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

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  • 06/28/14--10:46: Gabriella's

  • Though we eat out a great deal, I don't conduct a survey of favorite restaurants, either online or elsewhere, though we often exchange recommendations with people we meet. So it's a special occasion when I do discuss one here.

    I've probably had a dozen meals at Gabriella's Restaurant, which is at 910 Cedar Street, in Santa Cruz, California. I have been visiting Santa Cruz for the last decade or so to scout the inventory of Logos Book Store, a big two floor space devoted to used and remaindered stock. With the decay of the retail general used book venue over the last two decades, places like this are becoming few and far between. It was at one of my early trips here that I happened to try this place out for lunch. 

    Gabriella's is such an unassuming place, from the street, that you might not even notice it, and even if you did, you might not be intrigued by the entrance which is on the side, by way of a narrow patio. The architecture is vaguely Spanish, with a decorative tile cornice at the roof edge, and ceramic potted plants ranked along the edge of the sidewalk. But the emphasis is not on Latin flavors or preparations. 

    You'd have to call it nouvelle cuisine, with a very slight French twist. The wines are American, and the bias is for fresh ingredients, finely prepared sauces, and stylish presentations. The proprietor changes the menu every week or so, so you won't find the same selections unless you go more than once a week. Over the last decade, I've never had the same dish twice, so it isn't a round-robbin; it's a constantly unfolding experiment.   

    I had thought to do a review a few months ago, and even took some cell-phone pictures of the meal I'd eaten then, but finally got around to it this weekend. Wife and I drove down for lunch on Friday, with no particular expectations. I ended up ordering the vegetable cream soup (with corn kernals), and wife ordered the pork tacos, which came with a preliminary salad of gems lettuce, avocado, sliced cucumbers, radiches, and a subtle vinagrette. My soup was magnificent--smooth picante and rich.   

    I ordered the gnocchi with crushed poricini mushroom, chopped tomato, zuchini, sausage bits, in a silky thick bechamel sauce. The gnocchi were the best I have ever had by far, big, fat, fluffy, consistent, and elegant. And filling!   

    Wife's entree was equally impressive, by no means what you'd expect from the picture here. Pork tacos with hot spice (cumin?), a little cream, pepper, avocado, lettuce--standard in the ingredients, with no excess grease.   

    The wine was filled with lactic sweetness, hints of apricot, green olive, red apple. the sort of wine, really, which you'd expect to have to pay $60 for, but which was priced at about half that. 

    I've reviewed Gabriella's for Yelp@, and I stand behind that verdict. Gabriella's is the small, out-of-the-way place that you'd expect to find in the neighborhood of a large, cosmopolitan city like San Francisco or Portland. But it endures in a beach town which was once no more than a boardwalk amusement park destination. The presence of the UC campus, with its sophisticated faculty crowd, and a diverse community that always evolves around big college places, have made it possible. You can't run a serious eatery like this for locals who spend all their spare time at church or at the local fraternal mens' club. Its customers care about good food, and will pay dearly for it. 

    As for me, I'm an out-of-towner, whose periodic visits afford me the occasional chance to verify that this fine, modest, polished little restaurant still survives.  

    Long may it prosper!       

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  • 06/28/14--22:08: Return of the Grammar Nazi

  • Lately, as usual, I've been noticing odd pronunciations of words in the media, and by people I see in my daily life.

    When I was young, or a young adult, I don't recall now having had this sensation, of hearing odd variations in speech, which bothered me the way they do now.

    Is this sensitivity a condition of older age, of some aspect of cantankerous crotchety-ness? 

    I often have the feeling that "wrong" pronunciation is an aspect of simple ignorance, or of a poor education.

    People who pronounce words wrongly tend to think of language as a simple facility. For them, as long as others "understand" what you're "trying to say" correct grammar or pronunciation simply don't matter. Why speak or write correctly unless there's some reason to do so? Language, after all, is a social medium, whose life is defined by utility.

    Lately, I've heard people pronounce the word student (or students) in ways that I don't recognize as typical, either of "American speech" or even as typically English-speaking. 

    The way I learned to speak it was STOOd-nt, with the final "t" consonant sound closed off by the tongue against the roof of the mouth, or made soto voce with the upper nasal palate.

    But now I hear people saying it these ways:

    STOO-den or STOO-denz


    or STOO-dun or STOO-duns

    These variations suggest to my ear a distinctly germanic quality--which I imagine to be counter-intuitive, since German exerts very little influence on American culture these days. I've even heard this:


    This last is quite germanic. E.g.: Studenten (plural of students in German). 

    I'm not clear about why this word should be undergoing this subtle change. It's almost as if some English speakers are hearing the word as foreign in their own milieu. Who, after all, would devise independently to pronounce student as shtoo-denz in America, today, and why? It's baffling to me.

    Hardly anyone has the courage (or the cheek) to correct mispronunciations these days. Everyone seems disinclined to be thought picky or fastidious. It almost seems worse than looking or sounding dumb. 

    It seems a part of the current tendency toward politically correct behavior and non-discriminatory courtesy. Ignorance is almost a kind of excused difference.

    Stupidity isn't a failure, but an honored (or at least protected) trait. We wouldn't want to hurt someone's feelings by suggesting that they've committed an error. It might cause pain. And pain, or embarrassment, is cruel, or awkward. It's more important to get along, to keep everyone happy, or at least happily ignorant, than it is to single out individual failures.

    Maybe, in America, there is no such thing as a correct pronunciation. We're a big melting pot of different cultures and languages in this country. No pronunciation is correct, none is wrong. 

    Maybe, in a hundred years, we'll pronounce students STOO-ns, suppressing the D and T consonants completely, simply because enough high school seniors in successive generations were just too lazy to learn how the word should be said. 

    Language is a living thing, and we can neither predict where it will go, nor prevent its transformative progress through excessive rigor and regulation. 

    My resistance to the decay of words such as student is a contrary motion to the continuing metamorphosis of our common vocabulary. I want the word students to sound like students forever, but a single life is a very brief blip on the graph of time. It's nothing more or less than a temporary convenience. How I feel about it is of no importance, in the larger scheme of the world's sidewise drift. I, like all the rest of the human race, am just a student of the language, not its guardian angel or rueful apologist.

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    News reports over the last two weeks have corroborated the rumors of the massive recent influx of illegals streaming across the southern borders into the U.S. 

    For the first time, these have included large numbers of children--estimates range from 50,000 to as many as 170,000 since the beginning of the year--some being brought by their parents, others as young as age 8-12, arriving unaccompanied. 

    The arrivals have been sneaking across weak points in the border security line, often in remote, desert country where there is no water or cover. 

    Because of the enormous numbers involved, our border security and homeland security forces have been taxed well beyond their capacity. 

    And because our laws prevent us from deporting such minors expeditiously, border authorities have taken the unprecedented step of simply sending these new illegals to holding facilities across the U.S.

    Since there is no way the illegals can be legally processed, they are given notices to appear in U.S. immigration courts, but reliable reports are that as many as 90% of them never show up for their appointments. 

    Illegals are being bussed to these temporary facilities, from which they are then released "on their own recognizance" to disappear into the society. 

    Border security agents have reported that this new wave of illegal movement is happening because the word is out in Mexico, Central and South America that a new cycle of amnesty is going to occur, and that this is the time to make a run for the border.

    Apologists for the illegals cite political and economic reasons for this new wave, but these are the same rationalizations we've been hearing for 20 years--that the kids are poor, are homeless, have no employment prospects, have been abandoned, have relatives in the U.S., are politically at risk in their own countries, are the victims of crime, etc. 

    But the plain fact is that they have been told to come here by relatives or friends because this is their best hope to attain U.S. residency and eventual citizenship. 

    Our neighbor nations to the south--Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, etc.--clearly aren't taking care of business, and are even unofficially encouraging people to resettle in America. The pipeline northward through Mexico has become a deluge, all with the blessing and approbation of the Mexican government. 

    Our national immigration policy was supposed to have established a secure border, making it harder than ever to enter our country illegally. But clearly that hasn't happened, as countless more "coyotes"--criminal "guides" leading groups across--have sprung up. 

    Americans are being persuaded to take in these new illegals as "foster" children, in preference to big detention centers which are little better than low security prisons. 

    President Obama has asked Congress to authorize two billion dollars in funds to care for all these new immigrants, and to "beef up" the border security force. 

    We keep hearing on the media that America needs to address the "broken immigration system" and institute a new wave of amnesty, while stemming the tide of new illegals crossing the border. The so-called "Gang of Eight" senators have introduced legislation that would "streamline" the road to citizenship for all the 11 million illegals living within our borders, while doing little to improve actual security. The media have reported that Americans "support" immigration reform, though the truth is that Americans really want the problem to go away, and to stop having to deal with the continuing influx.

    Our federal government has turned away from the problem illegals create in this country, and now the Obama Administration's policies and public sentiments have sent a message that amnesty and relaxed enforcement will happen, whether or not the Congress moves to solve the problem. The illegals get the message, and they're coming as fast as their legs can carry them. 

    Americans are tired of this crap. These people need to be deported, expeditiously and without fuss. This goes well beyond reasonable appeals to common decency and humanitarian principles. 

    Enough is enough. Do we want immigration reform? You bet. Send them home!  

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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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    It may seem a strange pretext upon which to launch into a discussion of the issue of freedom of speech, to cite the sentiments of one of the 20th Century's most notorious cinematic "sex kittens"--Brigitte Bardot--regarding political issues in her native France, but history, and politics, can make strange bedfellows.

    In America, our Constitution, by way of the First Amendment, ratified in 1791, has framed the debate on this side of the Atlantic for over 200 years. 

    In France, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed by the National Assembly in 1789, and article #11 states "The free communication ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law."  

    In America, abridgments of the right of free speech have been cautiously considered, and seldom passed into law. Censorship, based upon community standards, has been aimed primarily at pornography. Attempts by states or communities to censure speech on the basis of content, because it constitutes "hate speech" have been deflected by the Supreme Court, relying on the "imminent danger" principle. In other words, you can say anything you want to or about a person, as long as it doesn't constitute an imminent threat to their person or reputation. Many colleges and universities in the U.S. have attempted to formulate and enforce "speech codes" designed to protect not just individuals but groups from discriminatory content. When challenged, such speech codes have been found to be unconstitutional. In America, free speech remains a strong principle, and we tend to be extremely vigilant in protecting it. 

    In France, however, the principle is weaker. The so-called Law on the Freedom of the Press of 1881 prohibits anyone from publicly defaming or insulting, or inciting someone to discriminate against, or to hate or to harm, a person or a group for belonging to an ethnicity, a race, a religion, a sex (or sexual orientation), or for having a handicap. Individuals or media may be prosecuted for such crimes, and imprisoned or fined. The public prosecutor may initiate criminal proceedings against a violator upon its own, and a victim may bring a civil action against a violator as well.           

    For those readers too young to know, Brigitte Bardot was in her youth a French film actress, who became a potent sex symbol during the 1950's and 1960's, for her nude and semi-nude scenes. Her notoriety for her unashamed sex appeal was legendary, and she became synonymous with a certain aura of permissiveness in Europe and America during the post-War period. Following her retirement from professional acting at age 40, she has maintained a public presence as an advocate of animal rights, lobbying against animal cruelty. 

    In her role as head of the Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals, she has used her notoriety and personal fortune to pursue protections for various animal species throughout the world, directly appealing to governments and heads of state to desist from killing or maiming animals. 

    Consistent with her views on animal cruelty, she has spoken out about the ritual Muslim practice of killing goats by slitting their throats. 

    Historically, France has been the most accommodating and liberal country in Europe, tolerating large numbers of Muslim immigrants inside its borders. The flow of North African and Arab immigrants into Europe during the last quarter century has accelerated. Muslims now make up as much as 10% of the French population. This has caused a good deal of civil strife. As Muslim numbers have grown, so has its influence. There are many who believe that the growing Islamic influence inside Europe will have dire consequences for the political and religious traditions which have guided French culture for two centuries. Islam has an intolerant character, uniting religious, political and cultural practices into a single unified style of life. 

