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Ruminations on literature, art, politics, music, photography, design (architecture and landscape), wine and spirits &c.

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    Like most people, I think, I have mixed feelings about Ken Burns's documentary projects. At times, he can seem like the fulfillment of the social consciousness of the 1930's, shining a light on the best aspects of America's history, while at other times his work seems tiresomely politically correct and predictable. His early efforts like Brooklyn Bridge [1981], The Shakers [1984], and The Civil War [1990] were better than anything ever done in the video medium on those subjects. Thomas Jefferson [1997] and Jazz [2001] were less successful. The National Parks: America's Best Idea [2009] and Baseball [2010], were better, but Prohibition [2011]gave what to my mind was a partial view of almost every aspect of the subject. Selectivity, of course, is a severe necessity in sifting through the wealth of material, written, filmed, recounted about major historical events, lest one be overwhelmed by information.

    In some ways, the ambitious seven-part The War [2007--about World War II] presented fewer production and editing problems than The Civil War, even though the limitless "theaters" made telling anything like a complete story virtually impossible. One of Burns's narrative concepts is the "personalization" of history through the presentation of individual real life stories, using specificity of character, plight and setting (place) as concrete dramatic actions against the backdrop of huge movements of men and battles. This allowed real participants to narrate their own story--something that was literally impossible with the Civil War, a conflict now so remote from us in time that there are no living witnesses. In TheCivil War, Burns was stuck with readers quoting from letters and diaries, or historians (like Shelby Foote) providing "human interest" anecdotes about notable Confederate generals.

    One aspect of The War that resonated for me was the theme music, "American Anthem," a work originally composed by Gene Scheer in 1998, and performed at several notable national venues, prior to its being picked by Burns for his mini-series. Great music can turn a very good movie (or documentary) into a great one. The canny decision to have it sung by Norah Jones, whose fragile sweet singing style might seem totally unsuited to the piece (at least on an intuitive level), was sheer counter-intuitive genius. "American Anthem" can be sung solo or by chorus, and there's a temptation to treat it as a pedestrian martial performance piece, with stirring or gushing emphasis (as in this alternate approach). But Scheer's piece works more like a soft ballad than a traditional "anthem" for band.

    Jones, by the way, in case you didn't know it, is the daughter of Ravi Shankar, and has built a career with a voice that is a fusion of jazz, pop, and country--a perfect combination of qualities to draw upon, one might think, to interpret a patriotic-cum-elegy ballad.

    Norah Jones

    Our National Anthem has never inspired much admiration as music. Its putative replacement, "America," though musically a more attractive song, is rather soft in its effect. I don't know how many other efforts over the years have been promoted to replace our current official anthem, but Scheer's would certainly work. Listening to Norah's version, it doesn't hurt either, knowing that the singer looks like Scheherazade!

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  • 08/28/12--08:15: Mt. Rushmore on Tuesday

  • I've always been fascinated by Abraham Lincoln's face. The historical figure we know has been the subject of countless dramatizations, elegies, studies and biographies. Had he not been assassinated, it's likely that he would have gone on to produce literary artifacts that would have enlarged our understanding of his character, as well as the motivation behind some of the decisions he made while in office. Lincoln was our only "civil war President": and as such, his prosecution of the conflict always had the additional ambiguity (and remorse) of knowing that the "enemy" were his own countrymen.

    Look at these eyes--

    Lincoln is often seen as having an heroic visage, but it's just as obviously an homely one as well. It's a country face, not a city face. It's a face that's comfortable in farmland, or in the woods, a serious face, but a working face, a face that seems to have seen a great deal. We tend to impute deeper implications than perhaps is justified without our knowledge of his career. What would you think if you met someone with a face like this on the street today? Those huge ears. That great big mole. Those weary, wrinkled cheeks and forehead.

    What do those eyes tell us? Looking at them dispassionately, you might even think they suggested malice, or evil. It's not a face you'd want to face in a debate. A confident, powerful look.

    Do we see in it the reluctant determination to prosecute The War Between the States with all the necessary conviction and even anger we know he expressed when the going was difficult, when men on both sides were dying in unprecedented numbers on the battlefield? Are these eyes which have seen and felt suffering, and long frustration?

    Or are these the eyes of illness, of some endocrinological disorder which brought on excess fatigue or nervous distress? Are these eyes robbed of regular sleep, eyes which have read far into the night (in bad light), or worried and fretted about dilemmas and crises in which there was no better choice?

    The central fact of Lincoln's Presidency was the internecine division of national character, a fragmentation of the kind that is certainly the most harmful and bitter that men experience. Brother against brother, native against native, friend against friend. As President, Lincoln resolved that the best outcome was the preservation of the Union, not simply a peaceful bifurcation. But in order to achieve that, the Union would have to prevail over the South militarily, it would have to defeat it thoroughly. In retrospect, it appears that the Confederacy really had no chance in the long run, to prevail. But in order to bring that end about, the Union would have decisively to conquer the South, with no ambiguity. The South had to be utterly thwarted. This process was probably the most painful period in our national history, one half of the nation laying waste to the other, without remorse, almost without conscience.

    There is a temptation to see or find all this emotional vicissitude inside Lincoln's face, in those dark, sunken, despairing eyes. But this is undoubtedly an overlay of impression upon what was simply a very craggy, "purgatorial," even sadly grotesque face. Lincoln's face is one of the great ghastly faces of all time, like a sort of freak, like the Hunchback or the Phantom or Mr. Hyde or the Elephant Man. He's the magnificent stuff of our heroic common soil raised into dignity and honor through the opportunity afforded by intelligence and democratic institutions.

    It is not a beautiful face, not charming, not happy, not easy. It wears its skepticism and suspicion and resignation loosely, but with interest. Underneath all that seriousness there is curiosity, and a confirming affection. It is patient, but sad. Consternated. Conflicted. Pained. Resolved.

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    Harry Belafonte has held a unique position in American culture for the better part of half a century. Born in Harlem in 1927, his was a special American story, filled with unlikely turns and opportunities, which one imagines could not have happened in any other country, even France, for instance. America's diverse cultural context provided a platform upon which a struggling Negro American performer, of tremendous artistic potential, but few actual credentials--with an almost alarmingly impressive physical beauty, and personal charm--was able to cobble together a career as a "folk" singer-cum-crooner-cum Caribbean Calypso-cum pop musical tenor in the midst of the breakdown of Swing and the birth of cool jazz and vintage rock and roll. The terms of this fostering of talent and possibility are complex and fascinating, but none of it could ever have happened without Harry's powerful character and distinctive and poetic "rough" voice sound.

    I grew up in the 1950's, and no family which had a television in those early days could have missed his appearances in that decade, performing his signature pieces on The Hit Parade and other musical variety revues. In a series of pieces which have by now become canonical, Belafonte bridged the gap between his white audience and his Jamaican roots, dominating the charts over and over. It's easy to understand the seductive attraction of these pieces--

    They were lyrical, comic, touching, romantic and boisterous by turns, or sometimes all in the same song! At bottom, they're novelty tunes, but with a certain ethnic twist. Belafonte has in the decades since deprecated any special qualities in his voice or his art, offering that it was either an operation on his larynx which caused him to sing with his characteristic husky tone, or just an accident of fate that allowed him to capitalize on a musical fad by which his limited gifts could be put to their best use. There is some truth in both assertions, of course. The familiar "call" thrust was wasn't the fluid, caressing sound so popular then in mainstream torch-singing. But Belafonte was nothing less than a pop phenomenon for several years running; and it was the limited nature of the musical tradition within which he flowered, as much as anything, that led to the decline in his career, a fate that befell a number of stars who found themselves trapped within changing styles and tastes during the Forties, Fifties and Sixties.

    Once his career had faded, Belafonte segued gracefully into cameo roles in movies, and, inspired by the example of Paul Robeson, became active in political and social justice causes, lending his name and words whenever racial prejudice reared its ugly head, or civil rights were under threat. Over the last two decades, he has repeatedly spoken his mind about America and its preemptive foreign policies around the world, drawing critical reaction from several quarters.

    But whether or not you believe an African American singer can claim the authority to render judgments on the national or international stage, no matter how long he's been around, or how many causes he's been involved in, one must acknowledge the enormous influence he's had, not just among his African American countrymen, but among traditional liberal white constituencies. But he could never have had that kind of impact without having left the indelible impression on our wider culture he made through his magnificent singing. Those old chestnuts probably sound pretty corny to young ears in these days of crude hip-hop and fusion-y hybrids. Are they the residue of the caribbean slave culture, or early pop classic examples of later jerky reggae styles? They're not angry, or nasty, or druggy, or too loud, or too vague. They're simple and direct and broadly singing.

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  • 09/07/12--11:06: Monopoly & Capitalism

  • Several years ago, I had the occasion to meet Ralph Anspach, the inventor of Anti-Monopoly@. We were putting our house on the market, and Anspach and his wife ambled in one Sunday afternoon, more out of curiosity than any interest in buying. Our house was located in a notorious "slide zone" on a hillside, and it turned out that Anspach had also purchased a house, some years earlier, in a similar "zone" and was curious to learn how other homeowners might have dealt with their situation. Anspach was a creative tinkerer, and he'd invented a foundation adjustment system that allowed him to level his house periodically, which avoided the myriad problems associated with unequal settling (which causes havoc with the typical perimeter foundation construction paradigm). Anspach was a retired economics professor, and he'd developed his Anti-Monopoly@ game as a kind of protest against the brand of American entrepreneurial capitalism embodied in the original Monopoly. To make a long story short, we ended up not selling our house, but tearing it down and building a new house in its place, designed by Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977) co-authors Murray Silverstein and Max Jacobson. But that happened about a decade later.

    When I was growing up, in the 1950's, board games were very popular. In the pre-television age, families and friends tended to engage in common or social activities more. My stepfather Harry Faville became obsessed with the card-game Bridge, and spent most nights during my late childhood and adolescence (when he wasn't actually playing in tournaments) studying how to improve his game, dealing himself game hands and calculating moves and odds. He was more married to Bridge than he was to my mother, and less of a father to me as well. In consequence, I came to hate card games. I was never much interested in games of chance, anyway . . . that is until I discovered the Stock Market--but that's a different story, for another day and another blog. But as I say, board games were popular then, and we played a number of them: Chess, Checkers, Parcheesi, Chinese Checkers, etc. Puzzles were popular too. We spent many weekend afternoons sitting around the kitchen table, absorbed in these diversions. I'm not sure people do that much anymore. Television and the internet are probably the sedentary distractions of choice. Kids don't seem to exercise much anymore, either, judging by all the fatties you see. I think, on balance, I spent at least 30% of every waking hour as a boy playing sports or running around. I played so much I was too skinny, no matter how much I ate (and food wasn't of much interest to me, either, until I was well into late middle-age).

    But Monopoly was almost universally familiar to Americans in the post-WWII era. Everyone played it, or had played it, and some people became obsessed with it. There are accounts of serious students of the game who poured as much energy and thought into it as others did into Chess, or High Stakes Poker. Me?--I wasn't nearly so excited by it, but like everyone else who played hard enough to compete, I could tell the rules and the situation the game portrayed were an expression of the economic real-world that prevailed outside the confines of our modest lower-middle class neighborhood--or at least the world as it may have existed before World War II.

    The history of the development of the game we commonly know as Monopoly is an interesting one. And the struggles over copyright are a symptom of how popular (and profitable as a marketable commodity) the game became over the last half of the 20th Century. The game itself, in other words, became as much an expression of the value of marketing and product development, as the game was an exercise in the development of real estate and/or financial investment instruments.

    Monopoly was marketed as a game to be played for about an hour at a time, but of course very serious players may extend a match to several hours or days, depending upon how many strategic kinds of loans and leveraged transactions are used to keep insolvency from the door.

    What are the implications of a game designed to mimic various kinds of capitalistic investment schemes, compared to the real world of land development and concentration of power?

    Monopoly is a combination of chance and opportunity. Serious players rarely pass up a chance to acquire a property, since the possibility of monopolizing a string of properties on the same block, with the option to build, or at the least (as with the classic Tic-Tac-Toe) the intention of blocking someone else from achieving a monopoly on that street (color), is irresistible. Since the dice don't behave according to any skill or strategy on the part of a player, the element of chance prevents the game from becoming a pure matching of skill and/or aggressive determination (as with Chess). No matter how good a player you may get to be, the dice may still advantage an opponent and thwart your best-laid plans. This indeterminacy is like a metaphor for the unpredictability and the undercurrent of shifting opportunities which occurs in the real world. In the real world of real estate deals and changing situations, no one can have complete control over the odds, though the greater your financial weight (or influence), the better your chances will be. Money can make its own kind of luck.

