Archive for September, 2010

Back in the days of the Vietnam War, we young men would warily watch our mailboxes for letters from the President. Too many friends had already received letters that began, “Greeting: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States.”

Today I received an official letter almost as chilling. In celebration of my upcoming 67th birthday, wrote California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, I must renew my driver’s license “on or before [its] expiration date…. [of] 11/23/2010.”

Your last two renewals have been by mail,” the governor wrote on behalf of the Department of Motor Vehicles. “The law requires you to now renew at a DMV office. If your physical description or address on this notice is incorrect, please make the necessary changes.”

Clearly incorrect was the address the governor used to reach me, that of The Point Reyes Light. I’ll have to change it.

As for my height, alas I’ve shrunk a bit from my 6-foot, 4-inch days. I now have to stand really straight just to hit 6-3, and as for 185 pounds, I’ve lost more than 15 of them in the last five years. (To paraphrase General MacArthur, old newsmen never die. Their layouts just get tighter.)

Nor did it seem entirely fair that the DMV required me to renew my car’s registration just weeks before before determining whether I am eligible to drive it. What if I fail my vision test? Or forget when the speed limit is 70 mph?

All my life I have found driver’s license tests unnerving — perhaps because I flunked the first one I took back in high school. The man giving me the test directed me to drive through a construction zone, and when we came to an intersection, I stopped at the crosswalk rather than at a stopsign sticking haphazardly out of a pile of dirt. Wrong decision.

Luckily, when I taught college for two years in Iowa and then reported for Council Bluff’s daily newspaper, The Nonpareil, the State of Iowa simply issued me a driver’s license based on my having one from California. I guess the Iowa Division of Motor Vehicles figured that anyone who could survive the freeways of Los Angeles could handle the farm roads of the Hawkeye State.

However, when I returned to California and began reporting for Sonora’s daily newspaper, The Union Democrat, this state required me to take a behind-the-wheel driving test to get a new license.

I showed up for the test nervous as a cat. With a woman from the DMV directing me where to go, we drove all over Sonora. If we turned a corner, I used arm signals as well as blinkers. In fact, I used arm signals when I merely slowed down.

This time there were no problems, and we returned to the DMV office where I was told to sign more papers and have my photo taken. Next to a stripe painted on the floor of the photo area, a sign said it was important that my feet were exactly on it.

Still nervous, I bent over and carefully positioned my toes exactly on the stripe. However, just as I was straightening up, I heard a perplexed DMV photographer say, “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to turn around and face the camera.” For the next several years, my driver’s license photo showed me with bright red ears.

Bolinas photographer Ilka Hartmann this Thursday is taking a bus to Hollywood where her son Ole Schell will celebrate his 36th birthday Friday. But that’s not the main reason she’s going.

Ole, who grew up in Bolinas and now lives in New York City, will be on hand for the West Coast premier of his documentary film Picture Me, which he directed along with former girlfriend Sara Ziff.

Ilka Hartmann reads a review of her son’s film in the German periodical Geselleschaft.

Friday’s premier is a very big deal. The documentary has been shown at film festivals in New York, Dubai, Germany, Italy, Spain and Estonia. In New York it won the documentary award at the Jen Arts Film Festival; in Milan, it won the audience award and the best fashion film award.

The film is being shown in theaters (or soon will be) in France, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand, and it is about to be aired on television in England.

Sara (left) as a runway model is seen in the film wearing the gauzy gowns, tiny bikinis, and dramatically cut dresses of the world’s top fashion designers.

Fashion modeling can be a glamorous, highly paid career for a lucky few, but even for them it can have a dark side, the film reveals.

Along with company-store-type debt to modeling agencies and sexual abuse by photographers, there is widespread cocaine use to fight fatigue. Even models who are grown women are pressured by the fashion industry to have figures as skinny and androgynous as an adolescent girl’s. Bulimia is all too common.

Sara got into fashion modeling at 14 when a photographer stopped her as she was walking home from school in New York. That led to assignments all over the world. She appeared in magazine ads, on billboards, and on designer runways. Not long ago, Ilka told me this week, she herself had seen a picture of Sara on a billboard South of Market. She was wearing a black leather jacket in an ad for The Gap.

Ole attended the film school at New York University and met Sara while in New York. After they became a couple, she agreed to let him follow her around with a video camera, shooting her world of glamour, high pay, and grinding exhaustion.

The film is highly nuanced. We watch an almost bláse Sara receiving $80,000 and $111,000 checks for her assignments, as well as a choked-up Sara admitting she has found herself in situations so compromising she can’t tell her parents about them.

Because Sara’s parents are also in the film, Ole’s access to her private world is striking. Nor is Sara alone in revealing for the documentary some of the abuse she has experienced as a model.

Ole and Sara as pictured in the Geselleschaft article. The headline translates from German as, “Food for the photographers.”

