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

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  • 03/27/15--10:24: The Candy Cane







  • 3 parts golden rum
    2 parts cream
    1 part lemon
    3/4 part praline liqueur
    3/4 part créme de noyeux (almond)
    1/2 part Frangelico (hazelnut) liqueur


    Not much to say about this one, only that it's a fatally seductive preparation, guaranteed to lift your spirits and assuage your ills. With addition of the praline flavor, there are hints of the Deep South, perhaps New Orleans, though I doubt this drink has ever been mixed there. Like all the other concoctions featured on this blog, it's my own invention--I never consult the literature of mixology in devising my combinations. 






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    On March 21st, 2015, at 6 PM in the evening, a section of seaside cliff along the Point Reyes National Seashore coast trail broke off, precipitating (a word I always remember Thornton Wilder used to describe the party of unlucky souls who perished in the foot-bridge tragedy that generates his famous narrative called The Bridge of San Luis Rey) two hikers down with the collapsing rock rubble 60 feet below. One of them died, the other was seriously injured. Signs had been posted at the trail head warning hikers not to take this route, due to a large fissure that had appeared in the cliff just a few days before. 




    Last Sunday (March 29, 2015), the San Francisco Chronicle's outdoor recreation editor-columnist Tom Stienstra published a story about the incident. 

    The odds of being born, according to one legend, are the same as if you were to throw a life ring on the open ocean, and at that exact moment, a blind sea tortoise poked its head through the ring. The odds of dying, on the other hand, are 100 percent. Each day in between, since it's a miracle you're alive in the first place, should be treated as a blessing. Considering the events of last week--the catastrophe at Point Reyes and the arrival of spring--it might be a good idea to dump your "should list" and do what sets you free to travel, explore, hike, bike, fish, camp, boat, or stalk and photograph wildlife. . . . There are so many warning signs when there is no immediate danger that many understand why several hundred people ignored the warnings at Point Reyes and ventured out to the bluff at Arch Rock. But then, even if you do everything right, follow every rule, your number can come up. . . . The reality is that it is a miracle, no matter what your age, that you are around . . . . spend each of your days wisely--doing what you love.  

    Reading between the lines, you can see that Stienstra isn't recommending that we disregard warning signs designed to protect you, but on the other hand, he isn't recommending that you lock yourself in your house and never venture out, lest you fall prey to some unexpected accident. 

    Odds-makers like to calculate what the risks are in any part of life. Life isn't a gamble, but calculating risk is only human, and many of the decisions we make in life are based on such calculations. Every day I go driving, I undertake what I regard as calculating the odds--of a child running in front of my car from a side street, say, or a cop tearing after a call at 30 miles over the speed limit, or someone cruising through a stop-sign while texting and broadsiding me. I've been in my share of accidents, none of which have been my fault (when I was driving). But we all know that we take our lives in our hands, as the saying goes, every time we go driving, especially on highways and turnpikes. 

    Society always tends to over-react to unexpected and unlikely tragedies. Airline crashes (like the one that just took place in Switzerland), terrorist bombings, random shootings, mountain-climbing mishaps, swimming pool drownings, mountain-lion attacks, and of course, the suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge. Inevitably, after each reported incident, we hear calls for more safety measures, more restrictive access, tighter controls, more barriers, and more elaborate rules to govern our behavior for our own good

    There are some people who seem particularly prone to advocating greater control over human behavior. Governments are always wary of the risk of being held responsible for, and therefore liable for, accidents and "preventable" acts of nature or human waywardness. Private interests are no less aware of the dangers of being held accountable. We live in a litigious world in which anyone, at the drop of a hat, is likely to sue another individual, or a company, or a government agency, for damages suffered through some supposed failure of duty or vigilance. 

    The idea that people must be protected from the hazards of life has evolved into a separate segment of the law, called risk assessment. Lawyers and professional sociologists advise insurance companies about how to gauge the probabilities of valid claims against policies. We try to control risk in residential real estate insurance by hiring geologists, structural engineers, arborists, fire experts, and even psychologists to provide reports about the likelihood of claims against coverage. 

    The idea that life is so dangerous that we must all be safe-guarded against it is a very modern notion. You might think that it's because we value human life--regard it as so precious--that we tremble at the thought of anyone suffering any injury, no matter how slight. Or that we cringe with fear at the notion that anyone--even ordinary citizens--might be responsible--just because we share in the greater implication of belonging to society--a city, a state, or a nation--for the jeopardy of any one of its members, or even visitors or tourists from some other place. 

    But is society really responsible for accidents that are so rare, and so unlikely, that the odds are staggeringly tiny? Odds are, according to one source, that you could fly once a day for 4 million years before succumbing to a fatal air crash. In fact, 95.7% of passengers involved in air crashes survive. Whereas, odds are one in 5000 that you may die in a car crash. Or, 1 in 3.1 million that you will be killed in a shark attack. The point of these statistics isn't to calculate risk assessment, to safeguard your pocket book, let alone your personal safety. 

    The underlying point is that most risk is random, and can't be controlled or managed out of existence. Refusing to ride in automobiles, or in planes, or in trains, because of safety concerns isn't completely irrational. Caution is a prudent component of the rational mind. But the notion that everyone must be ruled by a vast network of strict limits, or enclosed in a harnessing safety web,  for our own good,  is one of the popular illusions of our culture. 

    Reasonable people accept reasonable limits to freedom, in exchange for being held individually responsible for their own protection. If, as a pedestrian, you choose to barge into moving traffic, you're voluntarily choosing to place yourself in jeopardy. If you take a jet flight from San Francisco to New York, you're putting your safety into the hands of an airline company, its mechanics, pilots, and the airport traffic system personnel. It's a considered risk, which most accept. 

    Anyone walking on a cliff overlooking the ocean, accepts that there is a chance, however slim, that a part of the earth at that edge, may crumble. A large crack in the cliff's edge may be a warning sign, but such occurrences aren't predictable. Earth movements can be speculated, as earthquakes are; but it's doubtful that humankind's empirical science will ever be able accurately to foretell the odds of earthquakes or landslides. 

    People are often stupid, but when calculating risk, we need to remember that, as precious (and improbable) as being born is, the risk of falling victim to unlikely occurrences is inherent in life itself. We can't prevent people from doing stupid things, and we can't prevent all accidents from happening. If people want to kill themselves, or to live on the edge,  they will find a way. For the rest of us, prudent precautions make sense.  



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    The idea that the way we feel about a work of art, is as important as what the work may be said to mean, is a post-Modern critical notion--the idea that the reader, or viewer of a work can determine both the meaning and significance of the work, or that they are (each is), in effect (a) participant(s) in a process whose reality is never just one-sided, but a shared phenomenon, is anti-Platonic. Works of art, as this sense imagines it, do not exist in a pure state of eternal durability, but actually change based on the way we see them or think of them. Ultimately, they may be forgotten and neglected, disposed of. Works of art may "live" only so long as they are perceived, and appreciated. Once they no longer are, they cease to exist--they're no longer in the pure realm of spiritual eternity. 

    I've never thought of photography as a spiritual art, but occasionally it does occur to me that photographs may aspire to a condition of solemnity or reverence which we associate with religious feeling. The problem with religious notions of artistic meaning and value is that they inevitably devolve into formulaic interpretations related to the iconography of any specific faith. All faiths may be said to share a focus upon the divine, the eternal, the immutable; but beyond that, it isn't easy to make useful generalities about the religious applications of meaning to art. 

    Much of the art of past centuries has been deliberately conceived within religious contexts. In our time, so-called "profane" or secular art has been in the ascendancy, case generally since the beginning the Enlightenment (the Renaissance) in Europe. Critical theory over the last two centuries has preoccupied itself with building justifications and interpretations which are essentially non-religious in character. Beginning in the 20th Century, in the West, artists and scholars have begun to explore and examine the relationship between certain Eastern religious systems of thought and worship, and their artistic expressions. In the West, many artists now claim Buddhism or Zen Buddhism as inspiration. It's become a kind of commonplace for artists to claim an Eastern religious sense in their work and lives. 

    Previously, I've commented on the work of Minor White, and Paul Caponigro, both artists who explicitly refer to the mystic spiritual element in their work. These two influential photographers explain their work in terms of extra-formal themes, and how a rational, deliberate intention is only one component of a process that has mystical, involuntary, even passive elements, of subjects and occasions "choosing" the photographer, of being "moved" by unseen forces or spirits to act. The part that craft and knowledge and intention play in such a process is obvious. It's the extra-rational dimension which is claimed as crucial. 

    Cathedral Gorge 1984

    I first encountered the work of John Wimberley in galleries during the late 1980's. He hadn't published any books at that time, and his reputation was rather "underground." What was clear was that Wimberley had a powerful vision, a studied view of large-scale landscape, though in most respects his subject matter was no different than many of the well-known West Coast landscape photographers. It was how he saw this subject matter that made his work different. It was "big" in the same way that Adams's or Baer's is, but it was more narrowly focused on certain telling details--the position of an odd cloud shape in the distance, the unresolved tension between ambient element in the composition, the eccentric angle or diverting angle emphasizing an abstract form. It was clearly an attempt to revive the aspect of intention in photography, not merely as a kind of passive awe at nature's grandeur, but as an act of deliberate recognition. The images weren't attempts to foreground an ecological ideal, or an elegiac ode to lost opportunities, or an evocation of an earlier nostalgic past. 

