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

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    Back at the beginning of this season, I wrote a blog about the status of the Giants, one month in. At that point, the Giants were leading the division, with the Dodgers close on their heels. As the Spring wore on, the Giants built up an impressive, dominating lead of over 10 games over their hated rivals to the South. 

    As we now know, this lead evaporated in mid-season. Marco Scutaro never recovered from his back condition (and his career now looks to be about over, given his age), and there were other problems. Angel Pagan's back also went bad (and by September, he had gone on the disabled list, opting for season-ending surgery to repair a bulging disc). Michael Morse, whose career has been marked by injury, went down in late season with a hip condition, and is apparently lost, even for the playoffs. Brandon Belt and Hector Sanchez both had serious concussions, and Sanchez is also out for the season, Belt only returning in the last week of the regular season.  

    Buster Posey getting a hold of one

    When the season began, the starting line-up looked like this:


    Second base was a problem all year, with Hicks, Adrianza, and Arias sharing part-time duties, until Joe Panik emerged as the rookie sensation of the year. Morse and Posey split duties at first base when Belt went down, and then the team acquired utility specialist Travis Ishikawa (his second tour with the team). 

    Meanwhile, Cain's season fell apart and he had arm surgery in a lost year. Lincecum, whose ups and downs are now becoming routine, suddenly, after throwing his second career no-hitter, couldn't get anyone out, and dropped out of the rotation in favor of Yusmeiro Petit, a journeyman middle reliever. Late in the season, they acquired Jake Peavey from Boston, who filled in for Cain, and he has been vitally important down the closing stretch. Vogelsang has been uneven too, but not unexpectedly, given his history. It's obvious that Bumgarner has become the ace of the staff, finishing the season at 18-10, which could easily have been 22-8 if the team had given him even ordinary support. In addition, he became a dangerous hitter in his own right, batting .258 with 4 homers and 15 RBI's, better than most part-time players on any team.    

    It's no surprise that the Dodgers rose to late season dominance, given their pitching (Kershaw, 21-3, Greinke, 17-8, Ryu, 14-7, and Jansen, 44 saves). The surprise is that they didn't break away faster, since the Giants were so riddled with injuries and unexpected slumps (Romo, Lincecum, Sandoval, Morse). 

    Last evening the Giants persevered in a record-setting 18 inning affair over the Washington Nationals, in which the Nats did not score for 15 innings, finally capitulating when Belt went yard in the top of the frame. Now up 2-0 in the best of 5 series, they look good to make it to the League playoffs, against either the Dodgers or the Cardinals (who are 1-1 in their series). 

    All in all, the Giants have fared well, securing one of two wild card spots, polishing off the Pirates (in their park), and jumping on the Nats, who were favored by everyone over San Francisco. 

    At this juncture, it appears the team may actually make it to the Series, and could even win it. A month ago, when the team was mired in a long slump, who would have predicted this? In a season of injuries and uneven performances, they appear to be peaking at just the right moment. With Belt back, and Peavey pitching his heart out, it just might come true. 

    The Giants won it all in 2010 and 2012. It's 2014, and we're back in the chase. 

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  • 10/16/14--10:15: Ebola Choices - Stage II

  • The big news the last 48 hours has been the new American victim of Ebola, nurse Amber Vinson, the second such "domestic" infection case recorded, since the arrival (and demise on Oct 8) of patient Thomas Eric Duncan. Nurse Vinson flew to Cleveland that same day, then flew back to Dallas, already (at that point) showing signs of illness.

    Now, the Centers for Disease Control are trying to control the outbreak by reaching all the passengers who were on both flights, and all those she may have come into contact with. The planes used in both flights continued in service after she rode on them, so there is even some concern for the passengers and crews who used those planes afterwards.

    Ebola is clearly a persistent and highly contagious disease. Even for those who follow routine procedures, infection is a considerable risk. Handling anyone who has an active infection, or even anything they may have touched, is very risky business. Looking at the people who deal with the disease, wearing their white "spaceman" (or beekeeper) suits with air masks, is reminiscent of the nuclear clean-up crews in Japan.

    Back when the outbreak in West Africa was first being reported, there were immediate calls for quarantine. The CDC, and our government, pooh-poohed the notion of travel restrictions, telling everyone that generic "symptomatic" screening would be effective, and that there was zero risk of infection to Americans, even with native Africans traveling freely between African nations and major American airport cities.

    Diseases are opportunistic life forms. Given the right conditions, they can spread rapidly among species, and can become almost unstoppable if steps are not employed to cut the links to exposure. Ebola has a so-called 21 day "incubation" period, meaning that you may not even be aware that you've become infected for two weeks or more, days in which your movements and contacts, limited or extensive, may be impossible to accurately trace. In our highly mobile world, with people moving and interacting constantly with one another, using the same transit and appliance systems, infectious diseases have a distinct advantage, even if the method of transmission is limited to physical contact (not airborne).

    I advocated strict quarantine procedures when I first heard about the crisis, suggesting that we should limit incoming traffic to Americans only, and placing them all on 21 day quarantine upon arrival. We heard the same circular arguments against this, that we'd become accustomed to with the immigration crisis. We were told that it was "impossible" and therefore could not be done, while being told (at the same time) that it was "unfair" and "a restriction upon freedom" and therefore "should not be done" on principle. Either we couldn't because we couldn't or we shouldn't because we shouldn't. Neither argument sounded intelligent to me.

    There are difficulties involved in controlling a spreading disease. But with an incurable, deadly bug like Ebola, what other choices do we have? Whereas our initial choice included keeping infected individuals OUT of the country, now that we have the disease INSIDE our own borders, we've had to retreat from the airports to the cities and towns and travel corridors that the disease is now following.

    I'd like someone to explain to me why this "unfortunate" but well-nigh inevitable progression would not better have been handled with greater emergency than it was. Had we taken steps to prevent the arrival of native Africans from the infected countries, and to see to it that whoever was let in was tracked strictly for three weeks, I doubt this new domestic health crisis would ever have happened.

    It was another case of politically correct complacence in the face of a dire threat that we were simply too lazy and impractical to address. Yes it is true that we're only talking about three individuals here, but Bengazi was only a handful of people too. We're always ready to jump to conviction when the "enemy" is a man or a gang or an army. But when the enemy is a virus or a bacteria, the issue is the same. Before the disease arrived, we were comforted by the assumption that our hospitals could handle any unlikely case; but now we're hearing just how ill-prepared and vulnerable our health facilities are to deal with a disease like Ebola.

    We deserve better from our government--and better from our health care system.

    RESTRICT ALL TRAVEL BETWEEN THE INFECTED COUNTRIES AND THE U.S. IMMEDIATELY. Don't count on "screening" or "symptoms" identification. Limit the movement of humanity to the region where it's known to be active.

    If we fail to control Ebola through movement, we'll end up having to fight it in our living rooms, school rooms, busses, trains, planes, restaurants, arenas, offices--in short, in every place where people congregate or live.

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    Last evening, Madison Bumgarner won the first game of the 2014 World Series against the Kansas City Royals.

    The media has been fawning over the Royals--who havn't appeared in a World Series since 1985, the year I spent in Northern Japan, listening to Curt Gowdy (piped in on American Service radio) crow over the exploits of George Brett (who would eventually end up in the Hall of Fame), and Bret Saberhagen (20 game winner (and Cy Young winner) that year at only age 21). 

    After the Giants had silenced the true blue crowd at Kauffman Stadium in the first inning with three quick runs, Bumgarner went on the tame this obstreperous bunch of upstart rascals, holding them to four hits and one (home) run.  

    Bumgarner's ascendancy to the pinnacle of major league pitching has not been unexpected. Raised in rural Hickory, North Carolina, sleeping in the loft of a log cabin his father built, he set the regional scholastic sports world afire, excelling at both pitching and hitting, establishing benchmark records wherever he went. Known as "country hard ball" pitcher early on, he eventually developed other pitches to confuse and frustrate opposing batters. At 6'5" and 235lbs, and with an easy wide slinging three-quarter delivery, he is usually good for seven or eight innings with little apparent strain, and he brings a strong, centered concentration along with his impressive physical skills. He doesn't "over-think" or let things get him down. 

    Almost three years ago,  I noted the changing fortunes of the Giants' pitching staff. Then, Tim Lincecum was in the midst of an incredible run, having garnered consecutive Cy Youngs in 2008 and 2009. He seemed on queue to set career marks in strike-outs and winning percentage in the annals of Giants' club history. That same year, a young Madison Bumgarner was in his first full year in the majors, and he was already beginning to be noticed. That year he went 13-13, with a 3.21 ERA, and 191 strike-outs. The amazing part was that he was only 21 years old. 

    Lincecum had broken in at age 23, and had his first full year in 2008.  This year, at age 24, Bumgarner has already won 67 regular season games, and is considered a "veteran" of the post-season, having participated in both the championship runs of 2010 and 2012. Saberhagen, whom I mentioned above, went on to have a wonderful--though not perhaps consistently great--career, eventually going 167-117 over sixteen seasons, winning a second Cy Young in 1989, but having a mostly so-so steady decline after that. 

    Previously, I noted that a pitcher like Lincecum, somewhat slighter in build, and with a "haywire" motion that was prone to disequilibrium and fatigue, and who depended on velocity rather than variety and control, was unlikely to have a long career. Bumgarner, in contrast, was big, strong, with an easy delivery, and possessed stamina and an emotional level that boded well for the long haul. These are all clichés, of course, in baseball parlance. The actual performance of a pitcher who possessed all these attributes might be mediocre, or even sub-par. Most professional athletes have very strong bodies, and determination to match. These qualities, by themselves, don't make great athletes. 

    But it was apparent, to anyone who noticed, that Bumgarner was potentially a Hall of Famer, in the mold of Warren Spahn, Randy Johnson, and Steve Carlton. Fifteen years from today, I would expect Tim Lincecum to be but a fading memory of a young phenom ("The Freak") who had four years of flaming glory and then quickly petered out, while Bumgarner probably will go on to win over 300 games, and a couple of Cy Youngs into the bargain. Astonishingly, he's still only 25 years young. He's hardly begun. 

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  • 10/26/14--10:51: Coke is Life!

  • I've never been much of a fan of Coca-Cola. One year during high school, I drank it frequently with my lunch, and that semester I wound up with 7 cavities discovered at one appointment at the family dentist's office. I stopped drinking Coke immediately, and I haven't taken it up since. My wife, who grew up in Texas, was a Doctor Pepper drinker in her youth, but she doesn't like soft drinks any more. I drank soft drinks occasionally, until my late 50's, when I developed a small sugar problem, so I avoided them after that, along with hard candy. 

    The history of Coca-Cola is one of the great American mass market product success stories. Beginning as "patent medicine" in the late 19th Century, it was taken up and turned into a popular branded soft drink early in the new century, and today it's the most recognizable consumer product (and logo) in the world. The original formula has always been kept secret by the company, though good imitations have been made. I don't know how or whether copyright protection is maintained by Coca-Cola, but I'd bet they test their competitors regularly to see if someone has mastered their secret combination of ingredients. Originally the formula included trace amounts of actual cocaine and caffeine, but they soon abandoned the cocaine, separating the drug from the other components of the coca plant they use (for flavor). There was an attempt by the Federal Government to force Coca-Cola to remove the caffeine element, but that was defeated.    

    In the 1980's, the company changed the formula, and began to use corn fructose syrup in preference to cane sugar. I have no idea what the difference is between traditional "Classic Coke" and the new version, but I suppose it's a small matter of degree. In any event, I was surprised, when I mixed this new cocktail concoction, that it turned out to taste very much like the Coca-Cola taste I remember.   

