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Ruminations on literature, art, politics, music, photography, design (architecture and landscape), wine and spirits &c.
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  • 11/06/17--09:04: Near the Arctic Circle

  • My maternal ancestors came from Northern Scandinavia. Norway, apparently. I've never been to Norway, but whenever I see a travel show on television about Norway, I try to imagine--from my "deep" racial memory (if indeed there is such a thing!)--how "at home" these chilly green and white landscapes seem to my sensibility. 

    Personally, I don't particularly like extremes of either hot or cold. When the temperature rises about 85 degrees or falls below 45 degrees, I get sort of miserable. The heat makes me lazy, takes away my appetite. The cold makes me want to bundle up. Doing physical work in the cold is probably easier, since the heat generated from exertion tends to moderate the affects of cold on the body. 

    In the movie Fargo, there's an attempt to satirize Minnesotans by having them mouth Scandinavian pronunciations, like "Yah!" or "Jah!" Maybe Minnesota, with its cold weather, is just enough like Scandinavia to justify this kind of stereotypical mugging. It's amusing, but maybe a little exaggerated.

    My maternal grandmother's maiden name was Redner, or Raedner. I tried once to trace it back. I even visited the genealogical library in Salt Lake City, the one the Mormons maintain. Mormons are very interested in tracing ancestry. Ancestry has become a big part of the internet database, where you can interact with other "relatives" and build up surprisingly complete lines of verified descent on your family tree. At the Salt Lake library, I was only able to find a few faint references in Wisconsin, but nothing before about 1850. I haven't seriously followed the trail online, but I suspect I'd get somewhat farther back, if I tried. 

    Anyway, all this as introduction to my latest cocktail invention, for which I haven't found an appropriate name. Here's the recipe:

    1 part Boodles gin
    1 part limoncello
    1 part Key Lime Liqueur 
    1/2 part fresh lime juice

    garnish small wedge of lime if desired

    mixed together over ice

    makes one portion


    The only unusual ingredient is the Key Lime Liqueur, which I find locally at BevMo. It has a pale green smooth creamy texture, and it's unlike almost any other mixer that I've tried. It's smooth without being dry (the way lime usually tastes). I've added some pure lime juice to this mixture, and even then, the Key Lime tends to make this gin-based drink on the sweet side. If I wanted, I could put in a whole portion of fresh lime juice, which would make it a bit more "cocktail-y" I think. 

    Sweet and cold, with a bit of citric acid. It's a classic combination, augmented by a commercial mix that is proprietary. The Key Lime may have other flavors added to it--perhaps cinnamon, or licorice? Who knows? Using proprietary mixes suggests that you're not completely in control of the combination, since some of its ingredients are unknown. But that's always been the case. So-called "bitters" fluids are mostly also secret, and those have been used for over a century. There are today dozens of new bitters formulas on the market. It seems to be the new horizon of cocktail mixing! Personally, I like to know what I'm putting into a drink, rather than using a brand-name combination which serves as its own advertisement. 


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  • 11/08/17--08:49: Indian Summer Buzz

  • Walker Evans Truck and Sign, 1930

    There's something wrong with America. We didn't sort out the classes and put them in their places the way they did in Europe. Things got really mixed up here. A lot of the energy was stifled and twisted and fermented and synthesized into a rich brew, an alembic of pain and greed and dreams and grief-stricken loss and betrayal and hopelessness.

    America is a country increasingly in flux. Our demographics are shifting. The so-called "races of color" are streaming in, and will soon overwhelm the so-called white races. As the era of the great European diaspora was thought to be dwindling, the third world is now spilling over. Are we any more tolerant of "diversity" than we ever were, or has all this flux just produced tension and free-floating animosity? I've always felt that forcing people to "accept" other ways of doing things is a recipe for resentment and identity anxiety.

    One aspect of America's energy and drive and expansiveness has been its alcoholic indulgence. We went through a deep introspective convulsion in the 1920's, attempting to "temper" our temptation through Prohibition. It's widely thought that Prohibition was responsible for most of the big crime wave that swept over the country during that decade. The Stock Market Crash may have put an end to the sinful flagrant waywardness associated with it, but crime continued to flourish throughout the 1930's and 1940's. Where would Hollywood have been without the inspiration for the Noir paradigm, with its dark shadows and haunting evil undertones? 

    Drinking--that is, the "hard drinking" we associate with hard living and a devil-may-care attitude towards our own welfare and well-being--has also suggested the "high life"--care-free pleasure and a release of inhibitions and cautions. 

    Capitalism runs in cycles. Boom times and bad times. Overheated markets and periodic recessions. I've lived through a couple during my lifetime, but nothing like the 1930's, the Great American Depression. 