    On the other hand, they weren't coded abstractions meant to signify "koans" or touchstones of spiritual potency, the way Minor Whites often seem to be--or so I've believe. 

    What we do see, primarily in Wimberley's work, is the evidence of geology, and weather, and occasionally, the meek evidence of man's impact on the landscape.

    Three earlier works seem to be emblematic of Wimberley's approach. 

     Leda's Landscape 1984

    Descending Angel 1981

    Stone and Sky 1979
      
    Though these images have probably now become rather generic in their approach, at the time they seemed quite novel and innovative. Technically impressive in their clarity and formal construction. Contrasting textures and shapes which imply meaning without insisting upon themselves--moments stolen from accident and opportunity. 

    In Leda's Landscape, does the large oval rock on the left symbolize one of Leda's eggs, from the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan? Is the dark crevice in the distance the beak of a bird? And what is the meaning of the cloud shape placed suggestively upon that point? 

    The Black Shadow 1980

    As connoisseurs of the image, we are free to deduce whatever meaning we choose from a given image. Since the photographer has not chosen to title the work with a narrative queue, we have no hint what its ultimate significance is. With dune imagery, I often find myself working within a dialectical range of "hot" and "cold" for light and dark, though certain kinds of temperature may be darker where hotter. Is it a "black hole"--from the astronomical realm? What do black holes say? A mysterious concavity which draws us inward towards an unknown eventuality? Will we disappear into a bottomless void? Or are these speculations all beside the point?

    Bitter Ridge #16 2005

    Images which foreground the over-arching scale of natural structure are usually seen as signifying nature's power over man. I love pictures like this, which suggest a delicate balance of great forces held in check, subject to geologic time and coincidence. The great face of rock, streaked with the layered depositions which predate our genetic evolution, is like a Rosetta Stone whose ultimate message is locked inside a language which we haven't yet deciphered. Its gaunt presence is monumental--but monument to what?

    Race Track Valley 1981

    My first impression--as a photographer, looking at this image as a potential in the field--is that it's a happy occasion. Clouds like this are uncommon, though they may hang around longer than billowing cumulus do. In dry country, they often undergo very gradual transformation, and permit the set-up of a favorable foreground. Attaining this vantage may have been difficult or easy--but the difficulty, no matter how problematic--isn't the point. We aren't impressed with the effort, only with the phenomenon.  As with many of Wimberley's compositions, there's a play of textures and effects. The cloud formations, which suggest a school of hammerhead sharks, or a field of wild flowers, or perhaps a host of angels (take your pick, or invent your own metaphor), contrast effectively with the yawning stretch of gradient between the vantage and the horizon line. It reminds me a little of some of William Clift's landscapes. Also, the gravity of the earth's downward slant pulls against the upward lift of the cloud shapes, trailing their tails beneath them--contending visual forces in a barren scene without much evidence of life.  

     The Golden Triangle 1987

    Many of these images benefit from larger scale reproduction. So I would encourage anyone reading this blog to click on the images and expand them to the limits of your screen to see what I'm getting at. 


       Landscape for Two Ravens 1995

    Unlike Brett Weston, whose work I have always felt strongly about, Wimberley isn't simply looking for "elegant gorp." His sense of landscape is much more purposeful and connotative. He sees correspondences between abstractions in earth, plant matter, and cloud forms--and the messages which he feels conveyed through his imagination. These messages may not be shared by the viewer, but perhaps that isn't necessary. The mere suggestiveness of his images may be enough to carry the burden of a meaning.

    Recently, he's been on a quest to capture images of Native American petro-glyphs throughout the Great Basin territory. Though I respect the project, I question the relationship between the specific glyphs and the landscape compositions that foreground them. It seems to me a kind of gratuitous pretext. On the other hand, it can be very haunting to imagine a man, perhaps two or three or even five hundred or more years ago, standing at the exact spot, scratching away on a rock-face, seeing essentially the same unspoiled, and somewhat desolate, view we can capture with our cameras. The evidence of that intention is as permanent as anything that distant character might have imagined. What would he have thought of the photographer, with his big view camera perched on a wooden tripod, peering out from under the focusing dark-cloth? A time-traveler from another planet?
    _______________________

    All images used with permission of the photographer. 



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    Judy Dater is a West Coast photographer who's concentrated on portraiture and feminism. Themes of masking and disclosure appear frequently in her work. She sees photography as a provocative act, and her pictures often seem deliberately troubling or disruptive. 

    The image below, which I thought to comment on, I was surprised to discover, is the first photo on her website here


    1980

    Despite the intention in Dater's work, I'd like to consider this image as a distinct, separate occasion, apart from the place it may hold in the sequence or context of her other work. I think it's a powerful image, though part of its power seems to be a little gimmicky. 

    The natural assumption is that this is a photograph taken from inside an automobile, against the backdrop of the arid desert country of the American Southwest. It's an "idea" photograph, a conceptual still life that is more about the implications of its set-up, than any purely pictorial interest in the frame. It isn't a candid shot, a moment stolen from the accidental tapestry of happenstance. The landscape in the background is blurry, because the point of the picture is the two hands wrapped around the window-glass. The background suggests a remote point in the outback, and the occasion is presumably somewhere along the road where the vehicle has been parked. A window like this probably belongs to an SUV, or other utility vehicle, since ordinary passenger cars don't have sliding or side-moving windows. Of course, this could be a "staged" shot, simply a plate of glass the photographer set up for the exposure, since we don't have any frame, no reference for what the glass is attached to. It's even possible the shot is taken from inside a house or other structure. But none of this speculation really matters to the meaning of the image.

    All photography consists of a conceptual window. The window needn't be rectangular. Lenses, after all, are circular, and circular imagery is nothing new. And there are round windows too. But the metaphor still applies. Looking through the ground glass of a camera is the same as looking through a window. Seeing through a lens is what seeing is: Our eyes are lenses, focused towards the rear of our eyeball's inner lining, a sensitive field of receptors which transmits the visual data to our brain via the optic nerve. The camera lens is an eye. No matter what we see, we see through a translucent interposed membrane. Clear window glass affords the same visual facility which the eye, or the camera lens does. Transparent glass lets light and color through, but blocks matter. Glass is a brittle solid, crystalline in structure, which fractures or shears along its weakest integration. 

    The hands in the photograph seem to be pulling the glass to the right, but of course the hands may simply be holding on, not pulling. The hands tell us that half the photographic rectangle is behind a sheet of glass, while the other half isn't. Metaphorically speaking, the hands are pulling the glass back from the viewer's field of vision. But the sense of revelation is only symbolic, since the glass is clear enough that were the hands not there, we could be fooled into thinking we were looking only through the camera lens, not through another "layer" of clear glass. The edge of the glass is a dark line in the middle of the photo, which--except for the hands--would not allow us to perceive the glass as glass. We know the hands are holding glass, because we can see the compressed skin of the palms and fingertips on the opposite surface side. 

    What exactly does the picture tell us? Are the hands trying to pull the invisible translucence of glass aside, like a curtain revealing a clearer, truer reality behind? Do the hands symbolize some kind of victimization or confinement, like prisoners or refugees trapped inside a compound or container? Are the hands a kind of wretched, horrific striving for release, or freedom? 

    What is most striking about the image is the tension that is set up between the view we have, and the meaning of the hands "pulling" the picture's symbolic "curtain" aside. There's no visual queue to clarify what we're supposed to think about the meaning of the image, so it floats in a speculative limbo, neither comforting or threatening. It's a meditation on the meaning of disclosure and permission, what it means to be permitted to see. There's also the irony of translucency, reminding us that what we think we're seeing may not be as "clear" as we are given to know. If the hands belong to the photographer, the message might be a desire to show, to demonstrate, to reveal. To remove boundaries and interpositions from our vision, to free us to perceive the truths right in front of our eyes.

    "Unscrew the locks from the doors !
    Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs !"
                                                                       --Walt Whitman



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  • 04/21/15--13:04: Transit Tropique

  • With the drought era upon us in the Southwest, our thoughts turn to refreshment. Much of the thinking about cocktails revolves around tropical fruits in warm climates, as an antidote to overheated bodies and  intense thirst. Alcohol, of course, tends to dehydrate rather than slake the thirst that inspires its consumption. Nevertheless, there's nothing quite like a well-made cocktail, frosty with chill, served on a hot afternoon, after work or play.

    Coconuts and bananas and limes all are coded as tropical, and rum is the equatorial goods of choice, anywhere around the globe, except perhaps in Mexico, where tequila is king. And of course you could make this combination using tequila as well, perhaps with the addition of barrel-aged tequila in place of the 150 rum. 

    Rum punches usually begin with a fruit drink, squeezed fresh or from "concentrate" (i.e., reconstituted from the residue of mashed whole unsorted fruit). You can begin with melon or citrus or root beer or any soft drink you can think of, to which you add liberal amounts of some brand or type of rum, and then keep pouring in lesser amounts of other flavor elements. Pineapple is another important component  of tropical drinks. And of course you can drop in skins or wedges or gratings of citrus, or any fragment of fresh fruit you choose. Punches are often made in large bowls, so they can be ladled out at parties or gatherings, and additional ingredients can be added as desired during the festivities. 

