Monthly Archives: July 2013



California is probably the best known state in the union. The whole state, it seems, has been thrown up in Technicolor on local movie screens around the country, or used as a set for some TV show or other.

The hills of San Francisco, the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the back lots of Los Angeles all are widely known and recognized.

But the long, flat middle of the state is for most Americans a total mystery. The Great Central Valley — called San Joaquin to the south and Sacramento to the north — has the visibility of mud.

As you drive down from the Tehachapi Mountains, you can see the valley stretch out in front of you, flat as a billiard table and topped off with a familiar-looking brown cloud. To the west, you can see the coast ranges; to the east, the Sierra Nevada, crested with a line of white this time of year. And down the middle, the boring, flat, squared-off agricultural land that feeds the nation. outside bakersfield

It has been estimated that the annual income from agriculture in the Central Valley is greater than the total value of all the gold mined in the state since 1848.

It is true that tourists don’t often come through the valley. Unless they are crossing from Yosemite to San Francisco, they are unlikely to ever come near it. And there is not much to see, if you are looking for Knott’s Berry Farm or Disneyland.

What there is are vast fields of vegetables, orchards of oranges, vineyards of grapes, interrupted by corrugated aluminum processing plants with adjacent high-tension power lines and railroad sidings.

And, in the southern end of the valley, around Bakersfield, oil wells, refineries and vast, ugly tank farms, with row on row of oil tanks, painted white and lettered with corporate logos. oil pumps outside bakersfield

And in between, a great scattering of dust. It rises like a plume behind every tractor, every pickup that edges a plowed field.

Most of the Central Valley looks like it came right out of one of those WPA photographs from the Depression: sun-baked migrant workers in old paint-flaked clapboard houses with collapsed front porches next to the irrigation canal.

And always the wind and sun and dust. The elements are leading citizens in the San Joaquin Valley.

The connection with the Depression is even more real than apparent: Between 1935 and 1940, the population of Bakersfield and surrounding Kern County grew more than 63 percent, with most of that increase accounted for by the ”Okies” who migrated from the Dust Bowl in America’s middle.

It is probably a great place to live. But it doesn’t seem like much of a place to visit.

Yet, there are reasons to visit. Aside from finding out where your beans and asparagus come from, you can learn something of the history of the region and its ethnic makeup.

In Bakersfield, for instance, you should stop at Benji’s Basque restaurant on the edge of town.

Inside, they will serve you family-style with huge portions of food. First comes the cabbage soup with hot sauce and beans; you add them to taste.

Basque bean and cabbage soup

Basque bean and cabbage soup

A loaf of sourdough bread and fresh butter sit on the table.

Lamb comes to you in a wine gravy, with heaps of fried potatoes.

And if you have room for dessert, Basque cake tastes a bit like a zwieback before it has gotten hard.

Bakersfield’s long and contentious history can be learned at the Kern County Museum and the Pioneer Village next door.

Kern County Museum

Kern County Museum

You learn how waves of development swept over the area. Land interests bought up huge tracts, and when irrigation made farming possible, the town grew, with all the local chamber-of-commerce pride that usually accompanies such economic success.

Large brick buildings sprang up downtown. Railroad depots were built. And large mercantile stores opened their doors.

You can see the process at the museum, although it is also true that, local pride notwithstanding, the process is the same in almost any agricultural town. The same farm implements are on display, the same original newspaper office, the same ”old-time” drugstore.

For it is Bakersfield’s ordinariness that is its fascination.

The town almost could have been dropped in place from Iowa or Kansas.

And although California has a reputation for political wackiness, with Hollywood celebrities endorsing pet causes and so-called ”tree-huggers” in the north, the huge Central Valley is as conservative as water.

tehachapi loop

You don’t get an adequate idea of California’s southern mountains when approaching from the east through the Mojave Desert. They look like little more than stony hills breaking through from the plain.

But climb them from the west and you will rise 4,000 feet through grassy canyons. Or from the south along Interstate 15, when you climb from Rancho Cucamonga to the cloudy heights of Cajon Summit at 4,257 feet. It is all uphill, but after you reach the top, there is no other side to climb down. The Mojave Desert sits on a plateau that stretches from the northern side of the San Gabriel Mountains.

The desert stretches out flat, with straight roads for a hundred miles. U.S. 395 runs along its western side in an arrow shot from Adelanto to Red Mountain. It crosses California 58 and skirts the edge of Edwards Air Force Base, where NASA’s shuttle frequently landed, to an audience of appreciative retirees who brought their RVs to the desert to see the event.

Edwards Air Force Base

Edwards Air Force Base

The small, scrubby town of Mojave sits on the junction of 58 and California 14. In December, it is cold at night, and aside from the dozen or so truck stops and convenience stores, the most notable thing about the town is the number of freight trains that barrel through, blasting their horns all night long, at the rate of something like one every 10 or 20 minutes. The ground rumbles as they spew sooty turbocharger exhaust into the air.

