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

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    When I was a kid growing up in Napa California during the 1950's, I had a paper route for four years, starting when I was 10. My route covered 12 suburban blocks, in the hills of Alta Heights, and totaled  over a hundred customers. I had to roll the papers up with rubber-bands, put them into two big canvas bags which I wrapped on my handlebars, and pedal round the neighborhood, throwing the rolled papers onto lawns or porches. It usually took about 90 minutes to complete. I had to do it six days a week, and there was no back-up. I had gotten my first bicycle a year earlier for Christmas, a big, green and chrome model with a little horn and a passenger rack over the rear tire. Some of that stuff came off when I started the paper route. 

    In those days, adults didn't ride bicycles, at least in suburban America. Kids and teenagers did, but riding a bike above the age, say, of about 13 was considered childish, and was definitely un-cool. In the 1950's, we were living in the midst of the Age of the Automobile, which had transformed America, bringing prosperity and convenience, making America the richest nation in the history of the world. The suburban paradigm, which grew up during the 20th Century, was based on the automobile, allowing people to commute and travel with ease. The automobile became king, with a whole cultural franchise built around the ownership of brands and the glorification of driving.

    In large urban areas the automobile eventually caused congestion, and our huge freeway and hiway system, built to facilitate and accommodate the four-wheeled vehicular traffic, got bigger and bigger, often becoming inconvenient, and dangerous, rather than efficient and fun. For better or worse, cities and roads have become the province of cars. The shopping center was invented for them, and whole districts of our cities and towns were designed to serve and exploit the car economy. 

    The automobile paradigm caused a reaction among city planners and regional administrators. Looking to Europe--which developed and evolved over two thousand years in the pre-automobile era--they proposed to de-emphasize the automobile, turning some downtowns in America into auto-free zones, thinking or believing that this would lead to the sort of delightful and pleasant scenes one sees in England, or France, or Italy. The failure of the "European" urban pedestrian paradigm, as a forced-fed alternative to the automobile, was immediately apparent. These cute little pedestrian districts mostly failed, because they didn't address the central fact of American life, the car. People shop in cars, they recreate and visit and travel by car. Cars are indispensable.            

    And yet we know that the Age of the Automobile is probably only a phase in the evolution of Western Civilization. Dependent upon fossil fuels, the vehicular paradigm is bound eventually to decline, as we use up existing stocks on the planet. Is it possible to imagine a world in which our dependence upon the automobile is significantly reduced, without sacrificing the convenience and efficiency which it makes possible?

    As a practical matter, owning and operating and parking a personal vehicle in the city today is becoming pretty burdensome, if not too expensive. Public transportation may be reliable and easy, or unreliable and frustrating. As a commuter from the suburbs to the city for 27 years, I wore out my tolerance for solitary commuting by car, and by bus (AC Transit), and by commuter train (BART). Any system you have to take five days a week becomes a drag. Could I, would I ever, have considered commuting by bicycle? In my case, it wouldn't have worked. 

    Many people today are coming by necessity or interest to believe that bicycles may be the answer to the problems that vehicular traffic in congested cities present. Riding a bicycle is healthy, and certainly cheaper than driving. In other parts of the world, bicycles and motorcycles are much more common. In Europe, and in the Far East, bicycles are much more widely used. And with that greater use, comes an entirely different set of problems with which to deal. Biking advocates in Europe have formed pressure groups, and engage in public protests referred to as Critical Mass.   

    In the San Francisco Bay Area, we have become accustomed to (if not comfortable with) monthly Critical Mass protests. 

    In theory, encouraging people to ride bicycles instead of driving their cars is a good thing. In reality, within the context of how our world works at present, there are limits to how much biking our current transportation system can accommodate, without becoming as crowded and inconvenient as it can be with automobiles alone. We are probably in the midst of a transitional phase in our transport systems, from one primarily dominated by private cars, trucks and busses, to one in which there are more two wheeled, human-power vehicles on the road. 

    In the news this week have been attempts in San Francisco to get a law passed--based on the so-called "Idaho rolling stop" law--which entitles cyclists to pass through Stop Signs, and proceed slowly if there is no cross traffic. These "rolling stops" are designed to make cycling easier, and to prevent the police from ticketing riders who do it. 

    As we all know, cyclists today rarely obey traffic regulations, so passing this law might in effect be nothing more than an acknowledgment of what already happens. When I was a boy, no one paid much attention to bicycle regulations. No one wore helmets, bikes often rode on sidewalks, and usually didn't come to a full stop at stop signs. We lived in a simpler world, then, when people believed that cars were the answer to all our transportation needs. Bikes were for kids, a toy and a recreation. 

    If you want to imagine what might some day happen in America, if the bicycle revolution continues to gather steam, check out the traffic jams they have in large cities abroad. In India, for instance, or Rome, or other urban areas where bikes have become common.

       Traffic in Hyderbad, India

    Advocates for the new "rolling stop" ordnance demand that we accommodate their openly scofflaw behavior by making it legal to ignore current traffic law. 

    In my experience--admittedly anecdotal--cyclists--in the Bay Area, at least--have become cocky and "in your face" about their refusal to follow the law. Engaging in Critical Mass protests, designed deliberately to cause distress and aggravation among motorists and the citizenry generally, has done nothing to further their cause. Perhaps believing they occupy some moral high-ground, they seem to think they not only don't have to obey the law, but that they have a duty to do whatever they can to antagonize motorists and pedestrians alike. 

    Looking a little way into the future, it isn't difficult to imagine what may be coming to our urban streets. As bicycling grows in popularity, the congestion and jostling once associated exclusively with automobiles, will become several times worse, as two- and four-wheeled vehicles, and ordinary pedestrians vie for ascendancy in an increasingly crowded urban matrix. In that context, no one will have any moral leverage against another, since the compromises we have made to accommodate one faction, will end up making everyone unhappy. It's another confirmation of the old adage "be careful what you wish for." If you believe that converting, say 50% of all private vehicles to bicycles, it's doubtful that the result will be to anyone's liking, particularly in crowded cities. 

    I may be entirely naive, but I believe that problems such as urban congestion, are but one of a number of consequences, or symptoms, of crowding brought on by excess population and uncontrolled growth. The "critical mass" which bicyclists like to think of as a tipping-point for the trend away from unwise reliance on automobiles, is actually one such symptom. Choosing to ride a bicycle, because of necessity (it's all you can afford), or pleasure (riding for fun or exercise) does not imply that biking represents a superior vision of our future. 

    Bicycle coalitions and cocky, in-your-face cyclists deserve to face the same realities as drivers and pedestrians. The answer to congestion isn't in fighting people over shrinking space, but in seeking solutions that reduce demand, and that begins with population control, and regional low- or no-growth initiatives. If we fail to find ways to moderate our rapacity and unwholesome breeding, none of the temporary stop-gap measure are going to matter.  

    In the meantime, we'll continue to see the majority of cyclists blasting through intersections at 30 mph, oblivious to signs and pedestrians and motorists alike, flipping everyone the bird, screaming and wobbling willy-nilly into adjacent lanes, and generally raising hell. Allowing cyclists to ignore traffic regulations won't make them (or anyone else) safer. It will only make matters worse. 

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    Frank O'Hara was, by all accounts, a very social person. With a wide circle of friends, some intimate, many familiar. As an active member of the New York art and literary scenes, he met or came into contact with hundreds--thousands, probably--of people, many important or noteworthy or interesting. Frank was voluble, and charming, and forthright. And very emotional too.

    One of O'Hara's best and most famous poems, "My Heart," proposes a concept of poetry that is "open." 


    I'm not going to cry all the time
    nor shall I laugh all the time,
    I don't prefer one "strain" to another.
    I'd have the immediacy of a bad movie,
    not just a sleeper, but also the big,
    overproduced first-run kind. I want to be
    at least as alive as the vulgar. And if
    some aficionado of my mess says "That's
    not like Frank!", all to the good! I
    don't wear brown and gray suits all the time,
    do I? No. I wear workshirts to the opera,
    often. I want my feet to be bare,
    I want my face to be shaven, and my heart—
    you can't plan on the heart, but
    the better part of it, my poetry, is open.

    What might it mean to claim that the best part of one's poetry is "open"--as opposed, then, to closed? What exactly is O'Hara telling us about his poetry, about himself, and possibly about how to measure the best qualities of our poetry?

    What might "open" mean as a quality or descriptive in verse?

    I've thought about this for years. Once upon a time, I might have said (or thought) that O'Hara strove in his poems to engage the reader with a greater jeopardy or vulnerability, to "bare" his private soul, thereby bringing himself closer to the reader (his audience). Does an "open" poetry imply intimacy with the poet? Might it imply a favorable kind of embarrassment of this intimacy?

    As with many typical O'Hara poems, the argument begins almost at random. The poet declares that he must be various--"I'm not going to cry all the time/nor shall I laugh all the time." And goes on to describe himself in terms of a dialectic between one extreme kind of behavior or another. This is another way of saying that he's unpredictable, and that this unpredictability is a hallmark of his character. This variability is clearly seen as a favorable aspect. Interesting people aren't predictable, or at least this particular writer isn't; and he places a value on that. 

    Unpredictability. Then, suddenly, at the end, he catches himself in mid-sentence, starting to describe his heart, he qualifies it--"you can't plan on the heart"--which is really just a way of restating the premise of the poem (predictability), and says, instead, "but/the better part of it, my poetry, is open." It's as if he had been going to say "my heart is open" but instead decides that it isn't his heart that is open to the reader, but the poem ("my poetry"). The surprising line comes across like a declaration of principle, almost a poetics. 

    Once upon a time, again, my first tendency would have been a confirmation of how I thought about O'Hara's verse, which always seemed, in its difference, to be about the casual familiarity of direct speech, against the rhetoric of poetic style(s). O'Hara's poems, after an early period of more doctrinaire writing in the early 1950's, seemed more and more to assume the flamboyant and giddy spirit of party-talk, the kind of idiomatic language and candor of personal conversation. O'Hara showed how you could build an otherwise traditional poem out of ordinary contemporary speech, touching all the bases, while going naked. There was even a notorious anthology, Naked Poetry [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1969. Edited by Robert Mezey and Stephen Berg], whose title became the catch-phrase for the negligent unfettered "free" verse of the post-War era. "Naked" might have seemed attractive as a description to some, while others may have seen it as the beginning of the end of good poetry as they defined it. Any poem "going naked" into the world might have had a certain original purity, but it also implied a naive misapprehension of what well-written poetry was supposed to be. 