    One of my big gripes with many taverns is that they tend to feature cocktails that are basically fruit drinks with just a teaspoon of goods added. This is primarily to save on ingredients, while soft-pedaling the strength of the concoctions to customers who either wouldn't know what a real cocktail tasted like, or simply don't want strong drinks, like offering champagne to people whose experience of wines is limited to church. Whenever I see a "house" drink that starts off with orange drink or lemon juice, I politely ask to build my own drink from what's on hand. Often this will elicit protests, or stammering confusion, since they won't know how to charge you for the richer mix you've ordered, and in any case they're trained to discourage requests which involve making actual cocktails (instead of cool-aid). 




    Imagine yourself out on the veranda in a pleasant, slightly creaky Southern mansion, say, in Savannah, late in the afternoon of a warm Summer day, and this drink really comes into its own.




    There's a lovely movie song to accompany this scene, which comes via Hollywood--In Adam's Rib (1949), in which David Wayne sings his little unfinished ballad, Farewell Amanda, where the word veranda finds its perfect place in history as the rhyme-word to Amanda.      
       



    3 parts white rum
    1/2 part 150 rum
    1 1/5 parts Midori
    1/2 part creme de bananae
    1/2 part coconut syrup
    1/2 part lime
    1/2 part lemon

    The recipe by proportion, shaken hard with cracked ice and served up. 

    Be mellow, y'all. 


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  • 05/05/15--06:52: The Paris Air Show of 1922


  • In a dream, I am in an old mansion basement, feverishly scrounging through boxes of old pamphlets, on a table, as other collectors and dealers are doing likewise at my side, when I happen upon an old booklet, bound in limp green leatherette, showing a picture of a bi-plane tilted up in flight. The pilot, his head encased in a form-fitting leather cap, and large goggles, is seen waving from the cockpit towards the viewer. Across the top of the cover, it reads, in darker green, “S O U V E N I R – Paris Air Show 1922.” In the dream, I wake up and go downstairs to the computer to see if there really was a Paris Air Show in 1922, and to my surprise, there was! Later, I “really” wake up and come downstairs to see if there really was a Paris Air Show in 1922, thinking if there really was one, that would be some kind of wonderful coincidence, since air show pamphlets, and aviation generally, aren’t subjects that I've ever dealt in as a book trader.

    I discover that the Paris Air Show (or “Salon”), the world’s oldest and largest, originally was begun in 1909. There was a Paris Air Show in 1921, but I can’t find a record of one in 1922. In the seventh (1921) show, a prototype of the so-called French Breguet 19, based on a World War I light bomber, powered by a Bugatti engine, was shown. A new design of the same craft flew in March 1922, but it doesn’t say where. It was the model for the French Army’s Aéronautique Militaire from September 1923 on. It was used in the Greco-Italian War, in World War II, primarily as a reconnaissance aircraft. It was used by a number of European countries, as well as some in the Western Hemisphere.


    Breguet 19 

    Did I once see such a booklet, or did I conjure one up in my dream? The obsessive book scout in me is perfectly capable of inventing such an object. I go back to bed, hoping to return to the scene I have created in my imagination. Perhaps I am fantasizing that I can bring the imaginary pamphlet back from the dreamworld into the real one. Or perhaps I am simply enjoying the experience of having made something up that has a probable counterpart in the real world. Thus, my writing this account--a prosepoem of the dream--is a partial realization of that desire.  

    My unconscious is sending me a message, whose secret meaning I may never be able to decode. This vicarious desire—expressed as a vague longing in the murky semi-consciousness between sleeping and waking--that my experience in the imagination might actually have happened--is like a dream come true. 




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  • 05/08/15--10:55: Max Richter's Mercy

  • Max Richter's a new kind of post-Modern composer. 




    "Fusion" was a term coined a few decades ago to characterize the marriage of musical styles, rejecting the traditional divisions between classical, pop, jazz, folk, ethnic--in favor of hybrid compositions which were not clearly classifiable into one of those genres. 

    Richter is a contemporary composer who essays a number of different styles, applied to various venues. His works range from straight concert pieces, to movie scores, stage, ballet, and even pop collaborations with small groups. I've listened to a number of his works on YouTube, and though I can't say I like them all, they display a facility which is impressive. Making a living as a composer has never been easy, so musicians like Richter are forced to live by their wits. 

    All that aside, here's beautiful piece of his, considered "minimal" as a result of its modest lyrical range and brevity, entitled Mercy.  It could be something that Schumann might have composed, or Fauré, or even Delius, yet it's somehow too "clean" for them. I think of it simply as pure music. It could be the middle section of a sonata for violin and piano, or the lyric for the slow section of a symphony. I'm not sure why, but it suggests to me a kind of elegy, say, for the dead of the Holocaust. A piece as beautiful as this comes directly from the heart.

    Violin: Hilary Hahn
    Piano: Cory Smythe  






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  • 06/01/15--13:15: V-8




  •                              V-8


    We enter a store where everything is a novelty.


    The best part—the challenge—is in figuring out

    What each thing is.


    This, for instance, might be a dildo, or a napkin holder.

    That over there, is it a bird feeder or a candle sconce?


    Plastic stalagtites hang from the rafters.

    Is this one “op art” or interactive play?


    Does boredom grow on trees?

    Are we hungry yet, or has the meter expired?


    We walk on, distracted by the latest fad.  

    Does novelty date? Or is it just us?

    I’ll have a V-8. 






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    This blog will be the third time I've devoted space to the work of Rae Armantrout, a poet whose work I've followed for over 45 years, with continuous interest and curiosity. I reviewed her Money Shot [Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2011] here, in 2011; and commented on the reaction to her Pulitzer Prize winning collection, Versed [Wesleyan University Press, 2009] here, in 2010. Her new collection, Itself [Wesleyan, 2015], has just been published, and I'm moved to a reappraisal of her work, both for what it may say about its evolution of style, and what it may indicate about the affects of literary authority within the larger contexts of taste and critical regard.    



    What is immediately apparent to any reader familiar with her work, is that, at least until now, each new book has been neither a departure in terms of style, nor an attempt to break new formal ground. Her poems have been remarkably consistent and devoted to the manner and approach that she exhibited in her earliest collections, Extremities [The Figures, 1978], Precedence [Burning Deck, 1985], Necromance [Sun & Moon, 1991], Made to Seem [Sun & Moon, 1995]--none of which (mysteriously), by the way, are to be found in her previous titles list in this new collection. Rather, she has stretched and attenuated her style, without straying outside its parameters. Her poems have never been lyrical, or formal performances. They're tightly controlled and compressed meditations, which employ a short-hand of phrase and cliché and internal dialectic, to achieve witty leaps, and ironic turns or satiric surprises, some of which stand as caricature or condemnation, others of which are self-reflexive and worrisome. 

    Meditative poets, like Donne (the lyricist), or Wordsworth (of the common tongue), usually end up creating unresolved dilemmas (which are like puzzles), or settling on pat resolutions. But Armantrout is a post-Modernist, which is to say she is never "inside" the language as she uses it, but is always, at least, at one remove (or two, or three) from the address of the voice she employs. This distance permits her to treat speech acts as specimens. She is forever hearing something else inside language, which is to say, something other than the manifest sense it's originally intended to carry. There's often a kind of sardonic amusement between what people--in media, on the street, in the marketplace of common discourse--think they are saying, and what that speech actually signifies to the alert poetic sensibility (a heightened consciousness). 

    The larger challenge, one which Armantrout has always sought to answer, is how the deeper implications of the revelation of accidental or self-deluding language affect everyone, beyond the dialectic of us versus them, or of political correctness versus the conceit of intellectual omniscience. There are other ways of saying this, of course.

    Despite the apparent consistency of Armantrout's work, which I have remarked on before, I detect a subtle alteration of viewpoint, in this new collection, which I see as a consequence of the change in her literary status, from one seen primarily as a minor, and somewhat hermetic practitioner of an obscure elite known as Language Poetry, to one viewed as a unique, independent example of a writer with her own vision, and her own separate intention(s). This transformation--an elevation of awareness that occurred when she won the Pulitzer in 2010, has led to a change, a freedom of movement in her poems, that I imagine wouldn't have been possible without the breaking open of her reputation, and the expansion of her readership. 

    Literary fame may affect different writers in different ways. It may have the effect of driving them underground (Jack Gilbert, W.D. Snodgrass), or of encouraging them to move directly into the spotlight of public consciousness (Robert Bly, James Dickey). It may make them arrogant, or pretentious, or conceited, or vainglorious. The increased pressure of the consciousness of a larger audience may change the way a writer thinks of herself, preventing her from enjoying the kind of self-communion that privacy and intimacy once afforded. Fame can be a curse, or a blessing, but it is rarely neither. 

    For an experimental poet, such as Armantrout, the difficulties, of the kind which characterize her style, usually stand as barriers to appreciation for the common reader. When official taste and approval are tendered, the sense of permission and opportunity may encourage a writer to think even less about the accessibility of her work. How any writer chooses to exploit this permission may determine the course their work may take. When James Wright had achieved the official approval of the "verse culture" by winning the Yale Prize for The Green Wall [1957], followed by widespread approval for Saint Judas [Wesleyan, 1959], he felt emboldened to abandon altogether the academic formalities which had brought him this opportunity, and did an aesthetic about-face--a self-transformation which would come to be seen as characteristic not only of his generation, but typical of what happens when a petitioner is granted access to the inner circles of power. It changes the terms of the argument, from one of aspiration for recognition, to a self-conscious performance. 

