of the two sons that prefigures the buddy movie, but in the biblical text always begins with blood brothers of very opposite character and roles, brothers who do not have each other’s back – Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau. In the New Testament story of The Prodigal Son, the younger son is profligate, wasteful and extravagant, and, like DiCaprio’s character, squanders his money. In Italy, though Rick Dalton is a star and earns considerable money, his need for a luxurious home means he blows most of his earnings. In contrast, Cliff who earns little, has sufficient. However, unlike the Prodigal Son’s older brother, Cliff never resents offering a helping hand. Even as the two part ways, it is through Cliff’s grace that Rick Dalton will be saved, even though the latter can no longer live at the level of a wannabe Hollywood celebrity.

In traditional Judaism, there are two alternatives, absolute obedience to God or sin. However, in the paradise that is America, it is not obeisance that is supreme, but individualism. Actors say what they have rehearsed, or, at least, try to do so. But in real life, actors do rather than say. They do not rehearse but perform spontaneously. These are T’s true heroes, ones who can act in a real version of a spaghetti western in the showdown at the film’s end. Brad Pitt plays a real stunt man. At that moment, the Lord is the avenger of blood. (I Samuel 14:11)

This brings me to one unusual scene that puzzled me for quite a while. In it, Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth either imagines or does get into a fight with Bruce Lee, the martial arts legend and icon of Hollywood. He is played in the movie by Mike Moh as a smarmy and arrogant bellicose boaster. (T claimed that Bruce Lee boasted that he could beat Muhammad Ali.) Why, either personally or cinematically, did T depict Bruce Lee that way? T in defending his portrayal claimed that Lee was indeed boastful, but those who knew Lee well, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, claim that Lee was neither boastful nor would he accept a challenge to fight. Evidently, Bruce Lee’s first rule was that, if challenged to a fight, don’t. Walk away. However, he did have a fight with Hollywood and campaigned against the racist treatment of Asians in Hollywood films. But this is not the Bruce Lee that T chooses to portray.

Why misrepresent a real person? Even if Lee had those boastful characteristics (and the evidence suggests that he did not), what was the point in the film of depicting him in the way T does? And given that he did, and given his repeated claims that his films are just fiction, why did he not just shut up rather than defend his portrait or, contradictorily, simply insist that it was a fictional portrayal and leave it there?

Bruce Lee represented choreographed violence, violence that was disciplined and controlled, violence intended to provide self-defence but, through an in-depth understanding of violence, is intended to avoid conflict and not turn it simply into a display of manliness. Shaolin is neither about either the conquest of nature nor the conquest of a frontier. It is totally the opposite of the type of violence put on display by T. It is not about a division of the world into good and bad guys where the aim is to kill the bad ones. Rather, the effort is intended both to protect oneself and also protect the attacker from harm.

Instead of the fast draw of a controlled murderous weapon of a gun through manual dexterity and simply hand-eye coordination, mastery of all the movements of the 18 main animals of Chinese iconography was required. One channeled energy to build strength and to use the strength of the other against one’s opponent. T’s version of violence is both simplistic and naïve, just as T’s film in his portrait of 1969 Hollywood itself is.  

For T, the problem of the Manson murderers is twofold. First, they never assumed responsibility for the use of violence but, as in hippy culture, pretended to be a movement of peace, brotherhood and love when the movement understood nothing of either brotherhood or brotherly love. Further, for T, flower power was a fraud and not just a fiction. Drug-addled adolescent women led by self-hating male patriarchs in flared trousers who then donned cowboy clothes as costumes to mislead tourists were T’s enemies. Hippies may have revolted against puritanical societal norms, but they did not do so in the name of a heroic tradition, but instead wrongly blamed that tradition when they reverted to the use of violence. The music of the Beatles, in particular, Helter Skelter, according to Manson, taught him and his followers to rise up and kill in the name of an anticipated race war.

T, thus, had two rival sets of beliefs, the murderous fantasies of the Mansons who were evil, and the competing ideologies of Eastern cultures in competition with Westerns. The cult of martial art was viewed as a rival fantasy, but one which an old western hero could best, except that he was fired as the eastern fantasy supplanted the western one. Who could anticipate that the murders on Cielo Drive and the ideology behind it would morph into a bushfire spread by white supremacist conspiracy theorists? Well, perhaps Joan Didion did in her essay, “The White Album.”

What seems clear is that T has created and dedicated his film to providing an alternative nostalgic retrospective to Woodstock, to the supposedly peace and love movement, to those who opposed the Vietnam War of which Cliff Booth was a veteran. Cowboy culture represented the essence of the American dream and not the hippies. Male bonding, true and unrequited love between males, was set out as the opposite of male-female equality. Far Eastern culture imported into America offered an irrelevant sideshow. The real enemies were those who professed to advance peace by putting flowers in the barrels of guns but, upon dissection, revealed themselves to be full of resentment against the alternative puritanism of Westerns that stood in real opposition to the prude puritanism of the eastern settlers of the United States.