It’s a good place to watch for locomotive paint jobs, too. In this day of railroad mergers, you never know what you will see.

Mojave, Calif.

Mojave, Calif.

Originally, the line was shared by the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe in an unusual agreement in which the corporate competitors decided to cooperate and share expenses. But now that the Santa Fe has linked up with Burlington Northern (already a corporate mix of earlier railroads), and the SP has joined with the Union Pacific, trains pass through town with engines from any of the ancestral rail lines.

The diesels sport the colorful red, yellow and silver or the navy and yellow of AT&SF, interspersed with transient locomotives bearing the old Burlington Northern green. One experimental paint job I saw was an unconvincing hybrid with a big, ugly BNSF written on the side of the engine in non-too-professional lettering.

The SP locomotives are painted soot black and are the least interesting in the country (or were until the conglomerate Norfolk Southern began to copy them with the attitude of ”paint ’em black and the dirt won’t show.”

But the yellow and gray of UP spruces up the look along the line, and every once in a while, you see the sickly blue of a Conrail engine.

I mention all this about the trains for two reasons. First, because they kept me awake most of the night, rattling my motel windows. And second, because it is at Mojave that the trains make the big turn westward to drop down Tehachapi Pass.

The pass, again, isn’t much from the east. A slight rise over the pass, at 3,793 feet, and an initially slow descent, hardly visible, through the town of Tehachapi and the broad Tehachapi Valley, with its ranches and cement plants.

But then the hill steepens, dropping toward the great San Joaquin Valley below. And just above the town of Keene, the track makes a huge, nearly double loop, letting the train down more gently than the slope of the canyon would otherwise allow. tehachapi look aerial

This is the famous Tehachapi Loop, built in 1876 by the Southern Pacific under its engineer, William Hood. To allow the trains to climb a 2-1/2 percent grade from Caliente, near the bottom of the hill, to Tehachapi Summit, a distance of about 15 miles, Hood had to lay 27 miles of track, looping and curving all through the hillsides and over Tehachapi Creek. There are innumerable bridges and 17 tunnels.

Or, there were 17 tunnels until the earthquake of 1952. Now, there are 16.

You can take a narrow, winding road from Keene back up under the freeway and up the canyon to get a good look at the loop. About three miles from the town, there is a stone monument that tells very briefly the story of the engineering feat. From the parking pullout, you have a pretty good view of the grand circle of tracks.

But to really get a sense of the spiral, you need to drive an additional 150 yards uphill and take the well-worn footpath onto the grassy knoll that rises above the loop. Below you to the southeast, the track winds back uphill. As the track goes under you, through a tunnel, it comes out to the north and begins a wide turn to the west, around a pyramid hill in the center of the loop, creating a circle that is 3,795 feet in circumference.

The dual line of rail then sweeps back around the hill toward you again, and circles down underneath itself and into a tunnel.

A normal-length freight train at this point doubles under itself as it circles around the track. Nothing I’ve ever seen in the real world of railroads looks so much like the standard model-train layout, with its combination of tunnels, spirals and circles.

In the days of steam, SP had some of the biggest locomotives ever built to climb the Tehachapi Mountains. With 16 drive wheels each, they were used in teams of three and four at the head of each freight train, with another three or four scattered in the middle and at the end as ”helpers.” steaam power2

The giant steam engines had their cabs at the front, so that their engineers wouldn’t asphyxiate from engine smoke as they pulled through the tunnels.

Nowadays, as many as a dozen diesels will be scattered throughout the train for pulling power. Because not so many engines are needed to go downhill, sometimes a group of four diesels will ”deadhead” downhill, without any train behind, so they can link up with another uphill train.

Aside from the diesels and the four-lane divided highway that parallels the tracks most of the way downhill, not much has changed over the years. What was written in the 1939 Federal Writers Project Guide to California still holds true:

The Tehachapi grade ends below Caliente, and ”the mountains are behind, imposing, verdant, dulled with purple; ahead is the flat and monotonous plain of the San Joaquin Valley. The tops of grimy oilwell derricks loom in the distance; as the road continues westward, their numbers increase, dotting the checkerboard of tilled fields like black-headed pins on a field map.”

imperial dunes

What Americans have done to the desert is not encouraging.

The drive from Blythe, Calif., to Brawley on California 78 is a microcosm of the problem. You can pile up the insults that the desert has suffered.

California 78 is an old, two-lane blacktop that passes through the agricultural area outside Blythe. Before you leave the river, you pass retirement communities and winter-resident trailer parks. They pile directly on scrap yards and petroleum tanks. One wonders what the attraction of living there might be. The whiff of gasoline in the dawn? The lulling sound of traffic on the interstate?

Blythe, California

Blythe, California

Farther away from Blythe, the bustle of franchise foods and self-serve gas stations gives way to the quiet perpetuity of farmland.