    But Armantrout was never traditional, didn't wear old-fashioned stanzas and talk about the usual stale subjects. She was looking for something more elusive, something hidden in plain-view wherever she looked. The photographer Harry Callahan once said that a good photographer should be able to make an interesting composition of anything within 15 feet of where he was standing--that we didn't need to "find" subject matter, or travel to discover it; when he went to Europe he was thwarted, because, as he said, everything was so "photogenic" he couldn't "find a picture." Armantrout shares an affinity with that kind of thinking, in that there's no straining toward the exotic or the inspiring or the ideal. It's everywhere we look. It's inside us already. And it doesn't matter whether it IS exotic or inspiring or ideal, because none of that matters--at least in her work.           

                         

    From the dustwrapper Photo of Armantrout's Itself *

    So the poems in this new collection are, as it happens, existential, in that they pose questions about the terms of the propositions themselves, rather than setting competing points of view in opposition, and discovering satisfyingly pat ironies in the bargain. 

    When I was at Iowa, I once complained to my poet-professor Marvin Bell that what I lacked--what I sought--or thought I needed, as a writer, was a voice. Voice in the sense of the presence of the author's mind, as communicated through the music, the characteristic sound of one's phrasing--not just phrasing, but somehow memorable phrasing, inimitable phrasing--a style. Marvin said the predictable thing, as I regard it now in retrospect, that voice would "come" of its own, simply in the act of attempting to make stories or poems--that this would happen "despite" oneself--that one's voice would always be unique, even in imitation. In Olson's phrase, "we do not change, we only stand more revealed." Frost had said somewhere that he sought in his prosody, the sound of sentences, the characteristic way in which we speak, as a strategy of reflexive intention. 

    Armantrout's approach to language in her poems has been typically  linguistic--that is to say, as one who examines language as a phenomenological entity, a system of communication and representation. In Armantrout's work, there was an exploration of the relationship between popular, or technical, or jargon'd speech--just at the point it enters the zone of common usage and familiarity, just as it began to fade into the tapestry of background presumption. The voice of her poems--insofar as one may speak of it--was built out of fragments of speech which she heard or read in the environment of language, and she marshaled these evidentiary fragments into a dialectic of irony, interrogation and verdict. Pragmatics--the study of how contexts affect our apprehension of meaning (and identity) in language--provided a useful tool in understanding what Armantrout's program involves: By presenting phrase or word fragments in free-floating space, untethered or un-anchored to their putative context, and playing them off one against the other, she was able to set up enjambments, "accidents" (coincidences of speech), releasing surprising energies, out of the kernels or nodes of specimen language. That the reader, or indeed the writer, was implicated in the content of such fragments, as well as the jeopardy implied by their sculptured collage, went without saying. All this was familiar in her work, which by the end of the 1970's, had hardened into a style.

    At its best, poetry can serve as a kind of short-hand for feelings or cognitions which are nearly impossible to describe in straight prose, or even in heavily inflected jargon (such as is common in the sciences). Armantrout's highly intuitive leaps and edgy spliced concisions are like riddles to a code that underlies all our apprehensions in language--a kind of interlinear stream of consciousness. Poetry can be entertainment--and it often is, at its best--or exploration, or demonstration. Following her serious engagement with cancer, and the expansion of her audience following the Pulitzer--Armantrout's work was bound to become either more desperate, or more extravagant--something I noted in my review of a previous book [Money Shot, 2011].    

    If her work has always, in a sense, been about provisional logic of coping with the strangeness of reality, or the failed logic of naive misapprehension, these new poems are about questioning ultimate presumptions, the thing itself.  Carlos Williams often employed the impersonal pronoun "it" to describe a phenomenon or a feeling which the poem was designed to define, or outline. Sometimes it represented a force, sometimes the life force, sometimes an infernal power, but it never meant more than the context in which it appeared. Each poem's "it" might be addressed as, or stand for, a different thing.

    What is it that Armantrout's "it" --i.e., "Itself"--specifically stands for? Armantrout's it could be the indefinable, or elusive quality which is hidden in experience, or hidden inside perception, or hidden inside thought, or something in plain sight which we can't see, because . . . or, the key word is hidden. The sense that there is a truth, or a reality, that is crucial to our understanding of the world, which poetry might conceivably reveal, either by accident or intention. 

    In Armantrout's earlier work, she seemed content to let her explorations of popular jargon and casual conversational specimens of speech tangle themselves up into ironic little twisted balls of contradiction and unintended humor or canny wit. The poems in Itself seem, on the other hand, to be aimed at specific targets. If "it" is a placeholder for what she wants to name, or identify, it might stand for the self, floating in a sea of language, or it might be the kernel of matter which physicists want to isolate and describe as the irreducible measure of all substantial immanence. As the self employs language, it may become synonymous with the color of its identity. But the self is suspicious, it mistrusts the functionality of grammar, the familiar comfort of reliable signification(s). This anxiety is a primary driver in Armantrout's poetic program, its coin of exchange. The thing itself--its elusiveness--is like a particle in physics which can only be known indirectly, through the "ghosts" or "trails" it leaves. It may exist only for a nano-second, before disappearing into the void. Without air, we have no voice, and there is no echo. 

    How is the self to define itself except through the shared currency of consent? If I allow that your identity is confirmed through the rhythm and tone of your speech, the characteristic ordering of your language, might this be another illusion, inside of which the "real" self (the thingness of your being) is concealed?

    Here's an experiment, perhaps just balancing on the edge of permission and courtesy. What follows is a series of excerpts from the book, taken partly at random, partly through delight and interest, which themselves form a sequence that seems to me as vital as the coincidental, incidental, random, unintended, chance, contingent, fortuitous and unexpected quality of the actual poems from which the extracts are drawn.

    What's the take-away?

    *

    She acts out understanding
    the way a mime
    climbs an invisible wall.

    *

    On a traffic island, a man waves his arms
    as if conducting music,
    and takes bows.

    *

    Meaning is sensed relation.

    *

    Among twenty brown hills
    the only moving thing
    was the Coca-Cola truck.

    *

    ion
    selection
    channel
    membrane

    *

    Skirting 
    the edge of

    what can,
    could have been

    meant

    *

    Around the block
    dogs bark at absence.

    *

    My username
    is invalid.

    *

    "I feel it,"
    I said

    and you came.

    *

    Can a thought truly be mine
    if I am not currently thinking it?

    *

    Platonic forms:

    floors and hallways
    built of living

    ants.

    *

    In our world,
    scissors fly

    around unheld, trim
    Cinderella's evening gown

    *

    Phoneme clusters?

    These things happen.

    *

    We are made up
    of tiny rules.

    The rules follow 
    themselves.

    They try.

    (We try.)

    Nobody's perfect.

    Every one is perfect.

    *

    as if doubt
    were a way

    to catch 
    one's fall.

    *

    Boarding all zones at this time.

    *

    Remember "escapism?"

    *

    Looked at from
    upside down,

    nothing has happened
    yet.

    *

    Just put words
    down, one

    after the last.

    *

    Just get out
    in time.

    Of there





    Fragments accumulate on the other side of the room. They're a motley crew, complete with provisional dunce-caps and prosthetic limbs where there should be hands, feet, ears, heads. This is comic, since no one dies, tragically or otherwise. Whenever abstraction attains a certain limit, coherence flags. It's an artificial wind like the old bearded salt in the clouds sending explorers across the ocean of time on a voyage of conquest and discovery. They don't know what they'll find. And neither do we.    
    _____________

    *For the life of me, I can't understand why anyone would want a photo portrait like this one on their book jacket. Armantrout looks uncomfortable, and peculiarly "posed"--as if trying to appear ill at ease, or eccentrically riveted by the photographer's direction.  

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  • 06/05/15--09:37: My First Walking Stick

  • Lately, I've begun to have some symptoms of early arthritis. Out of the blue, my right elbow has begun to ache and stiffen without any immediate trauma. 

    I've always been fairly complacent about how much stress I put on my body. I lift heavy objects and over-exert frequently. I've begun to think, after 67 years of active life, that I must be indestructible. 

    Over the years, I've damaged the cartilage in both my knees, but I have almost no symptoms from that, unless I try running long distances, which can lead to discomfort. As we get older, we tend to become somewhat more sedentary, which may mask oncoming weaknesses in our physiology. 

    I guess, someday, I may end up having to use a cane or other ambulatory appliance. I don't dwell on such things, so when and if that day comes, I'll just have to deal with it then.

    In the meantime, I encountered my very first walking-stick. 

    Returning home from work in the later afternoon, I was closing our redwood gate, when I noticed a sliver of wood leaning from the edge of the vertical frame member. I looked at it intently, and realized to my utter surprise, that it was in fact an insect.

    Partly aged redwood has a reddish-brown tinge, and the Walking Stick--which is what this insect is called--could easily go unnoticed unless you were really looking for one. If it had been on the fence, I would never have seen it. 


    Photo of Walkingstick on our front gate

    According to what I've been able to find online, this should belong to the Northern Walkingstick family, except that the typical "long antennae" seem to be entirely missing--unless I'm seeing it wrong. I'm thinking this must be a damaged bug, since it has only four of the usual six legs. Maybe it got its head caught in the gate-edge, or a hungry bird bit off a piece?

