Sunday, November 28, 2010

The No Name Cocktail

Couldn't think of what to call this one, so it's the No Name Cocktail.

Nothing wrong with anonymity, to judge by the ubiquitous presence of Anons who haunt the internet chat-sites and blog-sites. Anonymity is an honorable estate, established in the shadowy realms of the culture's annals, and still thriving and free after four centuries of use in English--derived, like so many other words and their roots--from the Greek.

Here's how:

Ingredients (by proportion, as usual):

4 parts white rum
1 part Anisette
1 part Cointreau
2 parts fresh lemon juice

--shaken hard with ice and served UP, (of course).

In this season of thanksgiving and good markets, it's well to remember that the best gifts are given anonymously, through charity, not for self-aggrandizement and recognition, but for the sheer virtue of having done so. It's good for the soul!

Kinnell's Oatmeal

Galway Kinnell has been around for a long time. He's 83, and his first book was published in 1960, when he was 33. He has been a "serious" poet most of his career, addressing mortality, nature and environmental issues, war, poverty, marital disharmony, solitude--in the gravest possible tones. His indignation and grieving often rise to histrionic levels, and one has the feeling that it has always been important to his sense of self-esteem to be taken with complete sincerity. This is fine, up to a point. Formally, Kinnell has never been an innovator, which is to say that he has never seen fit to think far enough through the implications of how his art might reflect the utmost commitment he appears to make in the other spheres of his concerns. In other words, form isn't subject to the same level of inquiry he conducts with his emotions and official positions.

With the occasional exception.

Another New Englander, Robert Frost, was frequently amusing in his poems, using light, gentle ironies to gain access to deeper levels of meditation, than might have seemed apt, given the seemingly bland occasions of his subject matter. The grudgingly private and guarded Nor-'Easter's bearing was a persona Frost would often use to mask the philosophically astute and pondering mind that inspired many of his most impressive performances in verse. It could be tiresome, or arch, or too cute, at times; but Frost understood how levity balances seriousness in art, and comedy may be as ambitious a method as tragedy when it comes to the telling observation or unresolved dilemma.


I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on a hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that it is better for your mental health if somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have breakfast with.
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary companion.
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal porridge, as he called it with John Keats.
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him:
due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness to
disintegrate, oatmeal should not be eaten alone.
He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat it with an imaginary companion,
and that he himself had enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund Spenser and John Milton.
Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as wholesome as Keats claims,
still, you can learn something from it.
Yesterday morning, for instance, Keats told me about writing the "Ode to a Nightingale."
He had a heck of a time finishing it those were his words "Oi 'ad a 'eck of a toime," he said,
speaking through his porridge.
He wrote it quickly, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in his pocket,
but when he got home he couldn't figure out the order of the stanzas, and he and a friend
spread the papers on a table, and they made some sense of them, but he isn't sure to this day
if they got it right.
An entire stanza may have slipped into the lining of his jacket through a hole in his pocket.
He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas, and the way here and
there a line will go into the configuration of a Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and
peer about, and then lay itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move forward
with a reckless, shining wobble.
He said someone told him that later in life Wordsworth heard about the scraps of paper on the
table, and tried shuffling some stanzas of his own, but only made matters worse.
I would not have known any of this but for my reluctance to eat oatmeal alone.
When breakfast was over, John recited "To Autumn."
He recited it slowly, with much feeling, and he articulated the words lovingly, and his odd accent
sounded sweet.
He didn't offer the story of writing "To Autumn," I doubt if there is much of one.
But he did say the sight of a just-harvested oat field got him started on it, and two of the lines,
"For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells" and "Thou watchest the last oozings
hours by hours," came to him while eating oatmeal alone.
I can see him drawing a spoon through the stuff, gazing into the glimmering furrows, muttering.
Maybe there is no sublime; only the shining of the amnion's tatters.
For supper tonight I am going to have a baked potato left over from lunch.
I am aware that a leftover baked potato is damp, slippery, and simultaneously gummy and crumbly,
and therefore I'm going to invite Patrick Kavanagh to join me.