    Christianity and Islam have been in conflict with one another for centuries, and will probably continue to be so for a long time to come. Recent expressions of radical Islam--the terrorist attacks, the resurgent expansionist tendencies both in the Middle East and abroad--have shown that there is a legitimate concern in Western nations about the growing presence and influence of Muslims in their midst. Of greater concern than terrorism, is the threat that Islam may pose to democratic institutions of personal freedom, particularly those of women. 

    As the wife of an espoused political conservative, Bernard d'Ormale, former adviser of Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of the conservative Front National party, Bardot has openly expressed her negative feelings about the growing presence of Muslims in France--

    "Over the last twenty years, we have given in to a subterranean, dangerous, and uncontrolled infiltration, which not only resist adjusting to our laws and customs but which will, as the years pass, attempt to impose its own." 

    The Front National has maintained a steadfastly committed position against immigration, particularly Muslim immigration from North Africa, West Africa and the Middle East, seeing this as a threat to the secular value system of the Republic. Though Bardot's initial pretext for criticizing Muslims was their ritual slaughter of goats--a practice which occurs under unsupervised conditions, in private yards, or in the street--she was not shy in expressing her distaste for Muslims. She has been convicted no less than five times in French courts for violating France's "hate speech" laws, the last time in 2012 (being fined $25,000). 

    In America, such a case, originating from the justice system itself, would seem quite extreme. But in France, the atmosphere of political correctness has progressed a good deal farther. It might seem tame here to complain about the ritual slaughter of farm animals in private homes and neighborhoods, or about the probable danger to society from the spread of a religion whose traditional teachings and practices are antithetically opposed to our western principles of freedom. But in France, such outspokenness and frankness are suppressed.

    What are the consequences of preserving the inviolability of an invasive sect, whose religious and political principles are antithetical to our own? Islam is notorious for its fanatical, arrogant intolerance of other religions and ways of life. And yet it's being protected and sheltered by a nation which is itself under threat from the very groups it's harboring. 

    It's an ironic absurdity that the pride and dignity of France must be upheld by an old sex siren of a quarter century back. That Bardot's purely political comments should be treated as "hate speech" is a commentary about how far off the spectrum our institutions have strayed, in a futile attempt to appear "fair" and "unbiased"--when the reality is that freedom of speech is being suppressed to suit the interests of a religious cult that preaches violence and strict adherence to an archaic set of backward beliefs and superstitions, which threaten the very freedoms it now enjoys.

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  • 03/13/14--17:09: Bearing Fruit

  • Peaches on a White Tablecloth

    Color has touched this fruit only in certain places, but with the greatest care.

    The shadows of the muslin are of a cool blue, like that of crockery in a humble cottage just outside of Paris. Its white has yielded to the failing light.

    They are nestled in gravity’s palm, as if just supporting them were a labor of love.

    If color alone could sustain us, these peaches would be good enough to eat.

    They are only orange by convergence of allied tints, such as the red of apples, or the yellow of lemons. But to combine these, without the proper restraint, could ruin everything.

    Roundness, globular, is light folded into itself to make a translucence.

    The half-life of any growth is a logarithm of its decay, turning sweetness into sour, green into yellow, and red, and finally brown.

    The sugars sing their special white purity along the palette of the scraping knife.

    Oxygen eats the space around them, as if hungry.

    The peaches are actually blue.

    After Cézanne

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    I've been meaning to discuss Geof Huth's work for some time, and I finally got around to it when I came upon the cache of things Geof sent me a couple of years back, which included a copy of Out of Character [Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Paper Kite Press, 2007]. 

    Huth is what is known as a VisPo artist/poet. Visual Poetry explores, at least on one level, aspects of language as visual representation, hovering unsteadily between language as symbol/signage, and letters as designs in space. Our western alphabet is not pictographic, but nevertheless may be perceived to have qualities which are visually expressive. An alpha-bet of 26 letters may seem to have a relatively limited range of potential graphic possibilities, but Huth nevertheless sees in them rich combinations which he exploits through free arrangement, juxtaposition or interlockings/superimpositions of whole letters or fragments of letter bodies. 

    Our Western Alpha-Bet is just one possible letter series. There have been others, such as Egyptian hierglyphic--

    It doesn't take much imagination to see how purely symbolic pictographic imagery like this could morph over time into more abstract shapes, which can lose their original visual identity to a more "short-"handed notation. I won't go into the history of the Latin Alpha-Bet, either in its written or print versions. The important things to note are that it (1) is what we've inherited as the descendants of ancestral usage, and (2) that the evolution of letters has involved a combination of applied utility and creative invention. Wikipedia has a fair discussion of alphabets

    As artists, poets may accept without comment the given structure of their linguistic inheritance. Most poets don't consider themselves to be visual artists, preferring to think about and use language as a convenience for the communication of content, depending upon the resources of rhythm and rhyme which have come down to us in the traditions of verse and rhetoric. There's nothing wrong with these traditions, and I have no doubt they will continue to inspire poets and writers for centuries to come.

    Huth has been drawn to the visual, I suspect, in the same way that abstract artists are drawn to explore the technical aspects of pure art representation, except that his interest opens into the additional dimension of alphabetical meaning, and the whole history of what pictographic shape itself can summon in our memory of, and response to, certain kinds of visible structures of representation.

    Our responses to such experiments may occur along a wide range of possible meanings. We may see such works as a kind of play, as a rearrangement of a given set of token pieces, as a conflict or struggle between existing nominatives, as symbolic hieratic warnings, signposts, pointers, or as comic satires or parodies of haunting familiars, etc. What seems clear is that the invention of such two-dimensional spatial structures probably begins in intuitive conjecture, or casual play, and proceeds to discoveries and conundra which oscillate with the hum of mystery and delightful riddle.

    If such experiments "work" they probably do so because the suggestiveness of their structure connotes strong echoes of visual suggestiveness, which may seem odd or contradictory, or inevitable. 

    Out of Character is a small pamphlet, a perfect 4"x4"dimension, with 25 works, each with an elaborate title (in the table of contents). I think I would have preferred a slightly larger dimension, so the printed portion of each page didn't end up in the gutter, which necessitates over-stressing the binding to see each whole page.

    "Sound's First Flight"

    One could of course see objects like this as a kind of doodling. Nothing wrong with that take at all. But the strength and conviction with which each one is made suggests that though chance and casual variability may be starting points, the progress or performance of the making aren't the point, which seems to me to be the arrival at a finished statement that has an undeniable, adamant resistance to further elaboration. They may be found through adjustment or trial and error, but those are merely pathways to the goal. 

    "What We Sea" 

    Here are parts of several letters--an A, and E, an S--as well as a serif which may be simply an undenominated flourish or fillip. We could impute suggestive shapes here--which I will leave to the reader--but obviously, on one level, faces or motions or movements or pathways are being suggested. Is the letter S a meander? A less expressive artist might draw an S to suggest a slithering snake--a cliché at best. I'm reminded of the E.E. Cummings poem which ends--

    is dragging




    which suggests an anchor or a cloud tentacle hanging down, "dragging" the ocean floor or the surface of the sea. Clever, and a usefully trivial kind of visual pun. It is exactly this kind of casual play that may open doors to the perception of meanings which are hidden under the quotidian intercourse of everyday verbal use. 

    "What the Eye Sees the Eye Knows"

    K and E and something else disport with a comma and a single quotation mark, locked in a symbiotic struggle which may be seen as forced or happily engaged, depending upon your mood. The ascending curved line has for me a joyous quirky spirit, the piece may be seen to spin or tumble. Perhaps these letters were just floating around like objects in the void and happened to come into conjunction in this way for a fraction of a second, but were captured before they drifted off again. Do the comma and quotation mark signify eyes? Is it too simplistic to imagine this possibility?

    "Knowledge and Its Effects"

    This piece has a sort of wedge-iness that is reminiscent (for me) of Franz Kline's black on white abstract canvases. Is it appropriate to think of these works in contrast to Abstract Expressionism? One is always unsure with these pieces, what level of suggestiveness is intended, or whether even asking that question is somehow beside the point. Is an upsidedown J merely the broken off fragment of an N? Can a K be commandeered into service by a . . . what? Does size matter? Is this a variation on the jolly roger or a Gadsden design? Is it threatening? Absurd? Are the interlocking bars and loops a commentary about the effect of, or the expression of knowledge? What is knowledge? Is it in space, or in the mind? Is it unstable, like a subatomic particle that lives only for a fraction of a   millisecond?

    "The Structure of Memory"

    Here there is an arrangement of vertical and horizontal lines intersecting with curved and looped shapes. In the imagination, do such alphabetical arrangements occur naturally, the way that events and architectures and echoes are arranged in dreams? Do letters combine and recombine like organic molecules, grand interlocking helixes or vortices, not syntactical or grammatical, but exhibiting a different (new) kind of relationship to each other? Obviously, in Huth's works, or in his mind's eye, they do. 

    I'm moved to question the relationship between the titles and the works. It struck me initially that the works don't need titles, and may indeed be unnecessarily limited by serving as pointers to an intended meaning. But of course we're free to accept or reject the suggestion the titles offer. The titles aren't really interpretations of the works, though they may be taken as such; still, I think the titles come after the works, not the other way around. The works aren't illustrations of ideas; the titles are possible angles from which to see them. 

    Geof Huth runs an interesting blog, and his interests extend far beyond the works I've considered here. Check it (and him) out. He (it)'ll repay your interest with interest.

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    It's been a little while since the mixmaster presided, but the delay has been worth the wait.

    Recently I encountered a bartender at a local posh Italian restaurant, who thought he knew everything. He knew all the traditional mixes, and some of his new inventions were on the drink menu. Some barmen think they know more than the customers do about drink combinations, and resent being asked to mix a concoction with which they're unfamiliar. In this case, I asked the bartender to combine two ingredients which he'd never considered together before. After hearing me call out the first two ingredients, he interjected "I don't think that would work. Let me suggest a variation . . . ." I told him I couldn't make him prepare the drink, either he'd do it or he wouldn't. "I just don't think you know how this would taste," he replied. So I told him to forget the whole thing, I wouldn't have a cocktail before my meal. He jerked his head up like a prideful horse and drifted over to another customer. 

    I might have told him I had mixed hundreds of different cocktails in my life, and probably knew more about different drink combinations than most bartenders. Mixing drinks doesn't require a Ph.D., but familiarity does matter. Regarding every customer as a rube is one attitude you occasionally find in taverns. James Salter had a funny take on bad bartenders in one of his stories; one character confides to another about their bartender "all these out-of-work actors think they're everyone's friend!" I often wonder what these bartenders really do for a living, or what they'd prefer to be doing. Either they take their work too seriously, or not seriously enough. I'm never sure which. Some seem to think the customer is never right. 

    Here are five recipes which have no precedent in the literature of mixology, to my knowledge. So beware, you're entering unfamiliar territory. I don't have a license to mix, and have never taken a bartending course. I can't flip the stainless steel in the air with the greatest of ease, or pour from a great height, but I can shake with the best. My cocktail glasses will always arrive a lovely frosty white. The portions will always be generous, and I'll never water down the goods. 

    They aren't named, but I'll have to think of something, if I ever publish them in the collection I'm planning.

    This first is a slight variation on one I posted previously, utilizing the combination of Green Chartreuse and Midori (both deep green), adding rum instead of just dry vermouth. It's another winner, perhaps a bit stronger than the earlier version.

    3 Parts Dry White Rum
    2 Parts Dubonnet Blanc
    1 Part Green Chartreuse
    1 Part Midori
    1 Part fresh lemon juice


    This one is of a clarity and simplicity that suggests a German white wine, the pear and cherry uniting in perfect harmony. 

    4 parts Tanqueray #10
    1 Part pear liqueur
    1 part maraschino liqueur
    1 part lime

    garnish translucent lime slice


    Here's Midori again. Though many bars have Midori, they don't use it much in mixes. There are other proprietary melon liqueurs, and I suppose that there is little to distinguish them from one another. The colors of drinks are a nothing but a gimmick, since a little food coloring can do the trick. Blue Curacao is a traditional liqueur, but the color has nothing to do with the orange basis--it's just an artifice. Making cocktails with colors is a fad. Sometimes, if the color of a cocktail is unpleasant, as they sometimes can be, this can be remedied with a little food coloring. Not something I've ever tried, you understand.    