T may make wonderful movies. T may spin parables about how the Western, and his central hero, Cliff Booth, were the real redeemed heroes of that bygone era. But he only can do so by spinning a fantasy that is:

  1. unable to overcome the contradiction that T is terribly proud that a film like Kill Bill supposedly can make a woman feel better about herself while arguing that violence in film has no effect on those who watch Hollywood movies and is simply a fictional representation;
  2. unable to overcome the contradiction between defending his portrayal of Bruce Lee while claiming that all his portraits are fictional;
  3. ignores his own disguise as a cross dresser through a fictionalized and idealized Sharon Tate and his belief in her resurrection through and in himself;
  4. his completely uncritical, actually un-self-critical and ahistorical understanding of his own work.

But he does make interesting films.  

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part I: Quentin Tarantino’s Latest Film – A Nostalgic Buddy Film: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

[No spoiler alert is needed since I say very little about the details of the movie plot.]

It seems a long time since I have seen a movie on a big screen in a theatre. I went with my youngest son and my grandson to see Quentin Tarantino’s [T’s] latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. My son, who loves T as a director, enjoyed the film, but thought it was T’s worst. I and my grandson enjoyed the film and considered it pretty terrific. In the discussion afterwards, I really learned how my son’s detailed memory of past films helps in understanding a movie and how much deeper my son could dissect a film than I could.

I am not sure whether this was T’s last or second-to-last movie (according to his intentions), but if it is his last, I will miss his originality. As the title indicates, the film is a fable, or, more accurately, a parable, for there are only actors with speaking parts, not animals. The Torah story of Balaam is a fable because it has a talking ass; it is satirical comedy. The story of Jonah is a parable even though Jonah travels to Nineveh in Syria to redeem the heathens there, for Nineveh, according to Aesop, was where the fable as an art form originated. The lesson of the satirical parable of Jonah will be saved for another time.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a story about an alternative universe, a tale that uses the material of our collective history, in this case, both our collective actual history and our history of watching films and reading about the lives and personalities of those involved in the industry. Like the fable, the parable is used to teach a lesson. It is deliberately intended to be instructive. In T’s case, even though violence is central to the tale, the story is Christian. It is about sin and redemption. My son’s conviction, and he uses interviews with T to prove it, is that the message, and T’s repeated message, is simply that violence is fun. I will discuss this thesis in part II.

This is a movie in the tradition of the 1969 buddy films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy. These are all, like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, different versions of cowboy buddy films. Easy Rider may be the most interesting. It may be no accident that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stretches out to 2 hours and 45 minutes. So did the original Easy Rider before it was cut to an hour and a half. At one and the same time, Easy Rider introduced new techniques of filmmaking and ushered in an era of indie films. In content, it was an inversion of the frontier thesis; the bikers travel from west to east, from California to Florida instead of to the west.

America at its core was no longer portrayed as a land of freedom, of individual tenacity and daring-do. Rather, America was a country soaked in hypocrisy, founded on insecurity and xenophobia. The film was an ode to the counterculture of the sixties while Once Upon a Time in Hollywood celebrates the sixties of Hollywood and turns the Manson cult into a version of murderous hippie villains.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a working actor who mostly plays the villain in Westerns though he was once the “hero,” Jake Cahill, in the TV series, Bounty Hunter. In real life, that is, in the life of the fictional actor, Rick Dalton, the latter is in quest of the great prize that Hollywood offers. Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, his stuntman, chauffeur and all-around gopher. The two are not just master and servant but are real friends. They are loyal to one another. They have each other’s backs. But, as in all traditional buddy films, they have contrasting personalities.

Rick Dalton is a schizophrenic, stuttering, stumbling, insecure, neurotic and self-absorbed character who is transformed when he performs in a movie. When playing the villain who kidnaps a girl in a film, he mouths off and throws the 8-year-old (Julia Butters) to the floor. After the scene ends, this super mature young lady goes up to Rick Dalton and whispers in his ear that, in that scene, he gave the best performance she had ever seen. It is true comedy when a successful actor gets his validation from a female stripling.

Brad Pitt, on the other hand, is a cool character, totally comfortable with himself, his life and the company of his bull terrier, Brandy. While Rick Dalton plays the tough guy, the ex-military Cliff Booth is the real thing. Unlike a typical buddy film, however, DiCaprio and Pitt do not play characters who misunderstand one another. For they never try to understand the other. They let each other be. Nevertheless, over the three days (or was it two?) in 1969 in Hollywood when the film unfolds, their friendship and male bonding grow even as their employer-employee relationship dissolves over those same few days. 

A buddy tale of this type is quite unique to American culture, and American lore for that matter, going back to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The original prototype of the buddy story may be that of Moses and his brother Aaron travelling through the Sinai towards the Promised Land. Neither makes it. But their roles are not only complementary but, in their own way, heroic. In the movies in which Rick Dalton acts, he is the hero, but in real life (that is, in the movie), he is a disintegrating mess. Cliff Booth is the real hero. There is neither complementarity nor rivalry; the two occupy different trajectories.

In a Hollywood context, the buddy film is escapist where heterosexual males openly display their affection for one another. In the process, they reveal their, at best, indifference to women. Sex is bracketed and violence takes its place. For in the background, and haunting the film and our tremulous expectation, is the story, excluding the afterword, that culminates on the final evening of the three days, 8 August 1969, when, in actual history, four members of the Manson Family cult broke into the home of 26-year-old Sharon Tate, pregnant with the child of Roman Polanski, and killed Sharon and four of her friends.