    But over the years, I've come to question what my initial impression of that "openness" might mean. When we think of open, we might describe it as a sort of welcome mat. Come in, everyone is welcome here, no one is excluded. No reason to feel that poetry is an exclusive club with specific requirements including a strict dress code. But how would we go about describing this "open" quality in terms of poetic function? What constitutes a "welcoming" style versus an unwelcoming one? Would we describe a poet who was very popular as being more "open" to his readers than a poet who was obscure. In what sense does O'Hara mean "open"? 

    Can a poem open outward, to encompass the world, or other people, while another poem, tightly wound inside itself, actually put readers off, push them away? Whitman, relevantly enough, was a poet who actively sought to encompass his readers in a large democratic embrace--it was an article of faith in his work. Eliot, on the other hand, often seemed to create a very limited vision of his world, one neither welcoming nor cheerful, designed to separate the poet from the rest of humanity. In his criticism, he was often so straight-laced and buttoned-up that he seemed to be a gloomy English schoolmaster slapping his readers on their wrists for not knowing what he knew and they didn't. 

    The influence of Eliot and the academies throughout the period from 1900 through about 1955, insured that the prim and proper poem, serious and committed to traditional modes and tropes, would be the standard in the periodicals and the world of publishing. O'Hara's poem--and his declaration here--had by the time of the poem's appearance become almost a cliché of the New American Poetry. Other poets of the period--Whalen, Creeley, Eigner, Schuyler--had already been writing what we'd then (and now) describe as a poetry of greater "open-ness" and variability. 

    Would O'Hara's "open" statement have been construed as a description of what his poetry did, differently than, say, what Robert Lowell or Richard Wilbur or Donald Justice did, circa 1960? Hadn't Lowell previously "opened" himself to intimate autobiographical disclosures during the 1950's in Life Studies and For the Union Dead? In what sense might Lowell's thawed-out disclosures not in fact been "open" gestures towards his audience of readers, in the same sense as O'Hara's talky, wise-cracking, swishy overtures were? 

    Or was O'Hara's proposal of an "open" poetry merely an illusion, constructed on the fly?

    There are different ways of configuring O'Hara's dichotomy of open/closed. Would a poetry restrained by elaborate grammar and strict fixed verse forms be construed as closed? Would its "closedness" be defined by its style, or by the numbers of readers who responded unfavorably to it? Or would a closed poetry be one in which its syntactical violations were so numerous and radical that it put its readers off? Is Joyce's Ulysses a closed writing, or an open? Is openness to different, even radically different, ways of writing a fulfillment of the descriptive? 

    We think of grammar and syntax, as aspects of a system, which grew up through oral transmission and was then conditionally "fixed" with dictionaries and grammars, but which continues to mutate in the marketplace of communication. We think of grammar and syntax and spelling and so forth as aspects of the accepted grace of consent. If the foundation of language exists to restrict the range of responses to language and present reality, might that edifice be subject to invasion and restructure? How might we go about renewing our sense of what it means to communicate, relevantly and immediately, to the facts of our personal lives, or to the facts of our present political realities? Would such a program be about finding new ways to employ words, and the structures we make from words, or would it be a more successful effort to "communicate" (or reach out) to a larger and larger audience of readers? Are these two approaches mutually exclusive? Does a writer such as Shakespeare in fact bridge these two continents, by making persuasive dramatic analogues in a language as lively, inventive and powerful as any we know? 

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    As readers of this blog know, I consider population growth the major problem in the world today, so the announcement by China of a relaxation of its official one child per family policy is disappointing, to say the least. 

    China is officially a Communist state, though its actual functional profile bears little resemblance to the kind of government envisioned by the pioneer Russian revolutionaries of the early 20th century. The leaders of the new China think in terms of what they construe is the common good, to the exclusion of certain other social goals, such as free enterprise and opportunity. Their version of enforced, selective entrepreneurism has led to a rapid economic growth model, in the process steering their people away from a largely agrarian society to one more closely resembling the industrial paradigm of the 20th Century West, built on a manufacturing base. China's leaders, realizing the complicated problems facing their nation, initiated the one-child per family policy in 1983, which is estimated to have prevented something like 400 million births. Many critics in the West point to the draconian nature of a government which would dare to dictate fertility rates to its people, and enforce them with penalties. 

    There is no doubt that China takes a different view. Acknowledging that controlling population cannot be accomplished through voluntary compliance, it made mandatory what most sensible ecologists and environmentalists know is a high priority for the health of humankind and the biosphere we occupy: the control of our numbers. 

    We know that if we can't figure out ways to moderate population growth, nature will in her implacable way do the job for us, through famines, wars and disease. We tend to think of shortages and regional disputes and opportunistic infections as isolated instances of risks and accidents of circumstance. But in reality, these phenomena are part of a universal condition which is only expressed at the peripheries of our awareness. Indeed, they are just the same force expressed in different ways. 

    Our earth is getting smaller, not just in metaphysical or imaginary terms. Before the discovery of the "New World" the earth seemed to people as an enormous, inestimable extent. In just six centuries, we've overrun the planet, and are now challenging the ecological limits in every corner of the globe. In this context, nearly every kind of problem we now regard as separate and unrelated, is clearly part of a single problem: Overpopulation. 

    China's approach to solving this problem may seem extreme, unless one is willing to acknowledge that the choice to moderate population is but another kind of limit, but with a difference: It's deliberate, rather than random; intentional, and planned, instead of passive, or apathetic. 

    Some in the prosperous West believe that economic prosperity will naturally moderate peoples' impulse to fertility, that over-breeding is itself just another "symptom" of the failure of civilization to meet humanity's needs, and that as the standard of living rises generally, population growth rates will "level off" and lead to a kind of permanent stasis. Whether or not you believe this to be myth or miracle, one thing we know for certain: If we can't figure out ways to control population, nature--in the form of disasters, plagues, wars or famines--will do so inexorably. 

    Overpopulation is the root cause of most of the worst ills that confront humanity, including polluted air, lack of notable water, crushing poverty engendering sexual and labor slaves, global warming, dreadful migrations of refugees across continental landscapes, and the extermination of other species. The championing of population growth to foster economic growth is among the most myopic of arguments ever devised.

    Growth from an overflowing pool of dirt-poor laborers simply allows these horribly impoverished people to be exploited and marginalized as a permanent economic underclass. Perish the thought that we would allow populations to shrink, thereby increasing the demand for workers, so that they would be recompensed fairly for their labor--true economic growth, shrinking the gap between those with wealth and those without. 

    Unconstrained fertility is truly an immoral path for humanity to follow. China's decision to relax its one-child policy to allow for two children, has been interpreted by some as an encouraging sign. There's no doubt that China believes it can afford to do so, given its immediate economic priorities; it's being interpreted as a sign of improvement in the West. But the time is soon coming when such steps will need to be re-considered, if we're to have any chance at heading off the dire predictions of which the latest wave of "isolated" tragic events are the clear early warning-signs. 

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  • 11/25/15--07:15: The Updated Gimlet

  • Here's a small departure from tradition in the form of an augmented Gimlet. 

    The Gimlet, according to a 1953 Raymond Chandler novel The Long Goodbye, is half gin and half Rose's lime juice. And what better authority could there be?

    The point of the traditional Gimlet is lime, and I wouldn't argue with that. It's simple and to the point. Give the gin a little fillip of dry citrus and nothing more. 

    But who can leave well enough alone? We can have a traditional Gimlet anytime, but that doesn't mean we can't fiddle with it a little, no?

    So, perusing my liquor cabinet, I thought: Why not replace the lime with lemon, and try adding something allied, but mysterious, to the combination?

    The combination below is intriguing. 

    3 Parts Boodles gin
    2/3 part limoncello (lemon liquor)
    2/3 part Cotton Candy liquor

    Well shaken, and served up in frosted cocktail glass with a thin

    Lime wedge garnish

    A traditional Gimlet will look slightly yellowish, from the lime juice. This version is just a tiny bit warmer in tint, since the Cotton Candy liquor is pink. 

    The flavor is clear lime-like, but mysterious and subtle. Light, and evanescent. 

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    Traditional San Francisco Victorian Row-Houses

    We hear a great deal these days about the need for more "affordable" housing in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area. Supposedly, increased high density zoning and new construction will relieve this pressure and moderate demand, bringing down prices. 

    This is a fallacy. Lower prices always stimulate demand, which already far exceeds the potential capacity of the whole region, having reached a critical mass of population.   

    Higher prices and shrinking supply are simply expressions of this fact. The market is behaving rationally. We can't "build" our way out of the crisis, except by creating a teeming beehive on the Chinese or Indian model. 

    The period of unprecedented Bay Area growth is over.  We can choose quality of life, or keep inventing ways to bring in more people. Which is the best choice? 

    New "Luxury Condos" in San Francisco

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    As I was looking at the clock on the wall of my office this week a thought occurred to me.

    I was never a whiz at math, so most of my meditations in the area of physics tend towards the metaphysical, rather than the scientific. 

    As I watched the second hand sweep silently, inexorably clockwise around the circular face of the clock, it occurred to me that the second hand wasn't really moving at all. Why I thought this is unclear, but the more I thought about it, the more peculiar my sense of orientation became.

    T.S. Eliot, in one of his Four Quartets--Burnt Norton [1935]--says this--

    Time past and time future
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.

    At the still point of the turning world.

    Eliot goes on in the poem to discuss the human consciousness of time, and how our sense of an immersion in time defines our place in eternity. 

    Supposing that the second hand is not moving at all. That would mean that rather than the second hand moving around, the clock itself was moving around the second-hand. If that were true, we'd expect the shelf the clock is sitting on, and the wall behind it, the building within which the clock sits, and the ground beneath, the earth, the solar system, and everything existing in the universe which we can detect would be moving precisely around the second hand. The second hand might be thus considered the "still point of the turning world".