    4 parts white rum
    1 part Midori
    1 part pomegranate
    1 part lime juice


    Who'd a'thunk that you could mix praline with orange and lemon? I wouldn't have thought so either, until I threw this combination together. But the result is a revelation. Praline liqueur, for those who don't know, is made to mimic the flavor of praline candy, the kind they sell in New Orleans candy-shops. A dense caramel chock-full of peanuts. When I was a boy, my stepfather used to call it "butter brickle" which may be what they called it in the Midwest. According to Wikipedia, butter brickle is an ice-cream, not a candy. Don't be afraid to try this one, but you'll need praline liqueur to do it.  

    4 parts gold rum
    1 part blood orange liqueur
    1 part fresh lemon juice
    1 part praline liqueur


    This one uses an aperitif called Genepi des Alpes, an odd fortified goods that's made in France. At 40% alcohol, it's potent, and can be taken straight, but as a mixer, it adds its own specific herbal essence flavor. It's made in the Savoy region, near Italy, where the wormwood that forms its primary flavor component is harvested.     

    3 parts sweet vermouth
    1 part Yellow Chartreuse
    1 part cherry liqueur
    1 part Genepi des Alpes
    1 part fresh lemon juice

    All of these concoctions are seductive and irresistible. You don't want to like them too much, but just one, of an afternoon, or evening, when you don't plan to do any driving, is a pleasure not to be denied. I've saved you the trouble of wondering whether they'd work, since I've put each of them to the taste test, and all have passed with flying colors. 


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    Recently (July 9th, 2014) the PBS Series "Secrets of the Dead" ran a documentary feature about the controversy over the proposed authenticity of a so-called "second"Mona Lisa painting, a work which purportedly was discovered in a British mannerhouse shortly before World War I. The Isleworth Mona Lisa--as it is known--bears a remarkable resemblance to the well-known original, which hangs in the Louvre in Paris; it is clearly not a copy, but a "version" of the same subject at an earlier age in her life, leading naturally to the supposition that it was painted first, and that the "older" version was done later.    

    The original Mona Lisa

    There is reliable documentation that Da Vinci began work on a canvas referred to as La Gioconda in about 1503-5. The revelation of the existence of this other work has caused a lot of speculation in the art world about its original. Such speculation is inevitable, given the hugely iconic presence of the original Mona Lisa, and the notorious forgeries that have come to life over the last century. 

    Could Da Vinci have painted both works, at different times? If so, why? Given what is known about the working procedures within his atelier, it is possible that the Master may have given some responsibility to apprentices or assistants in his studio, to finish an incomplete work, or a study. It is possible that an apprentice may have undertaken a copy in secret. 

    Da Vinci was known to be a tireless researcher into materials, striving to refine and improve the effects of pigment by experimenting with the chromatic variations of materials, layering pigments, and so forth.    

    The "Isleworth Mona Lisa"

    The Mona Lisa has been admired and studied for centuries. Critics and scientists have speculated about how its hypnotic fascinating allure is accomplished. Da Vinci was able to give the impression of life-likeness which is extremely difficult to do. It goes well beyond verisimilitude. The Mona Lisa has a kind of illumination, an animus,  that is uncanny. On one level, this is an effect that has become a kind of cliché among art patrons. The face has a kind of supernatural photo-genesis of presence--not photographic, but clearly an effect achieved through the subtle manipulation of reflectivity. The skin tones seem to glow from within, the very essence of a living soul. 

    Against the suspicions of detractors and cynics regarding the new painting's authenticity, a phalanx of experts have run a battery of various kinds of tests--scientific and aesthetic (including carbon dating which puts its creation spot on in the second decade of the 16th Century)--on the canvas, and have declared that it meets all the relevant criteria. It's not a fake, or it's the best, most fool-proof, fake that has ever been perpetrated. The experts not only believe it was done at the correct time, they are convinced that the painter of the original Mona Lisa is unquestionably the creator of the "younger" version. I'm not an expert in these matters, but the discussion was sufficiently straightforward and not in the least evasive. 

    The question thus becomes what the significance of this new artwork will be, and what effect it might have on the reputation (and valuation) of the known work. And, obviously, what the value of this new canvas will be on the market. The "younger" portrait seems clearer, and somewhat incomplete in comparison to the Mona Lisa. The detail and background scenes are basically sketched in, though there seems little ambiguity with respect to the essential composition itself. The figure is posed precisely in the same position, and the subject is clearly the same woman. The newer painting has none of the delicate translucency of textures and surfaces of the original. Both seem works of absolutely mastery, though the newer one might be considered to be somewhat less refined in its presentation--perhaps consistent with the youthfulness of the subject. 

    I have always been more impressed by the modeling and glow of the sitter's hands, which seem so real that blood flows under the skin. They are angel's hands. The face, which has always seemed quintessentially Italian, is not beautiful. The beauty resides in the artist's evocation, such that the spirit of the woman has been summoned by the skill of the artist, and she peers through the centuries into the looker with a power that transcends inert matter, through the cracks and fading and toning of time, to make a deep and vivid impression.  

    The dialectic between the meaning of the subject, and the intentions of the artist, has always been a major preoccupation of writers and critics over the decades. It's an enigma for which there will never be a final, conclusive answer. Artists have routinely made "celebrity portraits" of the gentry, balancing their interest in the commissions with their disinterest in the characters of their subjects. In every sense, patrons of serious artists were merely stand-ins. But in this specific case, the intensity and revelation of method lead us naturally to impute deeper levels of significance to the result. What did Da Vinci really think about this woman, Lisa Gherardini? Did he intend that this specific portrait should carry levels of meaning that no individual subject could possibly fulfill? 

    The story is that he may have worked for years on it, perhaps setting it aside for some years, then returning to it again to further improve it. But the appearance of this new canvas complicates the story in several inconvenient ways. Does it somehow de-value the known work, by making it a kind of grand aesthetic experiment? Certainly, investing that much labor and thought and deliberate research into the process tells us that it was more than simply a painting, a casual diversion. It holds all the pressure and drama of the force of devotion, the commitment of a man of superior feeling and sensibility to attain an unique artifact of the evocation of human nature. 

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  • 07/26/14--10:23: The Beehive of Language

  • There was published in England in 1580 a book called John Baret's Alvearie. It was a kind of cross-referencing dictionary, organized alphabetically, to assist users to match allied words in different languages: English, French, Latin, and Greek. Its existence has always been known, so there has never been anything mysterious about it. Its author, John Baret, was a Cambridge don, who made the work as an aid to students of language, and he subtitled it a beehive, because its composition was accomplished by his students, who went out into the world in search of words and the way they were used, and brought them back--rather as bees do pollen to the hive. (This procedure bears comparison with some of the methodology employed in the Oxford English Dictionary, created between 1888 and 1928, when it was completed. Its editors employed ordinary citizens to conduct searches in the literature of the past and present, to provide citations for the definitions of words as they had been used in history.)

    Dictionaries were not a common thing in the 16th century. Baret's was one of the first volumes to approach vocabulary as a distinct collection of meanings and definitions. Like all dictionaries, it defines by example from citation, considering relevant shadings of meaning. The Baret volume, though not strictly a dictionary in the sense we think of it, nevertheless served much the same purpose, albeit in multiple languages, as a sort of multi-lingual Roget's might in our own time. Indeed, a considerable volume could be constructed along the same lines today, though it would doubtless be an enormous undertaking and would run to many, many volumes. An English dictionary, as we think of it, did not really appear until Samuel Johnson's in the middle of the 18th Century.

    Language was in consequence a much more fluid medium in those days, since there was less authority exercised over use and usage, and no reliable measure by which to guide it. This may, by the by, account for some of the lubricity in verbal invention, since English was not regarded as a precise tongue, or not as exact and clear as ancient ones like Latin and Greek, which had their own classical literature long before there was any in English. A vulgar tongue, unrecorded, and not regularized, is much more elusive and potentially vague. 

    A man as inventive and curious and facile as Shakespeare certainly was, would naturally have been fascinated by any compendium of words, and in his time English was still fluid and lively enough that the science of lexicography, in its practical application, would have seemed like a nice novelty to a young writer in Shakespeare's time. Indeed, a book like the Alvearie would have seemed almost a kind of guidebook. There was less literature in English four centuries ago, and it hadn't been subjected to rational organization and study. The meanings of words cried out for interpretation. The language needed to be tamed.         

    Copy of the original Shakespeare Folio Edition of The Plays

    But what part does William Shakespeare play in this story?

    Two New York antiquarian booksellers, George Koppelman (of Cultured Oyster Books), and Daniel Wechsler (of Sanctuary Books), happened to be attracted to the recent e.Bay auction of a copy of the Baret Alvearie, with annotations by an unknown hand. The book has considerable value just for what it is, on the antiquarian collectors' market. Intrigued by some of the annotations they read in the images on the auction page, the two dealers decided jointly to bid on the item, tendering $4300, which won. 

    Title Page of Baret's Alvearie

    The time of the book's publication, its subject, and the propinquity of the printer, all argued for a conjecture that Shakespeare the Bard would very likely not only have known the book, but the book's printer (Henry Denham). It's the kind of book, given the time of its appearance, that would undoubtedly have been an object of fascination and interest to the young budding poet and playwright. 

    Examining the book carefully, the two booksellers (and amateur Shakespeare scholars) began to collate and cross-reference the annotations in the text. The annotations were of two kinds--critical marks (strokes and checks and circles), and single word or phrase entries. Associating such admittedly scattered but specific references with literary works of the period is a difficult task at best.

    Sample pages of the Alvearie

    Enter the age of information, driven by the digital micro-processor technology. Collating word references and constellations of words across texts through frequency and juxtaposition has become an important tool in analyzing connections, trends and attribution. It seems that even a characteristic linguistic style can be codified mathematically to with a few degrees shy of certainty. It may be possible to track the footprint of a writer through his word choice and order, as efficiently as handwriting experts can determine whether a hand is a forgery, or the real McCoy. 

    Thus, with the aid of textual software analytics, Koppelman and Wechsler set out to try to prove that the book's original owner was in fact William Shakespeare, by finding coincidences between the annotations of words and phrases, and the appearance of like or similar phrases in the Plays. The researchers took their task very seriously, and spent several years building up a series of links they believe show beyond a reasonable doubt, that the reader and annotator was the Author himself. I won't bore you with examples they lay out in their book, Shakespeare's Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light. Besides, it's no fun to give away the secrets in a simple summary. The totality of the instances the authors have located is highly persuasive, at least to my sense.   

    The new First Trade Edition of Shakespeare's Beehive

    Could any enterprising Shakespeare scholar or dabbler have gone to the trouble of creating such a hoax, if indeed it could be? Since the book was not previously believed to have any connection with any famous author (let alone the Bard), it seems very unlikely. 

    Given how little is known about the plain facts of Shakespeare's life, let alone his private life & contacts, opinions & politics, such speculations are inevitably regarded with disdain. The best defense, in this case, against the charge of an opportunistic hoax or fake, is its implausibility. We've gotten so suspicious about the possibility of ever knowing anything specific about the man, that we are positively supersititous about it! Shakespeare was just a man, albeit a linguistically gifted one, perhaps a retiring bookish sort as well, not given to public gestures and personal aggrandizement or publicity. Perhaps the simple fact is that Shakespeare the man, due it part to the intense over-protectiveness with which his reputation is viewed (and guarded) is just too important to have had an ordinary life, with possessions and references, and unsuspected ambitions and prejudices. The writer has become so elevated in the minds of readers that we can't quite believe there's a real man behind the words.   

    Portrait of Shakespeare 

    Real men use dictionaries. Real men fall in love and watch the birds, strive and stumble and cover their tracks. Was Shakespeare a secretive man? Are his works an elaborate edifice erected by a sly, brilliant recluse? Can we grant the man the right to have used a common, early brand of multi-lingual thesaurus to aid him in manipulations of the vulgar tongue?  

    Tile page spread of the Folio

    If you think about it, a hive of bees is a clever metaphor for what the Baret Alvearie was/is. Baret himself couldn't have known about the communication skills of bees, in the scientific sense, but the notion that any language can be condensed, or coagulated, through the cooperation of a host of scouts canvassing the countryside, is ingenious. A dictionary is a kind of hive of words, and any densely packed group of beings (including humans, the most communicative of living species, as far as we know) will concentrate the language they use. Any writer, Shakespeare included, may come to experience language as a kind of hive of activity in the mind, in which stray or remote words or coinages or obscure verbal sports and hybrids are pulled out of the very air, or subsumed from inside the pages of books, or off of walls. 