The buildings you pass are poor and the names on mailboxes and storefronts are largely Hispanic. Community stores, such as the ones in Ripley or Neighbors, are dilapidated and have graffiti sprayed on their side walls.

Ripley, California

Ripley, California

The Colorado river plain is flat and fields spread out to the horizons. At one point, the highway passes close to the river, or rather, the oxbow lakes left behind when the meandering river cut through its own bottomland. The rushy, reedy water’s edge comes up to the shoulder.

The road takes several right-angle turns — as such roads always do in farmland — and eventually passes beyond the reach of the canal irrigation and back into Sonoran Desert, with its ash-pile hills and scrubby creosote.

But just as you think you are passing into wilderness, you find the slag hills of industrial mining. What appears at first to be mesas in the distance turn out to be piles of industrial debris. The closer you get, the more obvious are the dirt roads cut into the hills. Derelict mine-shaft machinery sits silhouetted on the horizon.

And as you pass the Gold Basin Mine and the Rainbow Mine, suddenly the desert is fenced off, with spirals of barbed wire cresting the tornado fence that goes on for miles. But it is not a fence to protect the private property of the mine owners, rather it is to protect the desert tortoise.

Signs every 50 yards or so posted on the fence warn you to keep out, that the tortoise is endangered and is protected behind the fences. But one look through the mesh and you know the tortoise hasn’t got much of a chance: The hills are slag and the dirt has been scraped flat.

If there are mountains in the distance, they are hard to see as I drive through. A blue haze, the color of stale cigarette smoke, hangs in the air and blots out the view. When a range of mountains finally shows in front of you, it turns out to be not rock but sand. dunes sign

The Imperial Dunes cross the highway, catching the smoky, filtered sunlight at an angle, showing off their sensuous curves and rhythmic flow.

But as soon as you are upon them, you see that the sand is not so smooth as you thought. In fact, it is scarred like a burn-victim’s skin. Every foot of dune is lined and corrugated with thousands and thousands of dune-buggy tracks. There is a section protected from the abuse, but outside the ”Angle” on the west side of the road, not a single square rod of unblemished sand remains.

And I’m passing on a weekday, which tells me that this damage doesn’t repair so quickly as the sand on the beach that smoothes out after each change of tide.

The dunes are still impressive: They are much more so here than along I-8, where most people are familiar with them. The view from the Osborne Overlook is like that from a mountain turnout. If it were not for the blue murk, you could see two states and two countries.

As the road drops down from the dunes back into the desert, you think, perhaps, now it will be OK. But the signs along the road read ”Danger” and ”Peligro.” It is a live bombing range. Don’t enter the desert, the signs along the road warn, because there are unexploded shells buried in the sand. blythe farmfield

Finally, the road re-enters the agricultural area east of Brawley. A sea of green. Lettuce or sugar beet extend to the horizon, and more salt cedar trees are being cut down as they age and rot. More used farm machinery for sale. More small, wooden homes beside the road with old cars parked in their dusty driveways.

The houses and the people you pass, with their donkeys in paddocks and their battered pickup trucks, seem like something directly out of the WPA photographs of the ’30s. You almost look for Tom Joad. Used farm machinery piles up in rusty lots.

Brawley, California

Brawley, California

The town of Brawley is just as decayed. It once must have been a pretty place. The main street is wide, with an island down the middle. But along its edges are empty stores and a boarded-up movie theater whose style says that perhaps in the ’40s, it was the kind of place that people came to for a Hollywood escape from the hard life of the farm.

From Brawley, you drive down California 86 to the interstate and pass sugar refineries and agricultural warehouses. Closer in to El Centro, the seas of growing green turn into seas of red-tile roofs, in the brand-new but already debilitating sameness of the desert’s version of Long Island’s Levittown. ”And they’re all made of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.”

Life in the desert has always been hard. It used to be hard on the residents and turned them into wizened whiskered eccentrics who live in lopsided mobile homes piled up with dirt on their sides.

Nowadays, life in the desert remains hard, but it is hardest now on the desert itself.

For the next several weeks, this blog will chronicle a road trip taken from Tijuana, Mexico, to Vancouver, Canada, up through California, Oregon and Washington. In 1937, photographer Edward Weston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and set out on a similar trip, and in 1940, published a book of his photographs, with text by his wife, Charis Wilson, called “California and the West.” In some humble way, this is an update. 

Avenida Constitucion

Avenida Constitucion


I hadn’t really looked forward to visiting Tijuana. It is, after all, a border town. Such places traditionally are tacky beyond belief. I’d seen Nogales, Sonoyta and Ciudad Juarez, and must say they give me the creeps.

But I was pleasantly surprised by Tijuana. Of course, it’s tacky. It wouldn’t be Tijuana without that. But it is also a legitimate city and, if you get off the main tourist drag, a thrilling town to be in.

Just a few hours in the city will teach you things about your own country that you hadn’t considered. Our own folkways contrast to the Mexican so that for the first time, you understand your own quirks.