    America's drinking habits have been partly a reflection of the economy, and the general mood of the nation. After Prohibition, the American wine industry languished for decades, until its revitalization during the latter third of the last century, when it really took off. Drinking wine is usually associated with food, though taking it alone has its adherents. 

    Some people actually have hard drinks with food, though they're more often appreciated as a pre- or post-dinner libation. I like them best as a pre-dinner start, though I also like them for a mid-afternoon snack. In Berkeley, Cesar's is the perfect fair-weather hang-out, with seating that abuts the sidewalk, and a fascinating bar menu that changes constantly. It's very like a Spanish tapas place, but with a full bar that can handle a wide range of mixes--something that is pretty rare these days. 

    Here are three more recipes that I've chalked up on the weekly board over the last couple of months. Who knows whether these were invented sometime in the past by another curious bartender? There are hundreds of drink recipe books, whose contents aren't ever likely to be collated. So I'll have to assume originality here, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Cheers! 

    1 part tennessee rye whiskey
    3/4 part sweet vermouth
    3/4 part Sambucca Black
    1/3 part creme de cacao
    1/2 part fresh lemon juice

    served on the rocks

    4 parts dry vermouth
    1 part blue curaçao
    1 part anisette liqueur
    1 part lime

    served up with a lime twist

    3 parts gin
    1 part dry vermouth
    1 part mandarin orange
    1 part violette
    1 part lime

    served up with a lime twist

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  • 11/26/17--00:22: Soglow's Igloo

  • I first began reading The New Yorker in the early 1960's, when my mother gave me a subscription as a Christmas present. But I had seen the magazine on newsstands as early as the late 1950's. In those days, it was a very fat and prosperous looking rag, often well over a hundred pages an issue. It intrigued me, with its suppressed by-lines, encyclopedic register of events in New York City. The masthead of the magazine sat atop The Talk of the Town, and underneath it ran the lead editorial pieces. There were never any photographic illustrations then, but they had cartoons, and in the Talk of the Town section, they usually had little cartoon vignettes by a cartoonist named Otto Soglow, though the ones in the Town section weren't signed. Soglow's vignettes and cartoons had a simplicity of style, geometric and controlled, and a kind of innocence that was utterly dry. 

    Soglow, born in 1900, fell into cartooning by accident, and never left it. Eventually, his association with The New Yorker was so firm and familiar that his visual style was virtually synonymous with it.  

    Soglow as a young man

    Soglow "illustrating" a model as a gag 

    Soglow mixing a cocktail (probably during Prohibition) 

    Lots of Soglow's cartoons work off a simple joke--


    I wasn't able to locate any of the Talk of the Town Soglow vignettes online, though there must have been hundreds over the years. This is typical of many of them (note Thurber's droopy dog following the wagon) --

    Soglow's cartoons relied heavily on immediate recognition, since he rarely had captions. Today's hip New Yorker cartoons often have no obvious subtext, and the irony of the tension between the action and the meaning seems almost anti-humor. Soglow's work is reminiscent of an earlier, perhaps more innocent time of simple, light-hearted amusement. 

    I haven't been a regular reader of The New Yorker for many years now--I got off that train about the time that Tina Brown was hired as conductor. She's long-gone too, though the magazine still runs good cartoons, but nothing like those Soglow used to contribute. 

    Did Soglow ever do a cartoon of eskimos? I like to think so. He'd have done a very satisfying little igloo, with furry collared natives indomitably confronting some redoubtable absurdity. 

    Here's a cocktail I've just made up, to celebrate the work of Otto Soglow. It's pleasantly refreshing, and perfectly suited to a carefree afternoon or early evening, when the frustrations and obstacles of the day have been left behind, and some amusing conversation is in order.  

    The ingredients, as usual, are by proportion, though the recipe will do nicely for two.  

    3 parts gin
    2 parts dry vermouth
    2/3 part ginger liqueur
    1/2 part maraschino liqueur
    1 part fresh lime juice

    Shaken and served up in chilled cocktail glasses. 

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  • 11/29/17--08:41: What Does it Feel Like ?

  • How are you feeling today?

    As the day opens up, broadens and elaborates into the complexities of living, are thoughts and feelings ascending into consciousness, appearing and moving?

    Today, everyone says they feel like

    The phrase has become so common, it's gone totally viral in our culture, infecting not just the susceptible young, but people of every age and sex and class and persuasion. Its apparent harmlessness may be one reason people seem to regard it with such pathetic affection. It just feels so nice and smarmy and innocent and innocuous, that people can't resist using it in place of more active, deliberate and frank expressions. 

