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

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  • 07/12/13--07:52: Books Recently Read

  • One of the pleasures of being retired (sort of--I'm actually a "full-time" antiquarian bookseller, though I can organize my own time now in a way I never could have back in the day when I worked for wages) is that I can take leisurely lunches, either with other people, or alone. When lunching out alone, I always take a book, as I find this is the one time in the day that I can have an undivided hour or two to devote to a single task (between bites--I'm a multi-tasker). I don't see people do this much in this part of the country, though in Europe it's much more common to see people eating or drinking alone over a book. Perhaps Americans are too busy, or embarrassed to be thought idle in the afternoon.  

    I missed the boat with Christopher Hitchens, a lapsed British socialist who morphed into a naturalized American hawk, but retained many of his liberal biases, becoming in the process a notorious American media wonk, with regular appearances on TV political discussion venues, live debates, and panels, finding time between regular journalistic assignments to lecture and write books as well. A firmly entrenched agnostic, he liked nothing better than to puncture pieties and bland presumptions with a lively wit and a determined conviction. I became aware of him just at the point that he was beginning treatment for a terminal cancer that would shorten his life by a couple of decades. 

    I picked up his autobiography, Hitch 22, A Memoir, just to see what all the excitement was (or had been), and was pleasantly surprised at the honesty and analytical acumen he showed, obviously under the mood of the hour. The book is interesting for the minute detail furnished of the British Left political scene of the 1960's, when Hitchens, a budding labor activist, was beginning to find his political sea-legs. The book exudes multiple ironies, since the older man is judging the credulous younger self from a vantage distinctly more shrewd and seasoned. Anyone wanting to understand the conflicted position of the British intellectual against the backdrop of Cuba, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11--could learn a great deal from this book. I certainly did.       

    Christopher Hitchens in his youth

    My interest in Gertrude Stein dates all the way back to my 3rd year in graduate school, when I was casting about for a probable candidate for a thesis subject. That became moot when I decided not to pursue my Ph.D. in English. In those days, circa 1975, people in the academy didn't take Stein seriously. I stopped in one afternoon to talk briefly with Richard Bridgman, who was then teaching at UC Berkeley, and had written a long study, Gertrude Stein in Pieces (1970). Bridgman actually discouraged me from studying Stein, whom he said was a complex person but a thin writer whose work wouldn't repay my interest. Whatever my proclivities, it was obvious I wouldn't find a very welcoming audience for an extended investigation of the spurned lesbian Modernist at Cal. At least in the mid-70's.

    All that has changed in the intervening decades, of course. Many of the Modernist heroes of the immediate post-War period have been demoted, and Stein is now one of the still-standing ikons of the Modernist avant-garde. This sophisticated collection of essays and accounts is another indication of the respectful, almost shamelessly worshipful regard with which she and her work and interests are now viewed.  

    I've often wondered what I would have thought of Stein, had I been able to know her in her youth, before she had seen the path she would pursue as an adult. She seems to have known clearly, early on, that there would be no men (in the romantic sense) in her life. And she was serious about her studies, actively pursuing course-work with William James at Harvard (Radcliffe), focusing on motor automatism, an interest that leads directly into her later prose experiments in stream of consciousness, free association, and cubism in language. Possessed of an indomitable self-confidence and determination, she was able to insulate herself from the neglect and contempt that her early publications evoked, especially in America. She lived her life as if it were a work of art, and seems never to have had any serious doubts about what she should be doing.   

    It's a very short walk from Gertrude Stein to Stanley Karnow's memoir of Paris in the 1950's. Karnow, a journalist throughout that decade, later went on to write serious popular histories of Vietnam, the Philippines (Pulitzer Prize), and China. Rather than a cheap series of romanticized personal anecdotes, the book delves deeply into French history and culture, with sharp immediate bits of encounters Karnow remembered from those days. It was probably cheap, and relatively easy to live the bohemian existence in France during this period, but Karnow was a working journalist, who was obliged to dig for material that might interest an American audience. He covered a wide variety of material, which is what makes his account as eclectic and diverting as it is.

    When you live to a great age, like Karnow (aged 87), you acquire a perspective on events that authenticates the old adage about respecting your elders. In our fast-paced world, it's hard to see how people can become wise, since the terms we might use to measure our knowledge are changing as fast as events do. But people like journalists are in a crucial position to witness such transformations. Karnow saw WWII, Korea, the A Bomb, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to the French adventures in Algeria (and its own Vietnam). The last of the generation of the 1920's is now passing into history. The "lessons" of the Cold War are rapidly being forgotten, as our own "wisdom" is thrown up like detritus onto the ruined beach of our desires. 

    There have been many biographies of writers and artists of the 20th Century, but studies of Gay writers and artists had to wait until society was "ready" to know the truth of their private lives. Because E.M. ("Morgan") Forster's writing career had ended prematurely (he stopped publishing novels after A Passage to India in 1924 when he was 45, though he lived another 45 years), the meaning of his work and life tended to focus on issues and conflicts that he'd addressed in the distant past, when homosexuality was still literally a crime in England and in much of the rest of the civilized world. Wendy's Moffat's coolly impartial account addresses Forster's sexuality from a sympathetic vantage, and looks unflinchingly at his cautious, tentative gestures towards intimacy and sexual bonding, which now seem touchingly pathetic and even a bit naive. Having grown up a Victorian, he wasn't the sort to test boundaries casually, and having written a frankly homosexual narrative (Maurice, written in 1913-14, but not released until the year after his death), he decided not to publish it, postponing its publication until such time that society might be ready for it. That event clarified and altered not only the literary world's sense of Forster, but of the world in which he had lived. 

    I have always been an admirer of Forster's novels, but like a lot of his readers, I suspect, always was mystified by the long "silence" of his later years. A career like Forster's, in which a serious, committed writer abandons his craft after a string of competent triumphs, is rather more English than American. In America, we tend to view the writer's art as a continuous pursuit, as an enterprise that is never complete. That a writer might decide, with perfect justice, that he had said his piece, without further elaboration, seems alien to our native optimism and drive. But Forster's duty lay in the public realm, as he saw it. If he could neither live nor write with honesty about what most moved him emotionally, without hedging, there were other, more demanding tasks at hand, and he went about working on those instead, using his pen and his intelligence to campaign for openness and justice in public issues.              

    Homosexuality is also an issue for Evelyn Waugh, the British comic-satiric, and eventually Catholic, novelist, author of Brideshead Revisited. I took an interest in Waugh back in the 1970's, and systematically read all his earlier novels (Scoop, A Handful of Dust, Decline and Fall, Black Mischief, Vile Bodies, The Loved One), but I didn't read Brideshead until some years later, savoring it slowly like fine wine.

    Though its ostensible subject is Waugh, Humphrey Carpenter's The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and his Friends (1990), covers a great deal of ground, delving into the lives of dozens of Waugh's social connections, and documenting the world of undergraduate Oxford, London in the Twenties, British publishing, Catholic circles, foreign situations (Absynnia) etc. It's a wide-ranging account, and cannot be easily summarized.        

    What I found most intriguing, and useful, was the material on Waugh's failed marriage, his economic difficulties, and his spiritual journey towards Catholicism, involving a kind of rejection of the life he had led up to his mid-thirties, though by no means vacating his penetrating wit, jovial (and cutting) humor, or his mischievous sense of fun. As anyone who has looked into his life knows, Waugh became a kind of tyrant and foul-tempered old drunk in his later years, but when he wrote Brideshead, he was still capable of tenderness and a lilting nostalgia, which is what gives the book its lyrical and even romantic air. Though it is not a tragedy, it is like a long act of mourning, for a spent youth, a lost love (or two), and a world of upper class privilege ruined by the Depression years. It's the only work I can think of which compares favorably in style and substance to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Both books deal in fading glory, and what takes place is as if seen through rose-colored glass. I have no doubt that Waugh would have been at least difficult at any age. The close-knit little world he made for himself didn't admit of many intimacies, and most of his charm and intelligence seems to have been captured in his writing--luckily for us. If you want a snapshot of the grouchy old novelist, read the Paris ReviewInterview in The Art of Fiction No. 30 (1962) here online. Interviewed on the BBC at the nadir of his career in the early 1950's, it was remarked that it was like "the goading of a bull by matadors." At least he still had his horns.    

    In summary, I would recommend all these books as summer reading. As I get older, I find I like reading biographies and histories, which used to put me to sleep. One of my college professors believed that biography, and autobiography, were the greatest of literary forms. I would not have been inclined to agree with him then, and I wouldn't now. But I would now feel confident in saying that biography is the most accessible kind of analytic for character and conduct. Even when, as is often the case, it involves a manipulation of events and attitudes that conceals the real truth of what happened, and how one really felt, when one was young, uncertain, struggling, and concerned with how one would be perceived in an unfriendly world. 

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  • 07/17/13--07:40: What About Hoodies?

  • When I was a boy, growing up in the 1950's and 1960's, I owned a red sweatshirt with a hood. This wasn't called a "hoodie." It was a utilitarian article of clothing meant to be worn on very cold days, when just turning up your collar and wearing a hat wouldn't have sufficed to keep your neck and head warm. Jackets and coats with built-in (or attachable) hoods were a commonplace long before people began to think of hooded wear as a fashion statement. 

    In considering the meaning and effect of wearing certain kinds of clothing, it's best to remind ourselves that clothing is never a purely neutral--or purely utilitarian--statement. Every kind of clothing, from underpants and suspenders to pierced body jewelry and hoodies, is a fashion choice. This is not to say that much clothing worn by people around the world isn't primarily a response to necessity, or a simple lowest denominator of choice. But in Western cultural traditions, going all the way back to antiquity, the meaning and significance of what is worn, how it is worn, and what kinds of combinations and adornments are added, has constituted a form of taste and expression--personal, social and artistic. It's nearly impossible, in our epoch, to wear anything at all, without, in effect, making a statement about one's identity and background and so forth. Unintentional connotations are ubiquitous, but stereotypical fashion statements usually are easily recognizable as to source and basic meaning.

    A prostitute with a mini-skirt and skimpy top, heavily made-up, standing smoking on a street-corner in the city at midnight, can be expected to be recognized. An executive wearing a $4000 suit in downtown Manhattan on a Thursday afternoon can be expected to be recognized. A Catholic school girl in a wool plaid skirt and white blouse standing at a bus stop can be recognized for who and what she is. 

    Certain kinds of clothing become identified, through the evolution of fashion throughout the culture, with certain identities. Fashion trends may originate from anywhere. Fashion may be a way of defining class distinctions, or of reinforcing typical or marginal kinds of stereotypical identity typing. Certain kinds of fashion statements become familiar signals, intended to express a political or social message. Such messaging may have crucial purposes in certain contexts. 

    Among minorities, in America, certain kinds of fashion statements serve as badges of pride or flags of warning by users. Among African American men and youth, most heavily influenced by the facts of incarceration and crime in their communities, the uniforms of identity have moved towards an adoption of prison uniform styles, as both a kind of statement of macho "badness" and a protest against the imposition of a perceived prejudicial persecution in the typecast "white" culture generally. Low-rider pants, for instance, became adopted first in the African American ghettos, and then spread throughout the culture as a fashion statement. 

    Among youth, what's "cool" or "bad" may be adopted or incorporated into the culture as a form of adolescent rebellion, though only as a form of playful indulgence, since it's unlikely that most white American teenagers would adopt any of the associated identity behaviors that characterize ghetto youth or criminal types. It's the attraction of that aura of naughtiness, even of dark ambiguous threat, that appeals. The glorification of the criminal sub-type is a common cliché in our culture, going back to the wild west, the bootleggers and crime syndicates of the 1920's and 1930's, and continuing all the way up to the gangs and drug lords and Mafia underworld of our present day.

    Among the criminal sub-cultures of the African American and Hispanic communities in America, wearing a hoodie has become a de facto self-identifying uniform, associated with the criminality of disguise and "dark"anonymity. "I'm black, I'm covered up, you don't know me, you aren't going to know me, I'm dangerous, watch out for me, leave me alone, beware!" 

    We're all familiar now with the surveillance tape sequences of youths wearing hoodies holding up convenience and and liquor stores and pharmacies. The hoodie shields the wearer from identification, and thus serves as a disguise for the "hood" who's committing crimes in the "hood" (neighborhood). The root word hood thus becomes a heavily weighted signifier, filled with menace and threat and dark power. Vicarious borrowing of all these negative qualities is undoubtedly going on throughout the culture, but only under certain conditions, i.e., in urban streets after dark, it's the full expression of the hood culture at its most potent and dangerous. 

    Black teenagers and youths sporting the "hoodie" look thus become de facto emulators of the criminal sub-type familiar in their own communities. They are identifying with the dark side of their own culture, and ramifying its contextualized rebelliousness as a form of "bad" behavior, even if there is ambiguity in the equation. "I be bad" may be nothing more than playful mischief, but the associations are all frustratingly negative. If being "good" is corny, compromising and even ethically unattractive, the opposite can't be regarded as a positive choice. The persistence of the "bad" stream of African American culture--the stereotype of the macho black youth, violent, sexually aggressive and dominating, an outlaw "gangsta" filled with pent-up resentment, cruelty and bad vibes (a la hip-hop and rap)--does enormous harm not only to African American communities, but to the greater sphere of culture. 