    2 parts sweet vermouth
    2 parts dark rum
    1 part triple sec
    1 part Creme de Violette
    1 part lemon
    Shaken and served up

    I always supposed that Coke had been built on a root beer (or sarsaparilla) base taste. Root beer was very popular when I was growing up, and there were A&W franchise outlets all over the place. Root beer floats (with vanilla ice cream scoops) were a real treat. The ice cream seemed to make the root beer foam and fizz, and the combination was terrific. Root beer, Coke, Pepsi, Doctor Pepper--they all seem to be chasing a similar taste formula, but Coke has always been king.   

    Dark rum based drinks are inevitably associated with the South and with tropical settings. But you can get rum liquor anywhere in the world today. Even though I was never a big Coca-Cola fan, I like the flavor of this cocktail. Give it a try, and see whether you don't think it tastes almost like original Coca-Cola!

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  • 10/30/14--11:32: Joe Panik Birthday

  • Just in case you haven't heard, the San Francisco Giants won the World Series of Major League Baseball last night in Kansas City. It was their third title in five years, a feat accomplished very rarely in league history, and precedent-setting as far as this franchise goes. 

    Central to each of these titles has been the Giants farm system production, in each year, acquiring the services of a young player who would be crucial to their success. In 2010 it was Buster Posey, the catcher who was that season's Rookie of the Year. In 2012, it was Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt, both in their first full seasons, having been brought up in mid-year 2011. 

    This year it was Joe Panik (pronounced panic), who, brought up in June, managed to his .305 while playing brilliantly in the field. Giants fans will recall that the original plan had been to have veteran Marco Scutaro play 2nd. Following Scutaro's performance in the 2012 season and World Series, the team signed him to a three-year contract. But Scutaro's health got in the way of that, causing management to explore alternatives at that position. Brandon Hicks began the year there, but his hitting was so light (despite 8 home runs), that other options had to be tried. Ehire Adrianza was given a shot, even Dan Uggla, released by the Braves, got a look. Then Panik was called up, and suddenly we had a real 2nd baseman again.     


    Watching Panik handle himself at bat, or in the field, you have the feeling you're watching a veteran. He's patient, deliberate and shows no sense of hesitation or distraction. Pressure seems to intensify his focus, rather than diverting it. Not a power hitter, he hits to all fields and makes good contact. He's difficult to strike out; when he gets two strikes, he gets very cagy and selective. Like Posey in 2010, he rises to the occasion, and seems made for the part. At 24, he's still a comparative youngster, though he's clearly ready for the big time. 

    Today is Panik's birthday, October 30th, 1990. What must it feel like to wake up on your birthday, after having won the World Series the night before? I can't imagine. It's a helluva way to begin a pro career. Starting at the top. If his performance so far is any indication, the next few years should prove very exciting for Panik. He solidifies an infield already among the league's best, with Belt at 1st, Crawford at 2nd, Sandoval at 3rd, and Posey behind the plate. Lately there's been talk that Sandoval might be lured away in free agency for big money. If the Giants let that happen, shame on them. The team's only weakness presently appears to be in Left Field, and among the starting pitching ranks. Will Lincecum return to his Cy Young form? Will Cain come back from surgery?  Pitching has always been the strength of this team over the last six years. Some changes seem likely, but at least for the present, Second Base is no longer a concern. We have Joe Panik now. Happy Birthday, Joe!

    Panik makes an astounding play last night at a crucial point in the game

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    Poetic license is defined as any departure from convention or from factual accuracy taken by a writer to achieve a desired effect. It's a colloquial term, used to denote a distortion or alteration of the conventions of grammar or language.

    In the sense I'm using it here, it's also the freedom to--deliberately, and perhaps obviously--say things which may be harsh, critical, or exaggerated about a subject--things which we might ordinarily refrain from saying out of courtesy, or things which are simply (though perhaps, again, obviously or expediently) untrue.

    Social criticism in literature refers to an appraisal of society, for any perceived flaw or condition which results in hardship, implying an alternative mode of social construction.

    Putting these two principles together makes social satire in literature. Satire may take many forms: In drama, the representation of objects or subjects of ridicule;  in poetry, a rhetoric of mockery or disdain or burlesque.  

    The early Modernist poets were adept at impersonating the mannerisms and conceits of the classes they despised or were amused by. As the 20th Century looked disdainfully back at the Victorian Age, it aped the platitudes of, and aimed literary arrows at, the decaying archetypes of presumption or mediocrity.

    Young Edward Estlin Cummings took aim at the world of his parents' Harvard society, skewering their pretensions and meddlesome gossip in this deliberately eccentric sonnet.

    the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls     A
    are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds             B
    (also, with the church's protestant blessings              C 
    daughters,unscented shapeless spirited)                     D
    they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,     D 
    are invariably interested in so many things—             C
    at the present writing one still finds                               B
    delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?               A
    perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy              E
    scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D                                  F
    .... the Cambridge ladies do not care, above                 G 
    Cambridge if sometimes in its box of                              G
    sky lavender and cornerless, the                                       F
    moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy                E

    The degree of sarcasm displayed here--as with so many of Cummings's poems--far exceeds the putative limits of sophisticated lampoonery, sounding clearly adolescent in spirit and intent. It's the kind of mockery that teen-agers delight in, but which a more mature mind sees as hyperbole; which explains why Cummings has always been, and will always be, popular with young readers, especially those with a rebellious streak. 

    At about the same time, Thomas Stearns Eliot was composing archly poisonous darts of the same variety, albeit with more subtlety and style. An Englishman by adoption and manner, Eliot could look with chilling irony on the hypocrisies of respectability and social decay which characterized the devastation of Europe following the First World War. In this sense, his view of American prosperity, and its attendant nouveau sanctity, was filtered through his personal alienation, symbolized by his abandonment of his native homeland.  

    Miss Helen Slingsby was my maiden aunt,                                     A
    And lived in a small house near a fashionable square                  B
    Cared for by servants to the number of four.                                  B
    Now when she died there was silence in heaven                            C 
    And silence at her end of the street.                                                    D
    The shutters were drawn and the undertaker wiped his feet--   D
    He was aware that this sort of thing had occurred before.           B
    The dogs were handsomely provided for,                                          B
    But shortly afterwards the parrot died too.                                       E
    The Dresden clock continued ticking on the mantelpiece,           F
    And the footman sat upon the dining-table                                      G
    Holding the second housemaid on his knees--                               H
    Who had always been so careful while her mistress lived.           I

    The diction underscores the condescension I'm calling here poetic license: "servants to the number of four" and "aware that this sort of thing had occurred before" etc. The delightful turn from "his knees--Who had always been so careful while her mistress lived" in which the subject switches, underscoring the impropriety with a nice sarcastic twist.

    Miss Nancy Ellicott Strode across the hills and broke them,
    Rode across the hills and broke them--
    The barren New England hills--
    Riding to hounds
    Over the cow-pasture.

    Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
    And danced all the modern dances;
    And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
    But they knew that it was modern.

    Upon the glazen shelves kept watch
    Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith,
    The army of unalterable law. 

    Matthew and Waldo, of course, are Matthew Arnold and Ralph Waldo Emerson, standard-bearers in the "army of unalterable law." Here we stand apart from the social phenomena of the younger generation as it blunders and flaunts its way towards a familiar disgrace, pleased (along with Eliot) to imagine ourselves immune from (or cheered by) the diversions of youth. Eliot characteristically can celebrate this mischief while taking a not very convincing moral tone. We're never altogether sure whether Eliot actually invests emotionally in these personified ironies, or whether he just enjoys the unbalanced pretense. I suppose that, as an artist, he could have it both ways. 

    The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript
    Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.
    When evening quickens faintly in the street,
    Wakening the appetites of life in some
    And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript,
    I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning
    Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucauld,
    If the street were time and he at the end of the street,
    And I say, "Cousin Harriet, here is the Boston Evening Transcript."

    Francois de La Rochefoucault [1613-1680], it will be recalled, was the great French author of Maxims, witty one-liners which deconstruct human frailty and cupidity with panache. The fantasy image of seeing the French nobleman of three centuries earlier appearing as a figure in the little episode of Eliot's visit to his Cousin Harriet, sets up a tension between the sheepish complacency of the readers of the Boston Evening Transcript (a newspaper that went defunct in 1941), and the impish speaker of the poem. The whole tone of the lines is a kind of knowing weariness, supercilious, condescending, and sad.    

    We might say that when poets wish to criticize society, they may do so with a permission that derives from the license granted any artist, but which carries certain risks. Art is not science; the social sciences are a relatively new invention, which have grown up out of the study of behavior, in the mass, as well as in the individual. 

    Art (poetry) is first and foremost entertainment; any artistic criticism of society must be inspiring, or pleasing, or amusing, or it's nothing but hot air. Any writer who pretends not to be implicated in the problems he criticizes, risks being thought vain, or heartless, or both. As readers, we may join in on the fun, or feel offended by its daring ruthlessness. Art is a mirror we hold up to ourselves; or it is a window through which we view the world; or it is a wall on which are represented images of whatever design. Reflective, translucent, or illusionary--we inspect and judge each other according to our lights. Everyone does this, whether they admit it or not.  

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  • 11/25/14--08:26: Good-bye Panda

  • In J.D. Salinger's classic The Catcher in the Rye, the hero Holden Caulfield says at one point, "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." 

    I was only 9 years old when I first read that line from Catcher, but I understood then implicitly what it meant. Nostalgia can be a drug if taken too often, or in too large doses, but the remorse we feel about the irredeemable past is a familiar sensation, at least to me. Losing people along the way, through death or departure, is an inexorable fact of growing up, aging, moving on. Those with whom we shared time, or event, or space, may come eventually to haunt our consciousness, as Evelyn Waugh puts it, in Brideshead Revisited, "as ghosts are said to do."*

    Yesterday, it was reported that Pablo Sandoval, the San Francisco Giants' redoubtable, eccentric, and oddly charming third baseman since coming to the majors in 2003 at age 22, had signed a five-year contract (worth a reported 95 million dollars) with the Boston Red Sox. 

    The free-agent signing wasn't unexpected. The Giants had failed to offer "The Panda" (as he had come to be affectionately known) a contract extension before the start of the 2014 season, and there was palpable suspicion on both sides--Pablo, and the Giants management--that the team's sense of his worth was less than might be deserved. 

    Statistically, Sandoval has always been an interesting case. As his career stats (below) show:  

    year       age           games         at-bats  R    H     2b   3n   HR RBI  SB       BB SO  BA           SLG
    2008 21 SFG NL 41 154 145 24 50 10 1 3 24 0 0 4 14 .345 .357 .490 .847 118 71 6 1 0 4 1 352
    2009 22 SFG NL 153 633 572 79 189 44 5 25 90 5 5 52 83 .330 .387 .556 .943 144 318 10 4 0 5 13 *53/2D MVP-7
    2010 23 SFG NL 152 616 563 61 151 34 3 13 63 3 2 47 81 .268 .323 .409 .732 99 230 26 1 0 5 12 *53
    2011 ★ 24 SFG NL 117 466 426 55 134 26 3 23 70 2 4 32 63 .315 .357 .552 .909 155 235 12 0 1 7 9 5/3D AS,MVP-17
    2012 ★ 25 SFG NL 108 442 396 59 112 25 2 12 63 1 1 38 59 .283 .342 .447 .789 123 177 13 1 0 7 4 5/3D AS
    2013 26 SFG NL 141 584 525 52 146 27 2 14 79 0 0 47 79 .278 .341 .417 .758 116 219 19 6 0 6 5 *5/D
    2014 27 SFG NL 157 638 588 68 164 26 3 16 73 0 0 39 85 .279 .324 .415 .739 111 244 16 4 0 7 6 *5/D
    7 Yrs 869 3533 3215 398 946 192 19 106 462 11 12 259 464 .294 .346 .465 .811 123 1494 102 17 1 41 50

    --he was consistently a very good but not consistently great hitter, with some power. In fact, inconsistency was a given with Pablo. Emotionally, he presented the case of an immature, impulsive, undisciplined athlete, given to swinging at bad balls, especially in clutch situations. His physical mannerisms, and presence, suggested boyish enthusiasm. 