Noise, for instance. In the United States, we are used to a lower level of sound than you find in Tijuana, where every store seems to blast musica into the street in deafening volumes. tijuana storefront

And there are smells. Almost all of them are wonderful smells. I didn’t smell any stale urine until I walked back into the U.S.

Instead, I smelled lemons, roasting chickens, fresh leather, chile peppers, piles of fresh vegetables, cilantro and vanilla.

There are some less pleasant smells, too. Cigarette smoke is everywhere. And Mexican ideas of automobile emissions are very different from ours. They seem to think the more emissions, the more money you make.

Money is the single ubiquitous thought in Tijuana. Economics blot out every other concern. I didn’t see any religious symbols except those for sale, I didn’t see any art except that for sale, I didn’t see any culture except that for sale.

At every square inch of the city, there is somebody scratching out a buck, or a peso — although almost everything sold on Avenida Revolucion is priced in American dollars.

Jewelry, leather, tequila, cheap blankets, more marionettes than I’ve ever seen in one place — they tend to be Disney cartoon characters.

And questionably Cuban cigars — the sign on the store awning read: ”Cuban Cigars Since 1492.”

And mannequins. Most stores show off their wares on stiff Anglo-looking mannequins. In one, gender identity turned into street theater as fake beards were displayed on women’s fashion-model heads.

In another, the most elaborate wedding dresses were in the storefront, on mannequins with their faces turned away from the street. tijuana wax museum


If you don’t find enough of the mannequins in the stores, you should try the Tijuana Wax Museum, which advertises ”More than 60 figures,” although I didn’t count quite that many when I walked through.

Many of the figures are distinctively Mexican: There are Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Cantinflas has his place of honor. But so do Elvis and Michael Jackson.

Mexican history is prominent, but the figure of Father Eusebio Kino looked uncomfortably like Bela Lugosi. I wondered if he had been recycled from an old Dracula tableau.

I was there at opening time, but no one else was, including the people who ran the place. About 15 minutes later, someone showed up and unlocked the door, flipped on the lights and began taking admission money.

Don’t miss Rita Canseco — she is a national heroine, although we know her here better as Rita Hayworth. And whole halls are devoted to the Mexican equivalents of Merle Haggard and Hank Snow.

I knew I couldn’t leave town without eating some Mexican food, so I wandered into Tilly’s Fifth Avenue, a dark little smoky place on Avenida Revolucion. An attractive young woman stood outside the door hawking for the place. There are people outside every door in Tijuana like carnival barkers trying to draw you in, even in mid-December, when I seemed to be about the only gringo on the streets. tijuana streethawker

The food was very good, a great deal funkier than the normal American version of the cuisine — with more character and flavor. The big combo plate and a homemade lemonade came to $6. But the best thing was the bowl of chips and salsa.

The chips were thick, crunchy and corn. The salsa fresca was the best I’ve ever eaten. It came in a tacky plastic bowl textured to imitate the ancient soapstone molcajetes of the countryside.

Meanwhile, American TV blasted over our heads on multiple monitors, flickering like moths. You couldn’t hear it, however, because the Beatles played on the jukebox without end. ”Love, love me do.”


I had two things I wanted to get done in Tijuana. First, I needed to find a place to buy crepe paper. My wife had charged me with the responsibility of bringing her the paper so she can make paper flowers.

Second, I wanted a Tijuana haircut.

I know that sounds like something you say about Mexican traffic: ”That bus cut me off so close, I got a Tijuana haircut.” But really, I just wanted to try out a Mexican barber. Mexican barber

It was a chilly, drizzly December day and I walked up and down the streets of downtown. Men on street corners asked each time I went by, ”Taxi, you want taxi?” Others held out armfuls of cheap costume jewelry necklaces, ”Hey, Mr. Whiskers, look at this. You buy?”

Tijuana is a border town and full of all the heroic tackiness that implies, but it is different from Nogales. For one thing, it is bigger. It is the fourth-largest city in Mexico, with a population of about a million. Which makes it considerably more urban and cosmopolitan. You know you are in a city.

Avenida Revolucion, the main street in downtown, exists mainly for the tourists. It’s hard to believe there is a large enough market counting the entire world for all the leather that is being sold. Open-front stores with piles of cheap blankets alternate with shops selling cheap watches and restaurants selling cheap tequila. Outside every one of them, someone is calling out to you as you walk past: ”Look at this. You buy?” and ”Hungry, Mister? We got lunch.”

Even at 10 in the morning, they are selling lunch.

I soon wandered off Revolution Avenue. If you walk west a few blocks, past Avenida de Constitucion, you come across something a little less like Mexican Disneyland. Markets sell food, stationery supplies, wedding dresses — all the things a normal Mexican needs.