    Each game of Monopoly typically ends in the capitulation of a bankrupt player, which occurs when one player "lands" on a highly developed property, and, overburdened with the consequent debt, runs out of money. The kinds of stopgap escapes possible to a canny competitor are not unlimited, but may be used to stave off total collapse, as long as other players will permit the use of increasingly elegant financial instruments. "Creative finance" may involve "landlords" lending to "tenants" (or debtors), for instance, but the vast majority of played games don't get into those complexities. Highly leveraged finance is like a too-sophisticated refinement of what is basically a straightforward process meant to achieve a state of monopolistic climax within a fairly fixed number of iterations (or moves). Some players, as with Chess, will play a series of games rapidly, both as a challenge to their ingenuity, and as a way of settling outcomes (as in a best of five, or a best of seven games). For any ordinary player, one game is probably more than enough trading to satisfy their urge.

    What are the implications of comparing a capitalistic enterprise game with the real world of competing capital entities? Monopoly is designed to "end" after a reasonably short period of time (a single game); but in the real world, people can't cash out their imaginary winnings (or losses) and retire to a safer world. When Monopoly was first invented, it was certainly much easier for enterprising capitalists to manipulate and wheel and deal properties right and left, to maximize opportunities. To a large extent, real estate isn't nearly the sphere of easy fortunes it once was. Small fry can buy up distressed blocks of housing or commercially zoned properties, but there are a lot of regulations and ordinances and tax laws nowadays, which makes "efficient" development more difficult. You need good lawyers and accountants on retainer, just to keep your rear end safe. Smart money today is going overseas, where corruption and graft and "favors" still govern how deals are made.

    Monopoly's attractions (for me) have always included its wonderful visual simplicity, the toy-like representations of railroads, utilities, the cartoon illustrations on the Chance and Community Chest cards. The fat little capitalist with the big white mustache is conjured right out of the Wall Street of the 1920's, that carefree era that ended in disaster. In what sense, come to think of it, is a stock market crash--or, more relevantly, the real estate collapse which we're still in the midst of--rather like the climax of a Monopoly game? Mr. Ponzi, who invented the scheme which bears his name, would probably have seen the real estate monopoly model as very close to financial investment schemes. The problem with real estate is that it has a physical reality which is difficult to hide. But of course there are many ways to hide one's control or ownership of something, that's probably the least of a crook's challenges.

    There's something touching about the small amounts of cash represented in the classic Monopoly game. What would the mortgage value be on even a modestly sized casino on a major street on the Jersey shore today? Probably in the millions. Perhaps the easiest way to re-conceive that difference is to multiply every value in the game by a thousand, or perhaps even by five thousand. That would get us closer to the real numbers of our comparatively "inflated" times today.

    You can still find promoters and front-men today offering to turn your modest retirement account(s) into fortunes. Mostly, though, what they'll offer is a weekend seminar at a third-rate hotel conference center, where they will teach you the "secrets" of making it big in the real estate market. Then there's always someone telling you that gold is about to take off.

    On our block, during the real estate boom, several properties changed hands over and over again, until the last one got caught holding the bag (so to speak). A bag-full of money, perhaps, that was now worth only a fraction of what it had been before the currency bounced. They're still nice houses, of course, but they're "under water." For the losers, there's always the risk of that sinking feeling. The next throw of the dice may put you in dutch. I'm rounding the third turn and heading for home, but my opponent has two hotels on Boardwalk.

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    The days of postage stamps may be numbered. From what I hear around the U.S. Postal Offices, stamps may soon become obsolete, ending a nearly two century love affair we have had with these lovely little adhesive wafers. The first postage stamp was used in 1840--the one penny black with Queen Victoria's profile portrait.

    As a boy, I took up stamp collecting with some enthusiasm. I got a big black world stamp album for my 8th birthday, and began assiduously to fill it up. I had two companies sending me little envelopes of stamps "on approval" each month, and I remember being frustrated, month after month, that I couldn't afford to keep more of the selections offered. Even at a few cents an envelope, the cost mounted up fast. A few little packets could cost up to $5-15, and for a paperboy whose monthly income total amounted to little more than $25--most of which went right into my college savings account--I was usually right on the edge of my budget.

    The "stamp" world resembled the real world only tangentially. The world of the National Geographic, or of Boy's Life, or of U.S. News & World Report, or (later) The New Yorker--all of which I subscribed to, as I was growing up--presented a different picture. Some countries, like Monaco or Vatican City, printed stamps principally for collectors, and they were usually more valuable if they had actually been used to send a letter, than they were in their unused "mint" condition. "Commemorative" or special issues were also made for collecting. Stamps have always featured engraved imagery, instead of photographic pictures. Originally, it was the only practical way to make a stamp that couldn't easily be counterfeited; but it's still the way most stamps are printed, I think. I suppose it might even be possible to make fair copies of stamps nowadays, with computer printers, though I doubt anyone would go to much trouble for the small amounts of postage that still apply to letters. Parcels are heavier, but I don't think you can simply put stamps on packages and drop them in a post-box. You still have to visit the post office and pass them through a teller.

    I was always fascinated by stamps that had interesting images. One of the best was the one showing a blimp, or rigid airship. The famous U.S. Postal Stamps featuring the German ship the Graf Zeppelin in 1930 were designed to commemorate the visit of that craft to the United States, and were only good for mail carried by the dirigible. These craft had already become obsolete, for practical purposes, by the beginning of the 'Thirties. Passenger fares were exorbitant--in the case of the 1930 trip, individual tickets went for $9000 a piece (or $126,000 in today's dollars). Perhaps a little like going up in a space station today!

    In 1933, the U.S. Postal Service issued another Graf Zeppelin stamp, this time showing the starting and ending destinations--the Chicago Federal Building on the left, and the Friedrichshaven on the right, with the words "A CENTURY OF PROGRESS FLIGHT" across the top.

    Just four years later, the Hindenburg passenger airship would crash in Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, which effectively brought the airship era to a close. Blimps, of course have continued to be maintained and flown, mostly for advertising and public relations purposes, in the decades since.

    The cause of the ship's demise has never been conclusively demonstrated, but the highly flammable gas (hydrogen), and the flammable skin of the body of the craft, both made fire a highly likely event, given any kind of ignition, man-made or naturally occurring.

    The Hindenburg disaster was one of the first great media events of the modern age, with its newsreel film and Herbert Morrison's hysterical voice-over as the event unfolded in front of his eyes. Though only 36 people total lost their lives, it was as if an atom bomb had exploded in New York City, given the coverage and attention it garnered. It showed how candid moving picture photography could not just record history dramatically, but could evoke powerful reactions.

    The dramatic conflagration against the black early evening sky filled people's imaginations. The intersection of technologies--manned flight inside a big cigar shaped machine--and the rapid dissemination of the live images by way of recordation and image and sound reproduction--created a crucial, unforgettable moment in history.

    The scale of the event seemed overwhelming. The tiny dark stick-figures watching from the ground of the air field are dwarfed by the immensity of the crumbling superstructure, the collapsing curved rectangular girders, melting like plastic.

    Obviously, there was never a postage stamp designed to commemorate this air disaster. But there have been postal "errors" which are like a metaphor for the fallibility of human ingenuity. The famous so-called "Inverted Jenny" is probably the most prized object in American philately (the study and collecting of postage stamps). The error occurred as a result of the printing process having required two separate runs through the press, a procedure notoriously prone to error. Individual frames in good condition now go for about a million dollars apiece on the auction block.

    The desirability of this error stamp is due in part to its scarcity--as very few were printed and even fewer, of course, survive--and also, I'd wager, because it depicts an early design of aircraft. Postal air service was a very novel thing in 1918, when the U.S. Postal Service initiated service, at this astoundingly high rate! The plane pictured is a Curtiss Jenny, a bi-plane of the kind initially used to carry the new air-mail. It is believed that only a single whole sheet (of 100 stamps) escaped into use. This sheet was bought, whole, by stamp collector W.T. Robey, who sold it for $15,000, after fending off the postal authorities, who wanted to buy it back and remove it from circulation. Eventually, the sheet was partially broken up, and the resulting singles and blocks of four (and one of eight) went on to be traded over the years, always rising in value.

    Postage stamps are fascinating objects. Earlier, on October 18, 2009, I wrote a blog about the artist Donald Evans, who created imaginary stamps as works of art. The stamps are designed and painted at scale, the difficulty of which may well be imagined. His work also involved the invention of imaginary countries and events, a metaphor, to my mind, of how in childhood we create private universes or worlds, into which we escape. Private aesthetic worlds are of course akin to the generic narrative formulae we're all familiar with: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, Westerns, Horror, and lately the worlds of Comix and Graphic Novels.

    Once upon a time, manned flight was just strange and amazing enough to seize people's imaginations that having a postage stamp with an aeroplane on it was like using a hand-held communication device for the first time. A little like a magic trick from the future. Airplanes and blimps and postage stamps--someday they'll all take their place beside buggies and bustles and bundling boards. They all have their devotees, their admirers, and their detractors.

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  • 09/20/12--10:24: Harpsichord with Pluck

  • Laurette Goldberg a long time ago

    I couldn't have been more than 15 when I first heard Laurette Goldberg perform. A family friend was managing a little coffee-house on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, across the street from Mel's Cafeteria, called The Florentine. The Florentine was about as hip as you could get in those days, which would have been in the early 1960's. The smart and the sophisticated rubbed shoulders with the young kids playing hooky from the straight world, and on any given evening, you could listen to Laurette Goldberg knocking out some Bach or Scarlatti, squeezed into the back corner of the place, tinkling above the murmur of talk and clinking dishes at the counter. (The Florentine and Mel's are long gone, but the memories of that time live on in my imagination.)

    Laurette Goldberg in middle age

    I was no stranger to this kind of music, having taken up classical music a couple of years earlier, when my little transistor radio had some juice in it (I would lie in bed at night listening through the little earpiece, so I wouldn't disturb my parents--shades of the future!). Later that same week--or was it a few months later?--I got to visit Laurette at her house in Oakland (or was it Berkeley?), to hear her play under more controlled conditions. Laurette was a tiny woman, clearly overweight, but bubbling with energy and enthusiasm for music, for performance, for the harpsichord, and for Bach and Scarlatti and Soler etc. Once, just a few years ago, I met Laurette in front of a residence along upper Marin Avenue in Berkeley, a place that she'd arranged to dedicate to holding musical events. She had lost a lot of weight, and looked a little tired, but she'd lost none of her spirit. I don't think she remembered me, but she did remember my family friend and the good old days at The Florentine.   

    I thought then, back in the 'Sixties, still a high school student, that playing a harpsichord was just the neatest thing I could imagine doing. Later, when I had the opportunity to try playing on one, I discovered its limitations, and the difficulties it presented. In the history of keyboard music, the harpsichord preceded the piano, and composers for it conceived works that exploited (explored) the potentialities of that instrument, not realizing that one day they would be played on a much grander and more elaborate instrument (the piano). Playing (and hearing) pieces from the harpsichord era played on "original instruments" (or built to mimic them) is an especial treat, because you get to experience what that period felt like. 

    We don't know, of course, precisely how they may have played them, because nothing from that period was recorded; and that would be true all the way up to the invention of the phonograph. Electronics had to wait another century and a half to be invented (Bach and Scarlatti both lived roughly during the same period--early 18th century), before we could begin to "save" the performance.

    Elaine Comparone

    While Goldberg was a pioneer of sorts, her way had been blazed by others. Wanda Landowska, for instance, and Ralph Kirkpatrick. Surfing around on YouTube last week, I discovered the harpsichord's new master and sponsor of the instrument, Elaine Comparone. Comparone has by now had a distinguished career as a classical performer, but I didn't know about her until now.  She had a special stand built for her harpsichord, which enables her to perform standing up! This may seem odd. I once read Vladimir Nabokov's account of how he wrote his books: He had a stand-up desk, and he wrote out the outlines of his novels on little 3x5 notecards, which he kept in little shoe-box files, expanding his narrative outward from these fragments and notes. He said he would do this in the morning "until gravity began to nibble at[his]calves," and he'd knock off for lunch, or an excursion to look for interesting butterflies (Nabokov, as everyone knows, was a lepidopterist). Anyway, here's Comparone playing Scarlatti's Sonata in D minor [Kirkpatrick 517] on her stand-up harpsichord, with a double (reverse color) keyboard.  

    Here is a picture of a stand-up keyboard. This is not the one you see her playing in the YouTube video above, but it's very similar.                     