    Also, as became routine each season, Pablo had a weight problem, which threatened to impede his balance, speed and efficiency, both at the plate, and in the field. For a man of his physical build, he seemed incredibly agile and quick, "like a cat," announcers would often remark. He could dive for screaming line drives on either side of him, leap to his feet, and make lightning throws to first base. 

    Opposing pitchers often despaired of facing him, since he was as likely to strike a ball well out of the strike-zone, for a hit, as he was to swing through a straight fast-ball down the middle. You could outsmart him, pitch around him, but he might still beat you, swatting a pitch a foot outside into left field for a double. 

    Though nominally a switch-hitter, his performance has increasingly been from the left side of the plate, his comparative advantage being as much as 100 points average difference. Given his height and weight, he was a slow runner. Playing at China Basin park, his home run totals, given the long right field dimensions, would never be impressive. Pablo was a "contact hitter," a "spray hitter"--unpredictable, frustrating, and perplexing. 

    His coach, Bruce Bochty, understood Pablo's character, and usually left him alone, realizing that his fragile emotional immaturity would be unlikely to respond to direct criticism or scolding. Pablo rewarded this patience with great performances in big games. Christened the "Kung Fu Panda" by x-Giants hurler Barry Zito, the nickname stuck, and before long, the stadium was full of "panda hats" and head-masks. Sandoval was a fan favorite, as much as for his roly-polly onfield presence as for his unlikely heroics. As a regular fan of the team, I probably heard or saw him play at least 500 times, and he became an accustomed persona in my world. 

    Pablo didn't speak good English, and tended to seem a little exotic in person. You wondered what he thought about things, and how he might seem off the field. A native Venezuelan, he must certainly have felt strange in 21st Century America. 

    Playing for the Boston Red Sox, Pablo will certainly have big expectations to fulfill. Bosox fans will undoubtedly become impatient with him, and one suspects that, unless he exceeds the usual demands of a big-time free-agent star, he isn't likely to command the same respect and appreciation he did in San Francisco. 

    Just before the beginning of Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, in Kansas City, the television cameras panned into the Giants dug-out, where Pablo could be seen going down the bench, whispering into the ear of each Giants player. It seemed clear that he was probably making his heart-felt good-byes to each of his team-mates, the implication being that he already had decided, perhaps unconsciously, that this would be the last chance he would have to do that. Or so it seemed to me at the time. 

    As it turned out, the Giants apparently had ended up offering Pablo an equivalent amount of money for an equal number of years, as Boston had. But Pablo must have felt, in some sense, betrayed, and wished to go somewhere he was appreciated. 

    Professional baseball is a business, and the players are employees. Baseball is a game, with rules, but a great part of the appeal for the fans, perhaps the most important part, is the sentiment of joy and caring that go into their appreciation. Identifying with players, spending one's hopes and fears on the performance of a group of grown men striving to succeed at a "boy's game" is a kind of legitimate folly that is as much a part of the American experience as democratic politics, or outrageously avant garde art, or fighting in foreign wars. 

    It may be that we crave unlikely heroes, people who (like us) dream of being on the world's stage, striving to exceed our native abilities, and occasionally overcoming impossible odds to achieve feats of daring or skill. This certainly accounts for some of Sandoval's appeal. He was one of us, imperfect, unusual, and not always in complete control of his emotions. 

    The hole he leaves in the Giants' heart can't be filled. The Giants may sign a slugging outfielder, or a new young rookie third baseman may arrive on the scene. But the Panda is irreplaceable, a key component of three championship teams, and a quirky, funny boy-man who alternatively broke our hearts, and heartened us. 

    He will be missed.

    *The full quotation is "I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world."    

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    It was reported yesterday that Mark Strand had died, at 80, in Brooklyn. 80 isn't a young age, so it was not a surprise, and not tragic. Strand lived a long life, filled with literary accomplishments and honors, including a McArthur Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize, and Poet Laureate of the United States. 

    I've written about him before, here, and have vaguely followed his career over the years since I first encountered his poems, in the mid-1960's, in The New Yorker. Later, when I went to Iowa, at the Poetry Workshop, I read his first collection in the Rare Book Room of the university, Sleeping With One Eye Open, after having picked up a copy of his first trade collection, Reasons for Moving [Atheneum, 1968], while I was still at Berkeley.    

    In retrospect, Strand was in every respect an establishment poet. He wasn't an experimenter with language, his poems were spare, and straightforward, and he didn't have a political or personal agenda in his work. He'd been influenced by Hispanic writers, Borges and Alberti; and as he later told us, by Wallace Stevens, though this aspect wouldn't have seemed as obvious, since his work was quite unlike Stevens's lush, elaborate and elegant surfaces. Strand's work was plain, and unpretentious.

    Despite its spare simplicity, his work wasn't like Oppen, or Williams, or Frost. Oddly, he seemed to have more in common with a poet like John Ashbery, or Charles Simic--with eccentric, surrealistic settings, and improbable narratives. 

    I heard him read three times over the years, once in Berkeley, once at Iowa a little later, and much later in the 1990's, in Chicago. Strand was an imposing figure, tall, gaunt, ruggedly handsome, and a natty dresser. He was sophisticated, if a bit amused with himself, but seldom really cheerful. 

    The mood of his poems varied between gravity and absurdity in ways that felt European. And in that way, and because of his physical presence, he seemed continental. His work is post-Modern in ways that set it apart from the post-War generation which preceded him (Lowell, Bishop, Shapiro, Jarrell, Wilbur, Nemerov, Stafford, Simpson, Logan), though formally his career fits neatly into the tradition they created. His tone is usually understaded, he's never given to rhetorical flights, and he never challenges accepted standards of subject matter or styles. In manner, he's close to the later work of Donald Justice, W.S. Merwin, or even Galway Kinnell. 

    I often read a kind of fatalistic quality in his poems, not unlike James Wright or Kinnell. It seemed to me that taking that position early in one's career was likely to become a straight-jacket later on, but Strand never wavered. He always took himself, and his work, seriously. 

    I'm not sure why his death seems somehow unexpected, or peculiar. He often wrote about his own death, and what it might mean to know about it, as it were, after the fact. But it does.  

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    In T.S. Eliot's famous minor poem The Hollow Men, there is a repeated refrain, 

    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper.

    This quatrain has entered the culture as a kind of proto-Modernist formula, defining a certain weary cynicism characteristic of its time (the complete version was first published in 1925). As an emblematic heresy, antithetical to the reigning pieties of its time, it stands as an echoing watershed moment in the progress of Western Culture--dry, exhausted, camp, rejecting the aspiring "suit" of respectable armor of the knights of industry and finance (hollow men). European civilization may have seemed decadent, going through the motions, in the years following the disillusion and devastation of the First World War. 

    Meanwhile, 13 years later, a young Serbian boy is born in Belgrade. Sixteen years later, 1954, he emigrated to America. His first two books, published by George Hitchcock's Kayak Press, were described as among the "ugliest" books ever, illustrated in Hitchcock's signature amateur surreal-collage style, printed on cheap colored paper, crudely stapled or glued together. But in a way, Simic's work rather belonged in that format, given its formal manner. Hitchcock liked surrealists, and Simic's work was then, and has always tended to be, surrealist in its approach to subject-matter. 

    Given his background, it's no surprise that Simic was heavily influenced by the literary traditions of his original native language, as well as by the events and experiences he had lived through in Yugoslavia before coming to America. His translations of Yugoslav poets have appeared with regularity right beside his own poetry collections. 

    His poetic style has been consistent throughout the 50 years since he began publishing, and it has brought him successive honors and awards, including a stint as America's Poet Laureate, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for his collection The World Doesn't End [1989], a collection of short prose-poems. Though the prose poem hasn't been Simic's primary form--most of his work consists of relatively short poems, narrow lines--his work has always been expressed through short, grammatically simple declarative statements. Formally, he isn't an innovator, isn't interested in playing with or altering syntax, or in rhetorical flourishes. His vocabulary is elemental.

    Simic could be, and has been, called primitive. This primitive quality derives I think not just from his subject-matter, but from the deliberately unadorned and "naive" way he presents it. There is no showing off in Simic's work; he's not trying to impress you with his facility or his ability to construct complex structures. He usually presents himself as a simpleton, who's tapped in to a deep stream of imagery or event, crudely humorous, or violent, or mysterious. I think of Simic in the same context as Jerzy Kosinski, both men as witnesses to a kind of primordial, semi- or pre-civilized European folk memory--in Simic's case, his experience of the distress and dislocation brought about by World War II in Yugoslavia, during his impressionable years as a child and young teenager.    

    The cover of The World Doesn't End shows a photo of an untitled collage by Joseph Cornell, a very appropriate image for the kind of poems Simic writes, which tend to be collections of small objects or events whose only connection to each other is their metaphorical relationships he is able to set up.     



         It's a store that specializes in antique porcelain. She goes around it with a finger on her lips. Tsss! We must be quiet when we come near the teacups. Not a breath allowed near the sugar bowls. A teeny grain of dust has fallen on a wafer-thin saucer. She makes an "oh" with her owlet-mouth. On her feet she wears soft, thickly padded slippers around which mice scurry.

    A piece like this reads as a kind of surreal child's story, abbreviated and altered to suit an adult mind.


         I am the last Napoleonic soldier. It's almost two hundred years later and I am still retreating from Moscow. The road is lined with white birch trees and the mud comes up to my knees. The one-eyed woman wants to sell me a chicken, and I don't even have any clothes on. 
         The Germans are going one way; I am going the other. The Russians are going still another way and waving good-by. I have a ceremonial saber. I use it to cut my hair, which is four feet long.  

    All the pieces in the book are untitled, except for five (which are set out in lines, as poems). Simic's imagination runs to the macabre, the odd, the absurd. People and things simply appear, without explanation or context, and magical, improbable events and visions occur without warning or continuity. They might seem like Magritte compositions, with a tuba on fire, or a bird of stone floating above a cubic ocean. Simic's poetic world is one of continual surprises, constant upheaval and squirrelly intrusions. His is a language of images, constructed in the way dreams are, like journeys through slightly familiar--though often suddenly unfamiliar--surroundings. 

    One feels that these little stories--or whatever they are--are like half-remembered (or imperfectly recovered) mythic fairy-tales, conjured up during the dark ages of European pre-history by slavic ancestors living in tribes among dense forested regions. Religions tell us that the world is born and the world ends, but what if the world was never born, and what if the world doesn't end, but just goes on and on forever, the living begetting and getting and dying forever, without any reckoning? That has the ring of desperation or hopelessness about it. 


         The dead man steps down from the scaffold. He holds his bloody head under his arm. 
         The apple trees are in flower. He's making his way to the village tavern with everybody watching. There, he takes a seat at one of the tables and orders two beers, one for him and one for his head. My mother wipes her hands on her apron and serves him. 
         It's so quiet in the world. One can hear the old river, which in its confusion sometimes forgets and flows backwards. 