    The solar system, and the galaxy, are often portrayed visually as gyroscopes, as spinning circular or parabolic systems of rotation. Our consciousness of the complexity of movement which this involves is muted by the inertia of its constancy--which is to say we don't think of the earth as spinning, because gravity holds everything down securely enough that it isn't spun off into space. It's possible to be spinning inside one rotation, while inside another (contrary) rotation. It's possible to think of ourselves, each one of us, as being in the cradle of a succession of nested gyroscopic rotations, unaware of our complex travel through space and time.   

    Our sense of the movement of any object can only occur in relation to another object. An object, say an asteroid, may be tumbling through space, but we can only say that it is moving at all by being able to see it in relation to our own movement, or the placement of another object in space, which is not moving in exactly the same trajectory. This is a riddle. 

    In the mind, we can conceive of the notion of a still point without our actually being able to say with certainty that such a thing exists. To say that to think of a thing is to suggest its existence is the very essence of metaphysical thought. If I posit the stillness of the second-hand on the clock, the possibility that it is not moving may seem logically consistent with what I know about the simplest principles of the physics of phenomena. But I'm not so naive as to think it is actually true. I think that Eliot probably would agree here, that his use of the "still point of the turning world" was nothing more than a small device to demonstrate his sense of the mystery of the interaction between time and consciousness. 

    There is no consciousness of time outside of time, so we lack the perspective and objectivity to describe it accurately. Accuracy implies an established increment, and all increments are by their nature relational, that is, scaled to the correspondence of segments, or duration. Without such increments, all duration is fluid. Ultimately, we can't measure time without reference to our experience of the universe, and the vaster that seems, the more limited our own experience of it seems. 

    Is it possible that the second-hand is the still point of the turning world? Would anyone be able to prove to me that it isn't? It might take a theoretical physicist some fancy foot-work to do it, and in that event I doubt I'd be able to comprehend the language he'd employ to do so. Definitions and proofs in higher physics may require a consciousness of concepts that are beyond the quotidian apprehension. Oddly, I don't find this frustrating. All that's required of this meditation is that it occurred. Understanding is denied to those who are not standing on the frontier of comprehension. I envy those who can follow the argument, though. They're our true pioneers.

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  • 12/30/15--18:33: A Warm Rain from Louisiana

  • If you've ever been in Louisiana during a hot, humid tropical rainstorm, you know something of the richness and sticky sensuality of the deep south. The sweetness comes from the fruit, which thrives in the rich black marl of the delta country, and is expressed in the sugar of her bounty. 

    Life slows in the wet heat.

    Slowness, as Ezra Pound said, is beauty. And sweetness on the tongue is a languorous pleasure that makes most effort and striving seem superfluous. Were we put upon earth to labor and sweat, or to savor the luxury and sumptuous elegance of the good life? 

    Sweetness seems it own justification, against the flintier attractions of denial and sacrifice. It may be simply a matter of mood, but even the most stubborn of ascetics cannot measure the extent of their own resignation without a taste of the nut. 

    I recently purchased a bottle of a new dark rum, marketed as "Papa's Pilar". The Pilar, as Hemingway fans will recall, was the name the novelist gave to his fishing boat, harbored in the local port adjacent to his finca in Cuba. And, it was also the name given to the female Spanish heroine in his most ambitious novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Pilar. 

    Imagine it as the inspiration for the spirit of the liquor, and you have some notion of the intention behind its flavor. It's a rich dark molasses taste, with notes of chocolate, coffee, cane, and any tropical fruit you could name (coconut, banana, pineapple, orange, etc.). 

    The recipe below captures the essence of the rum's dominant quality, without distracting.  The banana and coconut enhance the rum's dark sugary heart. I guarantee it will knock your socks off. (I've always wondered how that saying came into use. According to an account I found on the internet, "kick your socks off" originated in the American South, where people liked to go barefoot, and the Coca-Cola company used the phrase to promote their soft-drink brand Mountain Dew, in ads which claimed the drink would "knock your socks off.") 

    3 parts Papa's Pilar dark rum
    1 part sweet French vermouth
    1/2 part banana liqueur
    1/2 part coconut syrup

    1 part fresh lemon juice

    Shaken and served up. 

    I don't know whether Hemingway enjoyed going shoeless, but it was his habit to take a dip in his swimming pool each afternoon, before drinks and dinner (often with guests). 

    Anyway, socks on or socks off, this drink should satisfy the most discriminating of tastes, unless of course you're the sort of person who likes their drinks very dry, and prefers to meditate on an entirely more sophisticated plane, where the pleasures of the body are regarded from a point above and beyond temptation and indulgence.   

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  • 01/01/16--13:45: On a Painting by Rotari

  • A Young Woman in a Russian Hat Holding a Book by Pietro Antonio Rotari [1707-1762]
    (oil on canvas 17.4" x 13.9")

    Rotari was an 18th Century court painter in Italy, Austria and Russia. The painting above is undoubtedly a minor work in the contemporary scheme of things in that time, since its subject is not royal, probably not even an important person. But by any measure, our interest in it transcends any ephemeral social or political importance it may have had to those who gazed upon it over three centuries ago.

    The picture is filled with emotion, but not of the blatant, forward kind. It is about--if any work of art can be truly about anything other than itself--the coyness and timidity of private pleasure, of a promise of pleasure withheld, or a promise filled with intent. The technology of printing in Europe was already three centuries old when this was painted, so the novelty of books as something ingenious and perhaps forbidden had worn off somewhat, though the novel of the billet-doux was just coming into vogue (evidence Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded [1740], or Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady [1748]. The vulnerability of the weaker sex was becoming a chief preoccupation of society in those times, and accounts of virtuous young ladies resisting or succumbing to the overtures of unscrupulous rakes and bounders was to become one of the major literary genres of literature--a tradition, indeed, which seems to be going as strong today as it ever did in the past. 

    Whatever we may think of the character of the young woman (or girl) in the portrait, it is clear that she is using the book as a foil, either to conceal her expression, or as a prop to illustrate her attention on the viewer. Her coyness--the expression in the eyes, and in the modesty of the gaze--suggests something of the character of the person whom we imagine her gazing at. In the narrative of event which paintings like this inspire, we are encouraged to invent a relationship with an invisible, unnamed and silent other--presumably a man--though in our present politically correct climate, that might no longer be appropriate. 

    Does her expression, and the attitude of her body, suggest surrender, or invitation, or timidity? Do timidity and invitation co-exist in the same look? If this picture is any measure, they certainly can! It's the ambiguity, of course, which animates our interest, allowing ourselves to read different versions of different situations according to our mood. 

    The girl is well-dressed, but not extravagant. Her outfit is grey, but the hat and the earrings suggest a piquancy beyond the quotidian. Her skin is smooth, and she seems pampered. 

    Since the major prop is the book, we're expected to wonder what it's about. Is it a book of verses, a book of proverbs (some Biblical, some not), or a novella for proper young ladies? Our tendency is to think dirty, given the mischievousness of the mouth. We could almost say, with justice, that the artist's intent was not unlike that usually attributed to Da Vinci in his Mona Lisa. This young lady's expression seems neither quite inviting, nor quite curious. She's guarded, protecting her vertue, but she may also be risking it. We can't quite know. The viewer's morality is animated upon its own currents, neither confirmed nor denied by the content of the scene. 

    The joining together of reader and book creates a dialectic between what we may conjure of the story, and the open-mindedness of time. The further away from the execution of the work we are, the more remote our apprehension of its initial impression. She studies us with the same fascination and curiosity with which we study her, as if we were straining against the limits of time to communicate something that was hidden on purpose. 

    The divine secret any woman may imply in her behavior or speech, is the unexplained possibility contained in her potential. The great mating game is reincarnated, generation after generation, in the grand cornucopia of fertility that discovers the future, while confirming ancient truths. That we can write them down, as well as making scenes and pictures of them, suggests too the astonishing magic of representation, of the tapestry of the imaginary. Art and behavior intertwining like lovers or disputatious theologians, to arrive at a resolution that sings.   

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    Levi Stadium

    On the subtitle of this blog, it reads "rumination on literature, art, politics, music, photography, design (architecture and landscape), wine and spirits, &c." It doesn't mention sports, though I've devoted a fair number of posts here to the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers, the two local sports teams I grew up watching and following since boyhood. I'm old enough to have attended one of the first games the new San Francisco Giants played at Seals Stadium (before Candlestick was built), and I'm old enough to have seen a game between the 49ers and George Halas's Chicago Bears at old Kezar Stadium in the mid-1950's. 

    Professional sports fandom is a kind of addiction that feeds off of boredom and little imagination, best suited to people who lack sensible diversions or hobbies. Professional sports franchises are money-making operations, designed to enlarge the fortunes (and reputations) of rich people. Over the last half-century, while mass video media has blossomed, these franchises have gone from barnstorming carnival attractions to big-time corporate management outfits. Pro sports is very big business these days. Player and coach contracts are at astronomical levels, and the cost of attending a handful of live home games has become so expensive that it will easily gobble up an ordinary middle-class family's whole annual entertainment budget in one gulp. 

    All of which is to say, in a way, that I take no particular pride in capitulating to the lower common denominator of my taste, by admitting that I still, in my late '60's, follow both local teams with continued interest, and feel minor emotional crises with their periodic rise and fall. My stepfather, Harry Faville, was a devotee of these teams, and a faithful one. He listened to every Giants broadcast for 25 years, and watched every 49ers game on television for the same period. When he died in 1973, he still held end-zone season tickets at Candlestick for the Niners, a purchase he would not have been able to sustain today, in the world of luxury seat-boxes, seat "licenses" and the $12 hot dog. In some sense, my obsession is a continuation of his, though I think he'd be surprised to know that. 

    Why care about the fortunes of a professional football team? Players come and players go, and outcomes are often decided by chance and accident. The NFL has expanded from the 12 teams I grew up knowing in the 1950's, to 32 today! There are so many teams now, and so many games, and so many players, you can hardly keep up with all of them. Understanding the odds on any given weekend you'd need a Ph.D. (or a very good computer app) for all the statistical data you'd have to process into the analysis. That makes any local franchise that much more unique for those who may be "supporting it" with their ticket sales and Sunday afternoon television game-parties. 