Oatmeal is the sort of poem that is very effective when read to groups. It has just the right light-hearted tone, a dramatic whimsy which captivates peoples' interest in a public setting. I've never heard Kinnell read it, but I did hear him read his poetry, twice, back the early 1970's, and he was very effective, with a breathy baritone which seemed to command attention. Oatmeal is a classic anthology-piece, inviting and ingratiating, but it's very untypical of Kinnell's work as a whole, employing as it does elements of fantasy and humor which belie his usual gravity and conviction. I suppose one could say it's a kind of writing he's "earned" the right to enjoy through the course of a long, honored career.

The idea of making up an imaginary conversation with John Keats over a bowl of morning oatmeal is the sort of gesture you might expect of Ogden Nash, or James Thurber. Having Keats mull over his composition of "Ode to a Nightingale" in his characteristic Cockney accent is the sort of clever detail that would charm the casual poetaster. Two details seem somewhat out of place, though, or perhaps they're examples of Kinnell's contribution to the imaginary history of literary biography. Somehow I doubt whether Keats would be comfortable with the simile of "the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay itself down slightly off the mark"; or the remark about "amnion's tatters." Amnion is the thin, tough, membranous serous-filled sac that encloses the embryo or fetus of a mammal, bird or reptile. "Amnion's tatters" is the sort of slightly yucky detail that is characteristic Kinnell. That oatmeal should evoke associations like this is the sort of standard grim connection that drives his imaginative engine.

John Keats bust

The poem concludes with a humorous aside about the Irish potato connection of Patrick Kavanagh:"I am aware that a leftover baked potato is damp, slippery, and simultaneously gummy and crumbly, and therefore I'm going to invite Patrick Kavanagh to join me." Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh was safe in his grave long before Kinnell put him into this poem, so the conversation with the dead conceit is preserved. I think it's encouraging to see a fee-fie-fo-fum poet like Kinnell let his hair down, occasionally, and write a poem of simple charm, even when it's thinly disguised free-verse doggerel like this. Allowing oneself to step out of the robes of high aesthetic discourse and speak commonly is always a useful exercise. Pound often did it, to great effect, and his mixture of rude frankness with high toned address is one of the strengths of Modernist art.

For most of his career, Kinnell walked the typical tight-rope of maintaining the modicum of decorum while speaking--more or less--in the vulgar tongue. He never ascended to the kind of strained prosaic intensity of Jack Gilbert, James Wright, though one senses that he was just as ambitious and committed to that intensity of potential effect as they were. Kinnell has a devoted following, and it's easy to see why. He puts out a controlled, clean line of measured positions, strongly male; his opinions are predictably correct, and he projects the loner's romantic code of individuality and crusty disdain. I have admired a number of his poems, though they ultimately present no challenges to poetic formality, or prevailing political conceits or presumptions. There is a level of ambivalent complacence about this which is distinctly un-contemporary. And Oatmeal seems to capture some of this tension, between the immediate reality of daily life (eating breakfast alone), and his aspiration to connect with the larger tradition that inspired his earliest efforts. Perhaps Kinnell had realized, at some point late in the game, that it was his differences and privacies and incidental oddnesses that would, in the end, save his name from the obscurity of the quotidian, from the predictable niceties of the day.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Kiewit's Gone to Sanctuary - the Book as Image

Reproductions of images are not the original things in themselves. The medium of any craft or representation or artifact is the prefiguration of the ultimate meaning of the finished product--the aesthetic event in its apprehension. We can't help contextualizing or framing any kind of content, through the terms of its presentation. Any original painting, photograph, sculpture, piece of clothing, furniture, building, text, music, body movement, etc., is inevitably perceived within this pre-conceptual frame (which includes the mental presets of the viewer herself).

