Max Max and the new world

mad-max-fury-road (1)What an insane movie! Peter Kuhlman

Michele had her DNA tested a couple of months ago. She has about 1.2% Neanderthal DNA , about 2% Densovian DNA – which is very surprising at first glance, but may be the source of her bright blue eyes – and, of course, 96.8% good ol’ Homo sapiens sapiens from East Africa. It got me thinking how H. sapiens sapiens – our biggest genetic contributor, basically us, in other words – moving out of Africa could have interbred with Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and Denisova hominins both of whom left Africa about two hundred thousand years earlier. 

That small group of H. sapiens – I’m going to drop the second sapiens – migrated out of Eastern Africa, into what we used to call Asia Minor, about sixty thousand years ago. They were people with almost the same DNA as us, they were anatomically modern humans, but they were very different. They were the people we all evolved from, very dark West Africans as well as very white Finns, Chinese and Native Americans, everybody.  If the few hunter gather tribes that still exist  are any guide, they lived in small groups, suspicious of outsiders, and ready to fight (even today, hunter gathers spend the majority of their time fighting, getting ready to fight, or getting stirred up to fight).

As an aside, in all likelihood, our 96.8% ancestors, the smart ones, moving out of Africa into Asia Minor, were dark skinned and the Neanderthals, the less smart ones that they ran into, were light skinned. End aside.

When they met, it was not a love match like Romeo and Juliet. Think more like Boko Haram raiding the pastoral Nigerians. They probably fought and the DNA evidence strongly suggests that the intermixing of Sapiens and Neanderthals came as a result of Neanderthals stealing the Sapiens’ women. Women were currency, they were booty – sorry, I couldn’t resist – the spoils of battles.

Mad Max: Fury Road imagines this brutal world of kidnapped women in a post-apocalypse landscape with cars that are as mutant as the people driving them. The basic conceit is that the “brides” of a warlord, Immortan Joe, have been set free by another badass, Imperator Furiosa, played by a one armed Charlize Theron with a buzz cut. The movie is like Gravity in its simplicity and episodeity. A long, evolving car chase across a desert landscape, improbably complicated, and then a break and  another long, different,  car chase and another break and another…. To quote The Telegraph,  Imagine if Cirque du Soleil reenacted a Hieronymus Bosch painting and someone set the theatre on fire.

The chasers are religious fanatics who believe that they will go to Nirvana if they die fighting for Immortan Joe and the chased are the women. The movie makes it clear that the hellish afterscape is a result of and perpetuated by men. As an aside, I once asked a woman why she thought men ruled the world, she didn’t even hesitate before saying Because they are bigger and stronger and can kick the shit out of any woman who doesn’t like it. I think that I had sort of expected a men are more devious and aggressive type answer and I tried again, a couple of days later, and got almost the same answer, again without any hesitation. I have learned to not ask that question again. End aside.


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Denise McCluggage

Photo lifted from Hemmings Daily

“There’s a great opening line in a book called The Go Between, which I often quote: The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Denise McCluggage.

Denise McCluggage, ski-racer, racecar-driver, and writer extraordinary, died a couple of days ago at 88 and, as I sit here, I am tearing up. Both for her and for a lost world that I am a little ashamed I feel so attached to. It is hard to talk about Denise McCluggage without talking about that lost world that she embraced and defied with talent, humor, and enthusiasm. It was a world dominated by White Anglo-Saxon Men, so entitled that it seemed like the natural order of things. It was the world before Nixon lost to Kennedy, the world of the first season of Mad Men. It was also a time when few enough women wanted to be equal to men that they were not a threat and McCluggage was often the only woman in the room.


Denise McCluggage was born in small town Kansas in 1927, became a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle in its heyday, and dirt track auto racer after graduating summa cum laude from Mills College in Oakland. She moved back east to race sports cars big time and backed into becoming a publisher. She moved to Europe to race and write about racing and, in the process, she hug out with the best drivers in the world. McCluggage never made much money but she always lived life on her terms, enthusiasticly and fully.

She was a suburb skier and an even better driver, but I remember Denise McCluggage as a sports writer before there were women sports writers. She was a great story teller and probably the best way to talk about her is to let her do the talking.

Originally, I’d ride around Europe with Phil Hill, who got a new Beetle every year. I was headquartered in Modena like most everyone else. Then I got an Alfa Romeo Giulietta, which I raced, including at the Nürburgring. I don’t remember what happened to it, but I went back to bumming rides. I had gone up to the Nürburgring with Alejandro De Tomaso and Isabel Haskell, because I was sharing an O.S.C.A. there with Isabel. The car broke in practice. Henry Manney III offered me a ride to Stuttgart, where I could wait for Isabel to put my passport on the Rapido train from Modena. I had suddenly realized I’d left it in my helmet bag, which I’d stowed in the race car.

