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

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  • 02/13/18--08:48: Sitting Pretty

  • Latest from the stainless steel counter, a new combination made exclusively from liqueurs.

    2 parts sweet vermouth
    2 parts Cachaca
    1 part Amaretto liqueur
    1 part fresh lemon juice

    Swirled and served up, possibly with a garnish of orange peel.

    This combination has no "straight goods" and might therefore be considered an aperitif mix. One could, I think, substitute some of the vermouth and Cachaca with golden or white rum (in a 2 to 1 to 1 to 1 to 1 formula), and this would be a somewhat stronger drink, but I don't think the taste would be altered much, or for the better. Amaretto is a powerful flavor, but seems to meld nicely with the other two ingredients.

    Complex combinations can taste ambiguous. The great majority of spirits drunk around the world are taken straight. Cocktails, almost by definition, signify coordinations of flavors, bringing together proprietary products, fruit and vegetable products, with specific "goods" (traditional spirit distillations). We have at our disposal today, hundreds of varieties of goods, as well as a host of mixing ingredients--so many that no one could ever exhaust the possibilities. Some drinkers settle on one spirit, or simple combination, and never deviate from it. Others, such as myself, are restlessly trying new ideas, conjuring up unlikely marriages, imagining improbable bedfellows. 

    Who would think of introducing aquavit to Chartreuse? Curiosity--rather than invention--can be the mother of . . . what? A new discovery, or a blind tasting-alley? Many of the experiments I conduct never find their way into my cocktail blogs, because they're failures. One of the hallmarks of a successful cocktail is that it will inevitably taste right from the start. Some flavors are intriguing, but don't hold up. Cloying sweetness, stingy dryness, blandness, excessive tartness, etc. 

    This recipe has a decidedly complex flavor. It's smoothness may be an indication that none of its constituent components are allowed to stand out. Anyone of these--gin, vermouth, aquavit, Chartreuse--can be drunk straight; and in other combinations, they can be the dominant flavor. A lot of complex drinks--those, say, with more than 3 separate parts--strike just the right note, like a scientific formula. Makers of swords, for instance, learn to combine individual metals in the precise proportions to create strength, durability, flexibility, and the perfect tapering blade-edge. There's no question that mixing cocktails involves some of that same balancing act, though finding it is rarely attempted with the same devotion and intensity as making useful alloys.         

    2 parts gin
    2 parts dry vermouth
    1 part aquavit
    1 part yellow Chartreuse
    1/2 part Barenjaeger
    1 part fresh lemon juice

    In the end, you must follow your own instincts. When I'm contemplating a mix, I begin either with a spirit (say, scotch), and then meditate what "spin" I might guess would twirl it in the right direction. I suspect that the venerable old Rusty Nail was invented in just way, with someone wondering how Drambuie would affect scotch. Since Drambuie is made out of scotch, it wasn't much of a leap.

    I have a lot of drink mixing books, and there are dozens and dozens more out there. Most of them begin by reiterating the classic combinations with the familiar names, and then timidly suggest a few original ones of their own. Having dipped into quite a few, I now look for books that boast all new recipes, rather than repeating the tried and true. 

    Here's to variety! 

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    Fox News decided to bring out its old Interview with O.J. Simpson, conducted in 2006 to promote a book to have been published by HarperCollins--which was initially cancelled at the time due to the objections of the Goldman and Brown families, raising concerns about the prospect of anyone making money off the murders. 

    In light of the present-day preoccupation with exploitation of women, perhaps Fox must have felt it could get some late mileage out of its old footage. Simpson received $800,000 for the book that was eventually published, though he received nothing for the Fox interview, which was suppressed until now. 

    What's astonishing now, looking at the edited segments of that interview, is how cavalierly Simpson behaves, and how peculiarly he presents his version of the actual murder scene, which he refers to smirkingly as his "hypothetical version" of the murder scene. In discussing the pattern and history of abuse, leading up to the marital separation, and eventual murder, Simpson expresses glib amusement about his physical violence toward Nicole, as well as his numerous extra-marital affairs. 

    Psychologically, the most telling aspect of the interview, is his impersonal reference to himself in the third person [i.e., "if I did it"], as if he were a split personality viewing the murder event as both a participant and an observer, watching himself stab Nicole, then Goldman. He describes in perfect detail and sequence how he went about the killings, obviously aware that having been acquitted of the crimes, he can't be tried again, whatever he may "confess" to later. The fact of his exoneration seems to amuse him, as if--having managed to escape justice was part of an elaborate game, one in which he would triumph over the victims, as well as the justice system--he was free at last to laugh about it. 