    These are rare insects. I don't know many people who've reported seeing them here in California, but I've read about them before. At first, I thought it looked like a big brown Praying Mantis, and I suspect they may be related to mantises.This one appeared to be about six inches long, and probably much longer with its head and antennae. It wasn't moving, but you could see very tiny adjustments of the legs--it was definitely alive, but probably without its head, it was just clinging out of muscle tone or something.    

      



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  • 06/08/15--11:47: The Fjord


  • My personal genealogical history is traced back to England (from the name Calef on my real father's name), and to Norway (Johnson on my mother's side). 

    I've traveled to English and Scotland and Ireland for visits, but I've never visited Scandinavia. I have a feeling I'd enjoy going there--something I may eventually do. 

    One striking landform of Norway is the fjords. A fjord is a deep, narrow, elongated sea or lakedrain with steep land on three sides, opening toward the sea (the mouth). Fjords were formed by glacier tongues retreating glaciers, depositing gravel and sad along the way, forming shallow "thresholds" at or near the mouths. Fjords are thus often natural harbors. 

    Fjord--the word--has ancient origins--from the prehistoric Indo-European word "prtus," derived from "por" or "per," meaning "go," or "pass," or "to put over on the other side." Its basic meaning "where one fares through" also give us the words "fare" and "ferry." Thus a fording, or crossing.     



    Aquavit--or akvavit--is a traditional distilled spirit produced in Scandinavia, going back to the 15th Century, the principle flavoring agent being caraway (or dill), and averages 40% alcohol. The word comes from the Latin aqua vitae ("water of life"). In Scandinavia, it is often sipped at room temperature, or used in conjunction with beer. It may be clear or slightly yellow, depending on age. Aquavit is produced in Scandinavia, but also in the U.S. 





    I have tried using aquavit as a mixed drink spirit, either as the goods, or as a flavoring agent, with excellent results. Here is a mix that begins with aquavit, but comes out tasting more balanced and less peculiar than you might suppose. 


    3 parts aquavit
    1 part Tanqueray Gin
    1 Part fresh squeezed lime juice
    1/2 part creme de minthe 
    1/2 part creme de violette

    Shaken vigorously and served up in a pre-chilled cocktail glass.



    Now to toast one's ancestors!
        

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  • 06/25/15--13:11: James Salter dead at 90



  • The fiction and screen writer James Salter died a week ago, on Friday the 19th, while at a gym. A week earlier, he'd celebrated his 90th birthday.

    Against all the odds, he lived a long, full life, filled with incident, action, movement, excitement, meditation, and considerable success. 

    A modest man, with large ambitions, sophisticated, svelte, soigné, equally seduced by elegance and devotion to solitary craftsmanship. 

    He was among the first novelists I really admired. Fowles. Steinbeck. Hemingway. Salinger. Forster. Salter. A compelling style, an investment in gesture, in the perfect metaphor, the transparent phrase. A sense of the vividness of a certain time, of the memorable, the sublime. 

    A man for whom, like Hemingway, life itself was more seductive that his art. And yet at the same time a patient artist, tinkering, revising, turning sentences and paragraphs over and over, seeing them from all angles, inside out, then coming back and seeing them fresh, again, before letting go of them. 

    The early "air force" novels don't mean much to me. His work begins with A Sport and a Pastime, continues with Light Years, Solo Faces, and ends with All That Is (which is a kind of foil for the muted autobiography Burning the Days). 

    It turns out that, for good or ill, most of what he wrote about came directly from his life experiences, appropriating real people into his stories, often thinly disguised. 

    The experience of reading his work is for me an astonishment, at the exquisite surface, the shrewd and wonderful description. The deepening sadness of his characters. Their obsessions. Their pleasures. Their regrets. 

    If I could have been the sort of writer I once dreamed of being, it would be something like Salter. A figure undisturbed by the distractions of fame, but with a devoted audience of admirers. Living an interesting life in interesting places. And writing a handful of nearly perfect books. 

    Salter thought the only thing that lasts is what we're able to record in language. 

    As the world gradually forgets who the man James Salter (née Horowitz) was (in life), the books will linger on into the decades, as distinct vessels of the alembic of who he might have been. Not as an alternative, but as a speculation. 

    Who were we? Look into our books to find us. 
      

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    The days pile up and the recipes keep coming.

    It's a restless round of changing combinations, a refusal to settle on a favorite. Exploration, discovery, surprises and confirmations. Questions, with a few answers. Failures, with the occasional success. 

    Here are three new happy discoveries. Parfait d'Amour, as produced by Marie Brizard(c) (a French distiller), has an orange basis, with some other allied flavors. It has a purple color, though what the color has to do with the flavor is anyone's guess. (Creme de Violette has the same color, but with a different flavor.) I find Parfait d'Amour to be a useful liqueur, when I'm looking for a different spin on citrus. The first recipe here is great on a hot day.   



    2 parts gin
    1/2 part parfait d'amour
    juice of 1/2 lime
    tonic water to finish

    Served on the rocks, perhaps with a lime peel.  


    Thinking again of hot weather, this one has a little Down South flavor, with the burnt syrup added, which gives it a slightly molasses quality that is quite suggestive of New Orleans combinations. Bourbon goes well with sweet nut flavors. The lemon just straightens it out a bit. 



    3 parts bourbon
    1/2 part hazelnut liqueur
    1 teaspoon burnt sugar syrup
    1 part lemon juice

    Swirled in ice and served up with an orange slice.   


    Readers will know that I like aquavit as a mixer. This one functions as a flavor agent, since the white vermouth is the goods. I don't know why the ginger works with the aquavit, but it does. The lime keeps things neat, and focused. It's on the dry side, but still refreshing.  




    1 1/2 part aged aquavit
    2 parts dry vermouth
    1 part ginger liqueur
    1 part lime juice

    Served up in chilled cocktail glass--with lime slice if you wish.

    Summer in the Bay Area. It's been hot the last few days, with the saving grace of the marine fogs to cool our sleep at night. We have the best of worlds here, in terms of weather. Temperate, though a bit too dry of late. Here's hoping for a wetter Winter. 


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    When I grew up in the 1950's and 1960's, you routinely saw and heard advertisements for non-prescription medicines. In those remote times, cigarettes and beer ads were also routinely permitted--so the question of the public's health was decidedly an ambiguous matter from a regulatory standpoint. 

    Over the last two decades, spending by pharmaceutical companies on lobbying, and advertising to the general public on television, have mushroomed. Drug companies are making very big money on a host of new products, designed to appeal to people who have common chronic afflictions, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, indigestion and irregularity, depression, diabetes, obesity, sleep disorders, joint and muscle disease, chronic pain, skin hair and nail problems, and so forth. None of these conditions is new, and the treatments are generally familiar and routine. 

    Non-prescription medicine is available to the general public, because it's considered safe enough that ordinary people can be trusted to use it in a safe way. Prescription medicine is considered to be safe only when prescribed by, and taken under the supervision of, a trained physician. Marketing prescription medication over public media to the general public is a relatively new phenomena--the campaign to convince people that taking riskier artificial or synthetic substances is going to make a significant difference in their lives. 

    Many of the new drugs aren't even "primary" treatment products. They're just designed to "help" when used in conjunction with a primary treatment regimen. 

    It used to be that drug companies targeted their campaigns to pharmacists and doctors. When I was growing up, the father of one of my friends was a pharmacist. He'd received hundreds of "gifts" and come-ons every year, to influence him to promote the use of one or another commercially marketed pills or applications, in the hope that he would recommend them to his customers. Toys, paperweights, pens, calendars, it was a relentless flow. 

    Today, drug companies have gotten permission to promote prescription medications directly to the general public. 

    We've all seen the new ads. They have fancy names, scientific sounding--like Verdaxa, or Duvadin, or Clinolix--and we know the FDA has passed them, but FDA approval apparently doesn't guarantee safety, at least not any more.

    On each ad, there is a cheerful vignette of someone performing daily routines, or on vacation. They're all smiles, liberated from the distractions of their medical issues, getting on with life, celebrating just being alive. 

    But while all this visual drama is taking place, a comforting voice is narrating the serious side effects which may accompany the desired "cures" the drug was designed to effect. The possible "side-effects" of a pill for depression may include heart attack, stomach ulcers, swollen feet, and even "certain rare cancers." 

    You would think that any advertisement which was required to inform you about all the bad things which could happen to you if you used a product, would probably not work. 

    But we all know that big corporations aren't stupid, and they wouldn't be using these ads if they weren't working. 

    Americans have always loved taking medicine, and it's becoming more true every year. Is it because we have an inordinate credulity for panaceas? Do we think we can medicate ourselves into health? 

    Most people know that eating a good diet, and exercising regularly, are the best behaviors for good health. Smoking, drinking immoderately, living a sedentary life, being socially isolated, or taking unnecessary risks such as driving too fast, or crossing streets while texting--these are all behaviors designed to shorten your life, or to lead to poor health.

    But people are not rational. They will do things they know are bad for them, out of sheer laziness, or simple mischief. 

    People can be convinced of almost anything--right up to, and including, committing suicide.

    The pharmaceutical companies know this, and they rely on it. 

    Would you take a drug which "might" help with a chronic condition, but which carried the risk of certain much more serious side effects? 


    "Certain rare cancers have been reported." 



