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

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  • 12/11/13--11:57: A Song for the Unsung

  • American Football is a team sport. In team sports, it is not always possible to accurately assess the value of any single player's contribution to his team's success. Great players may play on mediocre teams, or average players may play on very good teams. The context of one's accomplishments in a team sport do matter, though truly great performers are usually recognized as such, even if based only on purely statistical measures. In football, the key positions are traditionally the quarterback, running-back, receiver, linebacker, and defensive back; but players at any other position may achieve prominence, and be appreciated for their superior play. Players whose job it is to handle the ball tend to draw the most attention, however, and it is they who become the usual focus of fans and the media. One minor exception is the punter or kicker. Once upon a time, it was common for kickers to do all of a team's kicking duties: kick-offs, punts, free kicks and field-goal tries. Over the years, these have become specialized, and today almost all place-kickers specialize as field goal kickers (who also do the kick-offs), with the punter  only doing punting. Like field-goal kicking, punting has become a specialty. Usually a punter has no other function on the field. He's a little like a "closer" in baseball, a player whose sole purpose is to do a single thing in a specific situation, and nothing else. 

    Mediocre kickers are a dime a dozen. Even in the pros, kickers who were stars as college players usually do not have very successful careers. A kicker's "life" in pro football is usually very short, despite the fact that they suffer the least amount of physical abuse. Because of the job required of them, a kicker's maximum body profile tends to be a lot less bulky than his teammates. He's not expected to block, or tackle, or take hits. In fact, the rules now forbid "running into the kicker" since a kicker is in a very vulnerable position with respect to oncoming rushers, and there is a severe penalty for being flagged for that. 

    You would think that kicking, given that it involves only a couple of physical functions--catching the ball as it's hiked by the center, holding it in front of one's body, and kicking it as far as possible downfield--would be a simple thing to do well. Not so. To do it well, and consistently, is very difficult. In the first place, there is no room for error. A kicker can't move to elude oncoming rushers. He has only a hectic second or two to execute his play. Clearly, getting even a poor kick successfully in the air is better than not getting it kicked at all, so the margin for error is usually razor-thin. In order to kick a ball so that the maximum amount of force is transmitted from the rising foot of the kicker, to the inert ball above, there must be a perfect collision. A slight deviation of impact will result in a "shank" or weak kick with shorter distance. Both height (length of "hang time") and distance are required for a superior kick. You want to force the opposing receiver to catch the ball as far back from the line of scrimmage as possible, and you want it to take as long as possible to reach him, in order to allow your teammates to run downfield to "cover" the receiver's return-attempt. And, of course, in cases where the field is "short" the kicker is required to attempt to kick the ball out of bounds as close to the end-zone line as he can, but without crossing it before going out of bounds, which necessitates accuracy as well as control of force.        

    Most teams settle for mediocre kicking, and work to overcome the deficits which result. "Field position" is regarded as a strategic approach which is less important than having a superior offense or defense. "Short field" drives are obviously easier than long (sustained) ones, but short field approaches are typical of defensive-oriented teams, generally. Playing for position is like playing poker, whereas in the world of high-power pro offenses, a good passing game can make playing for position an inappropriate choice. The most crucial situation involving the kicking game is when a team is backed up almost to its own goal line, and must punt out of its own end-zone. A safety is always a risk in these circumstances, and no kicker wants to get caught for the dreaded two-points--or even, god forbid, a touchdown. The ability to kick for distance when "backed-up" can mean the difference between winning and losing a game.

    Andy Lee has been the 49ers punter now for nine years. In each of his nine seasons, he's been a stand-out, qualifying for All-Pro status three times. He's always among the leaders in average yards, and hang-time, and his efficiency is nearly perfect--he never gets tackled, and always gets his kick away. For a decade, the 49ers have had the luxury of not having to worry about their punting game. Punters come and punters go, but good ones are hard to come by. When you have one like Lee, you feel blessed. One very vital aspect of your franchise is taken care of, reliable. In professional sports, reliability is usually in short supply. Which is why Andy Lee is a star, in a role that most fans usually don't appreciate, or appreciate enough. Over time, a great punter may actually account for several wins, singlehandedly. That's a rare gift, a claim that only a great quarterback, or a star running-back can make. 

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  • 12/13/13--05:22: Stencils

  •                                                          A

                             on a



                                            blades of grass

                                         not quite

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  • 12/19/13--12:38: Bill Berkson Dream

  • Bill Berkson Dream

    I’m at the Four Seasons for a quick solitary lunch, sitting at the bar. After a moment or two, I notice Bill Berkson sitting diagonally from where I am, but he doesn’t see me. He’s wearing a very expensive medium grey suit, and his hair is sculpted onto his head. He’s talking to another man, a client, and I realize he (Bill, in his other life) must be a stockbroker. This doesn’t surprise me at all. Turning sideways, I can just hear scraps of his conversation. “The residuals will knock your sox off,” says Bill, and “you wouldn’t even be here if your weren’t.” Bill sips a pink cocktail, then notices me watching. He winks, not wanting to interrupt his meeting, and motions slightly with his head towards the door. A few minutes later, I see him get up and give me another confirming look. He heads for the door, and I follow a safe distance behind. Out on the street, he shakes his head as if waking up from a daydream. “Hey, man, whatcha’ doing here?” “Not much. What was that, a ‘power lunch’?” “Nah, just something I needed to tie up . . . Hey, I’ve got to run, so let’s get together later.” Suddenly, Bill pulls his jacket lapels apart, and in a single motion, his whole outfit falls away, revealing a superhero get-up with black tights, a white T-shirt with big blue "BB" capitals in the middle. I never suspected how muscular he is. “Alright, I’m off, brother,” he adds, as he bounds away, taking 20 foot leaps down the street. I stare after him in disbelief, with mixed feelings of envy and barely suppressed admiration.

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  • 12/22/13--10:19: Absolute Zero

  • We sit at the edge of something that is so vast that it is inconceivable. But we may be at or near its imaginative center--a vanity which has a seductive quality. 

    What is a thing

    Absolute Zero is a conceptual possibility, not yet achieved, in which there is no measurable energy being emitted from a substance. Where there is nothing--no matter--there is nothing to measure. Our minds evolved over time to facilitate interaction with the material world, and incidentally developed the capacity for independent symbolic speculation (or thought). Scientific experiment, and language--the tools by which we measure and gauge the speculative apprehension of phenomena--appear to be unique to our species. 

    In order to measure a condition, or effect, we must utilize material. In other words, our measure is matter itself, of which we and everything else animate, or inanimate is comprised. Can temperature be measured without the presence matter? All matter is energy, and we've been told that all matter is, in effect, light. Matter is "arrested light"--or light that has partially congealed into substance. 

    All substance, then, contains energy. Even at a point very near absolute zero, in fact to within a billionth of a degree short of it, matter exhibits properties which suggest that it might cease to be matter, without any measurable energetic exhibition. Like infinite space, and anti-matter, the idea of absolute zero seems beyond our reach, perhaps because we're not given to apprehend it. 

    As material beings, we disport within the dimensions of our consciousness, and accept our limitations with joy or frustration. To be in anything, is to be contained, and all languages--verbal, visual, abstract--are attempts at limiting the terms of agreement in order to obtain sufficient specificity. But it may be that the universe is far too complex to be grasped with efficient systems. 

    Absolute Zero is one dilemma (a limit) which we can describe in the abstract, but science so far has been unable to produce an experimental perfection that would permit us to get our minds around it. We don't yet understand the full implication of what a pure emptiness might consist. To have an emptiness, one must postulate it within a containment, else it ceases to have any meaning. A sensible emptiness, then, is a toy of the mind, at least for the time being. 

    At the other end of the scale, it appears that entropy, that quality of the loss of energy, or the spontaneous depletion of measurable energy at a rate, actually decreases as matter reaches its maximum load of energy, a curious and paradoxical fact that runs counter to intuition. 

    Absolute Zero for me is a ravishing conception, one that titillates and provokes my imagination. Speculation swirls around it in my mind like a series of nested gyroscopes, so that I'm not sure of exactly where I am, or in what direction I'm moving. Stillness and movement may be simultaneous, in happy intersection, and emptiness may be hiding inside the fullness of the moment, surrounded by consciousness and the richness of the material world. 

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    Only in America.

    There are ways to make a living, and there are ways to make a living. In America, even criminals can think of themselves as responsible family men. But in the entertainment industry, comics and clowns and magicians and gurus and dumb pet trainers all can find a place. It's the land of opportunity.

    I don't know how Gar Ryness got started, but his first home video went viral in 2009, and he hasn't looked back. The National Pastime will never be the same, now that the mimics have hit the scene, and every star's quirks are the stuff of once and future legends. 