    In fact, what people really are saying when they say feel like is that they think, or believe, or accept. The choice to retreat from directness to the indirectness or equivocation of feeling allows them to insulate themselves from possible misapprehension, or to hide behind the excuse of personal feeling (i.e., IMO or IMHO). 

    My objection to this verb phrase is that it's clearly ungrammatical. It is perfectly possible to feel like one is stupid, or to feel like a bird. But to say that one feels like a thought, or a feeling, or an opinion, is to put oneself in at least one remove from the original motive. Like is a simile, which is to say it sets up a comparison, between one thing and another, or between oneself and something else. But if you say you feel like something is the case, you're actually saying you feel like someone who has a certain thought or feeling, as if you were comparing yourself to someone who had this thought or feeling. 

    Feel like is a deeply corruptive and corrosive instance of insincere, imprecise and sloppy language. People who use it with confidence have accepted it as a substitute for direct assertion, as a way of denaturing their thought, as well as the quality of their communication with others. It's a deflection of responsibility not only to quality of one's own thinking, but to the clarity of all discussion. 

    The next time you catch yourself saying feel like, say I think or I believe instead. After all, you ARE the person who thinks or believes, not a stand-in. 

    If you feel something, by all means describe that feeling. But if you think or believe something, by all means say that, and leave the feeling part out.  

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    This last year, among the various books that I have read, were two full-length author biographies: Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, and James Merrill: Life and Art, by Langdon Hammer. The Salinger book is like a collection of separately drawn episodes, with little attempt to link real life events specifically to Salinger's literary works. The Hammer book is a meticulously rendered account, almost a concordance of relationships between the events in Merrill's life and the separate poems he wrote. Both books are honest efforts, holding nothing back, and following the clues and implications wherever they lead. Neither book could have been written this way a generation ago, which may tell us something about the progress of our public culture--what we're comfortable with, what we're willing to acknowledge and even accept in our cultural heroes, how much truth we can stand to believe.


    Image result for pictures of james merrill biography book

    My discussion here, though, doesn't consist of a book review. Instead, I want to focus on the common aspects of the two men whose stories are recounted, and to meditate on what those common aspects tell us about artistic production, the artistic life, and the possible meanings to be derived from such relationships. 

    It would help if you knew something about them, since I won't recapitulate the life stories of either man. Much of what is told in these lives is now common knowledge, though it wasn't information that was available to most of the general public while they were alive. 

    Let's start with some parallels. Merrill was born in 1926, Salinger in 1919. Both were in the U.S. Army in World War II. Both were precocious authors--Merrill's first book was published without his knowledge or permission by his Father when he was 17. Salinger began writing short stories while in prep school. 

    Both men grew up in relative security and comfort. Salinger's father was a successful food importer, and the family lived on Park Avenue. Merrill's father was head of the Merrill-Lynch investment firm, and was fabulously wealthy. Merrill would never have to work a day in his life, and lived off his inheritance. After leaving the service in WWII, Salinger lived for a few years off his meager writing income from magazine publication, until in 1951, when Catcher in the Rye was published, which was so successful that it supported him in style for the remainder of his days. 

    Both men, in effect, came to enjoy the negligent independence of means that completely frees the imagination from all aesthetic responsibility. Free to live how they might choose, free to create whatever kind of literature they wanted, and free from the ordinary ethical or formal restraints that are imposed on those of lesser means. 

    From a literary point of view, neither writer has ever been regarded as a formal innovator. Salinger learned his art by writing for popular middle-class magazines. Merrill's poetry was always formally traditional, working within the confines of historical rhyme and meter, never challenging syntactic or grammatical correctness. 

    Both men underwent difficult psychological crises during their lives. Salinger suffered a nervous breakdown during his war experience, and even was briefly hospitalized. Over the next decades, he would go through two troubling marriages and divorces, would conduct a weird affair with a "child-mistress" half his age, and would live out his days in a state of mental and physical hibernation from the world at large, cooped up in a "compound" in rural New Hampshire, fending off vain attempts by the media and his fans to reach him, and refusing to publish anything during the last 45 years of his life. 

    Merrill, a homosexual all his life, suffered through the embarrassment and shame of his secret shadow existence, attempting to hide his sexuality from his parents, and from the world at large, and went through extended periods of psycho-analysis. While he followed his writing career, he spent the better part of his adult years pursuing young men sexually, living a life-style designed to placate his insatiable lust. 