    The Alvearie must have seemed a miraculous tool for writers who found it and perused it. Any work of language is also a kind of hive. 

    Shakespeare's works are like brilliant  intersections of verbal vectors and valences and oscillations, which sing truth and comedy and tragedy to our ears. Who knows what bees say to each other?--perhaps something like, "boy I'm tired, there's a great bunch of clover about a quarter mile to the East, along the familiar coordinates, meet you on the way back." Come, little pilgrims, with your sweet word gifts. 

    Hives are like great cities, the crucibles of culture. Hives are also like brains, ornate concentrations of data impressions, memory. Feeling, consciousness. The great ganglia of the universe thinking about itself.   

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  • 07/30/14--10:31: Sabine

  • People who share my birthday:

    Arnold Schwarzenegger
    Paul Anka
    Peter Bogdanovich
    William Gass
    Henry Ford
    Emily Bronte
    Casey Stengel
    Mary Shelley

    I wish there were more writers and artists who shared my birthday. I tried to find lists online of less famous or "popular" people, but I guess people are only interested in media celebrities these days. 

    Actually, birthdays don't signify much for me. After about age 12, I think I lost interest in birthdays. And by age 18 or so, I lost interest in holidays too. The first day of the fishing season is about the only day of the year that I pay any attention to. I'm not much for gifts either. 

    Below is a photo of my real birthday present this year. This is Sabine (or Sabina). She's a light grey Siamese kitten, about 10 weeks old. She's already captured my heart. We got her (and her sister, named Capuccine) over the weekend. She's tiny, with beautiful light grey eyes, and an intent, quiet manner.  

    Sabine in the alcove above the icebox

    Sabine, it may be recalled, was the name of the child in the great film Jules et Jim [1962, directed by Francois Truffaut, which starred Jeanne Moreau and Oskar Werner]. 

    Jeanne Moreau, Sabine, Oskar Werner and Henri Serre in Jules et Jim

    It turns out that the part of Sabine in the movie was played by one Sabine Haudepin, who grew up to become a full-fledged French cinema actress, appearing in some 80 movies. 

    Sabine Haudepin

    Little Sabine doesn't really remind me of the movie, or of the character Sabine in the movie, or of the actress who played her in the film grew up to become. But the name will always echo in my memory the spirit of the movie--one of my all-time favorite flicks. 

    By the time Sabine becomes an old cat, I shall be very old myself. One way of dividing up the segments of one's life is through the duration(s) of the lives of pets whom one keeps. Vanilla, the first Siamese we ever owned, lived to be 19. We were a young family when 'Nilla came into our lives, and by the time he'd died, we were middle-aged. Now, Su-Mee and Sabine and Capuccine will be the cats of our later, older age. Four cat generations to one human. When I was a boy, I had one boy cat, Tom, who was the issue of the first cat I owned, Snowfoot. When Tom had grown up, we gave Snowfoot away, and I always regretted that. Later when Tom was a young male, he was run over in the street, and I never got another one. When I started my own family, I resisted having a pet, but eventually capitulated, and so began our feline saga.  

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  • 04/20/14--19:36: The Favorite Movies Post

  • The ranking of movies is like the ranking of any media form. We live in a competitive society, in which the drive to succeed, to exceed, plays a crucial role in the democratic playground of the pursuit of happiness--wealth, notoriety and esteem.

    Movies are first a form of entertainment, but they are also a vehicle for social criticism, propaganda, or public information. Cinema is a new medium, invented at the end of the 19th Century, with the added domain of sound in the late 1920's. The technological advancements in visual, sound and special effects have occurred with some regularity over the decades, leading to the sophistication of a medium which had begun as little more than a kind of static theatre-like, two-dimensional projection process. While the mature craft of acting has changed little over the last century, movies have developed a host of processes and techniques, making them the dominant art form of the present age. Movies have been, and continue to be, the art of the future.

    While the technical side of moving pictures has progressed dramatically, it's become clear that narrative construction, and the development and portrayal of character, are still at the heart of meaningful, effective action, and that successful cinematic entertainment can't be built exclusively upon special visual or aural effects. "Action" movies may have little or no inherent, intrinsic dramatic content, if they rely on nothing but ingenious technical tricks or audacious visual surprises. A good story is still a good story, with or without cinematic sleights of hand.

    I'm not sure just why, but none of the following productions was released before 1931. So-called "silent movies" (movies without coordinated sound) which could only represent dialogue by interspersing printed screens of quotation, had many things to recommend them, within the limitations of the new medium. The slapstick comics built their tradition on clownish antics and cliff-hanging dare-devil stunts, talents which have not been improved-upon in the decades since, simply because there has not been a need to do so. "They had faces," says Gloria Swanson in the nostalgic Sunset Boulevard [1950]--one of the titles on my list--but they didn't have voices (in the silent era). When talkies came in, some players who had built their careers on visuals, suddenly became obsolete, unable to project the same dramatic quality with their voices, that they'd been able to do with their faces and bodies. For me, the Silent era exists in a kind of pre-cinematic precinct, neither theatre nor pure cinema, perhaps more of a curiosity than a fully-developed form. I can appreciate Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Lillian Gish, but their silent era work seems somehow stifled, and limited, being neither as rich as legitimate theatre, nor as streamlined as cinema with sound. Silents were a transitional curiosity; sound movies were the complete package.

    Like theatre, the first successful (sound) movies were celebrations of the emancipation of the human voice. For me, the first legitimate (sound) movie is The Front Page, released in 1931, based on the successful stage play of the same name, co-authored by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It's basically a film of a play, with almost no purely cinematic effects at all, but with plenty of crackling, witty dialogue, and dramatic tension. It's pure American energy and humor and chutzpah, and captures the brash, percolating spirit of the 1920's.

    Movies made great strides, both technically and financially, throughout the 1930's, as major production companies consolidated their organizations, becoming efficient factories turning out as many releases as they could, to meet the rapidly growing demand. Musicals, dance movies, and stagy extravaganzas blossomed quickly. Movies got longer, and with the arrival of color, more visually realistic. As a child of the 1950's, when television came into wide use, I grew up seeing countless pre-war movies from the 1930's. I can remember little of them, though they are of course very familiar when I see them now. One would think that the movies one had seen as a child would leave a lasting impression, as indeed they may have, unconsciously. But thinking about them today, I can find little to recommend them. They were mostly a kind of escapist medium from the economic hardships of the time, designed not to remind people of the truths of their lives, but to transport them to an alternative universe where reality didn't intervene.

     Hollywood's star system produced countless familiar faces, but the films they made were, by today's standards, stilted and timid efforts. The medium would have to wait until after World War II, in my view, to begin to produce films that were fully integrated cinematic works, incorporating action, acting, writing, editing, sound and cinematography together to make a whole experience. I have only six movies from the 1930's, not because there weren't countless interesting efforts in that decade, but because they didn't leave a lasting impression on me.

    The Front Page 1931
    A Day at the Races 1937
    Dead End 1937
    Ninotchka 1939
    Wizard of Oz 1939
    Gone With the Wind 1939
    Wuthering Heights 1939

    It's no surprise that Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind end up on the list, since they expanded the medium to epic proportions, and established new benchmarks for technical realism on the one hand, and magical fantasy on the other. Both were breakthroughs in creating a complete visual world. Wuthering Heights followed the romantic plot-line of the novel, going against the grain of the happy ending boy-gets-girl formula. It's also cinematically effective, using black and white to create emotional sturm und drang--a quality that would soon become preeminent during the Noir era. Ninotchka is a sentimental favorite, Garbo's last important effort, and a very entertaining comedy with political overtones that would never again be viewed in such an innocent way. Dead End combines a number of aspects--gangsterism, juvenile delinquency, economic disparity among potential mates--played out in a gritty urban setting. It was, typically, a stage play first, adapted by Lillian Hellman, but the material was already familiar to movie audiences. Plus, we get Bogart and Joel McCrea and Claire Trevor. Bogart was already a star, and this movie would propel his persona further along the "disreputable"tough-guy track. After Wizard and Gone, movies would seldom again just be filmed plays, but the war would intervene, delaying some of the fulfillment that awaited it. 

    Philadelphia Story 1940
    Rebecca 1940
    Citizen Caine 1941
    Casablanca 1942
    Double Indemnity 1944
    Gaslight 1944
    Arsenic and Old Lace 1944
    Spellbound 1945
    Notorious 1946
    Great Expectations 1946
    Beauty and the Beast 1946
    Red River 1948
    Oliver Twist 1948
    Key Largo 1948
    The Red Shoes 1948
    Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948
    Adam's Rib 1949
    On the Town 1949
    Twelve O'Clock High 1949
    Kind Hearts and Coronets 1949

    The Forties was a quirky decade, and the films reflected the eclectic expansion of themes and opportunities afforded by the increasing sophistication of the medium, while looking back towards classic narratives. It begins with Citizen Caine, which had begun production long before its release, and which is widely considered the first true finished cinematic experience, and the last of the important black and white epics. Two historical recreations--Great Expectations, Oliver Twist--are the work of David Lean, whose career would flower into the great epic adaptations of Lawrence, Zhivago, River Kwai, etc. Philadelphia Story and Adam's Rib are Hepburn at her height. Hitchcock's first great triumphs in America--Rebecca, Spellbound, and Notorious--belong here. The reaction to the terrors of world war would begin to find vehicles, in Twelve O'Clock High. Casablanca may seem more sentimental now than it did at the time, as does Gaslight, but they had Ingrid Bergman in her prime, as well as Bogart and Charles Boyer.  Treasure of the Sierra Madre is my favorite movie of all time, a tight, perfectly constructed action involving three characters, facing hardship and temptation in the Mexican outback, with unforgettable character portrayals in a realistic setting. Red River is John Wayne in his best cowboy role; was there ever a better Western? On the Town and The Red Shoes are song and dance movies with irresistible contexts, and both are so much better than the musical and dance movies of the Thirties, there's just no comparison. I'm not much for foreign flicks, but Cocteau's slightly surreal imagination made a masterpiece in Beauty and the Beast. Double Indemnity is better to my mind than The Maltese Falcon or any of the Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney hardboiled efforts, and we get gorgeous Barbara Stanwyck to boot. I've never been much into comedy, but Arsenic and Old Lace is so completely weird in its combination of spookiness, silliness, romance and madcap hijinks it belongs on everyone's list, and we get Cary Grant besides. 

