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Ruminations on literature, art, politics, music, photography, design (architecture and landscape), wine and spirits &c.
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    Why not.

    Barrett Watten's new book Questions of Poetics. Language Writing and Consequences has just appeared from University of Iowa Press [Iowa City: 2016]. Its overall intention, by my reading, is to reaffirm and consolidate the legacy of the soi-disant "Language Poetry School" and its members, in an ongoing campaign for its literary valorization. 

    In the course of this long-winded account, Watten takes on Ansel Adams' Fiat Lux: The University of California portfolio [New York: McGraw-Hill Books, 1967]--  

    --a commercial project the famous photographer undertook near the end of his career. The project, which was begun just months after the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, provides Watten with a proximal contextual marker, seeing Adams, and the Fiat Lux project, as a conscious instrument (and symptom) of the monolithic power structure of the post-war American UC system, against which the subsequent resistant student protests, and later aesthetic movements (i.e., the Language Poetry movement) are posed. 

    Watten has strayed a little outside his comfortable area of expertise. But why not? Adams is an easy target. 

    As a serious large format photographer, I know a good deal more about the contexts and meaning of Adams' life and work than Watten does, and I find his analysis wanting in several respects. 

    Since his death, Adams has been an easy target of photography's critics, and for obvious reasons. Originally, he had wanted to be a professional classical pianist, but gave this up in favor of photography in his twenties. His early associations were with Yosemite Valley, where he lived and worked for several years, which led directly to his involvement in the landscape preservation movement (Sierra Club). His aesthetic inspirations are all to be found in his appreciation of wildness, of nature's grandeur and persuasive beauty, and his fame rests primarily on his nature images, which portray natural wonders in an heroic style, unencumbered with abstract theory or problematic distractions. Unlike Stieglitz, or Strand, or Edward Weston--who sought deeper levels of revelation in their work--Adams saw photography primarily as a craft. Indeed, his researches into the chemistry and technology of image-making, which include the Zone System of light measurement (which he pioneered), enabled him to focus on the precision and clarity of imaging (see F64). Though his reputation in retrospect came be be seen as primarily preservationist and naturist, he took commercial work of all kinds in his career. Adams's politics were centered around the preservationist aesthetic, both as a key figure in the Sierra Club, and as a promoter of (photographic) visions of the unspoiled American West. Indeed, if anything, Adams' stance against conservative figures such as President Reagan, specifically on environmental issues, would place him well left of center on the political spectrum. Later critics have seen in Adams'"superficial" celebration of landscape values a hypocrisy about the ultimate realities of modern industrial exploitation of the ecosphere, as if he ought to have understood that the real work lay in exposing pollution and the ugliness of chaotic human development, a task which has fallen to later generations of serious photographers.

    Though it is true that his images do not embody the ironies and problems of modern urban and suburban developments, of factories and clear-cuts and cesspools and smokestacks, no one worked harder for preservation values than Adams.    

    But why not? Who cares if we bring Adams down another notch or two on the aesthetic scale?

    Adams would have seen the University of California Fiat Lux commission as an opportunity to celebrate the optimistic spirit of public education and scientific research, not as the expression of a repressive, capitalistic, militaristic power structure. Adams would see buildings and trees and plazas in the same way he would see mountains and lakes and landscapes. What would you expect him to have done--use the commission to pillory the university system as the evil monolith of Yankee Imperialism?  

    The Fiat Lux commission is described by the UC System's permanent art collections: "Besides his personal work as a nature photographer--his art--Ansel Adams took commercial assignment in order to support himself. Among these was a commission from the University of California to produce a book celebrating its centennial in 1968. The subject was the nine campuses that then comprised the UC system--and the book's title was UC's motto, Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light)." The full archive of images can be viewed online here. "The project also enlarges our sense of Adams's career by showing us not only the talent he had for genres other than nature photography, such as portraiture, but also the ways in which he adapted his landscape aesthetic to the subject of the UC's campuses and agricultural stations."  

    Watten: "These photographs provide a record of the university's image of itself as it was before the cultural changes begun by the FSM ['Free Speech Movement'] , and as such they stand as a record of what the student movement saw itself as opposing, even as it assumed many of its values. They give, as well, accurate evidence of the historical constructedness of purported universals: the sedimentary thickness of all claims to the transparency of knowledge represented by the university." As evidence for this "sedimentary thickness" Watten emphasizes Adams' foregrounding of the Campanile as the towering symbolic representation of the oppressive atmosphere of the university administration and the opaque "universal knowledge" it purports to represent. Hedging his bet ("even as it [the student movement(s)] assumed many of its [the University's] values"), there is a pertinent irony in the meaning of those very values. So why not? Can't we have it both ways?  

    End Part I

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    Watten: "Adams was an ideal photographer to represent the university's view of itself. As a world-renowned Modernist . . . he brought together in his work modern technology and sublime grandeur . . . . As anchor of this subliminally, the Campanile takes a prominent place in his iconography. The symbolic order it represents is distributed everywhere in Adams's system of representation; the archive reveals his repeated efforts to foreground and frame it as a controlling icon. This . . . in turn, offers a paradigm for Adams's construction of relations of equivalence between the elements of the discourse of the university, beginning with the literal construction of the campus . . . ." 

    In the first place, Adams could not by any stretch of logic be described as a "Modernist." His work began in the tradition of, and continued to embody, throughout his career, the pictorial landscape values of the 19th Century. He never questioned the analytical or aesthetic implications of that program. Indeed, his first portfolio--Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras--includes so-called "soft focus" images which had been popular at the turn of the century. In his eyes, natural wonders--symbolic signposts of a secular pantheistic tapestry, designating parks as jewels in the crown--became the means to project the preservationist's agenda into the popular realm. Adams never questioned the basic claim of photography as the means of the presentation of actual reality. He rejected any manipulation or alteration of the image which did not enhance the original conception as seen with the naked eye.    

    Secondly, Sather Tower (aka: the Campanile), which was constructed in 1914, as a part of campus architect John Galen Howard's Beaux Arts Master Plan, was specifically and deliberately designed to occupy the central visual key to the university, visible from everywhere. Based on European models--the Venice tower comes immediately to mind--it stands as a monument to the aesthetic mode of the time of its conception, and as an image of the optimism and progressive spirit of American liberal education. To suggest that Adams sought--either consciously, or unconsciously--to emphasize it as an over-mastering iconic symbol of repression and a decadent corruption of the administration, is sheer nonsense. What fool would think that deliberately excluding images of the tower would somehow have been a more politically correct choice? And for that matter, the tower's original purpose wasn't as an icon of power. Anyone choosing to view it that way, particularly in hindsight, is engaging in an egregiously cheap form of gratuitous bias. 

    But why not?

    Turning his attention to the faculty portraits--"in each of these rigid and codified poses, the inventor himself (always male) is an empty, nearly anonymous cipher, while the given invention . . . offers a promise of fulfillment. . . . The transformative potential of the most sublime orders known to man is disclosed--as with the Berkeley research that participated in the development of nuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory . . . as seen in Adams' images of the first diminutive cyclotron . . . This sublime potential . . . a threat of total annihilation in the name of science and rationality . . . by means of logics of equivalence . . . throughout the system." 

    All this analytical presumption seems beside the point. In choosing to include the university's scientific facilities as a pertinent sphere of its research mission, Adams was certainly not attempting to portray the administration's underlying power structure, as Watten states. It would be just as false for Adams to have pretended that scientific research wasn't important, by not portraying it at all, as it would have been to show a photo, for instance, of an atomic detonation. Documentary photography can swing both ways, depending upon your point of view. In any case, it wasn't Adams' mission to present a philosophical criticism of the university on its centennial, as Watten seems to demand.

    Watten goes on to include the usual suspects--" . . . not only is gender rigidly ordered . . . Other outsides of the system include minorities, as scarce as quark particles in the cloud chamber of Adams' oeuvre . . . Asian Americans . . African Americans . . . and Hispanics . . . [and] Native American[s] . . . ." Again, given the context of the historical moment, it's hard to imagine what Adams ought to have done, in retrospect, given the obvious mandate of his commission. If, for instance, he had been queued to the motions of "diversity" so prevalent in our own time, he might, instead of taking a photograph of Department of English Chairman James Hart, have chosen to photograph Josephine Miles, another professor in the same department, whose wheelchair condition could, signally killing two birds with one stone, have qualified for both gender and disability as the politically correct "coded" references of which Watten could, fifty years later, approve. But then, Adams wasn't a photographer in the mold of W. Eugene Smith (Minamata) or Paul Strand or Dorothea Lange; he wasn't hired to portray the university in a critical light, a fact which Watten seems unable to grasp. 

    "As a visual endorsement of Enlightenment rationality, it is doubly remarkable that this document was created, after the Free Speech Movement . . . Adams is hard pressed to account for the historical moment . . . It occurred during the 1966 Charter Day ceremony . . . [in which] a well-organized student group provided the students with picket signs [against the war in Vietnam] . . . " which are clearly evident in Adams' photos of the crowd. Ironically, Watten sees hypocrisy in the photo, which Adams included, as if the decision to include it, involved a compromised failure, and was evidence of the ambiguity of the project. But if Adams had chosen not to include it, then we would not even have had it to consider in the first place. Indeed, if Adams had chosen to exclude it, might that not have been evidence of the very corruption Watten insists the photo signifies in the first place? Finally, though the archive itself is exhaustive, no attempt is made in Watten's criticism to distinguish between the vast archive file, and the images that were actually published in the book. 

    Watten's attempt to associate his undergraduate self--and later his associates in the Language School activities in subsequent decades--with the era of student dissent at Berkeley in the 1960's--is an amusing maneuver. Watten himself was never an active protestor, and in fact was a science major during that period. In a discussion we had during the 1970's, he was adamant in insisting that participation in political demonstrations and activities was a futile and pointless choice. During the 1960's, I had had friends in the student radical movement. When I went to work for the U.S. Government, I discovered that the FBI had developed a fat file on my movements and activities during the 1960's. When I reported this to Watten, he was angered and frightened, worried that his association with me might have compromised his own non-participatory, officially a-political stance. His first concern was for his own reputation, and his image. "You keep my name out of that shit!" 

    There is nothing in the writing of the Language School participants to suggest that its "poetics" should be seen as a politically correct program. From Watten's point of view, it makes sense for him to regard himself, in retrospect, as an early messenger of Left political points of view. It's a way of polishing his legacy reputation, and that of his associates, to accord with current politically correct attitudes. Their poems are relatively free of political referents, primarily because they eschew the kind of timely dialectics which require clear stands, that fade and date with time--names and places and events that determine real outcomes. 

    Watten can put down Ansel Adams--that's just shooting fish in a barrel--because it provides an historically convenient symbolic document for his argument. Indeed, I myself have put Adams down for aesthetic reasons, which have little or anything to do with his politics, which Watten deliberately ignores in favor of easy, and clearly unjustified character assassination. Fiat Lux is, on the whole, a quotidian archive almost completely denatured of political content, primarily because Adams himself wasn't a critic of the university, but it's also worth pointing out the context of the commission itself, which had nothing whatever to do with the student protest movement, or with Watten's preferred point of view, fifty years later. 

    If Watten's goal is to privilege "transparent rationality" in institutions of higher learning, he might begin by engaging with current politically correct activities and attitudes on present-day American campuses, where freedom of thought and expression seem as much in jeopardy today, as at any time in the last century. In the 1930's, "fellow traveler" was a derogatory term used to criticize those who shared political beliefs with identified radicals. Today, there's a whole generation of American academics--of whom Watten is one--who flirt with socialism (in its various guises) but who never risk anything that might jeopardize their tenures and pensions. It's a kind of dishonesty that sees harmless (fake) association as a convenient cheap badge of honor. It's just chicken-shit behavior. 

    But why not? 

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  • 01/27/17--07:13: DURATION Poems 1978-2015

  • I've always been interested in books, and when I took Harry Duncan's typography class at the University of Iowa in 1970, I became interested in how books were made, and especially in how the construction of a book, and the presentation of its text, was an expression of the meaning of the medium. Duncan used to say a book is "like a wine glass, with the content the wine."

    As with any craft, the spectrum of taste of printers and binders ranges all the way from slavish devotion to tradition, to eccentric experimentation. Duncan's own work tended to be a mixture between the two, but his emphasis was to attend, thoughtfully, to every aspect of the process and the product, leaving as little to chance as possible. 