    BattingStanceGuy now has is own website, and has been featured in several news stories and media feature pieces, including The New York Times. Basically, Ryness's shtick is to imitate (or make impressions) of the physical stance (with all the antics and peculiar poses etc.) of professional baseball players when they're batting. 

    Traditionally, batting stance and swing theory have emphasized certain basic requirements. In order to complete a swing, with a minimum of wasted energy and delay, a batter should stand with his feet a bit apart, facing 90 degrees from the pitcher, with the bat held in a position about 45 degrees vertically, and a comfortable distance from his body. If you watch any batter swing--especially professionals--you will notice that nearly all of them begin and end their actual swings in roughly this classic way. But all similarity ends there. 

    How a batter approaches the plate, prepares himself to swing, what position feels proper to him, along with his eccentric body movements and reactions and superfluous tics and flinches and adjustments--all constitute the host of variations which separate all batters from each other. Successful hitting is a combination of intense focus, coordinated body movements, and a psychological mantra (or set of rhythmic steps) which help a batter focus his attention and energy on the contest between himself and the pitched ball coming towards him. Each batter has his peculiar method. Some are extremely relaxed, others are all wound up and tense. Some batters go through a set of odd body motions. Others hold the bat in extreme, counter-intuitive positions prior to executing their swings. Some can't stand still, and wiggle or twitch as they await the pitch. Some go into a kind of wind-up, similar to pitchers' wind-ups. Some point the bat at the pitcher, until the pitcher begins his wind-up. All these different mannerisms become characteristic of a batter's specific character, a kind of signature style of play. 

    Ryness has studied every player's physical antics and stance, and he can imitate them with impressive skill. He has an impressionist's intuition about how to capture body movements, how to emphasize the nuances of a person's carriage and exaggerate them to comic effect. And he's discovered the perfect medium--the brief You-Tube spot video clip, ideally suited to a couple of quick impressions. And he's even extended this to include a full work-up of an imaginary Brian Wilson "work-out show"--or Brian Wilson Fitness Minute. Check out this extended spot video of Ryness entertaining Manny Ramirez (when he was with the Dodgers) and teammates with multiple impressions. 

    Probably, Ryness is a new hybrid entertainment wizard, who's turned a nifty little concept into a whole new career, so take it on the road! (David Letterman Show clip). If it's 15 minutes of fame you want, why not 3 minutes? People have been looking at baseball players for a century and more, but Ryness is the first person to build a routine out of it. It's a typical Horatio Alger success story. I don't do plugs, but I salute Ryness for a brilliant bit of trivial pursuit.    

    Famous Weird Batting Stances

    Craig Counsell
    Reach for the sky!

    Jeff Bagwell
    The classic deep squat

    Kevin Youkilis
    Is this to build up torque?

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    When I was growing up in the Bay Area in the 1950's, there was little or no regulatory control of air pollution in America. In those days, the route from Northern and Central California, Hiway 80, into the San Francisco Bay Region, via San Pablo Avenue, threaded through Vallejo, across the old Carquinez Strait Bridge, and the towns of Crockett, Rodeo, Hercules, San Pablo, Richmond,  Berkeley and Emeryville, before turning onto the Bay Bridge towards San Francisco. That was before Hiway 80 was extended across the inland hills and onto the tideland bay-fill flats of the eastern shore. 

    In those days, when the road led right through the midst of the Rodeo Refinery (now owned by Phillips 66) plant--an enormous forest of chemical towers, smokestacks and piping structures--the air quality in and around the plant was simply beyond belief. In those days, before the construction of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, transport between Richmond and the Marin Peninsula was by ferry, and the road to the Richmond Point Shore slip led right along the edge of the huge Chevron Petroleum Refinery, beneath the range of low hills where dozens of glowering cylindrical holding tanks were ranged. Driving through the Rodeo Refinery then was a daunting gauntlet, in which normal respiration was impossible. One drove at high speed, with car windows up, holding one's breath for as long as one could, to avoid inhaling the noxious, stinking fumes spewing from the countless stacks of smoking discharge. 

    Anyone living within a mile of these huge plants was at dangerous risk of a number of health problems, including extraordinary lung cancer rates. Beginning in the late 1950's, state and federal agencies initiated a number of regulatory curbs on the plants, and by the 1970's, there had been relatively significant improvements in the air quality at and around their immediate vicinity. The petroleum industry fought these initiatives at every turn, and the history of their compliance has been marked by repeated acts of open defiance, absorbing symbolic fines and penalties while routinely exceeding statutory limits on the amount and kind of pollution they release into the environment.       

    The effect of the refineries on Bay Area air quality is severe. Even at the markedly reduced levels we experience today--many times less blatant than they once were--populations living within their immediate geographical region can expect to suffer a number of serious health consequences. These effects occur year round, 365 days a year. Frequent "emergency""accidents" occur on a regular basis, during which large releases of toxic substances blanket the surrounding urban and suburban precincts with foul-smelling chemical clouds which settle and linger in the landscape. 

    The Bay Area enjoys a marine aspect. That is, due to its proximity to ocean breezes and cooling fogs and general mild atmospheric turbulence, the worst effects of this ongoing pollution are not noticed, because they are literally shifted away. San Francisco and the Marin Headlands are notoriously windy places. 

    But during periods of stagnant air massing over the Bay basin, this natural sweeping action is suspended, and the sources of pollution become more concentrated. Pollution levels build up, and the  agencies (such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District) tasked to look after the health of the environment and inhabitants of the region, issue warnings designed to allow people to avoid the worst aspects of air-born pollution, wherever they may reside.        

    Over the last couple of weeks, due to a general warming trend in the Bay Area, we've been hearing a lot lately about the stagnant air mass, and have been alerted to what are called "Spare the Air Days"--with calls for less driving, less private combustion, and burning generally. People are being advised by the commercial network news programs' weather-persons to refrain from burning in their fire-places, and barbecuing, etc.     

    When stagnant air masses settle over the bay, the first thing you notice--if you're paying attention--is the unmistakable odor of burning oil. As residents of the East Bay Hills, we've become familiar with this smell, a phenomenon which occurs whenever breezes stall, or when the prevailing winds shift from the Northeast, to the East, or back towards the West, and the pollution is blown back across surrounding cities and residential neighborhoods. In other words, whenever stagnant air conditions persist, the population is once more reminded that the actual cause of our local pollution is the oil refineries. Wood burning hasn't been a significant source of pollution in the Bay Area for decades; most people heat their homes with natural gas or electric heaters, or with radiant heat from heated water circulation systems. The actual effect of wood-burning, as a contributor to local pollution, is negligible, in the larger scheme of total measurable pollution. 

    Why do we routinely hear these "warnings" about air quality, with reminders to "spare the air" by driving less and not lighting fires in our fire-places? There is no doubt that any moderation of the burning of fossil fuels is a good thing, and any reasonable excuse that discourages us from unnecessary use is probably a good thing too. I'm certainly not suggesting that people pretend that all sources of pollution--both essential and flagrantly irresponsible (and within our control)--should be ignored. Quite the contrary.   

    The petroleum corporations want to divert the public's attention away from the obvious fact of the continuing levels of pollution which they cause and produce. When stagnant air causes the petroleum refinery pollution to be noticed, the public is reminded again of the dangers in its midst, and the issue becomes a public relations problem for Chevron and Conoco Phillips. Dampening the public's perception of the continuing environmental crisis which these plants cause is crucial to the industry's attempts to control political sentiment, and keep down the costs of controlling the pollution they produce. (Anyone with ears and eyes has been reminded repeatedly of BP (British Petroleum)'s public media campaign to salvage its image following the gulf oil platform disaster. "We're just good people trying to do a good job, and you can rest assured that we will continue to provide cheap energy with a minimum of impacts on the environment." Right.)  

    Who are the media affiliates fooling? Do they think the residents of the Bay Area are so naive as to believe that wood burning is really a major source of our local pollution? Or that vehicular use, during the Christmas holidays, when more people are off the roads on vacation, not commuting in typical numbers, is the real cause of the air quality "crisis"? They must.  

    As a result of fracking, across the U.S., there are some who now predict that America will become "energy non-dependent" within a decade. We once might have regarded that development as a blessing. Fracking is a technology that has been known about for decades, but has not been "perfected"--made economically viable-- until recently. Unfortunately, the environmental hazards and devastation it brings will make large parts of our country essentially uninhabitable. What price are we willing to pay to achieve "cheap" energy. Of course, there is no such thing as "cheap" oil--there never was. The costs are hidden behind a public relations campaign to conceal both the short- and long-term effects of continued over-exploitation and consumption.