    I don't know quite what it is with the harpsichord, why it's so satisfying. Its sound was obviously derived from senses of the lute, and other stringed instruments, though the player lost the ability to moderate the string-sound, once the strings were put inside the sounding-box behind the keyboard. A harpsichord plucks the strings, as opposed to the piano (or pianoforte or grand piano) where are struck by little hammers. Once a key is depressed on the harpsichord, all the player's control over the sound made is complete. You can't control the intensity or the duration of the vibration, which functions every time in its limited way. Some harpsichords can be "dampened" to create a sound that is almost identical to the medieval lute (hence, the "lute" control-setting on a harpsichord). The harpsichord makes what you might call a "twinkling" sound, delicate and spine-y. But with larger harpsichords, especially, when you play big chords, you can create a considerable "wall" of sound that can be very effective and powerful. Also, playing very rapid series of notes (as with fast runs) you don't have the problem of blurring that can occur with pianos. The individual notes of a harpsichord stay separate and clean, without the "wash" of mixed notes you sometimes get with big romantic keyboard pieces created on the grand (modern) piano. Also, the harpsichord, because of its finer, more subtle sound, is more suited to certain combinations of instruments than the piano is. Concerts nowadays are frequently made out of wholly "period" instruments. The development of musical instruments over time has led to the formal traditions that govern any particular epoch. The big classical orchestra, for instance, was unknown in the time of Bach. By the end of the 19th Century, composers could create big symphonic works for orchestras with over a hundred players, capable imposing gigantic tsunamis of sound. 

    Perhaps it's the antique flavor of the instrument that gives it much of its charm. It seems suitable to a small living room, rather than a huge concert hall. Important concerto works for the harpsichord are fairly uncommon. Two of my favorites are those by Poulenc and de Falla. There's always the question of how much amplification to devote to the harpsichord, against the context of a full set of instruments. One recording of de Falla's which I bought many years ago, probably has a separate microphone right inside the body of the instrument, which makes the harpsichord part sound like it's in an echoing hall. Since that was the first recording of the work I'd ever heard, I've always tended to think in terms of that version, instead of the more balanced ones I heard later. (I think that's a common tendency among listeners.) 

    Here's Comparone playing Couperain's "Les Baricades Misterieuses." And here's her version of Scarlatti's Sonata in C minor [Kirkpatrick 48 L 157].  And here are four more for your delectation. If you don't like the harpsichord, or even if (poor soul) you don't like Scarlatti or Bach, then bully for you. Was there ever an artist more perfectly suited to his medium than Scarlatti? Hard to imagine. 

    Playing a harpsichord is a lot different than playing a piano. The depression is like a click or thump on a harpsichord, whereas on a piano it's like a kind of sponge, with a range of touch. You could even make the case that playing a harpsichord is easier, though when actually performing, there are few harpsichord masters who would be likely to accept that judgment. It's such a noble instrument, with such a distinctive quality. I've always felt that it ennobles one in the listening. Some people don't like to feel uplifted by music. I think, for instance, that a lot jazz is intended to put you into a kind of laid-back trance of decadent languor. Not a bad thing, but not all the time. 

    Handel is another composer who always seems to be trying to raise your moral bar. Ostensibly, he has a religious purpose in doing this, but he also wrote secular pieces of great joy and dignity. Is Handel a composer for the "upper classes"? That could be argued. Pomp and circumstance, and the ultimate refinement money and power may impart. But to feel proud or inspired or enthralled by love of something or someone isn't limited to those with means, though our access to art and the better things of life can literally limit our appreciation of the world. Gratefully, few people today are completely closed-off from the appreciation of music, no matter what kind. Millions of recordings have been made of every kind of music there is. We live inside this richness, but we hardly appreciate it. It's now a commonplace, but once upon a time it was completely non-existent.    

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  • 09/25/12--07:07: Howard Hughes

  • Last month I read a book about Howard Hughes [Hack, Richard. Hughes. The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters. The Definitive Biography of the First American Billionaire. Beverly Hills: New Millennium Press. 2001]. Ordinarily, I don't read biographies of the rich and famous. Vicarious curiosity that the public holds for its fame-encrusted figure-heads I tend to regard with disdain. But I thought it might be diverting to see how a biography could be framed through the use of "memos"--particularly since the shadowy, secluded subject used inter-organizational memos during the last decades of his life to engineer nearly all of the business and personal transactions he conducted. 

    The outward events of Hughes's biography are generally known by now. Hack, the author, gives fairly short shrift to the early years of Hughes's life, preferring to concentrate on the middle and later periods, when his subject's behavior became not just a focus of the most lurid kinds of gossip-columnist speculation, but a matter of national security. Born into a rich family built upon the successful invention by his father of a petroleum well-drilling-bit device, Hughes might have spent the rest of his days basking in the accumulated wealth of the family corporation. 

    An indifferent student in school, he nevertheless showed early on that he had engineering aptitude. Inheriting his Father's fortune at the tender age of 19, he set about at once to exploit his interests and ambitions in the field of experimental aviation, and in the movie production business--both industries then in their infancy.

    Hughes made brilliant innovations in the field of modern aircraft design, in large measure to facilitate his personal ambition to achieve preeminence as a speed-setting pilot--all of course financed through his personal fortune. His management of his movie company was initially at least as successful as his competitors, as he produced a number of very successful films that were considered benchmark successes in their day (i.e., Front Page --1931 [one of my all-time favorites, with Adolph Menjou and Pat O'Brien], Hell's Angels [1930] and Scarface [1932]. 

    It isn't difficult to see how a young rich boy might become overwhelmed by his own good fortune and midas touch, and that's just what happened to Hughes. With each plateau of accomplishment, his ego doubled in size. Along with his ambition, he developed a ruthlessly efficient financial acumen, turning untenable debt into undreamed of profits, selling off assets and investing in new ones with astonishing aplomb. After his first failed marriage, he became a relentless philanderer, sweeping gullible ingenues off their feet with promises of riches, then quickly abandoning them after a quick conquest. 

    As his wealth grew, his influence in the aviation industry grew right along with it. Encouraged by the publicity he gained from his successful world-record-setting prototype racing planes, he parlayed his connections into big contracts with the government during WWII. He was heavily involved in the early development of commercial (passenger) aviation as well (TWA, Hughes Aircraft), and later Hughes Aerospace Group.

    However, as early as the late 1930's, Hughes had begun to exhibit worrisome symptoms of obsessive-compulsive behavior. He would segregate batches of peas, for instance, according to size, agonizing over insignificant details to a maddening degree. During his tenure as the controlling shareholder of RKO studios, for instance, he held up production of his latest Jane Russell potboiler for weeks while he had a different brassier designed for his well-endowed starlet.    


    The special combination of vast wealth, ambition, power, desire and contempt for other people is not unique in history, of course. One could say, without much exaggeration, that Hughes was a later incarnation of the Robber Baron of the Gilded Age in American business, an American version of the enlightened gentry, partly a prince of endowed means, partly a self-made man. What set him apart from the other business-types of that class, such as Ford, Rockefeller, Buffett, Gates, etc., was his derring-do, the lust for adventure (in aviation). Great wealth may make someone cautious, or brashly impulsive--the common thread is an anxiety that one may lose it all, leading to elaborate security measures, checks and balances, and a lack of trust in nearly everyone, leading to a condition of isolation. On the basis of his fame, and wealth, and decisive management style, one might say that he had a strong ego structure, that of a confident loner, selfish and driven to excel. 

    The Hughes H-1 racing airplane partly designed and commissioned by Hughes, with which he set the world land speed record of 352 mph in 1935

    And yet, Hughes was a fragile character. Following a bad plane crash in Los Angeles in 1946, Hughes had a difficult recuperation, suffering from serious internal injuries from which he never fully recovered. During the recuperation period--which doctors at the time thought miraculous--he developed a dependency on pain-killers, particularly codeine, which he continued to use, in increasing amounts via direct muscle injection, for the rest of his life. His physical fragility following these injuries affected his judgment, and led to long periods of psychological withdrawal, during which he ate little and would watch movies over and over again. He developed paranoid obsessions about personal hygiene, diet, secluding himself and communicating with the outside world via a small group of select lieutenants and body-guards.  

    Hughes testifying before a Congressional subcommittee investigating charges regarding his misuse of federal contract money

    In the management of his vast holdings, he became increasingly impulsive and irrational. He bought up franchise chains in Texas, on a whim. He acquired several large hotels and casinos in Las Vegas. Confined to penthouse suites in large hotels, he sat surrounded by boxes of Kleenex, naked, with a towel draped over his lap, writing elaborate memoranda on yellow legal pads which he handed on to aids, detailing his orders and requirements. 

    Though it is unclear what would have caused such extreme paranoia in one with his great freedom and power, irrational insecurity seems to be the cause. Unable to make meaningful connections to other people--lovers, associates, friends--he fell into a state of static immobility, in which the external world of his financial empire became less and less real. The fictional realm of movies--of directed narrative--became more and more important to him, and he came to see his life as a series of moral crises and challenges which he could manipulate from behind the curtain of his isolation, inside an empire of his own design. He seems to have had an inkling of how peculiar his life had become, since he went to some pains to make as few public appearances as possible during the 1950's, and understood the potential embarrassment that his obvious deterioration would cause, were it become widely known. No one seems to know whether this was a style of life that he actually preferred, or one which--as with classically disturbed individuals--he couldn't escape. The dilemma was exacerbated by the fact that given his great power over his subordinates, there was no one to challenge the course of his descent.     

    Leonardo DeCaprio--playing Hughes in the Martin Scorcese movie Aviator--looks a bit like young Cassius Clay  

    Ironically, as the value of his holdings and influence over political events--through secret bribes and pay-offs etc.--grew, his physical presence in the world declined. There's a peculiar passivity about his manipulating vast sums of money and literally changing the economic landscape in certain parts of the world from a position of such pathetic physical vulnerability--a figure who could buy and sell large swaths of whole cities if he chose, needing to be carried from one place to another in a makeshift stretcher, because he'd become too weak and fragile to walk. It's like a fantasist, trapped in a masturbatory swoon, dreaming of majestic feats and harrowing intrepid escapades. Not unlike how people nowadays spend countless hours engaged in computer games, preferring the animated interior world of virtual reality to real life.      

    By the 1960's, he had become so long insulated from reality that it had literally changed around him. And yet he continued to work his will through his trusted business officers, whose consternation and frustration with his increasingly scatterbrained orders led to resignations, as well as schemes to divert some of his wealth from under his nose.       

    The so-called "Spruce Goose" or H-4 Hercules, originally intended to be a transport seaplane to ferry soldiers and materiel across the Atlantic to the European Theater was not completed until after the war, and remains today as an odd obsolete relic.  Oversized, fragile and inefficient, it could never have accomplished the tasks for which it was designed.   

    Nearing the end of his life, he began to move restlessly from one venue to another, around the world, always occupying the penthouse suite of a large hotel, as his body shrank to to a skeleton. As his paranoia got worse, he refused to let anyone even approach him except under the most controlled conditions, leaving many of the important decisions about his empire to a single individual.

    Ernest Hemingway suffered a similar kind of deterioration after his airplane crashes in Africa (and other injuries) in the early 1950's. He began to drink more heavily than ever, and eventually submitted to psychiatric treatments at the Mayo Clinic, including shock treatment and pain killing drugs. The depression which led to his suicide has traditionally been assigned to his frustration at no longer being able to write, but subsequent revelations about his literary production throughout the '50's prove that this was not the case. The continuing pain from his skeletal and internal and head injuries would have turned almost anyone else into a bed-ridden recluse, and yet Hemingway remained active physically and socially to the end. The "suicidal" tendencies may have been the simple result of agonizing pain and a realization that he would never again be able to pursue the sporting life--which had been the primary driver of his imagination--again. Hemingway, suffering from his recent injuries, sent his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize to Stockholm, emphasizing the writer's "lonely" position--the isolation which he seems to have shared with Hughes. 

    Reading over the accumulated memos and notes Hughes wrote during the last decades of his life must have been a sad task. Hack's biography is not very penetrating, but he seems to get all the facts straight, something that--given Hughes's penchant for secrecy and isolation--would have been impossible during his lifetime. I can still remember the famous fake autobiography perpetrated by the author Clifford Irving in 1972, which was eventually exposed as a hoax. Most of the events described in this new biography are well-known now. It's just the strange details and incredible machinations that animate the story.      

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  • 09/26/12--10:11: Mono Mania

  • Mono Lake is a shallow saline soda (alkali) lake in Mono County, California, on the eastern side of the Sierra, about 120 miles due south by southeast from Lake Tahoe. Because it's completely landlocked inside a basin, and had no drainage out, deposits formed from the incoming streams, lending it its strange chemical composition. Due to the interaction between limestone springs under the lake-bed, and the lake's calcium, so-called "tufa towers" were formed over millennia, which were once submerged beneath the lake's surface. When Los Angeles seized the incoming drainages into the lake and diverted them for their use, beginning in 1941, the level of Mono began to fall. By the early '90's, most of the tufa towers had been exposed. Conservationists persuaded Los Angeles to restore the incoming flows beginning in 1994, and the level of the lake has been steadily rising again. 