    Harry and I didn't get along well at all. I tended to be in a hurry, while he liked to slow you down. My settings in the press bed were slipshod, because it seemed less important to me to have a perfect layout than a pleasing image. And of course he believed that taking short-cuts would lead to problems, and he was correct. Still, in a single semester course, I managed, in just a few hours in the print lab, to turn out four impressive signatures of a book on very unforgiving thick Japanese paper. 

    After I left Iowa in the Fall of 1972, I pursued book publishing, but I didn't follow up on my interest in printing as such. It wasn't until some years later that I thought about letterpress printing and publishing. And by the time I did, in 2005, moveable type had been rendered somewhat obsolete by the new polymer printing process, which involves making a plastic template from a digital image off a computer file--which greatly simplifies the process of creating a matrix of letters or designs for use in a traditional mechanical press. Anything you can put on a computer screen can be translated into a print face.    

    There are printers and book binders and designers who see bookmaking, and the things that can be done inside the craft, as more important than content; that is, more important than the ultimate meaning or message of the words or images they (the books) contain. A lot of "fine printing" tends to focus on secondary literature, or reprinting of established texts. Since publishing and moveable type printing split up in the 20th Century, the connection between the material text and the artist or artisan has been severed. In other words, writers nowadays seldom think carefully, or intimately, about the relation between their words or images, and their final form--which has traditionally fallen to "publishers" who control which texts are chosen, and how those texts are presented. 

    The idea that an intermediary--a publisher, say--or an agent--or an editor--should interpose himself between an author and his text is certainly not a new relationship. It's so much a commonplace in our time, that people hardly comprehend another way of thinking about publication. But the new computer age has opened up vistas of communication (and "publication") that did not exist before. It's now possible to "publish" a text online. And given the new printing technologies of the digital age, it's possible to make a perfectly suitable paperback book in a matter of hours, if you have the tools and the money. This has pushed the publishing industry further into irrelevance, for while it costs much less to turn out a trade edition of any kind of text than it used to, it's also cheapened and degraded the relationship between the artist/author and his audience. 

    The other side of this argument, of course, is that individual authors and artists aren't to be "trusted" as arbiters of their own media. And they're discouraged from thinking about that relationship. Most serious authors today are so far divorced from what they think of as the cliché of popular bookmaking, that they hardly give it a second thought. What matters is being represented by a publisher, and having their work distributed and read by more readers. Readers, after all, are who buy the books. Books are commodities, and like much of our materialist culture, have become throwaways--disposable when used once or twice, and dumped into landfills, or pulped for recycling. 

    Once a book has been bought, and read, its immediate physical existence--its justification--falls into jeopardy. But can a book only be important for the attraction of its construction, the beauty of its binding and choice of typeface--if its content is not also somehow memorable or useful? Is any writer's or artist's interest in the possibilities of determining the quality and characteristics of their finished work a bonafide aspect of the writing impulse?

    Is it possible to restore the artist/writer to a position of control and desire with respect to his text? Is there something wrong with a writer who wishes to make his books not just the receptacles of data, but the very realization of the meaning of his vision? In the larger sense, all print media have tended traditionally to be a collaboration, between those who express through language and image, and those who realize that content through the design of the material text. 

    Fine printing is certainly a dying art, but there's no reason to think that writers in the future may not set aside the whole apparatus of "publishers" and distributors and salespeople, and simply set about making their own books, if they are given the opportunity. 

    For the vast majority of writers--or illustrators--getting work published usually involves an ambitious campaign of self-promotion, knocking on the doors to the "official culture"--a process which may take years, even for those with considerable talent. Being "ignored" or rejected is the hallmark of most creative composition. Writers who crave an audience, particularly a larger audience, may be seduced into compromising their inspiration by reducing their efforts to popular or trendy formulae. 

    Anyone who submits to the reigning bastions of taste and commercial publication, probably deserves to be "disciplined" by prevailing modes of form or subject. It's a capitulation that many regard as a higher ethical standard, than that implied by the confident assertion of an individual vision.    

    It's also just as likely that the vanity of self-publication will reveal how necessary or convenient the third-party publication process can be. One of the cardinal aspects of media theory is that there is no such thing as an unbiased assertion, that all communication (as in news, particularly, though in all artistic expression as well) is in fact presented from a point of view, or from the assumption of a point of view. It's not always self-evident, but if you scratch and dig a little, even the most accommodating party will, eventually, reveal a piety or a preference that colors what they are saying or doing.  

    My disdain at this point in my life for commercial publishers and editors isn't resentment or bad blood, just disinterest. I can no longer imagine someone having the audacity to tell me what I should be writing, or how I should revise or change or reconsider what I am writing, in the interests of other priorities. 

    We know that it's possible to write poetry and fiction without having any kind of audience. Emily Dickinson wrote her poems in private, without having the slightest concern or interest in "publication." She didn't need an audience. Writing--for her--wasn't a collaboration or dependency that fed off of the expectation or apprehension of consequence. And there are some--like me--who believe that that independence of mind allowed her to focus on her materials and subject-matter in ways she couldn't otherwise. In other words, her "isolation" allowed her to make her poems without the interposition, or interference of others, or the big Other.

    Many writers will say, when pressed, that they actually write for a single person, or group of persons, not the great mass of anonymous potential readers who represent the "public"--whatever that means. In my case, I've seldom if ever thought that writing was a form of intimate or personal address. I write as a pastime, for my own amusement, as a form of personal experiment and play. That's how I first came to dabble in writing, and that's how I still think of it, half a century later. I don't see my "development" as a writer as a process of interaction with an audience. Whenever people have told me about something they've read of mine, it's never given me much positive or negative "feed-back" because they usually understand it differently than I do, or misconstrue something of the intention. In other words, what they think is irrelevant to my own aesthetic mien. 

    So nowadays, I enjoy publishing my own poems in books that I plan and design all by myself. If you've never considered "making a book" out of your own writing or artwork, it may seem odd or indulgent. Paper and glue and thread and cloth are pretty dull things to most people. But the history of "literature" is also the history of how things got recorded. In the 20th Century, it became possible to communicate electronically--via amplification, telephone, radio, video, and eventually internet. But the material fact of a book still survives, though perhaps less certainly. 

    I like interactive digital communication. This blog is one aspect of that sort of media. But fixing or reposing words in physical print is still, today, as much about our interaction with the material text as it ever was. Electronic memory or "storage" is an ephemeral realm, dependent upon the custodians of data banks. For my part, I don't trust those folks to preserve anything I've written "online" longer than it suits their financial interest(s). "Technology" isn't a kind god; she's a jealous creature whose priorities aren't ours.

    My latest experiment in self-publication is a collection of "poems" I've written, off and on, over the last 35 years or so. I stopped writing for about 25 years, while I labored in bureaucracy to make a living. When that ended, in retirement, I came back to writing. The book isn't in any sense an account of those lost years. It's the record of my reawakening to the pleasure of writing. 

    If you don't enjoy writing, you probably shouldn't be doing it. I can still remember how difficult and unpleasant just writing a letter seemed when I was a boy of five or six. It took a while for me to discover the relationship between myself and the printed page, but once I did, I was hooked.

    Each copy of Duration: Poems 1978-2015 cost me almost $200 in materials and labor, to produce (print and bind). You could call it a "labor of love" though what love has to do with it, I don't know. It's just something I enjoy doing. If someone "gets something" out of the text, that's fine with me. If they don't, that's fine too. As I've said, what people think of it is of little real importance to me. That's not why I write and publish. 

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    I've noted before how under-rated aquavit is as a mixing spirit. 

    You hardly ever see it mentioned in books of mixology, and I guess I understand why: It has an oddly bitter initial flavor (caraway), which becomes less noticeable the more you drink it. I have the same sensation when I drink Greek retsina wines. There's an initial reaction to the unconventional undertow, then you get used to it, and actually begin to enjoy it. 

    Norway - Land of my Forefathers

    For "white goods" gin can get a little monotonous. It's also on the sweet side, as is white rum. Vodka seems to me to possess such a weak flavor by itself, that putting other flavors with it makes its taste disappear. For me, vodka is a spirit to drink solo, without any adulterating distractions. Its subtlety makes it a connoisseur's delight, but as a mixer, I find it almost an anonymous spirit. 

    Chocolate and mint are natural cousins, as any candy fiend will testify. Put these together with the odd basis of aquavit, and a dash of lime to dry it out a little, and you have an intriguing combination.  

    2 parts aquavit
    2 parts white vermouth
    2/3 part creme de cacao
    1/2 part creme de menthe
    tablespoon fresh lime juice

    Makes two portions. Shaken and served up in frosted cocktail glasses. 

    Northern Exposure was a television series [1990-1995] which was set in Alaska. Hollywood has paid very little attention to Alaska and Canada over the decades, so it seemed a little goofy and unconventional to have a sit-com set up near the Arctic Circle. But the cast managed to bring it off without a hitch. It became the vehicle that propelled Barry Corbin, Janine Turner, and Rob Morrow to stardom. Turner was probably the sexiest "thinking man's" actress to appear in the 1990's. 

    Janine Turner

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  • 02/16/17--09:06: Two on the Aisle

  • I'm not sure how much longer I'll be able to keep up my regimen of cocktail recipes. My endocrine system is sending me distant messages about my longevity, and we all know that isn't an argument any of us is going to win, ultimately. 

    In the meantime, here are two more lovely variations from the stainless steel counter, concocted by yours truly, for no other reason than the delight of invention. 

    Bartenders who are interested may experiment with different combinations, which may in time become famous, or signature recipes. At some point, I'd like to be able to publish a collection of my own original cocktail mixes. 

    The majority of cocktail books seem determined either to make a claim to be the most reliable source of classic recipes, or of the sexiest new inventions. Tastes may be strong, or subtly variable. There's always room for innovation. 

    A lot of new cocktail recipes depend on exotic flavors. But the way a cocktail is structured generally hasn't changed over the last century. You begin with a distillate, or perhaps a wine (or even a beer), and you add other ingredients in various proportion to augment the essential flavor of the "goods." It's perfectly possible to drink any liquor straight, which lots of drinkers do. And there's enough variation among brands and types that you could confine yourself to sampling unmixed liquors forever, if that were your choice. There are confirmed drinkers of Scotch, Bourbon, Rum, Gin and Vodka, and Vodka producers have begun to produce pre-flavored versions, so no mixing is required; in my view, this makes vodka seem like a poor sister to the other liquors, since its own flavor may be considered too weak by itself, though there are people who delight in the subtle shades of flavor of different vodkas. But life's too short to drink every version of anything. Professional tasters must find it difficult sometimes to extend their discrimination beyond a certain point. Of course, some people have a much greater sensitivity to flavor or smells than others. Animals (dogs for instance) have a smell sensitivity which is hundreds or thousands of times more sensitive than people's. Probably there are people who could distinguish between all the different kinds of liquors there are in the world, if they chose. But most of us can't, and certainly wouldn't need or want to. 

    The spirit of adventure and experimentation is a very good thing. It's how discoveries are made. Discoveries may be accidents, or they may be deliberately conducted trials. Whenever I contemplate a new mix, I try to think of combinations I've never heard about. It's possible that I'm actually duplicating a recipe that someone, somewhere has already tried. And occasionally I'll accidentally "create" a recipe that, unbeknownst to me, has been labeled a classic decades ago. That's either a confirmation of your good intuition, or a proof of the "inevitability" of that happy congruence. 

    Of course, I mix from published recipes all the time. The old standards are standards for a reason. The Rusty Nail has hung around because it's a wonderful flavor, not because someone thinks it's good to keep repeating old methods or favorites. 

    But I'm not a professional bartender, and I would never want to be one. The idea of having to mix the same drinks, from a menu, or from customers' preferences, is abhorrent to me. Who wants to mix for others, especially when you can't really share the experience yourself. Good service is good, but the pleasure in that case has nothing to do with the goods. And bartenders who never experiment in an attempt to make new discoveries are just putting in their time, or lack imagination. 

