I traveled a thousand miles north to Wyoming this summer, but mardecortesbaja contributor Paul Zahl (see The Zahl File) and his wife Mary ranged even further afield, leading a religious-themed tour to Russia.  (Mary and Paul are personable folks, and Dr. Zahl is a widely respected scholar of religion, so they're much in demand for such tours.)  Paul was kind enough to send some reports of his adventures, of which this is the first:


by Paul Zahl

In the movie Russian Ark there is a scene in which an
aristocratic French visitor to The Hermitage Museum at St. Petersburg
lectures a young Russian of the early Nineteenth Century concerning a
painting by El Greco
(above.)  So moved is the Marquis by this painting that he
kneels in adoration before it.  He explains to the young Russian that
the picture bears the image of the founders of Christianity, St. Peter
and St. Paul.  The scene in
Russian Ark is moving and

Last month, my wife and I took a group to see the very
painting in person.  It is in a room full of El Grecos, but it stands
out for its warmth and the humility of one of the figures.  The picture
also tells a story familiar to many: the tension between humility and
grace, represented by El Greco's depiction of St. Peter; and doctrine
and the authority of  the truth, represented by St. Paul. 

The picture was painted by El Greco between 1587 and 1592.  St.
Peter is on the left, an old and humbled man of soft features and
tenderness.  You could approach him and tell him almost anything about
yourself.  He is somewhat sad, sympathetic, and modest.  The observer
has to look very carefully to notice that Peter is carrying the key to
the kingdom in his left hand. But that is in shadow, almost obscured.

St. Paul, on the other hand, while not arrogant, is a person
possessed of his Idea.  With his left hand, his left fore-knuckle
actually, he directs our attention to the Word, the Bible before him.
 With his right hand, Paul reasons.  His features are ascetic,
convinced, sincere, a little detached from persons, but
possessed of
his Idea.

El Greco observes these two great men — I thought of
Rossellini's television movie entitled
The Acts of the Apostles (above),
which treats the same men in somewhat the same way — as two sides of
one thing, the Christian faith.  There is even a kind of yellow barrier
between them in the painting, emphasizing their difference.

My wife immediately noticed the doctrinal character of the St.
Paul, his cerebral, reasoning attitude.  It is unmistakable.  He is
reasoning with the viewer, on the basis of a written text.  St. Peter,
on the other hand, is 'reasoning' with us on the basis of a shattered
wisdom, what Dostoevsky called the 'strongest instrument, the humility
of humbled love'.  (I know it is pretentious to quote Dostoevsky, but
his words are apt just the same.)  

There are few visitors today to this painting by El Greco who do
not identify with Peter at the expense of Paul.

But wait, There's something else:

A week later, Mary and I were in the National Gallery of
Stockholm, and there it was (good God!) — the same painting, by the same
artist, in a room also full of El Grecos.  But it was different.  The
painting had the same subject, composed the same way, with the same
colors, but something was . . . well,  wildly different.

Something had happened to St. Paul.  He had lost weight, his
features were pinched, and his hair . . . it was a mess.  It was uncombed — what little there was of it was all
over the place.

What came to my mind was the episode of Thriller,
the old Boris Karloff television series, entitled “The Cheaters”.  At
the end of the episode, a selfish man begins to see himself, through
cursed spectacles, as he really is.  The makeup artist, Jack Barron,
first shows the man losing his hair and looking himself but bewildered.
 Then we see the man grinning diabolically, with hideous scars on his
face and just a few tufts of hair.  Finally, we see the man become a
sort of demon from hell, to which he is soon dragged by the very devil
himself.  Fun little episode for schoolboys on a Monday night at nine
way back then.

The comparison seems right, however.  What has happened to St.
Paul?  His convinced, convicted authority in the Hermitage
version has become transformed into a sort of 'wild man',
'I-just-came-out-of-the-forest-with-Robinson-Crusoe' persona.  The
Apostle has entered the Twilight Zone but hasn't come back.  Or he is
like the character in a Stephen King story, who is awakened too soon
from a forty-billion-mile journey to a distant planet.  Everything's
right but everything's wrong.

I have looked up the Stockholm version of “St. Peter and St.
Paul” and found nothing on this weird difference.  I can't believe it
has gone unnoticed.  But it is disturbing.

A final thought on El Greco's two St. Pauls.  The kind of
doctrinal Christianity embodied by the Hermitage Paul, text-weighted
and cerebral, is superannuated.  You see it today and you run.  The
painter seems to have understood this instinctively.  His later St.
Paul has sort of gone crazy.  “Grandfather, we need to get you to the
hospital.”  This Paul is not Diogenes, an old man of self-contained
de-constructing wisdom.  He is a street-crazy — maybe inspired, like the
homeless man in
Ordet, who has faith enough to raise the dead,
but you wouldn't take your child to him for a blessing.