    Mono Lake was a curiosity and an attraction as early as the mid-19th Century. Indians had been living in the area long before that, but habitation was limited by the dry hot climate and scant vegetation. Mark Twain felt it was the loneliest place on earth, as he described it in Roughing It [1872]. But photographers quickly were moved by its stark contrasts and fascinating shapes. Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and later Brett Weston, were inspired to make powerful photographic compositions out of it. In the decades since, it's become a destination for serious photographers who make the pilgrimage to the Owens Valley area to shoot at Alabama Hills, Bristlecone, and Mono. I went there in the late 1980's with my 8x10, and proceeded to expose dozens of negatives. The one below has probably been duplicated by hundreds of amateurs and professionals alike. Changing cloud patterns can alter the mood of the place hourly. I used the framing device of two shorter towers in the foreground to set off the island of towers in the background. The tufa is white or dull yellow in the sun, and reads as zone 8 or 9 in photographs. The pure blue of the water reads as 3-5. A red filter of course intensifies these differences along the log of the range of light values, darkening the sky, the water, but not the tufa. It can appear moon-like from some places. Shots like this are more interesting in black and white, though color photographs may benefit from the wild-flowers that bloom around the edges of the lake. (Because of the rising water-level in the years since I was there, this picture wouldn't be possible today.)             

    Mono Lake - 16"x20" print on Agfa Portriga paper from 8x10 negative, 1988
    (To see it in larger dimension, click on the image.)

    From the sky, Mono looks barren, almost like another planet. There undoubtedly exist similar kinds of formations on other planets like ours in the limitless depths of the universe, in other solar systems.    

    Brett Weston made many awesome images here over the years. Here are three which, though similar in principle, are each uniquely inspiring.

    The town of Lee Vining lies just at the western edge of Mono, right beside the road exiting out of the eastern side of Yosemite National Park. Visitors coming down out of the Tioga Pass side drop down into the Owens Valley and Mono Basin to the awe-inspiring sight of this big flat round pond. It's a wonder of the world.   

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    The Idyl of the Split Bamboo* is the title of a book on angling devoted to the making of bamboo flyfishing rods--not "poles" if you please! An idyll is, according to the dictionary, a simple descriptive work in poetry or prose that deals with rustic life or pastoral scenes or suggests a mood of peace and contentment. Flyfishing has often been described as a "pleasant pastime," a rather sedentary sport for men to engage in. Fresh water fishing once represented an important source of food, in pre-WWII America, and in many places it still does, to some degree. But that pastime has evolved into a sport, one in which the original intent--the landing or catching of fish as a food harvest--has been largely set aside in the interests of preservation and the pure pleasure of the pursuit.  

    As I've mentioned before on this blog, I was first introduced to the idea of flyfishing by my stepfather Harry Faville. Following a divorce in the mid-1930's, he had embarked on a protracted sojourn across the Northern Plains and Pacific Northwest states, probably in an attempt to wash some of the bitterness out of his soul, or perhaps it was sheer escapism. He fished the head waters of the Missouri, around the Yellowstone, and eventually ended up in Washington State working as a logger while attending writing classes with Dalton Trumbo. Harry would reminisce once in a while about growing up in Wisconsin before the First World War, fishing with a bamboo flyrod. 

    During the 1950's and 1960's, when I was growing up, bamboo flyrods were going out of style, to be replaced by "glass" rods, and later by "Graphite" flyrods--or glass rods augmented by graphite. Glass rods were initially much less difficult to manufacture than bamboo rods, and cost a lot less. They were considered to be the material of the future for fishing rods. People would speak reverently, on occasion, about the qualities of the old wood rods, but the old rod-building companies were slowly, inexorable, seeing their businesses close. By the start of the 1980's, only a handful of small outfits were turning them out, and the prices of their labor-intensive manufacture were rising out of reach of all but the well-to-do or the most committed devotees. 

    Perhaps responding to the vague myth implanted in my imagination in childhood, and abetted by a casual reading of a few 20th Century angling authors such as Roderick Haig-Brown, Ernest Schwiebert, Robert Traver, and Arnold Gingrich, I became interested in flyfishing, albeit in a much more sophisticated way than my stepfather had decades before. One of the books I discovered in my researches on the subject was the book on bamboo fly rod making by Holden, pictured above. Holden, like a lot of typical early fishing writers, created an aura of myth around the sport; but he was also interested in the tools of the trade.

    As early as the middle of the 19th century, wooden fishing rods had been made from various kinds of native hardwoods, but it soon became apparent the the demands presented--a need for great flexibility without brittleness, and strength, as well as durability--could best be met by bamboo. Bamboo's unique qualities--its hardness, stiffness, and extraordinarily tough, long, straight longitudinal fibers concentrated along the outer edges of its trunks--made it an ideal material for rod-building. As fly fishing progressed through the latter half of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th, the technique of casting, as opposed to just dropping a line into water, became increasingly emphasized. Fresh water fish feed both under the water, and on the surface, but it's necessary to put some distance between yourself and the fish in order not to spook it. In addition, as fishermen realized that imitating the food that the fish eat--the insects, mostly--required that the fisherman manipulate the "presentation" of the imitation "fly" on or in the water--and a rod with great flexibility and control was necessary to perform these tasks.

    Rod technology went through various stages. Eventually, through trial and error, it was discovered that planing down thin strips of the outer edge of bamboo, and fitting these together to make hexagonal, tapered sections, was the right solution. It was discovered that the best bamboo came from the Tonkin Gulf region of the Guangdong Province in China--where it grew tall and straight, with long sections between the "dams" or nodes. This special bamboo was available to makers in the Wests until 1950, when a trade embargo on goods from China virtually wiped out the bamboo rod business, which quickly declined.  

    Below, I've set out a suite of photos of the Tonkin cane, and some of the steps in the manufacture of cane rods.

    A stand of bamboo

    Bamboo culms lying out

    A stack of cut culms (or cross sections)

    A cross section of a culm 

    Cross section with a check or split

    Close-up of split

    Cross section of halved culm with cut strips

    Close-up of edge of dense longitudinal fibers

    Magnification of tight fibers near skin

    Detail of cross section of culm wall

    Cut strips or splines ready for planing

    Planing a spline inside a metal planing form

    Winding the thread to secure the guide(s)

    View of male and female ferrules (joint match); note the singeing from the heat process straightening at the node

    To replace bamboo, makers began to experiment with plastic and plastic compounds such as graphite, boron, and these new synthetic materials can be made to very favorable specifications. But the unique characteristics of highly engineered bamboo rods remain superior in some respects. Though heavier than some graphite rods, bamboo rods can furnish the same "power" in the butt section, while retaining a gentler, more forgiving pliability in the tip section. These qualities can be measured as moments of stress and "recovery"--but I won't go into the engineering math used to express these qualities. Suffice it to say that the bamboo fibers--one of nature's miracles of design--are still superior to the synthetic versions, and many fishermen prefer them for this reason, despite their much higher expense. With the restoration of availability of bamboo, cane rods can once again be made, but there are questions about its present quality. Cane obtained "pre-embargo" was probably better in some ways. Old stocks of pre-embargo "culms" (the big long uncut poles) are highly coveted today by makers of heirloom rods. 

    In the late 1970's, I got it into my head that I would try my hand at making split bamboo flyrods, in moments stolen from my regular workday routine. I thought it would be an interesting hobby, and I might actually teach myself to be a one-man manufacturer. As I eventually learned, the technology and facilities needed to accomplish that, were much more demanding than I could have imagined. I acquired steel planing forms, a heavy metal lathe, and ordered a gather of Tonkin Bamboo from a New Jersey importer. Bamboo, or cane, is not easy to work with. It splits longitudinally, and can make hellish slivers, as tough as steel needles. The measurements required to correctly "mic" ("mike") the splines--that is, to measure the widths of tapering splits (or strips) as you plane them down to required tolerances of a millimeter (!)--demand that you proceed with maddeningly small increments of shave. To understand and execute the various steps--the milling down of the tapers, the joining and gluing of the gathered matched strips, the placement of the eyelets, the varnishing, the making of the grip and reel-seat (where the reel is held to the butt of the rod)--each step required a degree of exactitude and dedication which I was incapable of mastering. So I gave up on the idea. I've just touched the surface on the technology of bamboo rod making. There's a lot of precise, intricate decision-making and elaboration which goes into the construction of a well-balanced, high performance, beautifully finished cane rod. 

    But my interest in fly fishing continued. I purchased my own bamboo rods--from two highly skilled and admired makers. One from a fellow named Dennis Bailey in England, and one from Gary Howells, close to where I live in the Bay Area. Both of these makers are now dead. Howells had begun as a rod-maker for the old Winston Rod Company in San Francisco in the 1950's, and had eventually struck out on his own. Howells rods are considered among the finest, with prices to match. Great old rod making companies, such as Leonard, Edwards, Young, Payne, Garrison, Winston, Powell, are all collectors items, and there's a lively exchange for them on the used market. I never got into collecting old fishing equipment, but as a part-time rare book dealer, I always jump at the chance to acquire collectible titles in the angling field. 

    Flyfishing has many aspects. There's the equipment--the rods, the lines, the reels, the artificial flies, the net, the pliers, the priest, the waders or boots, the vest, the shoes, the hat, and float-tubes and boats. Then there's the skills--casting, playing the fish and landing it, stalking, identifying naturals (what the fish are biting on). And then there're the issues of access, preservation and restoration, private versus public water, the ecosystem, etc. All of these things play out in the sport. For devotees, it can get pretty complicated. And it's not cheap. A two day trip to a faraway piece of good water can run into the thousands. Some of the less spoiled and worked-over water in the world is in remote corners of the globe: Chile and Argentina, Alaska, New Zealand, Florida. When we were in Scotland and France, I saw a few places that looked promising, but I didn't have my equipment with me, and most of the old-world beats are tied up in private estates that charge steep fees for just a few hours access. 

    I must admit, to my chagrin, that I'm not a very good fisherman. I've never quite gotten the knack of casting well. I can "false" cast nicely, and if the wind's right, I can land a good short drift presentation, but making one perfect presentation at the end of a series of falsies I've never been able to master. The idea of wet fishing--that is, presenting a wet, sinking fly under water, either in drift or from a small indicator float, has never much appealed to me, and I've never caught many fish that way. For me there's nothing quite like watching a tiny dry drift over a promising "lie" (where a fish is likely to be lurking in a feeding station) and seeing it strike upwards or sip the artificial, is one of the great excitements of life.  It puts you in touch with the wildness and unpredictability of nature in a way that is not duplicated in any other outdoor sport. Fish, like all wild animals which stalk and capture their prey, don't respond in a completely rational way. They waver back and forth before attacking. They aren't "thinking" in the sense we know it, there's a shifting, intuitive, instinctual trigger that we don't yet understand, a variability which is probably a survival mechanism, a combination of caution and aggression in a teetering balance. 

    Sometimes I wish I'd had the chance to do more fishing over the years since I became interested in it. Maybe I'd have become better at it, if I had. But I think I was always a bit more interested in the history and lore of the sport, than in the performance aspect. I've caught some wonderful fish over the years, and fished in some of the prettiest, classic watering holes of the West. I love it, but I'm not interested in competing with other fishermen. For me, it's never been about skills and who's hooked and landed the most, or the biggest trout. 

    Sometimes, after I've landed a nice fish, a feeling of sadness or remorse comes over me. I do feel empathy for these finny souls. Here I'm tricking them into biting something they think is their food, only to be terrorized by being hooked in their mouth for a couple of minutes, pulled out into suffocating air, near death, before being despatched back into their element. Fishing is a blood sport, and for the game it's a life-and-death affair. 

    Like most serious flyfishers, I don't keep the fish I hook. Catch-and-release has become the new ethic of the sport, which I fully support. It permits the fish populations to survive the heavy pressure they get from sportsmen. If there are to be any good streams to fish in the future, or any fish in them, they'll have to be protected from the hoards of people who like to eat what they catch, or mount their trophies on the wall. I'm just grateful to catch a few nice respectable trout, and savor the experience, the surroundings, and the sense of communion with nature that being out in it provides. I'm content to have this pleasure in solitude; not needing the confirmation of anyone's witness to verify my success. 

    It's almost like a sacred meditation. Writers many times more poetic than I have given the sport its literature. A good "fish story" may well be a more imaginative experience than the actual event itself. Great pastimes need a little augmentation to make them come alive, to evoke something of the excitement and pleasure of the moment. At least in retrospect--recollected in tranquillity. As I age, I can still appreciate what I remember, and to share the accounts of others.                                                              

    *Holden, George Parker. The Idyl of the Split-Bamboo. Cincinnati: Stewart and Kidd. First Edition 1920. [pictured above]

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  • 10/09/12--20:59: Einstein on the Beach

  • There is presently on e.Bay--the familiar web-based online auction site--an auction in progress for an original ALS (Autographed letter signed) by Albert Einstein, written by him (in German) in 1954, just a few months before his death (in 1955), and addressed to one Eric B. Gutkind, a German-Jewish philosopher who apparently had mystical notions about the power and importance of Jewish cultural ideas and influence in history. He sent a copy of his book Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt, to Einstein, in 1954, eliciting the response, from which the following quotation, is taken:

    The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them.
    In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the privilege of monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision, probably as the first one. And the animistic interpretations of the religions of nature are in principle not annulled by monopolization. With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.