    This flagrant, smarmy cockiness, which is everywhere evident in Simpson's demeanor and expressions during the interview, contradicts directly the expectation the audience must have had about his presumed contrition, knowing full well that, despite the racial overtones of the verdict and the subsequent crowing of African Americans afterwards, he was clearly guilty, whatever shenanigans his high-profile attorney Johnny Cochran (and the rest of the dream team) may have conducted in the courtroom.

    Now that we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how malicious Simpson was, and how callous his attitude towards his own guilt, it's sad to recall how partisan the reactions to that verdict were at the time. African Americans were elated that a black man could get revenge-justice against a system they believed was rigged against them. They seemed less interested, then, in whether OJ might actually have killed his two victims, than in the possibility that he could be set free as an object-fetish of vengeance. 

    What must they be thinking today, now that we've seen the murderer finally throw off his sheep's robe and laugh about the murders in full public view?  


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    Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe [The Luncheon on the Grass 1863] is a painting by Edouard Manet [1832-1883]. It is a familiar painting, now recognized as among the most important pre-Modernist paintings. 

    The history of painting over the last 500 years is a record of a succession of styles, a development both of technique and of subject matter. The gradual emancipation of the artist from the limitations of formal strictures, as well as of the range of acceptable narrative, during the 19th Century, is an account of challenge and defiance of cultural norms, with each stage setting a higher bar of permission, for those who would follow. The idea of revolution in art, is born in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, and to a large extent, we're still carrying on this struggle of resistance and renewal through invention and discovery. 

    How must the public have felt, in 1863, upon first seeing this large [about 7x12 feet!] canvas at the Salon des Refuses? Clearly intended to shock, the picture is also a commentary upon classical subject matter, updating and placing it in ironic contrast to its putative historical models. 

    Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe of Manet

    Its immediate impression is of a sort of metaphorical tromp l'oeil, of a classical nude placed inside a contemporary setting, without any clear connections to context--rather as if a Renaissance nude from a mythic vignette had been plopped down in the middle of a Paris suburb. Nudity or semi-nudity in classical painting had long been a proper subject of painting and sculpture, but nearly always in the context of a remote reference, either from classical myth, Biblical scenes, or legend. This familiar distancing of the profane from its public allowed artists to explore raw human form without straying into obscenity or vulgarity. 

    Manet's painting clearly intends that we should see this scene in just that way, as a sin against good taste and as a reaction to its classical models. The stark contrast of the cool, pale-skinned nude with the dark tones of the sylvan background, and the clothing of the two male figures, the harsh lighting and staged positioning of the limbs--all suggest defiance, and prurient disregard. There's clearly something pornographic about the presentation, as a challenge to propriety as well as to the canons of doctrinaire taste. 

    Comparing Manet's version to the later one by Claude Monet--which seems tame and impressionistically calm by comparison--will give some sense of the huge contrast of intention.     

    Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe of Monet [1866]

    Manet's canvas functions on several levels. There's the contradiction of spatial perspective, in which a second female figure, behind the first group, seems to float in a kind of separate sphere, almost as a commentary or adjunct to the picnic. What is she doing there? What is her relation to the narrative? Is she a kind of foil for the foregrounded nude? 

    Though the figures are drawn in a realistic manner, they seem stiff and posed, as if in imitation of some formal, theatrical posture. This rigidity would be normative in a lot of classical scenes, but here it seems completely out of place. We have difficulty inventing a narrative that would explain the nude's disrobing, or her presence between the two conversing men. Is her nudity a violation of her sex, or is she a projection of the aesthetic preoccupation of the figures, who seem to be stand-ins for the painter himself. Or is she just a piece of furniture in a satirical cartoon? 

    It's the incongruousness of the nude's presence which determines our reaction. She clearly doesn't belong in the painting, in the same way that she doesn't belong in a real picnic in the France of the 1880's. It's like a temporal displacement, a forced enjambment of contradictory contexts. This incongruousness has more connection to later artistic movements--Surrealism or Dadaism--than to any discernible tendency of its time. The painting may seem shocking, or humorous, or defiant, but it doesn't strike one as "beautiful" or graceful or cheerful, or even melancholy or moving. It's an aesthetic statement, one intended to draw a line in the sand, either an end or a beginning, depending upon your point of view. In a way, it's more typical of how Warhol or Lichtenstein might conceptualize it, than how any critic or viewer would have in the 19th Century.   