    The Travon Martin killing in Florida has drawn public attention to the plight of African American youth and its preference for the trappings of the criminal sub-type. But this is not a new phenomenon. In African American sub-culture, calling a black man bad ("He be so bad!") has actually been seen as a kind of badge of iconic attractiveness. Whether conceived as another expression of the frustration of a suppressed minority, or as an attempt to erect a countervailing antithesis to the dominant cultural profiles, it leads only to bankrupt ideologies and futile demonstrations of destructive behavior--all the devastating effects of dependence, crime, neglect, self-hatred, smoldering unrest, violence, etc. 

    We live in a free country, and anyone is allowed to wear whatever their personal taste dictates, within the laws of decency. When an underground fashion statement spreads throughout the culture, it may or may not continue to carry its original associations. But there are degrees of taste, and context does matter. If you are a young African American male, wearing a dark sweatshirt with a hood is a symbolic act. 

    In Ralph Ellison's great novel, Invisible Man [1952], the protagonist-narrator passes through his life as a nameless entity, seeking an identity in the highly charged antagonistic world of pre-War Harlem. Today, we would probably regard the narrator as a naive, well-intended victim of racism, but much of Ellison's frustration is directed towards the corruption that besets the black community itself. Ellison's story is told from the inside out; what we see and know comes through the mind and eyes of an invisible man. In the end of the story, this invisible man believes that experience has taught him to honor his own priorities, and that he must not allow his obligations to both the white and the black to deter him from his own personal realization. 

    The central issue for many African American men is to find a place in the world that is not seen as a capitulation to exploitation and manipulation. As a metaphor for the invisibility of the black identity, the wearing of a hoodie is a perpetuation of the anonymous stereotypeAfrican American society must discipline itself, to reject the profile of a sullen, rude, lazy, flagrant, bullying, unkempt, menacing, kinky dark angel. Mimicking the trappings of the criminal look leads not only to the tragic consequence of being perceived as a loser, a dark angel fated to perpetual "badness," but keeps alive the lie that a pathetic rebelliousness can be an honorable alternative to joining the larger society. 

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  • 07/19/13--07:41: The GOT Virus

  • American speech is lively, but it tends towards fewer words, and slangy abbreviation. 

    We should celebrate our language, and indulge it. We don't know how lucky we are to have inherited it from our European ancestors. 

    There are many who now believe that we may be in the earliest stages of the decline of English as the lingua franca of the world. Some believe that Spanish, or Chinese, may one day become our national language. 

    What a pity that would be. I don't have a dog in the fight, as they say, since I don't have any descendants, though I still may enjoy my "native language" for the few remaining years of my existence. 

    In the meantime, there are the sins of the fathers, and the general distress of our vulgar tongue, ubiquitous throughout the culture.

    I was not surprised to learn that I'm not the only one fed up with over-use of the verb to get. Someone named Stephen Wilbers has a page devoted to this problem here. As Mr. Wilbers notes, get (and got) are honorable trusty Anglo-Saxon words (from the old Norse), which we would not wish to see banished to the obscurity of un-use.

    There are variant related forms from other Indo-European languages, but geta (to obtain, reach) from the Germanic old Swedish getan (to guess or to try to get) seems the clearest root. Old English only had get in compound form, i.e., begietan (to beget) and forgietan (to forget). The proliferation of applications fills up 29 columns in the OED 2nd edition. 

    Get and got have become so widespread in our speech that they threaten to become almost as common as articles and conjunctions. 

    Among the several uses of to get are

    --to obtain
    --to go after
    --to arrive at
    --to be subjected to
    --to receive
    --to learn
    --to find
    --to perceive
    --to cause to occur
    --to take
    --to overcome
    --to evoke
    --to take
    --to annoy
    --to take revenge
    --to become or grow
    --to possess
    --to depart
    --to conceive or bear (children)

    --but of course this barely scratches the surface, since the compound forms are at least as common today, and show little sign of decrease, i.e., to get down (to lose one's inhibition or enjoy oneself wholeheartedly), or get by, or get off, or get to cracking, or get even, or get away (with), or get it on, or gotcha, etc.  

    As powerful as the word get has become, there is a danger that too many applications may supplant more efficient and accurate words. Its overuse may facilitate the winnowing down of vocabulary--never a good thing in my view.

    I've got to get going; if I don't get with it I'm going to get behind. You get me? You got me there. 

    Just for the sake of variety, I wish people would simply say I have (instead of I've got), or I've become (instead of I'm getting or I've gotten). The tendency towards slang is a generative function in the language. The cutting edge of the genius of a people often occurs through the use of short-cuts and novel inventions. But in our relentless consumer culture, people may become so lazy that they simply abandon many useful and accurate descriptives and verbs. The less often people use words, the more obscure they become. Words may sicken and even die from neglect. 

    Ever since junior high school, I've kept a copy of Roget's Thesaurus at my side. Since the advent of the computer revolution, I've tended to use online versions in place of the material text--and of dictionaries too--but the principle of use is the same. If you want to improve your speaking or writing skills, it helps to elaborate your speech or writings with different words, to put a little different spin on things, or to employ more accurate words. 

    When I was in public school, speaking well was regarded as the province of eggheads. Talk filled with slang and neologisms was thought to be cool and neat. I can recall the first time I heard my son say "awesome" and "tubular" and "Hell-of-live." Cute or ingenious new words and usages may make you feel out of date, or just irritable. Or you may see them as interesting new mintings, bright new pennies that shine with optimistic utility. Or they may seem like fool's gold. 

    This evening the Giants begin the second half of the new season against the Diamonbacks. Here's hoping that Buster or Hunter goes yard, and that Chad Gaudin shuts'em down.       

    Gotta get to work now. See ya'.    

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    The Hispano-Suiza was one of the most stylish automobiles of the golden age of automotive design. One of the original automobile manufacturers (from 1898-1904), the company spearheaded engineering innovation, and branched out quickly into aeronautics with prop-engine manufacturing, begun in Barcelona, branching out in France (and even Argentina). The Hispano-Suiza, for instance, was the first to unite the engine block with the crankcase, permitting the development of the modern single cast engine block.    

    In the 1920's and 1930's, the big Hispanos were famous not only for their power, but for their elegant and streamlined construction. The futuristic example below was a concept car intended primarily as an attention-getter for the marquee, something it accomplished for posterity, after being set aside during the war years following the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Imagine what it might have been like to drive one of these rockets down the boulevard in 1933! It's so sleek it could pass for a contemporary design in 2013.   

    1933 Hispano-Suiza Xenia Coupe

    In the spirt of such elegance, I dedicate the following cocktail recipe to the memory of the classic Hispano-Suiza, a vestige of the dream of speed and grace of the industrial revolution in its salad days. The flavor has all the dignified, sensual, sophisticated seductiveness of the fashionable Twenties. In 1933, designers were probably thinking more nostalgically of the pre-crash prosperity than towards any utopian future.

    The automobile was once the harbinger of human ingenuity, and an expression of our romance with the wheel, and of the convenience and excitement of movement, the very spirit of freedom. It could still be today, if we weren't so preoccupied with the depletion of the resources needed to feed the rapacity of an ever-mushrooming population of consumers. The Hispano-Suiza is a symbol of a time when the world was young, before it became cynically suspicious of fun and luxury. 

    This one may be better swirled than shaken, given its rich ingredients, but it still wants to be very cold. As usual, the ingredients are by proportion (this makes two drinks). This one may look a bit uncomfortably like crankcase oil, but sometimes you have to take your medicine like a man. People who like drinks that "look nice" probably don't have much discrimination. A lot of things men and women do--especially with each other--aren't particularly "nice" but are still quite a lot of fun. This is certainly one of them.    

    3/4 parts Famous Grouse scotch
    2 parts French calvados brandy
    1 part Parfait d'Amour
    1 part Patron Cafe Dark
    1 part fresh lemon juice

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  • 07/28/13--19:22: Creepy Corkscrews

  • I came across a delightful little compendium recently, published in France (and in French), about the history and design of corkscrews. Leave it to the French, where wine is king, to focus on the tools of this trade, since the removal of corks from wine bottles is something that is performed all over France (and the world), millions of times every day. Its title in English would be Folies of Corkscrews, or Madness of Corkscrews, or Silliness of Corkscrews. (Folie is difficult to translate into English; in its English incarnation folly it can mean waywardness, wickedness, lewdness, foolishness, costliness, whimsicality, uselessness, prankishness, etc. In my mind, all these qualities are contained inside the French folie, echoes of which I "hear" in the title of this book. 

    The history of the use of cork (literally the bark of a tree, which traditionally has been harvested in Spain) parallels the invention of the corkscrew.  Wikipedia traces its origin to the appearance of a description from 1681. Referred to as a "steel worm" it began apparently as no more than a modified drill-bit, and became more sophisticated as time wore on. The interesting side of the evolution took place on the handle part of the tool, and this little novelty volume is largely devoted to the multiplicity of designs that people have devised down through the centuries. On the technical side, the only major design innovation was the invention of the so-called "twin prong" cork puller, shown here--

    --which, rather than being screwed into the center of the cork, functions by sliding its two long thin metal strips down opposite sides. Pulling on the handle--for reasons that are not clear to me--causes these strips to tighten around the sides of the cork, which comes up, usually more easily and with less force, than with the traditional corkscrew. (Its drawback is that it isn't always easily pushed in.) I don't know how popular the twin prong model is these days. For myself, I prefer the "wing corkscrew" (or "Italian" design shown here)--

    --which, perhaps because of its seating ring at the base, provides a much firmer grip on the bottle head, allowing one to lever up the cork from its snug fit with little side bias. There have been some pretty weird shapes devised over the years, which depart radically from the practical, functional shapes seen here--

    Elegance would be expressed in any aspect of life, and in the days when royalty prevailed, the most ornate and ostentatious kinds of elaborate carvings and novelty adaptations were done.

    As these light-hearted examples show, designers were beginning by the turn of the last century to employ "naughty" ideas--perhaps in sympathy with the negative association of alcohol (and drinking) with bad behavior (or the dissolute evils of drink).

    Any appendage one could imagine began to be incorporated into the design motif--

    A little Scottie dog's tail might inspire one designer, whereas--

    --another might be moved to these awfully frank and scatological versions. 

    Though these lewd little examples might be well beyond the limits of good taste, I find them absurdly innocent and funny nonetheless--

    One like this (below), would probably fit nicely into our sense of the Gay Nineties--of Parisian dancers kicking up the Can-Can and showing a good bit of petticoat and stocking-garters--  

    --which might conjure up bustles and bodices and whalebone stays!

    These sturdy designs suggest for me a kind of Anglo-Saxon quality which I find manly and forthright. Long live the King and his labyrinthine wine cellars!   

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    Let's begin by saying that I don't disagree with what Henry Gould has said on his blog HG POETICS on July 26, 2013. There's an implied definition of conceptual art which I won't disagree with, since it serves as a pretextual platform for the points I want to make.

    The breakdown in the traditional artistic sensibility which occurred during the years surrounding World War I produced a crisis in Western culture, the effects of which continue to be felt today. I'd like to take two obvious examples, and try to present them in terms of the birth of conceptualism, which I see as a component of Modernism.

    Eliot's The Waste Land, and Duchamp's early Readymades, each signaled an armature of reaction to traditional approaches to respective crafts of artistic production. 

    Eliot's Waste Land "borrows" language and situations from earlier literatures and languages, and puts them "on exhibit" as peculiar manifestations of cultural data; there's a passivity about that that is masked by Eliot's considerable genius, his skill to make a collection of fragmentary "movements" or sections to produce an overall effect that is much more powerful than its parts. These fragments ape specific modes of lyrical or meditative tropes as specimens of out-moded (defunct) sensibility. As his career progressed, Eliot found more convenient forms to express his growing philosophical and religious certainties, but at the earliest stages of his artistic life, he used a kind of conceptual approach to form and subject matter which allowed him to portray feelings and actions as specimens of certain kinds of representation. In other words, he was able to treat his material from the outside. In the simplest sense, this constituted a sort of objectivity which permitted him to keep an ironic distance from his artistic materials.   

    Duchamp's abandonment of painting, and his subsequent series of transgressive assaults on official artistic canons, has traditionally been regarded as a repudiation of the materials of artistic production, and of the cliché-ridden formalities of craft and subject matter. Ostensibly, he no longer felt the urge to participate in the continuing production of framed scenes, and the framing metaphor included not just the literal wooden frame around the canvas, but the salons and galleries and museums and guilds and societies and critical milieu through which such productions were viewed and interpreted. There is a dryness, a diffident removal in Duchamp's position with respect to the history of art.  