I raise this issue of framing in connection with the issue of photographic books. In the history of photography as a medium, individual original prints have always formed the first level of the realization of a work. With the onset of digital printing mechanisms (computer printers), this process has become increasingly efficient. Various emulsions have been employed since the inception of photographic technology (silver prints, platinum prints, and several other kinds), to capture the focused image which the inter-positioned lens facilitates.

But the technology of reproducing imagery in books has followed a slightly different, though parallel development, which has included photogravure, and various offset processes, etc.). The onset of digital image reproduction technology has made possible a new level of precision and sophistication of image reproduction, rivaling the exacting qualities and effects possible from the most meticulous employment of the processes which preceded the digital techniques now in general use.

Portfolios of original prints, created by whatever process, offer the opportunity to sequence and cluster groups of images, to create larger meanings out of related or varied subject matter. Thematic monographs of imagery may simply be samplings of the images of a single artist, or groups of artists working along similar lines, or images selected across multifarious spectrums of purpose. The growth and development of directed or themed texts and images has followed in the steps of photography all along its history. Photography as a fine art has received the same kinds of treatment in book artifact commoditization as traditional fine art. Photography books have a whole sphere of documentary potential which is much greater than that offered, for the most part, by mere plastic art representation. This documentary function has been dramatically expanded over the last century, but the single artist monograph has continued to offer opportunities to define the work of individual photographers of all persuasions.

Color photographic production and reproduction has benefitted from the increasing sophistication of print and printing technologies. In just a little over half a century, color reproduction has been completely transformed, and highly sophisticated color imagery is now available to almost anyone, without the necessity of relying upon a proprietary laboratory, or a messy processing set-up.

Are books of images, made from the highly sophisticated digital technology of the book printing industry, a rough equivalent of the original image prints (or image data files if created from digital technology) upon which they are based? The answer, of course, is an aesthetic question of major proportions. Images in books are a second tier of image reproduction, which further tends to dilute the sense of the value and originality of the inception of the moment of exposure. This moment exists first in the mind of the artist, and the sequence of realizations of this moment forms the hierarchy of the adaptations, comprised of the successive steps taken to achieve the end-point image surface.

Is it possible to achieve an aesthetic exclusively out of books, leap-frogging over the intermediate processes of generating individual images, to circumvent the historically necessary steps? Of course it is.

I don't know the details of the career of photographer John S. Kiewit, other than what bare facts are provided in the book shown below, Gone to Sanctuary: From the Sins of Confusion [Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1997]. No technical information is provided about what format Kiewit employed, or what process was used to reproduce them in this book. "The John S. Kiewit Collection contains more than 10,000 color and black/white prints, color slides, and black/white negatives, taken from about 1968 to 2000."--from the University of California, Santa Barbara Special Collections website, where Kiewit's image archive resides. Born in 1948, Kiewit died in 2000. Primarily a landscape photographer, to judge by the file categories listed on the UCSB site, Kiewit traveled to Central America, New Zealand, Cook Island, and throughout the American West and Southwest, in search of subject matter, spending much of his life camping in the outback. Nothing is mentioned about any commercial applications of his work.

Kiewit's book is typical in some respects to the kind of color monograph with which we have all become familiar, but it has important differences from the usual format. The book contains 120 of Kiewit's images, eight of them in black and white, the rest in color. The page size is 10 1/2" x 10 1/8"--a nearly square, barely oblong format. Rather than using the whole page surface, most of the images measure 7" x 4 1/2" (or 5 1/2"), which is very nearly a "large" postcard size. All the images possess an extraordinary clarity, and freshness of color palette. There are only four portraits, the balance of the pictures devoted to landscape, landscape details, or architecture. Each image is accompanied by a facing page of text (preceding verso) chosen from among a wide reading of classic texts, as well as entries from Kiewit's private journal.

