Saturday, May 16, 2015

What's Missing From HBO's "Bessie"

I've been eagerly anticipating the performance of Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith on HBO, which premiered tonight. It's brave, it's well acted, it's a good story. It just isn't Bessie's.

My first thought, having seen the trailer to the "Entourage" movie as the intro to "Bessie," was, "Why are women never allowed to have fun on film, only men?"

Bessie Smith was by all accounts I've read a bon vivant, bright light and huge talent who enjoyed reefers with her gin. Why then, does the film version of her life focus on any negative, real or imagined, it can muster? According to more reputable sources, for example, her terrible relationship with her sister in the film is nothing like the one in real life. The Queen really belts it in "Bessie," and I wish there had been more music and less so-called plot. It's interesting however that the good man in her life turns out to be her bootlegger (one wonders if he was also her pot dealer).

Latifah grabs a cigarette in a bar in the film (only to have the purveyor beaten by her rotten first husband), but otherwise there's no smoking in it, just drinking. The only time being "high, and drunk" (to distinguish the two) is mentioned is when she's having her child taken away from her (a situation that continues until today).

I waited for "Gimmie a Pigfoot," Smith's signature song; in the last verse she sang, "Gimmie a Reefer." But instead, the HBO version introduces the song just after Smith is stabbed, and shows her giving the intro, but not singing the song. You have to wait until just about the final second of the film over the credits to hear the word, in a version that sounds like Smith's own but is over sweetened with orchestration.

In real life, Bessie died in a car accident in 1937, the year marijuana was effectively made illegal in the US. It was alleged that she was turned away from a "Whites Only" hospital for treatment. Considering how the US government hounded Billie Holiday to death, it's not unimaginable that Smith was another victim of the War on Negroes and Others Who Use Drugs (Especially Those of Color, or Uppity Women).

Read more about the real Bessie Smith.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Joyce Carol Oates Pens "High"

It's a good day when I pick up a book in a bookstore and find that one of my favorite authors has written a short story about marijuana.

The 2013 anthology titled The Marijuana Chronicles (edited by Jonathan Santlofer and published by Akashic Books) contains a story simply titled "High" by none other than Joyce Carol Oates. 

"High" is a story about an elderly widow named Agnes who takes to smoking pot after her husband dies:

Self-medicating you might call it.
Though she hated the weakness implied in such a term -- medicating! 
She wasn't desperate. She wasn't a careless, reckless or stupid woman. If she had a weakness it was being suffused with hope....
She thought, I will get high now. It will save me. 

A niece teaches Agnes to smoke, and asks: 

Hey, Auntie Agnes! How're you feelin'?
She said she was feeling a little strange. She said it was like wine—except different. She didn't feel drunk....
She was feeling warm, a suffusion of warmth in the region of her heart. She was laughing now, and coughing. Tears stung her eyes. Yet she was not sad. These were tears of happiness not sadness. She felt—expansive? elated? excited? Like walking across a narrow plank over an abyss. 

Smoking marijuana seems to help Agnes move past the pain of her husband's death, and her suicidal thoughts of joining him. It gives her courage, she says, to open a new chapter of her life (or so it seems at the story's end) by looking up a former writing student—a black man who was in prison when she taught him—partly because she thinks he may be able to supply her with pot.

Oates became interested in reading at an early age and remembers a gift of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as "the great treasure of my childhood, and the most profound literary influence of my life." (She probably wondered what the caterpillar was smoking.)

She has published over 40 novels, as well as a number of plays and novellas, and many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. Her novel them about inner city Detroit won the 1970 National Book Award for Fiction. Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart also deals with themes of racial tension.

A recipient of the National Humanities Medal, Oates retired last year at the age of 74 after teaching creative writing at Princeton for 35 years. Recently, she spoke at CalTech, along with her neuroscientist husband Charlie Gross.

In January 2014, after admitted former pot smoker David Brooks wrote an elitist oped about marijuana, @JoyceCarolOates tweeted, "Marijuana as 'controlled substance' allows continual police harassment/ arrests of persons of color thus reinforces US apartheid legally."

Other writers in The Marijuana Chronicles include  Linda Yablonsky, Maggie Estep, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Amanda Stern, Jan Heller Levi and Rachel Shteir. Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher novels who recently came "out" as a pot smoker, is also included.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Queen of Sheba's Spices: Was Cannabis One?

17th-century AD painting of the Queen of Sheba from a church in Lalibela,
Ethiopia and now in
the National Museum of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
The biblical Queen of Sheba, who also appears (unnamed) in the Quran and is claimed by the Ethiopians as theirs, famously brought gold and spices to King Solomon, circa 950 BC. But what exactly did she bring and where was she from?