I was looking for a store that sold crepe paper. I stopped at a magazine kiosk and asked, in my best dime-store Spanish, ”Donde esta un papelador?” The news vendor looked at me as if I were speaking Uzbekh, so I tried again, ”Necesito papel para flores.” tijuana street

This made sense to him. His eyes lit up and he held up four fingers and pointed west. ”Tres cuadros,” he said, pulling back one of the fingers. ”Three blocks this way.”

So I walked through the rain past the hordes of people, smelling delicious food from streetside vendors as I went. After four blocks, there still was nothing that looked like it sold paper. I found lots of cassette tapes, more leather, plenty of fruit-juice stands, but no paper.

I asked another news vendor. He held up one finger, then held it up again, but covered the top joints. One and a half blocks, he means, and back the other way.


I walk, but find no store. What I do find is a barber. It is a tiny storefront shop with red and white stripes above the door. It is an old, falling-apart building wedged between leather shops.

So I go in. An elderly man is seated in the near chair, getting his hair trimmed. A woman sits in the other chair, waiting for a customer. She is not sure I am it.

I make the international gesture of haircut to her, swooping a karate chop over the top of my head, and she smiles, gets up and tells me to sit. I am not sure what to tell her. I want a crew cut — my semiannual hatchet job.

”Corta?” she asks.

”Cortissima,” I reply.

The shop is large enough for only two ancient barber chairs, a few waiting chairs and a mirror that hangs shoulder-high along the wall. At the back of the shop near the ceiling is printed, in very neat block letters, professionally painted, ”El Trabajo todo se vence” — Work conquers all.

I had the odd feeling that this sounded rather too much like the words over the front gate of Auschwitz, but I’m sure it had more to do with the barber’s work ethic.

And she gave me a full going-over. I swear before God and man that my ears have never been lower. After the buzz saw came the scissors to clean up anything left and finally, lather and straight razor to make a passing lane between my ears and hairline.

All this was accompanied by choking clouds of powder, brushed on liberally, and the splash of flowery, yet medicinal, cologne up the back of my neck.

It was all I could have asked for, short of macassar oil. I got my Tijuana haircut and I will wear it proudly for the rest of my travels.


And as I left the shop, dropping a huge tip into the barber’s hand, I asked again for a paper shop. The barber took me outside the shop, pointed down the street and told me to go one block, cross the street, go a half-block up and on the right would be a papelaria. He repeated it.

And sure enough, when I walked there, a huge warehouse of a store was filled with everything you could possibly make from paper, from school notebooks to wallpaper. And down the end of the store were huge racks of crepe paper. Mexican papelaria

My wife had sent me to Mexico to buy the paper because, she says, American crepe paper is no good anymore. If you want to make Third World crafts, you have to start with Third World supplies.

I piled up about $20 worth in an assortment of floral colors and wrapped them up in a plastic garbage bag I had brought along for the purpose.

I felt like Martha Stewart or something: I had planned ahead, knowing it would likely be raining in Tijuana and I would likely be buying paper products, so I brought the bag to protect the paper from the rain.

And when I got back on the bus to return to the United States, the sun broke through and briefly scratched a piece of rainbow against the dark clouds to the north.border crossing

As I left town, I passed more shops, more barkers yelping. I passed old women sitting on the sidewalk with trinkets for sale. I passed bars, restaurants and more leather.

And when we got as far as the lines of cars backed up at the border when the bus driver told me it might be faster if I got out and walked the rest of the way. I did.

race gravure

When I was a schoolboy and too young to know better than to ask foolish questions, I wondered why I, with my ruddy pink skin, was called ”White” and why Charlie Johnson, with chocolate skin, was called ”Black.”

What I saw around me was a huge variety of skin color, from the pasty Irish winter skin to the darkest African blue-black. There weren’t two colors, but thousands.

It was one of those cultural inconsistencies that sometimes bother children, but that adults seldom seem to puzzle over. I now recognize that it is as if a linguistic pattern were cast over reality, taking its place, so that we see words and not skin.

The question of race has followed me into adulthood, as I see people argue back and forth, usually at cross purposes, without ever having stopped to ask themselves, ”What is race?”

If they took time to define what they mean, they might have a better chance of making themselves understood.

For race isn’t one self-contained category; we mean many things by it, and sometimes contradictory things.

It would help if we could tease out some of the strands of the knotty problem.

The problem of definition began with the 18th century European obsession with taxonomy. They wanted to name everything. Europaeid types

While it had been recognized for millennia that there were distinctive population groups in the world — The Greeks knew their Ethiopians, Shakespeare knew his Othello was a Moor — it is only during the Enlightenment that anyone tried to pin the variations down to uniform categories.

Race as a scientific idea began with the Swede Carl Linne, who devised an ingenious system for classifying animals and plants by morphology. He devised a system of phyla, orders, families and genera that worked its way down to species and, occasionally, subspecies.

A dog is Canis familiaris, a swamp rose is Rosa palustris. Humans are Homo sapiens.