    These departures were variously regarded over the intervening years as symptoms of cultural exhaustion, or as camp, or spoofing demonstrations of mischief. Surrealism, too, which followed closely on the heels of these works, depended to a large degree on just this transgressive mode of forbidden, disruptive contrariness.    

    Conceptual art involves, first, seeing straightforward artistic products as things, from the outside, and describes them in terms of the typical, predominant qualities or formal attributes which they exhibit--consciously or unconsciously. It treats traditional art as a worn-out, old-fashioned, amusing game, played by rules which either no longer apply, or which do not accommodate newer realities or ways of approaching the game. Indeed, the whole concept of an avant garde, is based on a progressive view of history--and of the history of art--in which successive revisions or revelations follow one upon the other in chronological order(s), each more advanced or modern than the last. One could say with some justice that a conceptual view of art, at any point in history, is a reprocessing and a criticism of existing modes. All art which purports to express anything new or challenging is almost by definition conceptual, at least in its earliest stages. 

    A traditional artistic endeavor involves expressing a sensibility from inside an existing tradition of form and reception. It takes as a given certain presumptions about the relationship between maker, object and audience. In this traditional sense, a lyric poet's function is to create a verbal music which expresses the author's feelings or thoughts about life, or the world, or other relationships, in such a way that it rises to a level of measurable intensity or formal perfection, which is measured against the existing aspirations which precede it. An legitimate artist's function is to portray something in the world in such a way as to evoke feelings or reactions in the view that credit his skill or insight at recreating or reinterpreting phenomena; and in the case of art, to establish a value which inheres or coheres in the physical art object itself.  

    A poet like Jack Gilbert, or Robert Bly, or W.S. Merwin writes from within a tradition of address and syntactic occasion which is agreed-upon beforehand in the context of a given audience. Their function is to "communicate" feelings and thoughts along a predictable range of objects, or emotions, which are delivered to their readers through a given set of typical organs of exchange--journals, books, readings, recordings. 

    A writer or artist who wishes to challenge the system of values or behaviors or modes of transmission upon which these writers depend, may be attempting to repudiate, or alter, or augment those existing media and presumptions. 

    No writer or artists exists, or produces, in a vacuum. So it may be possible to say that any work of art, no matter how disruptive or negative in its intent, is always to some degree, a mediation on history (or the history of art or literature), or as it were, in a conversation (or dialogue) with existing modes of expression. 

    If some conceptual art appears to lack certain of the qualities of specific feeling and deliberate gravity which earlier modes of writing or artifacts contained, it does not follow that conceptual art is by definition less committed to the purposes of art; indeed, it may seek to redefine, or expand the possible uses and meanings of art into areas that had not been explored or considered before. 

    Finally, the interest afforded by certain conceptual artistic endeavors, does not in itself imply that the kinds of formalities it ignores, or differs from, are necessarily inferior, or passé. We are always on the threshold of the unknown, and no one can predict with any certainty what kinds of art or literature may alter our view of what is typical, useful, valuable, or lasting. 

    Does the pursuit of new, conceptual formalities discredit or tend to suppress the traditional qualities of art and literature--imaginative responses to reality; or visual, oral, tactile effects--preferring a "technical" analysis and solution to problems which should not be addressed in this way. 

    All art is technical. To see how others may approach the problem(s) of formal exploration, one must begin from outside the progression of history. Sensibility--the specific and eccentric combination of thought and feeling within any individual's mind and being--is not a constant quantity which can be separated from its means. No one can ever write Keats's poems again. Or Coleridge's. 

    Would it be possible to write a poetry or paint a picture unconsciously?--living within the dream of language or within the known colors and shapes of our reality? Possibly. But we cannot not know what we know. Conceptualism is like the riddle of the Sphinx: if we knew what the question was, we wouldn't have to ask.  

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  • 07/31/13--10:17: Time is a Wedge

  • Time

    is a wedge

    expanding outward

    from a blade

    of velocity--


    of error

    rolling off the

    leading edge of


    like fractal

    equations, un-

    daunted by




    across an

    expanse of


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  • 08/02/13--11:47: How We Know What We Know

  • NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland

    Disclosures this week, following the initial one by Edward Snowden two months ago, that the NSA had been engaged in gathering not only the so-called "meta" data regarding phone calls in the U.S. and abroad, but also sweeping up internet browsing and e.mail exchange data, initiated as part of the Homeland Security legislation designed to prevent acts of terror or espionage or subversion of other kinds against our national interest or security, has led to calls for a review of these and other programs. 

    In our system of government, elective offices are held temporarily, limited to terms and numbers of terms. Only judges terms are unlimited, though certain executive agencies and military hierarchies, which wield considerable power and influence, may achieve a kind of continuity through open-ended careers. But the alternation of partisanship, and the interrupting aspect of changing administrations, tends to guarantee that no one group or individual or faction can maintain control over power, or use the power of government to further its agenda indefinitely. 

    Another way of expressing this alternating system, is that it results in a kind of "spoils" system of control and appointment. In other words, though departments and agencies have specific mandates and programs intended to realize their intended purpose, politics does enter into the actual operational affairs of many of them. How policy is carried out, for instance, in federal agencies, is heavily affected by the present office-holders in Congress and the Executive Branches. This is a kind of unofficial dessert for winners, an additional benefit added to the actual powers authorized by any specific office. The President, for instance, can direct the policies of the Pentagon, or of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, even though that isn't in the written law. 

    We tend to think the military and intelligence services are subject to the requirements and needs of any particular time. But part of the gathering readiness and preparation involved in keeping up with the national interest, is a continuing effort to provide information and speculation about the future. 

    We've tended to believe that one way to protect the American Homeland is to throw out wide, inclusive nets of surveillance, in order to intercept suspicious communications that would tip us off about impending plots or conspiracies. These might have value in real time by allowing us to prevent them from happening. The U.S. citizenry has tended to believe in the good intentions of our watch-dog agencies--the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA--to restrict their efforts to the most productive kinds of surveillance, i.e., those most likely to bear fruit. 

    But one of the potential sources of useful information in any such program is the evidence of the past. If, for instance, one wanted to gather data about a particular group or individual, it would be helpful to know whom they had called, or e.mailed, or where they had traveled, whom they had visited, and so forth. Without knowing for certain who might end up committing a terrorist act, it would be useful to have had a databank which contained this kind of private communication, gathered before anyone had ever known what would eventually happen. 

    Initially, it might be reasonable to believe that gathering detailed electronic information on wide swaths of the population--both here and abroad--might be a potentially useful, and otherwise harmless kind of enterprise. But history has shown that agencies such as the FBI, and the CIA, can often be manipulated toward political ends by partisan administrations, or even factions within such agencies, to further narrow political purposes and interests. Domestic spying on union officials, media and news organizations, organized crime suspects, student dissident groups, extremist political groups, celebrities, and even political opponents, has taken place repeatedly. 

    A supposedly "harmless" bank of data--like that which we now know has been gathered by the NSA under the national security badge--could be used by a partisan administration seeking to exploit the private communications of political opponents. Unlawful search and seizure of American citizens is specifically restricted in the Constitution. Only with specific warrants and justifications of reasonable suspicion or actual evidence of wrong-doing, is such surveillance to be conducted.

    But now it appears that not only is such surveillance taking place without judicial or Congressional oversight, the extent of it appears nearly universal in its breadth. Virtually all the phone calls and internet communications occurring in our nation are being intercepted, and archived, for possible future access and reference. Though it is clearly not possible to conduct an actual review of this enormous bank of data, its availability would suggest that it could be sorted and indexed in such a way to search it  according to protocols of any specific nature. 

    What this means is that if you or I speak to each other on the phone, or have an e.mail exchange, what we say and communicate to each other goes into a permanent file, which, though it is not yet "personal" or specific, could become a part of such a file or investigation, at a later date. Aside from the fact of its possible, illegal, use in criminal investigations or trials, there is an immediate and total unauthorized loss of privacy. If all the calls and exchanges on the web are being intercepted and saved, the phone company and the internet service providers have in effect become the arm of our secret police, whose desire for ever-increasing mountains of rich data is eroding the sacredness of our personal lives. 

    Edward Snowden may be a deluded hacker who had dreams of glory, but the underside of the world he has exposed, the value of this disclosure--is worth more than any possible loss of our official secrets. I suppose from a legalistic standpoint, Snowden can't simply be regarded as a whistle-blower, and he should, by rights, take the heat for what he has done. But from a larger perspective, we needed to know what he revealed.  

    Sometimes, in public affairs, the value of the revelations trumps the means by which such disclosures have come to light. This seems to be one of those times. 

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  • 08/05/13--18:20: If I Was a Rich Man [Part I]

  • "If I was a rich man," sang Zero Mostel on Broadway, and later, Topol, as Tevye, the sad and prideful Jewish village-man from Fiddler on the  Roof, based on Sholem Aleichem's [1859-1916] Tevye and His Daughters [1949].  

    The popularity of this song, I've always felt, is due in no small part to the essential fantasy which it expresses, a fantasy which no sensible man in any civilized country in the world has failed to experience. 

    As a boy, I remember a game we used to play, which was, to wit: What would you do if you had a million dollars? 

    Of course, today, that million dollars, in today's dollars, would need to be $100,000,000 to be a fair representation of the potential power of the money we fantasized about as children (in the 1950's).

    As an exercise, let's pretend for a moment that fate had granted us $100,000,000, either via a lottery win, or by some similar vagary.

    I think I know how it would affect my life, what I would do with it, and--just for fun--I'll think about all the things I've been denied by the limitation of my financial station. Who knows how much we reveal in our most secret desires? Is it what we fear, or desire, or despise--that most defines what our character is made of? 

    Money is the root of all evil, the saying goes, and money can't buy happiness, but it can be a powerful tool for good or ill. Put to good use, money can change the world. Money is the currency of power, the coin of consequence. But it isn't happiness that I think of when I think of great wealth. I think of opportunity, of freedom, of the expression of my feeling and thought.

    I must confess that I am a materialist. Material goods and rewards do matter to me, though I find that I am able to deflect my disappointment on occasion when something I want is well beyond my reach.

    The things I've wanted in my adult life may seem common enough, but the combination seems to me to have a degree of uniqueness that defines my character. People are described by their desires, and I'm no exception. 

    When I was a child--an only child, actually, for 13 years, before my brother Clark was born--my parents harped endlessly about my selfishness, a character flaw they themselves had fostered in me, but which they unfailingly believed I should feel guilty about. "Here, have another cookie, you selfish little brat!"

    As a child, I was warned not to covet the possessions of others, and never to steal. I was encouraged to be generous; but charitableness was something that wasn't given much credence in our household. "God helps those who help themselves," was the watchword of my childhood. Take care of your own, and don't ask favors. 

    Still, it's a fun game, regardless of one's station in life, to imagine what, released from the limitations imposed by a normal, mostly unprosperous life, you would choose to possess, or to experience, or to bring about through access to wealth. 

    The primary decisions in life are often made for us, since we can't choose our parents, or our relatives, or our siblings. We can't choose where we're brought up, or what schools we go to. Those decisions are made for us. And of course, there are all the trappings of culture, ethnic tradition, and class distinction which are the givens of one's fate, at least in our childhood and youth. As we grow older, we may aspire to more freedom of choice, but even that is certainly a culturally determined tendency.

    But the rules of this game don't require that we be faithful to our received traditions. If only is a game anyone can play.

    Then, without further ado, let's find out what I would do with my entirely unforeseen and unlimited access to wealth!       

    Where to live?

    If cost were no object, and no duty were required of me except my own enjoyment, I should probably choose not to live in just one place, but several. One of the great freedoms of royalty and the rich, throughout history, has been opportunity to maintain separate residences in different climates or countries (or regions). To live sometime in the city, and some in the country. To live some times in warm climates, and spend some time in moderate ones. To move with the seasons, as some animals (and birds) do. To move to pursue certain pastimes, such as hunting for sport. These are the prerogatives of leisure, because leisure is what allows one to contemplate and speculate about alternatives, or even alternate lives. We can only live one life, but it may be possible to live different styles of life, to appreciate and sample different kinds of existence. Freedom from duty may be no freedom at all, unless one appreciates the things that freedom can offer. One has a duty first to oneself, unless some form of selflessness rules your spirit. 

    I've come to covet our "Mediterranean climate" here in California. I dislike long cold winters, and the unrelieved heat of the Northeast and Midwest and South and Southwest in summer. If I were to consider living anywhere else, it would be a seasonal occupation, not a permanent one. What I will say is that the one factor which dictates my comfort is to live in a drier climate. After three seasons in the Midwest (year-round), I determined never to be caught in a place where there was high humidity; heat can be bearable, as long as it isn't humid heat!

