Thursday, April 29, 2010


This just in: Theme & Variations, the podcast anthology where I read "The Rise and Fall of Paco Cohen and the Mariachis of Mars," has been nominated for the Parsec Award.


People whose only knowledge of his work are faded memories of Tarzan movies think Edgar Rice Burroughs was a racist and an imperialist.

Before becoming a writer, he was a cowboy who had “gone as long as three weeks on a round up without taking off my boots and stetson,” and was in the 7th U.S. Cavalry in Fort Grant, Arizona, “where I chased Apaches, but never caught up with them.”

He wrote two Apache novels. They are about Shoz-Dijiji, an Arizona Tarzan. His real name, that he never learns, is Andy MacDuff. His parents are attacked and killed by the Apaches, he is taken and raised as one of them.

In the opening line of The War Chief, Burroughs points out that the Scots and the Apaches have things in common:

“Naked but for a G-string, rough sandals, a bit of hide and a buffalo headdress, a savage warrior leaped and danced to the beating of drums.”

This is a Scottish warrior. His lifestyle is praised, “the refining influences of imperial conquest” are condemned.

Shoz-Dijiji takes to being an Apache like a fish to water. Cochise himself forbids anyone to mention the young warrior’s alien origin. He becomes a War Chief, romances an Apache girl, his assimilation seems complete.

The Cavalry is trying to put the Apaches in reservations. Shoz-Dijiji and the young warriors want to fight on. Geronimo sees an unhappy future. Our hero’s Apache sweetheart is killed, he recieves mercy from a Mexican, and meets a white girl, Witchita Billings, who causes conflicted feelings and sympathy for those unlike himself.

Shoz-Dijiji also has non-Apache ideas. He doesn’t like to torture, or mutilate the dead. After seeing Geronimo tricked by translators during some negotiations, he decides that: “The language of the white-eyes can be turned into a weapon against them if we understand it.” Like Burroughs’ other heroes, he has an affinity for learning languages.

Like Tarzan of the Apes, The War Chief ends with a rejection of white civilization. Shoz-Dijiji tells Witchita, “White girl could not love Apache,” and rides off into desert.

In Apache Devil, the defeat of the Apaches is combined with the tragic identity crisis of Shoz-Dijiji. This inverted American immigrant dream of assimilation comes undone. His whiteness is revealed as Geronimo and his people are put on the reservation.

“Once more a Christian nation had exterminated a primitive people who had dared defend their homeland against a greedy and ruthless invader.”

Shoz-Dijiji is forced to create a new identity for himself as a renegade. And with the racial barrier eliminated (“He tried to argue with himself that it was no disgrace to be white.”) he pursues Witchita Billings.

Here Burroughs switches to classic melodrama. Witchita is kidnapped by the villainous rancher “Dirty” Cheetim, who was going to force her to marry him. There is a last minute rescue, and “Dirty” is scalped, staked out, and left to die.

And according to the formula, the audience should be cheering.

People should think twice before calling Burroughs a racist or imperialist.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


“The vaqueros would drink the blood of the steer to impress the señoritas, and supposedly to add to their manhood.”

Not exactly the sort of things you’d expect from the man who played The Cisco Kid’s sidekick, Pancho.

When I found Leo Carrillo’s The California I Love in the Brass Armadillo antique mall, I knew I’d find it interesting, but I didn’t know that I would love it. But then it’s an intimate, personal account of the state where I was born, that recreated forgotten eras in all their glory.

It has all changed, as Carrillo’s uncle, Don Juan Dana said when asked about Santa Barbara: “No so much fun now, no more bull and bear fights.”

The book is more in the tradition of oral story telling than the Hollywood memoir or the academic history text. “In my family, I never needed the Arabian Nights. We had our own.” And the stories are a California Night’s Entertainment. You can imagine them told over the years at family gatherings over tacos and tamales. They have been polished into legend. “Always I lived amid legends. They were my welcome companions. They formed my finest heritage.”

Carrillo’s family was part of California history. They include a Governor, and a Los Angeles Police Chief, and the author of Two Years Before the Mast.

And the supporting cast includes vaqueros, pirates, “blue-black” Indians, Chinese opium smokers, and the bandits Tiburcio Vasquez, Joaquín Murrieta, and Three-Fingered Jack.

Some of these stories could be take, and expanded into novels and screenplays. Adventure, romance -- Cisco would be proud.

There’s an epic sweep going from Spanish California, through the invasion by the Americans, into the Twentieth Century, the creation of Hollywood, and finally television and The Cisco Kid. Which was where I came in, a child of Atomic Age and the Wild West.