Two ancient Yemeni peoples, the Mineans and the Sabaeans, were involved in the lucrative spice trade. Some archaeologists think the Queen of Sheba was a Sabaean from the Semitic civilization of Saba (1200 BC–275 AD) in Southern Arabia, now Yemen.

The inscription on a wooden sarcophagus of 264 BC from Egypt now in the Cairo Museum shows it contained the body of Zayd’il bin Zayd, a Minaean trader who “imported myrrh and calamus for the temples of the gods of Egypt.” Researcher Sula Benet argues that in the earliest Greek translations of the Old Testament, "kan" was rendered as "reed," leading to the erroneous translation as "calamus" for "cannabis."

Modern scholars still cannot pinpoint the origin or species of many ancient spices—for example, cinnamon—and they find it strange that myrrh is not among the names of incense inscribed on South Arabian incense burners. Ldn from these artifacts is translated as ladanum, and Qlm identifies with calamus, also known as scented reed, which Pliny described as having "a specially fine scent which attracts people even from a long way off,” according to Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen (St. John Simpson, ed.).

In the oldest Sabaean inscriptions originating from the oasis of Marib, five deities are invoked, the most important being Athar, “behind whose name one recognizes the Babylonian Ishtar.” Athar was associated with the morning star (as was Ishtar). “The Sumerian herb called Sim.Ishara’, ‘aromatic of the Goddess Ishtar,’ is equated with the Akkadian qunnabu, ‘cannabis.'” (Erica Reiner, 1995, quoted by Chris Bennett in Entheogens and the Development of Culture, John Rush ed.)

Islamic legends of the Queen of Sheba (known as Bilqis) have a strange plot in which Solomon polishes the palace floor so that he can see the Queen’s legs, which were reputed to be the legs of a donkey. First-century AD author Josephus Flavius calls the Queen Nikaule or Nikaulis in his Jewish Antiquities.

This is one of the nicknames the Greeks gave to Empusa, the female demon famous for having the legs of a donkey mentioned in Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs. Some think The Frogs focuses on the exiled general Alcibiades, who stole the sacrament kykeon from the temple of the grain goddess Demeter, and started partying with it at orgies at his home. The play brings in the sybaritic Dionysus as the new god of Eleusis, dethroning Demeter.

The Testament of Solomon, a Judaeo-Christian work dated between the first and third centuries AD, mentions Empusa under the name Onoskelis, which also means “donkey-legged woman.” The Testament, supposed to be the writings of the legendary King himself, says that he and Onoskelis were quite close and that she took an active part in the construction of the temple of Jerusalem by producing hempen ropes.

The Queen of Sheba, from a 15th-century manuscript
now at 
Staats - und Universit├Ątsbibliothek Gottingen
This role is similar to that of the ancient Egyptian goddess Seshat, who was associated with the female Pharaoh Hathshepsut (1508–1458 BC) and “stretched the cord” made of hemp in temple-building rituals. In ancient Egyptian, Sheba means "star" or "seven," a number associated with Seshat, “She of the Seven Points” who has a seven-pointed leaf in her headdress. Wikipedia says: "In Egypt, beginning in the 18th dynasty, a Semitic goddess named Qudshu ('Holiness') begins to appear prominently, equated with the native Egyptian goddess Hathor. Some think this is Athirat/Ashratu [Asherah/Ishtar] under her Ugaritic name." Hathshepsut was from the 18th dynasty.

Solomon’s temple was dedicated "for the burning of the incense of sweet spices before him" (2 Chronicles 2:4). He built a temple to Asherah, which was later torn down by Josiah, as described in Kings 23:13.

Flavius identifies Sheba as "the woman who ruled Egypt and Ethiopia." Some think her name Nikaulis is derived from the Egyptian goddess Neith by way of Hathshepsut, and that The Queen of Sheba was Hathsepsut herself or one of her descendants. Sheba’s Ethiopian name is Makeda and was derived from Hathsehpsut’s throne name, Ma’at-Ka-Re, honoring the goddess Ma’at, the Queen of Heaven, a moniker for Asherah or Ishtar.

UPDATE 10/15: I was informed by a DJ in Jamaica that the Rastas sing about the Queen of Sheba bringing ganja to King Solomon.

She is included in the book Tokin' Women: A 4000-Year Herstory.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Grace and Frankie Take a Trip

UPDATE 10/15: Both Tomlin and Fonda are included in the new book Tokin' Women: A 4000-Year Herstory

Tokin Women Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, who intelligently addressed pot smoking as a means of empowering women in 9-5, have teamed up again for the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, along with Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman. In it, Tomlin and Fonda play 70-something women whose husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) suddenly announce they're in love and want to marry each other.