    If the violence and humor here seems crude, that may be the underlying message. Nature, and the primitive communal life of pre-civilized humanity, were indeed harsh, and unforgiving. We know that in pre-historic times, human life expectancy was less than 35 years, and without medicine or dentistry, pain and suffering and disability were nearly universal. Sex and reproduction began in the early 'teens, and conflict among groups was rife. Superstition and fear reigned supreme. Technology may have taken mankind "out of the woods" but perhaps may not have taken the "woods" out of mankind.       

    As we mature, do we outgrow the stories of our childhood? Are children's tales really innocent diversions, or do they serve as  passage-ways out of innocence into the terrible nightmare of real life--its strangeness and mystery, its suffering and hopelessness and death? If the surrealists wanted to tap into the deeper levels of consciousness, where reality and unreality jostle uncertainly together, would they find there the evidence of our madness, or the keys to a brilliant paradise of possibility and ecstatic enlightenment?  

    Simic speaks in the same common language of post-surrealist surrealists, a poorly defined group which might include James Tate, Mark Strand, Philip Lamantia, Robert Bly, Richard Brautigan, Stephen Dobyns, Russell Edson, James Wright. A poetry straightforward in its syntax and rhetoric and locutions, but very free with narrative continuity, using fantastic or absurd imagery and event as ciphers in a language of intuitive apperception. Most effective when most convincingly profound in its probings of "secret" connections among objects, symbols, or impressions. Comic or serious elements co-existing in the same head, even in the same poem, with unpredictable results.  

    Simic's gift seems to have been to combine the primitivist's raw earthiness with the surrealist's dexterity in the use of improbable imagery--its drollery and bizarre humor. It often feels almost like a translation from another language, and like translation may sometimes seem alien or foreign in expression. And with Simic, it's always important to remember that he's essentially an emigré--a mind poised between different cultures--Serbo-Croatian and American--and different languages. His work doesn't feel American, and its alien quality seems deliberately cultivated, to charm and mystify his American audience. His is an American success story, the foreign immigrant who rose to the front rank of literary prominence, to attain the post of Poet Laureate of his adopted country.             

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    My Fall-Winter reading list this year has included Ben Yagoda's About Town, The New Yorker and The World It Made [Charles Scribner's Sons, 2000].   

    Ben Yagoda

    I should preface my remarks about the book by relating some of my personal history. I first saw The New Yorker magazine at about age 13, in a drug-store on a magazine-rack, that would have been about 1960. I don't recall any of the articles it contained, but what struck me immediately was the understated modesty of the layout, and the density of its content. The first part of the text consisted of a very detailed series of announcements and reviews of events and places and opportunities, in very small typeface. It was clearly designed to be of use to residents or visitors to New York, though the magazine was distributed nation-wide (even around the world). 

    My mom, who had been a reader of The New Yorker since her youth, before World War II, gave me a subscription as a Christmas present in 1961, and I remained a regular subscriber through my early adult life, until the year in which Tina Brown took over as Editor in Chief in 1973. 

    By 1960, of course, The New Yorker was already a much different periodical than it had been in its early years--beginning in 1925. Initially a "humorous" magazine, it underwent a transition after the War, becoming a more serious, socially and politically responsible organ. Despite its ostensible "light" content mandate, its editor, the redoubtable Harold Ross, held very strong opinions about editorial policies regarding accuracy, grammar, decency, and factual verification. In consequence, when the magazine began to publish more serious content, its integrity commanded more respect than is typical of popular journals, because they checked their facts carefully before going to press. On the other hand, The New Yorker's early reputation was built on the work of its humorists (Thurber, Perelman, Benchley, et al) and its talented cartoonists. It was a magazine of sophisticated comedy and manners, in an era when people read for recreation, instead of watching television (or interacting with "personal" devices). 

    Yagoda's book is a carefully researched history, touching on the major changes, the editorial department's policies, the columnists and feature writers and cartoonists, and some of the larger issues and events in the magazine's progress, over time. In particular, Yagoda was given access to the magazine's internal memoranda and correspondence, from the archive at the New York Public Library, allowing him an insider's view of the relationship between the editors and its staff, and between its editors and its contributors. The official story is thus enhanced by internal gossip and some of the private friction we usually aren't privy to in accounts of this type. 

    The big names of the early years--James Thurber, E.B. White, Alexander Woollcott, Peter Arno, Otto Soglow--gave the magazine a feeling and an atmosphere that was lighthearted, but sharp-eyed. Though not initially designed as a "news" magazine, it prided itself on being as responsible about the facts ("news") it did print, as it was careful about not making spelling or grammar mistakes, which developed into an obsession, with a whole department (the "fact-checkers") devoted to questioning and  verifying every assertion--claim, quotation, assumption, etc.--its contributors might make. This bred confidence among its readers, while establishing a plateau of plausibility upon which writers of accounts could depend. Beginning in the 1930's, a handful of writers, which included notably A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, started composing accounts and reports which contained versions of events and second-hand bits of narrative which would have been impossible to verify. The inclusion of such unverified material tended to be swept along in the tide of editorial presumption at the magazine, to the degree that the whole concept of fiction versus non-fiction journalism became a little blurred. When New Yorker contributors later published collections of the "Talk of the Town" section or longer pieces, in books, they were often described as "stories." 

    In the news business, a "story" is a factual account of something that purportedly did happen, whereas an editorial is an "opinion" piece in which open-ended, not wholly factual, assertions may be made. The New Yorker's style of presenting articles and contributions without any lead-in or queueing (just the byline at the end, the author), tended to make the distinction between fact and fiction vague. This may not have been deliberate, and the editorial determination to be accurate probably encouraged the assumption that this distinction was clear enough, given context, not to cause confusion. The magazine tended to shy away from highly controversial subject-matter, and shunned promotional, or publicity-driven material--at least in its earlier period (up through the beginning of the 1950's). By the 1960's, however, the concept of "story" had become perhaps a bit too equivocal. 

    In September 1965, Truman Capote published a four part serial account in The New Yorker, In Cold Blood, A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. As Capote would eventually say, the book was a "new" kind of writing, what he called the "non-fiction novel" comprised of actual material, but handled in a way that emphasized its dramatic potentials, bringing the fiction writer's skill at presenting and arranging events and accounts, in such a way as to raise it to the level of art, instead of mere journalism. Recently, there have been published reports about the inaccuracies in the book, which have shed some new light on the relationship between The New Yorker's reputation for inviolable commitment to truth, and its willingness to capitulate whenever the urge was strongest. Capote had published this kind of material before in the magazine, The Muses Are Heard, an account of an American opera-company's trip to the U.S.S.R. in 1955 (staging a production of Porgy and Bess), and so had an understanding about what accuracy meant, in the context of its appearance there. His continued insistence--his bragging, really--in the years following In Cold Blood's very successful and profitable appearance, about his having "invented" a new literary form, was an ironic twist with respect to The New Yorker's long-standing reputation, and its own claims fidelity and integrity. 

    Later, Alastair Reid, a Scottish poet, translator and essayist, admitted in an interview, that much of the material he had written in an autobiographical account of his living in Spain, published in The New Yorker, was in fact "manipulated" and even "made-up." And in the pieces authored by Liebling and Mitchell, among others, it has been acknowledged that, over the years, much of the material which had passed, tacitly, as journalistic fact, had been concocted or slightly altered to suit artistic aims. Hence the peculiar ambiguity of the term "story." 

    As an aside, here, we might ask what the distinctions are between fact and fiction in feature news writing. And even, to raise the level of discourse even further, what is truth?--or, at least, in the context of accounts of past events--how do establish the truth of history? How is a fact a fact, and how can it be verified? And even assuming that we can agree on what constitutes an actual fact, what allegiance do we owe to this kernel of truth, and how shall it be interpreted, or understood?  

    In ancient times, the Greek historians Herodotus, and Thucydides, wrote accounts of wars and political intrigue, which are now regarded as the first examples of formal history. Over the last five hundred years, scholars have debated about the degree of verisimilitude and verifiable fact in their works, and how it should be interpreted. Herodotus was known to think that the purpose of history was to derive ethical lessons, and that it was permissible both to make up stories to illustrate a point, and to knowingly alter facts to suit this greater "truth." Thucydides developed evidence by investigating and comparing different accounts, though in the end his methods of sourcing and gauging were probably no more reliable than Herodotus's were. Disagreements about what actually happened in history are the very stuff of historical research, and opinions about the meaning of what happened, many times more so. Capote's very poetic narrative certainly conveys a sense of the tragedy, the search for justice, and the souls of the participants, in ways that quotidian journalistic approaches could never have done. And that seems, now, 50 years later, the greater point and value of what he wrote, even if it wasn't the truth, the whole truth, so help [us] God, that really happened.  

    Truth is a much more elusive quantity than we like to think it is. When we read something, a report or an account, we can weigh degrees of probability against our own knowledge, our powers of deduction, or our sense of the trustworthiness of the speaker. We tend to think that a photograph, or an aural recording, or a chemical test, can impart a degree of irrefutability impossible to achieve through mere testimony, or memory. Science has offered us new tools in the process of determining actual fact. But dry facts, without the human narrative to turn them into a meaningful action, may not be enough in themselves. 

    Science and aesthetics provide different kinds of priorities. The struggle, in the case of The New Yorker, to present interesting and convincing accounts, as entertainment, without damaging its credibility, can be easily appreciated. Running a long work, such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, for instance, which appeared in the NY'er in 1962, obviously required a foundation of accountability which could support the seriousness of the important claims and charges Carson would make.  

    As an institution, The New Yorker magazine, which began as a high-brow, light-hearted social society sheet for upper-class New Yorkers, eventually found itself committed to socially and politically responsible journalism. As a magazine, during an era in which the traditional newspaper business, as well as the weekly or monthly magazine field, underwent drastic downsizings, it was able to stay afloat by maintaining its sophistication and reserved imperturbability. As Yagoda recounts, the magazine lost a good deal of money for its new owners the syndicate Advance Publications, after it was acquired in 1984. 

    Tina Brown

    In the years since Tina Brown [1992-1998] left, Editor David Remnick has accepted the challenge of keeping the magazine relevant, by taking clear stands on important national and international issues, while maintaining many of its traditionally "old-fashioned" content, such as the witty cartoons, the gags ("news-breaks"), light verse, and its hip or occasionally flippant, supercilious temperament. 

    David Remnick

    Though I stopped reading (or subscribing regularly) to The New Yorker years ago, I continue to read the books of its contributors, such as John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, John Cheever, and many, many others. Yagoda's book was in many senses a trip down memory lane for me, recalling my own fascination with it in early adolescence, and later disillusionment (in the Tina Brown era*). Unlike many readers, it wasn't the cartoons that lured me in; it was the sense of the world as an endlessly intriguing place, ripe for investigation and inquiry, where one might, modestly and with a minimum of fuss, follow one's perspicacious curiosity to the ends of the earth, without ever having left the comfort of your armchair.


    *As Yagoda makes clear, Brown's tenure, though it soured many of the subscribers on the magazine, infused it with a spirit that had as much, or more, in common with its original roots (n the 1920's), than with the glitzy spirit of the New York fashion scene, from which Brown had come. Subscriptions jumped under her regime, but advertising revenue didn't. Though it was plain that the magazine would never look as traditional and "quietly" reserved as it had before she arrived, it reclaimed some of its authority under Remnick in the years since.  

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  • 12/30/14--07:00: Thoughts on Mixology

  • I think I've probably recorded mixes which are very similar to this one on this blog in the past.

    Lately, I've begun thinking about using aperitifs as the "goods" for drink combinations, instead of relying on the traditional spirits--i.e., the "white goods" of gin, white rum, vodka, teqiula, or "brown goods" of whisky (scotch and bourbon), dark rum, brandy, and so forth. 