    I am not qualified to talk about higher physics, or the philosophy of religion. Like most laymen, I have casual opinions about religion, and a smattering of impressions picked up piecemeal over the years from the media and written accounts, about the significance of Einstein's researches and discoveries in the fields of theoretical and applied physics. That's a way of saying that when it comes to higher physics and the probable importance or application of Einstein's mind to "secular" (that is, non-scientific) ideas, I don't know what the heck I'm talking about. You could also, of course, say the same thing about Einstein himself. He was a man interested primarily in scientific research, and did not spend his time pondering religious questions. 

    But there are much higher implications to much of what is studied and considered in scientific inquiry. For all the test-tubes, electronic devices and speculation that goes into research, there is another aspect to our attempts to understand the behavior of matter in its various dimensions. One could hardly miss that the history of man's evolving understanding of the universe is largely what drives our "religious" notions of the meaning of life, the purposes of conduct, or ultimate implication. The progress of human recorded history is the account of the chronology of that evolution of thought. Religious thought is informed by knowledge, all kinds of knowledge--some of it rational, some of it non-rational. 

    Einstein's remarks above constitute a familiar skepticism about the irrationality of religious thought in history, by one for whom universal questions could best be pursued through rational inquiry (or the scientific method). He describes The Bible as a collection of pretty childish legends or superstitions, and he scolds his correspondent for pretending to make a claim of dispensation from causality otherwise accepted  to believe in Jewish monotheism. With such "walls [of pride]" man can attain a certain self-deception, and his moral efforts are not furthered by them. Einstein is taking this man to task for not acknowledging the superiority of scientific knowledge over superstition, and he sees that as a psychological disposition on the personal level. In other words, he sees religious thought as a predisposition--or weakness--in certain people. 

    Nineteenth century rational philosophy rejected religious theory in favor of "scientific" analyses of history and society and knowledge. Marx believed in the power of scientific analysis to rectify some of the wrongs perpetrated upon underprivileged classes with the rise of the factory system, and saw history as a progression of stages which would flower into higher versions of human cooperation and fulfillment. We know that Marx didn't account for human intractability, and history has, if anything, followed pathways in the opposite direction from what he seems to have predicted, or where he believed it should lead.

    For my own part, I've always had a semi-mystical intuition that scientists--at least those who think beyond the mathematic languages used to describe phenomena--that the highest levels of theoretical science begin to approach what are, in effect, religious ideas. When people try to describe where theoretical physics is, at this particular moment, the layman's language they use, approaches the indescribable. They are talking about concepts which either sound vague, or nonsensical, or counter-intuitive. Theoretical physics begins to sound like mysticism. I won't go into the details of string theory, or black holes, or alternative universes, or anti-matter. Most of us have heard of these things, but we have no idea how to describe them accurately, since we can't speak the language of higher physics. 

    And yet Einstein, the very personification of the advanced mind who penetrated where no man had ever gone before into the mysterious code of meaning as revealed by science, rejects all religious notions of the past as fairy tales. 

    Religion, like science, is composed of (a) language(s). Before science, men attempted to describe the meaning of life and the universe through the language they had, before advanced symbolic systems of representation were invented to manipulate concepts beyond the range of ordinary discourse. Much religious thought and teaching originates in pre-scientific epochs, so it is no surprise that our age, seduced by the power and complexity of scientific thought and knowledge (and technology), should find Einstein's kind of skepticism natural, and convincing. We may scorn ancient religious doctrine, spawned in the primitive context of limited knowledge, but we know that it represented a genuine effort to comprehend the world. 

    Einstein took pride in his Jewish heritage, but he did not regard his ethnic (or racial) inheritance as "chosen." The only good thing was that they (the Jews) had avoided the worst "cancers" of "power" by never having possessed it! That is a kind of humility or a conviction born of mordant irony. 

    Few of us share the mental acuity to follow the theorists on their voyages of discovery, or to follow the course of their dialectic. If we could, what would that tell us? There are always some of us who can think better than others. They lead. We watch or follow in astonishment or skeptical regard. 

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  • 10/12/12--12:04: Duke's Clothed Woman

  • The relationship between classical music and American jazz in the first half of the 20th century is in some respects two stories. On the one hand, jazz is seen as a separate indigenous American movement beginning along the arterial Mississippi lifeline, with cross-currents and blurrings of influence. Its initial affect on classical traditions seems minimal, and simple-minded. On the other hand, late Romantic traditions begin to break up or fragment at the very same time, as the tonal paradigm gives way to new formal explorations, but this disintegration seems to have very little to do with popular, regional New World inventions which have their beginnings in New Orleans and the Negro folk culture. 

    It isn't until the 1920's that nominally "serious" composers begin to incorporate syncopations and blues-y chord changes into their otherwise straightforward approaches. At the same time, subtle adaptations are being employed by innovative popular jazz figures such as Duke Ellington, whose moody and richly-textured instrumentations of the "dark side" of blues improvisation seem to indicate an absorption  of the polytonality of late Debussy and Albeniz, or early Stravinsky and Bartok.

    The American band tradition of the 1920's and 1930's was breaking up after the war, and Ellington's compositions reflected a less dense orchestrational style, and a somewhat purified musical line. His music of the late 1940's began to sound rather like chamber music, instead of dance panels. He was following his more abstract tastes into new areas. In a sense, he no longer needed external examples to suggest alternative approaches--his originality had been freed. 

    His "Clothed Woman" [1947] (played here by Marco Fumo) for piano solo has been seldom heard or appreciated, surprisingly so, given its prescient abstract qualities. Its astonishing dissonances and quick-changing tempos and moods looks forward to Monk, or Parker, or Tristano, or Tyner McCoy. I first heard the piece played by Marian McPartland about 15 years ago, and I nearly elevated out of my chair.  Though framed as querulous meditation, it contains an effusive central section that is as joyful as anything he ever did in the tinselly Twenties, yet in this context--or perhaps from our much postponed vantage today--it seems touchingly nostalgic, and a resignation without remorse.

    Traditional jazz is principally limited to two modes: Dionysian and Tragic (or elegaic). Clothed Woman seems to rise above this dialectic towards a synthesis which is transcendent, though unsettled. One would find it difficult to find a collateral kind of statement in the classical keyboard repertory--perhaps a Rachmaninoff prelude . . . maybe. Its free use of tempos and abrupt turns is like a series of questions and anxious moments. It's important to remember that Ellington was not an "old" man at this point; he was still in his forties, the prime, one could say, of his creative life. He was creating ambitious longer works, though without much public success, and staying viable by any means he could. This period is nicely documented with some important selections on the Night Lights Classic Jazz website on a program called "On a Turquoise Cloud: Duke Ellington After the War, 1945-47" for those interested to hear some of the ambient work he was producing at the time [click on the PLAY EPISODE button to hear it on RealPlayer]; in it we hear Ellington himself rolling it out at Carnegie Hall in 1947. 

    What in the world did the audience think they were hearing!? Suddenly the foot-tapping stopped, and a darker moment intervened. Time stood still. For a few stunning intervals, we hear America's greatest jazz composer looking into the abyss, seeing the uncertainty of America's possibility while remembering the liberation of his first great triumph in the Twenties. Mercy!   

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    How does a franchise that loses important parts of its team during a season overcome adversity and triumph against odds? Each professional squad is composed of parts of a puzzle, which may or may not fit together to make a whole. Usually successful teams have a number of players who have superior years (or "career years"). This may be an expected outcome, or just a one or two year fluke. Sometimes, everything comes together for a team, as "stars" and journeymen all peak at once, and a dynamic season ensues. 

    I've said before that all the players who arrive in baseball's major leagues were stars before they got there, or they wouldn't be there. The "worst" major league players were all immensely talented BEFORE they were "failures." What differentiates one team's performance from another's may be "intangibles"--or just the coincidence of different individuals' coordinated accidental success. Players are human beings, impossible to predict or design with much consistency. Teams are organic things, fluctuating and changing over time.   

    Prior to the 2012 season, the Giants had what seemed like the team they had deliberately designed to succeed at Pac Bell Park. Brian Sabean, the eccentric GM guru, always believed in pitching, and fashioning a high calibre pitching rotation, with superior middle relievers and a lights-out closer was always his first priority. The offense would succeed by "scratching out runs"--not with power-hitting, but timely hitting, speed on the bases, and solid defense. 

    In 2010, their championship year, the Giants had three excellent starting pitchers--Lincecum, Cain and Jonathan Sanchez. Wilson was the closer (with 48 saves), with Romo, Mota, Affeldt and Casilla all making important contributions out of the bull-pen. Offensively, the team was more a "power" force than a "scratching" one, with a 162 team homers (nicely spread among several hitters--Huff 26, Uribe 24, Burrell 18, Posey 18, Torres 16, Sandoval 13). 

    After a down year in 2011, in which both pitching and hitting declined across the board, the team dropped Burrell, Ross, Torres, Rowand, Tejada, Keppinger, and even Carlos Beltran. The decision not to sign Beltran, in particular, seemed vexing, given the signal lack of offense in 2011. Posey went down early with his ankle injury, and Freddy Sanchez played only part of the year, succumbing to physical limitations which in retrospect probably were the beginning of the end of his career (he didn't play at all this year). 

    The Giants left spring training this year with the following line-up:


    with Brian Wilson as the established closer.

    But as we know, things changed quickly as the year got going. Almost at once, Wilson's elbow popped and he went on the indefinite disabled list (a candidate for a third (!!) Tommy John surgery). 

    Then, as I had predicted at least twice on this blog, Tim Lincecum's decline continued, as hitters began feasting on his slower fast ball, and his ERA quickly rose into double figures. If it hadn't been for Cain and Bumgarner and Vogelsong having in effect career years, Lincecum's anchor could have dragged the team into second division status. It began to feel as if every Lincecum start would turn into a rout. And no one seemed to have an answer. Timmy had gone from a dominating fireballer to a has-been in just a little less than two seasons. This kind of thing isn't unheard-of, but in his case, there had been troubling signs. The tortured delivery motion, the small frame, etc. Statistically, it all made some kind of awful sense, if you looked at the trajectory of his performance from the middle of 2010 to the first half of 2012. Still, it really hurt to see him get blasted in start after start.   

    Despite these setbacks, the team was playing competitively, mostly on the strength of the hitting of new outfield acquisition Melky Carbrera, whose torrid pace led the league in average for much of the first half. He seemed the very personification of the Sabean ideal, hitting for average, with speed, and some even some power (those "gappers"). Then, quite out of the blue, it was announced that Melky had tested positive for steroids, and was suspended for the whole second half of the year. It was as if someone up there didn't like us. 

    When Wilson went down, Bochy went to a "closer by committee" approach, and initially Santiago Casilla stepped up to become the new "lights out" guy. And when he faltered, there was Romo (with his wickedly deceptive slider) to take his turn. And Zito, miracle of miracles, had picked himself up off the mat and was having a comeback year, bolstering the Cain-Bumgarner-Vogelsong rotation as a true 4th man, with Lincecum as the busted wheel. 

    Finally, as if this all weren't bad enough, Pablo came down with a tiny broken bone in his hand, which sidelined him for several weeks. The team had acquired a journeyman infielder, Joaquin Arias, to fill in where needed, and when called upon to plug the hole created by Pablo's absence, he stepped right up, hitting in the .270-.290 range. With the absence of Cabrera and Sandoval--and Huff, who had gone AWOL with a case of nerves--and then a minor injury while celebrating Cain's perfecto) to be replaced by the green young rookie Brandon Belt--offensively the team really looked weak on paper.    

    Unbeknownst to most, Sabean had been coveting an inspirational outfield slugger by the name of Hunter Pence, an All-Star on the Astros, who had come over to the Phillies in the middle of the previous year. Sabean had tried to acquire Pence before, and when Philadelphia finally gave up on 2012, he became available.  

    With the addition of Pence, it looked like we might finally have someone to "protect" Posey in the number four spot, or maybe even a true clean-up hitter. Sending Schierholtz (embittered by not getting the kind of playing time he thought he deserved) to Philadelphia opened up right field for Pence, and he was more than equal to the task, speedy and with a rocket arm. Though Pence has not hit anything like we had hoped and expected when we signed him, he's still been a force on the field and in the clubhouse, and the tantalizing left field bleachers may yet prove to be "Pence"-friendly. 