    The 49ers were once a long-suffering organization. Between 1950 and 1980, the team didn't win a championship, and was routinely consigned to the mid-level ranks of the also-rans and might'a'beens. But beginning in 1981, when it won its first Super Bowl, through 1998--a span of some 18 years--it was class of the league, not winning fewer than 10 games in any one year. Beginning with head coach Bill Walsh's tenure and continuing through George Seifert and Steve Mariucci, a standard of excellence was steadily maintained. Dominance by certain franchises in sports is not unusual. In fact, it's more the rule. The Yankees, the Celtics, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Teams frequently have multi-year runs, a testimony to good management, or money, or both. 

    In 1977, when little Eddie De Bartolo bought the 49ers, they were still in their 30 year drought of mediocrity. Eddie hired Joe Thomas, previous of the Baltimore Colts (which at that time was a successful franchise), to run the team. Thomas proved to be a disaster, going through three terrible coaches in two years. Then, in 1979, Eddie hired Bill Walsh as head coach/general manager, and things quickly turned around. Eddie spent lavishly on his players, and cared deeply about winning. Following his involvement in a casino bribery scandal in, the NFL stripped De Bartolo of his ownership of the team, which passed to his sister Denise York and her attorney husband, John. John York, knowing nothing about professional sports franchises, and nothing about football, attempted to run the organization, with little success. York tended to be somewhat arrogant, despite his failures. Then, in 2009, the Yorks appointed their son Jed to the position of leading the team. Young Jed knew nothing about sports, or operating a sports franchise. It was all in the family, with meat-head running the show.       

    From a historical perspective, the Jed York installation feels a lot like the early days of Eddie's management. A young kid takes control of a large organization, with little prior experience, makes a lot of naive mistakes, blusters and struts his confidence and cheek, and generally makes himself the butt of bad-mouthing humor. The sons of rich men may be humble, or arrogant in their personal demeanor, but in the management of corporations or businesses, even family affairs, it takes more than peremptoriness and bullying to get results. Yes-men and sycophants may survive if they're no more than conduits of power, but a failure to perform, at any level, especially in the service of a tyrant, can be risky.    

    Jed York

    When John York hired Mike Nolan as head coach (son of former 49ers coach Dick Nolan), they thought they were looking for a tough, no-nonsense disciplinarian, who didn't make excuses and demanded excellence from his players. And that's just what they got. Nolan's take-no-prisoners style managed to alienate his star rookie quarterback, Alex Smith, his personal draft choice--over future and present star Aaron Rodgers--because of Smith's reported "willingness to take commands". When Nolan was fired, he was replaced by former star linebacker Mike Singletary, another "inspirational" disciplinarian, with little strategic managerial ability. Then, when Jed took over in 2009, he hired Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh was tough, but he brought a clear conception of how to succeed in the NFL. Like Bill Walsh--widely regarded as among the geniuses of the game, an offensive strategist, a judge of talent (in drafting), and an inspirational leader--Harbaugh had the capabilities to marshall resources and coordinate players, and his arrival brought an immediate overnight transformation. After nine losing seasons, Harbaugh brought the team to 13-3 in 2011, 11-4 with a Super Bowl appearance in 2012, and a 12-4 record in 2013. The glory days of the franchise had returned. With his big, fast, strong young quarterback Colin Kaepernick, he seemed destined to create another "dynasty" lasting perhaps a decade. Meanwhile, York had hired Trent Baalke, just after Singletary had ben fired. Though he contributed little if anything to the team's success during Harbaugh's first year in 2011, Baalke was given official credit by being named PFWA Executive of the Year. Baalke is by reputation another one of those "iron-jawed" hard-liners, a man who doesn't like his authority challenged. Harbaugh, himself known to be jealous of his turf, soon came into conflict with Baalke. When the team failed to advance beyond the Conference Playoff game in 2013, and got off to a slow start the following year, Baalke sought to undermine Harbaugh's authority, surreptitiously spreading rumors about Harbaugh's unpopularity among his players, his rebellious, uncooperative behavior, his unwillingness to cooperate with management. It entirely clear that Baalke and Harbaugh were locked in a macho stand-off. As Harbaugh's boss, Baalke was the beneficiary of Harbaugh's success, but if Harbaugh stumbled, Baalke didn't want that shortcoming to reflect on him. 

    Trying to undermine your coach, as a way of shielding yourself from blame is one kind of stupid executive strategy. It's also a way of laying the ground-work for a future firing--which is exactly what Baalke had in mind. Undermine the coach, fire him, and start over with your own picks. Baalke's failure as a judge of personnel had led to a succession of draft choice flops. Except for Aldon Smith, who was eventually released due to legal and personal problems, Baalke's record of choices is dismal.    

    Trent Baalke
    During this same period, the 49ers were attempting to build support for a new stadium--not in San Francisco, but in Santa Clara some 35 miles to the South of the city for which the team is named. In the public relations build-up which accompanied the team's proposal to build the stadium "elsewhere" the 49ers made much of the team's "proud legacy" of championships and suggested that the 2016 Super Bowl, which would take place at the newly completed Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, would probably be a contest between the home team and the visitor. In other words, Harbaugh's team would be expected to ramp up performance, in anticipation of the Yorks' celebration of its ill-considered new stadium.

    Levi Stadium turned out to be as fraught with problems as Candlestick had been 50 years earlier. The parking and freeway access is a disaster, and the field itself has been plagued by problems. Fans complain that it's too hot, the turf is uneven and soft. A sensible option would have been to construct a state-of-the-art facility like the one in Seattle, or Texas, ideally within the SF city limits or just outside. But the Yorks had other ideas. 

    You would think that with the need to highlight the success of the team, as an adjunct to the new stadium, the team's management would have done everything it could to promote and perpetuate the success it had had with Harbaugh. But the behavior of Jed and Baalke during the 2014 season, suggested that now that they'd gotten their new stadium built and occupied, they could "afford" to let their egos dictate policy.      

    Jim Harbaugh

    It's been widely reported that Harbaugh was abrasive in person, that he tended to be autocratic and didn't like to be questioned. In other words, he was not unlike his bosses. Setting up built-in conflicts of interest between management figures is a familiar way to create tension in an organization, and this seemed like a classic case.

    Relations between head coaches and team managers can be difficult to manage. During the Bill Walsh era, the two jobs were combined into one, eliminating the possibility of disagreement. Some head coaches don't want administrative details to deal with, others see the control over team decisions this allows as crucial to successful planning. Though Harbaugh was clearly not interested in being a bureaucrat for the Yorks, he apparently resented Baalke's interference in personnel decisions, game plans, and drafting. As the two came to blows, the contest became filled with suspicion and resentment. This was not unlike what had occurred when Mike Nolan had openly belittled and criticized his personally hand-picked quarterback Alex Smith for not "playing through pain" (from a serious shoulder injury in his throwing arm), and not "being a man" for the team. As the disagreement between Harbaugh and Baalke blossomed, it became clear that Baalke had the upper hand (Jed's ear), and that he had decided to blow Harbaugh off, by inciting dissension among the players, tarnishing the head coach's image to the fans, and blaming him for the resulting declining performance by the team (which went 8-8 in 2014, a major disappointment for a team that had barely lost the Super Bowl two years earlier). A perfect example of self-fulfilling prophecy in action. 

    The whole affair was an embarrassment, and at the end of the year Harbaugh and the Niners "parted ways" in what had obviously been a coup within the organization, "won" by Baalke and "lost" by Harbaugh. If Baalke had wanted to prove that his "win" was justified, you would have expected him to replace Harbaugh with an equal or superior quantity. In what must be among the most counter-intuitive moves in professional sports history, Baalke (and York) picked Jim Tomsula, their defensive line coach, to replace Harbaugh. 

    In the history of the NFL, coaches have come in a few predictable flavors. There's the "guru" which would include Walsh, Bill Belichick, Don Coryell, Don Shula, Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi. Another familiar stereotype is the "grunt"--think Joe Bugel, Art Shell, Buddy Ryan. Tumsula was the classic dumb grunt line coach, uncomfortable in the limelight, mentally challenged by offensive X's and O's, clueless and stoned on the sidelines during games. What had Baalke and York been thinking? A return to old-fashioned pile-on football, pre-forward-pass style play? 

    No sooner had Tomsula's hiring been announced, than there was a rush to the exits by many of the star players on the team. Patrick Willis retired. Anthony Davis retired. Borland retired. Frank Gore went to Indianapolis. Michael Crabtree, Parrish Cox, Mike Iupati and Chris Culliver left as free-agents. Aldon Smith was released. Mid-year, they traded away Vernon Davis. They traded Andy Lee, the best punter in franchise history, to the Browns. Hiring Tomsula also meant the team didn't have an offensive-minded attitude, which led to star QB Kaepernick's being benched in mid-season--a development that bodes ill not just for the team, but for the Colin's future as well.   

    The hiring of Tomsula was accurately perceived by the team as a betrayal of the commitment to winning and providing a quality product. It was as if Baalke were rubbing it in to the team, publicly pouting about his failure (and covering that failure by scapegoating), while at the same time punishing the team just to prove that he could. A pure public cry-baby tantrum in full view. 

    In the culture of corporate or bureaucratic strife, tussles like this are very common. Egos compete for position and power in companies and agencies all the time. There's back-biting, finger-pointing, ass-kissing, betrayals and undermining and innuendo and rumors and behind-closed-door deals all the time. We expect that in business. And, after all, professional sports IS a business, no matter how much window-dressing can be put upon it. Public relations and media hype can't conceal the essential fact of commercial entertainments--they are capitalistic enterprises, designed to make money by providing entertainment. Win or lose, the point is selling tickets, and commercial television and radio time. Winning may be one way to facilitate interest and excitement, but it isn't always the ultimate goal. 

    Some franchises are operated "on a shoe-string"--especially in the smaller markets where there isn't the big media money. Wealthy owners clearly have an advantage over poor ones, though it's hard to imagine anyone owning a professional sports franchise today without having enormous means. Some team owners will refuse to pursue good players as a money-saving strategy, leaving their fans hung out to dry. 