    In any case, I've never seen these recipes anywhere else, so I'll assume for the time being that they're completely new and original.         
    2 parts Boodles gin
    1 part St. Germaine liqueur
    1/2 part Kirsch
    1/2 part fresh lime juice

    1 part manhattan rye
    1 part dry vermouth
    3/4 part peach liqueur
    1/2 part fresh lemon

    Both are mixed by proportion for single drinks served over ice. Our favorite accompaniment is freshly roasted pistachio nuts in the split shell. You break the shell with your fingers and pop the green nut in your mouth. And then another, and another . . . . They're just dry enough not to interfere with your tastebuds. 

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    David Mamet [1947-] is a renowned playwright and screen writer living in Santa Monica. He grew up in a middle class Jewish family in Chicago. He made his name early in his career as the author of a number of plays--Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, Edmond, etc., and then he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Glengarry Glen Ross (which he later adapted to the cinema). Coincident with his career in the theatre, he began doing screenplays in the early '80's, beginning with a re-adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and including a new version of The Untouchables,The VerdictHouse of Games, The Winslow Boy, The Edge, as well as doing television script work.   

    In 2008, Mamet openly declared in an article titled Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal his conversion of conservative political partisanship. 

    "I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind . . . As a child of the '60's, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart . . . These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices. Why do I say impracticable? Because although I still held these beliefs, I no longer applied them in my life." 

    Further --

    " . . . I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama." 

    These sweeping, and in many ways astounding assertions, by one of America's greatest playwrights and dramatists, needs to be understood in the context of Mamet's Jewishness, and in the context of Hollywood (as opposed to Broadway), since both conditions influence how he has come to regard his place in the scheme of American culture and its entertainment industry. 

    Many American Jews support the existence and future prospects for the State of Israel. Though there continues to be widespread support across the political spectrum here for military support and diplomatic unity with Israel, there are those who feel the Arab-Israeli stand-off can only improve if both sides are willing to compromise. The hard-line position is that Israel should show a belligerent face to its enemies, that it is isolated geographically, and by history, and can only survive through strength and determination. This "realist" position isn't only "existential"--it's an attitude towards life, a fatalistic attitude about the consequences of a naive faith in human nature. The "liberal" position in America does not embrace this pessimistic point of view. Many American Jews find inspiration in the existential defensiveness of Israeli conservatism. 

    As an American Jewish writer/artist, Mamet feels pulled in both directions. As a child of the American middle class, his sentiments would ordinarily be towards justice, freedom, and a positive view of life. But his loyalty to his ethnic background, and his identification with Israel as the symbolic bastion of the resistance to tyranny and intolerance towards Jews, has influenced him towards reactionary politics in America.

    Mamet has said he now agrees with free market theorists such as Friedrich Hayek, the historian Paul Johnson, and economist Thomas Sowell. The idea of a totally free market accepts that human nature is not inherently good, that only through competition can human potential and progress be released. In Mamet's mind, the commitment towards a strong, resistant Israel has been joined to a cynicism about life in general. As his own artistic and personal success has progressed, Mamet's become increasingly rigid in his beliefs--a pattern familiar in American business and entertainment careers. 

    Mamet's world view sees the plight of the Jew against the backdrop of the larger struggle for the hearts and minds of people between the Democratic and Totalitarian forms of power. Persecution of Jews throughout Europe, and especially in Russia, is associated with Communism, and the enemies of Israel. Authoritarian powers, and especially politically liberal tendencies, are seen as emanating from the same place. 

    This cynical view of human existence is plain in Glengarry Glen Ross, in which greed and competition and the exercise of power dominate the characters' lives. It is Mamet's triumphant message about life in general, that life is a Darwinian bargain, that the outcome of our struggles is a chess-game, where selfishness and guile overcome good intentions and weak capitulation. 

    For Mamet, successful art means good art, because putting butts in paying seats is the final measure of entitlement in the cruel world of economic transactions. For Mamet, art itself is an economic bargain in which value derives only from economic success. The idea that artistic endeavor should be driven by direct appeal to greed is an old one.  

    The history of theatre in the 20th Century is to a large extent the history of the theatrical ideas of Revolutionary Russia. Its great figure, Konstantin Stanislavsky, is the progenitor of styles of production and acting that tended to dominate theatrical practice and theories throughout the world. While Stanislavsky thrived during the first great Soviet period in the arts in Russia, he eventually came under pressure during the Stalinist period. Though the history of Stanislavsky's ideas and participation in Russian theatre is long and complex, Mamet sees his theories associated with the artistic oppression and censorship of the early Soviet period. The politicization of art under the Soviet dictatorship resulted in a suppressed form of theatrical art, in which political and social realities could not be freely explored or expressed. 

    Mamet sees the Russian theatre in the early Soviet period as victim of political correctness. Stanislavsky's notion of a mystical approach to acting, and the central importance of the director in play production, are seen as perversions of the purpose and function of theatrical entertainment. As a writer, Mamet places himself in the forefront of the theatrical system, and he denigrates attempts to emphasize the personality of the actor, or the genius of the director, to "interpret" a play's content. Stagecraft, for Mamet, is merely the means to an end, which is the narrative the playwright supplies. Actors should say their lines, directors should see that the playwright's intentions are followed to the letter.

    This reminds me a little of what Stravinsky said, late in life. "All I want is that the orchestra play the notes I've written. No 'interpretation' is necessary, no emotional exaggerations, no pregnant pauses, no selective emphases" [I'm paraphrasing here]. This was during Stravinsky's "neoclassical" period when his works were dry and clean and intellectually clipped. The complaint by authors or composers that their work may be "over-interpreted" by ambitious or misguided directors, producers, actors--in effect maimed or corrupted by interference and tinkering adaptation--is also a common cry. Is it jealousy that drives this carping? That powerful actors or shrewd directors may actually claim the high ground of artistic expression, and become the focus of appreciation? 

    It's been remarked more than once that in English theatre tradition, the actor "becomes the character" whilst in American tradition, the character becomes the man. Clark Gable is always Clark Gable, no matter what part he's playing, while Laurence Olivier is many men, each different according to the demands of the specific character. In Woody Allen's films, Woody himself is invariably the "subject" while the plot and the supporting actors are like planets that revolve around the central character (himself).  

    Mamet's work--particularly his screenwriting--hearkens back to the hard-boiled "noir" period in American cinema. In the 1930's, social realism (Clifford Odets and the Actors' Theatre etc.) predominated. But after the war, Hollywood turned shadowy and grim, turning out black and white crime dramas. Dialogue was blunt, tough, edgy. It was raw, and sullen. Every man for himself. Violence, betrayal, double-cross, corruption, heavy-handed justice. These are the qualities that draw out Mamet's talent. 


    End Part I  

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  • 03/06/17--08:38: Mamet's Conversion [Part II]

  • Theatre (and by extension, cinema) is perhaps the best example of a cooperative, collaborative artistic medium. Writers may collaborate, artists may collaborate with writers (or vice versa), musicians may (as with jazz) improvise (becoming, in effect, the composers of new extemporaneous works), architects may share billing with builder/craftspersons, landscape designers and interior designers. But in the theatre, the playwright is separated by at least two removes from the actual realization of his vision. There's the text, the director, the producers, and the actors, each of whom has a say in how it turns out; and each can alter, to a greater or lesser extent, the outcome of the playwright's original work. In this sense, any playwright might be said to be dependent upon the skills and abilities of those who actually realize a dramatic work. 

    Mamet's many successes in the legitimate theatre and in cinema entitle him to speak with some authority as a critic of dramatic art. Great writers of fiction or poetry or drama may or may not qualify as useful or valid critics of their own metier. We usually need to qualify any artist's opinions about their art, by remembering that powerful imagination and creativity may not necessarily be accompanied by a clear rational objective sense. Most artists tend to value what they themselves do best. Occasionally, an artist or writer will admit to admiration for another's work, even to envy. Mamet praises Anton Chekhov, though with the caveat that Chekhov's work is politically tame, blandly "universal" in its meaning(s).

    So if Mamet denigrates the "interference" of producers, directors and actors in the artistic process of theatre or cinema, it's understandable that this could be seen as the overblown vanity of pride, of a belief in the sufficient perfection of his own work or vision. Any artist may "earn" the right to make their own case, but we are under no obligation to accept such partisan verdicts, especially when applied to widely different kinds of products. As a screenwriter whose credits include The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Untouchables, House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hoffa, The Edge, and Hannibal--we'd grant him the authority to make sweeping statements about such tropes as violence and venality in dramatic works. 

    But would we be willing to accept Mamet as an authority on comedy, or affairs of the heart, or historical dramas, or science fiction, or epics? What is the connection between Mamet's personal proclivities as a writer, and his political points of view? 

    Some playwrights to have a certain view of humanity, and to be a laborer on two fronts, the way George Bernard Shaw was, as an active socialist part of the time, and a very good playwright the rest of the time. Portraying human beings interacting on a stage, or on a screen, is a perfect vehicle to demonstrate certain principles in action. 

    And indeed, Mamet has come more and more to believe in a certain view of human life and value, one which he calls "the Tragic View." The tragic view holds that humanity is--in Mamet's words--"greedy, lustful, envious, slothful, duplicitous, corrupt and inspired" and that "this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama." 

    Mamet sees liberal politicians, and those on the Left as suffering from the delusion that human imperfectability can be corrected, and the imbalance between right and wrong made even, through government intervention. He sees the highest good American democracy has achieved as the balance of powers, set against one another, thus self-restraining.  

    An argument could be made--and it is a classic (some might say tired) one--that having achieved personal artistic success, accompanied by personal wealth, Mamet now can "afford" to assume the usual privilege of economic success, and glory in his own good fortune by believing that his prosperity is a kind of credential in an imperfect world; that his success is not only proof of his own moral superiority, but that his dramatic actions have been successful precisely because they present life in the terms he sets up. 

    Mamet himself might suggest that his own "greed, lust, envy, corrupt and inspired" are no more admirable, or exceptional, than any other artist or citizen. And he'd be right, with the possible caveat that he's just a bit more corrupt and inspired than most people. 

    If the point of drama, as Mamet defines it, is to portray human error in conflict with itself, then we might respond that the early work of Clifford Odets, such as Waiting For Lefty [1935], or Awake and Sing! [1935] is as apt a vehicle, in this sense, as any of Mamet's works. Odets came of age in the Depression years, when the reaction to the excesses of unbridled capitalist speculation and exploitation was at its height. The "tragic view" of human life would be no less pertinent then, than it would be for Mamet, growing up in the post-war years of relative prosperity. The tragic view of life does not imply that people should not have flaws, but that their struggle may not result in a preferred outcome. Since Odets was, in his day, as successful and admired as Mamet is in our time, would it be disingenuous to argue that Odets' politics was somehow as irrelevant or extraneous to the fact of aesthetic achievement, as Mamet's politics is?

    For Mamet, the best outcome is measured by the success of the performance. The struggle in the hard knocks arena of public entertainment is no less frustrating, or tragic, than the struggles that occur in politics, or life in general. 

    As an American Jew, Mamet sees the struggle for Israel's continued existence as a dialectic between those who support the Jewish State, and those who oppose it--or who may hold a contrarian view that includes the Palestinian opposition's interest. Because for Mamet, the predominant contemporary liberal view of the Mideast Crisis--that Israel must in the end learn to compromise with its neighboring Arab States--is consistent with a false promise of the perfectibility of humankind, that people with legendary differences can learn to get along with one another. 

    But the tragic view of Israel is built on generations, nay millennia of experience, that Jews cannot trust those whose interests oppose theirs, and that if history teaches anything, it's that they will be betrayed and persecuted just because they exist. If Israel's identity is indeed existential, then any Jew may come to believe its best chance for survival is through domination. Further, that any attempt to temper that dominance with compromise or concession is bound to lead to the ultimate capitulation. And that any betrayal of that domination may be identified with weakness, self-destruction, and threat. 

    As an American Jew, Mamet's politics is heavily influenced by the "tragic view" of Israel's continued existence. Though Jewish American political sentiment has traditionally been liberal, the issue of Israel's existence, and of America's continued support of it, is the key dividing point between liberal and conservative Jewry. Mamet's "Hollywood" politics follows a recognizable pattern for those of his biographical profile. But Mamet's conjoining his aesthetic focus with the politics of personal, financial success may signal a wrong turn. 

    In America, any man may declare his political beliefs without fear of reprisal or repression. But we're under no obligation to accept those beliefs. Why should we think that portraying the human condition in the make-believe world of theatre or cinema entitles any artist to speak about real problems in the difficult real world? Ultimately, a playwright's work must speak for him. 