    Finally, in acknowledgment of the fact that Freddy Sanchez's career is almost certainly over, the team went out and got Marco Scutaro. Two years ago, my old friend Mike Tormey told me the one man he thought any team could do to improve itself was get Scutaro. As a life-long Red Sox fan, Mike had appreciated Scutaro's clutch hitting and terrific hustle and focus. The guy had been around the bend a time or two, and knew how to contribute. Once he'd arrived, he fit right in, hitting .362 for us in 61 games, polishing off a career year with overall stats of .306, with 190 hits, 87 runs scored, 74 RBI's, and a .348 OBP. Wow. It doesn't get much better than that.    

    As I speak, the Giants are preparing to take on the Cardinals in game 3 of the NLCS, with the series tied at 1-1. 

    It seems unlikely, given the obstacles, the Giants can go all the way again this year. St. Louis is very strong, and their pitching can match or out-match us any day. And if Detroit, which seems poised to bump off the Yanks (who lost Jeter, and have benched A-Rod), is the opponent in the Series, that's too many mountains to climb. And yet I would certainly have said the same in 2010, when we beat Atlanta, Philadelphia, and the Rangers. Mountains are to be climbed. Strap on your ropes and pitons!   

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  • 10/18/12--10:33: Dog Days - Summer's Endgame

  • In the San Francisco Bay Area, these are our dog days. Typically we get a few weeks of "Indian Summer" in October or November--something really unheard of in other parts of the country--when there are clear, dry, warm days which may get up into the mid-80's, before Winter finally drops the curtain and the usual day-long grey overcasts descend. As global warming progresses, we're getting less and less reliable rains, and there's something ominous about the dog days. We really don't need these end of season respites, not matter how nice they may be for eating in cafés and coffee-shops, or driving to the beach.      

    For the last several weeks, I've been perfecting a new drink, based on Frangelico liqueur. Frangelico is an old Italian hazelnut concoction, supposedly invented by Christian monks. It has a rich nutty taste, and is a challenging mixer, since it tends to overwhelm other flavors. After several variations, I hit upon this one, which is less perhaps a hazelnut cocktail, than simply a perfectly balanced one.   

    The ingredients combination went through a number of iterations. The first versions were far too sweet, so I had to resort to minor augmentations to bring out its inherent sophistication.  This mixture produces a complex flavor, which is a good compromise between the liquor-y taste of the rye, the intense sweetness of the hazelnut, and the drier side of the citrus content.  

    By proportion--

    4 parts rye
    1 1/2 parts Frangelico liqueur 
    1 part Drambuie
    1 part fresh lemon juice

    --shaken and served up. It has a slightly brownish yellow tint. You could garnish it with a lemon wedge, but it wouldn't be necessary. I haven't tried it yet, but perhaps a cinnamon stick would add just a little tantalizing fillip. Another tavern-master suggested a shake of bitters, but I like the purity of this combination--I didn't want the suggestion of a Saverac.   

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  • 10/23/12--08:30: The Man Without a Face

  • American Noir movies have long been used as metaphorical vehicles for European existentialist social, political and aesthetic theory. The hard-boiled tradition in American pulp serials and later novelistic treatments of the criminal underworld achieved enormous popular success, and many of Hollywood's adaptations of this genre have been considered classic archetypes of the medium. No matter most of them were grossly improbable as plots, and often amateurishly produced. People loved them, and their continued appeal is a testimony to our fascination.       

    One of the best is Dark Passage [Warner Brothers, 1947], a Bogart-Bacall vehicle based on the idea of the transformation of a man's face through plastic surgery to elude capture following a prison break from San Quentin. The screenplay, by Delmer Daves (who was also the Director), is taken directly from the novel of the same name by David Goodis--a pulp hack who later went on to script work himself.     

    Daves black and white film uses many of the familiar noir affects--dim, shadowy lighting, empty streets, long perspective shots, claustrophobic interiors with Deco decor, openly sexual innuendos among characters, torchy background music, guns and violence, and a strong undercurrent of menace and jeopardy. The film has all these elements, but it's also hugely improbable, as one unlikely or impossible event follows another, and the whole seems so far from reality as to constitute a kind of cartoon. 

    Bogart plays a San Francisco man who has been unfairly convicted of his wife''s murder, and sent away to San Quentin for a long hitch. As the film begins, he has just escaped inside a garbage truck exiting the prison grounds, and has jumped off the road into a culvert somewhere near Sausalito or the Marin headlands. First he's picked up by casual driver, a man who seems altogether too curious about his clothing. Bogart [Vincent Parry] waylays him, and drags his body into the bushes, when suddenly another motorist, a woman, Irene Jansen [played by Bacall] stops and tells him to get into her car. She knows who he is and intends to spirit him through a Golden Gate Bridge road-block to her apartment in San Francisco where she will hide him. In what is the film's most ingenious trick, we never see Parry's face, as the camera is put in place of the protagonist--what he sees as he moves through space becomes the camera's projection, the viewer's vantage-point. 

    Catching a taxi in the night, Parry/Bogart runs into another nosey driver, who befriends him and suggests that if he's on the run, a little plastic surgery might be the best disguise, and takes him to the office of a back-alley unlicensed surgeon he knows who can perform the work. Again, the improbability of all this is underscored by the fact that the techniques of plastic surgery were really in their relative earliest stages at this time. Crude remedial repairs could be done with grafting and bone implants to help burn victims and people with disfigured faces from war injuries or birth defects, but the finished product was never good enough to mimic an original face. The "operation" here occurs in an afternoon in a small crudely appointed office space (in a barber's chair), and it's unclear what kind of anesthesia--if any--has been employed during the procedure. After the operation, we see Parry/Bogart's face for the first time, though now almost completely covered with white bandages.      

     The Surgeon and the Cabdriver

    This neat dramatic trick of having the central character's actual original face concealed from us, until it can be transformed, in order to facilitate the progress of the plot, was an ingenious turn. The concept of escaping from a previous identity by changing one's physical being is a late development in western literature. Mary Shelley had posited the Frankenstein monster as the misuse of science to create a tortured monster from body parts cobbled from discarded individuals. But the idea of eluding the science of criminal detection through altered identity, or burning off one's fingertips (or prints), reached a new level with this surgical transformation trope. 

    Goodis/Daves's version of modern society is a nightmare of watchers and tattlers--a little like the paranoid world portrayed in the later version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers [MGM, 1978] where no one can be trusted, and anyone might be an alien in disguise, and in the end, the aliens get everybody. The inexorable pull of the dragnet is closing in, there's no place to hide, the only exit is to capitulate or turn into something, or someone, else.        

    The idea of facelessness, or a lack of personality, or of personal identity, is a familiar one in 20th Century art. In Kafka, or Camus, or Orwell, the individual is subsumed inside an alienating official non-entity status, intended to deprive him of his worth, to grind the individual down to a quotidian commonality, rendering him powerless and tractable. There is the lulling seduction of giving in, of allowing oneself to be controlled, regimented, suppressed. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [Fantasy Films, 1975], institutionalization (like prison) is a metaphor for the power structures of society, expressed through the need to punish and prod the life and creativity out of individuals through physical punishment, torture and chemical treatments. 

    In Dark Passage, Parry/Bogart's only connection to the liberation of justice, or escape, is a single woman, who believes in his innocence, against all odds. Predictably, this is complicated by Irene's growing affection for Vincent, which of course clouds her judgment; would she really care of Vincent had actually killed his wife, if what she wants to do is go to bed with him? 

    Parry/Bogart manages, with Irene's money, to escape to South America, where he meets up with her at the end of movie--wearing a dinner jacket, and holding an exotic tropical cocktail on a terrace overlooking a picturesque harbor. Typical Hollywood fluff.       

    David Goodis was an interesting character in his own right. Growing up in Philadelphia, he was popular and successful in public school, and at Temple University he began writing for the school newspaper. Working for an ad agency, he wrote and published his first novel at only 22, and began turning out copy for the pulps (as Hammett and Chandler and others had). Enormously prolific, he published millions of words, some of it under pseudonyms. After a stint in Hollywood, Dark Passage [Julian Messner, New York] was published in 1946 and was an immediate success. Goodis returned to Hollywood where he worked under contract for several years, before returning to Philadelphia in 1950 where he lived with his parents, spending time on the urban dark side, and cranking out a string of noir paperback originals.    

    Then, in 1963, ABC television began airing a series called The Fugitive, starring David Jansen. Based loosely on the events described in Goodis's Dark Passage, it was a hit for four years. In 1965, Goodis sued United Artists and ABC for half a million dollars, claiming copyright infringement. But before the case could go to trial, Goodies died in 1967 of a stroke. The case was eventually won, oddly enough, through a technicality, i.e., that the Saturday Evening Post, which had first published the story, had protected Goodis's copyright (property), and therefore the story still belonged to him (was not in the public domain). 

    Actor David Janssen as TV's The Fugitive

    The Fugitive was remade as a feature film starring Harrison Ford in the lead, in 1993. I don't know if the copyright issue for that production has been resolved. Goodis had no descendants, and his brother had died by the time the court case ruled in favor of the plaintiff.   

    Harrison Ford as The Fugitive

    Goodis's novels and his reputation quickly faded in the decades since his death, except to fans of the noir tradition in American literature and cinema. The Library of America recently republished his Noir Novels of the 1940's and 1950's--a belated recognition of his popularity in an earlier time. Authors working in the pop pulp vein were often overlooked by serious literary critics, though they often used the same narrative techniques, and had equivalent writing skills as the "serious" writers. And in some cases, their portrayal of character was truer than the "polite" versions. The novels of Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and David Goodis will certainly be read and appreciated long after those of such notable figures as James Gould Cozzens, John P. Marquand, or Robert Penn Warren relegated to obscurity.        

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    The first live major league baseball game I ever saw was at old Seals Stadium in San Francisco, in 1958, the first year the Giants arrived from New York, August 16th, 1958, against the Chicago Cubs. The Giants would only play one more year at Seals before moving to Candlestick Park, where they persevered until the completion of China Basin in 2000. 

    How do you codify the sentiment you feel about our national sport? For me, it will always be an enormous imaginative preoccupation, fed by fantasies of my own playing days as a little leaguer in the 1950's, and the subsequent decades of on-again/off-again fandom in the Bay Area. Aside from a summer or two in the midwest, where I watched a few Cub games on local television, it's always been the Giants or the A's for me. I saw the Athletics clinch the 1972 division championship at the Oakland Coliseum on September 28th, 1972. 

    Why do we care if a squad of overgrown boys playing a boys game paid by some rich guy compete with other squads of overpaid overgrown boys from other metropolitan centers? Some have tried to explain it, i.e., Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer [1972]. It's one part nostalgia, one part lazy boredom, and one part misplaced civic pride. 

    The story of teams is often a story of their owners, or the owners' management. They can determine the character of a team, through their choices and hiring of individual players, their affect on the playing venues. The A's were owned by Charley Finley when they arrived in Oakland. Charlie was a good businessman, but a little bit of a cheapie. He thought players were overpaid, and he ran his organization like a minor league outfit.           

    When the Giants came west in 1958, Horace Stoneham had owned the team since 1936. He was a genial owner who cared as much about the game, and the players, as many of his most devoted fans did. When attendance at windy Candlestick Part fell off, he sold the team in 1976 to Bob Lurie, who eventually sold it, in 1976, to the Magowan Group, which still owns it. 

    I was eating dinner out in San Francisco one auspicious night on October 26th, 2002, during the playing of the 6th game of that year's World Series, with the Giants leading the Angels three games to two. When we sat down for dinner, the Giants were leading 5-0, and we were secure in our assumption that victory was ours. When we'd finished eating, someone with a transistor radio informed us that the Angels had completed a miraculous comeback and won 6-5. The Angels went on to win game 7 and there was no joy in Mudville.  

    The 2010 Championship is still fresh in everyone's mind, our ragtag company of cast-offs and fresh-faced phenoms embarrassing the Phillies in the NLCS and mowing down the powerhouse Texas Rangers in the Series. 2011 was a return to earth, with our MVP-to-be Buster Posey going down with a broken ankle, and the predictable fall-off by the journeymen (Huff, Ross, Torres, Rowand, Burrell).  

    When 2012 began, no one was sure what kind of team we had. Huff, Sandoval, Posey, Crawford and Sanchez seemed set, but we had new position-players--Pagan, Cabrera, Blanco--not exactly the offensive powers we thought we needed. As the season progressed, there were serious setbacks. Brian Wilson's elbow popped, Melky was suspended for the balance of the season for doping, and Timmy lost control of his fastball (and his confidence). But there were encouraging signs. Pagan, and Posey were having career years, and the late acquisitions of Pence and Scutaro improved the offense considerably. Zito had a comeback. And Vogelsong was lights out. Meanwhile Bumgarner and Cain were solid, and our "bull-pen by committee" actually was able to overcome the loss of Wilson ("Wiiiilllllllllssssssoonnnnnnnnnn!"), with Romo blossoming into something resembling Dennis Eckersley, with a wicked "invisible" slider. Belt and Crawford made significant progress towards realizing their potential, and by the last two weeks of the season, we were walking all over the Dodgers in a runaway of the National League West. 