So I hung out in Stuttgart for several days, and I visited Mercedes, and then Porsche to see my friend Huschke von Hanstein. There, he had a Porsche 356 just back from a show somewhere. It had an unheard-of electric sunroof and knock-off hubs. It could not be sold in Germany, because knock-off hubs were illegal for street use. He suggested I buy it. Like every other time I bought a car, I had exactly enough money in the bank to cover it–in this case, $3,000 (1959, remember?). I never thought that now I had nothing left. There was always something else down the road. Unfortunately, I’m still like that. By the time my passport arrived, I’d bought the Porsche and was ready to head for Modena.

She was sensitive and funny. The world will miss her, I already miss her, so here is one more sample, writing about Saudi women not being able to drive:

I felt the depth of the cultural abyss one day in the south of Yugoslavia when I was doing the Liege-Sofia-Liege rally in the mid ’60s. I was driving a Ford Cortina with Anne Hall, and we’d been caught in the momentary aspic of some crowded village near the Albanian border. The population was heavily Muslim. Few women were in the crowd and those few were swathed head to toe in black. Only their eyes were visible. At one curving junction we stopped again for hand carts, bicycles and trucks to clear. A nearby post of black slowly turned and starred wide-eyed directly at me–interrupted perhaps in her usual lowered-eyes mode by the fact that she had seen a woman–driving a car.

I starred back, in stunned awareness of an odd coincidence: the shape of our windshield and the shape of the eye opening in her black covering were the same extended oval. We two women, probably having arrived on this planet at close to the same time and in much the same way–kicking, naked and wet–now looked through similar ovals on very different worlds. The brief but somehow endless moment broke. We turned back to our diverse worlds. I, the Woman Driver. She, the eyes-only mystery.

Reading Nuremberg Diary


Book-2548After resisting it for the last six months or so, I have started reading Nuremberg Diary, by G.M. Gilbert. Ed Cooney  has been pushing me to read it, saying – over and over again – that it is fascinating and revelatory. Gilbert was the prison psychologist during the Nuremberg Trials and the book covers the trials – mostly – in the words of the indicted. Ed is right, the book is revelatory and strangely fascinating.

All the German World War II characters villains we have been reading about and seeing in movies, ever since 1945, are here . General Jodl, Field Marshal Kettel, and Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering are here, of course.  There are the thugs like Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Chief of Himmler’s Security Forces – including the Gestapo – and intellectuals like Alfred Rosenberg, Chief Nazi philosopher and Reichsminister of Eastern Occupied Territories. I have been reading about these guys for years, but it has always been in the context of what they did.

With Hitler and Himmler dead, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering is the embattled leader, trying to save the Nazi’s and his own reputation. He both denies the horrors of Nazism and justifies them as the geopolitical necessity of Germany defending the west from the scourge of Communism. A couple of the prisoners, Albert Speer and Hans Frank in particular, are horrified art what they have done, but most of the prisoners either try to deny what happened and what they did or excuse it.

Except for Hitler, I really did not having a sense of who they were. This book was written in 1947 and it has that easy story-telling style of the period even though most of it is in the words of the people on trial. We have been taught that these are evil people – the Nazis, the World War II German military leaders, the prison camp guards – that they are the definition of Evil. Goering fits the picture perfectly, but most of the characters in this book just seem to have been sucked into something much more powerful than they are.

My default position is not to believe in Evil and I usually think of people doing evil things, not being Evil but reading the prisoners own words, as banal as they are, tries that belief at times. When Rudolf Hoess, the Commandant of Auschwitz, says You can be certain that it was not always a pleasure to see those mountains of corpses and smell the continual burning. – But Himmler had ordered it and had even explained the necessity and I really never gave much thought to whether it was wrong., it is not easy to believe he was only led astray.

Although it may be time to let go of World War II and the Nazis, reading this book bring it to life again.


Revisiting a childhood home and thinking about Joseph McCarthy

2051 Ralston-

About a year ago, I made a short post about having garbage dumped on our front lawn because we were Jewish and moving to a new house in another town where – some people, at least – did not want us. The picture above is that house, and Michele and I visited it a couple of weeks ago and met its charming owners. While much of the move was not a happy experience for me, that is not what I want to talk about now. What I want to talk about is the house we moved to and I want to speculate a little about my parents.

We moved in about January 1952 to a conservative area of conservative Hillsborough (we had bought the old front lawn of a larger property from the strapped descendant of somebody vital enough to afford the original property). The house took way longer to build than anybody had scheduled and went over budget, so I am guessing that my parents started planning the family’s new home sometime in 1950. It was a different world in 1950.

