Friday’s column today

IT doesn’t much matter whether you’re going to vote for him or not. The nomination this week of an African American as a major party presidential candidate marks an indelible moment in American history. Forty-five years to the day from the Washington rally during which Martin Luther King dreamed a dream in a phrase and changed the world through the passion of its delivery, the dream came true.

It’s not likely and it sure ain’t easy, but in the richest and most powerful nation on Earth, Barack Obama, a person of color with a poor and immigrant background, can have a serious shot at the highest office in the land.

That’s pretty cool, and that’s enough of that for now: We’ll see how those chances play out over the next two months. No matter what, for the political junkies among us, it’s going to be the trip as much as the destination. After all, the now essentially forgotten — to our kids’ generation, at least — Geraldine Ferraro made history in 1984 as the first woman with a chance at the vice presidency. Didn’t work out so well.
An objective Vegas bettor would put his bucks down on the rich white guy. . . .

Feeble-brained as I am, I had failed to realize until the other day the real reason the Obama staffers (mostly the ill-tempered and inexperienced Bill Richardson staffers, actually) so wanted me given the boot from that recent fund-raising breakfast at which the New Mexico governor spoke: It was a blogger who wasn’t supposed to be at a San Francisco gathering who broke the Obama quote: “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment …”

Just because huge chunks of that sentiment are true doesn’t mean that it’s the kind of thing a campaign deems ready for prime time.

The problem with the Richardson staffers who took me to the woodshed was that, once they had uncovered the spy with the notebook, they betrayed their cause by failing to count 10.

Had Richardson said anything remotely off-message? He had not. Was a local editor going to have anything to report but charming stories from the campaign trail? He would not. If they had thought that through and restrained their natural control-freak urges, they would have seen that one size does not fit all when it comes to slapping around the press. They could have faked some smiles and waved me goodbye and had nothing but happy talk in the next day’s paper. These young staffers are smart — but they’re not quite smart enough.

Driving with a friend who is an Obama supporter and listening to the radio live from the DNC in Denver Wednesday night, with very much even the NPR reporters and analysts playing the contrarian role that is our duty, he moaned, “Why is the press always so negative?”

It’s in our nature. It comes with not wanting to be spun. The best politicians and their staffers know that, know that once they’ve hooked us, there’s a time to reel in, and a time to let the fish run.

The high country

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It’s been a few years since I did a real backpacking trip into the Sierras. So we set a lofty goal last winter of finally scaling the lower 48’s highest peak, but failed to win the Mt. Whitney lottery, which is the only way to get a permit to go there.

Just as well. No golden trout on the mountaintop.

Instead, last Friday my daughter Julia, brother-in-law Mike, niece Michelle and nephew Drew and I drove up Highway 395, stopped at the ranger station in Lone Pine, and got a wilderness permit to head up into the high country above the Onion Valley. You turn left from Independence and go from 4,000 feet elevation to 9,2000 at the trailhead parking lot very quickly indeed.

We shouldered the packs and in just over two hours had ascended another thousand feet on switchbacks and arrived at pretty Gilbert Lake. It was getting late — after 7 p.m. — so we had to camp there rather than at shadier Flower Lake if we were going to get the tents up and make some freeze-dried grub on our camp stoves.

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I caught a pan-sized golden trout as an hors d’oeuvre.

Nice spot. Ten million stars. Amazing how quickly you can get into the real Sierra there in the John Muir Wilderness. Along with peeling across a waist-high right at Malibu, it is the most California experience you can have.

Saturday we took day hikes around the lake and up to Flower and Heart. Read while sitting on big rocks. One guy on the trail said he’d seen a bear, but we didn’t — just chipmunks. Overnight, everything has to go into the black plastic canister, though. One more trout from Flower, a sip of scotch and so to bed. Coldest just before the dawn, and there was a bit of frost on the ground at first light.

Took just an hour to get back down to the lot Sunday morning. We’ll return, and go a little farther.

Under the banner of sister wives

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Pasadena-born author David Ebershoff came back to town last week for a standing-room-only Vroman’s reading and signing of his new “The 19th Wife,” a fictional retelling of the life of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th bride of Mormon patriarch Brigham Young.

It’s a rolicking good read, as readers of my recent review know.

