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Kern River Colonial

I’ve been watching the Paul Giamatti John Adams mini series of late – a fine show if you can get past the emphasis on accurately portraying the barbaric medical practices of the time. Open-wound smallpox cures, bloodletting and anesthesia-free surgery quickly lose novelty in a post-dinner environment. It does help illustrate the collective colonial fortitude necessary to get a new country off the ground. We’d never make it past the Boston Massacre today, soft lot that we are, using prostate examinations and swine flu vaccinations as legitimate reason to avoid doctors. What would John Adams think? The production also places emphasis on the poor dental hygiene of the era, and pronounced absence of teeth-whitening. Giamatti pulls the look off admirably – much better than, say, George Clooney might have. His street cred as a former baseball commissioner’s son lends itself to the role of a Founding Father, and pulchritudinous attributes aside, the guy can act. Still, there are close-ups toward the end of the series that validate the decision to cast him in place of Sean Penn for the part of Larry Fine in the upcoming Three Stooges movie.

Adams, as portrayed by Giamatti, is a flawed man of considerable achievement whose determination and energy are matched only by his lack of people-skills. Nowhere is this more evident than in his relationship with his sons, whom he sees as having every advantage in life and needing only to continue on the path he’s carved. They all suffer as result, whether abiding his wishes or not. Colleagues and in-laws are also subjected to his my way or the highway approach, and one mildly-disgraced son in law resolves to “head west” where he’s identified some “prospects.” Things beyond the Appalachians were sketchier then, and prospects didn’t include a gig on the back lot at Universal Studios.

I was thinking about this idea of “heading west” watching the show. Perhaps not so coincidentally, I’ve also been listening to two solo albums by Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin – West of West and King of California. Alvin covers the Kate Wolf song Here In California on the first collection, and the lyrics include the admonition: “there’s no gold, I thought I’d warn you / and the hills turn brown in the summertime.” I have a friend who moved to California from Boston and she remarked on how this death-brown summertime hue bothered her at first – perhaps because it was contrary to every mythically regenerative promise of western migration. Over time her appreciation broadened, and she came to see the expanse of golden brown hills punctuated by dark oak patches as intensely beautiful. I’m still waiting for similar revelation to take hold regarding the gentle waft of voluminous curbside trash amid stifling August heat in New York City. It’s a process and hardship is relative, as any colonial settler or Donner Party traveler might tell you. What’s more remarkable is that this innate instinct to move remains intact for so many- whether fleeing British taxation, narcississtic John Adams parenting, or just the nagging sensation that if you stand still you’ll die. However you cut it, it all catches up with you in the end anyway.

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