This is quite different from the California history that most people, even a lot who have come to live in the state, perceive. This is not the plastic paradise, lined with palm trees, populated by blonde, blue-eyed English-speakers who like to surf and meditate. This is the reality, where English wasn’t the dominate language until after World War Two:

“It was perfectly natural for me to pick up the sing-song, sibilant language of the Cantonese and I would find myself at home switching from Spanish to Chinese to English without any conscious effort.”

Later he tells that “When I arrived back in California I discovered that we had been taken over by the gringos.” And he defines “gringos” as “those alleged Californians who make no effort to understand the background or history of the state and who either distrust or are ignorant of Spanish-Mexican culture and tradition.”

To fight against this ignorance, this book needs to be made available again. In a sane world, it would required reading in California schools.

Meanwhile, I imagine Cisco and Pancho patrolling what is now cooking under the smog.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


They say that the mystery is solved. It’s just the way fluid mechanics work. Spin stuff around and it starts making geometric forms. You can do it in a cylinder of water.

Funny that no one noticed this before. Funny that the media doesn’t think this is big news. Clouds swirling around the North pole of Saturn and creating a permanent hexagon still seems, and looks . . . strange.

Too bad about all the fanciful speculations. They were fun, as usual, while they lasted.

Still, it just goes to show that our "common" knowledge has not prepared us for what we will find on other planets. We actually need to know a little science to figure it out. And figuring it out will force us to see the universe in which we live in new ways. Which is okay, be cause this is one crazy universe, and we need to be ready for those freaky surprises.

I’m also looking forward to the imaginative science projects and art this should inspire.

And if you’re not inspired, shame on you.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


The Wild West is more myth than history. I love the history, but become more fascinated with the myth as I get older, and my memories mutate into something more interesting than the naked truth. We know this myth through Hollywood and television, but had its origins in the pulp fiction that grew out of the legendary dime novel.

For those of you who don’t know what a dime novel was, there’s now a website where you can learn all about them, and even read some excellent examples. They came before the pulp magazine, the comic book, and the paperback.

When I downloaded an ebook of Colonel Prentiss Ingraham’s California Joe, the Mysterious Plainsman, the title had me wondering, just who is this California Joe? With my SoCal upbringing, the name conjures up a guy with a surfboard under his arm. What’s he doing as a Western hero?

And oddly enough, the opening line is: “Who is California Joe?” He possibly was Joseph Milmer, or Hawkings, and rumored to be related to Daniel Boone, but: “Of where he was born, his parents and early boyhood life, he never spoke and died leaving all a mystery behind him.”

He’s a prototype for the quiet stranger, Lone Ranger, Man with No Name, who saves the day, kills the bad guys, and rides off in the sunset. In his wraith-like first appearance, he seems supernatural.

We get right into some rip-roaring action as Joe, the seventeen year-old “border boy,” helps the emigrants (as pioneers were called in those days) rig their circled wagons with dummies to make their numbers look bigger, and fend off Bad Blood and his braves.

When four year-old Little Maddie kisses his cheek, he stays on to fend off he “Injuns,” later burning many of them alive in a cavern full of partially mummified corpses and stealing their horses. To which he soliloquized: “It’s a pity they don’t know English so they can cuss, for I know they is mad to make me sorry for them.”

He sells the ill-gotten horses to the U.S. Calvary, and gives the money to Little Maddie.

Years later, a twelve year-old Maddie needs rescuing and protection from desperadoes named Bowie Bob and Panther Pete. No hint of romance is suggested, but this was first published in 1882. Joe and Maddie eventually get married, which wasn’t considered creepy back in the Victorian Era.

General Custer’s My Life in the Plains is quoted, claiming Joe, “was the man whom, upon a short acquaintance, I decided to appoint as chief of scouts.”

But Joe didn’t die at the Little Big Horn: “California Joe was killed, as was his friend, Wild Bill, by the hand of an assassin.”

But he did live on in later incarnations as countless Western heroes who don’t leave their full names. I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing his ghost on new frontiers, long after the Steampunk Era is over.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


I’d like to thank Jesus Christ for once again inspiring a week of spectacular entertainment. It was as if Alejandro Jodorowsky, guided by the ghosts of Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, had infiltrated the world’s news networks and planted bizarre inventions. Sometimes I think that J.C. is a closet hoodoo/surrealist/tricksterista.

This all goes beyond the processions of sacred figures out of a religious theme park, or even the crucifixions, penetientes, and flagellantes. It’s not even just a Latino thing -- the crucifixion reenactment that got the most publicity took place in Georgia.