    Salinger appears to have become obsessed sexually with pre-pubescent girls, in a repeated pattern he seemed powerless to resist. There are possible explanations for this in his psychology. Given his relative freedom, he could indulge his obsession away from the public eye. The seclusion and indulgence seem to have fed off each other. Meanwhile, his fiction became more and more claustrophobic, as his fictional Glass Family memoirs drew him in further and further into the magic realism of their fantasy world. 

    Merrill, unable to establish a true lasting relationship, despite the outward model of his prolonged partnership with the failed writer David Jackson, finally submerged himself in a fantasy world of spirit communication, described in detail in his ambitious long poem The Changing Light at Sandover

    A common thread is evident in both men, of a shameful private sexual obsession, which became sharper and more problematic as they matured, causing both to involute artistically, while their private lives fell into disarray. In both cases, their financial security enabled them to fend off the world at large, while they were free to delve more deeply into the private world of their eccentric secret art. 

    Both were men of evident personal charm, which they used to navigate through the "normal" world, a world which increasingly fell away into obscurity and irrelevance, while the private, secret world they lived in became more vivid and seductive. Free to cultivate their bizarre private worlds, their work became more and more trivial to the ordinary reader. 

    All of which is not to say that the work of their later years is unworthy, or invalid. Our verdict regarding Salinger's work will have to wait until his literary executors release his private archives to publication. In Merrill's case, the long ouija board epic may never have enough readers to be considered worthy, though it has its admirers. 

    There are dangers to artists and writers who either are born into financial security, or who achieve freedom through strong early sales. Ordinarily, we think of the freedom artists need to create as a positive aspect. But once need is removed from the equation, the tendency to indulge in private obsession may cause tangential distraction, especially if it is accompanied by deviant or suspicious emotional tendencies. 

    A writer like Henry Miller may decide at the outset to capitalize on his obsessions, as he did with his curiosity and lustful desires. Charles Bukowski, looking hopelessness and degradation straight in the face, built an entire literary career out of a skid-row drunk's life. John Cheever spent the first half of his life writing decent stories for decent people in The New Yorker, while inside he struggled with his demons (alcohol, bi-sexualism, adultery, artistic jealousy) until they finally overcame his resistance. 

    What we know of the private lives of artists and writers may or may not tell us something we need to know to understand the ultimate meaning of their works. In the case of Salinger or Merrill, I'm not sure that finding out the unpleasant underlying backstory, brings anything useful to our appreciation of Catcher or Sandover. In the end, the works have to stand on their own. A couple of centuries from now, will any possible reader need to know that the author of Catcher in the Rye had a "thing" about little girls? Will our understanding of Phoebe, Holden Caulfield's sister, or of the young prostitute whom Holden sees in his New York hotel room, be enhanced by knowing about Joyce Maynard's year living in Salinger's household? Is it important that we know the details of Merrill's affairs with young Greek boys in Athens, to more fully comprehend what the imaginary deities or ghosts are telling Merrill he must think about his life in Sandover? 

    Perhaps not.

    Is there some important lesson to be gained by noting that great art may be the result of a kind of friction between intense private obsessions, and the public at large, to whom these private fictional worlds are offered? Guilt and embarrassment--the need to tell a palatable version of a private reality-- may indeed be the strongest drivers of vivid artistic invention.  

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  • 01/02/18--08:34: Article 2

  • James Merrill, about whom I wrote in my last blog entry, is not a poet whom I had ever much admired. As an aspiring poet in the 1970's, I knew his books and comprehended his style. I knew vaguely that he came of privilege, and that his highly decorous, highly decorated verse seemed to be carried along on a prosperous negligence--that it belonged to a world I could never properly appreciate, having never had any direct experience of it, and unlikely ever to see it up close, first-hand.

    If I couldn't imagine participating in a world accessed through leisure, wealth and social connections, then my appreciation of Merrill's work would forever have a vicarious, excluded quality, like a child who, looking with intense interest upon a toy train behind a department store window, presses his nose against the glass. Literature, though, is one door into the unknown, a medium through which other lives, other milieus, can be viewed, estimated, judged, appraised, or envied or despised. I read somewhere once that "we love all worlds we live in," a fairly pretentious homily at first glance, though the more we think about it, the more intriguing it seems. Some Victorians believed that suffering was its own kind of romantic thrall, a notion you can see in much 19th Century verse and fiction. No one would suggest that people actually can love to suffer, but making art out of suffering is an old technique, certainly not limited to those at the bottom of the social or economic scale.  

