Downtown Los Angeles & Beyond

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This was an unusual day when it came to light. There was great distance visibility. But, there was also a good deal of moisture in the unsettled air. The result was a kind of soft-clarity that tended to obscure details and one’s sense of distance. It was as if the very far and the not so far away had been drawn into each other.

With winter on its inevitable approach, this photo reminds me of the kind of light that comes with the cooler and sometimes moisture-laden air of the season. It’s always been a difficult season for me to look forward to, but I’m working on it.

This was taken just beyond the Cobb Estate in the foothills above Altadena, CA.

Downtown Los Angeles & Beyond

Untitled 1: On the San Gabrielino Trail

2010 was the last year before the start of the Great California Drought. That year, heavy downpours drove mud and debris down from the foothills through what are ordinarily dry, or nearly dry, river beds all the way to the Hahamongna basin.

The San Gabrielino Trail above JPL is an odd one, unless you’re from Southern California. Toward the bottom, near where this photo was taken, it’s a strangely disquieting mix of the suburban and natural worlds. There’s an asphalt walkway that gives way to a broken concrete one before direct contact between foot and mother earth finally takes over.

I caught this view through the chain link fence that keeps the locals out of the river bed on the lower part of the trail. I stood there for a quite a while, pointing my humble Panasonic LX3 between the links of the fence. I didn’t think much about the image until days later.

Maybe it’s my envisioning of the massive flow of water that came in the days and weeks before the image was taken. Maybe it is my wonderment at the idea the trees had withstood that muddy onslaught. Maybe it’s the little touch of vibrant green. I’m not sure but I always enjoy this photo when I come upon it.

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Untitled 1: On the San Gabrielino Trail

The Schaeffer Fire, Bonnevile Salt Flats, US 395 & the Sherwin Range

Smoke from the Schaeffer Fire
Smoke from the Schaeffer Fire

The Schaeffer Fire had been burning for well over a month by the time I caught this image on the road to US 395 west of the Cottonwood Charcoal Kilns in Inyo County. There were no fewer than three wildfires fires burning in California at the time (mid-August).

Bonnevile

When I was a kid I was fixated with the land speed record attempts that took place at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. I was around eleven when I finally got a chance to see the place for myself. Much to my delight my father even took our 1966 Pontiac Bonneville (no kidding) out on the flats for a few high speed passes.

Those, indeed, were the days.

I took this photo with my father’s Argus C3 on that trip way back in the early 1970s. The negative was buried somewhere in a box of over 6,000 images left behind by my parents. Most of the images were out-of-focus castoffs, but there were a few gems among the rubble.

I’ve not been back to the flats. I’ve learned that the salt on the flats is thinning, but no one is quite sure why. It makes me want to go back to that day when the salt was flat and thick and dustless and I sat beside my father, speeding across the horizon.

395 south toward Bishop
Looking southwest toward Bishop near US 395
Sherwin Range at sunset
The Sherwin Range at Sunset

It never fails to amaze me how often the humble iPhone 5 ends up seeing duty when a better camera would have been more suitable. Just a few minutes earlier the light was even more spectacular and the lenticular clouds were nearly luminous.

The Schaeffer Fire, Bonnevile Salt Flats, US 395 & the Sherwin Range

Thinking about cameras & a quick review of the Road Runner Bags Camera Strap

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about cameras.

Me? I love a good used camera. First of all, they’re cheap. I bought my Nikon D300 for $200. I mean, was there ever a better value in the history of the world? Second, I tend not to worry about used cameras. I always make sure the stuff I bought has seen some actual use. That way any bumps and bruises are easier to regard as marks of character rather than evidence of carelessness on my part.

The sad news is that my Fuji X100 gave up the ghost; very disappointing. Or, to channel our 45th president; sad. If I were given to complain (and I am) I would say that it’s pretty dang disappointing that Fuji is unable to fix what they regard as a professional camera that’s little more than a handful of years old. I ended up in the funny spot. Fuji could either ship back my pretty much useless X100 or I could pony up some cash and they’d sent me a brand-spankin’ new X100T.