    There is the consideration of alcohol content, since aperitifs invariably have a lower alcohol content than spirits. They're lighter, carry less punch, and appeal more to the delicate sensibilities of the ladies.

    In addition, by using spirits as additives to mixes, you can increase the number of distinctive, different kinds of flavors. After all, each different kind of alcoholic beverage relies on a specific flavor, which is the result of aboriginal ingredients of each kind of source product in nature, as well as the processes, and finally the flavorings that are added to make its distinct character. Variety, as always, is the spice of life. Even different traditional spirits, such as gin, differ from brand to brand, based on the subtly separate augmentations of spice. In scotch, the kinds of influence upon flavor include literally everything, including the distillery's proximity to sea air!

    So here is a drink "built" upon a white, or dry vermouth (which Dubonnet is) aperitif. Chartreuse is of course a high alcohol fortified liqueur spirit. Most aperitifs or fortified spirits have more vivid flavors than straight spirits do, though most scotches and bourbons have plenty of flavor, some overpoweringly so. Which is why, come to think of it, more "generic" spirits are better for mixing, since their generic taste is a more reliable mixer than an unusually distinctive one. And, of course, one wouldn't "waste" a very fine or expensive scotch in a cocktail, since it's intended to be (and is best) appreciated on its own.

    The following combination could be done by beginning with gin or vodka, as I have done in the past. The flavor wouldn't be much different, though its strength would be. The degree of alcohol content isn't, per se, something I think much about when mixing spirits. In appreciating wines or single malts, on the contrary, it's a crucial element. "Big reds" and "big scotches" tend to be stronger in alcohol--I'm not sure why, but it may have something to do with the intensity of the flavor, though potency in itself isn't a quality I would identify. Tea drinkers will claim that really intense flavors occur at the stronger end of the spectrum, and I don't disagree with them. 

    Cocktails aren't meant as a stimulant, but many people may regard them merely as a means to an end--becoming mildly inebriated. The effect alcohol has on the brain isn't something everyone enjoys, and I wouldn't pretend that everyone can enjoy it in the same measure. Unless you're a rich man, or are born into the wine-making or spirit-making business, you don't have any chance of being creative with wine or whisky. At least with cocktails, you can, with a little investment, create your own drinks, experimenting with different combinations that no one else has ever tried before--which is why I do it, partly as a pastime. So, herewith, another nameless masterpiece from the stainless steel counter.               

    4 parts Dubonnet Blanc
    1 part yellow Chartreuse
    3/4 part Genepi des Alpes
    1/2 part lime juice

    Shaken vigorously and served up in a frosted cocktail glass. A kinder and gentler concoction, perhaps, once again maybe for the ladies. New Year's approaches. What better time to indulge?

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  • 01/03/15--10:55: New Year 2015

  • We begin this year on a couple of sour notes.

    First, our beloved 49ers lost no time in parting company with their head coach Jim Harbaugh, following the last game of the current regular season.

    To review Harbaugh's career, in brief, his tenure with the team lasted from 2011 to 2014. During that four year span, his combined record (the team's) was 44-19. For rookie coaches in the NFL, this is almost without precedent. Only one other head coach I can think of--x-49ers head coach George Seifert, who went 98-31, taking over Bill Walsh's team at the end of the 1980's, bears comparison, but with a very large caveat--particularly when you remember that Seifert took over a powerhouse, while Harbaugh came to a team mired in a decade of mediocrity.  

    Jed York

    A little history tells a pertinent story. When Eddie DeBartolo lost control of the 49ers, in 2000, the reigns were passed to his sister Marie Denise York. She and her husband, John York, a research pathologist, knew nothing about running a professional football team, and proceeded to mismanage the franchise into a 12-year slide, without a winning season. In 2008, the Yorks appointed their son, Jed, President of the team. Jed York, a finance and history major graduate of Notre Dame, had had no experience in sports, as a player, or a coach, or a sports teams manager. Nevertheless, he made a lucky choice in his new head coach in 2011, hiring Harbaugh away from the Stanford University Cardinal--and thus began the current four year run of winning. 

    However, not long after beginning of the 2014 season, there were "leaked" reports from 49ers management, that there were severe disagreements between the team's management (York, and his assistant General Manager Trent Baalke), and Harbaugh. These began when the team's early season record was still very positive. The year before, Jed had "tweeted" a public apology for the team's failure to advance beyond the NFC championship game to the Super Bowl, "This performance wasn't acceptable." 

    By mid-year 2014, a series of crippling injuries to some major stars on the team, as well as some poor offensive coaching schemes (an apparent wrong-headed attempt to turn scrambling quarterback Colin Kaepernick into a "pocket passer"), led to a series of losses, which in retrospect seem to have been, at least in part, a response to the very obvious mid-season attempts by York and Baalke to undermine Harbaugh's authority and reputation. The reported issue was Harbaugh's "abrasive" interpersonal style, a quality which would seem to have nothing whatever to do with the team's potential, or with the head coach's abilities as a field commander. In retrospect, it almost seems as if Harbaugh, and the team in general, had been deliberately "cut loose"--so that management would have a public "pretext" for replacing him, and turning over personnel at season's end. 

    The Yorks have shown themselves to be rank amateurs in their management of the 49ers organization. Abandoning San Francisco, for a new stadium in San Jose, 30 miles south of their namesake city center, they've showed contempt and selfishness in all their dealings with the city, the media, and their own players. Ignoring the success their new head coach had brought to the team, they summarily dismissed him, in effect in mid-season, just to strut their power and hide their own incompetence--as far as anyone can surmise, simply because Harbaugh wouldn't kiss up. 

    At this point, no one knows what the Yorks have in store. With Harbaugh now gone (to Michigan), it's expected that several high-profile veteran players will either be let go, or will themselves simply retire. After three trips to the penultimate play-off contest, and one unfortunate season, the 49ers are right back where they started under Jed York. It's a sad denouement to a relationship which had brought glory and gratitude to a team longing for respectability after a decade of shame. Jed York has proven, once and for all, that he's just a spoiled rich kid playing with lead soldiers in the converted nursery room. 


    Second, yesterday marked the effective beginning of the year for California State legislative measures. 

    Right at the top of the list was a new law allowing "Undocumented [i.e., illegal] Immigrants" to acquire valid California Drivers' Licenses. As far as I know, there have been no legal challenges to this law, which is causing unprecedented backlogs and slowdowns in DMV offices around the state, clogged with Mexicans filing the new applications. But it is clear that this new provision conflicts directly with Federal immigration laws, which forbid illegals from maintaining legal presence in the U.S., without going through the legal process of obtaining visas, or applying for citizenship. 

    How can a person residing illegally in the U.S., acquire a legal identification and driving permission, without triggering a pursuit by the U.S. Federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, or Homeland Security? It's as if the State of California is setting itself up as a competing jurisdiction to our Federal Government, offering a kind of quasi-ersatz-American citizenship status, in direct violation of our nation's laws governing residence, citizenship and all the privileges pertaining thereto. 

    As an American citizen, I would regard it as my right and duty to inform about any illegal whom I encounter in my work or daily life. If citizenship is to mean anything, it must be at the grass roots level, where ordinary law-abiding citizens stand with authorized law enforcement to prevent crime and violation. Granting foreign nationals a "free pass" to claim the rights and privileges which rightfully belong only to American citizens, is neither fair, nor acceptable. If you are here in the U.S. without papers, don't show up on my doorstep, or try to conduct business with me, because I'll report you. 

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    I've written about David Gitin's work before, here, and here. As with his previous book, The Journey Home [Berkeley: Blue Wind Press, 2010], this is a selection of poems, subtitled "Selected Poems 1962-2014." I have then the feeling that Gitin is engaging his previous range of work as a fertile ground, revising and selecting and sifting from among its varied fruit, instances which speak to his changing sense of who he now is, and what it all meant, in retrospect. In that sense, it's a summing up, or a summary of the meaning of his whole writing life. 

    The emphasis, here, now, seems to be the ecstatic or hieratic--celebrating the infinite, the universal, the visionary--




    of oak


    The simplicity of this kind of notation belies its hidden, though firmly grounded, sense of the underlying forces which govern nature, the universe at large. There's a joyous surrender to the larger dynamism of the world, particularly its lyric manifestations, in microcosm. 

    The fact that the poems here are undated, and are apparently neither chronological nor thematic in arrangement, contributes to the apprehension of their numinous indeterminacy, which I see as integral to the overall intent. This isn't a personal history, not a journey, but a kind of continuous present that asks to be seen through a single, general lens. 

    None of this explains the exquisite charm of Gitin's verse, which is like an alembic of a wistfully nostalgic counter-culture reminiscence, of a time when our generation believed in the power of individual conscience, community cooperation, grass-roots initiative, and the delight of simple gifts. 

    Horse Ankles

    horse ankles
    deer thighs

    they say I have my mother's 

    Though the initial effect of such deft little snapshots like this is joy and delight, it isn't easy to convey the accretive impression they leave, when read in quantity. Though their brevity and flitting elusiveness suggest haiku or minimalism, they clearly come from a more embracing and universal vision. 

    East West North South

    East West North South
    burning down the house

    until water from the well
    seasoned my lips

    to words that mend
    I see the face

    of my ancestor
    once again

    Despite the fleeting, transitory quality of these poems, there runs underneath all of them a deeper account, evanescent but confirming, of the poet's awareness of cosmic forces--

    Muir Beach Rockfest

        in sand


    all form


    Such quick graphs of observation and notation, when gathered together in sequence, create a wave of intention which tends to overwhelm the initial event, drawing our attention up into a higher state of consciousness, of--for want of a better term--the sublime. The antecedents to this approach would certainly include Oppen, and Eigner, the ancient Chinese. Gitin appears to have moved beyond the packed particulars of his earlier work, to a more consuming ecstatic, but his work is always just saved from vagueness by its specificity and clear clinical eye. And there's a crucial restraint in his method.


    moon frozen like some giant
    watery cell of speech

    The desire to see universals or deeper significances in ordinary phenomena is characteristic of a certain kind of romantic visionary writing. Usually, I tend to be suspicious of this tendency, but in Gitin's work, I'm never offended by it, perhaps because his assertions seldom rise to the level of direct conviction, are always hovering on the lip of belief--provisional, balanced. 

    Though this book feels conclusive, I prefer to see it as conditional, since there seems no end to its program. May he find in Florida--"veneral soil" (Wallace Stevens)--a rich context for his continued musings.  

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    Every sport has its attractions, which may or may not be easily conveyed to those unfamiliar with it firsthand. Fly-fishing, which developed over centuries of practice, originally as a hunting and gathering skill, has become a highly sophisticated form of sport. Whereas it once was principally about the securing of sustenance, it has morphed into a refined procedure, with a tradition, and a set of formal methods and conventions, that have become almost ritualistic. With its paraphernalia--the rods and reels, lines and leaders, artificial flies, creels, vests, boots and so on--and its prime watering holes, with their shrine-like folklore-fame--it has acquired all the trappings of a faith, a devotion which may border on fanaticism at times. 

    It's important to remember that the reason people pursue any sport is the nurturing pleasure and excitement it affords, whether or not the rules are slavishly followed. A recreation may be considered a pastime, or something more. Whatever you love you do with a kind of rote allegiance--what may described as passion, even sanctity.  

    Flyfishing occurs in nature, along waterways, in streams or rivers, or on lakes. Water, and the life that inhabits it, and the country through which it flows, is the setting, and the interaction between the pursuer (the fisherman), and the pursued (the fish), may only be a pretext for an appreciation of the qualities and complexities of the natural world, which are experienced first-hand by fishermen. The rhythms of the seasons, the accompanying flora and aquatic ecology, the richness of streamside life, the sights and sounds and sensations associated with being near, or in, a flowing stream, all contribute to the experience of fishing. We may become so preoccupied with the motions and rituals of performance, that we forget the fun part.