Or, maybe he
is “The Howling Man”, of The Twilight Zone (above), who is in fact no longer
benign at all.

I don't know which of these two possibilities is the Stockholm
St. Paul.  But if the Stockholm Paul is the confessional Protestant of the two,
St. Peter is looking pretty good by comparison.  And wasn't Senator Kennedy a good
advertisement for
that side of the enterprise?

[Editor's Note: Paul has elaborated Mary's insight about the portrait of St. Paul into a very provocative meditation.  St. Paul wrote some of the greatest and most radical spiritual treatises of
all time, and they were a cry from the heart against law as a spiritual tool — but what he wrote was still theology, and all theology seems to have a
tendency to decompose into law, to be parsed for “rules” which can be
used to oppress instead of bless.  A spooky thought occurred to me while reading Paul Zahl's piece — maybe the Stockholm portrait of St. Paul was once an exact copy of the
one in the Hermitage and has decomposed over time, like the portrait of
Dorian Gray, reflecting the historical misuse of St. Paul's letters.  The
Twilight Zone, indeed!]


On our second night at the ranch, Elaine and John provided an awesome catered dinner at their house for the assembled multitudes.  (The assembling hadn't finished yet, either — there were more family members and local friends still to come.)  Afterwards, the musicians set up in the big living room for some equally awesome entertainment.  David Horgan got his pedal-steel going, adding immeasurably to the ensemble.

                                                                                                                                  [Photo by Eli Dokson]

Cotty, with crucial technical assistance from his daughter Corinne and John's son Will, had managed to mike the guys in order to record the proceedings on GarageBand, so I can share one of the performances with you:


This is J. B.'s new country waltz, played earlier at the hootenanny in Jackson and tailor-made for a pedal-steel accompaniment.  The lads join in sweetly with back-up vocals.  This is music that sounds like music, made by real people in a real place.  In this day and age, you can forget what that sounds like.


The crowd of friends assembled from around the nation to celebrate John's birthday was completed with the arrival of David Horgan, from Missoula, Montana.  Of all the musicians who met up and started playing with each other at Stanford, only David has made music his career, becoming in the process a world-class guitarist.  (He dashed off from the Wyoming gathering for a gig with Huey Lewis.)

David plays in a couple of bands in Missoula, including a salsa group and his flagship emsemble, The Big Sky Mudflaps.  He specializes in country swing, and brought his pedal-steel guitar to Wyoming, adding ethereal licks to the group's numbers.  The Mudflaps have recorded several CDs, which you can find here . . . and here's a link to a CD by Salsa Loca, the Latin band David plays in.  Reviewers tend to agree that it's ¡muy caliente!


On our third day at the ranch we were joined by two new characters.  One of them, Deane Evans — shown above in a portrait by Hugh McCarten, standing boldly against the Western sky — has been mentioned before on this site.  Like John, Deane is an architect but he has specialized in academic and consulting work, being one of the country's leading experts on sustainable building construction.  My impression is that people listen to him respectfully then continue erecting energy-inefficient buildings, because that's what builders do.  Quick up-front profits, leading to long-term disaster, is the cornerstone of America's corporate culture — the “Me Money Now” philosophy, or “Swiss Bank Account School Of Economic Planning”, which recently brought the world to the brink of financial Armageddon.

Deane visits Las Vegas regularly for conferences, so we get to laugh about all this over beers often.  I've known Deane since we were 14, when we laughed about other things, with no beer.  The beer definitely helps.


I must interrupt my series of scintillating posts on adventures in Wyoming for an alert — David Zahl, over at the ever-intriguing Mockingbird Blog, recently published an interview he did with Whit Stillman, the elusive director of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days Of Disco, which has just come out on DVD in an extras-laden Criterion edition.

Check out the interview here.

I loved Metropolitan, but only loved parts of Stillman's two subsequent films — I think it may be time to give them a second look, because Stillman is such an eccentric and interesting artist.

Stillman is no longer willing to work within the conventional industry precincts, even the conventional independent precincts, or what's left of them — which suggest to me that he may be one of the directors who will help lead us out of the current cinematic wilderness.

The new rules for filmmakers should be:

Never work on anything that's been done better before.

Never work on anything that isn't meant to change people's lives.

Never work on anything that won't leave some kind of mark on the history of cinema.

The Era of Regurgitation in movies should be declared officially over.


                                                                   [Photo by Hugh McCarten]

Our second day at the ranch was marked by the arrival of John's wife Elaine, who'd been back East visiting family when the revelers started rolling into town.  She and John share a birthday, but John's 60th was a milestone, and Elaine worked overtime to make it remarkable — first by letting such a crowd of John's mostly disreputable friends into her home and then by engineering two incredible evenings of great food, music and hilarity, about which more later.