Afterwards old friends of his, including former Polytechnic classmates, decamped to have some drinks and eats at his family home on Bradford Street. It’s next door to the former home of the great Pasadena novelist Harriet Doerr. David’s father Dave told me as we stood out in his backyard about the time Harriet called up to say that 500 starlings had flown down her chimney and wrecked her house. “I panicked!” she said. “I should have just thought to close the door and keep them in one room!”

David Ebershoff modeled Greta, a character in his first novel, “The Danish Girl,” on a young Harriet on her Grand Tour of Europe early in the 20th century.

At Vroman’s, Ebershoff told the crowd of how he researched “The 19th Wife” by taking a drive down to the polygamist community of Colorado City in southern Utah. He went into a supermarket hoping to find some “sister wives” — polygamist mothers of many — who would talk to him. It’s against their fundamentalist religion to talk to outsiders, and they wouldn’t. “Everything’s sold in bulk,” Ebershoff noted about the market. A local cop followed him everywhere he drove among the 15,000-square-foot compounds where the husbands keep their massive families. Most boys are dumped on the highway out of town when they become teens in order to keep them from competing with their dads and uncles for young girls’ affections.

Gov. Bill Richardson breakfasts in South Pasadena

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If the chilaquiles were not so spicy as in his home state of New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson was not heard to complain Thursday morning. The former Clinton administration UN ambassador held court in the gardens of Carolyn and Craig Watson’s South Pasadena home at a Barack Obama campaign fund-raiser organized by the Watsons and the estimable Lena Kennedy, chief Obama Mama in our region.

That’s Craig pictured above with Richardson. Craig noted that his Methodist minister grandfather led the crusade to recall corrupt Los Angeles Mayor Frank Shaw in 1935 from the very same entry hall in which we were sitting, so that the grand place has a long history of playing host to politics.

Dozens of local Obama supporters were on hand, including Brenda and Bill Galloway, Roberta Martinez, Barbara Cole, Rick Cole, Kitty and Ralph McKnight, Michele Zack, John Kennedy.

Press were not welcome, as members of the Obama campaign made known to me politely and members of Richardson’s staff made known to me most annoyingly and without introducing themselves. When they took me to the woodshed for the crime of taking notes I had to ask them to close the garden door as their rude loud voices were disturbing the folks inside. (The governor himself didn’t mind my being there. He introduced himself to me, I told him who and what I was, and we chatted about our mutual Pasadena and New Mexico roots. It was much later that the staffers saw me scribbling. One of them wanted to “confiscate” my notes.)

But I don’t think they’ll mind me paraphrasing the governor’s anecdote about being born in Pasadena’s Huntington Hospital: His father, an Army man who was born in Nicaragua, always wanted his son to be born in the States. So they came here, and he was. After Richardson announced he was running for president at a Los Angeles event a couple of years ago, he met some executives from the Huntington. “We’d love to have you here for a fund-raiser, governor!” he was told. “Great — for my campaign!” “No — for the hospital!”

A sea change for Pasadena City Manager Beck

Michael Beck was introduced to Pasadena as its new city manager an hour ago in a short City Hall meet-and-greet.

Unlike 17 years ago, the last time an outsider — Phil Hawkey — was selected to lead the troops here, the City Council and staff did a brilliant job of circling the wagons and keeping the selection process air tight over the last eight months since Cynthia Kurtz retired.

All that is known, and this unofficially, is that there was a second finalist from among the 118 who applied, that she is a woman, perhaps from Arizona, and that there were some issues surrounding the Pasadena council’s inability to talk to her current council after she filed a sexual-harrasment suit and they were not best pleased with her.

Beck, currently assistant city manager in Riverside, is a longtime Inland Empirer, taking a bachelor’s degree and MBA at UC Riverside and then serving as director of economic development for the university. He lives in Claremont, where the fact that he’s got five kids and four are still in school will keep him domiciled — and facing a lousy commute both ways — for the foreseeable future.

Claremont — where Hawkey, now executive vice president of the University of La Verne, lives. Beck says he doesn’t know Hawkey, and has only recently — presumably to suss out whether he should really take this job — talked to him on the phone.

Affable, cool but not distant, at ease in his first glare of the spotlight here — those are first impressions from the press conference.