    Our planet is a bank, and there is only so much treasure contained within it. If we spend imprudently, and use up our precious equity (resources) as if there were no tomorrow, there won't be a tomorrow--at least on the terms we dream of. 

    The first step in moderating our consumption of world resources is population control; need can overwhelm supply, no matter how conservative our approach to use. The second step is to husband the resources we have, so we don't use them up faster than necessary. The third involves research into less dangerous and dirty forms of energy, which don't harm the environment, and which aren't literally finite. Science may eventually make our present predicament look like child's-play, but we won't know that until and/or unless we get lucky and actually solve that problem. 

    In the meantime, we should stop letting ourselves be duped into believing that the undesirable side-effects of petroleum exploitation, purification and consumption aren't costing us dearly. Maybe we want to be told that everything is rosy. Maybe we like not being reminded of the poison in our midst. People can be very immature, especially when they lie in a pleasantly reassuring media bath. Wake me up when the crisis is over. The world is getting better. Eventually we'll solve this problem. In the meantime, don't bother me. Is that some guy barbecuing steaks on his grill, or is Conoco-Phillips spewing a little more shit into the atmosphere this evening? Don't depend on the local weathermen to tell you. If we were routinely kept informed about the real dangers and harm the refineries are continuing to cause, we might not be so forgiving. 

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  • 01/04/14--11:02: Building Castles in the Air

  • Putting things together, and taking them apart. So much of invention and creativity involves these very crucial processes. Seeing congruencies in nature or technology, imagining new combinations, deconstructing existing structures, natural or man-made, synthesizing new wholes out of disparate parts, altering contexts and scales. 

    I don't remember how it happened, but somehow I found the following aerial photo of a great array of container cargo boxes. Who knows where this might be, or what it means.

    Is this just a storage site, or a dumping ground? Even when we can easily identify what something is, its purpose or meaning may be obscure. Container cargo technology devastated the dockworker trade, and the unions which represented it. Seen at this scale, the power of engineering to dwarf the hand, and move mountains, is daunting. 

    But the other picture is familiar and obvious. Anyone born between 1890 and 1970 would know these as Legos@, the toy building blocks which generations of kids, not just in America and Europe, but around the world, have played with or seen. Stray pieces have been swirled and scattered and lost and sprinkled across our landscape, orphans from the sets they came in. Building toys have a proud tradition: There were Froebel blocks, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, and dozens of other kinds. Their purpose was to entertain children, while providing a platform for their instruction in the functions of construction, creative adaptation, systems segmentation, etc. These were toys for boys, who were expected to grow up to run the world, to build things, to solve practical problems in the real world. Girls weren't expected to need to learn these lessons, since their place was in the home, bearing and raising children, keeping the house in order.   

    That must have changed by now. Women's liberation has freed womankind from the burdens of dependency. Girls are now encouraged to study math and science and engineering, computers and law and medicine and business administration, just like the boys. So I suppose it may be that girls are now given building toys, instead of dolls and sewing-machines and perfumes. 

    Each generation passes its accumulated knowledge onto the next. In civilized societies--i.e., the "West"--that has become an ambiguous function, since the technology of life has been changing with increasing rapidity over the last couple of centuries. What befits a properly educated adult? In primitive societies, the "coming-of-age" initiation is filled with foreboding and anticipation, usually involves a rite of passage, which may be terrifying or painful, but once completed, entitles one to full membership as an adult in the tribe. In Western societies, becoming an adult is more difficult, because the definition is vague, and the rituals by which it is attained are not universal. Problem solving, vanquishing obstacles, achieving agreement and compromise, leading and following, etc., are among the skills we commonly associate with successful adult performance. 

    The world(s) of adults, and the world(s) of children. They intersect, and overlap. Innocence and immaturity, age and maturity. Two precincts, separated by a no-man's land of uncertainty and transition. Some children abhor childhood, long for escape into adulthood. Some adults pine for their childhood, a time perfect and simple. In America, adolescence has been idolized as a kind of ideal period, when the first stirrings of sexuality, the first apprehensions of the joys of art and adventure and freedom, are experienced. In America, the notion that one can choose whatever one might become, as an adult, is presumed. You can become anything you want, given your lights and conditions. This is of course not true. It is usually as difficult to become what you're not expected to pursue, as it is to pursue what you're supposed to. Some people seem destined to become exactly who they were born to be. One of the hallmarks of our so-called classless society is that you aren't born into an identity. That, then, becomes the risk--that one may fail as easily as succeed. The responsibility for one's own identity and outcome rests officially on one's own shoulders. We value personal responsibility, while accepting the risk of failure.

    Sitting on the floor, of a Christmas morning, hundreds of small plastic Lego@ pieces spread out before one, one's future life may hang in the balance. "What can you build?" What indeed?

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    Occasionally, in the book world, you encounter an author, or an artist, who knocks your socks off, whom you've never heard of. You can live with books for 100 years, and there's always someone you haven't yet discovered, whose efforts bear the mark of genius, but who for one reason or another, has eluded your prying curious eye. 

    My knowledge of the history of modern American painting leaves a lot to be desired, but some of the blank spots are filling in. Irving A. Block was an aspiring canvas/mural painter in the 1930's, who eventually would go on to work in Hollywood, contributing variously as a writer, producer and special effects designer on such films as Forbidden Planet [MGM, 1956], and The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock [Columbia, 1959]. Some of his early paintings can be viewed on his daughter Francesca Lia Block's website here.  

    I stumbled on this precious little letterpress book a while back, and realized that it was one of only 15 special hand-colored copies. As the colophon states, this edition was limited to 265 copies, published as number eight in the California Masters Series published by Santa Susana Press, California State University, Northridge, in 1989. The author of the poems is Jill Block, the wife (widow) of Irving, herself a poet.   

    Letterpress printing is an old art, kept alive today primarily by small craftsmen laboring in relative obscurity, usually on shoestring budgets, connected to institutions or struggling along doing livres d'artistes or vanity projects. The process and the materials are too labor-intensive and expensive, in our age of technological automation, for general publishing jobs. Their projects are labors of love and devotion to a craft, which makes the kind of products they produce as unusual and prized as they have ever been.    

    Juvenile or naive illustration is a whole special department of book art. I've commented before on this blog about the work of Beatrix Potter, Virginia Lee Burton, and E.B. White (whose classic Stuart Little was illustrated by Garth Williams), J.R.R. Tolkien (some of whose work was illustrated by Tolkien himself). There are dozens of different kinds of styles. Bemelmans, Gorey, Theodor Geisel, Maurice Sendak. The list would go on and on.    

    But when I discovered this item, I'd never even encountered the name. Block worked in different genres, but the illustrations here seem perfectly suited to the text and feeling of the dimensions of the book itself. They're line drawings, which depend initially on the clarity and precision of of the representation, but the delicate pale pastel color wash makes them seem more fragile and delicate.  

    The writing and publication of Tying Shoelaces appears to have been truly a family affair, which grew out of the life and energy of both parents, as collaborators and companions. 

    Husband and wife collaborations in the arts are rare. Think of the Eames, of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Collaboration, in fact, is a difficult process. 

    Childrens book illustration can end up being too crude, or too precious. The problem lies in avoiding the natural condescension of talking down to your audience, not being too pedagogical. Ultimately, the problem involves approaching subject-matter in a manner that is as direct and inquiring as innocence itself.   

    Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of children's verse, or even light verse. Rhyme tends to lull me to distraction, it tinkles and hops, clangs and thumps along, and seems intended to remind me continually of how inevitably dull life is. Hickory-dickory-dock. The little pink Energizer Bunny. How cute can we be? But it can be done well, and when it is, it's a small miracle. In another blog, I discussed Tennessee Williams's poem For Carson McCullers. How to make a poem sound sweet and simple, without seeming to be too precious or patronizing. He was like the S.J. Perelman of light verse.   

    Ogden Nash perfected the nonsense rhyme, stretching it and tweaking it into preposterous shapes and attitudes. A little of that goes a very long way. The poem below is both a poetic description, and a witty little concrete poem at the same time.  

    Childrens books that address the subject of death, or suffering, or deprivation, usually fail. Here's one, about the death of a pet, that just manages not to sound too sad, but is quietly grave.

    It's amazing how various Irving A. Block's artistic career was. Read an interview with him here, for an interesting skip down memory lane.  There's a lot of stuff about the WPA, and some of Block's contemporaries who later became famous.  