Fine, fine, fine…here’s my credit card number.

Thing is, I knew I wasn’t going to keep the X100T. I’m kinda soured on the Fuji thing at least for now. Eventually, I may get myself another small mirrorless camera with a 1″ or m4/3 sensor but for now I’ve decided to simply toggle between my aforementioned D300 and a battle-scared old Panasonic LX3.

Sure, I used to own an LX3 (and later and LX5 and an LX7) but this little camera has me enamored for some reason.

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The mighty LX3 and its new Road Runner Bags strap in olive & black…yes sir!

This little camera rocks hard. I picked it up well-used over at Fred Miranda for $55. Nearest I can tell the little fellah has over 100,000 clicks on the odometer and it works perfectly. Heck, I even bought a second Panasonic battery for it; yup, I’m going all out. The neat little Leica lens is quite sharp over its entire range and the focus and metering are spot on. If Panasonic would upsize this exact camera with the same zoom range and a 1″ sensor I’d buy it.

The cool olive & black Road Runner Bags strap was supposed to be for my repaired X100 (sniff, sniff…) but I put it on the LX3 out of spite for Fuji. Like another favorite company of mine, Courier Ware, Road Runner isn’t much on self-promotion. The strap doesn’t even have their name anywhere on it…just a small label that says, Handmade in California. The webbing that Road Runner uses is very smooth on the skin and their form-follows-function-factor is admirably high. Road Runner Bags is a neat little company. All their stuff is made right here in Los Angeles and they certainly did a fine job with their first camera strap. I’m hopeful they’ll continue to work on more bags and straps for all the two-wheeled photographers out there on the streets and trails of Los Angeles.

Check their website out today and buy something.

Anyway, I enjoyed the Fuji because it was so easy to bring along. I disliked the Fuji for the same reason everyone else did. It was rather fussy, sometimes inscrutable, and the focusing was always marginal and then it got worse. How does that even happen? I also found the X100 rather fragile feeling. I don’t know if Fuji got it right with the S or the T or the F. All I know is Fuji’s naming convention for the X100 series is going to be tough for whatever follows the X100F. I’m not off Fuji forever; then again, maybe I am.

I can’t quite get my brain around how some folks are able to get along with an iPhone as their sole camera. Of course, I wear a wrist watch. Still, I do see the appeal to less is more when it comes to cameras. With the departure of the X100 and now the sale of the X100T I’m left with the LX3 and the D300.

Both of them suit me just fine.

Thinking about cameras & a quick review of the Road Runner Bags Camera Strap

My Personal Web Domain Expired (and I didn’t notice)

That’s right, and it happened over a year ago.

Sure, I could moan about the lack of notice from the domain registration company (and that’s exactly what I did when I found out). But the fact is I didn’t notice my site was down for an embarrassingly long time and it makes me wonder why I had it in the first place.

I’m impressed by people who maintain a blog, a website, a Facebook presence and who write (and read) stuff on Twitter. Don’t get me started on Instagram.

I’ve decided to let the domain go for now and maybe forever. Sure, Tom Wolfe needs his own website but the again he’s got more than a dozen novels under his belt. A man’s got to know his limitations.

On a more optimistic note, I’ve done some work on my novel and can faintly see its completion somewhere beyond the horizon. I’ve also snapped a few humble photos so let’s a take a look.

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Southern Sierra Foothill Sunset
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Untitled 11: Taken east of US 395
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Looking West: Taken just south of Independence, CA
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Bridge to the 9th: Soule Park Ojai, CA
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Marsh & sunset

There now; aren’t those a lot more fun than reading about my expired domain?

I should hope so.

My Personal Web Domain Expired (and I didn’t notice)

American Exceptionalism, Cognitive Dissonance & the Divisions in America

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the divisions of our country. Specifically, I’ve been wondering how divided our country has become? Is it really more divided than ever? I think the internet would tell us that it is. And I think if you look at the right (wrong?) measures you might rightly conclude that it is, but I’m still not sure. My interest in essence of those divisions was piqued when I happened on a podcast about American Exceptionalism. The guest, Mugambi Jouet of Stanford University, pointed out that many people (most notably large numbers of the republican party) are confused by the phrase’s use of the word exceptional. He has written a book about it: Exceptional America: What Divides Americans from the World and from Each Other (University of California Press).