    Outside the area of the figures, the painting seems pretty sketchy, an afterthought, the brush strokes casual, even careless. This contrast between the hard clarity of the foreground figures against the pictorially drab background also underscores the sense of imposition, of a truncation of the historically separate modes. Manet seems to be emphasizing the disjunction, without making any overt attempt to connect the opposing contexts. This kind of deliberate exaggeration and disjunction has much more in common with later absurdist depictions than anything else of its time. 

    Unless, of course, we are willing to apply the same Modernist or Post-Modernist criteria to earlier, classical works such as those of Giorgione, whose two pictures here are commonly accepted precursors of the Manet work, both of which display much of the same kind of accepted "techniques"--the skewed perspectives, the incongruous nudes, the staged quality of the narrative, and the sketchy metaphorical landscapes which form the backdrop of the drama. If we think in a relaxed way about these earlier efforts, it's easy to see how naive, absurd and unreal they are. That we should, on the one hand, see these 16th Century canvases as typical masterpieces employing standard mythical subject matter, while viewing the Manet as a shocking challenge, tells us much about how later developments and critical accommodations of the emancipation of art from the clichés of previous dogma have altered how we view works within the progression of historical development. 

    Were audiences in the 16th Century as offended by the nudity of such canvases as these by Giorgione, as audiences in the 1880's must have been by Manet's? Did they see art in the same way we now tend to do, as natural reflections of the spirit of the time, rather than as evidences of a kind of divine inspiration whose purpose was to inspire them to imagine another kind of (ideal) reality?        

    The Pastoral Concert of Giorgione

    La Tempesta of Giorgone

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    Bach's keyboard piece Italian Concerto (originally title Concerto in the Italian Taste), was published in 1735. 

    It was conceived as an emulation or adaptation of Italian chamber music to the double-keyboard manual harpsichord. Perhaps its intensely, seductively lyrical aspect reflects the Italian spirit.   

    As with many other of Bach's (and other composers in the pre-piano era) keyboard compositions, it has been successfully adapted to the modern piano repertoire, and is a concert favorite. 

    I came late to it, however. I had known and played some parts of the Well-Tempered Clavier, as well as the Little Preludes and Fugues. (Don't get me wrong; I've never been more than a fascinated amateur!) 

    I had heard parts of it over the years, perhaps on the radio, but until last week I hadn't heard the whole three-piece composition. 

    As it happened, my first hearing was by Andras Schiff, a world-class classical concert pianist, with Hungarian roots. Schiff plays the full range of the classical canon, from Bach and Scarlatti to Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, etc. His Bach has been a specialty. The YouTube version of his recording is here

    For comparison, I also listened to Glenn Gould's version, here.   

    Schiff's interpretation has all of the precision and discrete voicings one wants of Bach's intricate interlacings, and captures the joy and intellectual vigor as well. His mastery of technique releases the listener from all apprehensions of uncertainty, and frees one to fly into the empyrean.  

    Gould's version, in contrast, is typical of his approach, with a mathematical tempo and a slightly dogmatic approach, often emphasizing the harmonic accompaniment over the melodic line. This is an important aspect seldom brought out by typical interpreters, but it can become predictable and slightly overbearing, especially with composers other than Bach, who was clearly the genius at it. It can in Gould's hands, be made to seem as if the right hand is fluttering mindlessly above the main theme. And, of course, we have his usual humming in the background. (I suppose, with modern sound technology, this humming could be removed, though I doubt anyone would think it worth the effort.) 

    Schiff has had a conflicted relationship with his native Hungary, specifically because of anti-Roma (Gypsy), anti-Semiticism, and homophobia, and this has led to his being persona non grata in that country. 

    Art can transcend political, ethnic, racial and cultural barriers, but occasionally artists must choose, or go into exile, in order to endure. 

    Schiff is a gift to humanity.   

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  • 05/09/18--08:17: Come Spring

  • It's been an odd year.

    The predicted droughts of Global Warming haven't quite materialized, though the winter rains weren't quite enough to reassure Californians. As anyone knows, the crucial factor is the Sierra snowpack, which is what feeds the dams and reservoirs that irrigate our region. 

    But Spring is always a time for renewal, and the poets have to perform their task to celebrate it. 

    Embarking upon my seventh decade, as, more and more, my life begins to take on a familiar shape, my memories consolidate into a design that feels, increasingly, inevitable. My genetic inheritance, my early tendencies, my upbringing--the "country of my consciousness"--all appear to coagulate around something called Curtis, which I accept or regret according to my mood.