    What was happening in the 49ers organization was plainly a power struggle, gotten completely out of hand, holding the team hostage to petty personal disagreements at the top of the chain of command. Businesses in turmoil may affect the stock price, and may impact the workers whose jobs are at stake, but sports franchises are selling an image and a performance, so failures of intention and strategy have an immediate and graphic consequence in the public eye. 

    Why should, then, this be of any concern to you or me or anyone who lives within a 100 miles radius of San Francisco? Because fandom is a regional spirit mover, affecting hundreds of thousands of ordinary people (perhaps even millions). Pro teams are big employers, and they have a large economic impact. Stadia and parking and associated parasite businesses all depend upon them. A sports team can provide some of the social and economic cohesion to a city or area that has little appeal otherwise (think of Ohio or Pennsylvania). People care about these teams, and I think it would be fair to say that the owners have an obligation to present a "product" that bears some relation to the enthusiasm with which they expect "fans" to respond through their support. 

    I think Trent Baalke is the villain here, and I'm not alone. Several sports columnists locally have suggested that, along with the recent, season-ending firing of Tomsula, Baalke should also be shown the door. He's shown himself to be a poor judge of draft talent, and he allowed his jealous insecurity to poison the organization, expelling a very talented coach (Harbaugh), leading to a wholesale exodus of star players, and the evident disillusionment of the fans (a half-filled stadium, even a movement by fans to hire a plane-banner dragging a message across the sky demanding that Jed York sell the team or step down as CEO). Having built their new stadium, and locked up the "seat-licenses" and luxury box leases for Levi Stadium, maybe the Yorks think their financial interest no longer dictates paying to have a competitive team. Eddie De Bartolo cared about this team, and worked to make it succeed. His sister, sister-in-law, and son-in-law don't seem to share that same fire-in-the-belly. There've been reports that young Jed is seeking advice and counsel from his uncle, but he may have been doing that all along. Whether his latest mis-steps indicate the petulance of youth, the insolence and effrontery of youthful naivité, is anyone's guess. Eddie learned that the best approach was to hire a qualified candidate, then step out of the way, and let the managers manage, the coach coach, and the players play. At this point, Jed needs to revamp his entire outfit, from top to bottom. The place to start is by dismissing Baalke, if he has the sense (or the courage) to do it. We've seen how bull-headed "iron-fisted" disciplinarians work in the NFL. It's time for a new approach. Pro teams aren't little armies,  in need of punishing drills and unyielding guidance to make them "obey" rules and limits. It takes brains, and savvy, and shrewd intuition to make groups strive and excel. 

    Is there anyone out there who could do the job for the Yorks? Stay tuned.  

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    Reviewing a juvenile title affords me the opportunity to hold forth on a variety of subjects which I don't often discuss here, though I have written at length about three other classic texts, Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, and Calico, The Wonder Horse, or The Saga of Stewy Stinker by Virginia Lee Burton. 

    I discovered The Alphabet [by Monique Felix, Makanto, Minnesota: Creative Editions, 1993], rummaging around in a dumpster at the local county recycling center, and saved it from pulping. This is often how much of our very disposable cultural detritus ends up, dismantled or crunched into consistent fragments or material for landfills, or repurposed into new product. There's a certain delight in salvaging items that have been thoughtlessly discarded by others. 

    Normally, I'm not much interested in books for children. They're produced at an incredible rate, and most of them quickly fall off the retail inventory lists and are relegated to oblivion, ripped and torn and scribbled in and damp stained and generally abused by children, who often seem more interested in abusing them than in reading them, though a well-used book is often proof that it was appreciated instead of being neglected. 

    Children's books are often the first reading experience that people have of literature in their lives. It's unusual for a child to learn how to read well enough at an early age to be able to read real books, without first transitioning from picture-books, letter blocks, or pop-up books. Learning to read often occurs via elementary texts, designed both to usher the child-mind into grammar and spelling while inculcating moral lessons through crude juxtapositions and simple narratives. 

    Children's books, like all books, are a reflection of the culture of their time. When I was a boy, children's books had lately entered a new phase. After World War II, the elaborately illustrated books of the early 20th Century had begun to give way to a more visually oriented style, one less dependent upon poetry and plot, and more focused on the power of visual variation. This was partly the influence of cartoons and billboards, but also a response to the more modern notions of how children first learn and orient themselves to experience. Winnie-the-Pooh or Peter Rabbit gave way to Dr. Seuss. 

    Typically, books designed for children at the pre-school level contain almost no language at all--just pictures arranged in a sequence. These mostly wordless texts are simply designed to orient the child's mind, to regarding a book as an amusement, an object of curiosity. Since children lack a sense of duty and self-improvement, it makes sense to present reading (or the pre-literate pantomime of narrative) as a game or recreation, instead of something that must be done as a command. The strategy of camouflaging pedagogy through seductive persiflage is the classical pathway into the child-mind; and most children quickly pick this up, often becoming suspicious and reluctant to be condescended to and manipulated in this way.           

    The best children's books, it seems to me, are those which manage to create a connection between the intriguing aspects of language and direct experience without seeming to do so. There are different kinds of language. There's the language of images, the language of symbols, the language of alphabets, the languages of science, of codes, oral languages. Acquiring an interest in how languages work, and learning to manipulate them, is the first step in pursuing systematic scholarship.   


    There isn't much information I could find on the web about Monique Felix. According to one site, she's a Swiss artist who studied graphic arts at l'Ecole des Arts Appliqués in Lausanne, who has illustrated more than 40 children's books, including several "Mouse Books" in the series, and won honors such as the Octagon Prize from the International Center of Children's Literature in France. Making a child's book based purely on pictures is not a new idea. But making a children's book in which the plot involves the discovery and investigation of the alphabet is somewhat unusual. 

    This one is based on the idea that a mouse (or two mice) literally find letters of the alphabet by chewing into the paper of a book, rummaging around and pulling out torn fragments with separate letters printed on them, then innocently playing with these torn letter fragments, trying to make sense of them as pure symbolic abstractions.  


    We see immediately that the front cover has been chewed. The book itself has been in a sense "consumed" deliberately, perhaps mischievously, by a hairy mouse who peeks back at us from the eaten portion of the board. At the outset, we see the physical book as both the ground of action and the raw matter out of which the sequence of events will occur. The book suffers to be the physical world in which mice live, play and behave. The book isn't just a medium upon which the panels or frames are laid out; it is a physical object, inside the narrative. 

    The mouse doesn't say anything, and nothing is said about it. It simply scratches its head as we discover on the second page. What's going to happen? We don't know yet.

    Then, on the next page, we see the mouse tunneling or chewing its way into the very paper layers, disappearing-- 

    --into the cellulose, and throwing out fragments of chewed paper, each with a letter printed on it. It is as if the letters exist in the paper, in the stuff of the pulp, and the mouse is discovering these mysterious templates simply through a kind of mad investigation, the way a dog will instinctively dig for things in the dirt. (Rodents do in fact behave just this way, digging or scratching their way into places, in search of food, or shelter. It's completely in character.) 

    As this rummaging continues, we discover that another mouse is conducting the same curious search, and has tunneled its way out through the same entry hole the first mouse has opened. 

    The two mice begin to collect the letter fragments, and to associate them according to various schemes. 

    The smaller mouse seems to have figured out that vowel sounds belong together, though how it could have done this remains mysterious. At this point, the mice seem only delighted with the letters, as if they were some kind of original toy(s). 

    They begin to throw the fragments in the air, jumping with uninhibited joy and abandon. 

    By this time, we would probably have noticed that beneath the first layer of pages there appears to be an actual printed text, though the specific words can't be deduced. This layering of perceived matter, just beneath the surface, makes us wonder how the random letters which the mice have torn out of the stuff of the pages relate to the information contained inside.   

    The letters function as both playthings which the innocent mice have discovered by accident, as well as keys to the tantalizing message which exists under the surface of the paper. Metaphorically, the paper (the book) has become a kind of raw material inside of which language exists, to be mined and repurposed as needed. 

    As the game proceeds, the mice begin to see congruences and relationships, joining capital and lower-case letters together, all in the spirit of casual play. 

    Though we have no idea how they do it, the mice begin to put the letters in their traditional order, beginning with A. Apparently, these mice know more than we thought they did at the beginning.  

    We may have believed initially that the mice couldn't have known about the meaning of the letters of the alphabet, but the unfolding of their game indicates that they either invented the relationships they are constructing, or had to have known about it before-hand. 

    Having arranged the letters in their proper order, they now decide to take a nap, snuggling up together inside the cavity of torn paper they created by their digging. The book concludes with three blank torn fragments placed on the last leaf.  

    What would an immature mind think about this sequence? What is the underlying message? What does the book seek to accomplish? Does it work? 

    There have been some interesting developments within the field of what is variously called "concrete poetry" or "visual poetry"--as sub-genres of modern experimental poetry--over the last half century. Over the last 20 years, "graphic" literature, as a bastard child of the comic strip, has morphed into a major new formal category, with a large new audience. Children's literature, and advertising art, have both progressed simultaneously, along with these other trends. A book such as The Alphabet (which happens to be the title of post-Modern poet Ron Silliman's epic poem), seems to me to owe something to all these divergent creative areas.

    The unification of content (narrative) with material text (physical book, pages, letters etc.) here is very wittily explored through a metaphorical interaction between an animal figure, and the book as a mechanical means of transmission. There is nothing new about telling stories about animals, even through the eyes and imagined minds of animals, as stand-ins for human protagonists or characters. What is new, here, is the penetration of the medium (page) by a character, boring through the metaphysical page to discover the verbal content concealed beneath the paper. The mice perform this exploration on their own, as ambassadors between the world of our human attention and the hidden world of print (language, meaning, content). The sphere or universe of language exists inside books as a kind of parallel world, complete unto itself, entire, and endless. The world of print is accessed via printed letters or paper surfaces. 

    Ordinarily accessing this world is usually regarded as a passive interaction--we simply read the words printed, and perceive their meaning and absorb their message through recognition and confirmation. But to the immature mind, unfamiliar with the universe of print, the idea that letters (and words) exist only (or most routinely) inside books is really a novel idea. A child will recognize a mouse, and understand the mouse as a creature which burrows, looking for something, or trying to hide. Carrying this identification further, the mice become children, or child-like, as they play with the objects they have dug up. This playful aspect is like a celebration of the discovery, or the invention, of language itself. Though no words are formed by the mice, they clearly understand that the letters mean something, and they discover (or make) an order, which happens to be the ordered Western alphabet we're familiar with. 