    0 0




    One obvious limitation to the variety and diversity of mixing is the number of traditional kinds of spirits there are. There's gin and rum and bourbon and scotch and brandy and vodka and tequila, any one of which provides a firm platform for the exploration of tastes and combinations. Still, one often senses the monotony of this limited panoply of historical precedents. One may expand this range a bit by using aperitifs or fruit drinks as bases, but then we're straying into punches and coolers and toddies--not cocktails. Cocktails as such deserve to have their own categorical purity, which we should respect. 

    So, in the round-robbin of shifting alternatives, here are five more, some so new they don't even have names.
      
    This one is a delicately spiced number. You don't see apple liqueur used much in popular recipe books, and I can't think why. Apple flavor, especially the crisp "green" side, makes perfect sense in a drink. Maybe the association with apple juice is somehow wrong. Gin is a flavored spirit, and here the delicate herbs in the gin mate with the apple and Genepi aperitif to make a very sophisticated flavor, "dried out" by the lime.   

    3 part Boodles gin
    1 part apple liqueur
    1 part Genepi des Alpes
    1 part fresh lime juice

    Shakes and served up in very cold cocktail glasses.

    _________________________________

    Exotic ingredients are making a comeback in the liquor business. Today, you can find "bitters" in dozens of flavors, and other kinds of special ingredients are appearing too. Here, I use black burnt sugar syrup (which is a little like clarified molasses) to lend a bit of down-south sweetness to a classic dark rum arrangement. No one would be surprised or embarrassed to be served this in New Orleans or Key West on a hot afternoon in late summer.    

    2 parts dark rum
    1 part puerto rican rum
    1/3 part black burnt sugar syrup
    1/3 part blood orange liqueur
    1/3 part cinnamon liqueur
    1 part fresh lemon juice

    Swirled and served on the rocks, or up, with or without an orange or lemon peel floating on top. 

    ___________________________________

    This one is very seductive, but the optional addition of vanilla-almond syrup is hard to settle. I first made it with, and it seemed a trifle too sweet, but when I made it without, it seemed comparatively dry. I think maybe just reducing the amount to half a teaspoon of syrup might be the trick. The ginger with the parfait d'amour (a proprietary flavor that's in the orange family, but is more complex than that) is really a revelation. 

    3 parts golden rum
    1 part parfait d'amour
    2/3 part ginger liqueur
    1 teaspoon vanilla almond syrup (optional)
    1 part fresh lemon juice

    Shaken and served up.

    ____________________________________

    Here again, the use of the burnt sugar syrup, alters in a good way the effect of the traditional Peychaux bitters. Galliano goes well with lots of other flavors, and here it deepens the quality without diverting it. This one, like the dark rum recipe above, is inspired by Southern hospitality and charm, which you can experience second-hand just by drinking this drink!

    4 parts Jack Daniels sour mash whisky
    1 part Galliano
    1.5 parts fresh lemon juice
    1/3 part burnt sugar syrup
    four dashes Peychaux Bitters
    orange peel + 1/2 teaspoon orange juice

    Swirled and served up. 

    _____________________________________

    This last perhaps doesn't fully qualify as a cocktail, since it's based on an aperitif--dry vermouth--instead of a straight spirit. Still, especially for the ladies, it's the perfect Summer cooler, which can be served up or on the rocks, and of course it's a weaker drink, so less dangerous or inebriating. Not that I worry too much about that, since I rarely have more than one drink at any given time. I've nick-named it the "punch drunk" since it's really sort of a punch, but will not make you "drunk." 


    "Punch Drunk"

    2 parts dry vermouth
    1 part compari
    1 part triple sec
    1 part lime
    1 1/2 part soda

    On the rocks, or up if you prefer.










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  • 08/04/15--12:28: Death of the Milkman

  • Hint: This is not a mystery novel.

    I'm old enough now to remember when dairy products were delivered directly to your door at home.




    If you live long enough, nearly everything that once seemed typical and universal, eventually seems old-fashioned. Change is the common thread that runs through life, though the pace of that change has itself changed over time. 

    For someone living in Europe during the Middle Ages, I suppose it must have been possible to see the world as pretty permanent and static. When you were born, people rode horses, and went to church, and worked the soil, and made things mostly by hand. At the end of your life, these things were still true; little had changed in your world.

    Today, the pace of change is so rapid, that in a hundred years, much of the environment, and what goes on in it, may seem so unfamiliar and outdated that it's astounding. People in 1900 could hardly have imagined what was coming, and if you'd told them about it, they probably wouldn't have believed you. Or they would have thought you crazy. 




    When I was growing up in the 1950's, milk and cream and cheeses were delivered right to our door, once a week, by "The Milkman." The milkman--like the postman, or the Fuller Brush man, or the Bible salesman, or the census taker, or the paperboy--seems another aspect, another vestige, of our irretrievable and inalterable past. 

    Why did milk men go away? Because the whole commercial marketing model of food and household goods distribution changed. 

    Once upon a time--say, as long ago as when my parents were growing up during the first half of the 20th Century--people got their supplies and groceries from small tradespeople and shops. Dairy goods were sold by dairies, meat by butchers, baked flour goods by bakers, and so on. There were specialty shops for pickled goods, sweets, fruit and vegetables, liquor, and so on. 

    What happened to all these separate, specialized venues?

    The first great wave of change gathered momentum right after World War II. Safeway and other chains had begun before the War, but didn't develop quickly until the 1940's. By the 1950's, grocery stores (especially chains) were shunting specialty shops aside. Grocery stores rapidly consolidated the different kinds of goods people once had acquired from multiple sources. By 1955, it was possible to buy everything a housemaker might need to eat and drink, from a single big super-market.  

    By the time I was in junior high school, milkmen were becoming an endangered species. With the rise of the automobile, in suburbia, it made more sense to do your one-stop shopping at the grocery market, without having to pay a premium for door-to-door delivery. 

    The second wave of consolidation was of course the shopping "center"--or "mall"--a big complex of different kinds of retail, which might include, aside from grocery stores, all kinds of different product sellers. 

    In a larger sense, the gradual disappearance of the small "tradesman" in our economy, is a trend that follows the increasing technological sophistication of distribution, communication, and marketing tools. These developments seem to possess an inertia that is overwhelming. 

    Today, we're seeing some reaction against the consolidation represented by malls and shopping districts. There are contrary trends happening. People are reexamining the "convenience" and seeming attraction of these places. Over the last decade, construction of malls and centres has ground to a halt, and as much as a third of all the existing sites in the U.S. have gone "grey"--abandoned, or slated for demolition. 

    Today, increasingly, people are shopping "online" (on the internet). Many of the things we once bought elsewhere, are being delivered to us, with just a few keystrokes on the computer. Mail order has reemerged as the frontier of marketing, after having been largely ignored for half a century. 

    As a used (rare) book dealer, I've had to adjust to this new model, which hit the retail scene just at the point that I was entering the trade in the mid 1990's. When I contemplated becoming a self-employed used book dealer in 1994, most specialty dealers nursed a small local contingent of customers, which they supplemented by sending out catalogues to select customers further away. Provincial exclusivity outweighed most other considerations. Running an open shop with regular business hours made sense, since most of your sales were "through the door" rather than through the mail. 

    So-called "big box" bookstores, like Walden Books, Crown, Barnes & Noble, and Borders had followed the shopping mall model, and were very successful for a couple of decades, discounting and pressuring the smaller independents. Half Price Books was created using this model, and it wasn't long before used books were being sold online, supplanting the "catalogue" model of the antiquarian book trade. Today, online is king, dominated by Amazon (and its subsidiary Advanced Book Exchange), along with a handful of much smaller sites. And books themselves, as physical text repositories of the written word, are also coming under pressure. 

    Each wave of change seems to kill off the previous iteration. Used bookstores as we know them seem an endangered species. The very act of shopping, or browsing, is being seen as an inconvenience, instead of the adventure it once was figured to be. 

    I miss the milk man. Would I willingly "go back" and choose to have my milk and cream and cottage cheese delivered by a cheerful man driving a big white truck through my neighborhood at 5 AM in the morning? I just might. On the other hand, would I care to order my groceries from an online delivery site, and paying with a credit card to a nameless, faceless corporate marketer? Would I let someone else choose my apples, or my breakfast cereal, or my cheese wedge? 

    There are some tasks in life that are better performed first-hand, hands-on. Convenience is not always to be preferred over direct interaction. Sometimes, even paying a small premium for the charm and immediacy of "real" experience, is better than allowing oneself to be swept up into the automated wave of someone else's dream. 

      

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  • 08/11/15--10:55: Coolers

  • What's cooler on a hot day than a nice cooler?



    Coolers aren't cocktails per se, but they are often included in cocktail compendiums, because they involve mixtures which include alcoholic ingredients.

    Coolers may or may not have strictly defined "goods"--goods being hard liquor in any of its usual incarnations. Alcoholic content occurs in wines and beers and liqueurs and so forth, but aperitifs and cordials have not traditionally been considered cocktails, though they may constitute significant parts of cocktail recipes. 

    One way of suppressing the hard alcoholic content of drinks is avoiding the use of "goods" altogether, thus reducing the percentage of alcohol present in the drink. Alcohol does have a very weak flavor by itself, but it's how it interacts with other taste elements that makes cocktails intriguing. No matter how little alcohol you imbibe, there is some effect on the brain and nervous system (as well as your digestive tract). But as I've pointed out more than once here, getting drunk or "tipsy" isn't the point of enjoying cocktails, and if it is, you've missed it entirely. 