The inversions and playing with the actual numbers is a trademark of Tarantino, for, as he repeatedly says, “this is a movie,” and he wants to be clear that it is a product of his imagination that simply uses actual Hollywood events, or, at the very least, the lore over those events, for his own purposes. It is a movie about once upon a time in Hollywood, about the period of innocence and fantasy that seemed to slip into oblivion following the Sharon Tate murders. The decline of Rick Dalton’s career is but a stand-in for what happened to Hollywood by the end of the sixties and what also happened to the decade of free love and tripping out on acid. However, in my son’s interpretation, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood adumbrates the radical change in the culture of films in the seventies and Rick Dalton’s resurrected career. In my interpretation, the movie is about the end of an era and the end of Rick Dalton’s career.

Though a buddy film full of nostalgia, great expense and effort were taken to reproduce the Hollywood of the time. The movie is neither a broad comedy in the tradition of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, nor a refined comedy in the  tradition of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, or the crossover of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. In the 1969 hit, The Odd Couple, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon played two contrasting personalities that systematically sabotaged one another with their very different personalities. This was a film that really adumbrated the new buddy films that would follow. For unlike the pre-Tate buddy films, the two men were at cross purposes in the age of emerging feminism, specifically over their contrasting approaches to dealing with women.

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, women and love interests are totally peripheral to the dominant narrative of the film. Thus, though the starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her boyfriend, Roman Polanski, occupy the house next door to Rick Dalton’s, though the road from the end of the driveway from each home winds and twists down from the Hollywood Hills, Sharon Tate, as an enthusiastic innocent, occupies a separate narrative space virtually until the climax of the film when the end of innocence will be clearly demarcated.

Further, while most of the women in the film are shrews (if they are wives) or tramps (if they are hippies), Sharon Tate as portrayed in the film is neither. Even though, unlike Rick as a working character actor, she is part of Hollywood aristocracy, she is warm – she picks up a hitchhiker and gives her a hug when they separate – happy with herself and sweetly delighted and even excited to watch her own performance in her 1968 movie and the positive reaction of the movie audience, The Wrecking Crew. (Is this an adumbration of the end of Tarantino’s movie?) On the top level, she, like Cliff Booth on the Hollywood lower level who lives in a trailer next to a drive-in theatre, is happy in her own beautiful skin and even manages to avoid paying the 75 cents to get into a movie to watch herself on screen with her bare feet on the seat in front of her.   

This film is nostalgic in another sense. It is a whitebread film, not only because the great plurality of Latinos who live in LA are erased from the film. Contrast that with Easy Rider that, in the motorcycle trip eastward rather than westward, the first spoken words are “Buenos dias,” and “Buenos amigos.” Easy Rider welcomed  strangers on motorbikes (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) as neighbours. (Ironically, following the completion of the film, the two friends, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, became alienated and never spoke to each other for the rest of their lives.) The only neighbourly contact in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood comes at the end of the film when DiCaprio is invited in to visit Sharon Tate and her friends, which he had longed to do when he passed Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski at the beginning of the film in LA’s airport. T’s film is a counterpoint to Easy Rider.

There is also no black and white pairing of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte or of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover where the progress on mutual understanding takes place on racial lines. Nor does the buddy film follow the subsequent pairing of men who develop their sensitivity to one another nor, as in the case of The Green Book, where the master-servant relationship is inverted and the white guy is the chauffeur and the black guy is the sophisticate. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the friendship of Cliff Booth, the “servant,” and Rick Dalton, the “master,” is very deep, but based on loyalty rather than sensitivity, on mutual support, rapport and trust rather than depth of feeling, on identification with one another rather than deep chasms that divided them.

Why a buddy film? Why cowboys? Because that is when violence was taken as purely fictional. That is when the rapport between two men was celebrated even though it was not based on mutual understanding or reciprocal sensitivity but simply on friendship that at its core consisted of loyalty and trust. What has this to do with a message of redemption?

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Loving God – Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11)

[I wrote this on Friday but was unable to finish. Catching up on the backlog of mail, messages and chores upon our return has taken so much more time than I expected. In the rest of the week, I will try to complete and send out other blogs that I was unable to conclude.]

This section is often referred to as the crown of the Torah. The portion continues the story of the conquest of the Promised Land and contains the second iteration of the Ten Advisories, otherwise called the Ten Commandments. The first version appeared in Exodus 20:01 – 20:17.

Deuteronomy pithily offers one premier positive advisory. In a common English translation, it reads: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) The Hebrew is simpler: “YHVH our God YHVH one.” In the Reform Hebrew Book of Prayer, the shema is repeated throughout the volume and rendered as: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad). The saying continues: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

I simplify the commandment of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 even more: “Love God.” But what does that mean?

What is loving? Who is God? Deuteronomy is much more concerned with Israel’s relationship to God, the first question, rather than God’s nature, the second question. Further, the first is the much more difficult query to answer so I begin with the second. I offer ten alternative interpretations of the question: Who is God?