    A child might wonder, naturally, what's on the other side of the page, where the mice have been burrowing. What's under there? There must be words there. Maybe the mice are tearing up the words into their constituent parts, and throwing the fragments around, just to see what will happen? Pieces, torn-up bits and segments and particles of words. 

    Looking at language this way is a way of imagining the different methods by which letters, words, and writing surfaces may be conceived. If a child thinks of language as a realm on the other side of the surface of reality, a layer of something between him and sense or meaning, he may be moved to explore language, instead of merely inculcating it with rote obedience. It may be possible to see language itself (which is a wholly created artifact of human ingenuity), as a thing, to be studied and conjured and manipulated and heaped up into startlingly new structures and forms. 

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  • 02/05/16--05:58: My C Slippers from London

  • When spouse and I traveled to Scotland in 2005, we stayed briefly in London, so that I could scout the London booksellers, and we could eat at a few choice restaurants there. I'd always wanted to stay at one of London's posh hotels, and we stayed at a few, including the Savoy, the Stafford, and Claridge's. At Claridge's--where we were greeted at the front desk by a veritable team of servants and staff, by name--we chose what the clerk described to us, as the Noel Coward room. (Searching this unit online produces no hits, so I presume it's either something the establishment doesn't/or doesn't any longer advertise. Coward was known to have stayed at Claridge's on occasion, since it was close to some theaters where his plays or musicals were performed, back in the day.)     

    The room we were given had a deco feel, with cute green little metal sconces, and a butterscotch and green color scheme. The bathroom was most impressive, with jade green tile everywhere, and a sink with faucets that looked custom 1930's luxury. 

    In the closet were matching sets of men's and women's slippers [photo above]--free swag offered to guests. I liked to imagine that the large green "C" on each slipper was in honor of Noel Coward, since we were, after all, sleeping in the "Noel Coward" room (not just at Claridge's). 

    While there, we decided to have a dinner at what was then the Gordon Ramsey restaurant inside the hotel. Gordon Ramsey, you will note, is the same Gordon Ramsey we've all seen on Fox Television, in his British productions Hell's Kitchen, MasterChef, and other spin-offs, in which the famous tousle-headed ex-footballer turned dictator-chef judges and rages over restaurateurs and apprentice chefs with scornful disdain, in contests and makeovers. It's less a cooking show than a new kind of reality TV, in which the imperious host gets off hurting people's feelings and generally acting out his short-tempered imperiousness. The meal we had there was really a so-so experience. Neither the food nor the service was top-notch. Ramsey terminated his relationship with Claridge's in 2013, and the restaurant closed. 

    Claridge's belongs to a brand of London hotel that flourished during the heydays of the British Empire, when the city was the de-facto center of the world, and anyone who was anyone was expected to stay in posh digs, to parade their cred and bask in the prosperity of decadence. Since the decline of the empire, such establishments are no longer the province of the upper classes, though it will cost you an arm and an ear to stay even a single night at any of them. 

    Some people abhor elegance in any form, feeling that it represents some kind of continuing offense against common sense, moderation and fairness. Promiscuous consumption however has always been a component of civilization. To sample the style of life it represents is one small brand of indulgence I'd always dreamed about, which is why we stayed there. I still have those slippers, by the way, which I've kept as souvenirs. I never wore them. If I'd left them at the hotel, I assume they'd have been tossed into the recycle bin. Someday, after I'm gone, someone will probably think they belonged to someone whose name began with "C"--which would be fitting, since I'm Curtis.

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  • 02/29/16--08:16: Oscar Night 2016

  • One of the great lessons of my life--if I may--is that the way to make people do something is to make them want to do it, instead of making them feel they should do it. Moral injunctions are useful and necessary, and living an ethical life is not only good for you, it's good for society. But persuading people to do good, and to practice it, cannot only involve the embrace of virtue or the jeopardy of doing wrong. 

    Taste works in the same way. As much as we might like at times to reward performance or behavior that is correct and fair, how we respond to events and actions in the world is as much or more about our personal preferences and feelings, as it is about duty and obligation.

    In the lead-up to the Oscars show this year, we heard a lot about the racial prejudice of the film industry, and how minority actors, directors and so on, have not been treated fairly by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, denying them recognition and rewards. 

    I grew up in a severely prejudiced little town in California in the 1950's and '60's. Napa had no blacks living in it, while Vallejo, just a dozen or so miles down the road, had something like a third to a half African American population. In this environment, it was possible to believe that racism was something that happened elsewhere, to see it as a dilemma that occurred in the third person, something in the abstract. This is fair warning: if you want to believe that what I'm saying is just bigotry dressed up as critical rationalization.     

    I can distinctly remember watching Sidney Poitier in the movie Lilies of the Field, which came out in 1963 when I was sixteen. It wasn't exactly a "feel good" movie, but it was clearly as safe a part as could be fashioned for the man who was, then, probably the most talented Negro actor, if not the best actor, in the whole film industry. Poitier won the Oscar that year for his part, in the face of stiff competition from Paul Newman (for Hud), and Albert Finney (in Tom Jones). It would not have surprised anyone if either of these two other white actors had won, but I don't remember feeling or thinking at the time that Poitier didn't deserve to win, or that giving him the award signified anything but an acknowledgement of talent and effort that went into his role.  

    In 1994, Morgan Freeman starred in The Shawshank Redemption, a prison movie, with Tom Robbins, ostensibly about the travails of a white banker wrongly convicted (a life sentence) for having killed his wife. Though he was nominated for best actor in that role, Freeman lost out to Tom Hanks (in Forrest Gump). Shawshank and Gump were both feel good movies, and both involved important male bonding relationships. I don't remember feeling that something had gone wrong with that award; the award choice didn't seem "racial" to me. Gump was a well-made movie, and Hanks is a talented actor. Had Freeman won, I wouldn't have thought the choice was either politically correct, or based on the moral duty to honor minorities, even if they aren't perceived as having earned what they're given. Freeman was wonderful in the role, and nothing the Academy could have done, positive or negative, could have taken away what Freeman accomplished.  

    Shawshank was a painful movie to watch, but also an uplifting experience. People suffer and hurt each other, but at the end, there's a revelatory release in which the two main characters, who've shared years in the hardship of imprisonment, are able to become friends on the outside. You could say, with justice, that their friendship transcends their respective racial differences--both genetic and social--and that it is this feeling, rather than any moral injunction, that is the movie's essential message. In other words, we're made to feel the attractions and values of friendship, instead of being reminded and scolded into politically correct behavior and attitudes. 

    Watching the Oscars awards program last night on television, I often felt uncomfortable with all the clammy attitudinizing on the part of the host and various presenters, intent upon scolding us for not being "tolerant" and "diverse" and "representative" in our choices and opinions. It got so bad, that I muted the sound with the clicker several times, as the unctuous invocations were repeated over and over. 

    The cinema is an art form. It's certainly possible to teach and to document with movies, but Hollywood is in the business of presenting entertainment for profit. The industry awards exist to encourage the industry to make better movies. Not movies that tell the right message, not movies that make the world better, but movies that entertain people and make a profit. Oscars are voted on by the 7000 filmmakers and film professionals in the industry, so the Oscar selections are very much an expression of the opinion of the industry. 

    The taste reflected in the choice of winners in the various categories will always to some extent reflect the general spirit of the times. Over the decades, Hollywood has variously been accused of being too conservative or too liberal, by critics of varying persuasions. Over the last half-century, the kinds of movies that have been made, and the kinds of subjects explored, and ideas expressed, have progressed significantly. Today, movies almost routinely examine racial and ethnic prejudice, sexual difference, extreme violence,  crude comedy, and ordinary suffering. But movies are first and foremost about making money, and determining awards for aesthetic quality and technical acumen is an expression of taste, not political or social equality. 

    It's fine to advocate equal access under law, but in the arts, it can't be just, or primarily, a matter of politically correct racial, ethnic or sexual "diversity" or "representation." The point about talent and skill is that it cuts across these divides, often making them irrelevant as guides to judgment or conduct. You can't insist that you automatically deserve to be given extra consideration, simply because you are a member of a suppressed minority. 

    Chris Rock may be popular among his admirers, but I find him banal and clueless as an Oscars host. His jokes aren't funny, and he has a poor sense of his audience. Nearly everything he said last night was followed by an uncomfortable moment or two of silence, as if the audience couldn't comprehend whether it was supposed to frown or smile at his remarks. This may have been partly due to the bad script, but Rock seemed remarkably out of place as host. 

    The attempt to hijack the Oscar awards night as an occasion to bring about "racial justice" fell with a loud thud. Everyone in the audience understood that this was an embarrassment, as I suspect the "television audience" across the land did. Over the last quarter century, Hollywood has bent over backwards to present itself as "concerned" and "aware" of social and political issues. Last night, it tried to "accommodate" the minority campaign by placing as many African American presenters on the stage as possible, and featuring speeches and remarks that told us how to feel and think about minority representation in the cinema. 

    But taste can't be legislated. It's that simple. 

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  • 03/09/16--07:21: Feux d'Artifice

  • There's a famous piano piece, by Debussy, titled Feux d'Artifice (or "fireworks"). There's a nice rendition of it here on YouTube, performed by Marc-André Hamelin. It's vintage Debussy, filled with murmuring vibrations and poly-tonal runs and trills. Mists and vague intuitions float over distant visions and shimmering images. It's from the composer's Preludes Book II. In some ways, music--classical music--was never the same after Debussy, and in the same way we haven't "gotten beyond" the kinds of effects and emotions he was able to evoke through his work. 

    Usually, Impressionism in music lends itself best to water effects or metaphors, and there are plenty of those in Debussy's work. He wrote a huge three-paneled work entitled simply La Mer, in which the whole classical orchestra works to create varied impressions of the sea. Fountains are very big in Europe. Sometimes, though, one is not sure whether a Debussy piece is about water, or fire. Feux d'Artifice could be about walking along a dashing mountain stream, as much as about watching a big fireworks display in the night sky. Such interpretive vagaries belong to the ambiguity of our impressions, how certain sounds are perceived by the individual listener, and what they may suggest, given our imaginations and unique experiences. Pure music as opposed to "programmatic" music--it's supposed to be a distinction with meaning, but such definitions are never clear cut in art. 