    How about Europe? Lots of Americans have vacation residences in France, or Italy, or Greece, or Great Britain. I think if I had to choose, I'd have a base of operations in a Berkeley brown-shingle east of the University, and perhaps a vacation home in the south of France. Designing a home has always been a secret wish, and I got to experience part of that dream when we worked with an architectural firm to build the house we did in 1991, where we still live. But getting to live, say, in a Maybeck house, would be just about the best. We could rent vacation places in New England, or in New Mexico, or New Orleans, or Aix in France, so there'd be no necessity to own places in all those locations. I suppose that modesty of ambition is a reflection of my satisfaction with the destiny I've been given. I grew up in the Napa Valley, and I must admit that there some very attractive places to live there, along the east and west sides of the valley, but I need to be a bit nearer to the cultural centers. The quiet life is fine, but only for short stretches. I'd love to visit London and New York and Paris and Venice, but no need to spend more than a couple of weeks at any one of these places at a time. One wants the ease of movement of the country without the congestion and bustle of the city. Close enough to visit, without having to suffer the consequences. 

    Pictures of a recent Maybeck house that came on the real estate market

    What to drive?

    I've always coveted the Morgan. There's really no question, it's a "toy car" built for the pleasure of the driver only. And at about $135,000 a copy at present, it's not a cheap proposition. But its storied history, and its abiding commitment to the tradition of its basic design, and its attention to fine detail, has always evoked a romantic response in me. I've never been much interested in the engineering side of automobiles, but I like the performance and ease and lively style a hand-crafted car offers. You'd have to garage this baby, and confine your use of it to purely recreational uses, since it's a prime target for vandals and thieves. And you'd want a good, reliable mechanic to keep it purring. (I still own, by the way, a candy red 1973 Alpha Romeo Spider convertible, which has been in mothballs in the garage for 30 years. God knows if I'll ever bring it out and have it reconditioned. Probably not. It shames me to think of it.) 

       A current model Morgan convertible

    From a practical point of view, I suppose I'd want a car that was roomy and unpretentious, for errands or just going to the opera or out to eat or to browse the bookstores. I'm not a great fan of luxury sedans, and the standard models--from Mercedes or BMW or Aston-Martin, even the legendary Rolls--always seem a bit cramped to me. I suppose a British Rover would do the trick, though there is a social inertia against them around here--they're regarded as examples of ostentatious bourgeois pretension. 

    What about other material goods?

    I wouldn't mind a closet-full of handmade shoes. When we visited London, I ambled in John Lobb's shop, and inquired casually how much a bespoke pair (with lasts on file) might run me. This was in the late 1990's, and they said then about L2500. Today I see that John Lobb shoes, pre-made, can be had at "better shops" in Europe and America, but the styles seem unoriginal and not particularly distinctive. 

    I have very large feet (size 15) so finding decent looking footwear has always been a challenge for me. I also have always admired the Victorian style of shoes for me--that is shoes where the sole is unobtrusive, and not pointed (but rounded). A rounded toe doesn't squeeze your toes, and since I possess what are unceremoniously referred to as "duck feet" this is what I seek. This example happen to be of Italian design, and may be a bit narrow in the toe, but it begins to approximate what I like in a shoe--understated, sleek, and not "blocky," but with a more rounded toe. A shoe that is so well made and comfortable, that you hardly notice you're wearing it. 

    Once upon a time, owning nice suits was something I thought worthwhile, but suits are for people who need or desire to move in formal circles, and formality is a discipline and duty which to me no longer signify the freedom of true wealth. Bankers and lawyers and stock brokers and diplomats and legislators and corporate officers have to wear suits, so it's less of choice than a requirement, and requirements aren't freedom. Back in the 1980's, I used to have my slacks and sport coats and shirts made to order, and it certainly helped my image at work. But when I left wage-earning employment, it seemed to take the steam out of dressing up. Today, I get to wear pretty much what I like, and comfort plays a much larger part of what I do now than it did in those days. I still like plaited trousers, but Mephisto sandals are now my footwear of choice, and loose shirts that I don't have to tuck in if I don't want to. And ties--I still have about 200 ties, many of the Scottish clan variety. They were fun, but a nuisance to tie every morning. I'm happy to be free of them, as they sit unused in my closet.

    Along with my Maybeck house, I'd love to have a fine rose garden, though I doubt I'd find the time to care adequately for it. That would mean hiring a regular gardener. I've never liked the idea of servants. My wife grew up in a family that had a regular house servant, but that was "more trouble than it was worth" unless you absolutely can't find time even to wash the dishes or make the bed. To be able to walk in the garden in the morning or late afternoon, or even to sit and read in one, is one of life's chief pleasures.   

    Let's see, then. I'm no fan of motorcycles or boats or planes, thank you very much. I don't require a luxury box at the local pro football or baseball stadium. I practice enough armchair athleticism already. 

    I think I should like to have a fully-stocked professional cocktail bar at my disposal, with a wine-cellar broad enough in its range of selection to satisfy any food pairing. Would I want own my own winery, or my own wine label? I think not; that's a profession more than a pastime or an avocation. My own tastes run to fine books, but owning things like books permanently is no more than responsible stewardship, since we're all just custodians in the end. I might find it amusing to own a few of the rarest modern first editions, like jacketed copies of The Great Gatsby, or The Maltese Falcon, or a signed Catcher in the Rye. But once you've had things like this, there isn't much you can do with them. Unlike paintings, which you can put on the wall and look at regularly, it's difficult to imagine you'll be reading your favorite literary possessions repeatedly, instead of just picking them up and handling them. A couple of nice Morandi etchings would be nice in the study, perhaps a small Durer. But great paintings belong in museums, not in private homes where they're like rumors or memories of lost gold. 

    Things. What are things really worth? It begs the question. We can savor and celebrate them and bask in their presence, but we can't take permanent care of them. No matter how much love we may lavish on objects, in the end we're never more than temporary custodians of things. It was reported that Bing Crosby always insisted that he never wear the same pair of socks twice, always a new pair. I think his "used" ones got donated to charities, which brings me to my next category: philanthropy.

    Since I no longer believe in public (governmental) support of the arts, private philanthropy, or support of the arts or research or education is important to my world view. For a long time, I've thought that if I had the means, I'd want to create a private scholarship fund for students in the humanities--but not for the new wave of cultural studies. I think I'd most want to encourage students of traditional classic literature (Greek and Roman), which once formed the basic curriculum of the British university system in the humanities. I was an English major in college, so supporting studies in literature, history and creative writing would be high on my list of preferences. I wouldn't want it put in my name, either. I'd want it to be "anonymous" so the beneficiaries wouldn't personify their benefactor. Grants, say, for 2-3 years, to support a graduate degree program proposal for a deserving applicant. 


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    We've known for a while that hi-tech companies have been offshoring production facilities, where cheap labor, lax safety and tough anti-union conditions prevail. What's become apparent lately is that these same tech companies have begun to exploit the foreign student visa program, known as H-1B, in order to push wage-costs down.

    You would have thought that with all the riches generated by the computer revolution, there'd be enough money to reward American college graduates in computer engineering fields with decent jobs. But you'd have been wrong. 

    In the U.S. Congress, interest groups and industry advocates have been busy lobbying Senators and Representatives to pass new immigration policies designed to grant amnesty to the 11 million illegal aliens, and to expand the number of H-1B visa quotas 300%.

    Tech companies have been crying for more foreign workers, claiming that there aren't enough American entry-level applicants to fill their needs. But the evidence contradicts this claim.

    It's important to understand that folks like Mark Zuckerberg, another one of your scatterbrained, but ambitious software wizards, couldn't give a fig about the overall problems that uncontrolled immigration brings. He's out to get more cheap tech labor, and the H-1B visa program is the tool.

    In an editorial for the Washington Post, the chief of Facebook laid out his rationale for (a bipartisan political advocacy group aimed at changing the U.S. economy through legislative reform in areas like immigration, education and scientific research), discussing the country’s shift from a natural resources-based economy to one he calls a “knowledge economy,” or an ideas-based one.

    In this new economy, he says, “we need the most talented and hardest-working people. We need to train and attract the best.” To that end, Mr. Zuckerberg highlighted three priorities for his group: comprehensive immigration reform that provides a clear path to citizenship; education reform to press for higher standards in schools and a “much greater focus” on math and sciences; and increased investment for scientific research.

    “We will work with members of Congress from both parties, the administration and state and local officials,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. We will use online and offline advocacy tools to build support for policy changes, and we will strongly support those willing to take the tough stands necessary to promote these policies in Washington.”

    The group is supported by more than two dozen prominent technology leaders, including a circle of 11 founders made up of Mr. Zuckerberg and Joe Green, Mr. Zuckerberg’s former Harvard University roommate who will now serve as president of

    Silicon Valley going to bed with immigrant rights folks may seem an unlikely alliance, but pragmatism can create queer ambiguities in the fast-moving world of political alliances. Rich computer corporations using the Mexican immigrant rights platform to front for their business interest is the new unholy marriage of our time.

    Facebook is the new generation's dumb replacement for intelligent communication, as if boiling down all your thought and discussion down to a few abbreviations and coded short-hand would make you more "connected." You're connected alright, like kindergarteners in a circle-jerk. Zuckerberg's "big idea" was to automate and streamline the fraternity grapevine, turning teen gossip into the new party-line. Suddenly, full-grown adults could play phone-tag from anywhere. 

    And for this, Zuckerberg's transformed into a multi-billionaire, with a full retinue of accountants and attorneys and financial advisors to effect whatever whimsical cause or impulse crosses his mind. 

    But the argument in favor of more Indian and Chinese and Indonesian and Korean and Arab programmers and software engineers isn't about "solving" America's immigration problem, it's about holding the line on tech salaries, and maintaining solidarity among the new crony elite in Silicon Valley's gang of billionaires.

    These guys think they're geniuses. Everyone tells them they are, so they must believe it. One little bright  idea--often stolen from others or cobbled together with collaborators who get pushed out of the bargain--and one big ego, ruthless and hungry for power. That's been the story, over and over again. And once these "geniuses" make enough money, they have enormous influence in the world. 

    Occasionally, an honest and modest one appears, such as Warren Buffett, who realizes that his investment acumen doesn't entitle him to decide political and economic issues on the national and world stage.  But typically, they think they understand everything, and can tell the rest of us how to live. They like to throw their weight around. They sit in plush chairs, and get interviewed by fawning acolytes, and smile and smirk like alligators in the cool celebrity mud pond, under the stifling glare of thousands of pathetic envious wannabes. Only in America.

    Meanwhile, a Rutgers University professor, Hal Salzman, has been studying the phenomenon of our pool of domestic science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates, and how our immigration policies have been harming our domestic tech employment market.

    "It's Econ 101," says Salzman, "employers generally don't pay more than what they have to pay as long as they can get what they need without paying for it. If you can increase supply, you can hold down wages." They're no shortage of homegrown talent, but there is a lack of willingness to pay for it." 

    Salzman's study, from the Economic Policy Institute, points out that the offshoring industry is heavily dependent on guest-worker visas, companies that offer to help U.S. businesses lower costs by moving their information technology functions and jobs abroad, or by recruiting foreign "exchange students" who want to study in U.S. colleges and universities. But why offshore, if you can bring the cheap labor back here?

    Industry, claims Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith, "is producing more high-skilled jobs than there are high-skilled workers to fill them," which explains why Smith backs provisions of the new Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act that would increase the annual cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 180,000 over time. "The talent shortage is so acute that we need more foreign workers to address today's workforce needs." 

    But the "shortage" theory is just bunk. In 2009, two-thirds of computer science graduates worked in their field. Of the one-third that didn't, three in 10 said they couldn't find a job. Five in 10 said they chose another field due to better pay, promotions, and working conditions, according to their research, based on government data. "The story keeps coming back to wages," Salzman said. "They go elsewhere where the pay is better."

    If there were truly shortages, Salzman said, the market would push up wages for workers, providing an incentive for more people to enter the field. But, he said, pay has stayed flat in technology corridors throughout the nation.

    Meanwhile, the number of guest workers has increased. Though there are caps on the number of H-1B visas, companies don't have to prove that they have searched for a U.S. worker before filling the spot with a foreign worker. 

    Ross Eisenbrey, a vice president at the Economic Policy Institute, said Wednesday that allowing an expanding cadre of STEM workers from abroad would ultimately hurt job development in the U.S. "When wages are falling, [graduates] don't go into the field," he said. "You have a self-fulfilling prophecy. You discourage these workers, and then you'll get more guest workers until finally, you've killed the supply of U.S. students and workers," he said. "That is not the recipe for a healthy economy."

    (I had the occasion a couple of years ago to visit a fellow in the lower East Bay Area. He lived in a sort of compound, a huge condominium residence campus, comprised exclusively of Indian and other Asian immigrant workers and their families. You would have thought you were in a suburb of Delhi. These folks had all been courted by computer and tech firms in the Bay Area, and been housed in a segregated "project" development where they could be surrounded by others in their circumstance. I suppose I had been lulled by inattention to believe that the guest workers in the tech industry constituted a small cadre of individuals. But this showed me how extensive and organized the foreign worker program had become in Silicon Valley. These people were no more qualified to work here than our domestic tech graduates, but they had been encouraged and helped to move their families to America, where they would agree to work for less than our domestic job-seekers. After all, even the lowest of professional level wages look rich to Indian nationals.)     