    Meeting new friends, while old ones drift away. Saving what's valuable, and cleaning out the clutter. Coming to terms. Resolving. 

    Here are three new recipes from the stainless steel counter, which doubtless bear my personal stamp, though there may be bartenders somewhere in the world simultaneously duplicating them, unbeknownst to me. If I've inadvertently imitated someone else's concoction, my apologies. 

    The first two were designed to be served up, the last over ice. The first two are for two drinks, the last for one.        

    3 parts gin
    1 part apple liqueur
    1/2 part maraschino liqueur
    1/2 part sugar syrup
    1 part fresh lemon juice

    2 parts aquavit
    2 parts dry vermouth
    1 part Berenjaeger liqueur
    1 part limoncello
    1 part lime juice

    1 1/2 parts white rum
    1/2 part cachaca
    1/2 part banana liqueur
    1/2 part lime juice

    May all your Springs be rejuvenating, and all your toasts come true. 

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  • 06/10/18--06:47: Apropos of New Chips

  • Apropos of nothing in particular, here's a tequila recipe.

    Actually, to be frank, the idea popped up when I discovered a new "chip" in the grocery this afternoon.

    One of the local Mexican restaurant chains, Chevys, specializes in freshly baked chips, familiar to devotees of that establishment, by its glorious greasy shine and texture, nothing like the dry, dull, oversaltedd variety so often encountered these days in Gringo country.  

    These are "Have'a Corn Chips" of Laguna Beach CA 92651, who have perfected the trick of packaging their chips with the oil still on them.

    I put them in the oven to heat them up to warm, and paired them with a half pint of guacamole, fresh. 

    Wow, almost as good as Chevys!

    It's all about the oil, I think. They come in small packages, about enough for 2-3 people to consume in one sitting. I suspect that they'd quickly go rancid once exposed to air, even in the ice-box. Perishable. 

    In the Bay Area, tequila drinks have shoved most other goods aside, but I'm no more partial to it than I would be if I lived in Seattle, or Portland, Maine. I've mixed plenty of tequila concoctions, and the variety is endless. 

    Here's a nice sort of variation on the margarita formula, though you could skip the salt around the rim, since the chips carry enough salt by themselves.    

    The amaretto liqueur is proprietary, but it's close enough to regular Amaretto liqueur that you could substitute that. The cachaca is also proprietary, but again, I think various brands could be used. Cachaca has a sort of "hot" quality, which the sweet ingredients temper.  

    1 1/2 parts tequila silver
    1/2 part cachaca
    1/2 part amaretto biscuit liqueur
    1/2 part pineapple juice
    squeeze of wedge of lime

    served stirred over ice into chilled short glasses

    Summer is coming. I'll say no more.

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    Philip Hyde [1921-2006] was among the first photographers to feature and promote photographic imagery in support of environmental ideals. Beginning in the early 1950's, he along with Ansel Adams, and Eliot Porter, contributed to the growing body of work that came to be called the Western Landscape Tradition. Hyde was closely associated with the Sierra Club, and many of his photographs were used in various of its publications, as well as its books. Hyde was also among the first photographers to move to color, at a time when that technology was undergoing change. 

    This image is from the cover of the Sierra Club Bulletin of October 1951. It's a vertical study taken in Yosemite National Park, and is labeled "Tree and shadow near Peeler Lake." 

    What immediately strikes me about this image is its mystery of scale. Disjunctions of scale may seem like trick photography, if the eye doesn't perceive adequate context to determine size, position or relationship. 

    Is the "tree" 20 feet high, the image taken from a considerable height? Or is it a foot or two high, just a little seedling sprouting between boulders? The shadow suggests the latter, and the grain of the rock also confirms that. 

    I've actually witnessed this rock surface, known as "glacier polish" which one sees along the main roadway through the park. The big smooth granitic boulders are scored by sharply defined creases. It can make a very interesting visual image. 

    What I respond to is the delicacy of the twigs and the feathery shadow contrasted across the white mass of hard rock. Also, there's considerable tension created by the triangular intersection of divisions near the top of the frame. It's a classic black and white study, a moment caught near dawn or dusk when the light is tilting towards horizontal. 

    I was never a big fan of Hyde's color work. Perhaps it's because it always seems too staid and settled, predictable and flat. This image, however, explores another dimension. 

    It's also rather nostalgic. The Sierra Club was more militant and crusading in those days, as it spearheaded the campaign against environmental devastation. David Brower was its controversial crusader, and he believed in photography as a tool in rallying the troops (and the public) against the developers and engineers and exploiters who wanted to rip up the American outback for gain. 