Linne further divided humans into four ”races,” or subspecies, which he named H. sapiens americanus, europaeus, asiaticus and afer. These, he said, were red, White, yellow and Black. He also defined them by personality and culture.

H. sapiens europaeus, for instance, ”wears tight-fitting clothes” and is ”nimble, of the keenest mind, innovator.” H. sapiens afer, however, are ”cunning, lazy, careless,” and they ”smear self with fat.” Guess which race Linne considered himself to be.

American Indians, by this system, are cheerful and resolute, and Asians are proud and greedy. It should be noted that Linne didn’t get to travel much; it was the 18th century, and what he knew of other peoples was largely peculiar hearsay.

The confusion of race and behavior continues. I remember one White minister in Greensboro, N.C., who announced that his ministry was to aid ”the alcoholic, the drug addict and the Negro.”

Later biologists narrowed the races to three, eliding the red and yellow races, and they called the three Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. Then others, noting the number of population groups that could not easily fit into these three classes — Polynesians, for instance, or Australian aborigines — came up with newer and more distinct races and sub-races. The number proliferated to the point that there were nearly as many races as there were people, and race as a useful scientific classification evaporated.


Most scientists now discount the idea of race; you will be hard pressed to find the term used in any modern text.

The initial idea was that genetic ”types” exist in regional populations. The problem is that there is more variation between individuals within each group than there is between the groups themselves. Dravidian Caucasoids may very well be darker of skin than Nilotic Negroids.

As a biological concept, race was a convenient but misleading shorthand, made nonsense after a deeper look at the facts. race types

And the very distinctions made between populations — skin color, nose shape, resistance to malaria, lactose tolerance, etc. — are not distributed uniformly through the so-called races. The characteristics are likely to be distributed regionally, but the regions are multifarious and overlapping, not monolithic and co-equal.

It is a very few people who have all the many characteristics used to define a ”Negroid” or ”Caucasoid.” There are dark-skinned Caucasoids and straight-haired Negroids.

It makes even less sense in America, where the variations are no longer regional, and the bloodlines are no longer separate.

Yet, the notion of race persists. It is this nation’s most intractable social problem. If it is not biological, what is it?

Even before science took over the idea, race was a short word for ”bloodline.” Each family, insofar as it can be distinguished from its neighbors, is the culmination of a race. In Wagner’s version of Germanic myth, for instance, there is the race of Wolsungs, the race of Gibichungs, the race of Niebelungs.

I come from a race of Nilsens, although I can only trace it back a handful of generations, and there is no eponymous hero at its source.

But that is not what most Americans mean when they evoke the word ”race.”

In this country, with its peculiar history, race most immediately means skin color.

Yet the distinction is the least useful. If you took all the peoples of the world and lined them up, not as in an old grammar school photograph, by height, but by skin shade, you would not find any distinct breaks, but a continuous spectrum of color: a wash, not a palette. average female face

In the U.S., we have an artificial sampling of skin color. It is as if a dollop of red from one end of the spectrum were plopped down square on the blue end. The colors seem distinct and different, but this is a historical accident, not a true picture of racial difference.

While skin color is the most obvious racial marker, the most important is culture. People brought here from Africa had a different culture from those who came here from Europe.

The cultures have blended together quite a bit, yet it is astonishing how conservative culture is. Cultural forms can be maintained over centuries without anyone really thinking about it. Why does a wooden church in New England so often have the pointed arch of a Gothic stone cathedral? It makes no sense in wood.

We enter our jet planes from the left side, just as we mounted our horses. We let our children play with ”choo-choo trains,” despite the fact that their grandparents were likely the last in their race to have ever seen a steam locomotive.

When I visited South Africa, I was astonished to find it seemed so much like the North Carolina I had lived in for 20 years. I saw an old Black man in a worn blue suit and no shoes, waiting in front of a wooden store/service station for a ride. He could have been from Hobgood, N.C.

I heard a choir of cleaning women singing as they worked, and I recognized in the tone of their voices Ma Rainey and Aretha Franklin.

It is often these cultural differences that we use to separate the races in the U.S. — Rap vs. bluegrass; basketball vs. hockey, grape soda vs. root beer.

We feel comfortable with our own way of doing things, suspicious of other ways. There is considerable xenophobia in our racial attitudes.

Another important facet of what we call race is more accurately called class.

The reaction of many well-to-do Whites to poor Blacks is not much different from their reaction to poor Whites. “Trailer trash,” they call them. One remembers that in the 19th century, when there was so much prejudice against Irish working-class immigrants to the U.S., there were attempts to prove that the Irish were little different from African slaves. Irish negroes

Poor people are seen to have different work ethics, different hygiene patterns, different cultural ideals. That so many more Blacks than Whites, by percentage, are poor, leads to a bleeding of one attitude into another. Much of what is ascribed to African-Americans by their White neighbors is class consciousness, not simple racism.

Both are pernicious, but the two become confused in argument.


Then, too, race has become politics. And by politics, I mean power.