  1. Though there are a plethora of gods, YHVH is the only God of the Hebrews; God is our God, our only god, the one to which the Hebrews, the Jews, are loyal.
  2. There are no other gods; YHVH is the only God period – monotheism.
  3. God is one in the sense that He is so unique that he is incomparable to any other entity and, in the end of days, will be accepted as the one and only God.
  4. God is one in the sense of indivisible and is not divisible into parts.
  5. In the rank order of gods, YHVH, our unique God, is number one. God is not an amalgam of two gods; Ashur, previously predominant, was superseded by YHVH just as Ashur superseded Marduk.
  6. God is the unity behind various multiple divine revelations.
  7. YVHV of Samaria and YHVH of Teman are one and the same even though belonging to different places.
  8. God is perfection and, in Aristotle’s terms, is the final cause. God is telos.
  9. YHVH is the name of our unique and incomparable God who has primacy of place among the spectrum of gods and is the same God even when identified with different place; that God, YHVH, is evoked by a name that is no-name because the emphasis is on one kind of service to God.
  10.  God is He who He shall be. God is, but also is not, for God is becoming. God is revelation. God is He who changes. God is He who reveals Himself over time – ehyeh-asher-ehyeh. I shall be He who I shall be. God is hidden and concealed so no one knows His nature, but God reveals Himself in His actions in history.

The odd numbers above – 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 – are all from the Tanakh and, therefore, comparative and relational conceptions of God. God is ours and no one else’s (1) – related to Israelites. In comparing God to other gods, YHVH is incomparable (3). On the other hand, God, our God, is comparable for He ranks the highest amongst all the gods; God is first among many. (5) God relates to specific pieces of the earth’s geography and belongs to every holy place, but God cannot be claimed by any one geographic space. (7) Our God’s name, YHVH, is a tetragrammaton. God, paradoxically, cannot be named; God is one in the sense that God is the only entity that has a personal name, but one which humans cannot assign to God. God’s name is ineffable and unutterable. Therefore, in comparison to other gods, but in relationship to the Israelites, God cannot be branded by humans. God assigned humans the role of naming all things – except God himself. Thus, the Tanakh refers to God as YHVH over 6,800 times but the emphasis is on the uniform expectations of behaviour. (9) Each successive iteration includes but enlarges upon the previous one.

The even numbers above – 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 – are all philosophical conceptions of God in which God is a class with only one member. God is one and only. (2) God is indivisible. (4) There may be many revelations of God, but God is one; God is the One that may appear in many forms. (6) There may be many places that are holy and with which God is identified, but God belongs to no place; God is spatial in that God is everywhere and temporal only in the sense that God is eternal and extends unchanging through all time. (8)

However, number 10 above is the only philosophical conception of God that both contradicts all of the previous philosophical definitions and the only one consistent with the Tanakh. God is many, divisible, reveals Himself in many places and in different expressions and ways at different times for God is not Being; God is Becoming. As such, this depiction not only contradicts but overcomes and raises up the previous philosophical iterations.

The preference for the tenth philosophical definition of God consistent with the various identifiers in the Tanakh is further reinforced when we examine the human relationship to God as one of love.

When we move from Deuteronomy 6:4 to 6:5, we are commanded to love this one God. In the Mendelssohn chumash, that love is first focused on the object of that love, on the nature of God – an infinite perfection which we are commanded to understand. Love, in this case, is purely intellectual. But the translation goes on to instruct us “to do what is pleasant in His eyes.” The focus is not on the nature of God as a perfect and all-powerful being and our understanding of that perfection, but on God’s feeling, on God feeling pleasure by and through our behaviour.

As Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto; 1800-1865) comments in Marty Lockshin’s intriguing dissection of the mishmash of Greek thought, the first part, and Jewish sentiment, the second part, of the above two modes of depicting God:

“medieval Jewish] philosophers imported the ideas of Greek thinkers into the Torah, and they changed various aspects of the Torah to get them to concur with the [classical] philosophers. And since this was an impossible thing to do, they took Torah and philosophy and made of them a mishmash that is neither Torah nor philosophy, and they ended up losing on both counts.”

The first part follows the way of the Greek philosophers and the second follows the way of Jewish scholars. Greek philosophers, primarily Plato and Aristotle, believed that norms of ethical behaviour should be derived from knowledge, either knowledge of oneself – “Know thyself” – or knowledge of transcendental ideas or ultimate ends. Jewish thought, on the other hand, insisted that the path to justice and righteousness was dependent on the degree to which God found favour, the degree to which God is pleased with one’s behaviour. Does what you do please God or does what you do depend on an understanding of perfection? Do you do because you know or do you know through doing?

In the Greek view, God is never jealous, angry and, sometimes, even contrite. In the Jewish view, God is a stern deliverer of justice, but also is governed by the feeling of mercy. God is imperfect. God sometimes errs, but God grows through recognizing His errors. In that sense, God is much closer to humans whereas, in the Greek view, God is as distant as the stars, indeed, more distant in His infinite perfection.

The Jewish view is strongly relational and the goal is to do what gives pleasure to the Other who is God, and not to do what is displeasing to Him. Do your best to accomplish this. Put your whole heart and soul and strength into the effort. A half-assed exertion will not do. That means that love is not a sentiment nor a passion, but a deed, an action, an expression through behaviour.