By the way, it’s not only the clueless-right that miss the true meaning of the phrase. This afternoon on The Daily I heard New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman use the phrase incorrectly while talking about Donald Trump’s stated willingness talk to strongmen like Kim Jong Un and Rodrigo Duterte. Haberman said, “The United States has long been an idealistic nation; it’s essentially this concept of American Exceptionalism. While it’s been pretty maligned, it’s basically about something being aspirational and the idea of values of freedom of constitutional democracy, and that those are the types of values that this country hopes other countries will aspire to.”

Uh, no, that is not what American Exceptionalism is about.

As I said it’s clear that the phrase can and will continue to cause confusion for people of all political walks of life. The word exceptional is typically used as a synonym for outstanding. But, when Alexis de Tocqueville coined the phrase he used it to identify this country as an exception to other western countries.

de Tocqueville found it exceptional that the very same country that had established so many colleges and universities in such a short time should have such an anti-intellectual propensity. All of the exceptions are interesting, but there’s one that I’m not sure de Tocqueville thought of:

The US is the first country to strive for a government of, for and by the people. Still, most people don’t trust the government. Moreover, I would hazard that the percentage of Americans who don’t trust the government is at an all-time high. If this is true, it could mean that people are more likely to trust a government like Vladimir Putin’s than a government like ours. Is this worrisome? Maybe.

Then again, perhaps there’s a special psychological justification for mistrusting a government of peers. Perhaps knowing with assurance that the people in government think and are motivated just the way we are is enough to give us pause. Also, could the fact that our government occasionally comes clean about its misdeeds lead some to a greater mistrust rather than confidence? We all witness the militarization of urban police forces but for some that makes it easy to harken back to the FBI sending helicopters and snipers after Randy Weaver and his family, killing his son and wife (by being shot in the back of the head) and so a correlation is solidified. Some see good (if fallible) government at work and others see an increasingly emboldened and heavy-handed state.

There’s another even simpler reason for why people find it easy to distrust the government of the United States. We’ve simply done more totally wild shit than any other country. Like what, you say? How about having a functional democracy predicated on a three hundred year old document? How about sending a man to the moon? How about driving countries like Japan and Germany to their knees only to help them become economic powers just a few decades after the end of WWII. Did I mention that we’ve dropped two nuclear bombs on populated cities?

That kind of tension, that cognitive dissonance, is largely OK. I tend to look at all evidence of the work of government as falling in one direction or the other. If a bit of work is apt to make a high percentage of people lose faith in the work of government (like the Fullerton Police’s killing of Kelly Thomas), I see it as bad. If a bit of work (like convicting ex-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca of corruption) makes a high percentage of people gain faith in government, I’m all for it.

I realize that some folks grabbed the popcorn and were rooting for the Fullerton cops sitting on Kelly Thomas’ back while crushing the life out of him. I’m also aware that some folks thought kindly old Lee Baca must have been entrapped by the evildoers from the FBI. Again, that’s just cognitive dissonance playing out on a mass scale. Still, I stand by the work of government that increases faith in government and condemn the acts that undermine that faith.

What about proponents of  gun rights? The guest on the podcast stated that for many American gun owners the primary purpose of their guns was to protect against the government rather than against threats from other citizens. I actually had to play that part of the podcast a second time to make sure I heard him correctly; I had. Now I have to admit that the idea that you better have a 15-shot 9mm on hand because the government is going to come get you is a fairly astounding fear. But, I think fear is the key word. I think the average Trump voter was and is a pretty fearful person, one who felt as though he had been disadvantaged by pretty much everyone and had been rendered helpless by forces both seen and unseen. Not only did they feel disadvantaged by people but those who lived in rural parts of the country even felt disadvantaged by mere geography. It is easy to imagine a group of people who felt a kind of generalized fear of everything and everyone finding solace in guns, and lots of them.