The United Sates had won The War – almost single-handedly in our mythology of the day – and we were the only major industrial country that hadn’t been trashed which resulted in our becoming a bigger economic power than the rest of the world put together. It was a time of enormous national optimism, in ten years we would even be talking about going to the moon. But it was also a very scary time, The Reds had The Bomb and, as kids in school, we practiced hiding under our desks when the air-raid sirens went off. Joseph McCarthy through the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, was starting to track down Red spies in our government and an inordinate amount of those questioned were Jewish (according to a study by Aviva Weingarten, in 2008, of 124 people questioned by McCarthy’s Committee  in 1952, 79 were Jewish).

As an aside,  today, about 2.2% of the American population is Jewish, the same as in the 1950’s, but the Jewish population was more separate in the 1950’s. Then, only about 17% of Jewish people married outside of the faith, according to a Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project in 2013 (that figure is now 71% for non-Orthodox Jews).

Tony Judt, in Thinking the Twentieth Century, talks about the draw of transnational Communism for people, like Jews, who felt unprotected at the national level. During the rise of Fascism, with its anti-Jewish legislation during the 1920’s and 30’s, the Communists were the only major anti-fascist group (until the war started). The Communist movement championed ideals dear to many Jewish people, like equality and integration, so when McCarthy started to root-out Communists, he did find alot Jews. Of course, doing any sort of progressive activity such as trying to desegregate a public swimming pool in Pasadena, like the Oppenheimer brothers did in 1937, was enough to be labeled a Fellow Traveler which was as bad as being a full blooded Communist. End aside.

As another aside, the spectra of Communism was far from theoretical in our family. In the 1950’s. the House Un-American Activities Committee – HUAC – was traveling around the country, holding hearings, to eradicate Communists and Fellow Travelers, most of them imaginary. Today, having been investigated by HUAC in the 50’s, is something of a honor, but in the actual 1950’s it was something to be feared. We had several members of our family who we were worried about, not only for them, but how their being investigated would reflect on us (in the end, only one person we knew closely was called up and our family name remained unsullied). End aside.

It was far from the worst time to be Jewish, but it wasn’t the best either, and Hillsborough was a place where some, maybe most, of the people did not want us moving in. Why my parents wanted to move to Hillsborough in the first place, I don’t know, but I suspect it was primarily pushed by my mother. What ever the reason, we could have snuck in, could have bought a nice, traditional house, moved in, kept our heads down, and stayed quiet. Instead, my parents decided to make a statement.

They hired a young architect, Ward Thomas, who was not a well known name – and who never became famous, much to my parents disappointment; he was hard to work with I remember being told – and I love that they had enough confidence in their own tastes, their own style,  to hire him.  The house was going to be what is now known as Mid-Century Architecture but, then, it was a statement. Wandering through it a couple of weeks ago, it still is.

The house looks simple and like alot of things that look simple, it is much more complicated. In front, the walls don’t line up vertically, making it much harder to engineer and frame. The master bedroom wing floats effortlessly over the carport with all the actual heavy lifting being hidden from view. The roof drains into a pipe complex which takes the water from over the windows to the far edge of the building, the walls in back are floor to ceiling glass with no shear bracing, the fireplace hearth cantilevers through a large window to become a shelf outside, and on and on. No wonder the construction took longer and cost more than originally expected, almost none of it was routine.

Ralston House-3258

Ralston House-3251

Ralston House-3255


When I was a child, I remember thinking that the house was huge and ostentatious, and I was embarrassed. It pointed out how we were different at a time when I just wanted to blend into The Great Melting Pot. Now, walking around the house for the first time since – probably – 1957, it seems small, and tasteful in the extreme, and I am proud that my parents had the chutzpah to build it. The new owners have updated much of the house, like putting in double glazed windows, but I am delighted that they have honored the spirit of the original house. When it comes to Mid-Century architecture, it is obvious that they are Fellow Travelers.

As a final aside, when we lived here, when it was our home, we had a Standard Poodle named after Émile Zola, who in our home – at least – was famous for defending Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French artillery officer scapegoated after France’s loss of the Franco-Prussian War in 1894. The new owners have a dog named Atticus. I like the symmetry of that almost as much as the fact that this very special house has been so sensitively preserved. End aside.Ralston-3247

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Tesla, thinking out of the box

hero-01Today, as I was driving into to town, I followed a Nissan Leaf – Nissan’s electric car – down Edgewood Road. I couldn’t help but notice how  on-purpose-goofy it looks and it started me thinking about how not-goofy Michele’s stepfather’s new Tesla looks. It got me wondering Why do electric cars, even hybrids, look a little goofy on purpose?

I think that the answer is that they want to distinguish themselves from regular cars. They seem to be say Hey! Look at us, we are building and electric car or Hey, look at how different our hybrid is from a regular car. They are selling these cars to people who want us to know that they are different so they give them an out of the box design. It may be out of the box design but, I think, it is in the box thinking. Electric cars are different, so let’s make them look different.  

But Tesla is different, they are trying to make their car look normal. Their pitch is that Tesla is a better car, not a different car. I think that this is real out of the box thinking.

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