On one level, the variety and distinct occasions of each image suggest a kind of travel-logue, not unlike the Koda-Color record which millions of ordinary citizens have been taking and making over the last 50 years. On another level, the image choices and kinds (ways) of seeing are very typical of the color landscape tropes which have characterized both art and popular photography since Weston, Adams, Porter, and a host of other pioneer figures began to establish what we now think of as the body of accepted (and acceptable) artistic-photographic work. In other words, the work's interest lies neither in the originality of its craft, nor in its exploitation of different approaches to framing. What distinguishes Gone to Sanctuary from other typical color landscape monographs is its almost complete lack of pretension, as well as the discrete separateness, clarity, unity and conviction of each image. The images, as arranged in the book's sequence, don't build or accrete in effect, but remain isolated within the contexts of each picture's occasion. There is, then, an overall impression of lonely instances, mostly unpeopled, with a mood of abandonment and calm remoteness.

Of course, this is no accident, but it would be wrong to imply that there is no sensuality or delight to be found. Some of the images have subtly caught textures, the kind one might miss, but many, too, are bright, eye-catching, colorful objects, appearing with surprise in an otherwise unremarkable context. One could say, with some justice, that here are 120 different ways of thinking through a camera lens, given the great range of their pictorial structure. Other than the eight monochromatic images, color and composition (as separate dimensions) don't compete with one another, because the colors are completely integrated into the potential apprehension of each instance. The red siding of a barn (seen in Lowell, Oregon) isn't an exercise in the color red, but a study of the material appropriation of a simple combination of substances in the real world--an important difference. David Muench, for instance, often will choose to exaggerate not only the relationship among objects in a natural landscape (through the "creative" use of super-wide lenses, on occasion), but through the manipulation of an otherwise rational, natural color range, achieved through distortions, in the studio. This is clearly not a part of Kiewit's aesthetic.

The conceptual "miniaturization" of the images here I also find extraordinarily attractive. The tendency has traditionally been to expand and raise the ante of scale, as if larger--particularly with landscape work--were always to be preferred. But an intensely seen 35 mm print, even (or especially) in color, can offer more pleasure than a wall-sized print. Books, after all, are meant to be held in the hand, or (with coffee-table formats) placed on one's lap, or on a table. It's a medium that defines the limit of its occasion. In a gallery, patrons or viewers will stand, between 50 feet and 2 feet away, and move back and forth in front of a mounted image. But in a book, images are seen at close range, and can be riffled and compared and cross-linked quickly, unlike the casual progress one makes through a museum or gallery space.

One can't be sure, but my intuition is that Kiewit intended this sequence of images, selected from over a thirty-two year span of time, to be considered in the intimate context of a private reading, which the facing quotations, complementing each image, reenforce.

No matter how many images from the collection I were to display here, there could always be more, because the total affect is magnified by each additional plate included. Every image is different, and has something unique about it. Mostly, they are quiet, contemplative, relaxed, and suggest a modest bearing. In the color landscape business, this is atypical. The temptation is always to go for prurient aggrandizement, rather than for subtle effects, or straightforward, "normal" lens-length compositions.

Kiewit, to judge by the images here, strove for a unified, balanced presentation, unintimidated by the horizon line, comfortable to allow the subject to define itself, rather than to impose an odd angle or an exclusive cropping upon a plain view.

Color may be delicate and feathery in the aggregate, as in the grassy slopes above, where the value of the tones is in their subtlety and shading. The strength of a personal colorist vision may reside in the incremental apprehension of shades in a "flat" field. Loud contrasts and splashes of pastel command immediate reactions, but how much do such impressions tell us about the unique vision of a photographer?

Tawny or weathered tones are almost always more "natural" in nature, and the steady decay of the color of objects out of doors produces a complexity, a rich logarithm of variation whose beauty we may not always "see" at first, but which we come to recognize as a characterization of specific terrain, of eco-logical systems in process.