Political leaders speak as if they mean to ameliorate the problems of society, but the main goal of politics is power, its acquisition and maintenance. Those in power don’t want to give it up, those disenfranchised want to get it. When they can use race, from either side, they will.

This is used by both sides: White politicians have a glossary of code words that warn their voters that Blacks will take their jobs and their women. The privileged mean to prevent the dispossessed from getting power.

But the Black politician often complains about a Black conservative that he is somehow turning his back on the ”solidarity,” which is needed to gain power. Voter blocks on each side line up to scrimmage at the poll.

If a demonstration of the political definition of race were needed, one only has to consider the concept of ”race mixing,” seen in two different contexts.

Consider these two political systems and their apportionment of political power. In South Africa under apartheid, the admixture of White blood and Black ”ennobled” and made a new category, ”Colored,” above Black and not far under White and with most of the rights of Whites, whereas in the old U.S., a percentage of Black blood mixed with White ”degraded” and created a Black person and the lack of rights that came with the color.

It is an odd system indeed that forces Mariah Carey or Halle Berry into the category, “Black woman.” And how we scratch our heads over the categorization of Tiger Wood. trio

Nor can we forget history when we talk of race. The United States cannot escape the evils of its own past. Whites would like to forget slavery: ”That was a long time ago. I never owned any slaves,” they say. They seem to have no sense of history (unless it’s the Southern White’s sense of grievance about the Civil War.)

But Black Americans cannot avoid the burden of history. It is brought home to them every day. They cannot forget that they arrived on this continent under protest. They cannot forget that they were once legally less than fully human.

They cannot help seeing the vestiges of that past, even when such vestiges are invisible to Whites. What they call ”racism,” is often just the comet-tail of history, still affecting the course of events.

There are still more facets of race: linguistic usage, self-image, marketing. In one sense, race has turned from being a caste marker and into a demographic group.

So, when we open a dialogue on race, as the president has asked, we need to try to be clear about what we mean, and not address skin color when we mean class, not argue over culture, when it’s politics we are concerned with.

I don’t have the solutions to America’s race problems, but I am certain that unless we begin by defining what we mean by race, by beginning with the simplest questions, we will continue to repeat ourselves over and over until we are neither Black nor White, but are merely blue in the face.

Mont Ste. Victoire, Aix-en-Provence

Mont Ste. Victoire, Aix-en-Provence

For nearly a century, we have seen Paul Cezanne through the eyes of his disciples. They have given us the popular and concretized version of who the painter was. A version to validate the century that followed.

And we have all been his disciples: No other artist has had a more profound or lasting effect on the art of the 20th Century. In some sense, Cezanne (1839-1906) invented Modern Art.

The problem is that Cezanne himself was more complicated, more equivocal than the simple image of his work and influence. And it would be good for us today to widen that narrow view to discover something else in his art that may still be fertile for inspiration and a way out of the locked room that Modernism has become. cezanne self port

No one could miss the direct line between some of Cezanne’s paintings and the analytic Cubism of Picasso and Braque. And that visual kinship is reinforced by Cezanne’s own words: “Treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone …”

He mentioned often the need to see a canvas as a separate object, with its own rules, even if his prose is sometimes convoluted to the point it may cease making sense:

“… everything brought into proper perspective so that each side of an object or a place is directed towards a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth, whether it is a section of nature, or, if you prefer, of the show which the Pater Omnipotens Aeterne Deus spreads out before our eyes. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. But nature for us men has more depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our light vibrations, represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blueness to give the feel of air.”

But even here, we find Cezanne concerned with something Modern art tends to ignore: The way the world looks.

Despite the modern appearance of his canvasses, Cezanne often wrote about that aspect of art he shared with the long centuries that went before him: The need to see the world clearly, and to attempt to record on his surface not only a version of the world as he knew it, but an accurate record.

“I had to become a student of the world again,” he said to Emile Bernard, “to make myself a student once more.”

We think of Cezanne as the man who made abstract art possible, but in his own words, he constantly talked of capturing the reality — the visual reality — of the world on his canvases. To be true to the world he saw and felt.

This connection with the things of the world is what evaporates as the 20th century advances. The dedication to the reality of paint and canvas supersedes the dedication to understanding the world itself.

“You say that because two large pine trees are waving their branches in the foreground. But that’s a visual sensation … Moreover, the strong blue scent of the pines, which is sharp in the sunlight, must combine with the green scent of the meadows, which, every morning, freshens the fragrance of the stones and of the marble of the distant Ste-Victoire. I haven’t conveyed that. It must be conveyed. And through colors, without literary means.”mtstevictoire1

The painter writes and talks about the colors, the feel of the air on his skin, the smells of the forest, the give of the loam under his feet. He is veritably intoxicated by the things of the world.

“The world, the sun. .. that which is transient … that which we both see … our dress, our flesh, reflections … That’s what I have to concentrate on. That’s where the slightest error with the brush can send everything off course.”