    For me, flyfishing has never been purely about the successful seduction of the fish, of hooking and landing it and glorying in the triumph, of winning a contest with other competitors or against the odds. It's never been about how skillful my cast is, or whether I use the "correct" fly, or any of the dogmatic prescriptions that govern the hierarchy of appreciation and duty of the sport. When I fish, I enter a special place, where civilization and its discontents are left behind, and I become in some degree a part of the forces of the natural world, in a way I never am, when getting and spending and being the responsible citizen in a busy world. 

    Time, like water, flows relentlessly forward. Nature is about change, and flowing water reminds us that our lives are slipping by, that as we step into a river, as the current pushes against our legs, we are being pushed forward, towards our end. We know this as surely as anything, though it may be pleasing to be caught up in the excitement of the hunt. 

    On a fishing day, we may enter the water in late afternoon, preparing for the evening hatch. Insect hatches are rhythmic, but not entirely predictable. Everything that lives in water has a time-table, but empirical observation can't tell you exactly when a hatch is going to occur, or how the fish are likely to respond. The tantalizing possibility awaits you on the water. 

    With dry-fly fishing, which is my preference, the lure floats on the surface of the current, meandering over the intersecting flows. The fish, always watchful, are "fishing" (or hunting) too, and hoping for a safe pursuit of the bugs. Usually, with their natural shyness and caution, they will also have some comprehension of what the fishermen are trying to do. It's a contest between their reluctance and shrewdness, and the fisherman's guile and ability. The tension of this interaction is what makes fishing fascinating. There are a dozen factors that influence how the fish will behave, and at least twice that many that fishermen must observe and employ in their pursuit. 

    The surface of the water is like a membrane between the two worlds--one wet, the other dry--a plane of division, which is sometimes referred to as the "surface film." This is where the game is played. Most of the time, you don't actually see the fish, so the moment of crisis (the rise or "strike" of the fish to the lure) can't be followed. Suddenly there is, from the mysterious under-side of this membrane, an attack, subtly gentle, or vicious. Fish are predators, and their actions are designed to succeed. But you can never really know if or when the fish will respond. You hope, and guess, and try to learn from failure. Why do certain approaches work, while others fail? 

    Towards evening, the fishing may be good, or it may be slow. As dusk turns to night, what you can see  begins to fade. The water is turning black under you, and you can't see your feet. Perceiving your line as the sky darkens becomes more difficult. Your fly may become invisible on the water surface, though you have a good idea where it must be as it floats sideways across from you. You may have had a good day, or you might not have caught anything that day, but whatever the "luck" you don't want to reel in and go back. A little evening hatch may have started, and there are quiet dimples all around you, as the fish rise from the obscurity of their holding places below. 

    The moon rises, spreading an ethereal glow over the water. It's late, you should be knocking off, but you just keeping making one more cast, then another, and another. You're being stubborn.

    This refusal to give up is something all fishermen feel. It may keep you out well past dinner time; your buddies or your friends may be standing on the bank, reminding you that it might be a good idea to let go. Finally, reluctantly, you reel in your line, turn carefully around in the current, and wade gingerly back to the bank. 

    This time, when the water is pitch black, and the silhouettes of the trees on the opposite bank are vivid against a darkening sky, seems magical to me. Almost dreamy. There have been times when I have hooked a good trout, just as the sky was turning dark, and the fish and I are locked in battle. At these times, you feel at a distinct disadvantage with the fish. You can feel where the fish is going, from the pull and throbbing action of the line through the rod, but it's mysterious, like anything that happens in the dark. Your attention intensifies, mind focused. I have often lost fish in these circumstances, but it doesn't feel like failure--since landing and releasing a fish in the dark is difficult. 

    I've come to see these times, with night drawing on, as very moving, with the murmur of the water, the beautiful shifting, undulating surface, and the certainty that there are only so many such moments accorded us in this life. Their fragility, transitoriness, and beauty. They are an end in themselves, not a means to another end. We are living in this life, the only one we'll ever have, and that fact makes everything that happens unique, and precious. 

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  • 01/28/15--09:43: World Oil Production

  • Recently, we've heard reports that the rapid decline in the price of gasoline, which is a reflection of the drop in crude oil prices, has brought about a sudden crisis in the petroleum production industry. 

    For decades, we've heard that world oil reserves of easily extracted petroleum would "peak" sometime in the current century, then begin to decline, while demand, which has been steadily increasing, continued to climb--leading to catastrophic increases in price. 

    At the same time, experts in oil reserve data have noted that as prices rose, the viability of less easily obtained petroleum sources, i.e., shale oil, would likely increase. As we've seen, these predictions have proven true. 

    The burgeoning shale oil extraction industry has increased American petroleum production, to the extent that we now produce annual totals which rival Saudi Arabia and the former Soviet Union. 

    The attractions of an increase in production are sold on the market competition which results in remarkable declines in prices at the pump. Any decrease in oil prices has a positive effect on the economy as a whole, which depends to such a large degree on the transportation network that runs off of petroleum use. 

    We were also told that were America to become "less dependent" upon foreign oil sources, our standing in the world economy, and in the foreign policy sphere, would improve. Any decline in our dependence upon Middle Eastern oil, would improve our bargaining position in price competition, and make us less "vulnerable" to political pressures occurring in that part of the world. 

    But as we have seen, protecting our interest in maintaining the flow of reasonably priced Mideast oil, was not the only priority. The flowering of Islamic terrorism has demonstrated that religious and political considerations may trump mere commercial interests. We may be able to get by for the time being, by coddling the Saudi royal family, but Islamic radicalism may eventually complicate our access to the oil fields throughout much of the Mideast.

    Official estimates put America's shale oil reserves at a level which would make them viable for another two and a half decades--or roughly until the early '30's--at which point they would begin to decline. That's assuming, it should be noted, that exploitation proceeded at a smart clip, an assumption that might founder on regional resistance to fracking or other destructive extractive practices. 

    However, the sudden price drop we're presently experiencing has had the ironic effect of truncating the whole shale equation. Many companies are suddenly in the red, as the price of crude drops below their break-even point. The viability of fracking was posited on the high price of crude on the world market, but with the sudden surge in supply, brought about by the new methods, the price has dropped. 

    The delicate balance between supply and demand has meant that the transition from easy extraction to difficult will have contradictions that aren't easily overcome. 

    In the context of global warming, we're obliged to consider not just the long-term advisability of rapid over-exploitation of the earth's resources, but the more immediate problem of excess burning. We'd be advised to save a little, going forward, instead of finding excuses to forge ahead into an unknown in which both supply and price precipitate us over yawning scarcity, bringing about a world-wide economic decline. 

    In the overall picture of energy use and reserve, we need to see shale oil exploitation as a temporary phase, not as a long-term solution. It isn't going to measurably lengthen the time upon which mankind depends upon oil as a primary energy source. It might enable us, given current use levels, to keep using it generously for another century, at most. But then what?

    As the market-patterns sail along, riding wave and trough in tandem, we may be seduced by each successive small condition, to think that a new paradigm is spreading out around us. But these "blips" are nothing more than minor variations. 

    As readers of this blog know, my priority has always been to suggest moderation in population growth, rather than promoting economic growth--with its attendant profligate confiscation of resource--as a way to slow the birth rate. Population is always used by apologists for exploitation, as the bottom line--more mouths to feed, more jobs to create, more cars to sell, more water, more food, more sewage, more pollution, more crowding, more conflict--for justifying expansion. But each iteration of supply leads inevitably to more demand, so that promoting one, without moderating the other, only makes the problem worse. We've been using that model for at least a hundred years, and look where it's brought us. The simplest way to slow demand is to reduce it. Period.  

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    One aspect of the increasing sophistication of micro-technology has been the emergence of unmanned, or automated airborne devices, called drones

    For decades, really since the invention of flying machines, self-propelled model airplanes have been a common toy or hobbyists' pastime. If you've ever been to one of these model meets, with their whining gas-powered props controlled with hand-held radar sets, you know they aren't new gadgets. 

    But with the ramping up of micro-chip capacity, automated mechanical devices are quickly becoming practical. There are unmanned aircraft, unmanned boats, and unmanned small helicopters which are on the threshold of application, or already in use, for surveillance and reconnoitre, and also for possible parcel delivery. Anywhere an aerial view of something is needed, drones can be adapted to serve the purpose. There's a  whole new industry starting up right now, conceived around the possible applications of the drone technology. Even farmers and ranchers are using them now. Amazon, the big online-retail company, thinks it's going to use drones to deliver parcels, leap-frogging over the whole commercial delivery industry.  

    Anything man-made that flies in the sky creates a possible hazard. Nations regulate the space over their territory, in the same way they do their borderlands, their ocean margins, and their broadcast and computer networks. 

    Conventional propeller driven and jet-propelled aircraft have to follow corridors and flight paths, to recognize and respect "no-fly zones" in order to prevent collisions or interruptions of established routes. Different classes of craft are confined to certain areas in the sky, different altitudes. You have to have a license to fly an aircraft; flying isn't something you can just engage in at will. 

    We know that drones are now an important new sphere in weaponry. The U.S. is currently running drone bombing missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in the Middle East. The idea of using unmanned aircraft in warfare is a controversial development. Technologically advanced states, such as the U.S. have a distinct advantage over "conventional" military forces. 

    Back home, intelligence agencies such as the  CIA and the FBI are looking to apply drones for all kinds of surveillance, while state and local police are considering their use in law enforcement and around-the-clock snooping. Drones occupy a front-and-center position now in the debates about legal searches, the right of privacy, and admissible evidence in criminal cases. 

    But apparently, we haven't seen anything yet. There are reports that the security community is now dreaming up nightmare applications, of tiny, insect-scale devices, which could not only surveil without being noticed, but could even be used as weapons, to make lethal injections on a human target. A confirmed sighting of these "dragon-fly" drones was first made at an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. in 2007, so these things are well along. 

    If Amazon's planned automated parcel delivery system seems clunky, ask yourself what will happen when every nation, every gang of criminals or terrorists has access to these gadgets. 

    We could have "star wars" over communities, in which police drones are fighting criminals' drones, or competing nations could be fighting "automated wars" with robot planes, robot tanks, or robot boats and submarines. 

    A guy is walking down the street when he suddenly gets a poison dart in the back, fired from above by a tiny drone no bigger than a sparrow, which then rockets away before any sighting is possible. 

    When Huxley and Orwell dreamed up their dystopian visions half a century ago, they didn't foresee the computer revolution. We don't know where our technologies may lead us. 

    But all the signs now point to an increasingly eerie landscape dominated by "devices" controlled remotely to perform all kinds of tasks, as well as leaving us all exposed and vulnerable to the prying, invasive and spooky motivations of human artifice and deviousness.  

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  • 03/03/15--10:25: Malamud's A New Life

  • Occasionally, drawn by a nostalgic urge, or the need to go back over something I had experienced in the past, I will reread a book I had first encountered decades ago. 

    I first read Bernard Malamud's [1914-1986] novel A New Life [New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961] in the summer of 1963, when I was 15. My stepfather had read it, and the mass market paperback copy was lying around the house. I picked it up, half out of curiosity. 