    Though James Merrill grew up in relative splendor and riches, with everything provided and taken care of, his was not a happy childhood. His parents neglected him, and fought with each other, and divorced when he was 11. Though brilliant, from an early age, he was effete, ineffectual and isolated emotionally. A classic case of the incipient homosexual, with an intense and conflicted relationship with his Mother, while irretrievably distanced from his domineering but distant Father. By his late 'teens, he'd been initiated into the gay alternative, and he never looked back. This choice, whether voluntary or not, was unacceptable at the time, and led to difficult accommodations throughout his life, with a long-delayed coming out.

    The poetry, early on, rather than becoming simply a refuge from the difficulties of a deceiving identity in the world, would become the testing and proving ground for self-examination and scrutiny,  a forum for the dialectic between the outward projected man, and the inward questioning soul. In terms of the progress of his career as a writer, the volume Water Street [New York: Atheneum, 1962] is in several ways the key transitional turning point. A short collection of only 51 pages of text, its lead poem, An Urban Convalescence, is like a declarative statement of where his future lay. Reacting indirectly to the new vogue of confessionals (aka: Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Frederick Seidel) then sweeping across the literary landscape, the poem addresses a real event--the tearing down of a neighborhood building in New York--and makes what sounds like a very personal and emotional statement, unusual up to that time for Merrill, and somewhat unexpected.

    Formally, the poem isn't fussy or straight-jacketed, hinged with cleverness or artifice. It's almost conversational. Unpretentious.

    Reading it now, really for the first time, I can see qualities in it that I mightn't have appreciated before. There's that terrific image of the huge crane "fumbl[ing] luxuriously in the filth of years / her jaws dribbl[ing] rubble," and "wires and pipes, snapped off at the roots, quiver." There's a sense of displacement, even disorientation that the speaker experiences with the leveling of part his familiar landscape, as if the transformation of the urban architecture had done a kind of violence to the unconscious. There's that peculiar reference to Robert Graves in The White Goddess, an ambiguous reference meant apparently to imply a clumsy deus ex machina in which the crane operator (note the pun on a classical bird) wreaks destruction as an agent of change. 

    The meditation turns sour as the speaker rejects the pat sarcasms of popular cant -- "the sickness of our time . . . certain phrases which to use in a poem . . . bright but facile . . . enhances, then debases, what I feel." Conflicted between the superficial disorientation of urban demolition--a shifting of the gestalt of his past--Merrill now turns against that very past--its tradition, its continuity, its smarmy models of performance and identity, and vows "to make some kind of house out of the life lived, out of the love spent." But it's the ambiguity of a love spent, as if exhausted. Though Merrill would perpetuate the empty husk of his relationship to David Jackson for the rest of his life, and would maintain roughly settled homes in Stonington, Connecticut, and in Athens, Greece, these were indeed "another destination"--of serial male relationships, primarily sexual in character, and ephemeral, and in that way love "spent" rather than permanent and "honey-slow." 

    Merrill's upper story digs in Stonington Connecticut

    The abrupt shift from free verse to quatrains and rhyme from "indoors at last" to the end is like a retreat from the chaotic book of the world, to the private sanctuary of formal discipline, yet one in which secular confession and private desire will be reconciled in the structured context of verse. 

    The poem is remarkable for the frankness and casualness with which it initially expresses personal feeling, measured against the discipline of higher principles. While the second part at first feels superficially to be a kind of conviction, this falls apart at the end, as the speaker acknowledges the ambiguity of his moral position, an honesty that is unusual. At first, change is encountered numbly, and with revulsion, only to be grudgingly accepted in the end--the intervention of unwanted necessity. Hearing Merrill read this poem, later in life, with his dead-pan baritone, made it seem elegiac, and resolved, though this never happened in his life. Such declarations of principle are always provisional--as the poem admits--always subject to revision, accommodation, the small failures and retreats which constitute a life lived, out of a life spent.      

            An Urban Convalescence

    Out for a walk, after a week in bed,
    I find them tearing up part of my block
    And, chilled through, dazed and lonely, join the dozen
    In meek attitudes, watching a huge crane
    Fumble luxuriously in the filth of years.
    Her jaws dribble rubble. An old man
    Laughs and curses in her brain,
    Bringing to mind the close of The White Goddess.

    As usual in New York, everything is torn down
    Before you have had time to care for it.
    Head bowed, at the shrine of noise, let me try to recall
    What building stood here. Was there a building at all?
    I have lived on this same street for a decade.