    This photograph seems an innocent footnote to that noble history.  

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  • 07/02/18--10:36: Prepare to be Frustrated

  • The Grammar Nazi has been away for some time, but he's back again.

    Actually, this post won't be about grammar, though grammar is often on his mind these days, stimulated on a regular basis by the public sins of familiar media of every persuasion.

    Grammar is about practice, and rules, and different ways of doing things, in language.

    But definitions of words present another set of problems.

    In our hot current political climate, words are fought over, teased, tangled, twisted, turned, toppled and traded. What words mean--who owns them, how they can be used, by whom, under what conditions--is an important issue in the continuous struggle over meaning itself, and the power that is wielded through partisan usage.

    I've become so very weary lately of hearing certain words, particularly by those who strive to spin them in a certain way, being used to manipulate listeners, that I've decided that whenever I hear them, I'm not going to pay attention.

    Here's a few of these words:


    Whenever I hear someone say some event or condition is "diverse" I know that the user is attempting to claim the moral high ground in the interests of racial, sexual, social, political or personal bias. Diverse in this sense doesn't represent me, since I'm a white male, and therefore I must either accept my "place" as a rejected "Supremacist" or capitulate and accept my guilt with dignity and humility.


    Whenever I hear someone use this word, I know that some group or interest is attempting to seize power over an authorized or existing power. Since I'm a white male, I know that the "empowering" applies only to those Other categories, whether they're sexual, racial, social or political--i.e., those who may have felt they needed more power than they thought they already had. I know that I will be asked to cede power to these formerly unempowered interests, who are more deserving. These empowerments will typically be reparations for past injustices.    


    Whenever I hear the word "healing" I immediately get that sinking feeling, very like the feeling one has when one answers a knock at the front door, only to be confronted by purveyors of "Awake" or "Watchtower" pamphlets. Your first impulse is to shut the door in their faces, but it's difficult, because you don't want to offend. "Healing" in this sense has nothing to do with medicine, but is about formerly "injured" parties who now insist that in order for them (or us) to heal, society must change, or cede some space or object for their benefit, because they deserve it, having been so often, or so long, or so ruthlessly, injured, or deprived, or ignored. As a white male, I know that I've never really been injured or deprived or ignored in the way that matters. 


    Whenever I hear someone use this nearly universal word, I know what's coming. Since freedom in the purest sense is essentially meaningless, until defined and applied in context, it's completely denatured. The word freedom can belong to anyone, without its being soiled or spun out of control. Conservatives may use it to defend financial fraud, taxes, environmental devastation, private property, foreign invasions, lobbying, and corruption of all kinds--all in the name of freedom. Liberals (or "progressives") can use the word to stand for economic equality, sexual deviance, reverse discrimination, unionization, pornography, progressive taxation, etc. Whenever I hear the word "freedom" I reach for my wallet, to make sure it hasn't been stolen by a pickpocket. 


    The root meaning of vibrant is to oscillate at a certain frequency. A bee-hive oscillates, certainly, with the rhythmic buzzing of the bees moving their wings. City planners and their ilk have come to use the word over time to describe an urban or suburban context as possessing a kind of metaphoric "vibrancy" which they describe as favorable. A city that "buzzes" with traffic, though, probably isn't what they mean today. "Vibrancy"today means pedestrian traffic, ethnic diversity, small businesses, crowded districts, noise, confusion, and the music of exchange (perhaps not all necessarily monetary). If you like crowds of people and noise and "diverse" ethnic mixes, then vibrancy is probably something you cherish. If not, you may not consider yourself on the side of history, since vibrancy (like diversity) is usually opposed to the virtues white males may prefer, like order, convenience, beauty, openness, and familiarity. Personally, I don't like to oscillate (at least in public), or I prefer to do it in private, where it doesn't disturb others. I prefer to do my shopping where access is easy, and I know I can get what I'm looking for without unnecessary fuss. I don't want some stranger (or homeless person) vibrating too close to me, or some street vender vibrating to get my attention.

    So, whenever I hear any of these words on the radio, or the television, or in conversation, I immediately turn off, tune out, and take my leave, because I know what's coming, and I just don't want to hear it. 

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  • 07/30/18--06:44: Another Aperitif

  • Summer again, and time for cool accompaniments to relaxing late afternoons. 

    This one's composed entirely of liqueurs, with no "goods" as such. Which makes it purely an aperitif, in the European sense, suitable for college students and polite ladies, between homework sessions or shopping trips. It may be diluted as much as desired with effervescence, to vary its strength.