    I had been raised in a fairly old-fashioned household, where things like sex and adult rivalry weren't ordinary subjects of conversation, at least around "the children." How much of my sex education and emotional maturity had their roots in the reading I did during my impressionable adolescent years? My surmise is that this happens a good deal more than we usually acknowledge. I grew up in the 1950's, when pornography and frank discussions of vital matters like sex weren't nearly as commonly available as they are to kids today. For one thing, the internet didn't exist. For another, the puritan ethic was alive and well then. That tended to make adolescents cautious, if not outright fearful, about exploring forbidden topics. 

    Which may explain why Malamud's novel made such an impression on me then. So when I decided to reread the novel last month, the first thing I recalled was the seduction scene that occurs between the protagonist, Seymour Levin, and the wife of the department head, Pauline Gilley, in a secluded forest tryst. At the time, the scene hadn't so much shocked me as stimulated my anticipation about sex, something I had no inkling of at the time. 

    The narrative is about a Jewish English instructor from New York who is hired to teach at a small Oregon state college near the coast. Though it wouldn't have meant much to me at the time, Malamud's own academic career had followed a path similar to that of the main character. 

    A roman a clef [novel with a key] is a novel about real life, thinly disguised under a facade of fiction. Even had I known the implications of the parallels between Malamud's own career, and that of his protagonist, I doubt this would have meant much to me at the time. Fiction was fiction, and though I understood intuitively that imaginary characters were built up out of parts of people that an author may have known or watched, it would not have interested me much to have known that this story--set in a small Oregon college English department--bore potentially striking resemblances to an actual group of real people. Rereading the book now, in light of my life experiences in the intervening decades, was an interesting exercise. One of Max Beerbohm's favorite conceits was caricaturing famous people (or authors) confronting themselves in their older and younger incarnations, sizing each other up from the contrasting vantages of youth and age; and that's partly what reading an important book at widely spaced intervals in your life can do: It can show you who you were at an earlier time, by reflecting your altered character in the mirror of a familiar tapestry--which you had experienced originally long ago. The story is a part of who you are, but seeing it anew, as an objective phenomenon, permits the kind of perspective which can be very revealing.     

    Any author may take liberties with truth, in fact he's expected, at the least, to make an effort to camouflage his portrayal of people and events whenever they come close to being exact copies of the model. In Malamud's case, taking into account what was noticed and noted by his colleagues in Corvallis at the time, he may have taken more liberties (or license) than was considered proper at the time. One account, posted by one Chester Garrison (obit), one of Malamud's colleagues (and long-time family friend) at Oregon U, provides useful insights into Malamud's character, as well as a couple of key coordinates between the narrative of the book, and Malamud's tenure there.                  

    Dustwrapper of the 1st Edition

    A New Life is a poetic novel, which is to say that the language is musical, and minutely probing of finely drawn shades of human sensibility and motive. Discovering that Malamud's graduate thesis had been on the poetry of Thomas Hardy was a confirming exhibit. As anyone who reads even a short story of Malamud's knows, he has an ironic, droll Yiddish lilt in his voice. No matter what he says, there is this subtle undercurrent of wry humor or bitterness, a grudging twist of dismissal or amusement. In A New Life, there are long passages in which the emotional turmoil of Sy Levin courses through countless turnings and dialectical rounds, not unlike that which occurs in the iterative ruminations of Henry James's psychological fictions. Reading this today, 50 years later, I'm struck with how profoundly personal a book this was for Malamud, as if he were working out intense inner conflicts.    

    Malamud, probably near the time he wrote A New Life
    Photo: © David Lees Corbis

    Like Seymour Levin, Malamud had come West in nearly the same scenario, though unlike Levin, Malamud was married with children (and would publish his first book, the improbable mythical baseball novel, The Natural [New York: Harcourt, Brace &; Company, 1952]), just a couple of years after arriving in Oregon. Though ostensibly the story of an outsider, a supple, subtle liberal Jew set down amidst the raw provinciality of a rural cow college, Levin is also Malamud's own imaginative alter-ego, experiencing the same emotional dislocations, amazements, seductions, and realizations his creator must have felt, coming to Oregon in 1951. 

    Upon his arrival, Levin is immediately thrown into the squabbles and entanglements common to any college English department. It isn't long before he embarks on an affair with the acting department head's wife, Pauline, which further complicates the political machinations involved in the election of the next department head. The man he has been hired to replace, one Leo Duffy, had been fired the year before, and had committed suicide not long afterwards. Levin, like Duffy before him, is regarded as a radical, bent on challenging the status quo, and (it turns out) Duffy had also had a brief affair with Pauline. Will Levin succeed in installing himself as the upstart new department head? How will his affair with Pauline play out? 

    Malamud may have equivocated about the meaning of the story. When confronted about the implications of his having portrayed real people in the department, he claimed that the story was a comic riff, but apparently there were enough obvious parallels to have inspired indignation among his colleagues. In the novel's conclusion, Levin's appointment is terminated, and he drives off into a very ambiguous sunset with Pauline and her two children, uncertain of his future, unemployed, chastened by his expulsion, and not really committed heart and soul to his new responsibilities.  This may be a too-convenient exit from a comic complexity, since it would have been just a little too pat to have him win the laurels as well as the lady. I like to think of the story as a pastoral, neither comic nor tragic in its implications. 

    Malamud left Oregon in the Spring of 1962, just as the novel was being published. Like Levin, he was leaving just at the moment his connection to the college was coming to a close. Malamud would go off to Bennington, where he woud remain until retirement. In essence, A New Life was Malamud's ambivalent escape from the academic dilemma he had faced in his earlier years at the college, where his "instructor's" appointment had kept from from teaching literature, even as his published works were building him a national reputation as one of America's finest writers. 

    There were other interesting correspondences in the narrative to events in Malamud's career at Oregon. One involved the firing of another young English instructor, whom he helped to preserve his job, doubtless a source for the Leo Duffy character in the novel. What has always intrigued me is whether or not Malamud may indeed have had some kind of relationship--real or imagined--with one of the faculty wives. Just as Levin may be a fictionalized projection of Malamud's Brooklyn Jewish self, seeking "a new life" amid the rain forests and snow-capped mountain-ranges of the far west, the other characters in the story may stand for actual figures in the real author's life there. The writing feels so private, so intimate in its details, that one can hardly avoid making such connections. Does the crisis in the hero's saga, which is played out in a single academic year, symbolize the decade of Malamud's life in Corvallis? It's possible to see the book as a sort of summarization of his life there, and perhaps even as a judgment of sorts--first as a satire on the social life of the department, and secondarily upon his own semi-mature self, isolated and inexperienced, under-appreciated, relegated to teaching bone-head English to raw-boned Oregon teenagers. But by the time of his departure, he had won a National Book Award (for The Magic Barrel [New York: Farrar Straus Cudahy, 1958], and had published two widely respected novels. 

    Perhaps in several ways, A New Life, published at the moment of his departure from Oregon, and his return to the East Coast (and the fame that would be his),  symbolizes a turning-point in his life, just as Levin's departure was for him. The story may seem like a half-serious comic rebuke to a world that he may have felt did not appreciate him, and not having to hang around for the inevitable curiosity and suspicions could certainly have been a liberating feeling.

    Remembering the story from my earlier reading, the aspect that stands out for me, across time, is the rivalry between the department head, Gilley, and Levin, complicated by Levin's affair with the head's wife, the kind of sexual competition that is at the center of the plot. While Levin is committed to his teaching career, and to the ideals it represents to him of academic excellence and political honesty, he is drawn passionately to Pauline. He knows in his bones that he can't have it both ways, that if he chooses Pauline, he can kiss his future at the college good-bye. In Malamud's real life, he managed to extricate himself from a dead-end academic life through an act of will, single-mindedly producing works of high literary merit, while supporting his family on a modest instructor's salary. I wouldn't have known or cared about this reality behind the curtain of art as a boy, but now it offers a whole different dimension to my understanding of the relationship between life and art. I was once myself a college teacher, at the University of Iowa in the late 1960's and early '70's, trying to write while supporting my family. But my personal life was not nearly so remarkable as Malamud's.   


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    Yesterday, Wednesday afternoon, September 4th 2014, the PBS News Hour show ran a segment in what it calls a "series of one-on-one interviews about how to handle the border crisis." As News Hour co-host Judy Woodruff said, in introducing the segment, "as President Obama is delaying . . . whether to take executive action on immigration . . . a Pew Research Center survey released today showed a spike in favor of making border security a priority and a drop in support for creating a way for undocumented immigrants to become citizens."     

    The interview can be viewed now in its entirety here as a tube video, or in text version by clicking on the text button below. Ironically, the News Hour chose to use the same photo of illegals crossing the border that I used in my post of August 29th, 2014.  

    Jeffrey Brown

    The intreview was conducted by Jeffrey Brown, a regular interviewer-moderator on the News Hour. It's commonly acknowledged that the News Hour has shifted somewhat further to the left, since the departure of the program's founders, Robert MadNeil [1995] and Jim Lehrer [2011]. Though the News Hour maintains an official bi-partisan position with respect to many issues, on others it drifts precariously far to the left on others. On the issue of illegal immigration, it has tended to maintain a "compassionate" point of view, attempting to focus on the "human" side of the difficulties encountered by immigrants, rather than the problems they cause in the United States.          

    It is not clear why the show chose to interview the County Sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts. Massachusetts has received almost a thousand unaccompanied minors between January 1 and July 31 of 2014. Sheriff Hodgson has had a distinguished career in law enforcement, that you can read about here, which has included work with Homeland Security. In any case, it became obvious, once the interview started, that Hodgson's view of illegal immigration, and the recent surge of unaccompanied minors across the southern border, differed considerably from what Brown may have expected to hear in answer to his usual questions.       

    Sheriff Thomas Hodgson

    I can't reproduce the full interview here, but will quote a few relevant parts of Hodgson's statements, which happen to accord with my own feelings and reactions to the crisis. 

    In answer to the question "why do you believe they're coming to the United States and even Massachusetts," Hodgson replied:

    "Well, I don’t think there’s any question why they’re coming. And it’s been verified by the EPIC report done by the El Paso Intelligence Center. It was leaked out several months ago.

    And what they learned in this report was that, in 2012, when the president signed the DACA act (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), there’s an immediate correlation between that signing of the DACA and the sudden influx by the thousands of unaccompanied minors coming here.

    And in that report, they interviewed 230 individuals who came here illegally. Of the 230, 219 said: The reason I came here was because I was told I could stay.

    And we know that the homicides are down in all three of those countries, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. We also know that there was no sudden change in the culture or the atmosphere within those countries. So the surge was directly related to the president’s new policy."

    In answer to Brown's question "you simply don't believe they're coming from desperate situations and would leave because of that?" he replied:

    "Look, these desperate situations they’re talking about have not suddenly just emerged since 2012.

    And I think if you look at the surge in numbers, it’s pretty amazing that we have had 37,000 children placed in foster care [between] January 1 [and] July 31 of this year. That didn’t just suddenly have some change in those countries. They have had problems in those countries for a long time. So to suggest that suddenly we’re seeing 90,000 come across, now next year possibly 145,000, that this is some sudden, dramatic shift in the danger within those countries, it’s just not so."

    In answer to "what do you want to see from the federal government, he replied:

    "Number one, we need to change the law immediately so that these individuals coming in from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are treated the same way the Mexicans are, which is there is no right to trial, you get turned around and immediately sent back.

    There is right now . . . almost a 400,000-case backload for these unaccompanied children that are now being booked into dockets of 2017. So we need to get the law changed and have them treated the same as we do with the illegal Mexicans coming across.

    The other thing we need to do is . . . do what law enforcement has been asking for — for two decades, secure the borders. Bring the Israelis in, talk to our people, build the sophisticated kinds of systems that they have in place . . . like law enforcement has been asking. We have our boots on the ground. We know what the problem is.