    Wait. Yes. Vaguely a presence rises
    Some five floors high, of shabby stone
    —Or am I confusing it with another one
    In another part of town, or of the world?—
    And over its lintel into focus vaguely
    Misted with blood (my eyes are shut)
    A single garland sways, stone fruit, stone leaves,
    Which years of grit had etched until it thrust
    Roots down, even into the poor soil of my seeing.
    When did the garland become part of me?
    I ask myself, amused almost,
    Then shiver once from head to toe,

    Transfixed by a particular cheap engraving of garlands
    Bought for a few francs long ago,
    All calligraphic tendril and cross-hatched rondure,
    Ten years ago, and crumpled up to stanch
    Boughs dripping, whose white gestures filled a cab,
    And thought of neither then nor since.
    Also, to clasp them, the small, red-nailed hand
    Of no one I can place. Wait. No. Her name, her features
    Lie toppled underneath that year’s fashions.
    The words she must have spoken, setting her face
    To fluttering like a veil, I cannot hear now,
    Let alone understand.

    So that I am already on the stair,
    As it were, of where I lived,
    When the whole structure shudders at my tread
    And soundlessly collapses, filling
    The air with motes of stone.
    Onto the still erect building next door
    Are pressed levels and hues—
    Pocked rose, streaked greens, brown whites. Who drained the pousse-café?
    Wires and pipes, snapped off at the roots, quiver.

    Well, that is what life does. I stare
    A moment longer, so. And presently
    The massive volume of the world
    Closes again.

    Upon that book I swear
    To abide by what it teaches:
    Gospels of ugliness and waste,
    Of towering voids, of soiled gusts,
    Of a shrieking to be faced
    Full into, eyes astream with cold—

    With cold?
    All right then. With self-knowledge.

    Indoors at last, the pages of Time are apt
    To open, and the illustrated mayor of New York,
    Given a glimpse of how and where I work,
    To note yet one more house that can be scrapped.

    Unwillingly I picture
    My walls weathering in the general view.
    It is not even as though the new
    Buildings did very much for architecture.

    Suppose they did. The sickness of our time requires
    That these as well be blasted in their prime.
    You would think the simple fact of having lasted
    Threatened our cities like mysterious fires.

    There are certain phrases which to use in a poem
    Is like rubbing silver with quicksilver. Bright
    But facile, the glamour deadens overnight.
    For instance, how “the sickness of our time”

    Enhances, then debases, what I feel.
    At my desk I swallow in a glass of water
    No longer cordial, scarcely wet, a pill
    They had told me not to take until much later.

    With the result that back into my imagination
    The city glides, like cities seen from the air,
    Mere smoke and sparkle to the passenger
    Having in mind another destination

    Which now is not that honey-slow descent
    Of the Champs-Élysées, her hand in his,
    But the dull need to make some kind of house
    Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.


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  • 01/13/18--03:23: Shit Hole Countries

  • This week, Donald Trump, discussing new Congressional proposals for immigration policy changes, was reported to have reacted strongly to certain suggested elements that were presented to him, in a private meeting at the White House. In reviewing the policy with respect to Haitians--whose special status as refugees following the catastrophic earthquake there in 2010, was revoked in November 2017, and must return by the summer of 2019--whose protected status was to be extended or granted authorization to allow for citizenship, Trump was reported by some, who were present at the meeting, to have asked "Why do we want all these people from shit-hole countries [i.e., Haiti and nations of the African Continent] coming here?"

    Response in the Press and in government was swift and unequivocal. The remark was universally labeled as racist, and condemned as a diplomatic error.

    Since Trump's election, his "style" of interaction with the nation, and with the Press, has been unique in the history of the Presidency. Rather than making public announcements, carefully planned and scripted before-hand, he freely ruminates and fulminates on social media ("Twitter"), offering peremptory and inflammatory rhetoric and personal observation with seemingly little regard for the delicate contexts of public opinion, or the world at large. The man speaks his mind unashamedly and carelessly, frequently causing his staff to backtrack and mend fences in the wake of the damage (intended or not) he has created.

    There is no doubt that Trump's style of communication is unconventional, though it bears some comparison to the new era of "reality television" and social media, which feeds off of rumor and innuendo. Trump is a new kind of President, perhaps a symptom of the times. One who is willing to offend and shock, sometimes deliberately, as a strategy to create unrest or reaction, or to keep his image and personality constantly before the public eye. 

    Trump's immigration policy positions have been pretty clear since the beginning of his campaign. He thinks our policy with respect to both legal and illegal immigration has been deeply flawed, and he's used that position to promote his "base" (supporters). Trump believes in a tightly controlled inflow of foreigners, one based not on "need" and sympathy, based not on racial preferences or perceived obligation, but on more traditional criteria, including fitness, skills, and suitability for assimilation. Over the last half-century, our immigration policies have tended more and more to be based on accommodation of perceived "need," refugee-ism, and conversion of those residing here illegally, in violation of their present or continuing status. 