    1 shot Aperol
    1 shot grapefruit liqueur
    1/2 teaspoon creme de menthe
    1/2 teaspoon lime juice
    topped off with unsweetened carbonated lime water

    served over the rocks, with or without a garnish (orange or lemon or lime) probably in a tall glass

    I think you will like this one. 

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  • 09/10/18--17:19: Smooth landing

  • The recipe:

    3 parts select bourbon
    1 part Amaro
    1 part dry vermouth
    1 part B & B liqueur
    1 part fresh lemon juice

    poured over ice in any common tumbler 

    What is dryness in language?

    What is dryness on the palate?

    Wet versus dry.

    "You're all wet!"

    "How dry of you!"

    Lime is dry, and molasses is wet.

    Pope is dry, whilst Swinburne is wet.

    We could continue this little game for quite a while.

    Meanwhile, the ice is melting.

    The earth is warming.

    The girls are bored.

    The time's wasting.


    This is a concoction which begins dry, but "opens up" the way a good red wine may, as oxygen interacts with the complex molecules in the vintage. 

    Don't be put off by your first impression. First impressions can be deceiving.

    Deceit. Conceit. 

    "Don't be such a conceited sod!"

    And so I rest my case. 

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  • 10/30/18--09:18: Duet for Two Mixes

  • Here are two new inventions from the steel counter.

    When we built our house in 1991, I wanted a stainless steel counter. I didn't have anything specific in mind regarding kitchen activity, I had just always admired stainless steel counters, which were then beginning to be considered stylish, supplanting the white painted appliances, and later tile surfaces which were big in the 1960's and '70's. Each kind of surface has its pluses and minuses. Stainless steel is very easy to clean, and presents a high sheen. On the downside, it can't be mended (the way tile can), and over time, it will exhibit a soft cross-hatch of very tiny scratches. I suppose these last could be buffed to a new shine, but who would go to that trouble? 

    Neither wife nor I are serious chefs--though she's an inveterate collector of cookbooks--albeit we definitely are connoisseurs of good food and drink. Not sure how I got into the cocktail habit, but it's a pleasant hobby. People go to school to learn to be bartenders, but I doubt there's much to teach, beyond the basic ingredients, and a few memorized popular recipes. The social interactive part's probably as important as the "science"--making your customers feel at ease, unburdening their cares or just cheering them up. 

    I like the idea of inventing a concoction that the "professionals" mightn't have thought of (yet). Aquavit--the Scandinavian liquor--is largely neglected by bartenders, though to my mind (and palate), it's a perfectly distinct and cooperative ingredient. Its flavor ranges across caraway, cumin or fennel, which makes it quite unlike gin or vodka. 

    St. Germaine has become popular over the last decade. Not sure if it was used in previous times. Probably in Europe. 


    3 parts Tanqueray "10" gin
    1 part ginger liqueur
    1 part Cointreau
    1 part Linea aquavit
    1 part fresh lime juice

    Shaken and served up

    garnish lime wedge

    3 parts Irish whisky
    1.5 parts dry vermouth
    1 part St. Germaine liqueur
    1/2 part ginger liqueur
    1 part fresh lemon juice

    Shaken and served up

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  • 11/01/18--09:58: From the Gallery of Heroes

  • Willie McCovey died yesterday at age 80.

    As with all such events, it was another reminder of time passing. 

    Willie's death was not unexpected, since he'd been having health problems for several years, and hadn't been seen in public, out of a wheelchair, for a long time. 

    I can remember, as if it were yesterday, the excitement his arrival generated when he was called up by the Giants in 1959. That evening my Stepdad told me he'd gotten four hits (and I think two triples!) in that game, batting against Hall of Famer Robin Roberts. The balls he hit that day were all screeching line-drives.

    Willie's arrival that year created a dilemma for the Giants, since they already had an all-star first baseman in Orlando Cepeda, who'd won the Rookie of the Year Award just a year before. Neither player was a good outfielder, so it was clear that eventually, one of the two would eventually leave. After the 1965 season, the Giants traded Cepeda away to the Cardinals. It was a heart-breaking event. 

    McCovey had grown up in the deep South, in a big family. He was close to his Mother, and seemed kind of innocent. Hearing him speak in interviews with his high-pitched, aw-shucks manner, he sounded like a gentle Giant, all simplicity and devotion. And it was true, he was decent and humble about his gift, and never let it go to his head.  