    And, thirdly, if we’re going to deal with the administrative process, we need to send more administrative judges to the border. Don’t ship people who are going to have administrative hearings all over our country, at the expense of taxpayers. Keep them there. Get the judges down there and let them do these cases. If you have to do them around the clock, like they do in Pennsylvania for regular court cases, then do them around the clock. But we need to process these people and get them right back if they’re entitled to a hearing, until such time as the law is changed.

    Look, the reality is, we can't sustain this. We're the most compassionate country in the world. Why don't we load up planes from Iraq where these people over there are being slaughtered by ISIS and put them here? If anybody needs refuge from violence, we know what's going on. What about our own kids in Chicago who are being killed eight or nine a weekend? So the idea that somehow we're able to sustain this through medical costs, costs for additional teachers who speak the language, special needs costs, I mean, it's about $9000 per unaccompanied child in our schools. 

    So these are the kinds of things that are going to devastate our country, and not give us the opportunities we otherwise [would] have to be compassionate for those we can bring in and do it the right way."

    As the questioning progressed, Brown became increasingly indignant, visibly angered by Hodgson's remarks. Brown and his producers may have expected that Hodgson would only provide details about the problems they were encountering in Massachusetts, but were shocked that Hodgson was informed enough about the real causes of the problem, to be able to speak authoritatively about them, with conviction. 

    Given Hodgson's credentials, the News Hour couldn't simply pretend that he was a Red State Tea Party conservative, and set him up as a naive caricature of reactionary sentiment. The producers of the News Hour have steadfastly refused to inform their audience about the real causes of the recent wave of illegal immigrant minors, preferring to emphasize their vulnerability and jeopardy, rather than telling the real story, that they're being sent here to exploit a loop-hole in American immigration law, and not as a result of some new increase in violence or crime or social disintegration in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. 

    Occasionally, even when partisan news media have a very specific agenda in mind, they will inadvertently allow the real truth to escape through the locked gates of the propaganda compound. This was one of those instances. Jeffrey Brown's stiff, resentful attitude was a clear message: the News Hour doesn't approve Hodgson's message. You have to ask, in this context, why the News Hour should feel so strongly about an issue, that they'd reject the testimony of a decorated law enforcement officer who is not only intimately acquainted with the circumstances of the case, but well informed about the larger issue and its causes. 

    American political life is characterized by deep divisions over crucial issues. With immigration, each side prefers to give us only one partisan view of the problem. Perhaps if we all allowed ourselves to be moved by facts, rather than comfortable sentiments, we might be able to find common ground. If we're going to solve the immigration crisis on our southern border, we have to be willing to address the real issues, and not be swayed by appeals to casual sympathy. 

    We've gotten into the habit of thinking of issues like this as "government" problems. "Let the government handle it. We're a rich nation, we can afford to let in a few scofflaws. It's easy, let the government pay for it. Welfare, schooling, language problems, health issues? Let the government pay for it. We're a rich country."This kind of casual apathetic approach to large problems is hugely impractical, and ultimately not sustainable. 

    So the News Hour can pat us all on the back and say "everything's just fine, the government will handle it. Obama has asked for three billion dollars to take care of all these kids for ever. It's just a drop in the bucket, no one will notice. You won't notice. Now roll over and have a nice nap, everything's under control." 

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    I don't want any swingers out there to get the wrong impression. Hunks and studs don't turn me on, but I thought this shot might get your attention. I assume it's not a constructed photo (placing the head on a body--a little trick you see now sometimes on the web), since Tom Selleck was one of Hollywood's most attractive and well-constructed male lead actors, known primarily for his Magnum P.I. television series. Female fans undoubtedly found him irresistible, but I'm sure he generated interest on both sides of the aisle. 

    Fair warning: I'm not a fan of Tom Selleck The Man. And this isn't a political piece. We can have disagreements about what people think about entertainers "in their real lives" but that doesn't, in my opinion, have any affect on what we may or should think about their artistic accomplishments. 

    Back in the day when Magnum P.I. was on television (the series ran from 1980-1988, and was Selleck's "breakthrough" role), I must admit to not have been impressed with his acting skills, or indeed the show itself, which I regarded as an exploitation production--exploiting the star's good looks, the character's laid-back life-style, exploiting the tropical scenic values of Hawaii, and generally providing the sort of low-grade pop entertainment typical of television shows of that time--one part surfer dude cruising the island beach scene, and one part dumb crime solving. Not a formula destined to achieve immortality.   

    Nonetheless, actors can occasionally "grow up"--not just in the sort of roles they are likely to play, but in the skills they hone over the length of a career. As an early middle-aged heart-throb playboy (Selleck was 35 when he began his Magnum run), his acting skills were pretty limited. He could smile, he could frown, he could show mild irony, and he could run athletically across the beach sand. But that was just about his full range. 

    Imagine my surprise, when, just a few years back, I saw the first installment of the Jesse Stone franchise, based on the novels of the late Robert Parker. Jesse Stone is a complicated man, unlike the earlier Magnum character. He carries a load of trouble from his past, and is a depressed loner with a private code of honor. He doesn't get close to people, and spends a lot of time alone. You might think that this sort of character would be beyond Selleck's range as an actor, but you'd be wrong. Something happened between the end of the Magnum period (1988) , and the first Jesse Stone TV movie in 2005: Tom Selleck the actor grew up. 

    You always figured that Selleck's career would go the way of similar kinds of TV actors. He'd do another private eye or "soldier of fortune" series or two, and age out gracefully in his early Sixties. He certainly didn't need the money. But Selleck wasn't done. He had more to do. 

    Most straight Hollywood heavies over the last 30 years have been smaller men, intense, quirky and unpredictable: actors like Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro,  Sean Penn, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris. These actors could carry a heavy load in a movie, but they tended to turn straight acting tasks into complex, eccentric versions of themselves, often at the expense of the narrative thematic material they used. They were all good, but they weren't the classic "big jacket" types who could fill out a powerful character with subtlety and understated technique (like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, George C. Scott, Charlton Heston, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper). 

    Selleck might be compared to actors such as Sean Connery, Russell Crowe, or Clint Eastwood. Or even perhaps Tom Hanks. But we wouldn't be making this comparison, if Selleck hadn't upped the ante. Selleck's Jesse Stone is a brooding, thoughtful, emotionally subtle persona, with real depth. He's able to convey delicate shades of sensibility with small, economic gestures and movements and intonations of voice. Like Parker's deft dialogue scenes, he transmits irony and frustration and amusement with deft pacing and queues. Physically, Selleck is big, but fit, but there's no attempt to make him seem physically dominating. 

    It isn't easy to bring life to a character who speaks little, and thinks a lot. Private investigators in fiction tend to speculate and calculate--they're figuring out plots and uncovering secrets. But cinema is about action. The Jesse Stone franchise doesn't rely on action, or violence, or big slushy romantic entanglements. It's all about poise and negotiation and authenticity. Stone can wrestle and even kill when he has to, but he's a little like Richard Boone in Have Gun Will Travel, who would "prefer to avoid violence" but is fully prepared to engage in it, should the need be.

    Sellect communicates this sense of fortitude and smoldering resentment barely held in check. Frustrated in not being able to make it to the big leagues as a pro ball player, betrayed by his x-wife, fired from his job as a police investigator, he's a refugee from fate, without self-pity, and without excuses, too crusty to admit weakness, but smart enough to know when he's wrong, and still committed to getting the bad guys, while not allowing himself to be seduced into bureaucratic corruption, no matter how petty. 

    Alone with his depression, sipping scotch and talking with Reggie, his Golden Retriever, isolated on a little islet house connected to land with a narrow-walkway, he perseveres in his campaign against his own hopelessness and the evil that threatens to eat away at the picturesque idyllic little seaside community he watches over. 

    Now, in the television series Blue Bloods [2010- ], in which he plays New York City Police Commissioner, he's expanded his new range with an even larger character, one not only with a difficult past, but with complex, public, and significant issue-driven tests. He's as good here, as he is in the Jesse Stone pictures, but perhaps a bit less attractive, since he's playing a high-profile urban executive, instead of a common man in a small place. It's no secret that some of Selleck's personal political points of view have found their way into these important dramatic productions. Self-reliance, shouldering tough burdens without giving up, and without compromising personal values--are clearly on the agenda. Selleck now produces the Jesse Stone series, so presumably it carries a fair load of his input.

    Selleck is officially a political conservative, something of an anomaly in Hollywood. A case could certainly be made that Blue Bloods is about supporting your local police department. But the Jesse Stone franchise--currently on its ninth iteration--is just very good entertainment, with very good acting. It's quietly raised the standard for the generic noir whodunit. It's easy to get hooked on, so embark at your peril. You might fall in love with this guy.   

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  • 03/24/15--11:28: The Limited

  • What is a "traditional cocktail"? Of what would such a recipe consist?

    Tradition is what we make it, the constantly unweaving or weaving (raveling or unraveling?), unfolding present, which is being in process, or becoming. 

    Traditional cocktails are always going to taste familiar because they are part of our immutable past. We can't change the past, so we can't change what traditional means, except by deliberately altering versions of past practice and formulae, through experiment and accident and testing. New combinations. Different approaches. 

    The spirits that have been invented by humankind are givens: They were developed over time, and we have inherited these prototypical substances through sheer passivity. They are what we've inherited. Whisky, tequila, gin, rum, brandy, vodka, aquavit--these are the classic "goods" from which all variations of mixture derive. They are the foundation upon which the taste pyramid--if you will--is built. The number of such variations isn't infinite, of course, but the numbers of possible permutations is vastly expandable, simply through minor variations in proportion. 

    Tradition is also popularity--the acknowledgment that one or another taste is very satisfying, or desirable. A Lemon Drop or a Rusty Nail aren't simply familiar because someone made them up and gave them a snappy logo, they're popular because they satisfy a universal quality of taste. 

    The following mixture uses ingredients whose basic flavors are wholly familiar, which is to say anyone who drinks recognizes them. The combination of bourbon and Drambuie (a proprietary orange flavored liqueur) is familiar as the Rusty Nail, mentioned above, but with the addition of these other flavors, it is only vaguely "reminiscent" of that familiar taste. Supposing no one had ever before tried combining bourbon and Drambuie; then what we know as the Rusty Nail would not exist. 

    It may be that most of the "easy" combinations have all been tried, at one time or another, and that the contemporary trend toward "flavored" bitters, spicing and so forth, is just an obvious symptom of the exhaustion of possible combinations of the usual spirit goods we know. The challenge, with cocktail mixes, as in life, is to find the novel or unique version that can capture attention and enter the permanent collection of desirable choices.  

    A great cocktail is like a poem. Its ingredients may be familiar, but the way it's constructed, its specific combinations make it unique. We can paraphrase its qualities, but the actual experience is always more compelling than the explanation, the alembic of its effect. If we could package poetry, the way we do liquor--bottle its essence, preserve it and market it in abbreviated form--we could make a bundle. But there are no shortcuts to healthy experience. Sex and eating and swimming, and drinking a perfect cocktail at 5 PM can't be captured and made more convenient, can't be duplicated or saved or prolonged through some device or potion. 

    So let's live and appreciate what there is, because our time is limited. Let's call this one, then, The Limited, since it reminds us of the fragility and ephemerality of life, passing us by. Like the little trays passing before us on the sushi conveyer track, decked out with clever arrangements of fish and rice and vegetable concoctions, we have to select. And so we shall.    


    3 parts Woodford Reserve bourbon
    1 part madeira
    1 part amaro
    1 part 151 rum
    1 part fresh lemon juice
    1/2 part Drambuie

    All ingredients (by proportion) shaken and served up into chilled cocktail glasses. 

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