    So now bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Mark Zuckerberg tells us we need to open up the borders and roll out the welcome-wagon to the economic refugees of Central and South America, because "it's the right thing to do," the feel-good solution to the millions of illegals who have infiltrated our economy. It may be political pragmatism to side with the Dreamers and the Amnesty advocates, when you want to depress wages and kill tech education in this country. Zuckerberg, after all, didn't need a degree--he dropped out of Harvard because he had a better idea. (Actually, he probably would have been kicked out eventually, anyway, since he was violating the privacy of others in the Harvard student-body with his prank "social media" network games.) 

    Unfortunately, Zuckerberg's "better idea" is destined to make functional idiots out of a whole generation of teenagers and young adults, while Zuckerberg gets rich and richer in the bargain. 

    Zuckerberg needs to put his untold wealth to good use, as Microsoft head Bill Gates has figured out how to do. These freckle-faced egg-heads have to be told how to be responsible philanthropists; it isn't something you're born with.

    Mr. Zuckerberg, please shut up.

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    But enough of generosity. How about greed? How much is enough, and how much too much? Is self-indulgence really a sin, and what are the limits of a reasonable consumption?

    One of my long-term daydreams has been to run a small literary press, with a fine press studio devoted to producing beautiful limited first editions of poetry. Back in the 1970's, I managed to wangle a publisher's grant from the NEA, which enabled me to publish a handful of offset volumes. Bill Berkson's Blue Is the Hero, Ted Greenwald's Common Sense, Robert Grenier's Sentences Towards Birds, my own Stanzas For an Evening Out

    James Laughlin in later life

    Small publishers in 20th Century America begin with James Laughlin's New Directions, which was not only a traditional publishing firm with editions of books, but the New Directions Annuals, the chapbook editions, and the New Classics Series. Laughlin, a rich boy who grew up in Pittsburgh, set out deliberately to publish the avatars of new writing, "going to school" with Ezra Pound, and publishing most of the important experimental writers of his time. Others, like Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books, Jonathan Williams's Jargon Press, John Martin's Black Sparrow Press, James Weil's Elizabeth Press are well-known. What these all have in common is a commitment to a quality list, driven by a personal vision, and a willingness to forego, at least to some extent, the distractions of the market-place. Niche literary publishing is an honorable estate, which has produced many of the most beautiful, and important books, of the last century. If I could, I would certainly run a small press, and I'd publish only those authors I liked, and whose work seemed to me to be important. A small publishing venture is more than a hobby, but not as demanding as a real business. I'd hire someone to do the editing and press-work, and I'd pay scant attention to the account books, accepting a modest annual loss in exchange for the freedom (there's that word again) to do just what I pleased.

    Jonathan Williams (Jargon Press)

    As a part time fly-fisherman, I fantasize often about traveling to some of the world's most remote places, to fish for trout in waters that only a few lucky sportsmen get to visit. Waters on the southern edge of Chile and Argentina, or down under in New Zealand, or some of the remote rivers in Alaska, and perhaps even some in Siberia. Fly-fishing in places like these requires planning, guides, and money. I've never been a great fisherman, primarily because I've never mastered the art of casting, the primary skill for successful presentation. I've caught a lot of nice fish, but primarily due to luck (or so I imagine). People actually laugh at me when they see me fishing on the water. Maybe the fish do too. But fishing in remote places allows one to experience exotic landscapes while pursuing a sport. And the chances are that the fishing will almost certainly be exciting, since these places get a lot less pressure than easily accessible beats in North America. Expeditions like this aren't exactly out of my reach, but doing so regularly can easily exhaust your lifetime recreation budget.

     Fishing in Chile

    Along with fly-fishing, and dabbling in poetry, I'm also a serious large format photographer, or at least I used to be. I built a darkroom into our new house in 1991, but I haven't done any picture-taking for several years. I'm not sure why. In the interim, photographic processes have shifted from organic chemistry and light-sensitive emulsions on big negatives, to digital, so most of my equipment is now considered out-of-date. Silver negatives and printing paper are still obtainable, but the profession (or hobby) has moved on. The new technology is more convenient in some ways, but there's nothing quite like seeing a composition develop in the tray, and turning on the light to see how it all came out. I'll go back to it soon, once my latest literary project--co-editing the Selected Poems of Larry Eigner, with Bob Grenier, for University of Alabama Press--is finished. 

    Speaking of poetry, I'd also like to publish a last collected poems, before I die. Back in 1977, I self-published my Stanzas For an Evening Out, Poems 1968-1977. In the years since, I've published a couple of pamphlets, and I resumed writing in 2004 after a lay-off which lasted almost twenty years. Since starting this blog in January 2009, I've written several dozen pages, which I'd like to add to the whole total. Going over the poems in Stanzas, I find I'm still satisfied with many of them. The new collected's provisionally titled America Was a Horse. I'd like to do it letterpress with a nice binding, but that will take a hefty load of capital. Still, it would be my last hurrah as an "author" so I'm inclined to justify it on those grounds alone. I like to think that someone in a hundred years may pick up the stray copy of my work and decide that it has a little merit. Other than that, I have no ambition. James Laughlin fancied himself a poet, but without his own self-supported publishing concern, I doubt he'd ever have made much of a name for himself with his writing. All writing is in some respect a kind of vanity. In European and third world countries, poets are valued and revered. In America, there's almost a kind of natural resistance to people who set up as writers. Perhaps it's our native Puritanical skepticism that regards all artistic activity with suspicion. 

    When I lived in Japan, in 1985, I had some free time, so I bought a Kawai upright piano, and, for the first time, tried my hand at composing. I taught myself to write music, and was able to notate adequately for my own purposes. In the years since, I've composed hundreds of pieces, for solo piano, for chamber groups, and for solo guitar. Unfortunately, none of these has ever been performed by anyone other than myself. I briefly tried to convince a local guitar virtuoso to try my pieces, but he was distracted. Why waste your time on amateurs, when the repertory is already rich? So, I guess the only way I'd ever hear how my compositions would actually sound would be to pay someone to perform them. There's precedent, of course. Gordon Getty, scion of the Getty Oil fortune, studied music in college, and has been able to promote his own works by funding their performances in public. I doubt whether any orchestra or opera company would consider doing this, without the Getty name and fortune behind him.  I'm not jealous, though. Better that a private individual purchase his access through philanthropic leverage, than to have some politically correct public committee or grants commission choose. I've been working lately on an extended piano piece, more or less inspired by Robert Schumann. Perhaps I'll figure out how to load it onto YouTube, though the performance will have to be by me (hold your nose!). 

    What has this exercise in idle fantasy revealed to me about myself? I've always known my own mind, so nothing about it surprises me. Why should anyone care what I'd do with my imaginary wealth? No reason, I guess. I do think it would be fascinating to know what my parents or heroes would have said, at certain points in their lives, given the opportunity. There are people, I'm sure, who disdain the whole notion of a vicarious wealth, as if indulging in it is not merely a waste of time, but somehow a violation of the spirit of democracy, or a modest approach to living. Waste not, want not. For my part, I don't harbor envy for rich people, though I often condemn them for bad choices (viz my Mark Zuckerberg post yesterday). I have nothing against people of means creating entertaining diversions for themselves, as long as it doesn't involve confiscating valuable public access. Most rich people, to tell the truth, live lives of quiet desperation, as the rest of us do, and mostly well out of the public eye. After all, there's a real danger in being perceived as a potential target for thieves, or charities, or other kinds of predators. If you become rich enough, it can complicate your life to the extent that nearly every waking moment is spent servicing your own financial burden--not much of a life, I'd wager. Being a starving artist isn't much fun, but neither is talking to tax accountants and lawyers and business-managers every day about how best to husband your fortune. Still, there are consolations.  

    But sometimes the fantasy is better than the reality. As Mr. Spock once said on a Star Trek episode, "it may not seem true, but it often is, that obtaining a thing is not at all the same, or as desirable, as wanting it." (Or words to that effect. Spock was speaking about having "won" a Vulcan bride in a courtship contest with another of his kind.) Though I might entertain the having of all these things I've enumerated above, obtaining them might leave me with a sense of empty attainment. Life is about hope and anticipation and planning; take those things away and our realizations become hollow.   


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    The reports of the death of the Twinkie@ were premature. Invented in 1930, by the 1950's, when I was as boy, Twinkies were coming into their own as a hit snack treat. In those days, kids ate a lot of junk food, but nothing like what they do today. When I was in grade school, every kid had a lunchbox with a sandwich, a thermos of milk, a piece of fruit, a piece of vegetable, and a dessert (perhaps a candy bar or a slice of cake). As the junk food craze progressed, my generation began to eat more stuff like Twinkies, though it was generally frowned on. Twinkies were really nothing more than a kind of candy bar, puffed up and filled with vanilla cream. They had virtually no food value, and lots of sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oil, and cholesterol. 

    In 2012, Hostess, the parent company of Twinkies, declared bankruptcy, and suspended production of Twinkies in the U.S. Some blamed workers' unions for causing the company to fail. Almost immediately, however, the Hostess (and Twinkie) brand was purchased by Apollo Global Management, which set up production in Canada, and resumed distribution of Twinkies in the U.S. Over the decades, people had become attached to Twinkies--they'd become a nostalgic fetish-object, and some people were devastated when they thought they'd never be able to purchase their old snack food ever again.

    In 1978, during the trial of Dan White for the shootings of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, White's attorney called a psychiatrist witness to support the allegation that his client had become emotionally unbalanced, as evidenced by his eating junk food, and the term The Twinkie Defense was born. White got a manslaughter instead of a murder conviction--one of the great instances of miscarriages of justice--since there was no question that White had done the deed, in retaliation for his supposed betrayal by the Mayor and Harvey Milk (an openly Gay public figure).

    Twinkies have always symbolized the dumbing down of American consumerism. Their success proved that corporations could create a commodity which had virtually no inherent value, and was in fact made partly out of chemicals that weren't even traditionally regarded as food at all. It was a triumph of advertising and the seduction of customers with sugar and "mouth feel" (good sweet mushy goo). 

    When I grew up, telephones were very popular. By the mid-50's, old-fashioned party lines were being replaced with unique hook-ups, and talking on the phone, sometimes for hours at a time, was becoming all the rage. (That phrase all the rage marks me as a member of a much older generation, I suspect.) Teenagers spent time on the phone, because it allowed them to communicate privately, and they didn't even have to be in the same place to do it. It was a revelation. 

    With the arrival of CB radios, and then cell phones, the phone era jumped a step. The first cell phones were big and heavy, and early versions sat in a "shoe" or stand, where they could be easily recharged. In the beginning, they were primarily used by policemen and service people. But as the newer models became smaller and lighter, they began to be taken up by the general population. This is all boring history, of course, and today, with the new versions of hand-held devices, it's even possible to type words and messages, and transmit them in the same way e.mail does. They also have built-in cameras and even on-board video function. All these different kinds of uses are called "aps" (short for applications), and companies are striving to come up with ever-more startling kinds of "aps" software to put into these devices. 

    When the internet arrived, with its vast potential for joint communication and interactive exchange, people all over the world discovered they could talk with each other, and the internet supplanted much of the print universe, with instant phone, picture and video communication. The cathode ray tubes displayed a screen, with an accompanying keyboard adapted from the typewriter (with its QWERTY layout). When hand-helds began incorporating tiny keyboards, I didn't believe people would actually go for them, since I didn't see how anyone would choose to try to make text messages with a keyboard the size of a playing-card (or smaller). But I've been proved wrong.

    Still, downsizing a keyboard has limits. No one can reasonably create very much text as efficiently on a hand-held keyboard as they can on a normal sized one. There are limits to what you can seduce people into believing. But the real effect of this downsizing has been to persuade users that rather than mourning the loss of the efficient creation of real text (within the limits of an efficient keyboard), they should embrace the new ridiculous keyboards by abbreviating their communications to just a few words per message. 

    This reduction has had the effect of curtailing all meaningful online communication, since people, especially younger people, tend to prefer the convenience of a hand-held device, to one they have to carry in a suitcase or in a large purse. 

    Portability has a long and proud tradition in human history. Anything people could carry would allow them a freedom of movement which made static, immovable objects seem like unnecessary burdens. As the world population grows, and people are forced to live closer and closer together in a world whose boundaries and limitations increasingly impinge on activity, the reductive tendency seems like an inevitable trend. In Hong Kong, there are "hotels" which are comprised of compartments little larger than an old train sleeper bunk, just big enough for a single person to squat in and sleep for a night.   

    The new generation of hand-helds offers people the illusion of freedom, but watching them use them gives one an entirely different impression. Rather than freeing people to pursue their lives away from home or office, they seem to have become a new kind of burden or obligation. Today, especially in cities and the suburbs, people seem more attached (or linked) to their devices than they are to their immediate environment. Rather than allowing people to live in their surroundings, they seem ineluctably drawn into the "chatter" and "update" of their network of electronic connections, than they are to their real-time presences. These new devices have become an end in themselves, supplanting the real purposes and possibilities of life itself. People are constantly getting empty reports and sending pointless messages to each other. In other words, the necessity of using the devices has trumped the presumed purpose of communication itself, as if just touching base with people was such an ingenious novelty that people would do it even if they had nothing whatever to say or communicate.