Kiewit was only 52 when he died, but the record he left--of which this book is only a singular segment--is ample evidence of the purpose of his passage through the world. His life was a search, and the evidence of his discoveries is in his images. But lots of artists (and photographers) share that privilege. Kiewit's Gone to Sanctuary is a special book, which departs from the expected clichés of the color monograph in interesting, intriguing, original ways. A kind of hybrid of the "environmental" propaganda-piece, composed equally of technically perfect realizations and thoughtful framing; and an ode to the passing of a landscape quickly disappearing underneath suburban sprawl, and accelerated resource exploitations.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hopkins's "The Windhover" -- Falling Paeonic Rhythm, Sprung and Outriding

I remember the first time I heard--rather than read--this poem. I suppose I must have first seen it in a little paperback anthology (probably the Washington Square edition edited by the redoubtable Oscar Williams). Hearing it read, deliberately, to emphasize its eccentric accentual flavor, by a teacher, it struck me then as a tiresomely overdone exercise, a pretentious, cocked-up assault on ordinary speech rhythms, designed to overcome or overwhelm comprehension through its exaggerated metric. It didn't help, of course, that the sense of the poem seemed obscured or concealed behind strange constructions and similes, odd descriptive vagaries. I wondered, would it seem more natural, if I had been a British speaker? Years later, reading William Carlos Williams attempt to delineate his theory of the American variable foot--and still later, reading Charles Olson's "heave of the trochee"--I was reminded of my earlier quandary in trying to configure the rhythmic patterns of Hopkins into a settled, consistent diagram.

But no speech lends itself to diagrammatic consistency, certainly not speech based on ordinary spoken intercourse. The separation between "poetic speech" and "spoken speech" has always derived from the tension between the application of theoretical concepts of form, versus the insistent habitual usage which characterizes how we actually talk.

Hopkins believed that the English pattern of speech contained within both the folk and popular literary traditions (Shakespeare, Milton) exhibited a poetic rhythm which he named sprung rhythm, and he designed his poems as demonstrations of the use of sprung rhythm as a principle of composition. Do Hopkins's poems read like imitations of natural speech patterns? I suppose that depends upon how one talks, and when one lives in history. Would a 19th Century, educated Englishman find " he RUNG upon the REIN of a WIMPling WING/In his ECstasy! then OFF, OFF FORTH on SWING" to be a natural way of speaking in conversation, instead of a peculiarly artificial construction designed to wring the ear with clanging accidentals?

What my ear heard first, at age 16, sounded as jagged and craggy as a some thrust of granitic outcrop, weathered into weird shape, gaunt and arrogant against a tormented sky. Perhaps in a psychological sense, what Hopkins was after was not ordinary speech, but constructions of irregular rhythmic sequences, in which classical prosodic feet could be varied according to the demands of the case--to descriptive emphases, to specific emotional expressions, which each instance cried out for. There is the old adage about understanding the rules, first, in order to be allowed to break them.

The Windhover is a Petrarchan sonnet, but one totally unlike any that had ever been written before. The use of emphatic alliteration, coupled with the heaping up of effects ("dapple-dawn-drawn" "riding of the rolling" "blue-bleak embers") yields a surfeit of impression which seems well over the top of any tempered approach to straightforward descriptive or musical effects. It is just this unbridled enthusiasm which characterizes Hopkins's style. A Roman Catholic Jesuit Priest, Hopkins was conflicted in his personal life. Within the confines of Victorian society, his homosexual tendencies could not be openly acknowledged, nor naturally expressed. Hence, much of his sexual and emotional energy was diverted into religious fervor and devotion, and the poems seem the very embodiment of frustrated sensual longing and suppressed, thwarted passion, unfulfilled, philosophically denied.