That second day also provided the spiritual high-point of the gathering for me — a horseback ride into the hills above the ranch houses.  I rode a horse for the first time at this ranch, back in the early Seventies, and it was was one of the great moments of my life.  I felt instantly at home on the back of a horse, as though riding was something I'd grown up doing, and ever since then, time in the saddle has been precious to me.

                                                                                                                              [Photo by Eli Dokson]

But none of that time can compare to riding up into the hills of this ranch.  The view of its valley grows more and more awe-inspiring — then you find yourself crossing streams in high meadows, passing through aspen and pine groves, arriving finally at Gus's cabin, which once belonged to a homesteader on the property, a place to pause and rest the horses and grab a bite to eat, perhaps, before heading back.

I was holding a young mare by its halter rope while John saddled up horses for us — John told me to just let her go if she got nervous, but when she got nervous and started backing up I instinctively held on tighter.  She bolted suddenly and the halter rope whipped though my fingers like hot iron.  It took out a chunk of flesh and blistered my whole palm as though I'd held my hand over a fire until it was cooked medium rare.

It hurt like hell until we mounted up, and then I didn't feel the pain at all, until we got back from the ride.

[Photo by Eli Dokson]

Six of us started off.  Corinne, an experienced horsewoman, also has a bad back, and after our first gallop she had to call it quits, she and her dad walking their mounts home.  John, Eli, Hilmar and I continued on.  I hadn't been on a horse since my last visit to the ranch, seven years before, and by the time our nearly four-hour ride was over I felt about half past dead.

But exhilarated.

[Photo by Eli Dokson]

There's a spring with cold, sweet water up by Gus's cabin.  Near there, John's father's ashes were buried.  Otis Carney, who passed away a few years ago, was the guy who first dreamed the dream of this particular ranch, buying up parcels of land around it over the years to keep the area pristine and in the family.  He was always funny and kind and hospitable to the preposterous dudes —
including this one — who showed up to experience “the West” on his ranch.

He's still there, of course — everywhere, now.  At his grave I took off my hat and spoke some words that the poet Yeats had carved on his own tombstone:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

I hope that the Big O, as he used to be called, appreciated the Irish of it, if nothing else.

Yeats's lines make a lot of sense, if you study on them a little.  Life and death on this earth are, you might say, pedestrian concerns, the concerns of people on foot — a horseman has other things to think about, business elsewhere.


John's mom Teddy, or Fred, or Frederika, had us all up to the main house for dinner on our first night at the ranch.  Teddy is in her eighties but tools around the dirt roads of the ranch on a bicycle on a daily basis, miles at a time.  She's the presiding matriarch and muse of the place and doesn't look much different from when I first visited it in the early Seventies.

                                                                                                                     [Photo by Hugh McCarten]

She remembers all the old songs and calls for them by name, and admires them graciously.  This probably has a lot to do with the fact that she raised three extremely talented sons — she's the best audience imaginable for creative endeavors.

Every thirty years or so I get a good idea for a song lyric.  On my last visit to Wyoming in 2002 I wrote a lyric for a song called “Wyoming Lullaby”.  When I got back to California, where I was living at the time, I gave it to J. B. to see if he might have an idea for a melody to go with it.  He did, and wrote a song that he performs regularly with his group The Household Gods in Ojai.

It was a fine thing to bring it back to Wyoming, where it was born, and J. B. sang it at Teddy's house after dinner.  His vocal is sublime in this performance recorded on video by Corinne, perfectly complemented by Eli's sweet guitar break:

“Wyoming Lullaby”

Teddy admired it graciously — a benediction from the original cowboy girl.


Patty Giovenco is Hugh's wife.  She works as a therapist for developmentally challenged kids and is also a mad enthusiast of outdoor sports.  When she took her first trip in a kayak on the Green River last month, dipped her paddle in the stream and shot forward, she raised her hands in joy and shouted, “This is so much fun!”  Hugh shook his head philosophically and said, “Oh, dear . . . a new 'activity'.”

                                                                                                                            [Photo by Hugh McCarten]

Patty flew into Salt Lake City the day we all moved over to the ranch but couldn't get a one-way rental car to come join us, so Hugh drove his rental car down to fetch her.

Hugh was pulled over for speeding on the return trip but they still got back in time for a dinner at the main ranch house prepared for us by John's mom, a report on which follows.


                                                                                               [Photo by Eli Dokson]

Hugh McCarten is another guy, like Cotty, I've known since I was 13.  Along with Deane Evans, a character who's about to join the cast in Wyoming, we were inmates together at a certain all-boys prep school in New England in the Sixties, an experience we are slowly starting to come to terms with.  When I met him, Hugh was already an accomplished musician, who introduced me to jazz and classical music and Broadway show tunes back when other kids were only listening to rock and roll.  He has throughout the years remained a great songwriter, though he makes his living as an editor and reporter for
People magazine.