    As the new phone-gadget craze has progressed, it has become clear that many of its users have become completely taken over with the phone world it creates. They live to text, or tweet, or "face" each other. Their lives are becoming increasingly uniform, slavishly "interactive" and dull. They read less, they notice less around them in the world, and they have shorter and shorter attention spans. In fact, they are ignoring or neglecting whole areas of their consciousness. They've become slaves of a new technology whose underlying purpose and function is to put their attention (and life-times) on a charging meter, requiring constant replacements and "upgrades" to stay current with the new buzz

    When personal computers arrived, many people thought that kids would only play "games" on them, and that's largely what's happened. I scoffed, but eventually found myself spending more and more time on a series of iterations of the home computer. The internet eventually became a revelation for me, but not for the reasons I would have suspected. I use the computer to blog, to write messages and "letters" and to buy and sell books (as well as other things). Having spent the better part of my life on typewriters, the transition to computer keyboards allowed me to expand the reach of my machine to the universe at large. 

    But these new hand-helds have actually shrunk the possibilities of the World Wide Web. While e.mail permitted instant communication, it didn't constrict content, the way the new tiny screens and keyboards do. If I were a teenager, using a computer to study and communicate with others would be a big opportunity to enlarge my sense of the world. But I don't think the tiny Twinkie world of hand-helds would have the same salutary effect. 

    Is the world today creating a new generation of idiots, illiterate electronic drones who speak the new dumbed-down shorthand of Twitter and Facebook? It seems so. These new little handy toys are making our minds decay, in the same way that junk food always has. You can get fat and mentally lazy consuming things that aren't good for you, whether it's sweet snacks, or quick little birdie tweets from your new online "friend." 

    Birdy go tweet tweet? Here's a yummy little morsel for you. Nighty-night.

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  • 08/12/13--07:12: Whither the Giants ?

  • 2013 has been an off year for our home team, last year's champions, the San Francisco Giants.

    After winning it all two out of the last three years, a series of misfortunes and letdowns occurred this year which more or less sealed the team's fate.

    Our star lead-off hitter, Angel Pagan, went down with a serious hamstring injury in May requiring surgery, effectively ending his season. Fourth starter Ryan Vogelsong went down with a broken finger for several weeks. Pablo Sandoval had his usual little nagging injuries. The primary set-up man, Santiago Casilla, had surgery on his knee. Affeldt went down for a spell. Scutaro injured a finger, and his back has been giving him problems. Blanco and Crawford were hurt for a while. The back-up catcher, Hector Sanchez, lost much of the year with a shoulder injury.  

    All teams have injuries, but the coincidence of so many at one time can deplete a team, forcing it to resort to second-stringers at key positions. Baseball seasons, being so long, can seem like a long march. It's often remarked that just avoiding injuries is a key factor in remaining competitive throughout a 162 game season. Luck plays a part. Unexpected accidents on or off the field may happen. A long-festering condition can finally catch up with a player. 

    Baseball is a team sport, in which all the parts of the puzzle have to fit together somehow, to make a coordinated effect. The loss of one key part can cause the whole regime to falter. On any given three game series, the difference over a season, can be expressed as one team winning two, the other winning just one, which is what separates the best from the worst team in any year, the best winning 95 games, the worst losing as many. There's a built-in parity in the major leagues, which can exaggerate the effect of being a winner or a loser. 

    But injuries weren't the only reason the Giants' season fell apart. This team was built on good pitching, and opportunistic (not power) hitting. With AT&T Park's long right field wall, the strategy has been to field hitters who can run, turning doubles into triples (hence "triples alley"), and relying on speed and timely clutch hitting. The team's home run numbers have been astonishingly low, especially this year, presently sitting at 69 total. (The Baltimore Orioles, for instance, whom the Giants just played, have hit 156 so far.) That discrepancy is disheartening. But it was the failure of the starting pitching, in particular, which was most noticeable. Lincecum's troubles, and gradual decline, have continued, despite a surprising no-hitter (his first), and a few good outings since mid-season. Cain had problems, and Zito has been tragic away from home, with a road ERA above 9.00. Zito, it would seem, has finally outlived his welcome, and probably will (actually should) be dumped at season's end. He's 62-77 in 6 1/2 seasons with his big free-agent contract, hardly what the Giants dreamed when they signed him. His career is over at 35; or, he might scumble along for another five years, doing garbage clean-up relief for 2nd tier teams, a pretty sad ending to a one-time Cy Young starter. Among present starters, only Bumgarner appears to be performing up to his ability, and he should continue to shine in the coming years. Romo looks good as our stylish closer.  

    Looking to the future, there are only a few positions that seem truly secure. Posey is fixed at catcher, doing a few spells at first base. At second, Scutaro clearly had his career year in 2012, but  age appears to be catching up with him (he's 37). In right field, Hunter Pence is having only a so-so year at the plate (for him), but his range and hustle alone make him a worthy choice; if he could hit 25 homers and drive in 90, he'd be terrific, not an unreasonable expectation given his history. Will Pagan return to full health in 2014? Hard to say. If he does, that should take care of the lead-off spot. Crawford is a great defensive shortstop, and his hitting is almost very good. He's still young (26) and if he can hit .280 at the bottom of the order, he's a keeper. 

    Otherwise, everything seems up in the air. 

    --at Third, Sandoval has been a big disappointment this year. How can a player with his native skills eat himself into mediocrity? There have been different theories on how to approach Pablo's dietary problems, but it seems clear that he lacks the focus, or the diligence, to control his appetite. If he has an eating disorder, addressing it should be his biggest priority. At a playing weight about 40 pounds less than what he presently carries, he could expect to have perhaps a decade more of good playing time. In his present "beached walrus" condition, he might wash out after another season or two. The odds are so great, there has to be a day of reckoning. If I were a Giants general manager, I'd lay it out straight: Either show up next year in condition, or you're outtahere! 

    --at First, Bandon Belt, now in his second full year, has shown signs of breaking out, but he still seems to lack the concentration and maturity of a true major league hitter. First base has traditionally been a hitting position. There has been talk of moving Posey to first more or less on a semi-permanent basis, to keep him fit for regular duty with the bat. Whatever the outcome of that, Belt needs to show something now. If he doesn't show some power and savvy with the bat very soon, he may not deserve to stay.

    --Left and Center field. People forget that the Giants success in 2012 was to a large extent the result of Melky Cabrera's phenomenal hitting in the first half. When Melky was suspended in mid-season for drug use, it was clear why he'd been so good at the plate. But the fact remains that left field has been only partially filled all this year, with Gregor Blanco  and Andres Torres platooning in both left and center with a handful of rookies and journeymen (Noonan, Abreu, Francoeur, Pill, Tanaka, Gillespie, Kieschnick etc.). I don't think anyone, including Sabean and Bochy, believes that any of those "prospects" really is going to solve the outfield problem. 

    --Pitching. Bumgarner and Cain seem like keepers. Both are young, both are strong, with good stuff, and reliable. Lincecum is a conundrum. He seems unlikely to regain his Cy Young stuff, and despite his recent resurgence, he looks to be a very questionable bet as a starter going forward. Management may even decide to let him go this year, despite his big fan draw. Volgelsong, too, seems only an occasional fifth starter now, and may also be gone after this year. That leaves two starters in place, with the team needing two more--a tall order, given that there don't appear to be any big prospects coming up from Fresno. Additionally, the team needs to bolster its middle relief. Kontos, Mijares, Machi, Rosario, Dunning, Moscoso et al, have been mostly disappointing this year. With Casilla, and Gaudin and Lopez and Affeldt returning, we may or may not have the basis for a decent staff. But the real question is the starting rotation.

    So, the weak positions that need to be addressed are: Sandoval, Belt, Blanco, and the two holes in the starting rotation. It's hard to see who the Giants could offer in exchange for a quality starter, a slugging left fielder, or a reliable permanent part-time catcher. Belt and Crawford might suffice. Crawford would be hardest to replace, though. Belt and Sandoval would be my bet. Both still have lots of potential, but significant liabilities--any team taking them on would expect them to be "projects under construction." After several years here, neither is worth that risk. I would trade both for one really good starting pitcher, or one slugging outfielder, someone (a right hander) who could plunk 20 homers at AT&T, and maybe more on the road, and give the team a respectable number four clean-up man, which they've lacked ever since Bonds left. 

    Without fixing these problem-areas, I suspect the Giants will not finish much better next year than they will this one. Last place feels awfully forlorn, after last year's triumph. To fall from first to worst in a single year doesn't feel right. We weren't as good as we thought we were. And of course we aren't as bad as we seem now. But standing pat isn't an option. 

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  • 08/15/13--11:05: Through the Keyhole

  • The modest little tortellini pasta has a piquant mythic origin.

    According to Wikipedia, the origin of its shape has two versions, both essentially the same in concept. 

    A strong local tradition has it that it shape was born in Castelfranco Emilia. One night during a trip, Lucrezia Borgia checked into an inn in the town and during the night the host became so captivated by Lucrezia's beauty that he could not resist the urge to peek into her room through the keyhole of her bed chamber. The room was candle lit, so all he could see was her navel. This vision was enough to send him into an ecstasy that inspired him to create the tortellini that night.

    The other version tells how Venus and Jupiter, the Greek Gods of Love and of Sky and Thunder, arrived at a tavern on the outskirts of Bologna one night, weary from their involvement in a battle between Modena and Bologna. After much food and drink, they shared a room. The innkeeper, captivated by the two, followed them and peeked through the keyhole. All he could see was Venus's navel. Spellbound, he rushed to the kitchen and created tortellini in its image.

    Both these versions have in common the theme of vicarious sexual innuendo, almost an idealization of the symbolic, hypnotic significance of the navel (or belly button). The belly-button signifies our attachment to the mother, and thence to the descent of the human species, our connection to ancient springs. It has almost a sacred aspect. 


    There are many kinds of beauty. The part of her body he liked best was her navel, which was shaped perfectly like the yin-yang symbol. He liked to swirl his tongue around inside it, clockwise, to follow the direction of its twin nodes. He did this so often, and so effectively, that eventually she was able to achieve climax through this stimulation alone. It was their little secret. But once revealed, was no longer secret.    


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  • 08/16/13--11:34: That Was The Way It Was

  • In my continuous pursuit of the perfect bathroom book, I stumbled upon this new autobiographical excursion by the late James Laughlin [1914-1997], The Way It Wasn't [New York: New Directions, 2006]. The odd title seems to me to be a way of saying that the normal expectations one might have for the autobiography of the scion of a rich Pittsburgh steel fortune magnate, would be thwarted by what this book is. I've read that Laughlin had contemplated writing a straight prose autobiograpy, but perhaps didn't quite get around to it. He did, however, in his later years, scribble down anecdotes and memories of significant people and events from his life, and these now comprise the present volume of 341 pages (including index). Arranged alphabetically, it includes a wealth of reproductions of original candid photographs of people and book illustrations.   

    Born into a very wealthy family, Laughlin early on decided that he wanted to immerse himself in the literary life. In the middle of his Harvard undergraduate years, he took off for Europe to visit Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, and ended up living in Rapallo for a year, studying at the resident genius's "Ezraversity"--returning to complete his Harvard degree only when Pound suggested that since he wasn't destined to be a good poet, he should put his gifts to work in other ways. Upon graduation, young James was handed a present of $100,000 cash, part of which he used to start the New Directions publishing house. There has hardly ever been as fortuitous a turn of fate as this, at least for the cause of Modern Literature. (In the plastic arts, of course, there have been famous patrons throughout history.) The rest, as they say, is history, as ND went on to publish the work of Pound, William Carlos William, Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas, Neruda, Patchen, George Oppen, Rexroth, Creeley, Levertov, Duncan, Thomas Merton, Snyder, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Paz, Hesse, John Hawkes, H.D., William Everson, Michael McClure, and others too numerous to name. In many sense of the words, New Directions was American Modernism. 

    Laughlin at Harvard

    A patrician by nature, Laughlin had no qualms about living the kind of life his financial freedom allowed him to. He chased women, played golf and skied, and solicited manuscripts for his publishing firm. New Directions would not make a profit for at least a decade, but it didn't have to. The Laughlin fortune covered all its losses. James hobnobbed with his authors, frequenting his favorite watering holes, becoming one of the most worldly and cultivated men in the process. Delmore Schwartz, one of his early authors, demanded to know if he intended to be a publisher, and not a playboy. He wrote his own poetry, but knew enough about its worth not to promote it very hard.     

    Laughlin in early middle age

    The "playboy" also had a mental problem, and apparently underwent regular psychiatric analysis, along with taking prescription meds, all his adult life. He could be abrasive, as people of means occasionally are, in print and in person. His personal wealth, along with his power over the printed word (as publisher), insulated him from the necessity of having to observe the usual kinds of courtesies which govern human intercourse. With Laughlin, you took the pleasant with the unpleasant, because you had no choice. 