This sense of a voluptuous, epicurean appreciation of the sensual aspects of the natural world is everywhere present in the poetry. Hopkins believed in something he called "inscape"--the specific character and structure of any individual object or being, its rhythm, its texture, its formal properties, its mystery--and the objects and sensations in his poems comprise an exploration, or exploitation, of the internal landscape or "inscape" of the things of the natural world. Hopkins's world is dense, packed, crowded with an intensely felt and experienced sequence of sensory impressions. In moments of psychological intensity, the world presented itself to him as a panorama of complex, interlocking structures, vivid and potent, connected by his pent-up erotic impulse, to rein nature into an ordered form that would contain his tendencies, while providing the ironic occasion for their release. "My heart in hiding" is a metaphor for the repressed projection of lust, metaphorised in the kestral--

--whose grace and control in flight are among the natural world's most impressive sights. I remember thinking when I first read the poem, that the concluding image--"Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion" must refer, if only tangentially, to the hawk's ripping apart its bleeding prey, the poem's glory a sort of sadistic celebration of carnal indulgence. Today, nearly fifty years later, that seems to me a completely sensible reading of at least part of the poem's ultimate deeper meaning. The religious life--particularly the "Jesuitical" version, of discipline, of a rejection of "worldly" pleasures--of the body's mortal splendors and attractions--seems antithetical to the aesthetic life, in which direct physical experience provides the key touchstones of knowledge, the raw matter, the subject and means of expressing truth in media. The tradition of the sublimation of the sensual life inside the cast of religious devotion, is a record of the suspension of the normal human animus, within a set/ting of limited permissions. One senses that the pressure of that self-denial is the force that drives Hopkins's poetic daemon.

Religious poetry may be successful to the degree that it describes and glories in--while resisting--the very stuff of mortal temptation and indulgence, while hewing to the doctrines of aspiration to higher levels of attainment. That kind of discourse doesn't much divert philosophical thinking anymore, since our attentions now are focused on the practical questions of supply and demand, of accommodating the quotidian needs of the material world. Also, we're more comfortable with unresolved dilemmas than earlier cultures were, content to orbit within a dynamic universe of limitless contradictions, and permanent tension. Perhaps it is that quality that appeals to us in the work of Hopkins. Though in the sestet of The Windhover, he reasserts his confident acceptance in--even happily celebrates--the dogma of church precept ("a billion times told lovelier"), the world he describes has a terrible, even terrifying, rawness and power, neither comforting nor reassuring. The windhover's world is one of killing and consumption, along the cruel food chain of existence, its beauty the demonstration of the necessity of survival in a hostile environment. If this universe is God's doing, the harshness of the choices and requirements it sets out, does not allow for any easy investments in mild belief.

If we carry the modern idea of suppressed psychological urges to a limit, one could well describe the poem's subtext as a masturbatory rehearsal, starting with the evocation of a love-object, the "Brute beauty and valour and act,"--reaching a crescendo--"oh, air, pride, plume, here" in the orgiastic build-up, climaxing in the double-loaded term "Buckle!"--which suggests both a joining, a fastening--and a submission, a capitulation to a physical release, with "the fire that breaks from thee" both an ethically holy gushing "a billion times...lovelier" but also, crucially, "more dangerous"--signifying both the terrifying "danger" of forbidden sexual proclivities, but also consequences more exciting, daring, and irresistible to the poet.

Though the dedication to the poem is explicit, without it there is no explicit content in the poem which would suggest that it's a religious performance. The "chevalier" would refer simply to the kestral, not to any personification of the deity. The "sheer plod" has always seemed to me contradictory: If worship and adherence to a code of devout behavior is merely a plodding duty, what part can it play in the drama and inspiration of a life sensitive to the wonders of a fallen world? These are questions for which the church in Hopkins's time had no convenient or ready answers. He would live out his life in frustrated retreat from his greatest joys, dying at age 44 of typhoid, after years of suffering from ill health and chronic depression, his great love, to fellow undergraduate Digby Mackworth Dolben, going apparently unconsummated, Digby dying, at age 19, by drowning. Hopkins was only able to realize his identity through the medium of poetry, an act that suggests to us a failure of life and opportunity. But the Victorians tended to view rejection, denial, and withholding as probable sources of mellifluous feeling, valuable and fascinating in themselves, the fluids from which great things can be made. Hopkins probably regarded his regrets and lost loves as precious, luminous inspirations. Certainly, his privations and sacrifices made his poems more interesting, more enjambed, more full of longing and vicarious intensity and savory delight.

