Friday, August 29, 2014

Why I Don't Approve this Message




Mexican Family sneaking across the U.S. border

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

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, August 25, 2014

Vive Les Girls


Sabina ("Sabine") at 3+ months

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

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

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

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



Su-Mee with the two girls at mealtime

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

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

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

  

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sabine





People who share my birthday:



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


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

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

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


Sabine in the alcove above the icebox

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


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

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


Sabine Haudepin

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

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



Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Beehive of Language





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

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

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

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

Copy of the original Shakespeare Folio Edition of The Plays

But what part does William Shakespeare play in this story?

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

Title Page of Baret's Alvearie

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

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

Sample pages of the Alvearie

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

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

The new First Trade Edition of Shakespeare's Beehive

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

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

Portrait of Shakespeare 

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


Tile page spread of the Folio

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

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

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



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


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

From the Gallery of Heroes - Da Vinci's Mona Lisa X Two


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

The original Mona Lisa

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

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

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


The "Isleworth Mona Lisa"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Happy Hour in the Cocktail Lounge




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

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

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

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

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

1
  
This first is a slight variation on one I posted previously, utilizing the combination of Green Chartreuse and Midori (both deep green), adding rum instead of just dry vermouth. It's another winner, perhaps a bit stronger than the earlier version.

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

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

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

garnish translucent lime slice
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3

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

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

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

4 parts gold rum
1 part blood orange liqueur
1 part fresh lemon juice
1 part praline liqueur
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5

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


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


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