Let’s think about the anti-intellectual leanings that got de Tocqueville’s attention. I think most anti-intellectual sentiment is pointed at groups of intellectuals who seemingly do no work. I think a classic moniker of the past is apt here; eggheads. These are the guys studying whatever it is you’ve never heard of or anything you don’t understand. Even the most anti-intellectual slack-jawed-yokel is inclined to see a doctor if he gets sick. He may attest to a distrust of the medical profession as a whole, maybe he thinks they’ve even secretly cured cancer, but old Cletus is still very likely to tell you that his own doctor is top-notch. That’s more of a selective anti-intellectual sentiment, one that readily finds an exception in specific people, rather than a blanket distrust of learning itself.

The internet, as always, stands ready to undermine confidence and create doubt, in those who believe differently than you do. And, this applies to both sides of a debate. The internet makes it all too easy to stay in our echo chambers and therefore encourage our divisions. But are we really all that divided? I don’t think so. The divisions we read and hear so much about divisions are largely overstated and driven by the media and the shortsightedness of both of our major political parties. Get actual people, rather than groups answering polls or being fed sound bytes or video clips, into a room and watch the divisions fade. Everyone wants to work, everyone wants to being able to afford health care and everyone wants to attain the educations they believe their chosen lifestyle demands. It’s OK to disagree about the processes and mechanism we use to achieve our goals. It’s not OK to use a politically motivated belief that the divisions are so profound that even dialogue is undesirable.

America is both an exception and exceptional and those very qualities give me the greatest hope for its future. Rather than fret over those exceptions we should celebrate them as badges of honor reflecting our diversity of thought and perspective.

American Exceptionalism, Cognitive Dissonance & the Divisions in America

The trumpets of Lee Morgan (and mine, too)

Last week, my dear friend and fellow jazz-lover, Eric, told me about the movie, I Called Him Morgan. It’s a fascinating film about the short, brilliant life and tragic end of jazz trumpeter, Lee Morgan. It’s an amazing movie full of fantastic music, and interviews along with lovely black & white photographs. Many of the photos clearly showed the trumpets Morgan played at various stages in his career. I recognized a Conn 8B, a French Besson Brevete and what I’m almost positive was a lowly Olds Ambassador. My guess is that the Olds was the lone survivor during Morgan’s hard times when his more valuable instruments likely found their way into the local pawnshop.

It’s always a sad day, especially for such a great musician, to give up a special instrument.

Me? When I was in junior high school I got really lucky when it came to trumpets. When I was in 7th grade our junior high school got a new music director. The outgoing teacher was a local legend and the 8th and 9th graders had come to love and respect him. The 24-year-old newcomer inspired great skepticism from the older kids but I liked him right from the start. It was easy for me to like him because he liked me so much. We had a kind of simpatico especially about music. He taught me a lot about jazz, different recording techniques and the acoustical qualities of concert halls. He had been a successful musician before he decided to become a teacher and he taught as if his students all felt the same as he did, and all had the same ambition to play professionally. But, though his attitude was contagious to me, not everyone caught the passion.

He thought I had talent and told me as much. I can recall his note on my first report card. Talented! Should have private lessons now! Kind of heady stuff for a 13 year old just learning to play the trumpet. I’d been struggling with a school loaner trumpet up until then. Even though I was a beginner I had a sense that the humble Buescher was making things harder than they needed to be. The new music director was horrified by the dismal condition of the school’s instruments. There was no money (has there ever been?) for new instruments so he encouraged students who he thought had talent to coax their parents into buying them a quality instrument. He knew that money was going to be an issue with the average parent so he cultivated a relationship with a local music store called, Zep’s.

Zep was a somewhat grizzled old reed player who owned a tiny store in Burbank that was stuffed, floor to ceiling, with some of the finest woodwinds and brass instruments available anywhere. One day, the new director drove me to Zep’s after school he had me try a number of different trumpets. Every trumpet I tried was freer-blowing than the old Buescher and every one sounded and felt different. It was quite a revelation. They also cost a lot of money. I didn’t know much, but I knew that a $750 dollar instrument was totally unrealistic for me.