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  • 01/16/14--10:18: Tansman

  • Alexander Tansman [1897-1986] was a Polish composer in a typical 20th Century mold. Growing up in his native Poland, when it was still apart of old Czarist Russia, in a well-to-do Jewish household in Lodz, he studied law but chose to emigrate to Paris to pursue a musical career. For a while, he performed as a piano virtuoso, but eventually his talent as a composer became the focus. Despite producing music for many different kinds of instrumental combinations, today it is his works for guitar that he is remembered. These comprise just a hand-ful of pieces, but they seem as natural (and inevitable) to the instrument as any by Spanish, Italian or South American composers. It was through the influence of Andres Segovia, who throughout his lifetime encouraged contemporary composers to explore writing for the guitar, that Tansman came to write for it. There were others, including the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce, and the Brazilian Villa-Lobos. 

    Tansman and Segovia in middle age

    Tansman often used Polish thematic material, as well as traditional Polish musical forms, such as the mazurka and polonaise. But his work shows no explicitly "Chopin-istic" qualities, at least to my ear; Tansman said that he used "folk-like" material but never specific themes. His guitar compositions for solo guitar are among the most popular concert pieces in the repertory. 

    Tansman and Segovia

    Tansman emigrated to America when the Nazis rose to power, and worked in Hollywood for a while, scoring for films, and was even nominated for an Oscar for his work on Paris Underground [1945, Constance Bennett Productions]. Finally, he returned to Europe, spending the last years of his life in Paris, where he continued to compose until his death in 1986. 

    Here is a tidy gathering of YouTube links. 


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  • 01/17/14--09:37: Skunk Hour

  • We live in a typical densely in-filled suburban residential neighborhood, bounded on the east side of the ridge by a regional park, Tilden Park, which runs north and south along Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. Though the park isn't technically wild, it has enough forest and brush cover to harbor a number of species of wild fauna--deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, squirrels, possums, and many kinds of birds. 

    Typically we see deer in the very early hours of the morning, wandering through the neighborhood looking for food. Occasionally we'll see a raccoon hunting for garbage, or crows, or the occasional condor gliding overhead. 

    And every once in a while, especially on warm windless nights, and most particularly when the moon is full, we'll detect the unmistakeable presence of skunk. Once you've smelled skunk, you never forget the scent. It's not like any other smell. 

    Our yard is surrounded by a big fence, so you might assume that it would present a barrier to a small animal's progress, but you'd be wrong. Skunks aren't climbers, but they are good at getting under things, like gates. Dogs in the neighborhood will often bark if they hear or sense a wild animal, or another domestic animal present. So I used to think that when I smelled a skunk, it was because a dog or person had confronted the skunk, stimulating it to spray defensively. 

    But it turns out that skunks don't really need a confrontation to spray. They do it for territorial marking, to leave a calling-card to other animals, or skunks, that they're there, or have been there. Invariably, the skunks seem to prefer our yard to others in the area, though I may simply be feeling persecuted here. 

    In the movie Elephant Walk [Paramount, 1954] with Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Finch and Dana Andrews, a tea planter in Ceylon builds his plantation home right in the pathway of the local elephant herd's favorite passage. It may or may not be true that elephants prefer one familiar pathway to water or food, or will insist on using it even in the face of obstacles. In the movie, the elephants eventually break through the surrounding compound walls and tear down the big white mansion, at great risk to Ruth Wiley (Elizabeth Taylor), whose Indian servant, named Appuhamy (played by the Indian actor Abraham Sofaer), tries to shoo the elephants away, while he futilely cries "back, back, back!"before being picked up by the trunk of one and thrown aside, to Taylor's cries of "Appuhamy! Appuhamy!" 

    Appuhamy: "Stay back, mistress!" 

    I surmise that we may well lie directly in the old skunk path of the neighborhood, dating back to a time before this area was settled. Maybe we're right in the middle of the old "Skunk Walk"? There's really nothing here for them (our garbage cans have secure lids), and we don't put garbage in them until an hour before pick-up on Friday mornings. 

    Like clockwork on the first warm evening of a full moon, we'll smell the critters. Occasionally, if I'm dressed, I'll turn on all the external floodlights and maybe even step out onto the deck and make loud noises. Skunks aren't frightened of this, but it will often succeed in making them uncomfortable enough to leave. Skunks are nocturnal animals, and they don't like company. They aren't aggressive like raccoons. Never having owned a dog, I've never had to address the problem of a sprayed pet, which can be a real hassle.      

    Skunks spray from two small orifices on either side of their anus, and have either to be turned away from you, or literally to bend their back and tail forwards over their head, to hit you. Their spray can reach 10 feet, so keeping a good distance is advisable. Apparently they hiss and stamp their feet before they spray, as a preliminary warning (like a rattlesnake uses its rattle). 

    I once thought that skunk spray was just skunk piss, but this is wrong. The chemical composition of skunk spray is specifically produced by these special glands, and it's very powerful stuff. It's called thiol compound or acetate thioesters of these. They're so powerful that the human nose can detect them at concentrations of only 10 parts per billion. When you get close to skunk spray, the smell seems actually to be "hot" the way green onions are when you are chopping them. Apparently, if you get the spray into your eyes, it can be very dangerous. 

    One of Robert Lowell's most famous poems, and a favorite of mine, is--

      Skunk Hour 

    for Elizabeth Bishop

    Nautilus Island's hermit 
    heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage; 
    her sheep still graze above the sea. 
    Her son's a bishop. Her farmer 
    is first selectman in our village, 
    she's in her dotage. 

    Thirsting for 
    the hierarchic privacy 
    of Queen Victoria's century, 
    she buys up all 
    the eyesores facing her shore, 
    and lets them fall. 

    The season's ill-- 
    we've lost our summer millionaire, 
    who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean 
    catalogue. His nine-knot yawl 
    was auctioned off to lobstermen. 
    A red fox stain covers Blue Hill. 

    And now our fairy 
    decorator brightens his shop for fall, 
    his fishnet's filled with orange cork, 
    orange, his cobbler's bench and awl, 
    there is no money in his work, 
    he'd rather marry. 

    One dark night, 
    my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull, 
    I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down, 
    they lay together, hull to hull, 
    where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . . 
    My mind's not right. 

    A car radio bleats, 
    'Love, O careless Love . . . .' I hear 
    my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, 
    as if my hand were at its throat . . . . 
    I myself am hell, 
    nobody's here-- 

    only skunks, that search 
    in the moonlight for a bite to eat. 
    They march on their soles up Main Street: 
    white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire 
    under the chalk-dry and spar spire 
    of the Trinitarian Church. 

    I stand on top of our back steps and breathe the rich air-- 
    a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail 
    She jabs her wedge-head in a cup 
    of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail, 
    and will not scare.

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  • 01/19/14--10:28: Going Green

  • Everyone wants to be considered ecologically correct these days. The watch word of the day is green. Going green, being green, thinking green, practicing green. The land masses of the earth, from space, exhibit vast areas of green, where forest and jungle predominate. Our planet is undergoing significant change, due mostly to man's devastating exploitation of the carbon bank. 

    Life is about burning, the oxidation of compounds that releases energy--energy to drive all movement, all work, all activity. But too much burning, uncontrolled burning, is not a good thing. Fires burning out of control, burning more than is good, produce excess waste products that the earth cannot absorb. Life on earth is sustained by a kind of balance between burning, and the absorption of the products of burning. Man has tipped the balance in favor of burning, and there isn't enough green flora on the planet to absorb it. This had led to Global Warming, as the temperature of the earth's atmosphere rises gradually, causing incremental, severe changes in the planet's mean balance. We've all been indoctrinated in the consequences of Global Warming. 

    Here in California, we're beginning to see the immediate effects of Global Warming, as the current drought progresses into its second year, and the meteorologists predict little rainfall in the coming months. Rationing and scarcity are coming, and no one is certain about how this will play out. The state's agricultural interests are tense and poised to fight over dwindling supplies, and historical and statutory water rights and claims are once more coming into the spotlight. 

    One thing seems very clear to me: The state's fragile riverine network has been taxed to its limit, and we're already at the threshold of a "watershed moment" in the growth paradigm. The American West's prosperity has largely been mounted on a platform of reclamation, vast hydro-electric projects that permitted the rapid increase of urban and suburban development. That rapid expansion has reached and exceeded the limits of the state's fresh water. The aquifers, the mountain stream watersheds have been exploited to their ultimate limits. Our Governor has advocated a new version of the "peripheral canal"--a huge underground diversion of the Sacramento River under the Delta, which would spell the final doom of the ecological health of the Delta itself, in order to serve the thirst of the Southern California agricultural interests, and the continued explosion of urban and residential development in Los Angeles, San Diego, etc. 

    Everyone knows the end has already arrived. The state's water resources cannot be taxed any further. You can forget about ecological concerns in the coming years--fish and wildlife--because the powerful interests vying for a share are stronger than the protectionists. Fresh water is finite. And without fresh water there is no prosperity. No settlement, no industry, no agriculture. This is a fact, blunt and inescapable. But somehow, people think that just one more dam, one more diversion, one more "miracle" in the desert can save us from scarcity. They are deluded.