Since questions about his commitment to preservation were some of the only criticisms that have come up since his name was first made known, the fact that the city’s leading preserationist, Claire Bogaard, was sitting in the front row for the announcement was of symbolic importance. And Claire told me that she immediately checked with her sources in the city about Beck once she heard his name, and that to a person, including a current staffer with the National Trust, they were very high on Beck.

Councilwoman Margaret McAustin, one of the council’s so-called Riverside Caucus — the three who made site visits to the city — went even farther, saying that everyone she talked to there who had worked with Beck, in City Hall and in the business community, “loved” the man.

Clearly the council sought to avoid the circus that surrounded the Hawkey selection, when a short list of three finalists was made known. Two of them were African-American men, one a Bay Area city administrator, another a county administrator from North Carolina. When a divided council selected Hawkey, who is white, he was put in an untenable position through no fault of his own.

Though the council’s vote was announced publicly as unanimous, it was being said afterward that at least two of the eight preferred initially at least the woman candidate.

But the call has been made. Welcome on Pasadena, Michael Beck. There are many similarities between the cities — old for California, born in the citrus era when they were standalone meccas but now surrounded by suburbs, ethnically diverse, seats of great centers of learning. And there are many differences — nowhere in the world will you find a more active — crabby, even — public anxious for your ear than in the Crown City. It won’t be anything like the wild ride of the Hawkey years. That was a different Pasadena, and a very different council, which couldn’t keep its lips sealed about anything at all. But it will certainly be a ride …

The book of Mormon

It’s hard to find my review today of Pasadena novelist David Ebershoff’s new book, “The 19th Wife,” online, so I’ll post it here. (We’re working out some technical problems to better get our feature stories on the Web site.) Ebershoff will be returning to his hometown next Thursday, Aug. 14 for a 6:30 p.m. reading and signing at Vroman’s. Here’s my take on “Wife,” his best and most ambitious novel, one very much worth your time whether you are as a rule a reader of high literary fiction, of big fat pageturners, or have an interest in the Mormons and the West:

Novelists occasionally nail a precise historical moment through genuine prescience – William Gibson conceptualizing (and coining the term) cyberspace in his “Neuromancer” of 1984, say – or by simply being in touch with the zeitgeist, as first-novelist Janelle Brown is right now with her “All We Wanted Was Everything,” about a family wrecked by Silicon Valley nouveau-riche angst.

And sometimes they hit it by sheer luck, which is surely what David Ebershoff (“The Danish Girl,” “Pasadena”) has done with his gorgeously written, deeply imagined “The 19th Wife.” Tackling its parallel stories of the very real Ann Eliza Young, 19th (officially acknowledged) wife of Mormon patriarch Brigham Young, and a murder mystery within a polygamous contemporary Mormon breakaway cult in southern Utah, was the work of many years.

Even with the industry insights Pasadena native Ebershoff has as a longtime Random House editor and former publishing director of the Modern Library, he couldn’t have seen coming this summer’s headlines about allegations of incest and child abuse on a massive scale in a polygamous Texas Mormon offshoot.

That these ongoing news stories and last week’s New York Times Magazine cover story will help sell his third novel is simply kismet. But the good timing that comes through our current fascination with wacked-out, supposedly God-legitimized multiple marriage has little to do with the reasons to read “The 19th Wife.”

Perhaps the overarching reason to seek it out, one that will keep it being read for generations, is that it’s a book written with a genuine ambition to be a contender for The Great American Novel – and you don’t much see that kind of Marquezian reach. If jazz is the only truly original American art form, Ebershoff sees that Mormonism is the only homegrown religion that has succeeded on a massive scale. Alone among fiction writers not of Mormon background themselves, he sees the myriad storytelling possibilities that flow from this grand native myth of upstate New York farmer Joseph Smith finding golden tablets buried in his fields telling of a lost tribe of Israel that ended up in the Americas and of the need for believers to create a new Zion here.

But the reach for greatness on that scale is not precisely why we pick up a novel to read ourselves. Otherwise, we’d make more of an effort to finally open the more obscure Faulkner tomes that remain uncracked on our shelves. While the things that make “The 19th Wife” work certainly include its massive ambition, along with the rich storytelling possibities that come when women and children are caught up in the perversity of polygamy, that’s not all that will keep you enthralled here.