    The other consideration with coolers is sweetness. Soft drinks were invented to bring interest to water, which is a vital necessity to the body. If you're really thirsty, there's nothing like water, just as, when you're out of breath, there's nothing like fresh air. Soft drinks are flavored water. Flavored water has been popular for thousands of years, but popularly marketed flavored water drinks are a very recent development in history--one of the hallmarks of the modern world. 

    Cocktails are like soft drinks for grown-ups. Lots of drinkers avoid sweeter cocktails, seeing them as nothing more than soft-drinks in fancy dress. I tend to agree, especially when faced with the "equatorial""cool-aid" versions you often see offered at popular restaurants or taverns. Most of these don't even qualify as cocktails at all. You can spot these fakes by checking the order of ingredients. Inevitably, they involve the addition of fruit juices, at the expense of reducing the actual alcoholic content to less than 15%. In the restaurant and bar trade(s), this is usually a way of reducing costs, by cutting back on the actual amount of goods used to make them. These "weak" drinks don't deserve the name of cocktails, and should be avoided. 

    Chacun a son gout. A large percentage of cocktail drinkers like martinis. The majority of traditional martinis are nearly pure goods, without any adulterating content (such as vermouth). Vodka martinis can be very good with certain foods, such as raw oysters, where the subtle saltiness of the shell-fish works in tandem with the dry clarity of the liquor. But if you enjoy variety, insisting on unadulterated goods as a steady diet is boring. 

    But enough of this spin. The subject was coolers, and here are two nice recipes I've developed, used in conjunction with a "soda" that is presently new on the market. 

    During the English occupation of India, so-called quinine water became a common way of ingesting the chemical (quinine--a prophylactic against malaria), and quinine water, mixed with gin (or vodka) has been a traditional combination for over a century. 

    Tonic water (or Indian Tonic Water) is a carbonated soft drink. The commercial brand Fever-Tree Indian Tonic Water contains less sugar than is commonly used in most marketed tonic sodas, and it's what I've used here. You need less sugar, since the liqueurs or aperitifs I've used are sweet by themselves. Using a common tonic water with them would result in just the sort of "cool-aid" aspect I'm averse to. 





    The method with these mixes is to combine the alcoholic ingredients in a stainless steel mixer, just as you would with any cocktail, but in amounts that will, when combined with the tonic water, result in a relatively smaller percentage of the finished drink. The amount of tonic water added to the mix is up to the mixer, but I've decided that the "mixed" alcoholic portion should constitute no more than about 30% of the whole when served. 

    Mix these ingredients together with ice, then pour into "bubble"-wine glasses, add a couple of smaller pieces of ice (not the cube variety) and then pour the carbonated tonic water over this, stirring lightly. The drink should have a very pale color from the diluted drink ingredients, depending on what the recipe includes.   
            

    1 1/2 part midori
    1/12 part limoncello
    1/5 part cinnamon liqueur
    1 part fresh lime

    add 3-4 small pieces of ice

    Tonic soda water to top up


    ___________


    1 1/2 part genepi des alpes
    1 1/2 part st germaine liqueur
    1 part fresh lime 

    add 3-4 small pieces of ice

    Tonic soda water to top up

    If these drinks seem too sweet, you can always use unsweetened carbonated water, or even boutique bottled drinking water. Tap water, I think, is just too pedestrian to use. A little carbonation stirs up the mix, and keeps it lively. And the quinine gives it character, which was always what made the English Gin and Tonic combination so seductive. 

    There'll always be a British! 





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    It's been a long season again this year, a year marked by injuries and disappointments, and a few bright spots too.

    Following last year's triumphant, and improbable, championship run, it might have been expected that some of the propulsion from last year would carry over into this year's campaign. Great dynasty teams--such as the New York Yankees (1947-1964, ten championships, with 15 World Series appearances), or the Cincinnati Reds ("the Big Red Machine," 1970-76 with two championships), or the Yankees earlier (The Babe Ruth Era 1921-1932, 7 Series appearances, 4 championships), or, perhaps most impressive of all, the modern Yankee teams of 1995-2012 (with 17 post-season appearances, and 5 championships)--tend to repeat, but given free agency, it's unusual for all but the richest franchises to keep good teams together for more than a couple of years. Consistently good teams (i.e., the Cardinals, or the Braves, both of whom have had impressive multi-year runs in the last 30 years) are usually the result of superb management and shrewd player manipulation (trades and contracts and farm systems).

    It's been shown that teams that play the star free agent market usually fail to deliver, while teams that nurture talent through their farm systems usually fair better. Trades can still be crucial to a team's success, but trading "up" can be very risky, depriving a team of significant money it might have used on lesser, but better suited, talent.

    In the case of the Giants, their core key players over the current run were Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson, Brandon Crawford, Angel Pagan, Sergio Romo, Joe Panik, Hunter Pence, and Javier Lopez. Of these, all but Pagan, Hunter and Lopez were products of the Giants' Farm System, a fact which speaks to the importance of home-grown talent versus free agent blockbusters.

    There are two reasons the 2015 Giants couldn't overcome the Dodgers for the NL West title--which presently is in its final stages, with the Giants 8 1/2 games back with three weeks to play.

    First, the starting pitching. Four years ago, I predicted that Bumgarner would eventually surpass Tim Lincecum as the team's starting ace, and that has definitely come to pass. Lincecum's metoric rise from 2007 to 2010 was not a fluke, but it was evident that, given his slight body,and his tortuous wind-up, he wasn't a pitcher who would have a long career. The two Cy Youngs, and the blazing fast-ball that could strike batters out, were not destined to last. As his velocity declined, he began to press, and lost some of his control. By the middle of 2012, his ERA had doubled, and his strike-out ratio steadily declined. Meanwhile, Madison Bumgarner's star was rising. By the end of last year--and in the play-iffs--it had become apparent that MadBum was a superstar, the kind of player who can carry a team, who performs best under pressure. Big, lanky and focused, Bumgarner resembles Randy Johnson, with an easy, slinging motion, a durable body, and a determined bearing (which can't be taught or learned, but seems an aspect of inherited character). Bumgarner has become THE franchise player that every team needs to succeed. If and when he tests the free agency market, the Giants might find it difficult to match a rich team's high offer. But Bum is signed through 2019, so that isn't an immediate issue.







    After Bumgarner, the picture quickly becomes bleak. The rotation at the beginning of the year was to have been Bumgarner, Vogelsong, Hudson, Lincecum and Peavy. But Peavy quickly went on the disabled list. After a handful of good starts, Lincecum deteriorated, and went on the disabled list. Hudson was intermittently effective, but eventually he too went on disabled. Only Chris Heston, an "old" rookie starter, was consistent. Vogelsong, who was never really a front-line starter, played down to his capacity, as he had in the previous two seasons. When Peavey and Hudson came back from the disabled list, they were ineffective. Lincecum was discovered to have degenerative hip disease. Cain, who had had elbow surgery and had been on the disabled list all year, returned with high hopes but was bombed several starts in a row, and went back on the DA again. As the year progressed, Heston began to falter, so that by mid-season or so, the starting pitching was Madison Bumgarner, and pray for rain. Anyone else on the mound, and the team could expect to begin the third inning of any game down by 3 or 4 runs. Again, for a team not noted either for its speed or its power, expecting a comeback, that's a tall order. Finally, when things seemed to be at their worst, the Giants got Mike Leake, a solid stylish 2nd line starter; however, since coming here, he's gone 0-3 with a 4.71 ERA--not exactly stats which are likely to turn the staff around. All of which accounts for the team's performance in the last several weeks. 

    Second, injuries. Added to the pitching staff's woes, Jeremy Affeldt went on the disabled list, and Romo had intermittent problems too. Romo, who had been last year's closer, couldn't hack it this year, and gave way to Casilla. Casilla was lights out at first, but then he began to get hit hard in the second half. Among the relievers, Lopez and Kontos have been very good, Strickland has been impressive at times (which bodes well for the future--he's only 26). During the year, Aoki, Panik, Pagan, Pence, Blanco, Crawford and Susac have all had significant injuries. None of this of course could have been predicted at the beginning of the year. Being healthy is luck as much as anything. A smart GM should have understood that Lincecum, Vogelsong, Hudson, Cain, Affeldt and Peavy would all be question-marks. None of these pitchers lived up to expectations this year. In another year, I'd expect all these players either to be gone, or retired or doing mop-up relief by next year.      

    On the positive side of the ledger, Matt Duffy was installed at 3rd Base when Casey McGehee tanked, and he's been a revelation at the plate, as well as in the field. Having two miraculous rookies (Panik and Duffy) two years in a row from your farm system is pure gold. We don't even miss Pablo anymore! And now Kelby Tomlinson is showing the same surprising success. In the outfield, Blanco seems to be having his "career year" at the plate, hitting above or just near .300. Aoki was all-star material until he broke his ankle. Meanwhile, Pence (broken arm in spring training and muscle strain in mid-year) has been missing in action. Posey and Crawford are having great years, but neither is a genuine power threat. Pagan, despite missing few games, hasn't been his usual self, nursing old injuries.     

    A good deal has been discussed over the media about the Giants front office decisions and choices. Brian Sabean succeeded with uncanny selections, sticking with tried journeymen, while coaxing along younger players. Not everyone has been happy with Sabean's decisions, but it's hard to argue with success. Three championships in five years suggests "dynasty"--no matter how it's accomplished. 