    In any case, there isn't anything the ordinary citizen can do about it, except husband the water they use personally, and not waste what is left. In this household, we've had a water-saver shower since 1991, we covered our yard in hard landscaping in 1994 (brick), and we have low water flush toilets. Our water usage is less than one-third of the residential unit average for our area. I suppose that if rationing comes, the water authorities will expect us to cut back based on our average annual use, though our neighbors have been using three and four times (at least) as much as we have over the years. This isn't fair, but fairness doesn't seem to matter to bureaucracies; they make rules that are simple, and easy to carry out. Thinking microscopically doesn't suit their agenda.  

    In the meantime, here are two very nice green cocktail recipes which will soften the dry winds of unwelcome change, as tumbleweed skips across the arid sands of the Central Valley, by abandoned mirages of oases. The coming scarcities will likely mean the forced closure of some of the state's towns and ranches. We can pollute and spoil land and water through pollution, but the devastation caused by severe water shortages could dwarf those effects. The future of water use in the state isn't bright.           

    Mixed, as usual, by proportion, and served up. Guaranteed to slake your thirst.  

    2 parts gin
    2 parts dry vermouth
    two parts Midori (melon liqueur)
    1 part Parfait d'Amour Orange


    2 parts white rum
    1 part yellow Chartreuse
    1/2 part Key Lime liqueur
    1/2 part fresh lemon juice

    It's mid-January, and the weather here in Northern California feels like early June. My God!, it's like Lozangeleez!

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    The French were out demonstrating this last Sunday in Paris and Lyon, against the government's Same Sex Marriage statute, passed and signed into law in May 2013. Recent rumors that the government would soon be implementing the so-called "equality ABC" program, in which public school children are to be subject to so-called "gender theory"--taught, in effect, that their genetic identity is only a blue-print for their sexual persuasion--were the impetus for the latest unrest. The French love to protest, anyway, but this appeared to represent a very strong sentiment. Reports differed, but the total numbers were probably in the hundreds of thousands. I can't remember when anything like this number of ordinary citizens took to the streets in America. These people mean business.   

    Opinion around the world has been changing. The new campaigns for legalization of same-sex marriage, same sex couple adoption and inheritance rights, have gained traction in many countries. For someone of my age (66), this is all a very unsettling and astonishing development. In the space of just a couple of decades, public opinion has undergone a profound shift towards widespread tolerance. 

    What I find most curious and peculiar is the way in which the nature of the promotion has itself changed during that same period. When I first knew Gay people in the 1960's and 1970's, the major concerns were prejudice and harassment. The Gays I knew mostly didn't have permanent relationships, didn't want them for the most part, and would have been mystified by the idea of legally binding contracts. Marriage was something that straight people did. They liked their freedom, and tended to condescend to "breeders" and all the responsibilities and inconvenience that marriage and child-rearing entailed. Insofar as I knew, there were no same-sex families with children at all--it simply wasn't something that occurred. In a few isolated cases, traditional couples that had broken up because one member had decided to "go Gay" after having lived the straight life, found themselves in the position of being same-sex "parents" to a child conceived in their previous straight marriage. Since they couldn't have "conceived" a child on their own, this was the only way it could occur. 

    In the years since then, proxy conception and surrogate breeding have become a reality, enabling same-sex couples, for the first time in history, to contemplate a kind of constructed parenthood. 

    Despite what one hears in the media from LGBT advocates these days, it is perfectly obvious that the whole campaign for legalization of same-sex marriage, parenting and inheritance is a new invention, designed to legitimate the sexual behavior and life-style of the LGBT communities. Posing the issue as a struggle over rights, was the strongest way of presenting the case, for marshaling sentiment and overcoming the customary resistance which has characterized cultural tradition around the world since the beginning of recorded history. This change in strategy happened almost overnight. 

    Most people, LGBT or straight, tend to think of sex as a private matter. It isn't something that people generally feel comfortable discussing in public. Among the LGBT communities, this reservation is no less common. Most LGBT people were content, as most people are, for the most part, to live quietly, alone or as couples, without serving as an example or challenge to the society at large. But the campaign for rights and recognition has encouraged  them to think of themselves as revolutionaries and guerillas in a struggle they never expected to fight. It has galvanized what had been intensely private emotional and personal feelings into political principles and propaganda. 

    As a child of the 1950's, raised in a traditional heterosexual household, the idea that Gay people might actually want to have families where children were raised, seems absurd to me. When I began to know LGBT people, as an adult, I found them to be uniformly unhappy--unhappy with their families, unhappy with their childhoods, their identity, their place in the world. My generation (the Sixties) was rebellious by nature, but the LGBT people I knew had another whole burden of resentment and anger they carried around. They tended to distrust, even to hate the straight world.

    It's difficult for me to comprehend how people who have a historical bone to pick with the traditional family, and with the religious and civil prohibitions against same sex behaviors and arrangements, can have been transformed, within a single generation in time, into committed partners and guardians. 

    France is a complex society of different political and religious affiliations. There are Protestants and Catholics and Muslims, Communists and socialists and radical rightists, and coalitions of every stripe. You'd need a Ph.D. in political science just to unravel them. The French right, however, seems to have decided that this new liberalization is a threat to their way of life--the traditional family, and everything it stands for. 

    Any issue that becomes this politicized, is bound to perpetuate animosities on both sides. The partisan debate that has developed between the advocates of traditional conjugal institutions, and those promoting new kinds of arrangements, is sewing the seeds of distrust and hostility which are bound to continue for many years. Children raised in "normal" households and in "new" ones will serve as hostages in the conflict. It will be a war fought in neighborhoods, in schools, in churches, in associations and societies, in locker-rooms and bathrooms and health clubs. It will create more confusion, and more distress, and more victims, than ever. 


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    Photo courtesy of Americana Exchange Monthly@

    On October 17, 1989, I was still employed at my government job in San Francisco, where I'd been working since April 1974. That day I left work early, as I did as often in those days, to avoid traffic on the Bay Bridge, taking the route home to Kensington in the East Bay. That day, too, I hadn't wanted to miss the third game of the World Series, which featured the Oakland A's versus the San Francisco Giants (the "Bay Bridge Series" as it came to be called), which would be televised at about 5:30 that evening. 

    When I got onto I-80, I decided to segue over to Serendipity Books at 1201 University Avenue in Berkeley. I was a regular customer of Serendipity in those days. I'd become a book collector, against my better instincts, and Serendipity was the finest antiquarian bookshop I knew, at least in the nine county Bay Area. The owner, Peter Howard, had the best stuff, and he knew how to cultivate customers. Anyway, that day I pulled into Peter's little parking-lot and made my way up to the second floor at the back, where the mysteries and some of the older stock was shelved. I can't remember exactly what I was looking at--perhaps a copy of Fielding Dawson's collected stories--but at exactly 5:04 PM the building began to shake. People who live in earthquake country have a kind of intuition about quakes: when one begins, there is a sudden feeling of inevitability--"is this the big one?" you ask yourself. In those few seconds, it became clear that this was indeed "a big one" though how big was not entirely clear. As I stood transfixed standing by the second floor window, I had the distinct feeling that things were on the verge of catastrophe. The books were falling off their shelves, and I could hear tall book-cases careening onto the floor on the ground floor below. "If this gets any more intense," I thought to myself, "this second floor might collapse." All this happened in the space of only about 15 seconds, yet it might have seemed to last a minute or more. I rushed downstairs, stepping over big piles of fallen books, and encountered Burton Weiss frantically taking an inventory of the customers and the damage. "Are you alright?" Burton blurted. "Yup, just fine," I replied. My first thought was for my own house, and I hightailed it up the hill. To my relief, it hadn't suffered any significant damage, though our two cats at the time, Vanilla and Java, were spooked. 

    By 1989, Burton had been working at Serendipity for some years. I don't know a lot of details about Burton, but he grew up in New York, attended Cornell, majoring in English literature. As an undergraduate there, Burton became active in political causes, as many of us did during the 1960's. In Burton's case, this involved demonstrating and contending with the University itself, primarily about Gay rights. As a Gay man, Burton felt strongly about the Gay Rights movement, and he was among the first to take up the issue as a personal crusade, rather early in its history. I don't know the background details, but at some point Peter hired Burton to be his assistant. Working for Peter was difficult, but Burton persevered for many years until circumstances permitted him to resign and become a part-time bookseller on his own. Burton had a home high in the Berkeley Hills, and he would eventually also acquire a house south of Barcelona on the east coast of Spain, where he would spend part of each year. 