    Sunset Boulevard 1950
    Asphalt Jungle 1950
    Orpheus 1950
    The Lavender Hill Mob 1951
    The Man in the White Suit 1951
    Strangers on a Train 1951
    Singin' in the Rain 1952
    Viva Zapata 1952
    High Noon 1952
    The Quiet Man 1952
    Julius Caesar 1953
    Roman Holiday 1953
    From Here to Eternity 1953
    Stalag 17 1953
    Captain's Paradise 1953
    The Wild One 1953
    Beat the Devil 1953
    Shane 1953
    Hobson's Choice 1954
    Rear Window 1954
    Sabrina 1954
    On the Waterfront 1954
    The Caine Mutiny 1954
    Dial M For Murder 1954
    La Strada 1954
    Night of the Hunter 1955
    Mister Roberts 1955
    East of Eden 1955
    Summertime 1955
    To Catch a Thief 1955
    The Lady Killers 1955
    Guys and Dolls 1955
    The Friendly Persuasion 1956
    The Man Who Knew Too Much 1956
    High Society 1956
    Giant 1956
    The Bridge on the River Kwai 1957
    Auntie Mame 1958
    Vertigo 1958
    Our Man in Havana 1959
    The Nun's Story 1959
    Some Like it Hot 1959

    The 1950's list is the longest list here. I may be dating myself, if you believe that what people like tends to mark their taste chronologically. The media environment of the 1950's was rich. There was still radio, and newspapers and magazines were thriving. When I was a boy in the Fifties, you could see two double features on a weekend afternoon for just a quarter, and the snack-bar didn't cost much either. These were Hitchcock's glory days, and I have no less than six of his efforts on my list--Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo. Hitchock's movies aren't mysteries, or thrillers, or straight dramas; they're about suspicion, foreboding that verges on dread, the unexpected, betrayal, manipulation, and class conflict. The Fifties may have seemed quiet, but rumblings of social change were in the air. The Wild One, with Marlon Brando, about a motorcycle gang terrorizing a small town, actually scared people. The war was still very much on people's minds, with From Here to Eternity, Stalag 17, The Caine Mutiny, Mister Roberts, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and dozens of others too forgettable to name. The best ones, like these, were more about human character than shooting and battle. But war movies would continue to hold their audiences for many more years. Sunset Boulevard, Asphalt Jungle, and Night of the Hunter may technically belong to the "Noir" period, but each is so uniquely conceived and executed that the moniker hardly seems to matter. We mightn't have known it, but the Western (High Noon, Shane) was on its last legs. The small, witty comedies turned out by Britain's Ealing Studios (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and The Ladykillers, Our Man in Havana [with the magnificent Alec Guinness]) seemed like throwbacks, again, to an earlier, stagier, era. Small, isolated masterpieces were popping up, like John Wayne's only real "straight" movie, The Quiet Man, set in an idyllic Ireland. La Strada, one of my few foreign films, almost seemed not to need dialogue. The Nun's Story, for my money the best movie Audrey Hepburn ever made, or Summertime (a Katherine Hepburn vehicle), seemed designed for their respective stars. A new young actor named James Dean--harbinger of the new teen idol craze--would flash across the sky (in East of Eden and Giant) and then suddenly burn out. The musical was also on its last legs, but High Society, Guys and Dolls, and Singin' in the Rain each is a classic of its kind. The cross-dressing comedy Some Like it Hot is a fitting end to the staid, conservative Fifties, which would give way to the promiscuous, liberated Sixties.   

    The Apartment 1960  
    Two Women 1960
    The Sundowners 1960
    The Misfits 1961
    The Hustler 1961
    One-Eyed Jacks 1961
    The Guns of Navarone 1961
    The Music Man 1962
    Lawrence of Arabia 1962
    Jules et Jim 1962
    Lolita 1962
    The Days of Wine and Roses 1962
    The Knife in the Water 1962
    Lonely Are the Brave 1962
    Tom Jones 1963
    The Servant 1963
    The List of Adrian Messenger 1963
    Hud 1963
    The Ugly American 1963
    Becket 1964
    Zorba the Greek 1964
    Topkapi 1964
    Darling 1965
    Doctor Zhivago 1965
    The Loved One 1965
    Blow-Up 1966
    The Group 1966
    The Graduate 1967
    The Thomas Crown Affair 1968
    Rosemary's Baby 1968
    2001 A Space Odyssey 1968
    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 1969

    The Sixties was a time of change in America, when the assumptions and traditions by which Americans had lived and dreamed during the Depression years, the war years, and the immediate post-war years, came into question. The anti-hero finally came into his own. In The Sundowners, The Misfits, The Hustler, One-Eyed Jacks, Lawrence of Arabia, Lolita, Lonely Are the Brave, Tom Jones, The Servant, Hud, Becket, The Graduate, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, offbeat protagonists pursue strange destinies that lead us far astray of the straight-and-narrow-path of typical middle class existence. These are complex characters, often repellent in their nature, who nevertheless draw us in, seduce us into their world. The Western morphed into weird new versions (One-Eyed Jacks, Lonely Are the Brave, Hud). These films explored America's corrupt foreign policy (The Ugly American), the exploitation of women (The Apartment), alcoholism (The Days of Wind and Roses), pedophilia (Lolita), vicarious curiosity (Blow-Up), serial murder (The List of Adrian Messenger), and psychotic co-dependency (The Servant); and there were other films, not on this list, that explored drug addiction, mental illness, and counterculture rebellion. Very few of these movies are feel-good experiences, and they often left you with a sense that the world was neither a very nice place, nor likely to get better soon. 2001 A Space Odyssey proposed a science fiction future that was not ideal at all. 

    Five Easy Pieces 1970
    The Go-Between 1970
    Little Big Man 1970
    Patton 1970
    The Last Picture Show 1971
    Deliverance 1972
    The Godfather I & II 1972-4
    Klute 1973
    The Long Goodbye 1973
    Paper Moon 1973
    The Sting 1973
    Papillon 1973
    Steelyard Blues 1973
    The Way We Were 1973
    Chinatown 1974
    Barry Lyndon 1975
    The Missouri Breaks 1976
    All the President's Men 1976
    Network 1976
    Carrie 1976
    Alien 1979
    Kramer versus Kramer 1979
    The Great Santini 1979
    Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 1979 [BBC Miniseries]

    The Seventies was also a time of general cultural confusion. The movies continued to question our values and assumptions about religion (Carrie), our political life (All the President's Men, Chinatown), our frontier myths (Little Big Man, Deliverance, The Missouri Breaks), the purpose and dangers of media (Network), even the ultimate meaning of life in the universe. The Noir paradigm continued to intrigue us (The Long Goodbye, Klute, Chinatown). But the big story of the 1970's was undoubtedly the Godfather saga, which eventually would fill out three complete installments, though the third panel of the tryptic would be pretty disappointing. In its big tapestry documenting the progress of an Italian mafia clan across two generations, American cinema returned to the ambitious dream that had not really been realized on this scale since Citizen Caine (1941). McMurtry's The Last Picture Show seemed to turn the nostalgia of the Old West into an involuted decadence. Again, it was the anti-hero who seemed to fascinate us (Little Big Man, Five Easy Pieces, The Long Goodbye, The Sting, Papillon, Barry Lyndon). Audiences can't summon movies into being, but there must be some kind of collective unconscious force that brings certain kinds of art into focus. Our identification with unlikely protagonists must have inspired the creation of stories that showed us the flip-side of the myth of success, of the frontier hero who rides into the sunset with the pretty girl and the new fortune in a land of plenty. Prostitutes and gamblers and con men; rustlers, hoodlums, seedy private eyes and investigative reporters, spies and monsters and convicts. What a ragtag group of people this bunch is.     

    Raging Bull 1980
    Ordinary People 1980
    Body Heat 1981
    My Dinner with Andre 1981
    The French Lieutenant's Woman 1981
    Brideshead Revisited 1981 [BBC Miniseries]
    The Grey Fox 1982
    Victor Victoria 1982
    Under the Volcano 1984
    Prizzi's Honor 1985
    Top Gun 1986
    Down by Law 1986
    Jean de Florette/Manon of the Springs 1986 
    Wall Street 1987
    The Untouchables 1987
    Moonstruck 1987
    The Last Emperor 1987
    Empire of the Sun 1987
    Dangerous Liaisons 1988
    Dead Poets Society 1989

    In choosing which movies to put on the list, I tried to avoid putting in choices that I might have a personal obsession with, but which I can't defend as art or cinematic innovation. The 'Eighties continued to demonstrate that individual movies no longer belonged to generic traditional continuities, but tended (especially the best ones) to be isolated conceptual visions that implied no set of predictable components, like a western, or a mystery or love story. Though the Noir style persevered (Body Heat, The Untouchables), the clichés had become so self-conscious they'd been re-absorbed into the integral plots. The old studio system had its faults, but it provided a continuity of expectation which its audience was comfortable with. Small production companies come and go, some exist only to facilitate a single project. The risks are probably ten times greater for a small production, independently funded with private investment capital, than they were for the big studios. Which is why star power is still a factor, whereas the other parts of the recipe may seem less so. Small miracles like Ordinary People, or My Dinner With Andre, or The Grey Fox, or Down by Law seem very much more entertaining to me, than big over-produced blockbusters. Could a one-shot movie ever do justice to a story like Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, which British television did in 11 installments?  

    Goodfellas 1990
    Henry & June 1990
    Mr. and Mrs. Bridge 1990
    Silence of the Lambs 1991
    Dracula 1992
    Glengarry Glen Ross 1992
    A River Runs Through It 1992
    Forrest Gump 1994
    The Shawshank Redemption 1994
    Sling Blade 1996
    L.A. Confidential 1997
    Wings of the Dove 1997
    Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997
    Saving Private Ryan 1998
    The Talented Mr. Ripley 1999
    The Ninth Gate 1999

    Ranking films decade by decade may seem an artificial segmentation of time. It's a convenient way to segregate a batch of efforts in any medium. We typically refer to periods of time as signifying a kind of spirit or preoccupation which is characteristic. Large events may assume an even steeper altitude on the horizon of our perspective. 2001 will always define our sense of the first few years of the new century, the 21st. The movie 2001 A Space Odyssey (in 1968) imagined the advance of science to have occurred at a much more rapid pace. Our technology hasn't kept pace with our dreams, at least in this instance. Orwell's predictions about the insidious penetration of the public and private space by technological surveillance, however, look to be coming true. Who could have imagined that it would be private industry, and the recreational interconnectivity of the Web, which would facilitate this invasiveness? 

    The death of the studio system probably led to the creation of more unique movies than would otherwise have been possible. Rather than being straight-jacketed by studios looking to repeat proven formulas, individual producers and directors were free to conceive of particular projects that interested them, and of pursuing these visions with unconventional methods. Of course, it also meant that, without the backing of a large studio, the odds were greater, and failure could sink your reputation and your opportunities for future work, though success at the box office has always been an issue for everyone in the business, especially for those in a position of authority. Despite this, excellent movies within specific genres--such as crime dramas (Goodfellas), historical costume pieces (Wings of the Dove), war movies (Saving Private Ryan), horror flicks (Dracula, Silence of the Lambs)--continued to be made. It's difficult, though, to imagine a film like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil ever having been contemplated by a major studio. 

    Readers may remark the dearth of foreign titles on this list. It seems to me that cinema is so quintessentially an American medium, that it completely overshadows foreign film efforts. No doubt the language barrier is a serious issue, here, which I will readily admit. But even great foreign directors such as Fellini, tend to see film as a non-cinematic vehicle. I can see many things to admire in French and Italian cinema, but they rarely speak to me at the level of my deepest sensibilities.  
    Given the opportunity, how many of the films I never saw over the years, would I have found to like? Usually, I can tell from a brief two-sentence résumé whether or not I'm likely to enjoy a film. Only occasionally, are my expectations thwarted, and then I end up either being completely bored, or, as with the case of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, pleasantly surprised (the only movie by Clint Eastwood that I've ever admired!). 

    Castaway 2000
    Gladiator 2000
    Frida 2002
    The Pianist 2002
    The Door in the Floor 2004
    Life of Pi 2012
    American Hustle 2013

    What is it that makes American movies great? Maybe it's ambition, the desire to make something so large that it's undeniable. Cinerama was an attempt to make such a wide picture that it would literally surround the viewer. Surround-sound was an attempt to surround the audience in sound, coming from all directions at once. 3-D movies, which made a small comeback in the 'oughts, were an attempt to put the viewing audience inside the moving picture. But the point all along has been to make an action compelling enough to hold our attention, consistently, and powerfully. Telling stories has always been the first priority. A movie like Titanic [1997] needed desperately to make a story out of a big tragic calamity, and probably barely succeeded. Events need to have a personal dimension to make them interesting to audiences, we need to feel something specific about an experience. Just showing cars crashing, or buildings crumbling, or planets colliding isn't enough. All the new technical manipulations which have come to us via the computer revolution, are as nothing compared to the effect a powerful story can have. I loved watching with pity and terror, the sinking of the Titanic in the movie version, but special effects must be properly integrated into a believable, or diverting, story-line. The modern cartoon movies are not half as effective as the early Disney cartoon movies. I have been surprised to see how pitifully the recent sci-fi movie attempts have been, despite the new technical wizardry, proving how extraneous such factors are. I'm clearly susceptible, given the listed choices, to the big blockbusting feature, but it must say something about history, or the human dilemma. 

    I'm also partial to stories which seem in some sense to be about my own personal story, which is why I respond to specific movies like Great Expectations, East of Eden, The Sundowners, Blow-Up, The Graduate, The Last Picture Show, The Way We Were, My Dinner With Andre, Dead Poets Society, Glengarry Glen Ross, A River Runs Through It, The Ninth Gate--each of which addresses some personal event in my life, or speaks through an intimate relationship of something that has formed my character. 