    As I enter old age, I come more and more to understand the impatience of intelligent people who deal with the frustration of seeing history repeat itself, over and over again. If you believe that human life is essentially tragic, then it would seem a futile gesture to take sides in a Shakespearean dialectic in which right seldom, if ever, triumphs. 

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    Tender sensibilities! 

    If we could all admit that the most enthralling physical sensations occur in our most vulnerable states,  perhaps our over-mastering inhibitions wouldn't get the better of us.

    Mortality is a blessing, which if we could only comprehend its crucial meaning, might liberate us all. 

    The fact that all that we know and experience is fleeting--not to be repeated, not to be extended indefinitely--might allow us to elevate our response to life, reflecting the value that only limits can grant. 

    Swimming is a wonderful thing. Our whole bodies immersed in flowing liquid--symbolically amniotic--a sensation that refreshes and enlivens our nervous system. 

    If a drink could inspire this feeling, it might be the most addictive drug. Most psycho-active drugs are said to either heighten our sense of impression, or deaden our sense of pain. 


    Innocently enough, here's a stab at an inspiration of the freshness and immersion of bodily clarity and chill, the Swimming Naked Cocktail. Mixed as always by proportion. 

    3 parts Boodles Gin
    3/4 part aquavit
    1 1/2 part Cointreau
    1/1/3 part fresh lime juice

    --shaken and served up with a garnish of a thin slice of lime.

    I was a latecomer to the joys of swimming, but eventually I was hooked. 

    I often have the same feeling with certain kinds of music. Just now I was listening to Chabrier's Scherzo-Valse, which I find so bracing and uplifting, with its crisp enunciation and high spirits, that it's as exhilarating as a dive into a cool pool. 

    So here's to physical joy, and the pleasures of feeling, and taste. 

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    The University of Alabama Press has just published Calligraphy Typewriters: The Selected Poems of Larry Eigner, Edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier [ISBN: 978-0-8173-5874-7, Quality Paper $24.95]. 334pp. with a Foreword by Charles Bernstein, Index and Notes on the Text. The book measures 7 x 9 inches, with sewn signature binding, and a glossy cover (designed by me and George Mattingly).  

    The publication of Eigner's Selected follows our earlier work on the Collected Poems of Larry Eigner [Stanford University Press, 2010, Edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier], a four volume hardcover set of 1868 pages.     

    Any selection will be a reflection of the taste and discrimination of its editor(s), and with a poet as prolific as Eigner was, there can never be a completely settled subset of universal correctness. Certainly all of Larry's famous poems have been included, but the work's overall consistent quality virtually guarantees that any selection will have a satisfying and familiar confirmation, no matter how partisan. 

    Our determination to include as many poems as would reasonably fit--our selection actually comprises less than a third of Eigner's total published out-put in his life--meant that we used as much of each page as possible, often stretching the limits of traditional margin-practice. Due to a slight trim error, some of the pages are a bit too low on the page, a problem which we could not have foreseen at the proof stage. 

    Unlike the earlier Stanford edition, in which we established a fixed left-hand margin for all the poems, in the Alabama edition we chose to present each poem roughly centered, in order to give each a degree of autonomy. The resulting shifting margins makes for more variety of placement, and creates a sense of balance. 

    Calligraphy / Typewriters is intended to reach a wider audience than the bulky Stanford Collected. Our hope is that it will become a sort of textbook of his work for use in classrooms and study-groups, and for the general reader. 

    For my part, Eigner's work belongs in the handful of major post-Modern writers who broke from the strict confines of traditional verse to create a kinetic, deconstructed experimental work that revisions poetic perception and sensibility in unexpected and astonishing ways. I'm proud to have had a hand in husbanding his contribution to subsequent generations of readers.     

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  • 05/17/17--05:54: Lily Sabine Dreaming

  • Lily Sabine, sleeping, so curled around her intent, dreaming no doubt of escapades and adventures, from the past, or soon to come. 

    Do dreams serve some purpose in the riddle of survival and genetic mutation?

    Since we can't know what it feels like to be "inside" another animal, another being, we can only guess what they dream. We assume that other mammals dream, since they exhibit the same twitchiness, rapid eye movement, and distraction which we have learned to associate with active "unconscious" narratives during sleep. 

    Are dreams a passageway into our secret meditations, conduits to the unknown? The surrealists thought so, and psychology and psychiatry are both founded largely on an analysis of the involuntary impulses that generate dreams. We live in the "real" world, while conducting a private series of stories or incidents in our imagination, which are parallel to the real but also creative reinterpretations  of it. Perhaps, as has been suggested, dreams are a testing ground or a rehabilitation center which exists to work out problems or try out ideas. The brain may be said to possess a certain autonomy with respect to actual experience, in a sense "acting alone" without our conscious direction. 

    As I get older, my dreams seem to be getting more involved, more tangled with plots and counterplots. I'm not sure why this should be. My life was certainly more eventful when I was younger, and yet my dreams then tended to be briefer, less complex, though often more lucid and powerful in their immediate effect. 

    Many people report that they can fly in their dreams--an astonishing proposition since humans have never been able to fly--except artificially, with balloons, parachutes, or in planes. Is it possible to imagine that humans may someday mutate, naturally or artificially, into bodies that could fly? What an amazing thing that would be. 

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    Regular readers of this blog--if indeed there are any such animals--know that I've had a profound interest in photography, as evidenced by my many blog-posts here about various well-known photographers over the years. 

    While living in Northern Japan in the mid-1980's, I developed an interest in documenting the fascinating landscape of that place, by taking pictures. In the course of that pursuit, I quickly realized that I had an untapped orientation to the visual, as well as an aptitude for composing in two dimensions. After returning to the States, I quickly moved into the view camera field, acquiring various large format monstrosities, including a 4x5, an 8x10, and even an 11x14. 

    I pursued this avocation for 10 years, before abandoning it in 1996, for personal reasons. In the intervening years, I've always intended to return to it, while keeping busy with other distractions such as blogging and antiquarian bookselling.

    Finally, this Spring, I decided to explore the possibility of making a collection of my images as a published book. In the time since I had actively worked in the field, the technology of print production underwent a revolution to the digital. What would once have taken a lot of painstaking donkey-work with chemical baths and drying racks and mounting boards, could now be achieved inside digital application programs, projected onto light screens, with an almost limitless range of possible adjustments and augmentations of an image file. The possibility of projecting a collection of mounted silver gelatin prints into a book file was a dream I had nurtured in my imagination for over 20 years. The time seemed ripe. 

    Fine art photography book production, using the latest high-tech craft in digital lithography, has yielded stunning examples of the work of the best contemporary photographers in the world. The costs associated with this craft have driven much of the industry overseas. In America, one outfit in particular has continued to set a standard, Dual Graphics in Southern California. Continuing a tradition begun earlier at Gardner-Fulmer, Dual Graphics employs the latest in digital image-making from scanning to final print production, to produce breath-taking monographs, with images that rival the original prints they're made from. 

    30 years ago, hardly anyone would have thought this possible. But it's become a reality.

    Presently, I'm about half-way through the production of my book of photographs, the front cover of the dust wrapper for which is shown below. Assisting in layout and design is George Mattingly, a publisher and graphic designer in Berkeley, an old poet and little magazine editor I've know for many years, since our days in Iowa City back in the 1970's.             

    The book is scheduled to be completed sometime in mid-June. Next week, I'll be traveling to Brea, California, to oversee the printing of the signatures. There are 65 black and white images in the book, predominantly landscapes, with a few studies and abstractions. The shot reproduced below is of countryside in West Marin, an area I spent a good deal of time in during the decade of my photographic work.    

    The dimension of the book will be 16x14 inches, a huge tome of a volume, in the traditional "coffee table" format. The reason I chose such a large dimension is because I wanted to print my 11x14 inch contact prints at full scale, without shrinking them to fit a smaller vision. One of the great attractions of very large format, is the incredible clarity with which scenes can be reproduced, without blur or weakness anywhere in the field of the frame. Having gone to such trouble to generate these big prints, I couldn't stand the idea of compromising their potential. 

    The book will be 106 pages, and a $100 price tag, though I suspect that few if any of the copies will be sold for that amount. The run is limited to 300 numbered copies, all signed. I've explored the possibility of national distribution, but I doubt anyone will pick it up. Book distributors aren't much interested in obscure photography books by unknowns, no matter how interesting they are. And I've never been ambitious enough to pursue gallery or print sales.  

    Good luck, big book!


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    Let me begin this essay with a series of qualifications.

    Since the inception of photography in the 19th Century, there has seldom been any doubt about the inherent quality of photography's function, which is its ability to present verifiable versions of visual reality through the use of artificial glass lenses onto light sensitive surfaces. The degree of accuracy of the reproduction of imagery from reflected surfaces, onto flat ones, has always been its aim and measure.

    Of course, accuracy alone cannot account for the effect of modified illusions, which is partly what modern photography offers. The last century of photography is the development of a technology of increasing sophistication, in which "raw" data is manipulated and augmented to create altered or improved versions. When Ansel Adams said the negative is the score, and the print is the performance, he was referring not just to the playing of the music, but to its interpretation. What, after all, is a "straight" print, if not one version of the process. To change that process, or adjust it, by whatever means, is in one sense, just another means to an end, which, from an aesthetic point of view, cannot be more or less than an aesthetic choice.

    All art is subject to the vagaries of taste, which is ethically neutral. All attempts to fashion a fixed, defensible bastion of aesthetic criteria are doomed, since there is no final arbitration of value inherent in the artistic realm. Which suggests that all our preferences and pronouncements about the ranking of quality in the arts are opportunistic and arbitrary. They may be constructed around humanistic, or religious, or pragmatic principles. They may begin in utter simplicity, but ultimately, we cannot credit such principles unless we accept them, as starting points, as initial axioms.

    There have been attempts to distort the meaning and function of photography by diverting it into cup-de-sacs, such as Soft Focus, multiple imaging, etc.; and since the advent of digital technology, the manipulation of the image itself. But there is no reason, other than the arbitration of prejudice, that we should want or need to object to such variations.

    Straight photography, nonetheless, continues to hold a place of privilege, even as it evolves into new means and materials. As we transition out of organic emulsions to digital projections, the terms of the equation may change, but the solution to the problem has the same general aim. The sense of an idealized photograph implies the existence of an idealized subject, and this is what makes landscape, fashion, photojournalism and documentation, etc., each in its way, compete for progressively ever more iconic, diverting, or synthetic instances.

    What is the difference between reality and an accurate photograph? What is the difference between a "straight" (unmanipulated) print, and one which has been subjected to various augmentations? What is the difference between an "exaggerated" and an "invisible" manipulation? What is the difference between how I see a scene, or a photograph, and how someone else "sees" it? What is "reality"?

    Most photographers will readily admit to manipulations, since to do so is as much a boast and a claim, as it is an admission of some degree of artificiality. The delicate balance between a naked "straight" representation and an augmented work, insures that there will always be some degree of "wiggle" room between what we may decide to expect of, or allow, any craftsperson.

    The issue of craft is paramount in any production where method and materials are as crucial as they are in the chemical processes of traditional photography. We tend to be somewhat suspicious of any craft that pretends to define meaning and quality merely as aspects of the refinement of technique, as (for instance) with poetry. A well-written sonnet may say nothing of importance, may be nothing but an equivocal demonstration of wit or word-play. But with true crafts, of which photography is one, it is often convenient to think that the perfection of method is more important that the actual content of the image. 

    John Sexton began his career as an apprentice of Ansel Adams, and his career has followed a familiar pattern for the kind of craftsman that he set out to be, and has become. 

    It's tempting to suggest that fine art photographers who concentrate, for instance, on landscape can equate fine craftsmanship with the subtle distinctions one encounters in nature. Sexton has said repeatedly that his aim is to transmit the subtlest shades of feeling and impression through the careful exploitation of the finest distinctions of silver gelatin print-making. Like Adams, Sexton focuses on the familiar scenic icons of the American outback, including notably Yosemite, which Adams immortalized. 

    But unlike Adams, Sexton seems less interested in evoking the "heroic" aspects of nature, than in transmitting meditative calm, peaceful states of mind, fragility, harmony, and centeredness. It is perhaps no coincidence that an adroit technician--patient, careful, even finicky--should choose these kinds of tropes to explore and convey.  