    Who would have thought, looking at the statistics, that the Giants would match up well against either the Reds, the Braves, or the Nationals? As it turned out, of course, the Braves were eliminated, in the new one game takes all new play-off wild card system. Then St. Louis polished off the Nationals, and it was suddenly us, the Reds and St. Louis. Coming back after being down three to one against the Reds was stunning enough, but then doing the same against the Card in seven--well, it doesn't get any better than that!      

    In the bottom of the ninth inning, ahead 9 to nothing, and the rain deluging Pac Bell, Marco Scutero, sensing the inevitable victory, impulsively spread his arms apart and stared up into the sprinkling rain in a celebratory gesture that reminded some people (like me) of the scene in Shawshank Redemption, where Andy Dufresne, having just crawled the length of four football fields through sewer water to freedom, tears off his prison shirt in a cleansing rainstorm and makes the same gesture towards heaven.  

    The emotion was different of course. We hadn't been imprisoned. We hadn't escaped from anything. We'd just triumphed over impossible odds to get to the World Series. We'd been down, and down, and down, and down, and had picked ourselves up off the mat time after time. A couple of years ago, my old friend Mike Tormey, a retired BART worker and part-time antiquarian bookseller had told me there was "this guy" playing for Boston, named Marco Scutaro, a real gamer who knew how to play the game, was a great fielder, and a solid clutch hitter. Mike had been watching this guy his whole career, and figured him for an under-rated star. Marco ended up going to Colorado after leaving Boston, and I forgot about Mike's little observation. Then, when Brian Sabean picked him up on July 27th, I didn't remember Mike's opinion, but then I did. Of course. And as we all now know, Scutaro became the key player in our late and post-season run, hitting .362 down the stretch and taking MVP honors in the NLCS. Mike, you're a genius.  

    And the Giants are playing Detroit for all the marbles beginning today. Let it rain. Let it pour. Let the sky open and the heavens descend. 

    We made it.   

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    Cuban pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona's [1895-1963, of Basque descent] work is well-recognized around the world, in large measure due to the success of his very popular keyboard piece Malaguena. Beginning as a child prodigy, he was already composing pieces as a young teenager. He played piano in silent-movie houses to help out his family, and was giving concerts in Europe by the the early 'Twenties.   

    Lecuona would go on to compose hundreds of concert and popular pieces based on Cuban inspirations. Two keyboard suites, the Danzas Cubanas, and the Danzas Afro-Cubanas, are particularly pure and concise expressions of his style, which derives from the earlier work of Albeniz, Granados--though there are caribbean flavors swirled into the mix. 

    Central and South American composers inevitably fall within the Hispanic musical tradition. In the Caribbean, you have African and nativist qualities (of jazz and latin dance music) as well, all of which contribute to the special character of Cuban music, which Lecuona absorbed and incorporated into his work. 

    Lecuona was unsympathetic to the Castro revolution of 1960, and emigrated to the United States, where he lived (in Florida) until he died in 1963. His will specifies that his remains are to be returned to Cuba once the Communist regime has run its course. 

    As an interested amateur, I acquired the sheet music for Danzas Afro-Cubanas before I ever heard it played. The pieces are of medium difficulty, though the easier ones can be played with a little practice. Their catchy rhythms and lulling melodies are seductive and exotic. Here is a version of the whole suite played Cristiana Pegoraro on YouTube.  
    Danzas Afro-Cubanas sheet music album

    The Andalucia Suite, which includes Malaguena, is probably his best known music, aside from the romantic theme music Siempre en mi corazon ("Always in my Heart")played by Thomas Tirino, in Miami 2003.

    In the popular imagination Lecuona is probably regarded as a cheap compromise between the seriousness of European classicism, and the dance-hall styles which predominated in the pre-revolutionary Cuba of his youth. But it is impossible to listen to the pieces in his two piano suites without acknowledging that he aspired to a higher mimetic. In America, the only wholly homegrown cultural expression is considered to be jazz. We inherited the serious music of 19th Century Europe, just as South and Central America did (though to a much lesses extent) They developed their own folk and popular music tradition, and then imported American jazz as well. 

    In the American popular imagination, you have Carmen Miranda and Xavier Cugat and even Desi Arnaz churning out sad clichés on the Latin rhythm theme. But Lecuona represents the more serious side of Latin culture, which traces its roots all the way back to Moorish Spain. There's a curious melding of that strain with the island, jungle and primitivistic tropes, which can be heard in Villa-Lobos or Ponce. Lecuona essayed more ambitious forms, but perhaps with less obvious success. Here is his Rapsodia Cubana for piano and orchestra; it's swishy soft romanticism suggests the same kind of pop conciliation I refer to above. Lecuona was capable of adapting himself to many different styles, as in this version of "Two Hearts that Pass in the Night," which sounds like a soft jazzed-up supper club chestnut.   

    The Suite Andalucia, which is modeled after Albeniz's Suite Espanola [1887], and Granados's 12 Spanish Dances, can be heard piecemeal, played here by Thomas Torino on YouTube:  

    These pieces are historical-regional evocations in exactly the same way that the Albeniz and Granados suites are. And they go a long way towards a convincing demonstration of how well the Cuban had absorbed his masters' skill. Lecuona's music is more dance-inspired, and has a little less of the dignified austerity of Castille, but the Moorish influence is unmistakeable. 

    Despite what you think of Castro's Revolution, and the fifty year regime in Cuba, it goes without saying that the cultural life of that nation has stagnated. Poverty and mind-control are the enemies of creativity. Decay may seem picturesque, or nostalgically pre-post-modern, but the daily reality is not romantic. Should the U.S. have lifted its embargo on Cuba years ago? Would that have constituted some kind of capitulation, or a de facto acknowledgment of the sovereignty of a failed Communist state in our midst?

    I've never been to Cuba, so I can't speak to its current mood. From all accounts, it's a tired place, a hollowed-out shell. It remains to be seen what will happen when Castro finally expires. Will it trudge on into a shabby socialist "future" or throw in the towel and welcome back the business-community? We've seen how fast third world countries can rebound, once the repression and restrictions on growth are lifted. Ironically, its economic stagnation has allowed much of the island to remain unspoiled, and there are many now who believe that a rapid return to the tourism and rigid social stratification of the pre-1960 days would be no better for its people than the strangling oppression of its failed experiment in collectivism. 

    Classical, or "serious" music, thrives in an atmosphere of some prosperity. Until the middle of the 20th Century, it was the province largely of the rich and privileged, who could afford the instruments and performance spaces and could support professional musicians. It was patronage-driven. The explosion of media in the last century brought it to anyone, though its appeal was still marginal beside the great appeal of popular new generic styles. Lecuona represents a cultural milieu that died in 1960, at least in Cuba. He was a man of his time, and he worked within the prevalent traditions available to him. Had he been born in Spain, his career might have been somewhat different, but perhaps not so much. And yet we'd have missed the lovely works he did make. Great political convulsions cause equivalent changes in the arts. The Pre-revolutionist Russian musical scene was basically disbanded after WWI. The few remaining talents like Prokofiev and Shostakovich had to suffer through repeated indignities and routinely harsh censorship. 

    Lecuona, like many of his countryman, emigrated to the U.S., living in artistic exile. But his work survives. And it speaks to us today, not of revolutions and hardships and conflict, but of love and joy and gently nostalgic reminiscence.      

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  • 11/01/12--09:50: There Are No Words

  • Our Giants' path to the championship this last weekend was impossible to anticipate. At mid-season, with the loss of Wilson and Cabrera, few would have predicted that this team would go as far as it did.  

    Cain and Bumgarner showed the steady improvement which had been expected of them, and Vogelsong was as good as he had been in 2011. Lincecum fell down, but Zito made a comeback, and the bullpen combination of Casilla, Affeldt, Lopez, Kontos and Romo proved more than adequate to fill in for the absent Wilson. Offensively, the team still lacked power, but Posey fulfilled his early promise (winning a batting title in his first full season), and Pagan and Scutero and Belt stepped up bigtime. 

    What might have happened had Melky not been suspended. It's an intriguing question, considering how well the team played after he left. Sometimes a sudden vacuum will cause a readjustment which was unimagined. (The talk now is about whether the team will decide to pursue Cabrera for the 2013 season, given their success without him, and the example that keeping him, after his suspension, might set for the team going forward.)

    Romo in triumph after striking out the side in the last inning

    With two championships in three years, by a team which historically was one of the weakest hitting groups, there are some who are asking whether the chemistry of this combination might not serve as a new model for the ideal mix. Clearly, the Giants are now a team that lives on its pitching, with a team ERA (3.68)  a full .64 lower than its runs-per-game average (4.32). What kind if statistics measure the true performance of a team? In a power-rich era, the champion is the weakest of all in terms of traditional criteria. What are the implications of this outcome?  

    I've said before that a major league team--a collection of very talented individuals from varying backgrounds and experience, all presumably working towards a common goal--is not a machine, it's an organic phenomenon. It's alive. It undergoes change. It responds to challenges or fails to meet them. And there are several different kinds of chance. The indeterminacy we see in contending groups of players is the subject of much speculation, some of it live gambling. The kinds of data that go into the intelligent consideration and setting of odds can be tweaked and teased until you're blue in the face, but how much do numbers tell us? 

    Contextual data--that is, data that measures combinations of performance under differential applications--is a new kind of science. How many times did a certain hitter get a hit with two or three runners on base with less than two outs, when the team was behind by less than two runs after the 7th inning, when the team was playing on the road, and the season was still in doubt? In the first place, someone has to record all that stuff, before it can be manipulated. On the intuitive side, there is the obvious. Anyone who watched Marco Scutaro for the last month of the season, and during the playoffs, could read his face and body language; his statistical performance was the consequence, but when put together with what you could see, you knew immediately that this guy was totally focused, and at the top of his performance curve. Whatever it was that was motivating him, or permitting his mind and body to function in this way, could be expressed statistically and through empirical observation. 

    But professional athletics is not a science. You can put the duck into water, but you don't know where it will swim, or when it will fly. All the owners and general managers and coaches and scouts can't predict how a group of guys will gel, or excel, or overcome the pressures of competition and boredom and envy and frustration and distraction, to compete at the highest calibre. Competition may in a sense be a metaphor for the Darwinian principle of existence, but in the end professional baseball is just a game men play for the entertainment of spectators. How silly is it to want to succeed at such a pastime well into one's adult life? In a sense, nothing "depends" upon it the way we depend upon the performance of a bank, or a social agency, or construction firm to solve problems and needs in the "real world." Of course, big-time sports is about big-time money, and everyone who feeds at that trough can testify to the rewards. Opportunity in a capitalist society may present in many different guises, and the high-def high exposure world of popular professional sport is the crowning glory of capitalist glitz. 

    We celebrate our sports heroes in the same way we do our military heroes, or our great artists and scientists, though in a more demonstrative fashion. Yesterday, San Francisco held its victory parade down Market Street, ending up at the Civic Center Plaza. Ecstatic fans cheered and jostled one another for a view of their heroes as they passed by in jovial delight, basking in the fervor and exultation of unquestioned triumph. 

    Regard here Buster Posey--with his peach fuzz beard, looking as if he might be ready for the junior high school prom--in a blizzard of confetti. Who would not want to share the dream of his improbable transcendence? There is no one to stand behind him, holding a golden crown, to whisper in his ear that all victory is fleeting, because he's sitting on a car hood, instead of in a chariot. 

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    Governor Romney has rung the familiar charity bells for the "poor" rich folks who've had a tax holiday over the last decade. It's such a hackneyed refrain, as indelible as the jingle bells of the corner Salvation Army dragoon, dressed up in a Santa suit and looking pathetic holding out a little red pail for charity. Someone remarked that if Romney were Santa Claus, he would fire his reindeer and replace them with a coal-fired steam engine. The railroad industry long ago abandoned steam in favor of diesel, though Romney may be unaware of that; he seems to have lost track of history somewhere back in the early days of the previous century. He's such a generous guy he's sworn not to "lower" the tax burden of the rich. What a guy! During the Clinton Administration, when the rich were paying their fair share, America's economic engine was chugging along. The great Recession got going when we gave the rich back their hard-earned winnings during the Bush years. 

    According to Romney, the quickest way to get the economy going again is to let the rich keep their money, while the middle class takes on more taxes to pay off the debt that was created during Bush II. This will promote growth as the rich invest in the economy, creating more private sector jobs. 

    Is there presently a shortage of investment capital in America right now? Not according to economic analyses. There is an incredible stockpile of unspent capital which corporate America is holding on the sidelines. As much as $400 billion is sitting in the coffers of corporate accounts. The commonly reported excuse for this hoarding is that "business uncertainty" is making it overly cautious. It's "waiting on the sidelines" before sending its precious stimulus into the game. It lacks "confidence" that tax and regulatory policies will be favorable enough to justify its high stakes risk in America. 