    In any event, here's a new light cocktail mix, which celebrates the light-hearted spirit of French Impressionism. The recipe is for two servings.

    2 parts Midori
    2 parts Triple Sec
    4 shakes of Angostura Bitters
    4 shakes of Green Chartreuse

    These are mixed together with crushed ice, and then poured into chilled cocktail glasses, to which is added enough bottled Pellegrino water to bring them up to full. 

    Its effect is similar to a champagne cocktail, but you don't have to open a bottle of champagne to make this one. Champagne cocktails are a problem because it's hard to justify killing a whole bottle of the stuff just to make a couple of drinks. If you don't drink it right away, it goes flat, and there's nothing less enticing than champagne that's gone flat! This mix solves that problem. 

    Spring is coming! [March 19th] So pack away your troubles and indulge in these foolish things! 


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  • 03/11/16--09:14: Like an O.Henry Story

  • One guy told me he’d been working as a plastics engineer in Detroit when he developed marital problems. Following his divorce, he'd decided to take some time off, and flew out to San Francisco for the beginning of a vacation.

    He was walking across Market Street in broad daylight when he was blind-sided by a taxi, and nearly killed. He was unconscious—in a coma—for a month, and there was some doubt that he’d even live. He’d been a very fit man, a weight-lifter before the accident.

    When he finally recovered, he’d been missed back at his old job with General Motors, and was presumed disappeared or dead. After 5 months in the hospital, he was a shadow of his former self, and he decided to stay in San Francisco for a while. Work was hard to come by, he was on general assistance. He took any kind of part-time work he could find. He was hired by the owner of an old apartment building in the city to sit in a dark basement and shoot rats.

    After a while, he developed some mysterious infections, which the doctors couldn’t diagnose. It turned out that while he’d been in the hospital, he’d been given blood transfusions, and he’d gotten the AIDS virus. This was in the early days of the disease, and he tried various kinds of medicines, none of which quite worked.  But he persevered, and managed to stay alive.

    He’d also been a serious amateur jazz pianist, an interest we shared. He greatly admired Errol Garner, whom he said he heard play several times. He was astonished at how fast and accurately Garner could play octave trills and leaps—one of the hardest feats at the keyboard. He even got a few gigs himself in some dive in the city.

    He’d been a polymer physics researcher at GM. He was philosophical about his plight, accepting the hand fate had dealt him. He wondered what might have happened to him, if his wife hadn’t decided to divorce him.

    I lost track of him back in the ‘90’s, but always remember how strange and mysterious his life had been. His life was like an O Henry story. 

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  • 03/12/16--18:31: Narcolepsy

  • Then there was the story of the guy who had been a speed-freak, who told me that he’d go into these obsessive quests in the city, diving into dumpsters, frantically driven by the intense intuition that he would find, at the bottom of one, under the layers of garbage and discarded detritus, priceless diamonds. The certainty with which he believed this, when in this extreme state of excess fatigue, was such that nothing could deter him, he’d spend days and nights walking through alleys in the city, climbing into huge dumpsters that sat behind apartment buildings or factories. During these seizures of obsession, he’d neglect to eat, or care for his hygiene, and would become black with the accumulated filth of the garbage, like a chimney sweep, but it didn’t matter.  His lust for treasure was overpowering. He also related that when in such feverish highs of speed, he would go into bookstores and voraciously devour whole texts at breakneck speed; he claimed he’d read all of Gray’s Anatomy in a single sitting, though this may have been drug-induced delusion.

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    The apéritif is typically a drink served before a meal, ostensibly to aid in digestion, though to what extent this is really the case is dubious at best. Any handy excuse invented for the imbibing of alcoholic beverages must be viewed with a skeptical eye. But no excuse is really needed to appreciate a good concoction; it's a pleasure in itself, not in need of any artificial encouragements or pretexts.

    Here's one that I thought of. The imagination plays a big part in the invention of any kind of taste. The greater your familiarity with how flavors are experienced, the greater the possibility that you may divine the right consummation of spice and mouthfeel. Curiosity also plays a part. 

    Sweet vermouth is commonly drunk all by itself as an apéritif, but as a basis for mixing, it has just as much possibility as ordinary spirit goods (like bourbon or scotch). And its inferior strength means it should carry less of a kick, and hence fulfill the notion of apéritif, instead of a regular cocktail.

    2 parts Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth 
    1/4 part St. George Absinthe Verte
    1/3 part Becherovka liqueur
    1/2 part fresh lemon juice
    slice lcmon garnish

    served on the rocks (stirred slightly) 

    This one won't chase the ladies away, either, which is always a consideration. 

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  • 03/23/16--12:12: Variations on a Theme

  • During the Romantic Era in classical music, roughly from 1800 to 1850 (though it continued to be expressed for decades after that), serious European composers enjoyed displaying their prowess in composing sets of pieces on a short lyric formula. Many of these composers were highly skilled at the keyboard, and during the Romantic period, one of the chief social events was giving an intimate performance to select audiences, during which young impressionable ladies in the audience, overcome by the exalted power of the musical "genius," would swoon in thrall to the outpouring of emotion communicated through the music. This swooning was the metaphorical evidence of the capacity of art to move human emotion, especially love, longing, despair, regret, loss, and intense joy. Young ladies were imagined to be particularly susceptible to such extremes of emotion, perhaps as a consequence of their inherent "weakness" or vulnerability. So much for sexual freedom!  

    Robert Schumann

    Robert Schumann [1810-56] composed the suite Carnival [1834-5, subtitled Little Scenes on Four Notes, consisting of 21 ordered pieces], inspired by his love for his then fiancé, Ernestine von Fricken. The four notes are codes--for the town where Ernestine was born, the word for carnival in German, the word for Ash Wednesday, and finally for Schumann's own name. The idea of composing a set of variations was by no means a new concept by this time, but the idea of stretching the range of musical styles and extremes was a hallmark of romantic expression, like performing a feat of protean transformations. 

    The tradition of the young precocious virtuoso performing magic and majestical feats at the keyboard is alive and well in our own time, and young Evgeny Kissin's performance of the Carnival is a prime example of the trope. The brevity of each piece in the suite belies the seriousness of the musical ideas employed. It's rather like seeing a dancer do 20 different kinds of steps. Sort of a "look, ma, no hands" affair as the audience gapes with astonishment at each masterful incarnation.  Schulman's not beyond making fun of some of the styles; in one, he even parodies his contemporary Chopin, though the sound is so beautiful, you wonder how Frederic wouldn't have appreciated the gesture.  

    Too, there's something of the alchemical about using a coded formula as inspiration for an emotional statement. Part divine formula, part secret reference. It places the composer in the position of interpreter of the oracle, receiving inspiration from a set of keys to which only he has access, by virtue of his genius--a very romantic idea.  

    The Young Brahms

    Music is by its nature rhythmic, and harmonic, but the idea of extending a piece of music beyond the initial rhythmic scheme that defines a work, to longer forms (such as a symphony) didn't really take hold until the beginning of the Romantic period. You can see the difference by comparing an early symphony of Mozart's, to a late one by Beethoven. For the Romantics, a musical idea could be extended into a kind of journey, which might include a number of different tempi, instrumental choices, changing moods etc.  

    This quality of journey led to a greater level of abstraction, which is evident in Beethoven, and also in Brahms. But the interest in suites of shorter pieces, as expressions of the progression of a ideas which cohere around a specific theme or inspiration, is also a strong aspect of the Romantic tendency.  The individual pieces are linked into a sequence of versions of the initial theme, which may be concealed beneath improbable inventions, only to re-emerge, slightly altered, in a later part. As the sequence proceeds, the gathering emotional inertia may lead inevitably to a thematic crescendo, summarizing the triumphant fulfillment of the whole. And the variety of kinds of musical styles or types, keeps the listener alert, and refreshed. Unlike in a Romantic symphony, where the musical ideas may get bogged down in long meditations, a suite of variations may create the same sense of satisfaction and pleasure while not demanding the same level of continuous mental concentration.   

    Johannes Brahms was a composer I had to grow to love over time. His thick, lush harmonies, and very dense compositional style always put me off as a student of the keyboard, and his passionate sternness didn't appeal to me in my youth. It was years before I heard his Hungarian Rhapsodies, some of which are as light-hearted and playful as anything in the classical canon.  I think I first heard his Variations and Fugue on a Them by Handel* about 30 years ago, in a recording by the late, great tragic pianist Julius Katchen, who died at the age of 42 of cancer. The Handel Variations begin unobtrusively with the simplest quotation from the theme, then proceed through 25 variations, ending in a brilliant fugue. The suite moves easily through varying moods and styles, though the level of skill required to perform it are considerable, taxing the ability of any serious player. Brahms is less playful and tongue-in-cheek than Schumann is in Carnival, but the range of emotional moods is just as various.  

    The older Brahms

    What is the literary counterpart of a variations on a theme in music? Perhaps a series of sonnets, like Shakespeare's. Perhaps a sequence such as Berryman's Dream Songs. Or Berrigan's Sonnets. Or Spicer's The Holy Grail. Or Creeley's Numbers. There's something show-off-y about running a series of changes in a strict form, without losing inspiration or interest. It's somehow a proof of artistic genius, to exploit a form just for the sake of doing it. I've essayed the form in my poems "The Boat" and "Poem in Twenty Sections" though I'm not very certain of the ultimate value of doing it. The notion of the demonstration of craft is more important to traditionally-minded artists or craftsmen than those of us who like to explore free-form composition. I would never say that doing so is either easier or less fulfilling than inventing a new form, though. 

    In music, maintaining a thematic core is a demanding requirement just as it is in language, requiring both flexibility and facility. Which is more difficult, to write a sonnet sequence or a theme and variations for the keyboard?  


    *Played here by Murray Perahia, a brilliant performer. 