There’s some cultural mutation going on here, in a big way . . .

The traditional Burning of Judas in Mexico is still often just a cornball big, red devil wrapped in fireworks in a lot of places, but some towns, like Toluca, make a hoard of colorful, psychedelic demons that look like a Toho Studios production based on Hieronymus Bosch’s visions of Hell, then light the fuses, and stand back . . .

And the Roman angle is taking on a life of its own.

There are guys who like to play the Roman soldiers, year after year. I wondered why at first, but then saw pictures of women treating them like rockstars. I guess it’s the allure of the uniform.

Then there’s chariot racing. I’ve found news items about it being done in both Mexico and the Philippines as part of the reenactment festivals. And even unconnected to Easter, the chariot race, with Roman costumes, is coming back.

How long before gladiatorial games are added to the mix?

But what else should we expect from a world that can drive a man to get himself crucified in a red dress?

And the Mexicali earthquake was an ending right out of Hollywood!

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Crucifixion started out as a form of capital punishment, not an expression of religious symbolism. It didn’t have anything to do with Christianity. As Sir Richard Francis Burton put it in a footnote to Vikram and the Vampire, “Crucifixion, until late years, was common amongst the Buddhists of the Burmese empire.”

Yet, there’s something about public execution that yearns to be more. And if you give it today’s fantastic means of world-wide communications, we have the Great Global Live Crucifixion Show.

Still, it’s a way to kill. Attaching someone to a cross slowly squeezes away the ability to breath, resulting in suffocation. Even a few hours of it does damage.

In Dangerous Border Crossers, Guillermo Gómez-Peña tells of how in 1994, a week after Easter, he and Roberto Sifuentes crucified themselves as part of The Cruci-Fiction Project. “Our tongues, torsos, arms and hands had lost all feeling, and we were barely able to breathe from the pressure of the rib cage against the lungs.” The next morning Gómez-Peña’s doctor said, “Another half hour and you would be dead.”

So, please, don’t try this at home, dammit!

Holy Week/Semana Santa provides a cultural forum to celebrate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ -- as a prelude to his resurrection. Lent set us up for self-denial, and penitentes feel the need to repent in public by wearing the masks with pointed hoods that the Ku Klux Klan appropriated. Sometimes they carry their own crosses (both the penitentes and the Ku Klux Klanners).

For some, costumes and props aren’t enough. Mortification of the flesh is in order, with the time-honored tradition of self-flagellation. Again this isn’t exclusively Christian, Muslims and Hindus do it, too. Even the Aztecs and Maya knew that there’s nothing like pain and blood to make it feel like the guilt is melting away.

Take a few more steps along this path, and we come to custom of getting yourself crucified on Good Friday. As the Passion Play, it’s done all over the world. Sometimes realistic portrayal of the crucifixion is not emphasized. Besides, the Catholic Church does not approve of self-flagellation or crucifixion.

But then, not far from where I live, there’s a religious school with three full-sized crossed in the yard. They have foot-rests and straps.

Also in the Philippines, where real nails are used, in San Fernando, Pampanga, where the festival is sponsored by Coca-Cola and Smart Telecommunications, officials, “autoclaved all the nails and will administer anti-tetanus vaccine.”

This is even though, when the nails are driven into the “Christos,” they don’t bleed. This may be something like the body-piercing rituals in the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. Why isn’t medical science studying this?

Last year there were scandals. A bikini show caused foreigners to be banned from being crucified in Cebu and Pampanga provinces. An Australian comedian used his crucifixion on his TV show, but the Department of Tourism decided that his show did not ridcule the rites, so foreigners are welcome to get nailed in Barangay.

Even though they use special nails with a handle-like strap that doesn’t penetrate the hands, the reenactment in Iztapalapa, just outside Mexico City, is the biggest in the world. The crowds get so large and difficult to control that this year alcohol will not be sold. It’s come a long way from the days when a priest would dance around in the skin of a young man sacrificed to Xipe Totec.

It’s quite a show, in which the frame that separates performance from reality blends, like the fake and real blood co-mingling on the body of the actor playing Jesus. Real flagellantes beat themselves alongside the Roman soldiers beating Jesus, while angels watch. Performer’s wireless microphones, and the audience's recordings on their cell phones, give media coverage a surreal edge.

And there are also belly dancers.

Where is this all leading? Maybe Ernest Hemingway stumbled on some truth when he joked in Death in the Afternoon that, “A crucifixion of six carefully selected Christs will take place at five o’clock in the Monumental Golgotha of Madrid, government permission having been obtained.”