    Not long after Burton left Serendipity, Peter and I had a falling-out, and I stopped going there. In the meantime, Burton and I became acquaintances, and I bought books from him from time to time. Burton was a fastidious man. If you went to his house, there were certain rules you had to follow. First, you were not allowed to touch anything, because you might disturb the order, and there was also the issue of cleanliness. I was allowed into Burton's "closet"--a small room off the upper hallway--because I was shopping, but one was not allowed to touch the books in his own collection, which were impressive indeed. Burton's collection's theme was Gay literature, and he had pursued it single-mindedly for decades. 

    In any event, Burton became seriously ill with cancer in 2011. He refused to talk about it with me, but it was clear that his time had come. He had worked and planned to live the life he'd dreamed about--the house in Spain, the independence of being his own boss, and a stable relationship with his partner Elliot Schwartz--and now it was all to come to a too-early close. In an ironic twist of fate, Elliot died just a few months later, also from cancer. Peter Howard had died only three months earlier, in March of that year. The collection was broken up and scattered to the trade, confirming the adage that we mortals are all just custodians of the physical artifacts that we invest with so much meaning and covetousness; we won't take them with us, no matter how determined we are not to relinquish them in life.    

    In any case, Burton composed the following keepsake, Aphorisms of the Rare Book Trade, for distribution to members of the Roxburghe Club, a bibliophilic club, which I've copied below. 


    These aphorisms bear more than a little truth about serious book collecting. As anyone who knows, knows, a book you acquire to add to your collection, isn't a book you want to handle. You keep it safely on the shelf, or in a custom made box, and you may take it out occasionally just to admire it and contemplate its rarity and fine condition, but actually reading it is strictly out of the question. That one might actually do so, is a privilege of ownership, but resisting this impulse is the higher purpose to which collecting, for collecting's sake, aspires. Materialism has gotten a bad name, since the advent of socialism and the distaste for effete acquisitiveness. But things are the hallmark of all societies, the repositories of our culture--books perhaps most of all, beside great paintings, buildings, musical compositions and events. 

    Burton's little trifle is a gentle poke at our pretension, being both true and charming at once. 

    Early in our acquaintance, Burton regaled me with the melodramatic account of a torrid love affair he'd had with a man who lived up around Santa Rosa. Burton had felt blessed to be found attractive by a man whose beauty he worshipped, and he considered leaving Elliot. This caused much agony and grief and embarrassment. Why, I wondered, is Burton relating to me these very private emotional matters? As I later understood, this was typical of Burton--he held nothing back. I realized that this was just the same kind of "deep gossip" my mother had used to practice, revealing the rumors and secrets of one's love life in intimate detail. The fact that such details emanated from a late-middle-aged Jewish Gay man, was only a matter of slight difference.   

    I miss Burton. I don't know what else he might have become. Perhaps an academic. Perhaps a bureaucrat. Perhaps even a writer (?). But as a bookseller, he knew his stuff, and reveled in its complexity. 

    Sometimes, the things you don't know about people are as important as the things you do know--as Ernest Hemingway said about literary works, what makes them powerful is the two-thirds portion of the floating iceberg that is submerged beneath the surface of what we're told or shown--the unknown, only implied by the part we're allowed to see.    

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  • 02/23/14--01:22: A Valentine (Delayed)

  • I have been married to the same woman for almost 45 years. Perhaps this is not noteworthy, despite the epidemic of divorce, and the inclination of people of my "liberated generation" to engage in other sorts of "arrangements" (short of matrimony), but it's a tribute to something--perhaps my wife's stubbornness, or to my lack of imagination. 

    The notion of celebrating love by devoting a single day a year to it is a pretty silly gesture. Love--and lust--are powerful motivators of emotion and action, though in our puritanical culture, displays of emotion and feeling are somewhat muted. In true capitalist spirit, we've turned Valentine's Day into an extravaganza of gifting and spending, appropriating what once was considered a religiously based observance. If Saint Valentine actually ever sent a farewell "valentine" to the daughter of jailer, he'd be surprised to discover, were he conscious today, eighteen hundred years later, how flagrantly trivial and secular his official day has become. 

    But we don't need excuses to express positive sentiment, do we? I mean, you can kiss or hug people you love or admire anytime, and many people do. Personally, I was raised to do this only on occasions of intimacy or extremity. Young people do a lot of hugging these days, and it's become sort of obligatory. Between men, a good handshake should usually be sufficient. Women are expected to emote more openly. Kissing the air beside someone's cheek has always seemed ridiculous to me, but in other cultures, it's de rigueur. I've always thought kissing a woman's hand is a really cool thing, but try it today, and you're likely to be laughed at. 

    But enough excuse-making. Here's a concoction for the terminally jaded, or an innocently sweet way of saying I love you. I noticed today at the grocery that those really big strawberries they sell nowadays look rather like hearts. 


    Are strawberries a good valentine's symbol? 

    In any case, I recently discovered a new mixer--the so-called Cotton Candy liqueur. It works perfectly in some drinks, so I invented one application that really tastes like a valentine.  

    2 parts gin
    1 part Cotton Candy Liqueur
    1 Part Lemon juice
    Dash of Parfait d'Amour

    --shaken and served up in a well-chilled cocktail glass.

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  • 02/27/14--10:23: Lover's Leap or Lover's Lane

  • Growing up as a teenager in America has meant, or at least used to mean, for lots of people, getting a car. The car was America's symbol of the freedom--the freedom of the road, the freedom to go where you wanted, and--in our youth--the freedom to interact, without supervision or oversight, with the opposite sex. In high school, a lot of the anticipation of growing up meant qualifying for your driver's license, and then either having the use of the family car, or somehow acquiring a vehicle of one's own. When I was growing up in 1950's, many boys dreamed of owning a car, and customizing it into a "jalopy."Jalopies were older cars that one rehabilitated into a "hotrod" or a cruiser. Owning and being seen driving one's own car were marks of distinction, particularly among lower class boys, whose interests tended toward the mechanical, rather than the intellectual. Auto shop class existed to prepare boys to become professional mechanics, but it wasn't just an "elective" shop--it was almost a way of life. America's romance with the automobile has been going on for the last century, though the decline of American automobile companies has dampened some of the excitement that it once enjoyed among American youth. And the computerization of automobile technics has made amateur tinkering with cars very retro. 

    Every small town in America has had something akin to a so-called Lover's Lane, a place where kids in cars could go to park, and "make out" (or neck, or . . . well, you know). The slightly illicit and forbidden aspect of teenage romance made growing up seem a little naughty. Smoking, dressing in a certain way, fighting, going steady--these were things that parents tended to frown on. One could be put on probation by parents for indulging in these kinds of behaviors. These were things associated with growing up, though acting truly mature, we always knew, wasn't simply about cigarettes and manly competition, or (heaven forbid) condoms. Growing up, becoming adult, meant taking responsibility and pursuing serious goals, accepting civic and family and perhaps religious duties. 

    Sexual dalliance is probably a "gateway" drug to getting into the really serious addiction of begetting children. And reading was probably my personal gateway drug into advanced education, and a life-long interest in literature, design, travel, etc. Drinking beer was another of those tacitly "forbidden" indulgences of the teenage years, so beer was probably the gateway to alcoholism, though I didn't grow to like beer until I was middle aged, and when, coincidentally, the boutique beer business really got going.       

    The notion of taking a leap--as with a leap of faith, or an intellectual leap--suggests a fatalistic risk, whereas the idea of going down a lane might seem less dangerous, though not necessarily altogether safe either. Wandering down a pathway could be simply a misdirection, whereas jumping from a precipice would suggest an ulterior gesture, like suicide, or a relinquishing of some commitment, perhaps of the despair of love spurned, or love lost. I'm not sure what to call this concoction, but if it has to have one, let it be Lover's Leap. But enough of this!

    "He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument." --Shakespeare (Love's Labor Lost)  

    Here's a love potion to twirl on your tongue. Swirled and served up in the usual very cold (freezer cold) cocktail glasses. By proportion, if you please.

    3 parts Jack Daniels
    1 part drambuie
    1/2 part creme de noyaux
    1/2 part amaro
    1 part lemon juice

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  • 03/01/14--02:46: Su-Mee at 47 Months

  • Su-Mee at 47 Months

    As readers of this blog may recall, I did an exposé on our pet cat Su-Mee back in November 2012. 

    Su-Mee is one of two Siamese cats we own. We had three, but our oldest one, Coco Rose ("Sunshine") died in November last year. Su-Mee and Coco never quite bonded with each other. Coco was already almost 16 when Su-Mee entered the scene, her place as senior member unchallenged. We had gotten Su-Mee, who was born in February 2010 to replace Lottie, who had died of breast cancer the previous January. I think Su-Mee and Lottie would have gotten along famously, but they missed each other like ships passing in the night. From a purely visual standpoint, they looked more alike than any of the other Siamese cats we've owned, both with pointed faces and darkly browned fur. 