    What strikes me, looking at Sexton's work, more than any other quality, is its static fragility. It almost has a feminine aspect to it, a timid sufficiency that chooses to accept whatever mildly pleasant scene chance may offer to his discerning eye. His pictures don't seem to say very much. Images of still or silky flowing water, windless forests, posed leaves or rocks or details of architecture seem chosen primarily because they present little challenge, but may yield delicate possibilities in the darkroom. 

    When technique overshadows content, an artist may become over-fastidious and prone to mannerism. This is what I see in Sexton's work: A photographer who has become so preoccupied with finishing and revising and drawing out nuance and innuendo that he forgets about the importance of feeling and significant meanings. 

    Any art which gets so caught up in the technicalities of its craft that it forgets to communicate anything but an appreciation of the function has lost its way. Sexton's passivity and ingratiating distillations leave you feeling as if you needed a nap. There is perhaps some use in presenting images of perfect calm and frozen visual music, for those for whom these are the desirable states of mind. We're all familiar with the drugstore Zen Buddhist approach to the vicissitudes of life in the over-amped Western pursuit of pleasure and wealth, but oversimplifying the potentialities of serious photographic-imaging by promoting it as an aid to nature meditation is nothing but glib salesmanship by critics and gallery-owners, looking to capitalize on the latest new age fad. 

    It may indeed be true that "art makes nothing happen," but whatever is happening should at least occur in the mind of the viewer. 

    Technique can get you so far in any art, but without at least a clear vision of what your craft is for, you may be nothing but an experimenter, content to let your ingenious tricks be the main attraction of your work.  

    Sexton's work is restful, and satisfying in a submissive way. Its only determination seems to be to make everything fit, and clear, but that organized transparency feels ungrounded. His prints seem like problems to solve, rather than experiences to be lived. 

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  • 06/23/17--18:55: Blue Bayou

  • Channel 9.1 (KQED) had a Roy Orbison concert reprise last night (we'd seen it before), in which he's accompanied by Bruce Springsteen, among others. Some way into the set, he did Blue Bayou, a song I was surprised to learn he'd actually written (and released on August 1st, 1963, according to Wikipedia).

    It's a beautiful song, redolent of the rock-n-blues-y Southern tradition Orbison came out of, and a perfect vehicle for his high-pitched, plaintive voice.


    Earlier in the evening, I had tried a new cocktail mix, actually a slight variation on a standard recipe.

    Two Parts Myers Dark Rum
    1 part limoncello
    1 part fresh lemon juice
    1 part Mandarin Napoleon orange liqeuer

    Served over ice and lightly stirred. Very seductive.

    And in retrospect, it seemed the perfect accompaniment to the music we later heard. 

    The slow, unhurried, submissive, passionate, fatalistic, decadent, suffering, delight in the inevitability of transient love and regret.  

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  • 07/13/17--08:40: Self-Critique I

  • Coffee table books. Somehow, the phrase suggests decadence, frivolity, perhaps self-indulgence. There's by now a long tradition, over the last century, of books designed to exist as a kind of furniture, as appurtenances of upper-middle-class ostentation, created to be seen or experienced as tasteful extravagances on living-room tables. Early in the 20th Century, photography joined art, travel and architecture as one of the proper subjects for such containers. As the technology of printing progressed, it has become more and more possible to produce printed photo-books that could rival original photographic prints from which they were derived; and with the arrival of the digital revolution, it has finally become possible to make printed images which are just about equal in quality to originals.   

    When I first took up large formate photography seriously in the mid-1980's, it was in large measure in response to the imagery I had seen in books. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Caponigro, William Clift, Imogene Cunningham. Though my original impulse had been documentary--to create color images of Japan, where we were living in 1985--I quickly realized that the real challenge, the true seduction (if you will) was in making carefully controlled and produced black and white compositions that left nothing to chance. Mastering the technique of making large negatives and transferring them to fully realized prints would require some materials, and some trial and error, but with devotion, and a little luck, I soon became capable of doing so. 

    I'm not sure today, over thirty years later, what my initial expectations were, but clearly I wasn't expecting to enter the competitive world of galleries and workshops and fine monographs. Then what was I thinking? I suppose, given that I've always been a "book person," I was unconsciously imagining that my work would one day find its way into a book. Producing prints for gallery walls is a daunting proposition. Typically, when I worked on a print, I would stop when I'd made a single print that I found satisfying. The idea of replicating that target print with a run, say, of 20 or 50 or a hundred copies, seemed absurd, since I had no audience, and no gallery owner to market them for me.  I've never enjoyed the schmoozing and self-promotion that most "serious" photographers have to engage in, either as the subject of my own campaign, or as a "camp follower." I suppose this is partly an ego thing: I don't want to pretend that I think my work is better than it is on the one hand, and I don't like genuflecting to someone who is presumably higher than I am on the pyramid. I don't like vying inside the aesthetic class system--it's a distraction and a bore. 

    Nevertheless, the idea of having a book of my images was always there in the back of my mind, and by the end of the first decade of the new century, I was finally able to consider underwriting such a publication all by myself. I'm not bothered by the vanity charge; indeed, anyone who has had to submit to the machine of publication by a typical publisher, understands the compromises that go along with it. Except for a handful of household names, hardly anyone can claim to have marketable photographic material in any medium whatsoever. In order for any art to exist on its own terms, without relying on the organs of culture, it must either be entirely free of obligation, or be so carefully husbanded that it's untouchable. Without having gone to the trouble of promoting my work through galleries and workshops, I could hardly expect any "reputable" publisher to consider doing a book of my work. Art book publishing is risky enough, even with established artists and photographers.   

    With the advent of increasingly precise digital printing, it finally became possible in the last decade or so, to transfer large flat-print images into digital files that could be fed into digital laser-printing machines, which in turn could be made into astonishingly impressive physical pages, even as the organic chemical processes of the old technology were rapidly being supplanted by digital projection media. At some point, I realized that producing a collection of my images in a book was really the ultimate fulfillment of my interest. A book allows you to choose and sequence your images, and to control the parameters of the presentation, in a way you really can't in a gallery. Though a book is certainly a commercial object, in the sense that it may be sold on the open market, it's much less dependent upon sales, than the way a gallery depends upon the purchases of prints. Some galleries use exhibition monographs to promote sales, as if books were just selling tools. But for me, the book is an end in itself, what I'd always imagined as the sublimation of the process, from pre-visioning to darkroom printing to collection.    

    This year, I finally decided that the time had come to explore making a book from the prints I had stored in my darkroom. Did I have enough good work to fill a book? Was I certain enough of my accomplishment to risk making a fool out of myself?    

    If you haunt the bookstalls of new or used book dealers, you know that every year there are thousands of poorly conceived photo-books. Many of them are in color, and most of them are artistically drab and careless. Though available digital technology would allow finer productions, few publishers seem willing to spend more on quality, and even fewer seem capable of conceiving tasteful presentations. Many follow ephemeral trends, trying to cash in on temporary aesthetic fads. Every year, there seems to be another "exploitation" book on Ansel Adams, with blurry reproductions, intended to capitalize on his reputation. 

    And of course, much of the work that finds its way into books doesn't rise to a level of quality that really deserves wide dissemination. So the question remains: Is the work good enough to justify spending the resources to summarize it in the synthesis of a material text? Each artist must answer that question for him/herself. I've always believed that I was my own best critic, that I was really the only one qualified to answer that question, at least with respect to my own work. In a sense, I don't care what other people think. If people dislike your work, you can't control that. There are artists who try to placate their audience, who depend upon others to define their sense of themselves and their work. Ultimately, that kind of obsequiousness doesn't interest me. I'm not looking to "please" people, particularly when it comes to confirming my own worth or vision. If people like your work, great. But if they don't, you can't rely on that as the measure of your own commitment. 


    Most art books exist within the confluence of art and the market. But art isn't just a marketplace. And there's the simple pleasure of presenting something you've made, with effort and pride, to the world at large. For me, there are few things in life as exciting as making an object--a poem, a drawing, a photograph, a landscape design--out of your own inspiration, bringing it into being. "Did I really do that?" Wow. And your confidence in doing so will be reflected in the quality of your product, not in the sense of a marketable product, but as a child of your creativity. You wouldn't put your own child up for sale or auction; so why would you think your art could be treated like any kind of commodity? 

    I know of few things that are as gratifying as launching an artifact into the world, so that it acquires an independent existence, with its own integrity. In a sense, artistic vanity and ambition fall away from a valid object, in such a way as to honor the act, and not the individual person. My ambiguity with respect to the artifact may seem unusual, but in the end we're all just custodians--not just of the things we produce or own during our lives, but of the insights and records and residue we leave behind. Posterity will decide what to do with our efforts. That part is out of our hands. 


    In the next part of this blog, I'll address some of the contextual and critical implications of my work. The art book as material object. The meaning and scope of the images (content). 

    End Part I 

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  • 07/19/17--10:26: Self-Critique II

  • Reflexivity in self-regard presents difficulties. Is regarding oneself critically an exercise in myopic delusion? Can anyone be truly objective about the products of one's own imagination? One's own craft? 

    Like many people who pursue photography seriously, I began in admiration and idolatry, moved on to imitation, and eventually found myself in the uncharted territory of original exploration. Imitation will take you only so far in any artistic medium. Eventually, you have to ask yourself whether what you're doing has any purpose beyond reprocessing others' work. 

    In deciding to pursue landscape photography seriously, there were several aspects to consider. There's the investment in equipment, the opportunity to explore remote locations, access to a suitable work-space, and the purpose toward which all that expenditure and time spent leads. Harry Callahan remarked once that the one thing he knew for certain, what kept him going, was the certainty that the one thing he wanted, at the start of each day, was to photograph. It was a reliable compulsion. And that's pretty much what I felt when I began; I knew I wanted to make pictures. And as I became more familiar with it, the more I liked it. 

    There are many kinds of photography, many approaches to subject matter. I admire many of these different kinds of work, though not all. There are things that photography can do well, while some others seem to work directly against the advantage of image-making. Deliberately making blurry images, for instance, seems to me a distortion of the meaning of photography. It's many times harder to make a precise depiction of a real scene, than it is to do with a camera. This would suggest that whatever potential lies in the direction of that precision is closer to the soul of photography. 


    One of the first things you notice about serious landscape photography is the tendency to portray "big scenes"--and I was typical in my initial fascination with the heroic images that the great landscape photographers--Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Eliot Porter, Michael Kenna, and dozens of others--had made. But I also have a strong reductivist tendency in my nature. I like the closely seen detail, presented with intense concentration. And I also love "abstraction" as a genre, the interest in surfaces or spaces that are not about what they are, but what they may mean as pure form, or texture, or metaphorical suggestiveness. 

    Ultimately, the best landscape photography isn't about the celebration of place, but about the transcendence of place (and name). Beyond referentiality, there's a purer appreciation of any scene than the simply referential can summon. Most photographs are recognizable images, but it's how they are seen, arranged, portrayed, that makes interesting work. Any tourist can perch on the edge of the Grand Canyon, or at the margin of the Pacific Ocean, and snap away, probably in color. The sense of inspiration people feel before awesome natural scenes is rarely interpreted by their cameras, because they don't understand how to translate the feeling into a compelling composition. All sunsets are equally a subset of "sunset" but all are different, and it's that difference, made into photographs, that makes all the difference

    If all landscape photographers are aspiring towards the same goal, in what sense may they actually define themselves, to set themselves apart? Many of the images in my book are of subjects that all landscape photographers pursue: Dunes, mountains, waves, trees, flowers, canyons, cars, buildings. So it can't just be that the choice of subject matter determines the quality of your work. Obviously, no one can "own" a place simply by having successfully photographed it, though the way one great image has been made, or done, may close the door permanently on all future versions of that scene. Anyone trying to re-do Adams's Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite, will merely end up in slavish imitation. But no one would suggest that Yosemite Valley has "been done" once and for all. There are always more images, more points of vantage, more variations of light, atmosphere and condition to be explored and exploited. 