First, it’s the extraordinarily endearing voice of Ann Eliza herself, our first-person guide through the vagaries of Mormonism, the debilitating trek west to Utah from Missouri and how she ended up as both the Prophet’s “final wife” and then his undying enemy. The historical Ann Eliza published her own book, “Wife No. 19, Being a complete expose of Mormonism, and revealing the sorrows, sacrifices and sufferings of women in polygamy” in 1876 after her divorce from Young. She also went on a national lecture tour on “plural marriage and its woes” that led to her testifying before Congress, a change in federal laws overseeing the Utah territory legal system and ultimately the theological repudiation of marrying more than one wife by the later leaders of the Latter-Day Saints.

That voice is both of its times and somehow rather magically written so as to sound entirely not archaic – perhaps it’s her early feminist passion that makes Ann Eliza’s ongoing conversation with the reader sound so contemporary.

There are actually many other narrators for Ebershoff’s historical story – Brigham Young himself, other church leaders, purported newspaper stories from the time, court documents, Ann Eliza’s son many years later in correspondence, a fictional current-day BYU student writing a women’s study thesis. If knowing that makes the notion of reading “The 19th Wife” sound anything like tedious or some kind of uncomfortable meta-fiction marathon, it’s not. In fact it all crystal clear and goes down quite easily. I can’t help but think that for someone who in his day job was Norman Mailer’s last editor, perhaps there was a vow made to keep his own prose resolutely uncranky and straightforward.

The separate – except that it is entirely wrapped up in the issue of 21st century American polygamy – contemporary story that is folded into the narrative could have been a quite fine short novel in itself. It touches on several familiar Ebershoff themes and places — including growing up gay, and Pasadena, where the narrator who has escaped a polygamous communal upbringing in Utah lives. And everytime we come back to young Jordan Scott’s story of trying to prove that his mother did not kill his father even though he fully suspects that she did, and with good reason, it’s a wonderful tonic respite for our sometimes intensive learning about Mormonism in the 19th century.

Jordan’s father is killed as he’s engaged in a late-night online flirtation/card game: “After my dad was shot the blood seeped across his t-shirt in a heavy stain … When I was a kid I used to dream he was a cowboy. I would imagine him out in the barn saddling his roan with the white socks, readying himself for a ride of justice. But my dad never rode anywhere for justice. He was a religious con man, a higher-up in a church of lies, the kind of schemer who goes around saying God meant for man to have many women and children and that they shall be judged on how they obey.”

Jordan’s accused mom is also wife No. 19. The way her and her family’s lives – along with those of others who rebel at their peril against the men who use the color of religious authority to play a vast sexual field — bounce up against the historical bravery of the original 19th wife propels Ebershoff’s novel compellingly forward through the boundless complexities that come when an already unusual faith is knocked from any higher plane by prophets who feel empowered to create a theological rubric for their lust.

The Hatfields and the McCains

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At my mother’s family’s annual O’Brien reunion last week in the Palo Duro Canyon of the Panhandle of Texas, friendly fire broke out between supporters of the two presidential candidates.

First the young people of our cabin papered the front door with the above Obama propaganda.

Then Uncle Johnny O’Brien’s cabin turned into McCain HQ. John, 91, was once a Nixon delegate to the national GOP convention, after all.

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Others such as my cousin Emily O’Brien, pictured below with her daughter Exie, came back with Another O’Brien for O’Bama necklaces.

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It was declared a draw.

And it won’t be the big O’B himself, but it turns out possible vice-presidential material Bill Richardson will be back in his old hometown soon:


Good-news gorillas

Rarely is there good news on the endangered-species front. It’s all gloom and doom all the time, just like climate-change news: The critters are always dying off faster than we thought. The icebergs are always melting at double the previous rate.

Until today. It’s probably all over the place, but I heard the report on NPR while I was getting dressed for work: There are 125,000 lowland gorillas cavorting about that humans had no idea were there. They live in a swampy place that is hard to pitch a tent in and no one has ever bothered looking for them there. Here’s a link to a short video that shows how glorious is the life of an extant gorilla.

Of course, now that we know they’re there, they’re in real trouble. Unless we decide to do something to protect the happy swamp forever.