How do you love the stranger? You welcome him into your home. You feed him. You do what brings pleasure to the other. You are also instructed to love your neighbour. That love is expressed through chesed, a covenantal obligation that is as strong as that owed by a vassal to his lord, but, unlike the latter, is not done under threat of coercion. It is not carried out as an obligation, but as an act of loving kindness, of voluntarily doing what is right in an action. Be kind without considering any reciprocity.

But chesed is not charity. It is what friends do for one another – they mind each other’s backs. They have an unwritten contract between one another. The relationship is mutual and is especially required when one neighbour is in a superior position to the other. Reciprocity is expected but not commanded. It is a relationship which persists and cannot be shaken, even though it undoubtedly has its ups and downs and even though over time positions can be reversed. Friends are faithful to one another. And neighbourly relations should aspire to be on the same level as friendship. That is what it means to do what is pleasing to God.

You do not retreat and become a monk or a nun. You do not leave the world of deeds and responsibilities for a life of contemplation. You do not adore God on bended knee, but in an engagement with God. You argue with God. You confront God. For God is your truest friend and loyalty requires honesty. And expects honesty in return.

Remember the past. Observe the present. And listen for the future. Lecha Dodi (לכה דודי) (see the end) where the relationship of God to man is depicted as even closer than friendship, as that of a groom towards His bride. Together they welcome Shabat. Then we can understand that consistency does not entail identical repetition, but God’s advice in Exodus can be given at Sinai (Exodus) and at Horeb (Deuteronomy). But the differences not only refer to where the revelation takes place, but to what is revealed. In Exodus, observing Shabat reminds us that creation took place over six days but on the seventh day, God rested. In Deuteronomy, Shabat is a reminder that Jews were once slaves in Egypt when they were not permitted to have a day of rest. The sacral and the sociological rationales are not in conflict but are complementary, are embodied in different expressions at different times.

Further, in neither case are they real commandments and it is most likely that one tablet was a copy of the other rather than recording some sayings on one and the rest on the other. And they can only be reduced to and homogenized into ten by manipulating what is found in the two different texts. In any case, they are not orders from on high, but rather advisory “sayings.” They are admonitions not reinforced by punishment, especially the ultimate penalty of death. In Exodus, God directly advises; in Deuteronomy, the advice is recorded in the third rather than the first person as both a recollection and rewrite of the original.

Therefore, we must remember (זכור) not only our past, but what came before the historical development of the Israelites. We must attend to and observe the present and listen (שמור) to and heed our God. We must enact and do for the future what we remember from the past and combine with the present, not through blind obedience, but to deliver on our commitments להקשיב)). We attend by giving our careful attention to what should be done.

Loving God is voluntary and does not mean we obey a tyrant. Love is freely given without the requirement of reciprocity, but with that expectation. It is not given as a conditional. The ethos is one designed for a community in which everyone enjoys equal dignity whatever any difference in status. It is an appeal to the human heart, not the mind, though it may take the mind to discern the difference. It is a recognition that applauds dissent rather than teaches submission in a society where everyone is free to question and criticize the highest authority in the land.

Lecha Dodi (in translation)

Come, my Beloved, to meet the bride; let us welcome the presence of the Sabbath. [After each paragraph, we repeat the refrain, “לכה דודי לקראת כלה, פני שבת נקבלה.” Lecha Dodi Likrat Kala, P’nei Shabbat N’kabelah.] 

“Obse​rve” and “Remember​ the Sabbath day,” the only God caused us to hear in a single utterance​: the Lord is One, and his name is One to his renown and his glory and his praise. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

Come,​​​​​​​​​​ let us go to meet the Sabbath, for it is a well-spri​ng of blessing;​ from the beginning​, from of old it was ordained,​—last in productio​n, first in thought. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

O sanctuary​ of our King, O regal city, arise, go forth from thy overthrow​; long enough hast thou dwelt in the valley of weeping; verily He will have compassion upon thee. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

Shake​ thyself from the dust, arise, put on the garments of thy glory, O my people! Through the son of Jesse, the Bethlehem​ite, draw Thou nigh unto my soul, redeem it. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

Arous​e thyself, arouse thyself, for thy light is come: arise, shine; awake, awake; give forth a song; the glory of the Lord is revealed upon thee. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

Be not ashamed, neither be confounde​d. Why art thou cast down, and why art thou disquiete​d? The poor of my people trust in thee, and the city shall be built on her own mound. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

And they that spoil thee shall be a spoil, and all that would swallow thee shall be far away: thy God shall rejoice over thee, as a bridegroo​m rejoiceth​ over his bride. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

Thou shalt spread abroad on the right hand and on the left, and thou shalt revere​ the Lord. Through the offspring​ of Perez, we also shall rejoice and be glad. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

Come in peace, thou crown of thy husband, with rejoicing​ and with cheerfulness, in the midst of the faithful of the chosen people: come, O bride; come, O bride. 

Come,​​​​​​​​​​ my Beloved, to meet the bride; let us welcome the presence of the Sabbath. 