    Ideally, I always wanted to do several kinds of photographs, but you have to follow your nose to the places that inspire you. Landscape photography sometimes may seem like a pantheon of shrines, familiar spots on the planet nearly everyone is drawn to. As you approach them, you do so with respect, and awe. They are magical places, which may yield up their beauty or mystery to your lens, or not. Sometimes it's all about luck. There's an old saying in photography, that photographers don't "take" photographs; photographs "take them." Paul Caponigro has said that the process by which a photographer makes an image is an entirely mysterious one, in which a number of elements of opportunity and chance converge. This "moment" may be fleeting, or voiceless, or may seem invisible to the untrained eye. One is, in this sense, "given" to complete certain image, chosen by fate or some higher power to be allowed to perform it. It's like a gift. 


    I'm not ordinarily a mystical guy. Not religious. Not interested in superstition. But I think there really is something to the notion that one is given to have certain images. It's a combination of desire, accident, timing, unconscious intuition, and perhaps divine intervention (though I'd not be willing to emphasize the divine part). I remember trying to set up this image taken at Death Valley Dunes. The heavy wood tripod I was using kept sinking deeper and deeper into the sand, changing the composition each time I looked through the ground glass to focus. Every so often the wind would blow little bits of sand off the crest of the wave. Standing as still as I could, with the shutter in my hand, using the dark-slide to shield the lens from the sun's rays. And I had no idea whether the negative would develop in the manner I had planned. All these ponderable issues can build up and overwhelm the most inspired visions!


    I've talked around the issue of value, but I realize that the point of criticism isn't merely descriptive. Great critics teach you more than they cut you down to size. That was true of Edmund Wilson, or Hugh Kenner. But there are few serious critics of art photography, and few of those spend much effort in attacking what they don't like. 

    In the final post, I'll try to estimate the value of what I have published in this book, without being either too easy, or too hard on myself. 

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  • 07/20/17--11:49: Self-Critique III

  • Can anyone be a fair judge of their own artistic effort? Writers and artists run the spectrum of attitude, from vain boastfulness and pride, to quiet modesty and tact. Courtesy suggests any artist must refrain from indulging in too much self-promotion; whereas a real confidence may express itself as passive acceptance of the judgment of history and the marketplace. A jury of your peers has a nice ring, but we know that fairness and justice are seldom the driving forces of prizes and grants and praise. I've never been shy about offering my aesthetic opinions. Some people believe, apparently, that artistic endeavor is already so difficult, that negative criticism should be avoided, to protect the tender sensibilities of those who might be unable to handle rejection. 

    Any honest craftsman welcomes criticism, which may help to define meaning and effect, and guide further development. But trying to see your own work, objectively, requires a special kind of disinterestedness. Am I willing to subject myself to the same standard that I set for others? Can I apply a higher standard to myself than I maybe aspired to? Am I willing to admit to myself that my standards weren't high enough, or that I fell short simply because I lacked the inherent talent from the beginning? These are uncomfortable questions which any artist or writer faces, even if they never discuss them in public. Ultimately, any serious critic must insist that merely trying is not enough, and that failure must be a possibility in art, as it is in life. In the arts, "A for effort" can't be on the menu. 

    My photographs clearly belong to a tradition of "straight" image making that has its origins in the 19th Century--Timothy H. O'Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, Edward S. Curtis, Darius Kinsey, Robert Adamson, David Octavius Hill, etc.--which then evolves fully in the 1930's via the f64 Group, which included Adams, Edward and Brett Weston, Cunningham, Van Dyke, Lavenson, etc. For a time at the turn of the 20th Century, so-called "soft image" work was favored, partly out of deference to the "artistic" qualities of painting, which was ironically undergoing its own formal crisis in reaction to the invention of photography. Just as straight depiction in painting was beginning to disintegrate, photography was finally throwing off its painterly preoccupations and declaring accuracy and vividness as its chief values. If photography could achieve the verisimilitude of "reality," painting could be free to explore other spheres of expression. 

    By the time I'd entered the field in 1985, serious large format photography--primarily black and white, but moving inexorably forward with color as well--had been accepted as a valid art form. The high art values achieved by Strand, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams in the 1940's/'50's and after, were commonly accepted, and all the major museums in the Western World now mount photographic exhibitions right alongside the plastic media. 


    For many years, there was a debate about the value of photographic prints. In theory, any photographic negative may be endlessly reproduced (printed). In fact, it's nearly impossible to make so-called "identical" prints through individual exposure and development, even assuming that materials (paper, chemicals, etc., which may be proprietary or privately concocted) are uniform to begin with. The simple fact is that producing more than a handful of superior prints is difficult. In addition, any successful photographer knows that control of an edition is part of the process of controlling the value, particularly with very popular images. Once a photographer closes a print run, or dies, the number is fixed. 

    As I have mentioned, my own working methods were determined in part by my expectation. I never imagined that my work would ever be shown in galleries, and I could see no particular reason to have multiple prints (mounted or not) of images. Once I had achieved a print that satisfied me, I stopped working on it. Usually, I ended up with only 1-3 prints of a satisfactory image. I never expected my prints to "sell" anywhere, so there seemed no point in have additional ones. Was this an expression of my artistic "modesty" or simple pragmatic efficiency? Perhaps laziness had something to do with it. 

    Ansel Adams once said, acting as the promulgator of his medium, that "the specter of the hobby is always lurking" behind every amateur photographer, by which he meant, if I read him right, that most people stop short of realizing their full potential photographers, simply by shirking the challenge, excusing their reluctance by calling it a pastime (or a "hobby") instead of the art it can be. It's like a conscience call. 

    By moving up to larger and larger negative formats, I believed that I could achieve greater accuracy and tonal scale in my work. It was also upping the ante, a commitment which the larger and more demanding (and expensive) equipment would enable. Could I have achieved my goals with smaller formats? Probably not. I had seen how even a 2 1/2 square negative would blur even at 8x10 dimension. "Blow ups" were fine, as long as you didn't get too ambitious. But I was ambitious! I'd seen what Adams and Weston could do with 8x10, and that's the potential I wanted to test in my own work. I didn't exactly want to make photographs just like theirs, but I knew that this was a journey I wanted to take, even if it resulted in failure. 

    Photography is forgiving enough, that if you use the very best equipment, and the best materials, the odds are that you'll make work that may impress people. 

    In truth, I was more than willing to let the large format images I knew I could achieve, stand in the beginning for what I wanted. Standing on the rim of Canyon de Chelly and blasting away at the canyon walls below may have been like shooting fish in a barrel, but I couldn't resist the lure of the iconic. And the really big 11x14 negatives I could make, would guarantee that my contact prints would be at least as impressive as any smaller format versions. The greater challenge, naturally, was in finding compositions that were completely original, and not just later examples of the same subjects. 

    Harry Callahan said that a good photographer was never more than 10 feet away from a great picture. But accepting that as an aesthetic axiom does not necessarily imply that one should be limited to that range of possibility. There are landscape photographers who wander the world restlessly for any kind of exotic picture, even hiring bush pilots and helicopters to get them into the right position or remote location. Both extremes--resisting the exotic, or embracing it--seem unnecessary to me. I think it's possible to construct compelling photos out of arrangements of objects in a room. But that doesn't imply that hiking around the Alabama Hills on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada isn't also a fruitful approach. 


    Serious landscape photographers may think of themselves as pioneers, in much the same way that Timothy O'Sullivan was, in the 19th Century. Though the rigors of the outback are nothing like they were in his time, with mule-teams to carry his baggage, there is still the excitement and pleasure of being outdoors, away from "civilization," on the hunt for the wild, untamed, unspoiled natural wonders. That may sound like a cliché, unless you've hiked five miles with a 30lb. view camera on your back, carrying a 12 lb. wooden tripod up a steep trail to a promising overlook. 


    Though many of my photographs are of classic subject matter--compositions that others have essayed, with greater or lesser success, I think that most of them deserve to be appreciated. My images all have a strong sense of organization, a sensitivity to context, as well as a respect for traditional pictorial values. They aren't humorous. They aren't kooky. They don't strain for effect. 

    As a conservationist, I have a preservationist's concern for the environment. Some photographers are willing to allow their art to reflect the devastation man has caused on the earth. Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz. There is pain in their photographs, and disgust, and outrage. Even hopelessness. Is it apposite to use your art to make deliberate political statements with your camera? No doubt. But the choice to do so will subtract from the opportunity to appreciate what we most value. Probably the best expression of preservation for a fisherman is not to fish at all, and to insist that no one else does either. As a fly fisherman, I am sensitive to the use I make of fresh water habitat, but the point is to live, not refrain from experience, either as a protest or as a sacrifice. 


    For me, no photograph could be "merely" pretty and be truly compelling. There must be an underlying mystery, a quality of power or eccentric design which keeps us looking, keeps us coming back, to attempt to unravel what's intriguing to our eye. Though oil storage tanks--big cylinders full of raw or refined petroleum--aren't pretty, I thought that the message implied here by the oddly named company logo, with the criss-crossing grid lines unintentionally setting out an ironic pattern of mathematical meaning, told me something about the world. This photograph was taken with an 8x10 view camera. It could obviously have been snapped with a 35 millimeter hand-held, and the resulting "content" would be the same. But for me, the importance of the "message" of the picture was enhanced by the clarity and crispness of the accuracy of the lens. People who wander about with little hand held cameras, snapping away happily, are missing something. 

    One of the best aspects about large format cameras, is the methodical routine you go through to set up for a shot. It involves a sequence of decisions. Nothing worth doing in the arts is really easy, and much of the inconvenience of large format photography is really an imposed discipline. It forces you to think about depth of field, about vantage, and about the ambient conditions. Though there may be occasions when time is of the essence--when the available light or transient shadows are fleeting--in general the best photographs occur under conditions of calm pursuit, allowing the unfolding process to dictate what your desire can realize. And then there's luck!

    You have to be ready to experience the unexpected. Interesting photographs often become possible under changing conditions, and these may occur under unusual or hazardous conditions. One of my best photographs was taken during a dreary rainy morning in Tilden Park, when the light was drab, and my equipment and I were getting wet. I almost had no idea what would come of this picture, and for some years afterwards, I was uncertain about whether it was a good photograph, or not. But people I showed the image to, told me it fascinated them. The tree trunks almost seemed to be translucent! 


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  • 09/05/17--09:14: John Ashbery [1927-2017]

  • When we remember someone we've known, who has died, we may choose, voluntarily or not, to recall them at a certain age in their life. We are all oldest at the point we depart life, but who we were in a larger sense, encompasses the full breadth of our lives, not just the oldest version. Few people are famous as children, or achieve fame at an early enough age that we think of them always as young, immature, and familiar. Perhaps people remember Judy Garland, or Shirley Temple in a perpetual childhood state, as if their having grown up were an afterthought to the larger-than-life quality they projected at the height of their being. 

    John Ashbery was precocious from an early age, but developed as a writer somewhat more slowly, reaching an impressive degree of fame in his forties, with the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror [1975]. His earlier work had been somewhat notoriously "difficult"--a quality routinely remarked about his work. 

    As a young aspiring poet in the 1960's and '70's, I encountered Ashbury's work first by finding a copy of his Tennis Court Oath [Wesleyan University Press, 1962] in a student bookstore while a student at Berkeley in 1968. I wasn't sure what to make of it, but its impressionistic, synesthetic qualities I found intriguing, despite my inability (or unwillingness?) to understand the narrative structure of his poems. It would be later that I would find out about his Dada, Surrealist sources of inspiration, which took some of the mystery (and intrigue) out of my earlier apprehension. When you are young, you may impute mysterious qualities to things simply because of your own innocence or ignorance. 


    Ashbery's career unfolded in an odd way. The first two books, Some Trees and Tennis Court, were challenging and unapproachable for the general reader. Rivers and Mountains [1966] was a bit more apprehensible, and the camp The Double Dream of Spring [1970] seemed fully formed, mature work. Three Poems [1972] was like meditative prose-poetry, almost a kind of philosophical tract. So when Self-Portrait appeared, its meditative flow struck just the right note, and won all the prizes. Had Ashbery finally crossed over from hermetic abstruseness to fully realized accessibility? 

    As time wore on, Ashbery's productivity increased, turning out almost a book every two years over the next three decades. Rather than becoming clearer and more sensible, his work became difficult again. After Self-Portrait, I tended to lose interest in his poetry, which struck me as repetitive and playful in a frustrating way. Whereas Tennis Court had been innovative and experimental, Self Portrait had been a triumph, a synthesis of organization combined with unusual insights. His later work became increasingly camp and nonsensical, as if these qualities mattered most. 