    Trump's question arises out of a sense of frustration, that our immigration policies seem to have become a huge welfare system in which tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people are either given a free ticket to America, or granted amnesty from deportation and offered a pathway to citizenship, despite having flagrantly violated the laws of our country. The tide of public opinion has shifted over this period, from one committed to the fitness of application, to one of adoption and refuge. The question no longer seems to be whether someone might sensibly be expected to contribute to our country, but to be whether someone seems to "need" to escape from their respective country. 

    According to figures I've checked on the internet, Haiti is considered the poorest country in the world. It's poverty rate is the highest in the world, and the condition of its population, with respect to public health, education, employment skills, etc., is uniformly terrible. If any nation in the world could quality for shit hole status, it would be Haiti. The magnetic attraction of America to Haitian immigrants must be overpowering. Between 1990 and 2015, the Haitian immigrant population in America tripled in size. Of that number, nearly 50% subsist here on welfare, and as many as 100,000 Haitians reside in the U.S. illegally. 

    The question at hand is, what should our criteria be for American immigration policy, broadly speaking? Should we continue to prioritize our system to accommodate large numbers of refugees, and illegals, and those whom we feel we owe some reparations, in preference to the classic model of candidates who are educated, healthy, law-abiding, trained, least likely to be a burden on society, and who and apply legally

    Criticism of Trump's remark have focused on its racial aspect, though Trump himself has repeatedly denied a racial component in his attitudes. Certain stories have said that Trump has insulted "countries of color," as if any nation could be so described. Indeed, to insist on such designations seems more racially biased in its assumptions than one focused on traditional models. In the case of Haiti, its population is primarily of African origin. Those who claim "countries of color" as a criteria for policy adjudication, seem to want an immigration policy based on reverse racial preferences, as if we had an obligation to accommodate more "people of color" than so-called "other" racial types. 

    There is no doubt that President Trump is rude, and speaks his mind. There is no doubt that he is often ignorant, and even foolish in his behavior and speech. But the point here isn't racism. It's about actual immigration policy, and whether we should continue to adjust that policy to suit models and targets that prioritize race over other measures. 

    Reality is often unpleasant. We've had Presidents in the past who spoke bluntly, and sometimes rudely (usually in private). The difference with Trump is that he doesn't care how he's perceived, or he believes that creating embarrassment, or distress, or confusion--even if it backfires or reflects back on him--is his prerogative. 

    Frankly, I don't care if he's rude. I've disagreed with almost every program he's advocated, and he's clearly, despite his style and campaign claims, a classic Republican who serves the interests of the rich and big business. But the issue here isn't racism. The media simply has it wrong. 

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  • 01/14/18--09:50: Winners Circle

  • In the continuing search for better cocktail mixes, one recent effort stands out, and has therefore been dubbed the Winners Circle. In horse-racing lore, the Triple Crown winner occupies the winner's circle, covered in robes of white flowers, befitting a champion. 

    Secretariat, the Triple Crown winner for 1973

    Lately, the results of the mixing lottery have been "mixed" but yesterday we hit on a winner. Everyone's taste is different, so each taster much judge for him- or herself. For my money, this is one for the record books. I'd bet it will be a winner for you too.

    3 parts golden rum
    2 parts grapefruit liqueur
    1 part cachaca
    1 part fresh lemon juice

    Shaken and served up, with a garnish of lemon or lime.

    The taste is oddly not unlike a lime-based mix, though there is no lime flavor in it. It is also reminiscent of orange, but there's no orange in it either. Something about the confrontation of grapefruit and cachaca produces this hybrid flavor.  

    Taste is a mystery. Everyone's chemistry is just a little different. Vive la difference!

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  • 01/15/18--06:30: Cappy and Sabine

  • We think of genetics as a science now, not a mystery. 

    Plato thought that the "soul""entered" the body at birth, which was all the Greeks knew of inheritance, and reproduction. 

    We now know that inheritance and all characteristics are passed through DNA, in random combinations, which include mutations that subtly alter the progression of the inherited blueprint.  

    We acquired these two younger Siamese cats from the same breeder. They were sisters, born of the same litter, of the same parents. 

    And yet, you'd never know it from looking at them today. As kittens, they looked much more alike. Both were lightly darkened at their points, and snow white otherwise. But in pretty short order, they diverged. 

    Lily Sabine (below) is slightly warm cream color with light grey points. 

    Cappucine (below) developed into a classic chocolate point. Cappy (for short) is a bit larger, while Sabine will always be a miniature. Cappy is stronger, and more determined, though less social than Sabine.  