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  • 03/29/16--10:59: Springtime in Arizona

  • Spring is here, and that means Spring Training is coming to an end for the big league ball clubs. Rosters are being trimmed, warm-ups and fine-tuning are winding down, and soon the money and the dreams will be placed on the table of a new season. 162 games, a grueling season of 13150 innings (give or take a dozen or so), 25000 pitches, and that doesn't count post-season (or pre-season for that matter). 

    Every year, I get a little twinge of curiosity and excitement about the upcoming season, a hold-over I suspect from my childhood, when the Spring semester of the school year began to wind down, and the open spaces and possibilities of Summer appeared on the horizon. Just as vacation time came around, the boys in white cotton were starting the long grind of the Summer Game. As a boy, I played in organized ball between the ages of 7 and 14, stopping after my sophomore year in high school, diverted by the more enthralling demands of philosophy, literature and music. My interest in sports would, over the next couple of decades, take a backseat to an academic adventure, steady work, and forays into serious writing, music and marriage and father hood. I briefly followed the Oakland Athletics and Golden State Warriors during the 1970's, but otherwise had little interest in pro-sports. 

    By the time the new Giants stadium at China Basin opened in 2000, Barry Bonds had been installed as the team hero, and its prospects had begun to brighten. Still, it would be another decade before the Giants would win the first of their three championships since moving to San Francisco from New York (2010, 2012 and 2014); and by that time, Bonds was gone, chased out by allegations, and legal troubles involving illegal drug use (steroids). The team's run over the last six years has been phenomenal with a combined record of 608-526 over that span. 

    Each year at this time, teams begin to size up their chances and imagine how they may fare against their immediate opponents in their own division, as well as against the rest of the teams they will face during the season. Competition is expressed as a wager of odds, and in pro baseball, much of it's about statistics, since the sport is, if nothing else, almost overburdened by statistical data. Everything that can be measured is measured, and cross-referenced, and tallied and converted into algebraic formulae--all for the simple pleasure of estimating the relative values of individual players, on-field strategies, and the merits of the respective teams.  

    I've never been much interested in statistics, but it is fun to speculate about what the Giants might do this year, their "on-year" in the pattern of alternate year championships over the last six campaigns. 

    Every year, teams look a little different than the last. Players retire, or are traded, or sign as free agents with other clubs, or are demoted back to the minor leagues. Sometimes, players change positions. Starters go to the bullpen, an infielder moves from short to third, a catcher moves to first base; and in the American League, a position player takes on the Designated Hitter spot in the line-up. Players get older, younger ones arrive, and the complexion of the team changes, sometimes a lot. That illusive quality, "team chemistry" changes too, as the focal point of the team's sentiment shifts to accommodate the inspiring leaders from year to year. 

    This year, there are few changes to note, and some of those were expected.

    Timmy Lincecum, the team's former phenomenal Cy Young winner in 2008 and 2009, ran his string out, as his contract ended, and his declining fortunes (and failing health) resulted in his being (at least at present) without a contract. It will be strange not thinking of Timmy on the team this year; but his small body and jerky-jerky wind-up finally wore him out, and it may be ultimately the end for him.

    We've said goodbye to Ryan Vogelsong, a journeyman who came back from Japan after 4 years, and helped the team as a fifth starter for five good years. He has a one year deal with the Pirates.

    Tim Hudson retired, as expected. We liked his experience and dedication, but he had become only a shadow of his former dominant self, and winning a World Series in 2014 made it all worthwhile for him. Happy Trails, Tim. 

    Jeremy Affeldt, he of the "scud"-pitch, also chose to call it quits. I was never much impressed with his side-winding delivery style, and uneven performances, so I'm not too worried about losing him. 

    Yasmeiro Petit, our resident major-domo of the staff, was signed by the Washington Nationals. Good luck to him, too. He may be missed.

    Mike Leake, whom the Giants had considered as one of its regular starters, went to St. Louis for pretty impressive money (six years at 93 million, five years guaranteed!). I'm not sure we would ever have paid him that much, based on how he performed for the partial season last year. 

    The stylish lead-off hitter Nori Aoki wasn't offered a contract by the Giants after his one free-agent stint in left field--which rather surprised me--and he signed with the Mariners for two years. That left us with a hole in the line-up, which was quickly filled. 

    With respect to acquisitions, the Giants signed Johnny Cueto, the durable starter formerly of the Cincinnati Reds (102-70 in 8 years in the majors)--with the Luis Tiant-wind-up, the long dreadlocks, and the quirky character. We signed him for 7 years, so we can only hope that his future is rosier for us than Barry Zito's was. 

    In addition, the team signed another relatively high-profile free agent, Jeff Samardzija. Despite his mediocre won-lost percentage, Samaradzija's strike-out numbers suggest that 2015 was an anomaly. Still, he's one of those journeyman who could have two or three really good years, and he could eat up lots of innings, if he can keep hitters from hurting him with the long ball.  

    With Aoki's departure, and Pagan's decline, the team signed Denard Span for four years. Span is a speedster who steals bases, can turn doubles into triples (a big plus at China Basin), and he scores runs. The hope is that his off year in 2015 was just that. The team desperately needs speed.

    Returning from injury years are Joe Panik, Pagan, Cain, Belt and Pence. (Parenthetically, it's fun to imagine how much better the team would have performed in 2015, if those injuries hadn't occurred.) Panik, Pence and Belt are all in their prime, and given an injury-free year, they could all play at a superior level. 

    At third, Matt Duffy quickly made fans forget roly-poly Pablo Sandoval, who now suffers from the exaggerated expectations of Red Sox fans. 

    In the outfield, Pagan will share time with Span, and Gregor Blanco (who had a career year last year as the roving outfielder sub). 

    At catcher, we have the reliable anchor Buster Posey, whose Hall of Fame career is unfolding as expected. 

    So here's a wild stab at our opening day line-up, insofar as I can deduce it from the team's announcements. 

    Span [LF]
    Panic [2B]
    Pence [RF]
    Posey [C]
    Belt [1B]
    Duffy [3B]
    Crawford [SS]
    Pagan [CF]

    The list of starters seems right now to be Bumgarner, Cueto, Samardzija, Peavy, Cain and Heston. That's six, but things haven't really clarified given the performance of this group during Spring training. No one--not a single member of this group--has shown any consistency at all, giving up lots of hits and runs. 

    Out of the bullpen, we still have Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Hunter Strickland--any one of whom could end up being the putative closer--with Javier Lopez and George Kontos as set-up men. 

    There are the usual group of utility players and spot pitchers: Tomlinson and Adrianza on the infield, Osich and ??? in the bullpen? 

    Given pre-season expectations, and the improvements to the other teams in the division, I wouldn't expect the Giants to do as well as they'd like, unless the starting pitching does better than expected. I have sincere doubts about the abilities of Peavy and Cain to pull their weight. And if Samardzija and Cueto have mediocre years, things could get very dicey by mid-season. 

    The offense looks good, if Span and Panik and Pence can hit over .260. And if Belt and Posey and Crawford could each hit 20 homers or more, things could be exciting. But Posey is still the only true star player in this group. For a team to succeed, most of the players have to play up to their potential, and though there's a lot of potential here, there's also a big possible downside. 

    Expect Bumgarner to win 18 games, but beyond that, no one is a sure thing. Expect Posey to hit .300. Expect Casilla and Romo and Strickland to get 35 saves between them. Hope for a team batting average of .275, a team ERA of 3.40, pray for 200 homers. 

    Anything can happen. There are really way too many question-marks about this squad, too many to fuel much optimism. I expect the Giants to fight for second in their division. Arizona looks much better this year, the Dodgers about the same. My expectations are muted, but I'll be rooting for'em nonetheless. 


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    I'm posting a digital photo here. 

    As many readers here know, I'm a serious black and white landscape photographer. I have a darkroom in my house, set up for silver gelatin and platinum-palladium printing. However, I've not done any work in the field for several years.

    Recently, I took out our digital camera to take some test shots of industrial subject matter in West Berkeley. 

    Hopefully, this will be my road back to image-making, abandoned the last 20 years in favor of other pressing pursuits, such as antiquarian bookselling, travel and internet doodling. 


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  • 04/24/16--10:20: The Art Dump

  • Have you ever stood before a painting in a museum and asked yourself why it's supposed to be a work of art?

    American Abstract Expressionism is very old news. It eventually won the day and became certifiably valuable. Canvases by any of the great Ab Exp names--Pollock, Motherwell, de Kooning, Francis, etc.--today command prices in the tens, even hundreds, of millions of dollars. 

    There's no denying that human beings are capable of reading complex ideas and feelings into almost any kind of visualization. 

    There's nothing wrong with seeing meaning in abstraction. The way people may feel about any work of human ingenuity is not governed by ethics, or religion, or pragmatic considerations. 

    Dada, and the Surrealists taught us that we may find art anywhere. Duchamp discovered readymades, things not conceived as aesthetic objects, which nevertheless, when seen from a certain perspective, can become art.

    What would you think if I told you that the piece above was worth a million dollars, based on the auction records? Would you shake your head in disbelief, or nod casually in grudging acknowledgment of the unpredictability of aesthetics?

    Who would work to create a surface as seemingly random and disorganized as this, and ask us to accept it as the representation of something useful, inspiring, mysterious, or valuable?

    Who indeed?

    The plain fact is that this is a photo of a piece of plywood that I found at the local recycle center (read "dump"). It's probably a counter-top that was in someone's workshop. Or perhaps it was on the floor. It looks for all the world like one of those drop-cloths that house-painters use to protect the floor or the sidewalk. 

    It was obviously NOT intended as a work of art. 

    But when I looked at it at first, there was just that little blip of hesitation in my imagination: Was it a painting? Sometimes people will leave tired old paintings there, usually of the color-by-the-number variety. Was this someone's idea of an Abstract Expressionist piece? Then I quickly realized that it was just "too dirty" and haphazard to be that.

    Does an event like this serve to undermine our presumptions about the meaning of abstraction in art?

    Does it give the lie to all those drip/splash/smear/smudge canvases that we've all become familiar with in museums and galleries over the last half century?  

    I don't know. I like and enjoy Jackson Pollock and Sam Francis and de Kooning as much as the next guy. But there's always the certainty that some small portion of our regard for abstraction is self-delusion, that what we're seeing in the art is at least partly editorial, constructed by our desire to respond to something which we've been told is worth the effort of doing so. 

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