    Su-Mee has become the dominant figure in our household. He's grown into a substantially large animal, a little like Vanilla, the first Siamese we owned, who died at 19 some years ago. He's long, and would be lean but for his love of his "chocolate crunchies"which he consumes at an alarming rate. No appetite problems with this guy! 

    Su-Mee has a facial expression that's slightly "dangerous"-looking. If you didn't know him, you might suspect he's a "difficult" character, but you'd be wrong. He's just a big pussy-cat. He loves to sit on your lap--which is what he's doing in the picture above, on my knees in bed--and in the mornings when I'm at my home computer, he's up on my right shoulder, purring for attention and kisses. He looks almost like a panther, with those deep-set eyes and sharp black snout. 

    We had him fixed when he was just a few months old, so we've had none of the complications that arise from an hormonally mature male cat. No spraying, no skanky odors, no unpredictable moods. Su-Mee likes to joust with Mocha, our other male, but it's all innocent play. They never get really angry with each other, the way Mocha used to once in a while with Coco. I suppose it's partly the difference in their ages. They seem like very distinct personalities, Mocha stand-off-ish and private, Su-Mee gregarious and demanding. 

    We've deduced that cats raised in "normal households" where there's freedom of movement and lots of touching and human contact, are better as adults than animals raised in strict confinement, which is characteristic of professional breeders' compounds, or public animal shelters. A cat raised in a small cage or room, with little or no contact except with other cats, may be excessively shy or emotionally "isolated" in adult-hood. We hear routinely these days that it's best to adopt animals from shelters, rather than from breeders. From a casual point of view, that makes a lot of sense. Animals left for adoption may be euthanized if not adopted, and there are always plenty available. But if you want an animal suitable for a pet, an animal raised in a loving household will likely be healthier and better socialized than a rescued animal, which may have been abused or neglected, or be suffering from separation anxiety, disorientation, or grief (from an expired owner). It's important to be "wanted" as a pet owner, just as much as you may "want" to own a pet. In the Bay Area, there are a couple of professionally run boarding facilities, where the animals are given play time each day, and not ignored completely. We've used them before, and will certainly do so again. They aren't cheap, but for animals you love and consider a part of your family, it's an expense we bear cheerfully. 

    Su-Mee has become a great and dear companion, whom I expect to spend most of my remaining years with, God willing. A famous British publisher, Michael Joseph [18978-1958] was a serious cat fancier, who wrote a couple of juvenile cat titles, as well as Cat's Company [Geoffrey Bles, 1930], and later, Charles: The Story of a Friendship [Michael Joseph, 1943], a non-fiction account of his Siamese cat. The latter book is scarce in its first edition, and now commands prices in the hundreds, if you can even locate one. I once owned a copy, but to my present regret, sold it. 

    The intimacy that may become established between a human and a cat is different than that between humans and dogs, or humans and horses. Cats are "domestic" creatures in a way dogs aren't. Dogs must be taken out and walked every day, and they require regular exercise. Cats can live comfortably in a household, and will thrive there, away from the terrors and risks of the outdoors, where they may be hurt or killed, become diseased or mistreated by strangers, or get into a number of difficult situations. Indoor cats are generally better off than outdoor ones, though I wouldn't necessarily insist that this applies uniformly to all individuals. Some indoor/outdoor cats live very peaceable lives, though on average they tend not to live as long. All cats are individuals, which is not always obvious to people who've never owned one. 

    All in all, Su-Mee has me well-trained. He's my master, and I'm his slave. He has the perfect arrangement for his comfort and convenience, one I wouldn't dare to violate. It's a mutual thing, with both parties satisfied.         

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  • 03/05/14--11:27: The Delta and the Gavel

  • The classification and evaluation of rare books is one of the premier functions of our culture. Great sums of money, amid the rarified atmosphere of finely tuned bibliographical knowledge and the application of the tools of scientific research, are exchanged,  relying on the professional appraisal of the values of the great books of the past, and present. 

    Books may be valued for their contents, or for their scarcity, or for something that attaches itself to them, like the provenance of ownership. 

    In the rare book trade, the appraisal of value is of the keenest interest, since the prospects for a decent or healthy return on investment depend upon the validity of an approximation of worth in the marketplace.  Ultimately, the value of anything depends upon what it may actually have sold for in the past, or what it might be expected to sell for in the future. An established valuation may be higher, or lower, depending upon the reliability of such criteria. If an auction value for a certain book took place a long time ago, it may no longer be a reliable indicator. If there's been a sudden influx of copies of a book thought, until then, to be scarce, even a recent transaction may no longer be a valid measure. Books, like stock shares, may be stable, or volatile, depending on their trading beta.         

    Yale's Beinecke Rare Book Room 
                                                                                                                   --photo courtesy Yale University

    There are different theories about how to appraise the potential value of books, as with any kind of collectible object. Over the years, I've meditated about the process of determining value, and have come up with the following model of how to measure the value of any particular book. It's primarily theoretical, but I believe, given its admittedly relative nature (there is no absolute assignable dollar value to any specific item), it still has considerable weight in the practical application.   

    I divide the classification of value into three separate aspects: Desirability, Scarcity and Condition; and I've visualized this triad as a delta, in which the area contained within the three aspects intersect, comprises the total value of a book.    

    It's possible to imagine a book that may not even exist. In Roman Polanski's cinematic version [The Ninth Gate, 1999] of Perez-Reverte's novel The Club Dumas [1993], the narrative is based on the proposition of the existence of a limited edition of a book that has been co-authored by the devil. We know that such a book does not exist, but we can imagine how valuable such a book might be, if it actually did. Desirability is a fluctuating quality within the marketplace. How badly someone, or some institution, may want something, may depend upon a number of things. Windows of time or opportunity may open, or close. Markets themselves may heat up, or cool down, reflecting trends in the general economy, or changes in fashion or taste. 

    A certain edition of a book may be very common, or scarce. If a book is scarce, its possible value may rise, but only if there are suiters for it. An ingenue's beauty may make her attractive, but her inheritance expectations may make her even more desirable. A common book may exist in countless pristine examples, but command no value at all, simply because no one wants it, at least at a premium. A book's desirability may be said to decrease in proportion to its lack of scarcity. If there were thousands of pristine copies of the Gutenberg Bible, then its value would be much less. Still, given its nearly universal interest, its value would still be very high, because of the demand. 

    Limited editions are, in effect, an attempt to speculate the market, using a premeditated scarcity to exploit the desire for collectible copies of a text that usually is, in its common trade iteration, many times less valuable. Purveyors of finely printed and bound books, using techniques once common to the making of nearly all printed matter, may exist only by plying their trade as a deliberate production of rarities, to subsidize the continued life of the moveable type craft. 

    In order for a book to rise to highest levels of value, all three aspects of quality must be high. High, that is, relative to the number of probable customers, and the intensity of their desire. It may be that there is only one customer for a book, but if there is only one copy of that book available, its value will certainly be influenced by its scarcity. On the other hand, if that copy is in tattered condition, it may not command anything like what it would were it to be in excellent, Fine condition. 

    We know for a fact that there are many priceless famous paintings that continue to be "missing" since the great Nazi art thefts of the early 1940's in Europe. The value of such an unique and coveted painting, held secretly by a private collector, might have a theoretical value on the open market, but since its existence cannot be made public without jeopardizing its ownership, its value is really much less, unless another private party, willing to risk disclosure, should agree to pay a figure that might approach its presumed "public" value. 

    In the hierarchy of the antiquarian book trade, older books are almost universally considered the most desirable, though age, in and of itself, is no measure of value. Incunabula, published in the early 16th century, may have very little value, given the large number of surviving copies. Whereas a fine copy of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in a Fine original dustwrapper, may command as much as $100,000 or more on the retail market. Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, or To Kill a Mockingbird, may be much more sought after, but because those books are much more common in their desirable first edition states, they aren't worth nearly as much. 

    Special copies, signed for instance by their authors, or by other famous people, may elevate an otherwise ordinary copy or edition into the limelight. A copy of a Hemingway edition, inscribed by its author to a famous literary friend, like Fitzgerald, could turn a common book of no particular interest, into an object of great desirability. 

    Condition, in and of itself, is really of small significance. Scarcity, too, by itself, is not crucial. But as desirability rises, the importance of the other two rises with it. A truly impressive "condition copy" of a book may command many times the price of a pedestrian copy, all other factors being equal. 