The first episode was a revelation. Tomlin's character Frankie, after attempting to squash her heartbreak with junk food, alcohol and cigarettes, instead finds some peyote buttons in her freezer and begins a vision quest. As the clip shown on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon reveals, Fonda's uptight character Grace accidentally joins in the experience and is told, "Brace yourself for some light vomiting, followed by life-altering hallucinations."

Mary Kay Place, who smoked pot with William Hurt in The Big Chill, appears in Episode 2, wherein Grace opens Frankie's freezer and says, "Oh, a bag of pot. She's going to be just fine."

In Episode 4, Christine Lahti guests, and the exchange is:
Grace: “All your clothes reek of pot.”
Frankie: “Because I wear hemp and not dead snakes on my feet.”

Next, in Episode 5, Frankie is shown rolling a joint and then smoking it with Grace's daughter Brianna. "How did you survive her?" Frankie asks, meaning Grace. "This helped," is the reply (meaning the marijuana). Grace confronts her fears about the "drugs" that Frankie prefers.

All 13 episodes of Grace and Frankie are now available for binge-watching on Netflix.

Also see: 
Grace & Frankie: Seniors Who Smoke (Cannabis Now review) 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Carly Fiorina: We Don't Need Your Stinkin' Tax Dollars

UPDATE: Fiorina has now said, "Drug addiction should not be criminalized" and has come out for states' right to legalize.

Carly Fioria has announced she’ll seek the Republicans nomination for President in 2016.

Named Fortune magazine’s “Most Powerful Woman in Business” in 1998, Fiorina took the helm of HP but failed to produce promised profits and was forced to resign. With a huge influx of her own cash, Fiorina won the Republican primary for Senate in California in 2010, challenging Senator Barbara Boxer (who recently co-sponsored the federal CARERS Act to legalize medical marijuana at the federal level just after announcing she will retire).

During her Senate race, Fiorina said the she opposed Prop. 19, which would have legalized adult use of marijuana in California, because “sending billions of dollars in new tax revenues to Sacramento is exactly the problem…because Sacramento—and Washington, DC—have a spending problem and will continue to spend the money we send them.”

Fiorina recently told Slate magazine she isn’t even for medical marijuana: “I remember when I had cancer and my doctor said, ‘Do you have any interest in medicinal marijuana?’ I did not,” she told Slate. “And they said, good, because marijuana today is such a complex compound, we don’t really know what’s in it, we don’t really know how it interacts with other substances or other medicines.”

Fiorina's announcement video (they have those now) took aim at Hillary, her opposing queen on the fast-filling chessboard. Also announcing today was Dr. Ben Carson, a neuroscientist not near as hot as Carl Hart who still quaintly believes in the gateway effect; expected in by the end of the week is Clinton nemesis and fellow Arkansas homeboy Mike Huckabee.

Fiorina may have been brought in to dilute any progressive shift on Hillary by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who co-sponsored the States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act and voted against mandatory drug testing. His entry into the race prompted President Obama to joke that we could have another “pot-smoking socialist” in the White House.

Hillary is being pressured to go progressive on other issues. Her speech on racial disparities in our criminal justice system, where she said, “It's time to end the era of mass incarceration. We need a true national debate about how to reduce our prison population while keeping our communities safe,” was a welcome surprise to many and showed some of the old Hillary stuff.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Liz Mair and Marijuana

Rising (and sometimes falling) Republican strategist Liz Mair had expressed some interesting opinions about the War on Drugs on the April 24 edition of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher.

The Libertarian-minded Mair wasn't so surprised at the blockbuster news that nearly every examiner in the FBI Laboratory's microscopic hair comparison unit gave flawed testimony over more than a two-decade period, including 32 death-penalty cases. Acknowledging it was "obviously a horrible situation," Mair added, "It's the government. We don't instinctively trust them with a great deal."

Responding to Maher's statement that the US, with 4% of the world's population, incarcerates 22% of the prisoners worldwide, Mair noted that we've locked up "a bunch of people who have put there for doing very minimal nonviolent things. You look at pot convictions....This is what makes people feel that we're going a good job of being tough tough on crime because they look at the numbers, but it's not substantiated in any way, shape or form."

Conservative Weekly Standard columnist Christopher Caldwell then opined that the War on Drugs had brought down the murder rate, to which Maher responded, "If you want to cut the murder rate, end the War on Drugs." Mair agreed, "at least in Mexico."

If Mair, a former online strategist for Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina, is an augur of things to come for the Republican party, liberals might find some GOP allies on ending the War on Drugs. But what else will we have to swallow: privatized police forces or prosecutors?

Meanwhile, 35 Congressional Republicans joined California Libertarian and former Reagan speechwriter Dana Rohrabacher in voting to allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana. Sadly, the amendment failed by only 3 votes as 8 Democrats voted against it, including Joe Kennedy III, whose cousin Patrick (a former Ambien addict) is banging the anti-marijuana drum with his group SAM.