The clotted, hothouse claustrophic containment of Hopkins's poems makes me slightly uncomfortable, though I invariably stand in awe of his energetic outpourings of tamed wildness. Their effects sound excessive and even adolescent at times, but they're honestly offered, and innocently achieved. Like many charming kinds of verse, they seem most apprehensible and attractive to the young, and poems which appeal to us in our youth, have great resources of staying power, over time. Hopkins's poetry is likely to stand the test of time, despite its excesses and inner contradictions.

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

--from Poems. First published 1918, edited with notes by Robert Bridges.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Pee Genie - How We're All at Risk

The Pacific Gas & Electric Company services customers for gas and electric utility use throughout Central and Northern California--as seen by the blue area on the map below.

The history of America's industrial/urban expansion is in large part due to the harnessing of sources of reliable energy. The Pacific Gas & Electric Company was formed from the consolidation of a number of smaller entities, which finally became known by its present name in 1905. PG&E has always been a privately held company, run for the benefit of its shareholders. In addition, it has held what amounts to a monopoly over its service area, since there are no significant competitors. Like any privately held company, it is run in such a way as to minimize costs, and maximize profits.

But utilities aren't really like ordinary products of commerce, where supply and demand can be allowed to fluctuate along with market conditions. People need water, and power, and sewer systems, and telephones every day, and they need to be able to count on their being there, on demand.

In full acknowledgement of that reality, we have set up regulatory agencies to ride shotgun over the privately held and run utility companies. Known as The California Public Utilities Commission (before 1946 known as the Railroad Commission of the State of California), it meets publicly twice a month to carry out the business of the agency, which may include the adoption of utility rate changes, rules on safety and service standards, implementation of conservation programs, investigation into unlawful or anti-competitive practices by regulated utilities, and intervention into federal proceedings which affect California ratepayers.

The general public's interest is represented by the Commission, but the regulation of utilities, like every other large commercial enterprise, is a controversial matter, and subject to all kinds of influences, predominantly by the very industry, in this case, that the Commission is created to oversee. Rate increases have traditionally been the most closely watched decisions by the Commission, though a lot of interest is also generated from proposals to build new generating facilities, especially among those sensitive about environmental problems which result from such projects.

During the late 1990's the State of California decided to allow PG&E to sell off most of its natural gas power plants. The justification was that the resulting "increase in competition" among generating entities would result in reduction in costs and rates. There were many who feared what might happen if publicly regulated utilities, under requirement of law to sell power at fixed rates, were forced by market conditions to pay higher prices than they could recoup in charges to customers. And this is precisely what occurred.

Over the decades, there had developed a wholesale market for energy trading, much like a stock exchange or board of trade, for utility "commodities", such as electricity and gas. The deregulation of power generation, coupled with the de-accession of generating facilities by PG&E, had the effect of requiring the utility to buy power from the energy generators at fluctuating prices, while being forced to sell power to consumers at a fixed cost. However, the market for electricity was dominated by the Enron Corporation, which, with help from other corporations, artificially pushed prices for electricity ever higher. This led to the California electricity crisis that began in 2000, on a transmission corridor PG&E had built. With a critical power shortage, rolling blackouts began in January 2001. As a result of this deregulation and subsequent fraudulent pricing schemes by Enron, PG&E went bankrupt in April 2001. The State of California bailed out the utility, at enormous cost to the California taxpayers. The resulting fiscal crisis was in large measure responsible for Governor Gray Davis's recall, and subsequent election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There are a number of ironies here. De-regulation had been advocated by Republican lawmakers in Sacramento. Enron Corporation had had close ties to President Bush II (through his friendship with CEO Ken Lay), and VP Dick Cheney had been instrumental in shielding Enron Corporation from legal challenges, and in (secretly) lobbying against the Federal Government's responding to California's appeals to the Federal Trade Commission and Congress for assistance and intervention. Enron, of course, was a fraudulently run operation, which itself in due course went bankrupt, bilking employees and shareholders out of billions, and leaving the State of California and its utility generation in a holy mess.