    Willie's swing was a thing of beauty, uncoiling from a deep crouch, and whipping upward as he spun in place, ending with the bat pointed upward behind his back. With his huge 6'4" frame, he looked like some mythical figure from legend. At first base, he could stretch his whole long body out, which is where he got his nickname "Stretch."

    I saw Willie play near the end of his career at Candlestick Park, in 1978. He was no longer the star performer he'd once been. In the first inning, a Pirate batter hit a lazy ground ball just to his right, and he half-heartedly dipped down as it squirted underneath his glove. The crowd booed. But Willie's knees and hips were shot; he was literally playing on his last legs

    No one who saw him play in his prime would have questioned his greatness. He was a country boy who played his heart out. For eight years, between 1962 and 1970, he terrified National League pitchers. Unforgettable.  

    Bye-bye, Willie. 

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  • 11/27/18--10:18: Pedigree from a Prix Fixe

  • Bill Berkson's Since When [Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2018, 262pp.], as an analogue of his life, seems pretty much right on.

    It starts out with a fairly traditional straight "David Copperfield kind of" autobiographical account, beginning with his childhood, his parents--for about 40 pages--then devolves into a loose amalgam of anecdotes, portraits, isolated memories, essays, reports and odd bits. That fragmentation and disintegration of narrative says a lot about the life story of one of America's most interesting--and in many ways, illustrative--cultural witnesses: The transformation of class, the friction between and among diverging or converging groups, precincts, which characterized Bill's journey from a would-be patrician to a sophisticated artist and critic. 

    Because the book, though substantially "finished" by the time he died, appeared posthumously, it gives it an odd "behind the membrane" feel, as if Bill were speaking to us from beyond the curtain. And there is something conclusive and omniscient about it, as if it were about something that was already history. Bill's life and character had that quality, of a witness to event, personalities--always attentive, always recording. 

    New York for many people is the center of the universe, or at least the cultural nexus of the United States. People would migrate there, because it was where things happened, where careers were made, where the energy was. Bill's parents were part of that, having come to it from other parts of the country--the world they made, the world Bill grew up inside of. So that leaving that world, as Bill did, in his '30's, to come to California, represented a counter movement, perhaps in some sense a repudiation of the destiny the city represented. Though a native, who would never really be "away" in spirit, that was a distinct break.   

    Raised as an only child in a connected, well-to-do family--his father was the general manager of the Hearst International News Service, and his mother a professional promoter in the New York fashion world--he sidestepped the usual professions (business, the law, etc.) of his class, to become an avant garde poet and art critic, who moved seamlessly between and among groups and individuals of widely different backgrounds, never losing his center. This would probably only have been possible in New York, where the art and commerce were in such close proximity, one could assume a sort of incognito profile, lubricated with the native charm and good looks he'd been blessed with. This profile, nurtured on security and confidence and connections, would sustain him all his days.  

    I first met Bill in the mid-1970's. I had been loitering around in the back office of Peter Howard's small bookshop on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, when I noticed a blue folder of poems on a shelf. I picked it up, and discovered it was a typescript draft of Blue Is the Hero, Bill's selected early poems manuscript. I had read some of his poems in little magazines, and had been intrigued by his work, which seemed sophisticated and rich in ways I liked. Later, when I applied for a small publisher's grant, I listed this book as a possible project for publication. When I contacted Bill (in Bolinas), he quickly agreed to the idea. He had thought that Braziller might pick it up, but they hadn't. This led to an amicable relationship that went on for a couple of years, while the book was in the editing and printing stage(s). I visited Bill in Bolinas, and we corresponded a good deal. Afterwards, we stayed in touch over the years, first by mail, and then eventually by e.mail. As it turned out, he liked my work as well (writing a nice blurb for my collection Stanzas For An Evening Out); had I not self-published my early work, he might well have undertaken it. What was clear from the beginning, though, was that we moved in different circles, and it was unlikely, if not impossible, that we would ever really spend much time together. The first things I remarked about Bill were his appearance--sort of trusty American good looks--and his voluble charm. (The only odd things were his ears, which were widely set; and he was a southpaw.) He was a great reader of his own work, imparting almost an actor's skill in delivering his lines, in a natural speaking voice, devoid of the kind of monotone or nervously uncertain quality one often hears from writers and poets. I always had the feeling he was just "talking" his work, rather than reading it. 