So, I struggled along with the Buescher. Still, I loved to go to Zep’s. I was there when Amy, who would go on to play with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, got her Armstrong flute and when Patricia picked up her beautiful Buffet Crampon clarinet. Both girls were genuinely talented and driven musicians. I loved hearing them try different instruments and hearing the way they described the differences between different brands and models. Sometimes the differences were subtle and other times they were obvious. Our new music director was endlessly patient. We’d often be at Zep’s for hours and he never, ever seemed to be in a hurry.

I was hanging around the music room one Friday when the director asked me what I was doing on Saturday. I told him I had a baseball game at 3 in the afternoon but I wasn’t doing anything until then. He told me he wanted me to go with him to Zep’s; there was a trumpet there he wanted me to try. By then I had played a bunch of professional instruments. There was the ubiquitous Bach Strad which I always found to be a tad stodgy sounding and feeling. Then there was the flashy King Flair with its clever (or so I thought at the time) first-valve trigger. My early favorite was the Benge. It was sleek and smooth both in sound and action. But, it cost even more than the other totally out of reach trumpets. Still, I was very intrigued by what he wanted me to play.

Zep had been expecting us and as we walked toward the counter he went into the back room and emerged with an unmarked, black case. He opened it, exposing the luxurious dark blue drape of the velvet lining. The trumpet beneath was unlike any I had ever seen. It was a silver Schilke B5. I could see that it was used, but it was in perfect condition. At the time, I had never heard of Schilke, but Zep knew all about it. “Schilke’s back in Chicago. He makes pretty much all of Herseth’s trumpets,” Zep said as he took the trumpet out of the case. I took my mouthpiece out of my pocket and vanished into the practice room with the Schilke. It felt light in my hands and the trumpet looked beautiful. The main tuning slide was staggered and the only engraved markings were the words, “Schilke, Chicago USA” on the second valve and the “B5” mark on the lead pipe. Years later I adopted the look of the Schilke’s classic engravings for a putter design I was involved with, but that’s a story for another day. A lot of trumpets had garish engravings on their bells. I never liked the way that looked. The Schilke was sleek and clean from every perspective and it played amazingly well and sounded even better. Still, I couldn’t quite figure out why I was there. Even used, an instrument like that would be far more expensive than anything my family could afford.

The funny thing was that the music director didn’t seem concerned and he never spoke to me about how much it cost. He just watched and listened to me play, finally asking me if I liked it. Who wouldn’t? He then asked me if I wanted to borrow it for a couple weeks. I was so enthralled with the instrument that I said yes without really thinking about it. While we were driving back to North Hollywood in the director’s cool Audi 100LS he told me the story: The Schilke had been owned by a local session player who had just landed a gig that included a Holton contract for the entire trumpet section. So, one day while the player was at Zep’s trying out mouthpieces he asked Zep if he knew of a promising student who might enjoy the Schilke. Zep called our director and there I was riding home with the Schilke. The truth was that my family still had to come up with $150 to buy the case. Believe it or not, even with the amazing value of the trumpet explained, it still wasn’t easy to get my mom and dad to pony up the $150, but they finally did.

Even when I was a kid I had a tendency to write letters to people I didn’t know so a few weeks later I wrote a letter to Schilke at their old address on South Wabash Avenue in Chicago. Little more than a week later I got a handwritten letter back from Renold Schilke, the founder of the company. He confirmed the year my trumpet had been made and its exact specifications. He also wrote some advice about the preferred valve oil needed for an instrument that was built to such tight tolerances. In fact, I had already learned this having tried some standard valve oil only to find the action of the Schilke slowed badly. Having that letter from Schilke bonded me to that trumpet for a long, long time.

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Renold Schilke

I wasn’t the only kid who got lucky when it came to trumpets. One of my close friends was a nice little guy with a sharp crew cut named, Harris. We started out together in kindergarten and we soon learned that we lived right next door to each other. He and his family had come to the US from Israel a couple years after he was born. His father was an electrician who loved exploring California’s great deserts and searching for what Harris liked to call Thunder-Eggs. All through elementary school Harris would bring in beautiful geodes for Show & Tell. He and his father would search out the rough looking stones in the desert and bring them home before cutting them in half to reveal the hard, colorful crystals within. All these years later I’ve come to enjoy the desert in many of the same ways Harris and his father did nearly 50 years ago.