A model name Sena Cech tells Ole, “I’ve been modeling two years, working really hard.” Nonetheless, she adds, “I am in huge debt on my credit cards because I’ve been paying for my own food, clothes, and travel.

“I’m still in debt to all of my agencies. They fly you over [to Europe], so that goes on your debt. When you first get here, they hire you a driver [and] get you an apartment, so that goes on your debt. They have to make copies of your [model’s] book, so that goes on your debt. They send out the copies, so that goes on your debt. They have to pick their noses, so that goes on your debt.”

Nor is the agencies’ exploitation of its models merely financial.

“I think it is really common that the photographer would try to sexually take advantage of the model,” Sena (left) says and describes what happened to her.

“I had one [casting] experience with a very well-known photographer, who’s well known for being sexual.

“He’s very famous and a big deal. My agent’s going, ‘Go meet this guy, and whatever you do, make a great impression on him.’

“They started taking pictures. Then, ‘Oh, baby, can you do something a little sexy? Can you take off your clothes?’ I took off my clothes. I had no problem with that. I have no problem with being naked.

Then the photographer starts getting naked. I’m going, This is getting weird. Why is the photographer getting naked? Nobody’s going to take pictures of him.

“But then his assistant starts taking pictures of him naked and then goes, ‘Sena, can you grab the photographer’s cock and twist it real hard? He likes it when you squeeze it real hard and twist it.'”

As she tells the story, Sena looks more and more disgusted and finally blurts out, “This is so gross! I did it, but later I didn’t feel good about it. I didn’t feel good telling my boyfriend about it. I didn’t feel things went the way they should have.” All the same, she adds with a grimace, “I did get the job.”

And that’s the conundrum Ole’s film so deftly shows. The models know they’re being exploited in several ways, are being required to work inhuman hours, and can become so fatigued they have trouble staying awake while on the runway. But the chance to earn large amounts of money is also alluring, and in the case of Sara, the money eventually allows her to attend Columbia University and make a downpayment on a home.

When it comes to who is doing most of the exploiting, the models blame their agencies, lecherous photographers, and clothing designers who think their dresses will be more appealing to other women if the models resemble anorexic waifs.

In the 1980s and 90s, the models were usually grown women, the movie notes, but now girls as young as 14, 15, and 16 are often seen on runways far from home. These girls are easily replaceable and are typically the most vulnerable to abuse.

Picture Me is a brilliant documentary. It has many things to say, and it lets the models themselves say them. The dialogue is mostly conversational in tone. There is no screaming, no ranting. Some of what we see is sad, but some of it is humorous. It’s the nuances that give this film its power.

Besides Inverness in West Marin (which, of course, takes its name from Inverness, Scotland), there are communities named Inverness in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Montana, Florida, and Illinois, all of them named by immigrants from Scotland or their descendants.

In addition, there was once a settlement in Georgia named Inverness, but during the early 1700s, it was renamed Darien in memory of an ill-fated Scottish colonial scheme in Panama. And therein lies a story.

Some years ago I began reading the London-based Economist magazine each week for my main source of international news. Politically, The Economist is libertarian, but it is not an advocate of unbridled capitalism.

In any case, I read it for its back-of-the-magazine reviews of books and the arts, along with its commentary on cultural trends, more than for its political coverage.

In the Aug. 28 issue, I happened upon a review of Caledonia, the principal drama at this past summer’s Edinburgh (Scotland) Festival, and it made me realize how little I knew about Scottish history. The review was so intriguing I set out to see what else I ought to know.

Scotland was an independent kingdom from 843 when it was unified to 1707 when it became part of the Kingdom of Great Britain, and during the 1600s, it had far more imperialistic ambitions in the Americas than I’d imagined.

Scotland tried unsuccessfully to establish colonies in Nova Scotia, East New Jersey, and South Carolina, but the worst disaster occurred in Central America.

In the late 1690s, the Scots attempted to establish the colony of New Caledonia on the Isthmus of Panama. Here’s what happened. A series of crop failures had caused Scotland to look for an overseas source of income.

Enter financier William Paterson with a scheme for establishing a colony at Darien in Panama. It would be a way to facilitate trade with the Far East and with European colonies on the west coast of the Americas.

Despite no one really knowing how all this could be done, the Company of Scotland was chartered in 1695 to raise money to finance the scheme.

The site of Darien is shown just to the left of the word “Darien” in the “Gulf of Darien” on the right side of this map from 1699.

The company’s first expedition to Panama in 1698, however, ended in disaster. About 1,200 colonists sailed for Panama, but because of disease and starvation, only about 300 survived. Of the five ships that had made the crossing, only one was able to return to Scotland the following year.

Unfortunately, a second expedition had unwittingly set sail before the remnants of the first arrived home. The second group tried to rebuild what the first group had abandoned, as well as complete a fort for defense against the Spanish.