In the years since then, new crises have emerged for Pacific Gas & Electric. Last year, the utility began installing new "Smart Meters"--automated metering devices which don't require a manual "reading" but instead transmit usage in real time directly back to a central control system. This is part of a new push to implement what it calls "dynamic rate" pricing, which will allow the company to adjust rates continuously, instead of "averaging" usage to determine rolling charges. Though it's supposed to allow people to "save" through voluntary "savings" it's almost certainly intended to facilitate higher prices through "peak" pricing. Almost immediately, many customers who'd had the new Smart Meters installed (in most cases, without their knowledge or approval), noticed their rates were increasing rapidly, sometimes by two or three hundred percent or more (!) per month. This led to a public outcry and protest, in some cases motivating customers to lock up their old meters so PG&E couldn't install the new ones! The Smart Meter controversy has taken several turns in the intervening months. What seems clear is that PG&E didn't adequately design or test these devices prior to approving them, and that their real purpose is to increase rates through "automated" price-structuring schemes.

A Smart Meter was installed at our house; it just appeared one day on the side of the garage. Usually, PG&E gives people a warning notice when they're planning to enter your property. But no such notice was ever delivered to us. They deliberately installed these meters "secretly" so that people would not have the opportunity to question or object to their installation.

Finally, on September 9, 20120, a residential gas main in San Bruno, California (just south of San Francisco), blew up, setting a whole neighborhood aflame, killing seven, injuring scores more. In the aftermath of this tragedy, it was revealed that Pacific Gas & Electric knew it had dozens of main line sites in the immediate Bay Area which were antiquated, in need of repair, and which had not been inspected for years. And the utility had had no immediate plans for upgrading or repair.

We live on a hillside in the East Bay Hills, in a notorious slide zone which undergoes continuous "creep"--year in, year out--and which necessitates the routine semi-annual, unscheduled repair of water, sewage and gas line mains in the streets and along alley rights-of-way. About five years ago, on the street below ours, a gas main leak developed, and the smell could be detected three blocks away. PG&E responded to customer reports, but was unaware of the problem until it was brought to their attention. This could easily--knock on wood--have developed into a major incident, had that leaking gas been inadvertently ignited.

As a matter of course, I tend to distrust large private corporations, because I know that in their day-to-day operations, they always come down on the side of "efficiency" and "cost-savings" rather than safety and customers' convenience. The California Public Utilities Commission usually rubber-stamps every request by PG&E, capitulating to utility rate increases, and the passage of special assessments and fees to reimburse itself for "unforeseen" developments (like the San Bruno explosion and fire). Unforeseen, my eye!

There's an inherent contradiction between the profit motive of privately run, money-making companies, and the public interest. When a utility fails to put the interests of its customers first, the consequences can be huge, and devastating.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Quote Verbatim Quote Sic II

Welcome to Freud’s Eureka

Tabloids opened a vein of schmaltz
Galling the federal deficit

Freeing the one-eyed teenaged people-eater…

What did we care if the drift of drone
Cooked in its own palooka ?

We were notch babies doomed to freeze beaches—
Embroiled in vast cineramas of swag
Surrounded by brash fogies
Urchins of grinch

Love of the body politic
Is a sure sign of fodder
So Luger your weenie
‘N toast some cash

Y’old nipple vendors’ll
Tipple yer splendor a-plenty
Old galoshes a’cruisin’
For milk duds

New-by-no-means-nervy wait staff
Links me t’umbra’s deviance
Knobby shantz gone under
Double-press kazumas

Brash oaths’d kept’em all a-dither
Pepper melts, sheer gloss had fortune
Licking blind dice,
Bribes on the house

(Garish flanges, filthy Ganges
Last oper Andy:
Science me with sabre-toothed Woozels

Permit me on the lion stone
To soften your reliance
My old pal Fungo has just been pronounced
Mashed on arrival

Welcome to freud’s eureka…