    Let's get a few things straight about investment strategies. Once upon a time, America was a very good place to invest. Our capitalist economy was designed to facilitate easy access to money, and our entrepreneurial spirit was expressed through the rapid rise and consolidation of industry. Ours was an economy of scale which dwarfed the competition. But the Great Depression, which as a typical business cycle correction was unusual only in the depth of its effects, reminded everyone that capital investment, unchecked and unregulated, presents great risks to society at large. The Great Recession of 2008 was produced by the same kinds of exaggerated risk-taking as the earlier one had been. The lessons taken from these broad corrections are typically the same for both sides of the equation. Business is reminded of the risks of unbridled expansion and unwise investment; and labor is reminded of the need to build in regulatory checks to curtail the behavior of the investment community. Keynesian theory presumes boom-and-bust economic cycles--accepts them as a given--and suggests we soften the extremes through curbs on profit, and a social safety-net for the bottom, with various kinds of stimulus to bridge from one peak to the next. 

    Smart capital investment knows that the shortest route to improved margins is to hold down costs. Throughout the post-War period, American labor made gains in pay and benefits, and influence. Capital gritted its teeth. The memory of the consequences of unbridled investment activity was still fresh in everyone's minds. But collective memory only lasts for about a single generation. By the 1980's, the "me" generation had convinced itself that the risk-reward formula justified our removing the safeguards, and playing fast and loose with America's investment pool. By the 1990's, corporations were beginning to beat back the unions, cut benefits, and trim payrolls. Much of the "growth" of the 1990's and early 2000's was based on this cut-throat cost-cutting. In the 1990's, everyone was talking about "globalism" and the new world-wide economy that would "raise all boats" in the flood of prosperity. 

    What they didn't tell us was that the new global economy meant a series of sudden jolts, as investment money--and jobs--moved rapidly from place to place, seeking the best opportunity. We'd been told, or perhaps everyone just assumed, that improving the economies of the third world would automatically mean good times at home. Unfortunately, just the opposite was true. Smart money was moving overseas, where the pickings were choice, and the downside less. Why pay American workers, when you could pay foreign workers 100 times less? Why pay American taxes, when you could siphon off your profits and offshore them in palmy West Indies havens? 

    The fact is that the smart money is not likely to consider investing in America in the immediate future. Smart money seeks the highest return, and the highest return nowadays is to be had abroad. 

    The Republicans' mantra about investment flowing down from above simply isn't true. If the present unspent pool of corporate capital refuses to invest in America now, what would make it any more prone to do so in the future? What policies, which don't already exist for big capital, would Romney promote to improve the likelihood of trickle-down job creation? 

    Smart money doesn't want employees, who come with all the usual baggage of wages, taxes, health care and benefits packages. Smart money wants to CUT payrolls, not increase them. In the common sense arena of corporate management, payrolls represent the biggest single threat to the bottom line. Once you hire a body, you take on an enormous burden in obligation, one that necessitates the maintenance of a large part of your administration just to service it. 

    Globalism is just the latest iteration in the evolution of smart investment theory. There is no such thing as loyalty or patriotism in investment. Smart money doesn't waste its time on philanthropic black holes. It's true that automation has eliminated many jobs, but the fact is that most American manufacturing and resource extraction jobs lost over the last quarter century, are not coming back. Because smart money won't let them. And the smart money is the rich people, whose taxes we've been keeping low for the last decade.

    Believing that rich people will invest their tax break windfalls in job-producing American industry is the sheerest folly. Selfishness and greed respect no borders. If someone tells you that voting for Republicans will help "manage our economy" or spur growth at home, they're lying. And they know they're lying. Do Americans know that trickle-down is a crock, that more tax breaks for the rich and the corporations won't result in more jobs here at home? A lot of them don't seem to.   

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    Elliott Carter has died, and with his very late departure we can finally close the book on a whole epoch of American musical genius. As a member of the generation which included Copland, Harris, Thomson, Barber, Bernstein, Antheil, Bowles, Cage, Ellington, Gershwyn, Harrison, etc., all long since gone--to name but a few high-spots,-- or the first wave of Modernist American musical minds which defined the character of our country as separate from European traditions--Carter was a path-blazer, from the beginning, taking his queue from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and Charles Ives (a family friend). He was aged 103 when he died, and he was active to the end. When someone lives this long, and is continuously engaged, they live through several periods in artistic time, as witness, and participant, and critic. And thus it is no surprise that Carter composed works of differing character, and lived well beyond the typical career arc, which he shared with his immediate contemporaries, starting in the 1930's. It allowed him to mature well beyond the point at which most artists are permitted by their mortality to attain--living through two lifetimes' worth of event, in a very eventful century. 

    I am not a close follower of music trends, but I followed my curiosity a good way during my youth, and listened to a lot of avant garde classical music. I had a friend in those years named Michael Lamm, and he actually preferred 20th Century classical music to earlier periods. We played chess, and argued about politics, and listened to serious modern symphonic works. He liked Shostakovich, while I loved the French composers. I played the piano, but he didn't play an instrument. During my first year at Berkeley, I found an LP recording of Elliott Carter's Piano Sonata 1945-46. For those of you who grew up after the advent of digital recordings, an LP could only handle about half of a long work on one side, and had to be turned over to hear the rest. The Sonata lasts about 25-28 minutes, depending on how fast it's played. Though the work had been composed relatively early in his career, it was already over 20 years old when I first heard it. Nevertheless, it sounded newly minted to my ears, and I responded at once to its seriousness and subtle mood-shifts, qualities I generally found lacking in much pre-Modern musical works. Much of the earnestness and sense of wounded pride and resignation, coming out of the Depression years, seemed contained in its halting statements and beginnings-again, its querulous intrigues and seductive tangential musings. Playing this work presents a number of problems to any performer; there are few pianists who would even attempt it, much less perfect it sufficiently for recording. Consequently it is a work seldom heard, both because of its length, its intense seriousness, and because there are few versions to choose from. One is unlikely to hear it played on a classical music station, or at a live performance anywhere that is not devoted to serious music. And with the current fragmentation and disintegration of musical taste which has overtaken our culture over the last quarter century, one would be unlikely to "discover" it casually, since there is no more material media to browse, as music stores have all but disappeared, to be replaced by the internet. It is doubtful I would ever have discovered the piece, were I 20 years old today, and interested in this kind of music. 

    The wonderful thing about this work is that, though it employs very complex tonal modulations and rhythmic changes, it still manages to sound inspiring and emotionally enthralling. Lyrically it seems of a piece with the best serious works of Roy Harris and Aaron Copland, and yet goes well beyond their comparative simplicity and economy of means to achieve its effects. Carter has been quoted saying that American music tends towards rhythmic complexity, unlike European music, which is dominated by fixed rhythmic intervals. For an interesting discussion of its musical content and methodology, you might care to read some of this thesis essay by Jane E. Gormley Perkyns, University of British Columbia, 1990, An Analytical Study of Elliott Carter's Piano  Sonata. For me, the aspect of struggle as expressed through competing themes is one I hear as very compelling. The sliding tonalities suggest layers of distraction or obsessive concern; and too the chaotic disintegration of modern urban life, mechanized and poly-contextual. 

    In many respects, I think American music has gone far beyond its literature, in exploring the formal complexities and ambiguities of its medium. Writers like Clark Coolidge (an abstract structuralist), or Robert Grenier (a Zen-like minimalist a la Cage), share many of the formal interests which a work like Carter's offers, though on a somewhat intuitive level. Musical meaning, like grammar, forms the linkages within which thought moves. Writing a piece of music may be emotionally subtle, but the means would appear to be  more logically set out, than in the much greater vocabulary of our recorded verbal language. The Sonata is divided into two broad movements, within which are divisions. Clicking on the three underlined parts below will take you to a complete performance on YouTube by John Anderson, performed in 2009 in Lugano Switzerland. Though I have reservations about his version, and the recording is a bit echo-y, it's a good intro to the piece.    

    First Movememt: Introduction, Exposition, Development, Recapitulation, Coda
    [Maestoso - Legato scorrevole]
    Second Movement: (Fugue) 
    [Andante - Allegro - Andante - Allegro giusto]

    While some of this music may sound "atonal" to your ears, the more you study it, the less dissembling it will seem, though the degree of complex engagement this requires may well be beyond the interest or patience most people have to give to it. Though this is not a problem in logic, it may seem quite entangling once you're well into it.  For my part, though I'm hardly a musical scholar, I find it a fascinating way to understand how works are composed, since I love to compose on the keyboard myself. But my feeling is that this piece is approachable enough to be appreciated by any reasonably intelligent person who is interested in music per se, as an exercise in apprehension or inspired meditation. Pure musical expression, apart from its historical context, may be an impossibility, and we can't listen to music as an alien would, devoid of any pre-conceptial frame. But Carter's Sonata suggests ways in which we might be free of the sort of musical clichés which usually limit our apprehension of fascinating sound(s). 

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  • 11/09/12--08:26: Su-Mee at 31 Months

  • I don't know what to say about people who dote on their pets. Once upon a time, I would probably have thought it over-indulgent.  

    When I was a boy, I got a girl kitten whom we named Snowfoot, as she was black with white feet, a white stomach, and a white chin. I don't know why animals coats are colored the way they are. I once heard that Siamese cats are darker where they're hotter (or where their blood collects in their extremities (feet, tail, head)), but I don't know about that. Seems bogus. It certainly doesn't seem to hold true for other cat breeds. 

    We got Su-Mee as a kitten, when he was just a few weeks old. He was born in April 2010. We got him from a breeder. I know the PC thing now is to get your pets from the pound or a shelter, to save them, but we've grown fond of Siamese, and they don't show up very often in rescue. As a male, he may think his name is slightly inappropriate; I often just call him "Sue" (as in "a boy named Sue"). We name all our cats after coffee beans, or nearly. We've had Java, Vanilla ('Nilla), Coco, Mocha (Mokie), Lottie (for latte), and now Su-Mee (for Sumatra). We'll be running out of names soon.    

    Su-Mee grew up in an ideal household, filled with his Mother and siblings. The furniture and rugs were cat-proof, the owners had created a perfect routine, and all the cats got attention and handling and the best food. 

    Su-Mee has turned out to be the best adjusted and habituated animal we've owned. All cats are different, with individual personalities, and each has peculiarities which make it unique. One thing we've noticed with Siamese is that they are creatures of habit; they like to do the same things at the same time every day. Also, they seem very attuned to our moods, checking us constantly and making slight reactive adjustments in their behavior. Su-Mee is by far the most affectionate of the cats we've owned. He requires a certain amount of "lap-time" every day, and likes to cuddle and kiss regularly. He's attached himself to me, and thinks of me as the "alpha male" in the household. Mocha, our other older male, and Su-Mee like to joust and tussle with each other, occasionally racing around the house in mad-cap hijinks. Needless to say, we aren't a family which owns (or displays) crockery or glassware or sculpture on furniture. It wouldn't last long if we were. Also, fabric furniture is endangered, so we cover up the couple of pieces we do have with plastic. 

    Su-Mee has what I would describe as the classic Siamese voice: low-pitched and lamb-like, and when close and curious, a quiet low rumbling murmur. He's a picky eater, and has grown fond of a new brand of crunchies which resemble dark brown Cheerios. He can put those away at an alarming rate, and has begun to get a bit paunchy, not good for an otherwise long and limber body like his. He has the large Siamese translucent ears--as you can see in the photo--and a long, "insinuating" tail. He won't tolerate having his face scrubbed or his nails trimmed. I haven't tried bathing him yet, and I'm not sure I want to try. Cats who don't want to do something can become feral, and Su-Mee is a very strong cat. He's good at chasing bugs, and will often sit on a window-sill watching the birds as they flit among the shrubbery or tree branches outside. Sometimes, when he's getting turned on by this, he'll let out a little cackling sound, something I've seen other cats do when in high hunting mode. 

    Cats generally live between 12-18 years, though some may live longer. Vanilla lived to be 19, and was sweet and affectionate to the end. Lottie died at 8 of breast cancer. I suppose it's possible that Su-Mee may outlive me, if he has a long life. Once, many years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the case of a very rich old woman who left her entire fortune to her cats. I suppose the administrator of the estate probably maintained these animals in some kind of a home, while donating the residue--after his fees--to the SPCA. Or maybe the City of San Francisco made a claim against the estate and seized it to support the local animal control department. 

    Domestic pets depend upon us for their livelihood. Those that "go back into the wild" are no longer domestic, though we still have responsibility for their welfare. Is man's "best friend" the dog, or the cat, or the horse? Obviously there's no completely correct answer. Cats are generally clean, orderly and loyal. Siamese, especially, seem more civilized than other breeds. Su-Mee is a chocolate point, with very deep blue eyes. Right now, he's nagging me for his third breakfast, so I'll conclude this with a purr of appreciation. 

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