    Often times, it's difficult to appraise the value of a unique copy, since there is no existing previous transaction by which to measure or compare it. 

    The appraisal of the value of books is not a science, though reasonable approximations can be made, based on previous records, and experience of the trade. My little theoretical model is useful only when used in conjunction with these other criteria. Every book presents a particular instance. I once found a book for $65 at a reputable dealer's shop, which I then sold to another antiquarian dealer for $1450. This copy then turned up in a third dealer's catalogue for $25,000!! There's no doubt that the $65 price was a bargain, but the neon nose-bleed price given it at the other end was unquestionably over the top of any sensible valuation. Still, if it had sold, for anything approaching its sky-high ask, the marketplace would certainly have influenced its "correct" value. In the trade, the market rules. We can argue until we're blue in the face about whether something is "really" worth such-and-such, but the proof is at the auctioneer's gavel. 


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  • 03/06/14--11:17: The Clover Blossom Mix

  • This is the season in California when the clover sprouts out. Clover is a weed, invasive and prolific, though not entirely unwelcome. Its leaves, rounded, in groups of three, make a pleasant ground-cover, at least as long as they're green, which usually isn't very long.  

    Honey made from bees who forage in clover is sometimes called Clover Blossom Honey, a popular kind on the market.  

    I used to think that so-called 4-leaf clover was a myth, but that's not the case. Four-leaf clover, though rare, occurs in nature. The odds of finding a four leaf clover are about 1 in 10,000, assuming you were patient enough to search for them. It's possible that you could pore over several thousands of plants before finding a single example. There must be a genetic disadvantage to four leaf clusters, since they occur in such a small ratio.   

    I don't believe I've ever seen one, except in photos like the one above. In this age of computer manipulations, one can never be quite sure that what you see in a picture is real, or the result of some kind of customizing of the image. 

    Four leaf clovers are said to be emblems of good luck, and finding one may presage good prospects in romance. In Ireland, where the clover (or shamrock) has most symbolic significance, wearing some in your coat lapel may be popular. I was only in Dublin briefly several years ago, and I don't remember seeing anyone wearing clover leaves, though the motif, being one of their national emblems (like the harp), is ubiquitous there.

    Here's a concoction that's honey-based. The Barenjager is a German liqueur. The Germans are very big on sweet things. Their wines tend towards the syrupy, though they can be very delicate and sophisticated. They tend to go well with German food, which is no surprise. Along the borderlands between Germany and France, you'll find wonderful vintages, ranging between very sweet and crisply dry. 

    Shaken and served in chilled (frosted) cocktail glasses. Very good with honeyed salted almonds, by the way. Pure honey has a kind of "burnt" smell, which is always associated in my mind with bee-stings. I've only been stung about half a dozen times, but it always gives me a super-sized pain, like being stabbed with a glowing needle. Something of the vividness of that memory, I think, informs the intensity of my taste buds towards honey. Putting it into a drink concoction softens the "heat" of the honey, and makes it seem the very essence of alpine purity. The dry vermouth smooths it out and balances the excessive sweetness.    

    3 parts gin
    1 part dry vermouth
    1 part Barenjager honey liqueur
    1 part fresh lemon juice

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    In discourse, the weight of evidence may fall on one side or the other. Of course, it's up to the contestants to "interpret" what raw evidence may signify. Sometimes, in science, or philosophy, or politics, there is equal support for opposing positions. In those cases, a compromise may be in order, but sometimes there is no way to balance one viewpoint against another, without one side or the other feeling completely vanquished.

    In matters of taste, sweetness and bitterness compete for attention, with sourness and saltiness and mouthfeel all complicating the mix. Sensibility, that complex mixture of feeling and cognition, is the quintessentially human trait which enables us to refine our appreciation of experience by combining the raw data of what we can measure and quantify, with the personal, idiosyncratic, emotional quality which we think unique to our species.

    In taste, especially, we can combine different portions of taste influences to produce a happy coincidence of effects, though how each person senses things differs.  Lemon, for instance, is noticeably less dry than lime, which seems to contain less sweetness, and may be more acidic. 

    Amaro, and Campari, are classic European dry liqueurs which Continentals may take straight, or with soda, or on the rocks, to cut the summer heat. Unlike Americans, Europeans seem less drawn to pure sweetness than to somewhat dry, spicy aperitifs. These highly spiced liqueurs make interesting components of cocktails, though they need to be handled with delicacy, lest they overwhelm a combination. 

    I've tried the ginger/amaro tandem before here, and I decided to go out on a limb, figuratively speaking, and add another dry European spice, with Campari. 

    Rum tends towards sweetness, being distilled from sugarcane. Taken straight, it is clearly reminiscent of the tropics, where sugar cane is harvested. But it can be coaxed into different kinds of effects through unusual combinations. Here, I've taken the Ginger Ale and Amaro duo, and built it onto a platform of Caribbean golden rum, and added Campari and lime. To balance this, I've kept the portion of Ginger Ale high, to avoid any rumor of dryness. What occurs, to my taste, is a kind of ultimate balancing act of tastes, the sweet, bitter, sour flavors all conspiring to create a flavor that is neither wholly ingratiating, nor dismissively dry. 

    Can opposing flavors, like irreconcilable differences, cancel each other out, producing a bland result? Or might they co-exist in a happy harmony, a diversity of flavors which all sing their specific pitch, without disturbing the lyrical line?    

    Mixed as always by proportion, this recipe would yield two cocktails, swirled and served up in frosted cocktail glasses (but be careful, the ginger ale will fizz up your shaker--better to let it breathe a bit so to top doesn't blow off and spill your creation!).

    3 Parts Golden Rum
    3 Parts fresh Ginger Ale
    1 Part Amaro
    1 Part Campari
    1 Part fresh lime juice

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    The Japanese national character is divided about equally between traditional respect for authority, and a commitment to technological progress. 

    I lived in Japan for a year in 1985, and was able to see this phenomenon up close. Japan was ruled by an emperor all the way through the end of World War II. The Japanese post-War boom was built on the factory system, transforming its agrarian economy into a world economic leader, producing automobiles and computers and all kinds of manufacturing. The Japanese are proud of this accomplishment, but they still tend to worship authority, even when it may not be in their interest. They also prefer order to disorder, and are reluctant to stand up for individual rights or radical points of view.

    Since the Fukushima disaster, however, they have begun to take a stand against the government's continued commitment to nuclear power technology. 

    As readers of this blog know, I am against nuclear power development. There are at present several key unsolved problems with it. The dilemma of what to do with the nuclear waste it produces, the pollution produced when plant failures and accidents occur, and the continued dangers of handling radio-active materials. Our supposed "commitment" to containing the hot waste over several centuries is a legacy no society wants to inherit.

    It's very possible that nuclear technology will advance over time, allowing us to produce energy with greater efficiency and safety than we now are capable of, given the state of our knowledge. It may well be that other methods of generating electricity will be developed before nuclear is improved. We can't predict the future. Necessity often drives innovation, but insisting on dangerous practices--in effect, making guinea-pigs out of human populations, when so-called "fail-safe" technologies are failing, with very serious consequences--to drive solutions is silly. Sometimes, a little prudence and patience are needed. 

    The Japanese government's insistence on relying on nuclear power plant technology to meet the energy needs of its people may finally be hitting a wall of public indignation. It's unclear how many such nuclear disasters it will take before humankind realizes that this technology, in its present state, is simply unsuitable for future use. 

    Now, on the third anniversary of the Fukushima melt-down, crowds of Japanese are taking to the streets to protest their nation's commitment to a nuclear future. In my experience, the Japanese are a very obedient people, who are reluctant to criticize their government, or its policies. They are a stoic people. 

    But common sense has told them there's an enormous disconnect between these proven failures of a risky technology, which is endangering their population and its limited landmass, and industry's irresponsible insistence that everything is fine, and no one needs to worry. They simply don't believe it, and there's no reason they should.

    Americans tend to have a similar kind of confidence and complacency about our own "know-how." Despite Three Mile Island, we believe that a similar "accident" or mistake is unlikely to occur here. But experience is teaching us that even small mistakes, or natural disasters, result in problems that are so devastating, and long lasting, and hard to fix, that the risk assessments must be revised. Were a huge earthquake to cause one of our West Coast facilities--such as Diablo Canyon, Humboldt Bay, etc.--to fail, the feeling of risk would suddenly be much less "remote" than it is. 

    The message of Fukushima is clear. These accidents are going to happen in the future, and there is little in our current state of technology, either at the construction, running maintenance, or problem mitigation stages that will protect us from the consequences of such disasters. If safe sources of energy are inadequate to provide the fuel necessary to sustain our present state of consumption and living, then society will either have to moderate its needs, or reduce its numbers (and demand). 

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