What is different in Cezanne from the connection to reality in the Impressionists that preceded him is a faithfulness to what he would call the “permanent” or monumental quality of the things of the world. Monet might be more interested in what the sun does to those trees over the space of five minutes in the morning of a spring day; Cezanne hoped to capture some essential truth of the thing-itself. That meant finding something in the world that stayed essentially the same, no matter how the sunlight played over it through the course of a day, a week or a year.

This realization dawns on you if you visit Aix-en-Provence and see the architecture there. Those blocky houses he paints, so redolent of Picasso’s Cubism, are not a figment of Cezanne’s simplifying imagination. That’s what the houses actually look like. painting and real house

Paul Cezanne felt a loyalty to the world, a sense that the things of the world inspire love and affection, and when transcribed to canvas, can be laid out almost like scripture for us. We all need to be reminded occasionally that “die Welt ist schoen,” as the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch had it, and that through his canvases, Cezanne could capture that essential part of the world that we might miss when we fail to pay attention to what is around us.

They are, after all, the most real apples and pears ever seen that do not go soft and brown over time. cezanne apples

So, to see Cezanne only as a seed of Modern Art is to misunderstand the magnitude of his accomplishment.

At least for most people, there is little in the art world as dependably moving as a Cezanne apple or mountain. Painters, in particular, have always been astounded at the subtlety of his vision. It is said the Eskimos have 27 words for snow; Cezanne must have had 27 words for blue-green.


I’ve gotten an early start on a long day’s driving. It is dawn on the plains of west Texas and as the sun pops its first bright blast over the horizon, Schubert’s Trout Quintet plays on the car stereo.

Its first chord is also a bright blast, beginning like a sunrise, with a skyrocket of an arpeggio on the keyboard that bounds out like that first instant blaze as the edge of the sun explodes on the horizon.trout score 2

And when the quintet’s first melody breaks free, the arpeggio is joined by the string bass descending to rock bottom. It’s like the unfolding of a musical universe. It’s almost like getting out of bed, stretching your arms up over your head and planting your feet firmly on the floor.trout score1

I often find myself whistling along with the music when I’m driving, but with the Trout, I find myself singing along, bellowing like a playful calf.

It’s a different thing altogether. The whistling is just a kind of inattentive tagging along with the tune.

The singing, however, is my physical presence in the music.

Bump-bump-bump-bummmmm, I yell out with the string bass.

It is that deep resonance that gives an anchor to the music. It is like the footings of a skyscraper dug 60 feet into the bedrock.

The Texas hill country glows in the first rays of the sun, each rolling rise of earth catching the light like the drapery on a Greek statue.

There are a few low sunrise clouds, but the sun enters underneath them and the road is so empty, they just undulate as they run up over the hills. There is nothing on the highway for miles, just the occasional transfer truck that you pass.

What gives the Trout its phenomenal sense of emotional rightness is its constant balancing of the upward and downward motion of its melodies, often at the same time, like the bass and piano at the outset.

It’s not often in life that the emotions coincide in such a perfect sense of morning, light, a new day, optimism and hope.

Such is the Texas daybreak; such is the Schubert. It is a sunny quintet, with hardly the whisper of a shadow in its five bright movements. Even the minor-key variation in the fourth movement is dispelled with a major chord — “I was just playing,” its composer seems to be saying.

Yet, the Trout is an anomaly among Schubert’s major compositions. He wrote it when he was only 22 and it spreads sunshine from beginning to end.

Through most of his best music — the late piano sonatas, late quartets and the great C-major string quintet — there is a strain of despair that is heartbreaking. Even in his short piano pieces, beloved of amateurs for a century and a half, there runs a vein of deep melancholy that shades even his happiest moments.

For soon after he wrote the Trout, Schubert knew he was going to die, and to die soon. He had contracted an incurable syphilis, and it left him an outcast. He was dead before he was 32.

That knowledge, along with his poverty and his habitual sense of isolation and loneliness, give the dark tincture to his mature music.trout titlepage

And even the Trout gives expression — although in the most oblique way — to the melancholy that was constitutional in the composer: The earlier song he had written, also called The Trout, was the basis for his variations in the fourth movement of the quintet. The song tells the story of a bright, wily trout — “who gaily shoots past me like an arrow” — who then gets caught by an “cold-blooded” angler. The poet laments the loss of such a happy, bright fish. It is a miniature exposition of the theme, “Et in Arcadia ego.”

Somewhere east of Balmorhea, sunflowers begin showing up on the shoulders of the highway, great yellow clumps of them — sunshine growing from the roadside dirt.

I drive along in the shade under a cloud, but the sunlight rings the horizon with the tawny sand color of dry grass. I am an audience in the shade, but the spotlight is on a stage in all directions.

The rays of the sun break through the clouds in the north, making lines like rain hitting the ground.

There are lots of birds — finches, and swallows and swifts — darting around in the air over the road. I’m one of them.