    They have different voices. Sabine's is a delicate "mew" while Cappy generally has a vibra-tone, like a cackle. Both are very friendly, and will tolerate being held, but not for very long. Neither is a lap kitty, though Cappy will often settle on your legs in bed. Cappy is an aggressive hunter and chaser, while Sabine is gentler, and perhaps less wild. 

    Neither has been fixed, but that's not a problem since our male has been, and none of our cats goes outdoors. 

    They're still young, though full grown now. It will be interesting to see if we outlive this latest generation of our family pets, or they us. 

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  • 01/19/18--09:16: Who Speaks For Americans?

  • We live in strange times.

    The Democratic Party is holding the federal government funding package in Congress hostage to the Dreamers, who constitute something like .00216718% of the population (allegedly 700,000 individuals, but probably many more uncounted). 

    Meanwhile, the Republicans have thrown all their political weight behind the top 1%, to whom they just gave the largest tax break in recorded history. 

    What about the other 98.99783282% of Americans?  

    If we live in a country of representative government, who is actually standing up for the rights and interests of the vast majority of citizens? With each party so exclusively invested in tiny minorities, some not even actual American citizens, it does give you pause.

    Who speaks for us? 

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  • 02/12/18--11:32: Spring Training

  • Image result for giants logos

    According to speculative reports I have read online, the San Francisco Giants' 2018 line-up is shaping up to look like this:

    Andrew McCutchen RF
    Joe Panik 2nd
    Evan Longoria 2rd
    Buster Posey C
    Brandon Crawford SS
    Brandon Belt 1B
    Hunter Pence LF
    Austin Jackson CF
    Madison Bumgarner P

    With the acquisition of McCutchen and Longoria in the off-season, the line-up has been beefed up with additional right-handed power, something that has been sorely lacking over the last several seasons. It is possible, of course, that Jarrett Parker or Mac Williamson may move up in the team rankings, which might change the outfield alignment. And there is always the possibility that a previously unsung platoon man may rise to the top. Pablo Sandoval is still only 30, which seems a bit early to consider his career over. Could he ever hit .300 again? Perhaps if he stopped the switch-hitting, and stuck to left-handed. 

    The front-line starting pitching staff is not much different than 2017, which means we have three excellent starters, at least on paper. Can Samardzija ever live up to his potential? Can Cueto return to his 2016 form? And in the bullpen, we now have Dyson and Melancon, both of whom is a finisher. Could they perform in tandem? One as set-up, the other as closer? Matt Moore is gone (thank god), as is Matt Cain. 

    What does 2018 portend? 

    As always, it depends on performance. This group has loads of talent, and if they all played to potential, they'd be hard to beat. The three starters are perfectly capable of winning 18 games each. Mccutcheon, Panik, Posey, Longoria--all capable of All Star stuff. Will Belt have a breakout year? Will Pence regain his previous prowess? Can this group hit over 200 homers? Will the two closers get 45 saves? 

    Question, questions.  

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  • 02/13/18--08:48: Sitting Pretty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Here's to variety! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

    Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe of Manet

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

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

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

    Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe of Monet [1866]

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Pastoral Concert of Giorgione

    La Tempesta of Giorgone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Schiff is a gift to humanity.   

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  • 05/09/18--08:17: Come Spring

  • It's been an odd year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Wow, almost as good as Chevys!

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

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

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

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

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

    served stirred over ice into chilled short glasses

    Summer is coming. I'll say no more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    This photograph seems an innocent footnote to that noble history.  

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

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

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

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

    But definitions of words present another set of problems.

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

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

    Here's a few of these words:


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


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


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


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


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

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

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  • 07/30/18--06:44: Another Aperitif

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

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

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

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

    I think you will like this one. 

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  • 09/10/18--17:19: Smooth landing

  • The recipe:

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

    poured over ice in any common tumbler 

    What is dryness in language?

    What is dryness on the palate?

    Wet versus dry.

    "You're all wet!"

    "How dry of you!"

    Lime is dry, and molasses is wet.

    Pope is dry, whilst Swinburne is wet.

    We could continue this little game for quite a while.

    Meanwhile, the ice is melting.

    The earth is warming.

    The girls are bored.

    The time's wasting.


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

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

    Deceit. Conceit. 

    "Don't be such a conceited sod!"

    And so I rest my case. 

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

  • Here are two new inventions from the steel counter.

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

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

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

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


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

    Shaken and served up

    garnish lime wedge

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

    Shaken and served up

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

  • Willie McCovey died yesterday at age 80.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Bye-bye, Willie. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Bill Berkson Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Since When is filled with his familiar voice--

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

    Served over the rocks, and stirred.


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

    Shaken and served up with lime skin garnish.