    In order to be thorough with this survey, I tasked myself to go through the whole list of movies on Wikipedia, decade by decade, from 1920 all the way through 2014. Try it sometime, it's an exhausting procedure! There are so many more movies than you might expect. Today, I can barely expect to see more than a handful of new releases in any given year. Usually, I end up seeing them a year or two later on Netflix, a subscription service that allows one to have three movies in your possession at one time, in a round-robbin of circulating discs. This is much the most efficient way to see movies on a regular basis, and has permitted me to see a lot of older movies that I'd not have had the chance to view.  Movies are rarely shown on commercial television anymore, and since I don't subscribe to Cable, I don't have access to the movie channels. 

    Media is changing rapidly now. What will happen when people simply stop going to see movies at movie theaters--or will they continue to do so? Movie projection halls are under pressure in the same way that physical books ("material texts") are these days. But the representation of an action, on a live stage, in a movie or a book, will continue to divert people's attention. The shared experience of viewing a movie, in public, in a dark projection room, may give way to a universal privacy. Will that alter the way we feel about, or respond to, movies? Millions of books are produced each year. Far fewer movies are made, and even fewer plays are premiered, or revived. Has technology made making movies easier, or less expensive? 

    Movies are the expression of a nation's culture. As such, the history of American cinema is a record of our likes and dislikes, our prejudices and honorable sentiments, our pride and shame, our curiosity and morbid fascination. It is our way of telling ourselves who we are, and what we think, or should think and feel, about the world. Movies have been important touchstones for my sense of the world, rehearsals of how I like to cycle and recycle my persistent interests. I have probably watched Patton, and Hobson's Choice, and Kind Hearts and Coronets, a dozen times. There are some movies, like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or Vertigo, which I have literally memorized. People before the 20th Century had no experience of movies. I'm sure Charles Dickens would have produced wonderful screenplays, had he lived in our time. Would Samuel Richardson have been a purveyor of porn? I'm sure the Medieval scholars would have been shocked, shocked to see such mischief. 

    My top ten list (the films in boldface print in the columns) could easily be extended to 20, but beyond that, I think it would become too watered down. On the other hand, a top hundred list would be very possible. 

    As we bid adieu to the public world of movie attendance, let's say a little prayer to the gods of culture, that movies will continue to be made, and to be made ambitiously, with big dreams, and big budgets. We would be much poorer without them.    

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  • 08/20/14--11:20: "I Could Pee On This"

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  • 08/25/14--16:33: Vive Les Girls

  • Sabina ("Sabine") at 2+ months

    As reported in a previous post, we recently acquired two new Siamese kittens, sisters born of a litter of  a breeder in Hayward, California. Sabina and Capuccine. As readers of this blog know, we name all our cats after coffees or coffee concoctions. But Sabine (above) is a departure from this tradition. 

    It isn't easy to tell how small these kittens are from the pictures. Sabine and Capuccine are about 11 inches long--but have probably grown at least two inches apiece since we got them just about a month ago. They aren't twins, but are very close in physical build; Sabine resembles a lilac point Siamese at this point, while Capuccine looks like a chocolate point. 

    Sabine is very much the little lady, careful and pliable, while Capuccine is more rambunctious and adventurous. They both eat with enthusiasm, and will soon grow into young adults. Being sisters, they tend to play together, sleep together, and eat together. 

    Our resident male, Su-Mee (seen here below with the two newcomers) is suspicious, but tolerant. They run rings around him, but he's so much bigger then they are now, that it's really no contest when the wrestling begins.     

    Su-Mee with the two girls at mealtime

    I've "adopted" Sabine, while Merry claims Capuccine. This is the first time we've ever gotten two cats at the same time, and from the same litter. Su-Mee and I are now outnumbered in the household by three ladies. 

    Sabine comes to me in the wee hours of the morning, in the dark, and cuddles up next to my shoulder in bed, purring up a storm. She's making Su-Mee a little jealous, so I have to keep reassuring him that he's still number one in the house. 

    All things considered, they're getting along quite well. 


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    Mexican Family sneaking across the U.S. border

    I've often said that Americans are stupid. It may be that this stupidity is the result of complacence, or ignorance, or credulity, or misplaced empathy. Often, in their vanity, Americans don't want to know the inconvenient truth, the facts that might embarrass them into acknowledging how irrational and senseless many of their sentimental beliefs are. 

    The American media was skeptical for a long time about the presumed obligation America is supposed to have for the poor, dispossessed, ignored, ailing, populations of Central and South America. But in the last year or so, they're coming around to a position of unambiguous support for a full scale national refugee accommodation. In 2008, during the Bush Administration, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act was signed into law, making it impossible to efficiently deport minors back to their native countries, without elaborate petition hearing processes. Word quickly spread throughout Central America, that children could "beat the system" by pretending to be eligible for various kinds of "asylum" or "family reunification." Many of the new illegals are accompanied by a parent, or a relative. Others are brought in by "coyotes," human traffickers who charge about $10,000 a head to escort them across the border. 

    Once here, the U.S. Immigration system treats these minors, and those who are accompanying them, as honored guests. They are "processed" into detention centers, and scheduled for hearings at Immigration courts. The pro-forma initial "hearing" is nothing more than a formal identification and acknowledgement of the illegal's presence, at which a later court date is set to present the "case" for legal residence. Presently, it is reported that well over half of all such "detainees" never show up for their formal hearing, but simply "melt into" American society, and are never heard from again. 

    In order to elicit sympathy and generate support, we're being told now that the reason all these illegals--especially children--are coming is to escape persecution, drug trafficking violence, political enemies, discrimination, poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness. In the vast majority of these cases, these are not new conditions. Central and South America have been in social and political and economic turmoil for over a century. NAFTA, and the Amnesty enacted during the Reagan Administration, and the new enforcement initiatives of the first Obama Administration, were supposed to reduce illegal immigration, but statistics show that more illegals are coming here now than ever before. The stream has become a deluge.

    Meanwhile, there's a movement now in this country to welcome the illegal minors from Central America, to enable them to "beat the system" by helping them overcome the regulations designed to control them, to provide homes and support for them, schooling, health care and welfare. Some cities in the U.S. have designated themselves "sanctuary cities," where national immigration laws will not be followed, and aid and comfort will be provided to illegal immigrants. The San Francisco Chronicle, in what has become a far left-wing initiative, has been running a series of reports on the City's efforts to provide assistance and aid to the illegal Mexican immigrant community. The reports are tacitly supportive, even pridefully boastful of the City's own illegal actions. The City refuses to follow federal regulations about referring illegals who've committed crimes to the IN&S, the Department of Homeland Security. 

    Putting aside what one thinks about the humanitarian priority of welcoming wave upon wave of poor, sick, uneducated, non-english speaking economic refugees, there's the question of why America should want or need to take on more burdens. Ten years ago, if someone had suggested that we should lower our immigration threshold in order to accommodate foreigners simply because they wanted to live better lives, would have been regarded with amused scorn. Two-thirds of the world population would love to emigrate to America, and the reasons are obvious. That we should need to find an ethical pretext that allows us to accept this lowered standard is nothing more than hypocrisy. Nothing in Central America has changed. What has changed is our attitude about what we're willing to tolerate. The immigrant advocates have succeeded in moving the debate several degrees to the left, and are persuading Americans that we have a moral obligation to thwart our own immigration laws and system, by providing aid and comfort to whole populations of foreign nationals, simply because they want what we have. Unable to make a reasonable distinction between universal want, and reasonable accommodation, Americans simply throw up their hands and declare "amnesty!" 

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    Yesterday, Wednesday afternoon, September 4th 2014, the PBS News Hour show ran a segment in what it calls a "series of one-on-one interviews about how to handle the border crisis." As News Hour co-host Judy Woodruff said, in introducing the segment, "as President Obama is delaying . . . whether to take executive action on immigration . . . a Pew Research Center survey released today showed a spike in favor of making border security a priority and a drop in support for creating a way for undocumented immigrants to become citizens."     

    The interview can be viewed now in its entirety here as a tube video, or in text version by clicking on the text button below. Ironically, the News Hour chose to use the same photo of illegals crossing the border that I used in my post of August 29th, 2014.  

    Jeffrey Brown

    The intreview was conducted by Jeffrey Brown, a regular interviewer-moderator on the News Hour. It's commonly acknowledged that the News Hour has shifted somewhat further to the left, since the departure of the program's founders, Robert MadNeil [1995] and Jim Lehrer [2011]. Though the News Hour maintains an official bi-partisan position with respect to many issues, on others it drifts precariously far to the left on others. On the issue of illegal immigration, it has tended to maintain a "compassionate" point of view, attempting to focus on the "human" side of the difficulties encountered by immigrants, rather than the problems they cause in the United States.          

    It is not clear why the show chose to interview the County Sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts. Massachusetts has received almost a thousand unaccompanied minors between January 1 and July 31 of 2014. Sheriff Hodgson has had a distinguished career in law enforcement, that you can read about here, which has included work with Homeland Security. In any case, it became obvious, once the interview started, that Hodgson's view of illegal immigration, and the recent surge of unaccompanied minors across the southern border, differed considerably from what Brown may have expected to hear in answer to his usual questions.       

    Sheriff Thomas Hodgson

    I can't reproduce the full interview here, but will quote a few relevant parts of Hodgson's statements, which happen to accord with my own feelings and reactions to the crisis. 

    In answer to the question "why do you believe they're coming to the United States and even Massachusetts," Hodgson replied:

    "Well, I don’t think there’s any question why they’re coming. And it’s been verified by the EPIC report done by the El Paso Intelligence Center. It was leaked out several months ago.

    And what they learned in this report was that, in 2012, when the president signed the DACA act (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), there’s an immediate correlation between that signing of the DACA and the sudden influx by the thousands of unaccompanied minors coming here.

    And in that report, they interviewed 230 individuals who came here illegally. Of the 230, 219 said: The reason I came here was because I was told I could stay.

    And we know that the homicides are down in all three of those countries, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. We also know that there was no sudden change in the culture or the atmosphere within those countries. So the surge was directly related to the president’s new policy."

    In answer to Brown's question "you simply don't believe they're coming from desperate situations and would leave because of that?" he replied:

    "Look, these desperate situations they’re talking about have not suddenly just emerged since 2012.

    And I think if you look at the surge in numbers, it’s pretty amazing that we have had 37,000 children placed in foster care [between] January 1 [and] July 31 of this year. That didn’t just suddenly have some change in those countries. They have had problems in those countries for a long time. So to suggest that suddenly we’re seeing 90,000 come across, now next year possibly 145,000, that this is some sudden, dramatic shift in the danger within those countries, it’s just not so."

    In answer to "what do you want to see from the federal government, he replied:

    "Number one, we need to change the law immediately so that these individuals coming in from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are treated the same way the Mexicans are, which is there is no right to trial, you get turned around and immediately sent back.

    There is right now . . . almost a 400,000-case backload for these unaccompanied children that are now being booked into dockets of 2017. So we need to get the law changed and have them treated the same as we do with the illegal Mexicans coming across.

    The other thing we need to do is . . . do what law enforcement has been asking for — for two decades, secure the borders. Bring the Israelis in, talk to our people, build the sophisticated kinds of systems that they have in place . . . like law enforcement has been asking. We have our boots on the ground. We know what the problem is.

    And, thirdly, if we’re going to deal with the administrative process, we need to send more administrative judges to the border. Don’t ship people who are going to have administrative hearings all over our country, at the expense of taxpayers. Keep them there. Get the judges down there and let them do these cases. If you have to do them around the clock, like they do in Pennsylvania for regular court cases, then do them around the clock. But we need to process these people and get them right back if they’re entitled to a hearing, until such time as the law is changed.

    Look, the reality is, we can't sustain this. We're the most compassionate country in the world. Why don't we load up planes from Iraq where these people over there are being slaughtered by ISIS and put them here? If anybody needs refuge from violence, we know what's going on. What about our own kids in Chicago who are being killed eight or nine a weekend? So the idea that somehow we're able to sustain this through medical costs, costs for additional teachers who speak the language, special needs costs, I mean, it's about $9000 per unaccompanied child in our schools. 

    So these are the kinds of things that are going to devastate our country, and not give us the opportunities we otherwise [would] have to be compassionate for those we can bring in and do it the right way."