    Because of his connected background, Bill had hobnobbed with famous people all his early life, and his orientation always included the social dimension. Larry Fagin's early "The Bill Berkson Story" --

    The Bill Berkson Story

    I discovered some bran macaroons, Sunshine
    You can buy in the supermarket, Finest,
    But they're Sunshine, which reminds me
    Of what Norman Winston said in the Hotel de Paris,
    Monte Carlo, at a party given by Elsa (Dinner) Maxwell,
    And I sat one person away from Noel Coward (I have a 
    Photograph). Garbo was there, too, and I was . . . it was
    Great. We had this very dog-faced (sad) waiter and
    Norman said "Do you have any macaroons?" The waiter
    Couldn't believe it. He called for the Maitre D'
    Who had a batch macaroons made up special, but it took
    1/2 hour (we had coffee). John Gunther was speaking.
    Norman built the shopping center where Larry Rivers' 
    Mural is hanging I think (out at Smithtown) and . . . 

    --is a funny, though somewhat exaggerated, take on Bill's elevated tone. The evocation of famous people--his parents routinely came into contact with familiar figures in entertainment, the arts, the theatre, fashion and sports--became a nostalgic diorama in his memory, and I've always thought that his work (like his life) was just poised between the social and aesthetic modes, balancing an awareness of the personal, with the ratiocination of the inner visionary eye--i.e., you couldn't focus on one without remembering the other. And his ability to do that, without awkwardness or pressure, I always admired. Behind all that, too, was the knowledge that Bill, unlike almost everyone else in the Bolinas scene, was financially secure, his father having provided for him in the form of an annuity before he died in 1959.     

    The fact of Bill's life--his self-transformation from a quasi-upper middle class heavy to a 'Twenties style underground bohemian--was a process he undertook deliberately, eyes wide open. You might have expected Bill to be a snob, but his interest in people and things was stronger than any insecurity (or haughtiness) his background may have implied. He became, as in the tradition of Mencken, an aristocrat of complex taste.  

    For a long time, it was hard to separate Bill from his connection to Frank O'Hara, particularly since, as the older poet's keeper of the flame after the fatal accident on Fire Island in 1966, he seemed preoccupied with that--or at least one's consciousness of that connection overshadowed the other things Bill was doing. He worked as a writing instructor, an editor (Big Sky), and eventually segued into serious art criticism and teaching. His relationship with O'Hara, though "Platonic" in its intimacy, for many years shaped his reputation as much as anything else he may have done. 

    Bill's work began in a kind of wholesome confusion, then became refined and somewhat focused. Then, in later age, he dove back into abstraction and became pretty scattered. Blue Is the Hero [1976] documents the first two stages, then, with Serenade [2000], everything gets very ambiguous and complex and frivolous (in my view). My favorite book is Lush Life [1984], the title taken from the great lyric single by Ellington. (If you listen to the chord changes in that piece, you have a good shorthand of Bill's character.  If that sounds mysterious, then so be it.) 

    The last chapter of Bill's life began with his lung transplant in 2004, after 40 years of heavy smoking. He'd thinned down, and his features had changed, from the "rugged" crust of middle-, to the more fragile ghostliness, of old age. I last saw him in person about 10 years ago, after this miraculous reemergence.  

    Since When is filled with his familiar voice--

    "That shock, shortly before my sixtieth birthday, of realizing that I had slipped over a line and had spent more than half my life in California, all the while maintaining my New York credentials . . . That natural habitat we carry in and around us is so telling."  

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    Regarding the smokey air from the so-called "Camp Fire" forest fire in Northern California in November 2018. 


    This may seem counter-intuitive, but I grew up in a house with a man who insisted on having a roaring fire
    in the fireplace, most Winter nights.

    The house routinely smelled like woodsmoke, and I suppose the "air quality" was probably not the best.

    I would be the last person to think that these fires are anything but a tragedy to the planet, and to humanity in general.

    But everyone going around wearing masks and saying "tsk tsk" has become more of a social cliché.

    The dangerous air part is clearly being over-stated, in my EVHO (ever so humble opinion). 

    The underlying narrative will ultimately involve determining the actual cause, which now appears to have been another PGE snafu. That's the real issue.

    My wife's boss lost his big home in Paradise--house, barn, entire contents. Everything. Someone needs to answer for that, and it may be that the utility crisis will devolve into local jurisdictions, since corporate oversight seems to have been completely abandoned by the Pee Genie.


    1 part Pisco
    1 part limoncello
    1/2 part lemon juice
    1/2 tablespoon amaretto

    Served over the rocks, and stirred.


    3 parts aquavit
    1 part cinnamon liqueur
    1/3 part creme de menthe
    1/3 part black Sambucco
    1 part fresh lime

    Shaken and served up with lime skin garnish.

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