Here's a YouTube video filmed and posted by Corinne Chubb which documents one of his more recent songs, played in Wyoming last week:

“The Piss-Punka-Hunky”

It's a politically incorrect evocation of this nation's Native American heritage.  It's funny, and heap big funky — we must give that to Hugh — but it's also simply wrong.

In a cast of very odd characters, Hugh sets new standards of eccentricity on an almost hourly basis, though I can give proof of this only on a need-to-know basis.


                                                                       [Photo by Hugh McCarten]

If you've been following this string of posts you have already lived — vicariously, alas! — the by now legendary adventures of J. B. and myself as we confounded the sharks and broke the hearts of the guppies at a large Las Vegas card room, sped through Utah evading wicked Mormons at every turn, all the while spending our ill-gotten gains at the finest fast-food restaurants known to humanity, and arrived finally in breathtaking Wyoming.

                                                                                                                            [Photo by Corinne Chubb]

As I've said, J. B. brought a couple of new songs with him, but here's an old one he sang in Wyoming, in yet another Corinne Chubb video posted on YouTube.

“Mother Night”

This one wowed us back in the day, when J. B. first composed it, and still wows us in our dotage.  It occurs to me that hearing all these old songs, so rich in memories, didn't make me feel young again — it made me feel old, in a good way.  It reminded me of all the twists and turns on the paths that led me to where I am now, and gave me an occasion to kick back and appreciate all of them, the bright ones and the dark ones equally.

It was a kind of blessing.

As James Taylor once sang, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.”  It's quite a wonderful thing, when you think about it.


Above, Cotty Chubb lifts up his eyes unto the hills.  He's been written about before on this site — someone I've known since I was 13 and now a movie producer in Hollywood.  He recently produced a TV movie with a Christmas theme that will be airing just after Thanksgiving this year, The National Tree, which was written by J. B. White (with a little, a very little, help from Lloydville) and based on the novel by David Kranes.  It's tentatively scheduled to premiere on 28 November but check your local TV listings for broadcast times.

Like Hilmar and myself Cotty was one of the non-musicians in the crowd up in Wyoming last month, but he was often found managing the sound system for the gigs these guys used to play back in the day, and he got roped in to the same job at John's birthday gathering.  Plus ça change . . .

I hope to post some of the results in upcoming reports.


As I've mentioned, Corinne is Cotty Chubb's daughter.  She's a college student, majoring in marine biology at UC Santa Barbara.  She's a very logical person and so had some difficulty trying to manage a posse of old, eccentric fogies like John's friends, who tend to throw logic to the winds when gathered together.  Eventually she gave up and settled for laughing at us, adding her own brand of good cheer to the proceedings.

She was also a recording angel, filming the lads' musical performances with her little HD camera and providing expert computer advice to her dad as he set up to record audio on Garage Band.

It is very surreal that Cotty has a 19 year-old daughter — beyond surreal that he has a 19 year-old daughter who now knows all the words to “Brake Fluid Druid”, a song Eli Dokson wrote in the early Seventies.  Here's a video of it she took, on YouTube:

“Brake Fluid Druid”

Circles within circles . . .


Eli Dokson recently retired from his job as a public school superintendent in a small town in Colorado, but to those who first met him in the late Sixties or early Seventies, he will always be a guitar hero, for the great licks he put down as lead guitarist for various groups that formed at Stanford back then.

He's kept his chops up, too, over the years, playing in local bands.  Now that he's retired, he has more time to devote to his weekend gigs, and he's in top form these days.  He was always great at driving, rhythmic breaks on country songs but he's developed, or just discovered, a quieter, lyrical style for slower, jazzier numbers that's really lovely.  He also wrote some great songs back in the day — many of which were played by the Carney Cowboy Band at this gathering — and he played me a recent song he wrote that was very beautiful and very sad.

Here's one of his old classics, played at John Carney's house near Jackson last week — in a video by Corinne Chubb posted on YouTube:

“Family Farm Road”

Eli and his wife run a horse stable in Colorado, so he's a horsebacker, too.  He took a good fall on a ride at the ranch, when his horse stepped in a hole and stumbled — Eli jumped off, tucked and rolled and came up unhurt.  I must report, however, that his boating skills are less developed.  He tends to become excitable in a small boat and hyperactive.  He came close on several occasions to capsizing the rowboat he shared with Hugh and me on a float down the Green River on this trip, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the consternation he was causing us.  When he switched to a single kayak, where no adult supervision was available, he managed to overturn it, immersing himself totally in the frigid stream.

A good guy to ride with, a dangerous guy to row with, and the best musical support on guitar any band could hope for.