Like me, Harris had been saddled with a nearly unplayable school trumpet. His father had a different solution; pawn shops. He and Harris scoured the many pawn shops on Van Nuys Boulevard until one day he showed up at school with a beautiful instrument made by Calicchio in Hollywood. It was a beautiful trumpet, heavier than my Schilke, and with a slightly darker sound and a smaller bell. The Calicchio was older than my Schilke and the valves were a touch slow and the third slide was sticky. Harris wanted to take the bus down to have his trumpet looked at by the folks at Calicchio in Hollywood.

One Saturday we planned out our trip and headed south. I think it took three RTD buses to get from North Hollywood down to Calicchio’s near Hollywood & Highland. Calicchio’s shop looked like an old house. The only evidence we had actually found the right place was one of those old black signs you might see in a deli that showed the hours. The sign on the door said simply, Calicchio. We walked into a dimly lit room with a wooden counter on one side. In the corner was a simple glass case with a trumpet inside. A few minutes later an old man walked up to the counter. Harris put his case on the counter and started to explain about the valves and the third slide. The old man put his hands out, indicating that Harris should hand him his trumpet, which he did. The old man held the trumpet up, checking a couple of the braces. Then, he took a cigarette out from under the counter. He looked at both of us gravely and said, “Not for smoke…” We didn’t get what he meant right away but then we did. He didn’t want us to think that he was going to smoke. Instead, he took a quick drag and blew the smoke into the trumpet and then he depressed the troublesome third valve. He vanished for a few minutes and came back out with a brazing rod, a small torch, a tiny leather mallet and a small hammer. For the next 15 minutes we watched as he repaired a brace and tapped a tiny indentation out of the third slide. He showed Harris the evidence of the braze. It was almost unnoticeable. Anyway, Harris had intended to have the trumpet re-plated so the repair would be invisible once it was done. Harris tried the third valve slide that then happily held any position yet moved freely and he smiled at the old man. Then Harris pulled out his wallet and unfolded a check signed by his father made out to Calicchio. The old man bowed his head slightly and turned it slowly from side to side. Then, he shook hands with each of us as he smiled for the first time. As he shook our hands he said, “I am Calicchio.”

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Domenick Calicchio

“I thought he was only the repair guy, ” Harris said once we got outside. “So did I!” All the way home we wondered out loud how old Calicchio was and whether there was anyone back there to help him build the trumpets (there wasn’t) and whether he lived in that little house (he didn’t). No matter our petty questions, I believe we both had a sense of how special our brief encounter had been. We were only 13 going on 14 but we knew without really knowing why that we had been around someone who possessed an enduring connection to the instruments he created and that somehow that had connected him to my friend in a precious and unique way.

I lost track off Harris after high school. I think about him from time to time and I miss his smile and good nature. Neither of us ever got any good at playing trumpet, but we kept trying right on through high school and, in my case, college. Of course, Renold Schilke and Domenick Calicchio are now long dead. Trumpets emblazoned with the names Calicchio & Schilke are still made today, and I’m certain they are fine instruments. But, none of those trumpets have ever been held in the hands of anyone who shares their name. I find it sad that the Calicchio website doesn’t even have a biography of the great and humble man behind the name. The website has a section called tradition but virtually nothing about the man who made the Calicchio name relevant to musicians while he lived and the continuance of his name, as a brand, viable now that he’s gone.

Still, I’m grateful that in 1974 my friend Harris and I owned and played instruments that were true extensions of the men who had designed and built them. That kind of connection seems all too rare these days. I don’t know where Harris is, or whether he still plays his Calicchio. But, I’m certain he would recall that day as clearly as I do and likely still revels in the bond created by a simple handshake and his own connection to a master trumpet builder.

 

 

The trumpets of Lee Morgan (and mine, too)