    Teams which succeed are usually built around a concept. There's the idea that since pitching is "4/5ths of the game" a good squad of hurlers is the foundation of a successful team. Then there's the notion that if you score enough runs often enough, you need only have mediocre arms, as long as your team ERA doesn't get above, say, 4.50. Then there's the theory of the park you play in.

    Since half your games are played at home, building your team around the potentials of a specific park makes some kind of sense. China Basin, where the Giants have played since opening there in April 2000, is an eccentric park, along the lines of Boston's Fenway (with its weird high left field fence). The outfield alignment creates an unusually deep right and right-center field, which makes hitting home runs to the right side difficult. Dozens of fly balls "die" each year at China Basin, which would in other parks be decent home run shots. When the Giants moved to the park, they had perhaps the greatest modern-day long ball hitter in the game, Barry Bonds. With his power, hitting from the left side, the dimensions mattered less. 

    The left field fence at China Basin is typical, and not at all that deep. Despite this obvious difference, the team has never sought to get right-handed power hitters. Over the last eleven years, no one (even Bonds) has hit more than 28 home runs, and in every case more home runs were hit in visiting parks than at home. Throughout this period, the Giants neglected to avail themselves of any power-hitting right handed batters, with the occasional exception--Moises Alou, Bengie Molina, Juan Uribe, Pat Burrell, Mike Morse. It's true that Posey and Pence are technically power hitters, but as pure power sluggers they have never been considered as such. 

    How much stronger a team would the Giants have been if they'd had, instead of Pagan, or Blanco, a true slugger who could knock in 100 runs with 35 home runs in a year? Typically, the team has tended to structure its outfield for fielding prowess, and that's paid off. But a team which depends on singles and scratching out runs, without some power, especially when it has poor speed, will find it hard to compete without "lights out"pitching staffs.  

    It's fun (or sad, depending on how you look at it), to wonder what might have happened if the Giants had had the courage to go out and hire a 2nd top flight starter (to back up Bumgarner), and if Panik, Crawford, Aoki, Pagan and Pence hadn't all gone down. My guess is that they'd be in first place, but then there's the nagging question of reliable starters. Hudson, Peavy, Vogelsong, Lincecum--these guys weren't up to the task this year, and there wasn't a hell of a lot management could do about it, once they'd made their bets. 

    So it's wait until next year. 

    I wouldn't mind if the Giants trade one of those hot new infielders (perhaps Tomlinson) to someone else for a slugging outfielder with legitimate home run numbers), and they bit the bullet and acquired an ace like Greinke or Sunny Grey. Not signing Sandoval should have given them the money to have done this at the beginning of the year, but then all those injuries weren't anticipated either. 

    But next year will be a different story, with the Lincecum era officially over and the journeymen leaving. We've not heard anything about any good new starters in the farm system, so I would expect the team to shop in the off-season. It will depend on who's available (Greinke will be a free agent), and how astute the traders are. If we want to get back to glory in 2016, there'll need to be some turnover, and a few new faces. Change is in the wind. 

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  • 09/10/15--08:47: The Augmented Sazerac




  • Traditionally, the Sazerac is considered to be the official drink of New Orleans, whose history can be traced way back to the beginning of the 19th Century. Because of the French influence, the drink's basis has been considered cognac (or brandy), though variations of it can be made with rye or bourbon with no proprietary fuss. The primary spin of the Sazerac, however, is the absinthe, which, despite the very small amount used, is still the signature flavoring agent.

    In the traditional Sazerac, you merely swirl the inside of an old-fashioned glass (a squat tumbler with a wider-than-normal diameter), dispose of the excess, and build the drink inside this coated container. For those who don't like the basic licorice flavor, this may be as much as they stand. For those who enjoy it,  that little a portion may seem stingy. Back before the recent absinthe revolution, people used Pernod or Herbsaint liqueurs instead of true absinthe, which was banned in the U.S. for many years due to the presence of wormwood, which is the "active" ingredient that produced the symptoms which originally got it into trouble here. In Europe, people still like some Pernod cut with tap-water, producing a milky pale yellow drink that's just about pure licorice-tasting. When I was a kid, we used to chew twisted black and red rubbery ropes of commercially marketed licorice candy--I could stand the red, but the black was so sour and "burnt" tasting, I couldn't eat the stuff. Licorice is used in a number of various common proprietary liqueur mixes (Galliano, for instance).

    In any event, what I've done here is substitute a good blended (and aged) scotch for the goods, and treated the result as a variation on a classic recipe. The classic Sazerac recipe is for some simple syrup, dashes of Peychaud bitters, and a lemon peel, with the absinthe swirl preceding. My recipe substitutes blended scotch for the rye or brandy, Grenadine for the Peychaud's, and adds Drambuie and some fresh lemon juice. Perhaps it doesn't deserve to be compared to the classic New Orleans mixture, but it's close enough in my mind to bear a taste similarity.    


    4 Parts Chivas Regal 12 yr aged blended scotch
    1 Part Dambuie
    1 Part Fresh Lemon Juice
    1/3 part St. George Absinthe Verte
    1 Teaspoon Rose Grenadine
     (makes two servings)



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    The history of American soft drinks is not nearly as predictable as you might think. Before the advent of soft drinks, potions and nostrums were limited to substances which would self-preserve, without the contents being under pressure, or saved from spoilage by refrigeration. Alcohol will "keep," but most other organic ingredients quickly "turn" and go sour or rotten unless something is done to lower their temperature or keep the air and impurities out. 

    The Wikipedia entry for the commercial soft-drink 7 Up provides a nice summary of how the innocent sweet drink we all know today evolved over the 20th Century. (As a child, I consumed unconscionable amounts of this stuff, along with Byerly's Orange, Nehi and Squirt.) 7 Up's origination appeared two weeks before the Stock Market Crash in 1929, as Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda. It contained lithium citrate, a mood-stabilizing drug. Lots of such "patent medicine" products were once marketed as being healthy or promoting a sense of well-being. The company changed hands several times after the war, and is presently controlled by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. 7 Up has been reformulated several times over the years. The lithium citrate was removed in 1950.  There are various theories about what the name "7 Up" actually means, including theories about the ph measure of the drink, and the atomic mass of the lithium content. It probably doesn't matter, since the name has entered the language, in the same way that Coca-Cola has. Current day 7 Up doesn't contain any fruit juice at all. Some of the previous ad jingles I can distinctly recall include: "You like it, it likes you,""Fresh up with 7 Up,""Nothing does it like 7 Up,""Never had it, never will [caffeine]." 

    The lithium got me thinking about something else. The late poet James Schuyler's break-out book of poems was titled The Crystal Lithium [New York: Random House, 1972], which incidentally was also the title poem of the collection, which had appeared originally in The Paris Review. The poem as set out in long, talky lines, and was a kind of revelation of a certain kind of American Modernist style and image-making. Schuyler was a great friend of the painter Fairfield Porter, and often visited and stayed at his place in Southampton; Porter often made oil portraits of the poet. 

    Schuyler by Porter in 1955 

    I'm not sure who first told me what the lithium crystal actually meant--perhaps Barry Watten--but the connection is Schuyler's use of it as a drug for his bizarre mental instability which plagued him throughout his life, and which he wrote about frankly in his work. In his manic phase, his erupting imagination wasn't under sufficient control to allow him to think clearly, but the Lithium, which he took on prescription, allowed him to write effectively, and was the enabling key to his highly admired work in the 1970's and 1980's. The book's title is thus an acknowledgment of the importance of psychoactive chemical influence in the life of a talented creative artist. Schuyler's Freely Espousing [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1969], The Crystal Lithium, Hymn to Life [New York: Random House, 1974]. and The Home Book: Prose and Poems, 1951-1970 [Calais, Vermont: Z Press, 1977], were all important to me in my own work as a writer. Schuyler's perceptual keenness of observation, his frankness and wit, were revelations to me at the time. 

        Schuyler late in life

    This little animadversion is just the sort of distracting detour that I often engage in these days. The internet allows you to wander off into a wood or meadow, off the road of life, and discover or reconfirm something you either hadn't thought about for a while, or hadn't even known existed before. 

    7 Up, a commercially marketed soft drink, contained an ingredient that would one day be used by psychiatrists to treat patients. And an American poet who was struggling with his personal demons, could be freed of those demons, enabling him to fulfill his ambitions as a writer. 

    All of which, as has been said, "brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to" cocktail mixes and the flavors that can be made from various familiar ingredients. I previously happened upon a taste combination that was suspiciously reminiscent of Coca-Cola. And the one here is suspiciously similar to my memory of 7 Up, which by the way I haven't tasted in many years. In homage to 7 Up and the non-existent lithium citrate, I've christened it the 9 Up. I can't explain why 9, you'll just have to take it on faith. But it's definitely served Up. 

    I can recommend this one whole-heartedly. The coconut seems counter-intuitive--not sure quite why I decided to add it, but it fits in perfectly. The combination of lime and sweet lime is also perfect. One of my best inventions! Enjoy!

    3 Parts Boodles Gin
    1 Part fresh lime juice
    1/3 part fresh sweet lime juice
    1 tablespoon coconut syrup
    1 tablespoon hazelnut liqueur

    Shaken and served up with a translucent slice of fresh lime dropped in.




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