    As the questioning progressed, Brown became increasingly indignant, visibly angered by Hodgson's remarks. Brown and his producers may have expected that Hodgson would only provide details about the problems they were encountering in Massachusetts, but were shocked that Hodgson was informed enough about the real causes of the problem, to be able to speak authoritatively about them, with conviction. 

    Given Hodgson's credentials, the News Hour couldn't simply pretend that he was a Red State Tea Party conservative, and set him up as a naive caricature of reactionary sentiment. The producers of the News Hour have steadfastly refused to inform their audience about the real causes of the recent wave of illegal immigrant minors, preferring to emphasize their vulnerability and jeopardy, rather than telling the real story, that they're being sent here to exploit a loop-hole in American immigration law, and not as a result of some new increase in violence or crime or social disintegration in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. 

    Occasionally, even when partisan news media have a very specific agenda in mind, they will inadvertently allow the real truth to escape through the locked gates of the propaganda compound. This was one of those instances. Jeffrey Brown's stiff, resentful attitude was a clear message: the News Hour doesn't approve Hodgson's message. You have to ask, in this context, why the News Hour should feel so strongly about an issue, that they'd reject the testimony of a decorated law enforcement officer who is not only intimately acquainted with the circumstances of the case, but well informed about the larger issue and its causes. 

    American political life is characterized by deep divisions over crucial issues. With immigration, each side prefers to give us only one partisan view of the problem. Perhaps if we all allowed ourselves to be moved by facts, rather than comfortable sentiments, we might be able to find common ground. If we're going to solve the immigration crisis on our southern border, we have to be willing to address the real issues, and not be swayed by appeals to casual sympathy. 

    We've gotten into the habit of thinking of issues like this as "government" problems. "Let the government handle it. We're a rich nation, we can afford to let in a few scofflaws. It's easy, let the government pay for it. Welfare, schooling, language problems, health issues? Let the government pay for it. We're a rich country."This kind of casual apathetic approach to large problems is hugely impractical, and ultimately not sustainable. 

    So the News Hour can pat us all on the back and say "everything's just fine, the government will handle it. Obama has asked for three billion dollars to take care of all these kids for ever. It's just a drop in the bucket, no one will notice. You won't notice. Now roll over and have a nice nap, everything's under control." 

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    A book review can be in any form.

    It could be an account of meeting the author.

    It could be an interview.

    It could be a biographical account of the author's life.

    It could be a discussion of contemporary poetry, in general.

    It could be a discussion of literary taste.

    It could be about the physical qualities of the book, the typeface or the binding or its design.

    Many book reviews attempt to place the author within the context of her own work, or within a tradition to which she may be thought to belong.

    Reviews of books of poetry are often written by people who have no knowledge or feeling for poetry at all.

    Some book reviews of poetry are by friends or colleagues of the poet, and are written to give encouragement to the author.

    Some are meant to discourage the poet from writing or publishing any more poems.

    Some are written by people who don't know the author, who have never heard of her work before, and have no feelings one way or the other about her work, prior to reading the volume in hand.

    This last instance applies here. I have never read any other books or poems by Caroline Knox. I had never heard of her before I bought this book last month at a used book store. I had no preconceptions about how old she was, where she lived or came from, or what she might be doing for a living. This may be an ideal vantage from which to view a book or a work of art. Once we're familiar with a writer or artist, and their work, we may have difficulty seeing it without prejudice or misconceptions. Coming fresh to a work, on the other hand, can be a refreshing experience.

    Flemish is a beautiful cold-white clothbound book, with red endpapers, and a matching white dustwrapper lettered in black. The page layout is broadly generous, with lots of white space around the poems. I don't know if the work in this book is typical of the author's previous published work, or if it is a new departure. A book can be simply what it is, without any reference to anything else the author may have done. That is how I am thinking of Flemish.

    Caroline Knox, a little older perhaps than expected

    The first thing to say about the thirty poems in Flemish, they aren't "about" anything. The events and things that are named or appear in them are not subjects to which the poems refer. They are not descriptive, not expressions of feeling towards an object. In this sense, they are impersonal. They are about the thoughts that occur to the author in a certain accidental or gratuitous order. A poem may begin with a phrase, or an object, but the poem quickly shifts into alternating voices or layers of elaboration. A theme or trope may be reintroduced later in the poem. Nothing in any of the poems seems to need to be there, which gives the poems a kind of free irresponsibility with respect to the reader. The poems have no obligations to make sense, or to make a point, or to communicate anything of importance to the reader. This isn't poetry of high purpose.

    Here's a prose poem towards the end of the collection.

    The Scottish Play

    The Scottish play the bagpipes with dignity to escort people from here to there. You can read about this in Wee Gillis. An English teacher was teaching himself Finnish: "Every morning my wife and daughters ask me, Have you finished your Finnish?" Well, had he? Finnan Haddie! It's an appealing idea, costumed musicians accompanying you wherever you go. Bath is an antithesis of Scotland, fount vs. tarn. Elsewhere, a mighty pinto was named Atlas not because he was strong (which he was) but because his markings described the Americas. Suppose you are headed up the crags to visit this tarn.* In the US your car has bumpers; in the UK, guards. Bumpers is defeatist, isn't it? As if you knew you'd crash. This text could be set in Helvetica.


    Most of Knox's poems contain odd bits of information or data, sometimes in foreign language, with which the reader may not be familiar. The reader quickly picks up that there is no particular reason that these odd bits are there. They may be suggested by the sound of another word, or by some mental association the author has of them. 

    In children's nonsense verse, silly word combinations may occur as rhyme, or as attempts to provoke a sense of possibility or fun on the part of a child's reading perception.  The most ornate kinds of writing--in Shakespeare's Plays, for instance, or in Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake--may be so jammed with unexpected word combinations that it may seem almost to be a kind of nonsense word play, at least initially. Highly energetic language may also hold loads of meaning, but that is clearly not the case with Knox. The poems are serenely cool, and the content isn't the point.     

    In the poem above, which is typical of the kind of progression Knox's poems follow, there is a cluster of objects, nouns and phrases which all refer to Scotland. It is, then, a "scottish play". The poem works off of the clichés we may think of as scottish, but it seeks to tell us nothing of any import about Scotland or Scots. The poem is basically about itself, and nothing else. It is self-referential. Wee Gillis happens to be a famous children's book by the author Munro Leaf (also the author of The Story of Ferdinand [1936]), which was published in 1938. Wee Gillis is juvenile literature, the kind of story that may become the common inheritance within a common speaking culture (English). The juvenile sense of Scotland matches the faux naive spirit of the writing: "Have you finished your Finnish?" Well, had he? Finnan Haddie!" Thence to Bath, founts, tarns, a pinto named Atlas, a map of the Americas, automobile bumpers, guards and a typeface known as Helvetica. This cluster of nouns and things may have other gratuitous threads of association. A Pinto is an American car. And there are formal jokes: the poem might "crash" instead of landing; and then there's a jolt of context with the reference to typeface. The words in the poem may be said rather to be like toy cars in a demolition derby, bumping off one another. The whole exercise has been a not very elaborate put-on, neither really very witty, nor intriguing. Not joyful, not sad, not ingenious. 

    On one level, its casual glibness is a statement about the unimportance of free variation, how the mind makes irrational connections out of ganglia of association. In a sense, no one can keep from having trains of thought like this, because the overwhelming burden of data we inculcate from the constant stream of experience and self-generating conscious and unconscious thought guarantees that these kinds of accidental sequences will always outnumber the more deliberately organized kinds of thinking and expression we usually associate with intention.   

    The original cover of the first edition of Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf

    * (Tarn is Scottish for a cirque lake, which is to say a lake formed as a depression excavated by a glacier. We have cirque lakes in North America, but we don't call them tarns. We call them alpine lakes, or cirque lakes.) 

                    He Was a Chartist

    He was a Chartist in his apartment
    opening cherrystones for guests at lunch,
    cutting his hand and getting lemon in the cut.

    Rats! his apartment was on the seventh floor
    over the 1920s brick courtyard
    with sawtooth dentils and long railings.

    He was an allergist when he opened the window
    to the blue shadow over half the ceiling.
    He was a Zimbalist, a cousin by marriage.

    Spraying the hinge with WD-40,
    he was a parodist, he was a quietist.
    But he was a kabbalist when he opened the book.

    when he read the words of Aragon
    Les asperges revent / sans témoins,
    Asparagus plants / dream secretly,

    he was a dynast, he was a gymnast
    whose T-shirt said IRON-ON.
    He was a cubist when he heard Mass

    in a Latin rite, which has no epiclesis.
    As a humanist, as a panelist,
    he put away a glass of workhahol.

    Yet he was a centrist in a balaclava;
    on his plate was baklava:
    when in doubt, add food and clothes.


    Initially, we might be given to believe that the poem will be about Chartists, the suffrage movement in Great Britain in the 19th Century. But as we read, we quickly realize this isn't the case. Not only is the poem not about Chartists, or a Chartist, it is in fact a play on words that end in the suffix -ist. Thus, in order, the "he" of the poem becomes in turn an allergist, a Zimbalist, a parodist, a quietist, a kabbalist, a dynast, a gymnast, a cubist, a humanist, a panelist, and a centrist. The inclusions summoned include food, architectural details, a chemical, a window, a book, a T-shirt, and clothing. The poem seems to be a way of associating objects by virtue of the similarity of their sounds, as if the mere recital of such freely associated references were enough to justify the experience of reading it. We will either know (or discover upon looking it up) that epiclesis is the eucharistic prayer common to some Christian church ritual. We will note the slightly off wit of "workahol" (from alcohol), the rhyme of balaclava with baklava. These stray throwaway bits of wit aren't amusing, certainly not to a schooled adult mind. They're cute, in an immature, antiseptic sort of way. 

    Flemish is the Dutch language spoken in Flanders, the northern part of Belgium. When I first saw the book, I imagined that it would have something of the clarity and order associated with Dutch painting--Vermeer, de Hooch, etc. But the author's intentions are far from anything this discrete. 

                             Giant Culinary Otters

    They were a close family of giant culinary
    otters from suriname. The low growling sound was their
    hunger and anticipation of whelk and abalone. Their
    even-tempered facial expressions and eyes of intelligence

    and stylish whiskers appealed to everybody,
    so these otters could have any dish they chose immediately
    prepared for them and served by experienced cooks.

    I read about giant otters in Jackson Mac Low's poem
    anthologized in From the Other Side of the Century,
    edited by Douglas Messerli. Their low growling was their hunger
    and anticipation of shad and shad roe broiled in butter
    around the time of asparagus and new potatoes.
    You couldn't tell if their growls were from their
    mouths or their stomach, but it didn't matter. 

    Giant otters have been styled insecure.
    It was at Spark in Newport that I first beheld
    the giant culinary otters dining, where there's easy access
    from the water. Another night,
    I saw them, twice as many, sixteen maybe,
    at Persimmon in Bristol, similarly maritime;
    they had completely taken over the place and were
    lying around playing Let's Be Stupid, drunk with nutrition. 


    There is an interest in taxonomy, the simple delight in enumeration. A fondness for spices, and cooking metaphors. A resistance to substantiation, or to affirm the existence or importance of anything outside of the poem's initial occasion. In this, it shares with nonsense verse and some of the abstract products of Surrealist automatic writing, a delight in the unexpected, and in fresh combinations. Anyone looking for a poetry of feeling or of made edifices of sense, would best steer clear of this book. 

    Is writing like this nourishing? Does it feed some hunger in the human mind for frivolous folly? Golly, Miss Molly! How should I know? I'm just one of the hoi-polloi. Oy!   

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    When we visited Venice, we took the Vaporetto out to Murano, where they make the fine glass, hand-blown and delicate. Not unlike what you see in this photo. The boat takes you right up to the dock where the factories front the water. I'm not a great fan of finicky decorated glass, which tends to detract from whatever you're drinking. Most Murano glass is meant just to be looked at and appreciated, not to be used, even on "special occasions." Cocktails have a certain crystal purity of aspect, which it is not good to complicate with fine glass. A simple classic cocktail glass is really best.  