    I have thought over the last 30 years, that Ashbery had written too much, a feeling I tended to have about other writers, such as John Updike, and W.S. Merwin. It seemed to me that Ashbery had become so facile, that he could turn out a poem at any time, with his characteristically elusive elaboration, without the least provocation. Nearly all of his work is filled with fascinating observations, reports of feeling and concept--but these aspects don't necessarily cohere into unified works of art. The point Ashbery seemed to be making was that they didn't need to. He had "done that" before, so why write it again? 

    Ashbery's long denouement will have to await the judgment of history, but for me, his career's apex is Self-Portrait, followed by a series of extended footnotes. 

    I had two interactions with him. The first was when he generously agreed to give me poems for a little magazine I was editing in the mid-70's--which, unfortunately, I was never able to use. The second was when I discovered a book that had belonged to him back when he was a graduate student in the early 1950's. I wrote a two-part blog about my speculations regarding the influence of this text on his work, and he wrote me about it. In both instances, he was cordial and not in the least difficult or condescending. 

    Ashbery was among the handful of writers who were important to me in my writing life. Sophisticated to a fault, deeply intelligent, open-minded, mischievous, ambitious and tireless. The photo above would be from about the time he would have been writing Self Portrait, I think. It shows a young man, casual and relaxed, with an intense curiosity and determination--qualities that you can sense in his work. Ashbery lived a very long life, and was totally redeemed by his successful writing. When someone lives for that long (aged 90) there is little to mourn, because nothing is wasted. He used it all up, a self-consuming artifact of time. 

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    At this moment, the San Francisco Giants are 60-93, dead last in their division, with the worst record in both leagues. In 2016, the team went 87-75, and made it all the way to the second round of the play-offs, losing 3 games to 1 to the Cubs, who went on to win the World Series. 

    How did this happen?

    The odds-makers had put the 2017 Giants in the middle of the play-off picture, picked to win 90 games. From contender to dead last in just a single year! 

    There were signs of course. After a great first half in 2016, they had a dreadful second half. 

    Entering 2017, the team was essentially the same as it had been the previous year, with a few minor tweaks, though those proved to be crucial.

    Comparing the position player line-ups for 2016 --

    1B Brandon Belt
    2B Joe Panik
    3B Matt Duffy / Eduardo Nunez
    SS Brandon Crawford
    LF Angel Pagan
    CF Denard Span
    RF Hunter Pence
    C Buster Posey

    -- to those in 2017 --

    1B Brandon Belt
    2B Joe Panik
    3B Nunez / Sandoval
    SS Brandon Crawford
    LF Hernandez / Parker
    CF Denard Span
    RF Hunter Pence
    C Buster Posey

    -- you wouldn't have had the feeling this line-up could underperform to the degree it has. 

    On the analytical side, it's a line-up structured around Pac Bell Park's dimensions. In exchange for fewer home runs, you hope for a lot of doubles and triples, good defense and excellent pitching. And indeed, the championship teams of 2010, 2012 and 2014 were built around excellent starting pitching,  with good set-up men and a brilliant closer. 

    Since the departure of Barry Bonds after the 2007 season, management has consistently emphasized pitching and defense over power. Historically, success can be achieved with either formula. Some great teams of the 20th Century, the Yankees of the 1920's or '50's, for instance, were built around power. However given the legal reconfiguration of major league baseball, free-agency and salary caps, it's difficult for any team, no matter how well-heeled, to hold onto a squad of expensive stars. 

    With respect to the dimensions of Pac Bell, a good argument can be made in favor of a team with speed and agility--stealing bases and hitting lots of doubles and triples on offense, while covering the big outfield with speed and savvy--counting on good pitching to throttle opponents' power. But any team plays only half its games at home; playing in another park with shorter dimensions can put you at a serious disadvantage if you're playing pepper while the other guys are hitting dingers. In an ideal world, you have it all, power and speed, good run production and great defense, dependable starting pitching and great closers. But maintaining this kind of balance, year in and year out, even if you can somehow bring it together temporarily, is nearly impossible. Teams form and reform, stars rise and fall, older players drop out while young ones rise. Players have good years and bad, but they seldom have them all together at the same time, with the same team. And then there are the injuries. 

    This year, we lost our ace, Madison Bumgarner, to a freak accident at the beginning of the season. Had he not gone down, he was expected to win 14-18 games. That didn't happen. Samardzija, a good journeyman starter, was exposed for what he essentially is, a very talented player who will never rise to the first rank of performers. Matt Moore, a reconstruction project picked up last year for the stretch run, had a horrible time. Matt Cain, nearing the end of his career, was a shadow of his former self, while Johnny Cueto was lost for much of the year with nagging little injuries. Ty Blach, in his first full season in the bigs, showed signs of promise. Mark Melancon, signed in the off-season to replace the departed Casilla, went down with injury, too, forcing the team to use alternatives (hello, Sam Dyson). 

    It's hard not to think that when Bumgarner went down, much of the rest of the team didn't fall into an emotional nose-dive, especially when none of the other starters stepped up. Belt, Crawford and Pence all have had off-years, hitting well below their usual average(s). Left field--as everyone has come to characterize it--became the "black hole" which the team seemed unable to cover. Gorky Hernandez (Gorkys Hernandez??) in left field? Jarrett Parker, apparently the heir apparent, went down to injury too, so it's still unclear whether he has the stuff to be a real regular. 

    Once the season went south, management appeared to have given up too. On July 26th, in the middle of the season, they traded Eduardo Nunez, our starting 3rd baseman, to the Red Sox for minor leaguers. Christian Arroyo, another rookie at 3rd, gave hints of a possible future, then was injured. Throughout the second half, the team has cycled in a long list of minor leaguers, has-beens and also rans--Ryder Jones, Pablo Sandoval, Austin Slater, Conor Gillaspie, Aaron Hill, Mac Williamson, Justin Ruggiano, Orlando Calixte, Mike Morse, Drew Stubbs, Tim Federowicz, Derek Law, Kyle Crick, Steven Overt, Albert Suarez, etc.--none of whom seems likely to be with any major league team two years from now. It has looked a little like desperation. 

    Who now on the team deserves to stay next year, and become a part of a better team?

    Posey seems solid, as does Panik. We'd be stupid to let either of these stars depart. Crawford's still a great fielder, and he still leads the team in RBI's, despite having an off year at the bat. Belt's been a puzzle, throughout his career. On paper, he seems intriguing, but watching him play everyday, you have the feeling he doesn't quite realize is talent. He should be hitting 25-30 homers a year, and at least .275. He also rarely performs in the clutch. Surrounded by a great team, he looks fine, but it's hard to justify his presence here, given our power vacuum. Pence is a quandary too. When he first came here, fans were overjoyed. His enthusiasm, his hustle, his combination of speed AND power, seemed perfect. But he's become injury-prone, and he seems frequently clueless at the plate, swinging at bad balls, over-anxious. Is 2016 an anomaly, or is his career on a decline? Hard to say. I like him in right field. On balance, I feel he would be hard to replace. 

    The weak spots on this team are --

    Third base
    Left field
    First base

    In the past, I've recommended the team seek to improve its power, and that's my recommendation now. Traditionally, you want production from the corner positions. 1st and 3rd should give you homers and RBI's. Ditto with left fielders. We'd like a right handed power hitter (25-30 homers, 85 RBI's) at third and in left field. 

    As Posey's career enters its second phase, it would be prudent to move him to 1st, at least on a regular part-time basis, to extend his career and reduce the wear and tear on his body. With luck, he could play until he's 40, and be productive throughout his 30's. He already has Hall of Fame numbers. 

    On the mound, Bumgarner's the ace. He looks durable, and there's no reason to think he won't bounce back next year. Cueto's contract status is up in the air at the moment. If he elects to stay, we could expect him to put in more good years (he's only 31). Samardzija's no favorite of mine, unless you figure him for a fourth or fifth in the rotation; if he left, I wouldn't miss him. At this point, I want no more of Moore, or Cain. Melancon may or may not be as good as his rep, but Dyson is welcome to replace him, if he can. 

    So we need one more good starter, and we need a good set-up man or two. No one the team has used this year looks good enough to stay. Gearrin, Strickland, Osich, Law, Suarez, Overt--a mediocre list at best.

    Once upon a time, the Giants farm system was among the best, but in recent decades, there hasn't been the same quality. My own theory is that major league baseball has too many teams, and that there's been a watering down of overall talent. Broadcasters today will talk casually about "prospects" in the minor leagues: "Then there's this fellow at Pawtucket, pretty good stuff, ERA of 5.43, a 2-5 record and impressive fast ball at 89 mph." I can remember when that kind of "performance" at Triple A wouldn't have landed you a job at the local hardware store. 

    When I first started following major league baseball, in 1958, there were 16 teams, 8 in each league. Today there are 30. Imagine how much better teams would be today, if the best players of those 30 teams had to be winnowed down to fill just 16. Most of the marginal contributors would either be in the minor leagues, or out of professional ball completely. Players like Belt, Hernandez, Tomlinson, Moore, Strickland would probably be struggling in Double A. 

    Is the general level of play better or worse than it was half a century ago? It's an interesting question. Can mere statistics tell the whole story? 

    In 2018, the Giants will have to play better, and they will certainly need to make some changes. Can the team afford to bring in some sluggers, another quality starter, and some decent set-up hurlers? On paper, you'd think it would be possible. But does the management have the will? Is it a matter of money, or are there other factors? Just this week, Giants management opined that star hitters would be hard to convince to come play for the team, given its "difficult" ball park, and California tax rates. But these problems don't seem to have hurt the Dodgers, who have one of the most feared line-ups of all, and will win our division title for the fifth year in a row.  

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  • 09/26/17--10:35: Kaepernick - Hero or Victim?

  • I have been a fan of the 49ers, off and on, for over 60 years. My stepfather, Harry Faville, had followed the team from its inception in the late 1940's, and by the time television arrived in the mid-1950's, he'd become a confirmed armchair athlete. As a boy, I dreamed of becoming a star receiver or defensive back, but I wasn't built physically to be a football player, and that idea quickly dissolved by the time I was in junior high school. In those days, people didn't worry about the fate of professional athletes. They might be injured from time to time, but it wasn't a concern. Similarly, the political opinions of professional athletes was never something fans or the media paid any attention to. In those days (the 1950's) public figures such as athletes, Hollywood actors, artists, or national heroes might have personal beliefs and sentiments, but they weren't considered important to the general public. Fame itself wasn't a credential. 

    All that has changed, of course, over the last half century. 

    Today, in our media-drenched world, everyone is supposed to have an opinion about everything, and what celebrities, and private citizens think or feel about any issue, is presumed to be newsworthy and important. 

    If Y.A. Tittle or Joe Perry had had opinions about Senate races or race relations, the media in those days would certainly not have considered it worth reporting, and hardly anyone would have cared if they had been. We didn't expect celebrities or high profile athletes to advise us about politics and public relations issues. 

    Today, we expect Barbara Streisand and Sean Penn and Meryl Streep to tell us what they think about political candidates, and important public issues. They have a lot of capital, and they can make an impact not just with their pocketbooks, but with their public personas. Today, professional athletes may presume to offer their opinions on any subject, and we're expected to listen seriously to them, as if their fame, and their accomplishments on the field of play, made them qualified to speak with authority.     

    Colin Kaepernick came to the 49ers as a rookie in 2011. In very short order, he established himself as the team's star quarterback, leading the team to a Super Bowl berth in 2012 (which he missed winning by a whisker on the last play of the game), and to a 12-4 record (and a play-off appearance) in 2013. Kaepernick was tall, strong, fast and presented defenses with the quandary of having to cover his runs as much as his passing. Following the 2014 season, team management ushered head coach Jim Harbaugh out the door, in what must be one of the stupidest moves in the history of sport. 

    After two stellar seasons, Kaepernick was faced with having his role redefined by an unqualified line coach who understood nothing about guiding an NFL offense. As the team tanked under Tomsula (in 2015) and Kelly (in 2016), Kaepernick was blamed for much of the team's lack of success. 