By Rabbi Shelomo Halevi Alkabets (16th century) 
Based on the trans​lation from The Standard Prayer book by Simeon Singer (1915) (public domain)

I Remember – Tisha B’Av and Devarim 1-3

This will be a short blog. Or else I will have to finish it and send it out after we return. ForI slept in. And we are on the journey to return home. What does sleeping in have to do with returning home? The latter makes me anxious – anxious to get there and anxious about returning to the familiar. Since we left Vancouver Island, we have been on the road only 10 days, but it feels like months. I have seen a part of America that I have never seen before, its absolute beauty AND its promise. But I also saw examples of its failures and even more importantly, listened to the news as we traveled and heard even more about its failures. What am I to make of it all?

Why make anything of it? It was just a trip. Interesting. Fun. Why try to make anything more of a road excursion? But I am condemned to remember. For yesterday, as we quietly rode in the car and I slept off and on, my brothers haunted me: my younger brother Stan, a driven traveler and explorer who, because of difficulty in orientation in the latter years of his life, no longer traveled. He died this spring. I remembered my older brother, Al, with whom I spent a month in Arizona, much of it in the company of my younger brother, Stan, a nurse who left his job to take care of my older brother. Together, we watched the faculties of thinking and especially remembering fade as Al desperately tried to fight off death from a blastoma and was willing to put himself in the hands of very experimental medical colleagues in Arizona to try and pull off a miracle.

Like the Biblical Joseph, I mourned the loss of my brothers, each for seven days. We lit a candle for each that burned for seven days, presumably each time to recognize the life of a brother, but, as well, to reintroduce to the world God’s light, the Shechinah, back into the world that had partially become emotionally black.

Yesterday, in late afternoon as were driving east of Denver in Colorado, the sky in front of us grew black. Lightning bolts flashed down in the distance in front of us. It began to rain, lightly at first. Then there was a shrill repeated alarm that jolted me. It turned out to have come from my wife’s cell phone. She turned it on even though we were driving and handed it to me to read the message aloud. It was a weather warning. It was a warning about very heavy rains. It was a warning about possible tornadoes.

We drove off the expressway at the next exit, drove one block and turned left at the first road and then turned left again as the rain was beginning to fall so heavily it was hard to see. We ended up in the gravel parking lot of a church, the Brakeside Church if I recall. The rain was pelting down. There was lightning everywhere. A few young people in the church saw us through the glass door. Through hand signals, a young man opened the door to invite us in. He clearly even wanted to come out to the car to get us. We were very tempted. But we could not have crossed the twenty yards to the door without getting fully soaked. And we waved him back for he would have been drenched as well. Further, we thought that the danger of lightning was too great.

As we sat huddled in the car, as the rain literally washed over the car, as we peered through the window, we saw that the cars on the road had pulled over and mostly disappeared. And this was rush hour in the suburbs of Denver. Then ping! Then ping and ping and ping. The car was being pelted with hail. What did we worry about then? The car would become dinted from the hail.

Finally, we could see light at the beauty of that sky, the rays of light penetrating the darkness to reach earth in the same ways movies portray a vision and the same way in which The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints portrayed their founder experiencing the revelation that Jesus had appointed him to be a prophet.  And this was a sign, a sign that the threat of the tornado would soon be over.

The winds began to die down. The light in the sky in front of us began to expand. We no longer felt we were in a car wash and joked that we had gotten one for free. To the east and the south of us, the sky was still black. We still heard thunder behind us, but it had become more muffled. We debated whether to run into the church to thank the teenagers for their offer of hospitality. But we could no longer see them through the door. Further, it was still raining sufficiently that, though we would no longer be threatened with being washed away, we would still be soaked if we tried to reach the door.

My wife started up the car. Suddenly, the loud and screaming alarm sounded once again. My wife grabbed her phone (she had not yet started to drive) and read, “Flood warning! Drive carefully. Watch for flooded areas. In less than half an hour, the deluge had caused flooding.

We took off determined to ride a bit further and find a motel – which we did. As we got out of the car, the sky was absolutely spectacular as the sun’s rays penetrated through a sky of broken dark and white frazzled clouds and the light reflected off those clouds in the early evening. My wife took pictures of a truly brilliant scene, but again, I have still not learned how to attach photos.

Did my memories of brothers and the opening deluge and threat of a tornado have anything to do with one another? I certainly do not think so. Did they have anything to do with Tisha B’Ava? Only in the sense that the fury of nature as I was wallowing in memories of my brothers made me think of the Day of Mourning for the Jewish people. Starting on Saturday night, tomorrow in the evening, and on the last day of our drive home on Sunday, I will fast. I will think of many of the tragedies, especially the latest ones, that have befallen the Jewish people. I will think of Dayton and El Paso.

I will not use the occasion to argue with God since I tend to do this all year round. Instead, I will continue to express my outrage against a president who is supposed to be a leader of the free world but who can only recite cant on a teleprompter and then rage through tweets at all his perceived enemies precisely at a time when the focus of his attention should be on expressing empathy for the victims and their families. He promises to consider background checks, but he has decided to focus on mental illness rather than hatred and ideology and the availability of assault weapons.