And the Spanish did indeed attack. The Scots were briefly able to hold them off but were ultimately forced to surrender. By then, most of the colonists who had joined the expedition had died of dysentery or other diseases. Only a few hundred (out of about 1,300) made it back to Scotland.

The economic effect of these failures devastated Scotland. Citizens from all levels of Scottish society had invested in the Darien scheme, and estimates of their combined losses range from a fifth to nearly a half of all the wealth of Scotland at that time. Many Scots were left indebted and impoverished.

Desperate to recover — in large part by sharing in England’s international trade — the Scots agreed to the 1707 Acts of Union, which created Great Britain as a political union of England and Scotland.

Clearly Darien was a “Scottish tragedy,” The Economist notes in its review of the drama Caledonia at the Edinburgh Festival. Unfortunately, the magazine adds, the drama was performed as “burlesque….

Caledonia, which promises to tell the stories of the nameless and the blameless, quickly eases its way into parody. This is history as vaudeville.

“The cast keeps breaking into song — Riches from riches, Piled upon riches, To the end of the world — though there are too few voices to make anything other than the thinnest lyrical impression.”

“King William minces about in a wig in an entirely unsuitable way for this most stern and Protestant of monarchs; the members of Parliament have their noses in a trough and waggle their rumps.”

King William (right) was referred to both as King William III of England and King William II of Scotland.

“The Bernie Madoff of the drama is William Paterson, a visionary of world trade in a gold frock-coat. Darting about, he seems everywhere at once, though that may be less to do with charisma and more with his airy-fairy character. The nameless and the blameless make a quick shuffle off the stage.”

Items such as this are what make The Economist such a good read, as far as I’m concerned. In a short review of a semi-obscure drama, the magazine prompted this US citizen to learn about a bizarre chapter in Scottish history that led to creation of the country of Great Britain.

If you followed news of the three-month-long Gulf Oil Spill earlier this year, you know how distressing it was to see the victims. Well, it was almost as sticky at my cabin for 12 months before Terry Gray of Inverness Park and I finally capped another gusher one week ago.

For the past year, visitors to my cabin had arrived badly in need of a cleanup, their hands having become sticky from grasping the railing at the top of my front steps. Even the raccoons that show up each night at my kitchen door sometimes appeared to have sticky paws.

A tub of tree sealer sits where sap was dripping onto the railing of my steps.

A year ago, tree trimmers had cut off a pine limb which overhung my roof, and that had caused sap to drip from the wound onto the deck, railing, and steps below. After trying unsuccessfully to cap the leak by myself, I asked Terry for help.

Having concluded a girdle of cloth wouldn’t work because the sap would merely flow over it, I had already tried creating a collar using the inner tube from a wheelbarrow tire. Unfortunately, the bark of Monterey pines is striped with cracks, and sap flowing down those cracks went right past my rubber collar.

A new approach was needed. Before Terry showed up, I bought a caulking knife and a tub of tree-wound sealing compound at Building Supply Center.

It was Terry’s job to climb up on my roof two stories off the ground and slather the black goop all over the stub of the cut-off limb.

But within hours of his doing this, the wound was again dripping sap on my deck and railing.

So I asked Terry to come back and try again, for I had another idea.

This time he used a pocket knife to cut a shallow groove in the dry outer bark in order to divert the flow of sap away from the deck and railing.

The idea sort of worked but not totally.

Some sap continued to land where visitors would step on it and get it on their hands.

So Terry came back for a third try.

By now we were beginning to feel like BP struggling against the forces of nature.

Terry decided to lengthen the groove and build up its outer edge with sealer, which hardens within a few hours. At first, this approach seemed to work, but by morning the railing was again sticky with sap.

On Terry’s fourth try, he raised the edge of the groove even more  but decided what was really needed was a wooden shelf to catch whatever sap overflowed the groove.

When Terry came back for a fifth time, he cut a shelf with one side shaped to fit around part of the trunk.

The shelf, which was attached to the trunk with wood screws, looked like it might be the perfect answer. But it wasn’t. The dripping became worse than ever because of sap oozing from the screw holes.

After cursing his shelf idea, Terry on his six try removed it, smeared tree sealer over the screw holes, and further built up the edge of the diversion groove.

He also smeared sealer on another wound where a very small limb had been cut off the tree.

It too, we now realized, was responsible for an occasional drip.

Terry headed for home fearing that the abandoned shelf’s screw holes would plague us for some time to come and assuring me he’d be back in a day or so to work on the damage.

But there wasn’t any. “You stopped the dripping ,” I told Terry when I got him on the phone. “Congratulations!”

Terry was naturally pleased but remained a bit dubious given all we’d been through. However, a week has now gone by without a drop of sap falling on the deck, railing, or steps below.

Today Terry climbed back up on the roof to check the stub of the sawed-off limb and apply more tree sealer. The leak has indeed been capped, he reported when he climbed back down.

Our persistence had been rewarded, and Terry hadn’t fallen off the roof. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! I chortled in my joy.