    Kaepernick was not designed to be a traditional pocket passer. Harbaugh understood that, and used him in such a way as to maximize his gifts. The frustration which hung over the team the last two years, came increasingly to be focused on his shortcomings, rather than on management's failures to find a suitable coach. Owners who blame good players for their teams' poor performance, are scapegoating, and that's exactly what happened to Kaepernick. 

    Some of the frustration of the team during the 2015-16 seasons inevitably rubbed off on the players. It can't have been easy for Kaepernick, who had basked in the limelight of a Super Bowl appearance at the age of 25, after only two years in the league, to deal with the negative publicity aimed at him and his team.  In 2016, he began "taking a knee" during the National Anthem played before games. 

    I have mixed feelings about the purpose and importance of our National Anthem. On the one hand, I resented having to parrot the "under God" clause in the Pledge of Allegiance. My stepfather Harry, once said that he felt playing the Anthem before every professional sports event, actually diminished its value and weight. Does playing it in this way--over and over (162 times for each game in a major league baseball season!)--really reenforce patriotic feeling and commitment, or is it just a distraction and cliché, going through the motions for the sake of appearance? 

    Patriotism is a mixed bag. In any democracy, we have the right and obligation to form our separate, various opinions about issues, and to be suspicious and skeptical about what is expressed or advocated in the name or spirit of patriotism. In wartime, patriotism serves to unite and reenforce our devotion to the nation's cause. In peacetime, it may have other purposes. 

    The idea that a protest of social or political conditions should be directed at the government, and its symbols (including the flag, or the National Anthem, or the Pledge of Allegiance) is a hotly debated topic. Context is very important. If Arabs burn an American flag in the streets of Cairo, that is a very different thing than kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem during a sports event. 

    Public sporting events are not underwritten by our government, and they aren't by any stretch of the imagination an expression of patriotic feeling. They're entertainment, presented for the enjoyment of their audience(s), and for the sake of profit. The National Football League is a private league, a collection of very rich men and women who invest in teams and facilities as a pastime to generate financial gain. The same is true of the players, who are paid handsomely for their service. 

    But why should we think that star players such as Colin Kaepernick, or Tom Brady, or Steve Young should be any more skilled or qualified to advise the general public about important political or social issues than anyone else? Does their ability to play a game well suggest that such figures deserve to be regarded as experts? Though most of the players in the NFL went to college, no one would suggest with any seriousness that as a class they have anything interesting or persuasive to offer about important issues. 

    When Colin Kaepernick first began to be seen in public as the face of the 49ers franchise, he didn't even look to me to be African American. With his short haircut, and typical midwestern speech, he seemed a well-balanced fellow, neither excessively vain nor modest. But over time, he began to change. He grew big "Afro" hair, and had an air of resentment which was obvious on the field, and in front of the microphone. As the team's fortunes declined, he seem to want to transform his persona from one of talented athlete to that of a rebellious malcontent, as if to compensate for the decay of his reputation. 

    Personal resentment can sometimes get mixed up with a false sense of entitlement. Kaepernick never struck me as particularly intelligent, so his increasingly "politicized" stance seemed to me to express an unfortunate confusion of opportunity. He ought to have let his commitment to his job, and his success on the field, be his statement. To use his celebrity and visibility to harangue the sports audience with his personal protest, was impertinent. 

    If Kaepernick and other professional sports figures want to express their opinions about politics, they should do so in print, or in other venues. While I'm not personally invested in the notion of the public display of patriotism, I'm also inclined to view the opportunistic expression of personal opinions in sporting events as grossly inappropriate. 

    Kaepernick's behavior was stupid.

    Since professional sports franchises are business ventures, there is no legitimate appeal to the league for personnel decisions. If owners want to sign some players, and not others, that's their choice. If they wish to express their political or social opinions through their running of their franchises, that's their right. Owners are not required to hire or fire according to racial quotas, or to fulfill some idea of social justice. 

    Personally, though I abhor Kaepernick's political antics, I think he's a very good player, and deserves to play. But he's responsible for his behavior. He may have the right to kneel during the National Anthem, assuming his boss(es), the team owners and management allow him to do so, but that doesn't in itself entitle him to be hired to play on the field. And it doesn't suggest to me that he's due some extraordinary esteem or admiration. 

    Kaepernick has made a choice, one which you may or may not admire. But that doesn't suggest that any owner is obligated to hire him to play quarterback in the NFL. Kaepernick may eventually come to regret his career choices. There's a risk in taking controversial positions in public.  

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  • 10/17/17--10:31: Northern California Fires

  • We're all familiar by now with the cluster of fires which have ravaged parts of Northern California over the last 10 days. 

    Like most people, I have a feeling of futility about the damage that has been caused, since the manner in which the media usually portrays such events, seems intended to create in the viewing public either a sense of hand-wringing empathy, or pointless indignation over causes and mitigations. 

    I have three observations about the event. What I'm saying here doesn't in any way suggest that I do not have sympathy for those whose lives or livelihoods have been hurt or affected by tragedy. On the contrary, it's because I DO care that I make these observations. 

    One: I think it's irresponsible to assume, as nearly everyone has apparently, that these fires, which began, suddenly, all at once, on Sunday the 8th of October, were the result of electrical accidents. I believe it's much more likely that some, if not all of the fires, were the work of arson, set by a mentally deranged individual, driving quickly from location to location, and igniting them in sequence. Though the "investigations" into the causes will likely take months to complete, I think the likelihood of their having occurred all at the same time, in the same general region, goes well beyond chance or accident. We'll know eventually whether my surmise is correct.

    Two: Most of the fires that occur outside of large forested regions (and a few that happen inside them) usually begin close to roads or contact points. In other words, they don't begin "naturally"--they begin as a result of human error, or deliberate mischief. All such fires begin small, and grow bigger. Typically, the response time for sudden, unexpected fire events is relatively slow. Our response to such fires is scaled to the "immediate" threat they pose. Inevitably, it often seems, such small blazes "quickly" spread, engulfing hundreds of thousands of acres. By the time they've grown, they have become enormous events, requiring the coordinated action of different jurisdictions, and the probable loss of flora, property, and even peoples' lives. 

    We hear a great deal about how courageous and hard-working and sacrificing our fire fighters are, about the vast resources marshaled to deal with these huge fire events. What we don't seem to hear about is how efficient such responses are in preventing small fires from becoming larger ones. What, to be very direct, would be the value of responding with greater efficiency and force to new small fires BEFORE they were allowed to grow into large ones? A small grass fire which starts beside a well-traveled road in a semi-rural area seems a small matter, perhaps involving only an acre or two. But left alone, untended, such a fire can eventually turn into a major disaster, simply for lack of attention. What if our fire authorities descended on such "small" fires with greater speed, and resources, BEFORE they became unmanageable? The crucial point of intervention is EARLY in the process, NOT later when things have gotten completely out of hand.  


    Three: A lot has been made of the destruction of a large neighborhood in Santa Rosa (see above). And without a doubt, for those affected, this is an unmitigated tragedy. The loss of homes, cars, possessions, and even of livelihoods. And a very expensive loss it will continue to be, as federal, state and local jurisdictions and charities spend and spend to provide the social safety net everyone agrees is needed.

    California has been on a steep upward growth pattern for a hundred years. As the urban centers burgeon outward, through suburban sprawl, and infill, land that once was either used for agriculture, or was simply ubiquitous "open space" is covered over by housing and paving. As this continues, the intersection between development and "wild" land--the "edge"--becomes a crucial line, where conflict between nature--in the form of undomesticated animals and natural events--and human habitation comes into focus. 

    In such areas--often referred to nowadays as "Mediterranean" climates or regions--where areas of foliage dry up in the Summer, the risk of fire is much greater. Farmers and ranchers have known for centuries what this risk represents. Leaving large areas of "tinder" poses risks to anyone living or working within such a region. In some parts of the world, such areas burn "naturally"--or "controlled burns" are conducted. Deliberately ignoring the fire risk posed by such vulnerable regions, through complacent urban/suburban planning, or insufficient disaster response, leads inevitably to crises of the kind we have seen. It's just a given, a simple matter of time.

    The population of Santa Rosa has literally exploded over the last several decades. It's one of the fastest growing areas in the country. It isn't a "city" in the urban sense, with high density housing within a confined area. It's a huge, sprawling suburban mass, pushing out into the countryside. Both "tract" development, into the immediate surrounding jurisdictions, and more remote "custom" housing out into the outback, have been allowed to proceed, without regard either to environmental consequences, or to the risks involved in living cheek-by-jowl to dry wooded and grassy landscape. 

    Those who choose to live in such places, must accept the risk that comes with exposing their lives and property to calamities they can't foresee, and which society can't (and shouldn't be expected to) control. California's growth has been posited on cheap open space, a thriving economy, and presumptions about resources that are not unlimited. This growth paradigm has gotten completely out of hand. Its manifestations are everywhere, and hardly need to be reiterated here. Suffice it to say that the "answer" isn't higher density urban centers, or easier pathways to new construction.  

    These disasters are but another reminder that California has grown too big, and can no longer support these mindless expansions. Humans were never intended to live in the desert. They were never intended to live underwater, or on snowy mountain tops. Despite the engineering "miracles" we've accomplished to bring food and water and space to millions, we can't keep drawing against nature's equity forever. Why allow people to build and live in homes that are next to huge fire traps? If people choose to do so, against advice, then they need to accept the probable risk. Ultimately, we need to stop breeding like insects, and husband what resources and space still exist on the planet.   

    Does this sound hard-hearted? Not if you compare it to the ruthless alternative. Mother Nature takes no prisoners.  

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  • 10/31/17--10:16: A Walk in the Woods

  • For a long time, I've wanted to write a poem about an experience that was very vivid in my imagination, but which I've never quite figured out how to do. 

    As anyone who has ever camped in the outback (or wilderness) knows, when there are no "facilities" you just have to find a private place to relieve yourself. 

    I can still recall, as a boy going camping, the eerie sense of isolation and spookiness I had when I walked some way out of camp, far enough away that I'd have privacy, a sufficient distance away that I wouldn't disturb others and stink up the place. In the forest, you don't have to walk very far to feel totally "lost"--away from civilization and the comforting sense of protection.

    This is naturally an experience that our ancestors undoubtedly were very familiar with, before the invention of technology. For tens of thousands of years, people have been finding a convenient tree or shrub, some distance away from camp or settlement. 

    People rarely talk about this, but it's something humans and animals have done for a very long time, but which we now hardly ever experience or think about.    

    I remember peeing onto the forest floor, or against a tree trunk, where my stream hissed among a carpet of pine needles or mossy detritus. 

    But what I most remember is the silence, the strange listening calm that pervades a stand of timber in the wild. It can be a little frightening. 

    For eons, people have been venturing out into the unknown, where predators or strangers may be lurking. Animals share this same foreboding, the sense of vulnerability, of being subject to surprise or attack. 

    Our world once was an immense place, largely untracked, unexplored, unsurveyed, unknown. Out of such unknown-ness grows apprehension, and superstition. 

    When I was teaching once years ago, I had a student who had recently returned from soldiering in Vietnam. He'd been a radioman, who went on patrols with his platoon, often in dense jungle. He told me once about an experience he'd had. He'd needed to take a crap, and had walked a short distance from the bivouac. Squatting beside a downed log, he heard the approach of enemy soldiers--Viet Cong soldiers--just a few yards away. "I dove right into my own shit," he recounted, and he lay there, as quiet as he could, his heart pounding, his breath pumping, as the enemy patrol passed by. They never saw him. 

    The poem I'd want to write would capture the sense of silence, isolation, and vulnerability which must be a common experience for millions and millions of people in our ancient history, but also the beauty of being in nature, attuned to its sounds, shapes, relationships; the way Indians once must have felt it, knowing its familiar keys, recognizing its signs, the aliveness of inanimate things--rocks, trees, water, wind, creatures. The title might be "going out into the woods to pee" rather in the way an ancient Chinese poet might describe it. 

    There is sometimes an "entry" into a poem, that allows you to carry it through. But I haven't found it yet. I may never--one of the ideas for poems that may simply never happen. It's a little frustrating. But on the other hand, it's a "poem" in my head, one which I have the experience of, even if I haven't found the words, the sequence of statements to capture it yet. 

    How many unwritten poems have mellowed or ripened in the minds of men, without ever having been captured? Before writing was invented, they may simply have been stories told around the fire. Or perhaps only known as memories. 

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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.