Should I not also properly focus, on the plight of Jews, on our religion, and eschew politics at this time? But my religion is about politics, is about the tragedies that afflict all of humanity. It is about the victims of Dayton and El Paso. It is about the fact that for almost three years we have been living in the eye of a tornado. It is about mourning for any diminution in the loss of light, in the loss of empathy. And for almost the last three years we have been trapped in a world in which the leader of the free world focuses on “Lock her up,” on walling off America from the “invasion” of aliens. We have been living through a deluge of anger and hatred. We have been living in a period in which a young man full of hatred and echoing the words of invasion deliberately targets and guns down Mexican-Americans.  

But there is light breaking through in front of us. Tisha B’Ava is as much about that light as it is about the mourning for loss. It is not only about fear from a darkening sky and the threat of being blown away by a powerful force that has been let loose on the world, but it is also about the break in the dark cloud that is coming. It is also about trust that I shared with my deceased brothers and the joys that life brings. Perhaps we are once again on the borders of the Promised Land. Perhaps we can recover from another.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Arizona to Colorado

I am going to jump out of order. I want to write about our trip from Salt Lake City, Utah to Bryce Canyon as well as our trip through the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, but the trip yesterday from the Grand Canyon, as spectacular as the above two sections of our trip were, is so vivid in my mind that I want to get it down on my screen.  

We woke up early and were on the road by 8:30 a.m. That was a record. But we knew it would be a long day to reach our target for that day. (To jump ahead, we never reached that goal.) We had two basic choices. We could go the longer route by traveling south away from Grand Canyon National Park along Highway 64 to a thruway, Highway 40 traveling east before turning north on another express highway. This was the longer route in terms of driving distance but the shorter route in terms of time because the driving, except for the initial piece, would all be on expressways.

On the other hand, we could drive north and east on Highway 64 through the Grand Canyon Park again to highway 89 and turn north. We could then switch to highway 160 running north-east to the four corners monument where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado abut one another and then, continuing on highway 160 through south-west Colorado. Since that highway was like the hypotenuse of a triangle, and because we were continually traveling east and north, it was considerably shorter, but longer in time, not even taking into account that we would make many more stops – as well as navigation errors. We are accident prone. We chose the latter route.

These were all good paved two-lane highways, but we could not travel at the same speed, and this was not simply because they were two lane roads. For example, when we drove back through the south-east rim of Grand Canyon National Park, we would inevitably get behind cars which had stopped to watch deer. Or we could not stop ourselves, but would stop at certain points that we did not stop at on the way into the park to observe one last time, and then one more last time, the exquisite grandeur of the Grand Canyon which I will save describing for a separate blog. Later we would be slowed down as mountain roads clinging to the sides snaked through the terrain that rose higher and higher. Sometimes, the fastest we could travel then was 25 mph.

Back in Grand Canyon, it took a long time to get through Kaibab National Forest in the park – it took us 90 minutes. The distance is longer than one might think and the speed limit is 25 mph. But we had taken account of this in our calculations. Since I will be describing the Grand Canyon in a separate blog, I will begin when we first turned north-east on Highway 160 about 2.5 hours after we left our hotel and turned north at Cameron onto Highway 89 and driving between Navajo territory on the north and Hopi territory on the south.

The temperature was above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but the air was very dry. On both sides of the road, we could see only arid rock-strewn flat land covered with sage brush with mountains or outcroppings in the background. Though we stopped at one stall and one gasoline station advertising native crafts, we were very disappointed. The products available were just chachkas, very economical to buy as memories of a tourist trip but otherwise uninteresting.

However, as we moved further east and the rock formations in the background came closer, it was hard not stopping at the side of the road and snapping pictures. (I tried to include my wife’s photos in a previous blog, but readers were unable to upload them.) And, as with much of what we saw in Bryce Canyon, in the Grand Canyon and on yesterday’s trip, pictures say more than even a thousand words.

For example, even before we got to the cliffs, rocks seemed to arise out of the earth like huge prehistoric monsters. For example, sitting on a pile of stone rubble about 20-30 feet high were twin red rocks – really assemblages of rocks perhaps 40 feet high and 100 feet wide. The taller of the twin rock upthrust was joined at the hip to the shorter one and it might even have been 60 feet high. But, as Jimmy Durante used to say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Perhaps the most impressive sight until we reached the mountains was a large red outcropping that looked like a giant version of Emperor Qin’s Terra Cotta Army that I had seen in a British museum one time. There were no chariots or horses in this red rock army, but these were not part of a man-made elaborate mausoleum to accompany a dead emperor in the supposed after life. These were giants. They stood shoulder to shoulder. With each outcropping from a central core, each group or platoon lined up in a single row. Natural erosion had revealed these monstrous forms rather than an archeological excavation.

We passed some totally decrepit housing on the north side of the road on the Navajo Reservation and we hoped that the Navajo were no longer living in those battered, broken-down and dilapidated homes. We were reassured when, in the midst of this arid desert, we passed a large modern health centre literally “in the middle of nowhere,” surrounded by modern bungalows.

As Highway 160 crossed the corner where Arizona on the south abutted Utah on the north and each in turn abutted New Mexico and Colorado respectively, we suddenly realized – or at least my wife did – that the real Four Monuments that signs informed us that we were approaching, was, in reality, simply the conjoining of the four states.  Evidently, it is the only place in the USA where four states meet and abut one another.