    In my earlier pieces on Philip Johnson and Howard Hughes, I noted how personal wealth made possible, on the one hand, a serious career as a prima donna architect, and on the other, a dilitante's indulgence in aircraft design, a movie studio, and big-time tycoon real estate. These others also shared the rich man's wherewithal with sexual partners--in Johnson's case as a homosexual. All three of these as well suffered from various kinds of psychological disorders, perhaps exacerbated by their access to unlimited means. 

    Laughlin in old age
    The example of Laughlin seems to support the notion of the wisdom of private philanthropy. As I've come to believe over the years, public support of the arts carries the seeds of corruption. With a privately owned publishing venture like New Directions, the public bears no obligation for its support, and the editorial decisions are based on the taste and interests of a single individual, or perhaps a small cadre of like minds. Grove Press would be another example of a semi-major renegade publisher, intent on succeeding by promoting books and titles spurned by the Eastern publishing establishment. You may have to be a little bit loco to start your own publishing firm, but your chances of doing interesting projects are much greater than if you work for one of the large corporate firms. Of course, when Laughlin began, most of the major New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago publishing firms were closely held concerns, but that's mostly changed now, with the wholesale consolidation and downsizing of publishing businesses we've seen over the last three decades. 

    The Way It Wasn't is full of charming reports, humorous stories, and naughty jokes, and I suspect is a lot more accurate as a record of the sort of fellow Laughlin must have been in person, than any "straight" autobiography would be. Interestingly, he cites the same kinds of pressures against traditional publishing in the 1960's, which we hear today. This, undated (probably from the early 1990's):

    "Of course, you know the condition of the book trade is lamentable. The chains work on a quick-in, quick-out basis. I've heard that some of them are trying to be better about inventory but I haven't seen it with my own eyes. The days of the old Mom & Pop bookstore, people usually who were really interested in literature, are departing. Those couples didn't have the financing to float an extensive inventory. Since we are all, I'm told, going to be on the information super-highway, reading off our little screens with musical accompaniment of rock'n roll, it hardly matters."

    There is, however, something truly heartening and perhaps unique about the young wide-eyed Harvard undergraduate traveling to Italy in 1934 (when he was only 20) to meet with and sit at the feet of America's most notorious expat, and deciding to utilize his family fortune to further the interests of the artistic avant garde. Would any enlightened person do that today? Perhaps, in the case of Douglas Messerli (Sun & Moon and Green Integer), or Dave Eggers (McSweeney's Quarterly Journal and books), or even Jack Shoemaker (and partners) (North Point Press, Counterpoint and Shoemaker/Hoard), they would. The possibility of an enlightened intelligentsia, devoted to the idea of a higher purpose than just the marketplace, and armed with independent wealth, is still alive and well in America. 

    We need unconventional and brave people (with money) to take chances like this. More power to them, and to the vagaries of wealth and a responsible upper class. Few of us can have the sort of life that wealth provides, but we can all benefit from the odd "traitor to his class" who makes impulsive gestures towards cultural entrepreneurism, or just plain takes crazy chances. In the future, as corporate publishing continues winding down, independent publishing may well become once again a small enterprise, the province of rich boys and inspired partnerships. Long may they prosper! 

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  • 08/19/13--17:55: Amazing Water Skates

  • When I was a small boy, my parents would occasionally take me to a resort area of the Russian River, known as Cazadero. There were a number of small river beaches just off the highway, and a small tributary called Austin Creek, smaller than the Russian, which was slower and shallower and easy for wading and water play. One in particular access was in a wooded ravine, very idyllic, where we went a couple of times. There was hardly enough water to swim in, just to wade in, really, and there were small semi-stagnant backwater ponds filled with tadpoles and an insect which I found entirely fascinating, though frustratingly elusive. As I came to learn, it lived up to its name: Water Skate. But it had other names, all more or less tied to its amazing ability to skim over the surface of still water: Water Strider, Skimmer, Water Skooter or Skeeter, Water Spiders, etc. 

    When I first noticed these bugs, I wasn't sure what they were. They looked like insects, but they had a very flat dark grey body without much definition; what I noticed immediately was that they could flash across the surface of the water like lightning! I remember trying to approach them in very shallow pond water, in shade, but whenever I got close enough they'd zip away just out of my reach. They could move a yard or two in a fraction of a second, but they seemed entirely dry, as if they were floating. And yet, as I watched closely, their bodies didn't touch the water. The only parts of their bodies that touched the water were the ends of their legs, which were pointed, like long slim little twigs. 

    I'm not sure why I thought of these bugs today, but I decided to check out the Wikipedia entry for them, and learned a lot. These bugs belong to the family Gerridae, true bugs in the order of Hemiptera. They have proliferated into a number of species, over 1,700, and are found almost everywhere in fresh watercourses. 

    I think I probably suspected that there must be something malevolent about these bugs when I first saw them, but they also made me incurably curious. Like most boys, I enjoyed toying with small animals and insects, and these bugs seemed like the perfect toy. Could I catch them? I could not! They were too fast. If I splashed water on them, it didn't seem to affect them. They stayed dry! I wouldn't have understood then about the surface tension of water, which I would learn later in science classes in high school.  

    Common sense told me, even as a boy, that these bugs should be sinking in the water once they got wet. Wet things, even waterlogged insects, might float, but they wouldn't sit high and dry on the surface. How did they keep from getting wet, and how did they propel themselves across the surface? They only touched the water with the tiny tips of their legs, so why didn't their legs plunge into the water, instead of gliding on the top?

    It turns out that these bugs have developed genetically something called Hydrofuge hairs all over their body, and there are several thousand hairs per square millimeter, which allows the bug literally to resist the molecular tension of the water surface. This, combined with a perfect balanced distribution of their body weight along their slender legs, allows them to float. This positioning atop the water surface is called an epipleustonic position, which gives the Water Skater its defining characteristic. The middle set of legs have developed a kind of rowing facility, which allows them to propel their bodies very rapidly across the surface, in large part because of the lack of friction made possible by being "dry" instead of wet. They literally skim across the surface, the way people do on skis over snow, by reducing the friction of the body's weight via the smooth, slippery surface of the ski over compressed snow. 

    There are a lot of other interesting facts about the Water Skate. They're carnivores, feasting on fallen insects, and can be cannibals as well. Some are born with usable wings, which allows them to fly to other habitat. Others have poor wings but are not subject to getting weighted down with superfluous wings. They can submerge without becoming water-logged, and pop back up. 

    Apparently they aren't harmful to humans or animals, though they carry certain parasites, and fish don't like the taste of them. Birds are their main predators. They're highly adaptive, which is how they have survived the millennia, and which also explains their considerable species variation. For all my intrepid hunting, I was never able to trap one, or even to kill one. It's been years since I thought about this bug, though I may have inadvertently noticed one while fishing over the last decade or so. When I'm fishing, I tend to be preoccupied with the fish, and the sort of bugs the fish seem to be interested in. Since trout don't like to eat Water Skaters, I just may have unconsciously not noticed them lately.

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  • 08/28/13--10:07: The Autonomous Axiom

  • As I write this on the morning of August 28th, 2013, the national media is expecting imminent action by the U.S. in Syria, in response to widely accepted reports of the Assad Regime's use of chemical weapons against its own people in Damascus. 

    A year ago, Obama set forth his "red-line" policy with respect to chemical weapons use, and now is in the position of having to make some kind of response, in order to avoid seeming hypocritical. 

    The Chemical Weapons Convention Arms Control agreement, which prohibits the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, was signed in January 1993, but Syria was not a signatory. 

    The Assad Regime was created by the current ruler's father, Hafez al-Assad, in 1970, following a military coup. Hafez remained in power until his death in 2000, at which point his second son, Bashar, assumed power. Originally trained as a physician, Bashar had not expected a political career, since he had an elder brother. The brother, however, was killed in an automobile accident in 1994, and Bashar was then groomed for the accession. The Syrian government is a dictatorship in the familiar sense, wielding unchallenged power, and suppressing dissent by violence and secret police round-ups and torture etc. Emboldened by the so-called "Arab Spring" dissident Syrian factions initiated a civil war against the regime in 2011, which has since spread throughout the country, becoming more destructive and deadly with each passing week. Determined to quell the uprising, the Assad regime has used the full weight of its military, but has so far been unable to prevail. In the process, much of the country has been devastated, and has created an acute humanitarian crisis, with refugees, wounded, displaced people, spilling over into neighboring nations. 

    Calls for U.S. intervention have come from the usual critics. John McCain, who believes that all wars are worth fighting, and sides must always be taken, asks for surgical strikes. Almost no one appears to be calling for "boots on the ground." Simply lobbing rockets into a country is unlikely to have a determinative effect.

    As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, even total involvement in a national or regional conflict is unlikely to produce the results we might want. Given the factional disputes and confused ethnic and political situations in the Near and Middle East, it's impossible to believe in a clear-cut advantage, whenever military options are chosen. As we are now seeing--and as I predicted in this blog two years ago and more--both Iraq and Afghanistan are on the verge of descending into chaotic civil war once again, despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars in aid, weaponry, and American lives lost. It's clear that America should never have gone to war in those places. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died as a result, and despite the fact that the regimes were toppled, there is nothing that would suggest that their immediate political and social prospects will be markedly changed for the better in the future.  

    Iraq and Afghanistan proved once again, just as Vietnam did, that the justifications for intervention can always be cobbled together out of well-meaning intentions. An evil regime, a suppressed people, widespread conflict and suffering, regional political instability--all these conditions may occur at any time in South America, Africa, the Near and Middle East, and Asia. 

    At home, there will always be advocates for the use of military power, those who stand to gain from its use, and those who take heart in the use of power to effect political, policy, diplomatic or simple ethical ends. The Israel lobby continues to exert an influence far in excess of the value of our commitment to a Jewish state. Syria, it should be remembered, is an avowed enemy of Israel, and has been implicated in the support of anti-Israel groups. Syria is a Muslim country, but not a theocracy. 

    I question the wisdom of our becoming involved in the Syrian civil war. Whoever prevails in the ongoing conflict, the main impression to be derived from our intervention would be resentment and suspicion. Since it is impossible to predict which faction is likely to rise to prominence in a post-Assad Syria, there is no guarantee that we would end up being perceived as beneficent supporters. Like Saddam Hussein, or Ali Khamenei in Iran, Bashar Assad is a monolithic presence, ruthless in his determination to prevail. Leaving him in power is an unpleasant option, but one which needs to be considered alongside more problematic ones. 

    The initial pretext for our entering the conflict now is that the use of chemical weapons, if left unchallenged, will set a precedent which is unacceptable. But without a clear purpose in our policy, what is it that we can hope to accomplish? If we accept the idea that the ouster of Assad ("regime change" as the policy was defined during the Bush II administrations) is a preferred outcome, how should we go about bringing that about? Do we really want that to happen, and if we do, are we willing to commit to another open-ended shooting war? Or should we "limit" our exposure to direct material support with weapons and technical aid. If that, who exactly are we supporting, and what is the bargain we are striking with these "allies"? It would be nice if we knew the answers to these questions, but at present, no one seems willing to offer any easy definitions. 

    People will die in Afghanistan and Iraq and Egypt and Syria today, and they will go on dying in the days and weeks and months and years ahead. They will die for the wrong reasons, or, as in the case of many civilians, for no reason but that they happen to live in the wrong part of the world. There is nothing the U.S. can do to change the fundamental causes of conflict in these countries. Even all-out war, as we have seen, only ends up complicating the situation. Once our influence is withdrawn, the same conflicting interests resume their old feuds. And this is exactly the case in Syria. The seeds of conflict existed before the Assad family took control, and they will be there after the Assads have been deposed, whenever that occurs. 

    The most difficult thing is to admit that even with all the king's men and all the king's horses, our power is of little use in making the world right for democracy. Cases can be made for the prosecution of our national interests, which may amount to nothing more than protecting our access to oil, or of maintaining a traditional "balance of power" in a certain region of the world. But salving our benighted conscience(s) is an extraordinarily naive excuse for direct military intervention. We can't "save lives" with rockets, nor can we "nation-build" with tanks and bazookas. It doesn't work that way. Perhaps it would make some kind of ethical "sense" to believe that by killing a hundred thousand people, one could bring democracy to a nation of 20 or 30 million, beset by religious and ethnic strife. But to believe that is folly. 

    Obama has shown himself to be a President who tries hard not to make big blunders, offering caution and care against impulsiveness and raw emotion. If he capitulates now to the bellicose demands of the warmongers, he'll squander that legacy in a day. 

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  • 08/31/13--11:00: The Oscillating Adjective

  • Vibrant: characterized by or exhibiting vibration; pulsating or trembling; giving an impression of vigour and activity; caused by vibration, resonant; pulsating; energetic; (Linguistics / Phonetics) phonetics trilled or rolled; moving to and fro rapidly.