    It's been a while since I've recorded new cocktail recipes, so there are quite a few--five more to be exact. Cocktails aren't that popular. Confirmed drinkers generally settle on one kind of goods--say, Johnny Walker Black Scotch--and have that on a usual basis. People who like wine, or beer, also tend not to be cocktail drinkers. I'm getting close to fashioning all my accumulated recipes into a book. There are plenty of cocktail mixing books, but most of them are just color novelty editions, which reiterate the usual formulae, and many of the rest are so-called "exotic" mix compendiums which evoke tropical settings. 

    All these are traditionally shaken and served up in frosted cocktail glasses. The first four use "white goods" while the last is made from Jack Daniels. The thing about "themed" drinks is that you quickly exhaust the possible "occasions" for a drink. It's possible to prefer a vodka martini forever, which some very sophisticated people do. But it seems a little grey to me. A great vodka martini is the perfect accompaniment to a plate of freshly shucked oysters. But we like other snacks, like salted cashews, or a freshly peeled avocado with lemon juice and salt & pepper. Once upon a time, there was something called the "free lunch" at taverns, which were snacks placed on the bar to encourage the patrons to order drinks. The practice gradually went out of fashion. Once in a great while, you'll see free barbecue potato chips set out, but it's rare.       

    3 parts white rum
    1 part dry vermouth
    1 part triple sec
    1/2 part marashino
    1 part fresh sweet lime

    4 parts gin
    2 psrts midori
    2 parts st. germaine
    1 part lemon

    3 parts gin
    1 part triple sec
    1 part limoncello
    1 part genepi des alpes
    1 part lime juice

    3 parts white rum
    1 part Galliano
    1 part banana liqueur
    1/2 part key lime cream liqueur
    2 parts fresh lime juice

    3 Parts sour mash whiskey
    1 part maraschino liqueur
    1 part peach liqueur
    1/2 part st. germaine liqueur
    1 part sweet lime juice

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  • 09/18/14--11:31: Inevitable Beethoven

  • I'm not religious, either by inclination or upbringing, but occasionally one can be drawn into a logical cul-de-sac by a purely rational pathway.

    I can recall when I first heard Beethoven's 6th Symphony, on my own record player--an LP recording of the New York Philharmonic directed by Leonard Bernstein, a nice staunchly American interpretation.*

    Bernstein in the 70's

    It may seem a preposterous proposition, but the piece struck me then, as it does now, as what I would call inevitable music. I remember telling a friend, then, not long after I'd listened to the piece, that it was so inevitable, that "if Beethoven hadn't written it someone else would have." Yes, yes, I know that you are already chuckling at this absurd notion, that the creation of any human hand is nothing more than the literal transmission of some intervention.

    Beethoven Life Mask

    The Greeks believed that artistic inspiration was the literal result of being instilled with a divine spirit--of having that spirit breathed into one by some supernatural influence. Being touched, if you will, by the supernatural.

    Plato believed in the idea of universal forms--our tapping, if you will, into entities of shape or sound or ideation--as a borrowing from the storehouse of perfect things in eternity. These "universals" pre-existed their human "creation," and anything you might think to make or devise was indeed already "there" in the void of time/space.

    The whole range of sounds or colors or shapes that may be combined is not infinite, but to the human capacity for understanding, they may as well be. Any instrument or combination of instruments has a limited range. Indeed, there are instruments that have yet to be invented, just as there are sounds (music) which have yet to be composed.

    But along a time-line which presupposes a very much longer human endurance, it is perhaps not an improbability to imagine that our efforts and apprehensions may have taken place, over and over again in a countless number of instances, as the physicists suggest, in identical worlds across a limitless universe. The music we compose and appreciate may indeed be a rehearsal for a debut performance that has happened many times before, and will be reprised again, endlessly, in the future. (How odd to think of oneself, existing at some distant point in the past, or in the future, living the same life, with the same successes and failures, the same tics and accidents and sudden encounters!)

    Beethoven's symphony, which he worked on simultaneously with his writing of the famous 5th Symphony (talk about a fruitful period!), is divided into 5 movements, disguised perhaps by the fact that the last three run together. In addition, he gave each movement a descriptive phrase:

    One: Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside
    Two: Scene by the brook
    Three: Merry gathering of country folk
    Four: Thunder, storm
    Five: Shepherd's song, cheerful, grateful feelings after a storm

    The theme of the first movement is a repeating figure of great spontaneity and warmth, as of the rhythmic buzzing of bees, or the vital pulse of flowing water. It is "cheerful" and spring-like, with twittering grace-notes suggesting bird-song, and a wending coursing quality as of a stream flowing through meadow. It is full of optimism and vitality, like a spring morning. Light penetrates through green, and light breezes lift and shiver leaves. 

    The second movement is more melancholy, while perpetuating the rhythmically insistent and deliberate vital spirit of the first. Its lilting melody begins more reflectively, in the first stirrings of devotion or affection, a consciousness of the other, the implications of separation and loneliness, even of sadness at parting or awareness of death. But the comfort of continuity and the life-force never flags. 

    The third movement is dance-like and celebratory, with vigorous steps and light-footed maneuvers. There is strength and determination, showiness, but always with the throbbing, muscular beat. 

    The fourth begins subtly, with onrushing pursuits and a series of runs and escapes. There are disturbances, water crashing on rocks, foreboding intimations, then a general rest with resolutions.

    The fifth is characterized by more fitful surmises, recollections and searchings, with uncertain acceptance, we are at a higher elevation, the air is thinner, fresher, clarity is apparent through mists, and almost unexpectedly, we are at an end. 

    I've always thought the ending was anti-climactic, though the overall structure of the piece does not suggest a struggle with a concluding triumph or tragedy. The peace isn't tragic, or comic, it's pastoral. And pastoral suggests a static context. There is birth and death, but traditionally it's about peacefulness and harmony. 

    Is the symphony an oversimplification of the pastoral, or a perfect expression of it? The shepherd tending his flock, the green meadows, or the dancing goat-footed satyrs? There's almost no sense of complication--of problems, of evil, of the competition inherent in nature--in this music. It's programmatic, no doubt about it, but its purity is really spiritual, rather than narrational. Music may be the purest of the arts, because the least programmatic, at least classical music is. 

    But to return to the point: Is it possible, from a purely speculative vantage, to view a piece of music as "inevitable"--that is, as having an absolutely necessary and natural reason for being? Was Beethoven, in effect, the vessel through which this inevitable sound traveled, and perhaps just a convenient one? Throughout literature, there is a repeated reference to the repeatability of events, of things "echoing in eternity" or of rehearsals of situations which will take place again, and again, of relationships which are symbolic. 

    Having once heard a certain piece of music, one is forever bound to remember it. It's locked inside the memory where it may be recalled and replayed repeatedly, though not necessarily at will. Is the power and purpose of a work of music (like any art) to be measured by the intensity of the memory of its event? Long pieces of music, like romantic symphonies, are like journeys, traveling along constructed landscapes and spaces designed to evoke feelings and scenes (and other memories, personal or generalized). 

    Beethoven is often characterized as a strong musical mind, whose certainties and convictions tend to overwhelm the listener. There's very little that's "ambiguous" in any of his works. They mean to do what they mean to do, without reservations or footnotes. This kind of intellectual certainty tended to fragment and decay in the 20th Century.  

    Does my adolescent surmise about the timeless inevitability of Beethoven's symphony imply a kind of religious apprehension about the structure and meaning of time and matter, or of the relationship of mankind to greater powers? Great philosophers have meditated about this for centuries, and physicists have found themselves often at the threshold of such a problem. Matter has structure, and it vibrates to varying degrees, at different registers of scale and density. These oscillations may or may not seem euphonious to human ears. Would an atomic explosion, occurring, say, once every year, produce a series of oscillations, at some unimaginably huge scale, sensible as a tone? Certain tones are too high up on the scale for the human ear to perceive. Dogs can hear higher than humans. The slower the rate, the lower the tone. The more brittle (or attenuated) the string, the faster the vibration. 

    Are we "in touch" with higher truths when we commune with certain works of art? What are higher truths? If we cannot explain how a certain work attains its majesty or perfection, is this because its riddle is beyond our comprehension? Is our inability to figure out the universe a prophylactic against the knowledge that is too difficult to know? The desire to make innocently pure and satisfying works--such as Beethoven's 6th Symphony--or the pleasure we may experience in imagining them as an expression of something greater than the mere organization of notes, may coincide in the magic of perfect accident. Is genius as impenetrable as the equations of advanced physics? Is the conundrum of grace a jingle on the way to grandma's cottage?  

    " . . . and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." --T.S. Eliot (Four Quartets)


    *A good recording of a later performance conducted by Bernstein is this one in studio with the Boston Symphony orchestra (date unknown) though it's probably in the 1970's judging by Bernstein's face.

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  • 10/03/14--09:56: Quid, Me Anxius Sum?

  • Ever since America started exporting jobs, we've been hearing how we're going to become a "service-oriented" economy, selling each other things instead of manufacturing things. The things we'll sell each other, and the services we'll be providing to each other will have to replace the prosperity we once enjoyed as the manufacturing engine of the world. 

    In the spirit of service, here's a word of advice to all whose job it is to serve us something, or to service something we have that needs servicing. The transaction of providing, and receiving remuneration for, a service, is a capital exchange, subject to all the conditions of competition, reasonable expectation, and courtesy that govern all business activity in the world of commerce. 

    When you sell something to someone, or provide them with a service, you are their servant. If you patronize a business, or a service, you are doing them a favor, something for which they should be grateful. This gratitude may be expressed in various ways. 

    Traditionally, it's been considered proper, when providing something, or taking payment, or answering a question, to say thank-you, or to signify one's gratitude in some other way. My pleasure, or we appreciate your business or come back soon also seem appropriate.

    Increasingly, these days, I'm hearing the phrase "Not a problem," or "No problem" when I'm paying for, or asking for something. 

    There are theories going around about how this phrase went viral, but like a lot of such phrases or words, no one seems to know or care what it's really supposed to signify, or why it's preferable to the other more generic transactional replies. 

    My theory is that it's a key to the mood of our culture, one in which guilt, and fear of confrontation, on the one hand, or selfishness and indignation, on the other hand, are indirectly being expressed.

    In America today, we seem to feel a need to head off difficulty and confrontation. Saying "no problem" may be a way of telling the customer that what they are asking for does not create any such difficulty, or that providing a response, of whatever kind, to a request or a question, costs the server no effort or annoyance. 

    There's also the implication that the person responding to a request for something should need to reassure the customer that he is not being indisposed or offended, as if the mere act of having to provide some service is really just a bit presumptuous or unfair. 

    There's something condescending about it too. It's like saying "you can't ruffle our feathers that easily" or "you don't need to feel uncomfortable about asking for that."

    The idea is that "everything is okay" and comfortable and politically correct.

    But the unfortunate impression is that the speaker--the one providing the service--isn't really showing appreciation or gratitude, or being courteous. Because telling someone that their request is being fulfilled without effort or difficulty isn't being courteous. It's being weirdly inappropriate, and even rude.

    Back in the day, Mad Magazine was a satiric, albeit sophomoric, humor magazine aimed at kids and teenagers. Its cartoons and gags and caricatures were the nutty, idiotic, sick side of American rebelliousness and free-wheeling nonsensical hijinks. Its mascot was a freckle-faced, big-eared little nerd named Alfred E. Neuman, whose portrait appeared on countless Mad covers, accompanied by the phrase, "What, Me Worry?" (The Latin for which is this blog's title.) 

    Neuman's anxiety about the innocent pleasure of immature amusement seemed a badge of honor in the 1950's, when it was invented. Some of my best friends got a lot of ghoulish merriment out of it. Though we all quickly outgrew it, it was a necessary stage in the development of full-fledged American adult mediocrity. We probably should have recognized it for the stupid indulgence it was, and grown up quicker. But this was the complacent 50's and there were few alternatives to corny humor then. 


    Somehow, in my mind, "No problem" equates with "What, me worry?" 

    Most of the people who use the phrase probably don't know why they are saying it, but those who wonder may think it's a panacea or a shield against complication or crisis, the elixir against the infection of misunderstanding. 

    Everything is alright, everything is under control, we're on top of it, we're ahead of the curve, we're handling it, we're dealing with it, we're not in denial, we understand, we get it, we care, we've thought about this, we have a plan, there's nothing to worry about, relax, chill out, wait patiently until you are called, it's NO PROBLEM!!!  

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