We were soon in Ute country. The Ute Tribal Park’s Visitor Center is located at the corner of Highway 160 and Highway 491. As we traveled through Ute country, at the top of tall red cliffs could be seen a necklace of stones. At one point, a sentinel, like a very tall and fairly wide chimney, stood in the midst of a cliff, like a giant champion guarding a homeland. As it turned out, the cliffs once actually housed cliff dwellings. Wall paintings had been discovered within them. In the distance, we saw rock formations that looked like huge castles and others that looked like flat-topped red “apartment” buildings.

And, if you like the game of clouds, they revealed themselves as dinosaurs and foxes, amorphous snakes and big bears. At one point – oh I do wish I could show you a picture – there was an abstract version of “The Thinker,” but sitting on his haunches and arms at his side rather than one on his lap and the other against his chin. It seemed to symbolize a very different way of thinking, far less cerebral yet more contemplative and ethereal.

Then huge and very tall mountains loomed before us. We could clearly see that many of them were snow-capped even in the heat of this summer. We stopped at the Cortez Cultural Centre and we re-learned a lesson we have absorbed before. If you want to see the best of local art, do not go into commercial stores selling wares to passing tourists or to stalls on the side of the road. For one thing, in a cultural centre, you get to see the artifacts in a context that explains the meanings of the different patterns and learn a small bit about the culture. We also wanted to get to the Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores, but we never got there.

The exquisite artifacts were extremely economical. Many were donated to sell to help support the cultural centre. There were absolutely beautiful examples of fine basket weaving, of Kachina dolls – the tall and very detailed and meticulous wood forms of gods or shaman dancers of the Hopi and the shorter, far more elaborate and feathered figures of the Navajo. There were cards – like the ones you send as a thank you when you have been a guest at a dinner – but these were limited edition lithographs with wonderful drawings. They cost all of $4 each. An old amber stone necklace and matching earrings sold for $15.

If you ever pass through Cortez, visit the Cultural Center there. The two women volunteers said they had quite a few visitors – though only one came in with her son in the hour we were there. The mother bought three pieces of rock candy for her son for $1. As the ladies explained, they have visitors, but few spend much money. There was a wonderful painting of horses in black and white. When I and my wife compared notes later, we both loved the same painting. But we both knew we had no more room to hang another painting. All of these items were beside the costumes and tools and carvings there for display only.

We asked the volunteers advice on the most interesting route to Alamosa on Highway 160 which was our target. They told us that if we continued on Highway 160, we would get there in about 2.5-3 hours. Since it was only 2 o’clock in the afternoon, we asked about a possibly more scenic route up through the mountains. That evidently would take about 4 or perhaps 5 hours. We opted for the detour.

The ride up through the mountains was spectacular. Skiers familiar with Vail or Telluride in south-west Colorado will know what I mean. This was ski country. When we drove north from Durango (at about 6,000 ft.) to Silverton, a distance of 48 miles – it took us 1.25 hours – we rose along s-curves along the edge of the mountains. We could not believe it. At one point, we were at a height of over 11,000 feet.

I was not sure about the name of the road since at some places, signs designated it as the Million Dollar Highway. At another point it was called the San Juan Highway, but perhaps that was just a sign pointing to the San Juan Highway. We also passed a narrow gage railway, currently in operation for tourists. We wanted to get to Red Mountain Pass. We passed cattle ranches and mountain chalets. This was rugged country. It also historically had a horrid history of settlers pushing Ute Indians onto narrower and narrower strips of land as the white men broke treaty after treaty. With all its greatness, lying and cheating have been integral elements of the American DNA.

The views were spectacular. The clouds even more so as they piled one on top of the other as they hit the high mountains. When we got to Silverton, we stepped into a café at 6:15 – it was 7:15 local time. We were dressed in light t-shirts, but the customers were wrapped up for the distinctly much cooler weather. We wanted to double-check the direction to cut through the mountain pass across to Hinsdale – what is called the Alpine Loop. It looked like a distance of 20 miles or so before we rejoined Highway 149 back down to Highway 160. We spoke to the proprietor since the waitress was new to the area.

The proprietor had been born and raised in Silverton. She informed us that this summer they had considerable snow. Unless our car was a four-wheel drive and had chains, even if the road were open, we would not be allowed to try to cut through the pass. We could go up further around the mountains. That would take about six hours to reach Alamosa. Or we could go back to Durango.

We decided that we had enough driving and would stay in Silverton overnight. It seemed like a quaint very old mining town. The owner of the café recommended the Triangle Motel as the best. The sign, however, said, “No vacancy.” From the looks of the hotel, we decided that was a blessing and changed our mind again to return to Durango.

Always allow more time, not only to cover a chosen route, but to travel other routes like the one through the Dolores River Canyon. As you will read in future blogs, we could never get enough of seeing canyons. In Durango, we checked into the usual type of motel, a Hampton Inn and we also had one of the best hamburgers, the best steak fries and a local organic cola that was superb. The dining place, Chainless Brewing, had been highly recommended by the receptionist at the hotel. It was better than we would have imagined.

In any case, our imaginations had gotten us into enough trouble that day.

With the help of Alex Zisman