    If you are one of those who, like me, quickly tires of the overuse or mis-use of words, words which become so ubiquitous in the culture of language that they become overburdened with associations and familiarity, applied willy-nilly to every situation and every opportunity, acquiring a politically correct significance far in excess of their value, then you'll understand my frustration with the word vibrant

    In my opinion, vibrant has come to be a kind of shorthand adjective for the multi-cultural nonsense which we see expressed everywhere in the media these days. Originally, vibrant described a phenomenon of vibration, that is, literally a thing that vibrated or oscillated or trembled or buzzed. Electric motors operated on the oscillating current principle. The human voice box is a vibrant mechanism. As it has come to be employed, anything that involved a considerable amount of movement, such as a crowd, or a busy mass of molecules, was referred to as having a vibrant quality. 

    Public relations people, searching for favorable adjectives to apply to events or circumstances or situations which they sought to characterize as attractive or desirable, began to use vibrancy as an ideal state or condition. A pedestrian mall, or a street fair, or a shopping district, or an ethnic neighborhood, might all signify vibrancy, by which was meant busyness, congestion, confused integration, chaotic activity. When city councils or mayors or business promoters or corporate planners or architects or city planners wanted to con the community or a permit department into approving some sweeping change in an urban or suburban context, they invariably described the new project or plan as producing vibrancy

    The city planning revolution in post-War America was driven in large measure by the European medieval model of a vehicle-poor urban matrix, in which the general populace, limited to a narrow geographical range by a lack of portability and means of transport, were forced to carry out their trade and commerce in city plazas or squares. The American towns and cities of the 19th Century had grown up around the wagon, the train (or trolley), and the horse; in the 20th Century most American cities and towns were adapted to, or constructed to, accommodate cars and trucks. This priority led to various kinds of vehicular congestion, as the suburban, car-oriented paradigm developed in the post-War period. Suburbia tended to segregate people, drawing them away from the old urban centers. As the middle and upper classes fled the cities, the poor were left behind. The inner cities died. 

    It wasn't so much that suburbia was bad, though some of the cookie-cutter "instant town" tract developments certainly were dehumanizing and dull, as that there had to be an antidote to the decay of the cities.  City planning theorists looked at the remnant inner city traditions and decided that the way to restore lively city life was to resist vehicles. Automobile dominated streets, parking and associated pollution were the problem. Suburbia had developed because of the car. The solution was to get people out of their cars, to prevent them from getting into the cities and towns via cars, to expand public transportation, and generally discourage private vehicular commerce altogether. 

    Progress in the 19th and 20th Century was based on the rapidly expanding infrastructure of roads and transportation axes: Planes, trains and automobiles. Given a choice, the vast majority of people of even modest means will select the freedom and convenience of a private vehicle. America's industrial predominance was built on cheap transport and portability, and the universal access to a well-designed and constructed internal combustion-powered automobile. The city planning model of the post-War period was in direct contradiction to the very mechanisms which had made American prosperity possible. 

    The new model required that we turn back the clock, to "force" people and businesses back into a pre-industrial condition in which people were trapped inside the inner city, made to conduct their affairs in a narrowly confined space, and limited in their access to the means of transport. That paradigm required that we restore our cities and towns to a condition of "vibrancy"--but at considerable sacrifice of all of the values people had chosen when they had fled the crowded, dirty, inconvenient, and expensive downtowns in the first place. 

    With the coming of the multi-cultural revolution, racial and ethnic diversity was touted as the new social and political ideal. Since "minorities" and foreigners and immigrants were poorer and more likely to be trapped in the decaying ghettos of the inner cities, the new ideal urban matrix would be one in which integration, limited means and access, and simple pleasures should be encouraged. In preference to the balmy seclusion of the suburbs or country, vibrant centers of activity were preferred. It was difficult to see how comfortably situated families or individuals, living in relative peace and privacy in the suburbs, could be lured into this new teeming vibrancy.  

    The whole trend of human desire and aspiration throughout history has been towards comfort, safety, prosperity and opportunity. The move away from the enforced crowding and inconvenience of the city was a natural process, which the suburban expansion of the American post-War prosperity facilitated. The socialist ideals of cooperation and common purpose dictated that people would willingly join together to obtain these universal ideals. But as we have seen in the 20th Century, attempts to impose such conditions from the top down, either as regulation or as voluntary option, have proven to be coercive and retrograde. 18th and 19th Century social and political theorists saw the old cities and towns as confining, unhealthy crucibles for disease, crime, hardship--virtual prisons of existence. They believed that escape would be an emancipation. 

    Today, whenever I hear shills and press agents and developers pushing the "new, vibrant" possibilities of automobile-free urban "zones" I immediately get a vision of frenetic insects buzzing inside a vast hive, their antennae oscillating with Tweets and texts, scurrying about from kiosk to busstop, burdened with backpacks and product logos, searching vainly for a public restroom, clutching their purses and wallets against pickpockets. It's the new urban paradigm, vibrating and trembling and bouncing and jostling back and forth with desperate energy and confusion. 

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  • 09/02/13--10:45: The Princess

  • Grace Kelly [1929-1982] was that anachronism, a commoner who rose through the ranks of the entertainment business to achieve literal royal status as the Princess of Monaco. Monaco--which I've written about here before ("The Prince of Monaco Was Sick of English Ladies")--is but a tiny principality on the Southern coast of France--little more than a couple of miles in length. Nonetheless, its ruler is a titled aristocrat.  

     Map of Monaco along the French Coast

    View of the Principality of Monaco from the air

    Princesses are more traditionally born than they are made--through marriage. In the case of Grace Kelly, her rise to nobility seemed no more than fitting. A natural blonde beauty with a model's lines, and a classic caucasian face, she exuded an aristocracy of bearing in a series of Hollywood feature films. Her career might have continued indefinitely, had she not had the occasion during the filming of the iconic sophisticated comedy-intrigue To Catch a Thief (Hitchcock, Paramount, 1955), which takes place on the French Riviera and was filmed there on location, to meet the bachelor Prince Rainier III in nearby Monaco. After a whirlwind of a romance, she became a princess on April 18, 1956, at the age of 25. At the time, it was touted as the marriage of the century.

    Though it meant the end of her film career, Kelly's marriage to Rainier made her seem even larger than did her fame as a film star. She bore the Prince three children, and carried out her duties during her reign with the utmost formality and aplomb. She died on September 18th, 1982, while driving on the serpentine road above the Riviera, losing control of the car due to a stroke. She was only 52. 

    The primary function royalty serves in our time is as a focus of the public's vicarious fantasy-consciousness. Many people seem to need larger-than-life figures upon whom to project their hopes and curiosity and attention. Though we know we have no chance to have the experience these figures do, we may seem to share in their triumphs and travails, just by following the news of their comings and goings, the otherwise trivial events in their highly public lives. Royalty, in our time, has become nothing more than the official duty of acting out the part; as Hitchcock quipped, he was "very happy that Grace has found herself such a good part." As indeed she had.

    As the anniversary of her death approaches, here's a seductive and sophisticated new cocktail concoction which captures the spirit of the pristine, flawless figure she cut in the world. Princess is often used as a derogatory term for women who may appear to believe they possess an unwarranted gift of nobility, of deserving adoration or esteem or idolatry simply on account of their looks, or their precious conceit. 

    In the case of Grace Kelly, she became a real live "Her Grace, The Princess". There was nothing fake about her nobility. 

    As usual, by proportion, gently shaken with ice and served up in chilled cocktail glasses.

    3 Parts white (dry) vermouth
    2 parts gin
    1 part Green Chartreuse
    1 Part fresh lemon juice
    1/2 part St. Germaine liqueur

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  • 09/04/13--20:37: A Modest Proposal

  • I live in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. I commuted to San Francisco for 27 years, progressing through the AC Transit Bus system, the Bay Area Rapid Transit train system, and the private automobile. For the last 12 years or so, I didn't work on Fridays, so I never had the misfortune to experience the so-called "Critical Mass" bike traffic jam which has developed into a regular tradition in San Francisco. For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Critical Mass movement is a bikers' protest organization whose primary function is the disruption of urban vehicular traffic by devoted bicyclists, a monthly event designed to dramatize the plight of cyclists in a mostly car and truck dominated public street system.

    The movement began overseas, in Sweden, but was co-opted by local activists. The movement started small, in the early 1990's, but has grown in scale, and has spread to other places, including Chicago, London and elsewhere. 

    When I was a kid growing up in the 1950's and 1960's, I enjoyed riding my bike all around our little suburban neighborhood. I had a big newspaper delivery route for four long years, with over a hundred customers. I couldn't have done it without my bike. In those days, bicycles were considered childrens' toys, and by the time I was 14, social pressure made me store mine permanently in the garage: Bikes were for sissies, unless you were training for the Olympics. There's no doubt that my bike served me well, and when I had a job during my last summer before grad school, I got a three-speed narrow-gauge to commute with. I don't know what happened to that bike, but it was the last time I ever depended upon one. Years later, thinking to get some exercise, I got an early version of the new "trail bikes" which had reintroduced the thicker tire after it went out of style--and underground--for a couple of decades. 

    Today, biking has had a renaissance. I don't know if kids ride bikes like they used to, but grown-ups are riding them in ever-increasing numbers. Partly in reaction to the problems associated with automobile pollution and energy over-consumption, bikes have become symbols of the disenchantment people are having about automobiles generally. 

    There are good reasons not to drive cars. People have become too dependent upon them, and our reluctance to walk or cycle places is making us unhealthy. We're a lazy people who over-eat and under-excercise, and there's a good argument to be made against the continued over-reliance on automobiles. America's "romance" with the automobile has turned our cities and towns into parking lots, and our highway system has distorted our landscape with huge monstrous structures of overpass, access roads, and walls. The great majority of people need to use their cars less; there's no question about it.  

    But our culture is built on a transportation system based on vehicular access. America's prosperity was constructed out of the manufacture and private ownership of the automobile. The ownership and use of cars has permitted us to live more conveniently, with less crowding, and greater efficiency, than at any other time in human history. Our ability to move about freely has permitted us to live and work and play and travel in ways that could hardly have been imagined, less than a century ago. Our present dependency upon this transportation paradigm is completely integrated into our daily lives. For better or worse, the automobile is how our society functions. Without it, most of the things we take for granted would be impossible. 

    Without addressing the larger problems of our transportation systems as a whole, I would point out that our inner cities are crowded and busy, and this congestion is both a cause and a consequence of the complex, interdependent connectivity of the modern world. Prosperous and active cities are symptoms of a rich economy, and a rich cultural matrix as well, and whether we like it or not, the automobile is a crucial part in that interdependence and richness. Most of what we do and consume is only really possible with many vehicles constantly moving people and goods around.       

    All that activity comes at a price. One of the prices we pay for this interconnectivity and bustling movement is dirt and congestion, and the danger of collisions. Our major metropolitan areas accommodate cars and trucks and busses and even trains, as well as pedestrians, but they weren't designed with bicycles in mind. Motorcycles can compete with cars, because they can maintain speeds and maneuverability that place them on a level plain with four-wheeled vehicles. Not so with bikes. 

    In the inner city, the only bikes that really "belong" are those ridden by professional deliverymen, who ferry mail and small parcels between buildings and businesses, using their small profile to weave in and out of traffic and pedestrians without getting hung up on clogged city streets. 

    In our highly mobile society, it's certainly possible to imagine that a small percentage of working people with jobs in the city can as conveniently commute on bikes as they can in automobiles. Weather permitting, they can save money, cut down on the total number of private cars being used, and even save themselves some drudgery (being caught in commuter stalls). But public transportation is designed specifically to service people in this circumstance.  

    We know that in parts of the rest of the world--specifically in places where automobile ownership is limited--do depend upon bicycles, and we also know about the problems they can cause. When the number of unpowered human bicycles reaches a certain "critical mass" nearly all traffic movement becomes a nightmare. There may come a time when our own country reaches this "critical" tipping-point, and streets that accommodate both kinds of vehicles will become impassable. 

    In the meantime, it seems reasonable to suggest that our city governments outlaw the use of private bicycles within certain urban precincts, not only for the convenience of flowing traffic and commerce, but for the protection and safety of private cyclists. This may seem counterintuitive, given the context of our recent trends towards establishing bike-lanes and pedestrian malls. But it seems perfectly obvious that unless we are willing to abandon the systems of portability and exchange that facilitate our infrastructure, and everything it provides for us, we had better curtail the increase in bike traffic in corridors that are crucial to our well-being and convenience. Police, first-reponders, ambulances, workers, taxis, buses, utility services--these all command a higher standard of access than private bicycles--particularly those ridden by people who literally have "no business" in the inner city.

    It's a modest proposal, but undoubtedly one calculated to arouse the ire of self-styled bicycle activists. The more the Critical Mass bicyclists press their case, the more likely that such counterproposals will be contemplated, as well they should be. Weekend bicycle-hobbyists hogging country-roads, flipping the bird and screaming at vacationers is one thing. Thugs on bikes deliberately bringing Friday commute traffic in major city centers to a halt is another.  

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