Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mono Mania

Mono Lake is a shallow saline soda (alkali) lake in Mono County, California, on the eastern side of the Sierra, about 120 miles due south by southeast from Lake Tahoe. Because it's completely landlocked inside a basin, and had no drainage out, deposits formed from the incoming streams, lending it its strange chemical composition. Due to the interaction between limestone springs under the lake-bed, and the lake's calcium, so-called "tufa towers" were formed over millennia, which were once submerged beneath the lake's surface. When Los Angeles seized the incoming drainages into the lake and diverted them for their use, beginning in 1941, the level of Mono began to fall. By the early '90's, most of the tufa towers had been exposed. Conservationists persuaded Los Angeles to restore the incoming flows beginning in 1994, and the level of the lake has been steadily rising again. 

Mono Lake was a curiosity and an attraction as early as the mid-19th Century. Indians had been living in the area long before that, but habitation was limited by the dry hot climate and scant vegetation. Mark Twain felt it was the loneliest place on earth, as he described it in Roughing It [1872]. But photographers quickly were moved by its stark contrasts and fascinating shapes. Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and later Brett Weston, were inspired to make powerful photographic compositions out of it. In the decades since, it's become a destination for serious photographers who make the pilgrimage to the Owens Valley area to shoot at Alabama Hills, Bristlecone, and Mono. I went there in the late 1980's with my 8x10, and proceeded to expose dozens of negatives. The one below has probably been duplicated by hundreds of amateurs and professionals alike. Changing cloud patterns can alter the mood of the place hourly. I used the framing device of two shorter towers in the foreground to set off the island of towers in the background. The tufa is white or dull yellow in the sun, and reads as zone 8 or 9 in photographs. The pure blue of the water reads as 3-5. A red filter of course intensifies these differences along the log of the range of light values, darkening the sky, the water, but not the tufa. It can appear moon-like from some places. Shots like this are more interesting in black and white, though color photographs may benefit from the wild-flowers that bloom around the edges of the lake. (Because of the rising water-level in the years since I was there, this picture wouldn't be possible today.)             

Mono Lake - 16"x20" print on Agfa Portriga paper from 8x10 negative, 1988
(To see it in larger dimension, click on the image.)

From the sky, Mono looks barren, almost like another planet. There undoubtedly exist similar kinds of formations on other planets like ours in the limitless depths of the universe, in other solar systems.    

Brett Weston made many awesome images here over the years. Here are three which, though similar in principle, are each uniquely inspiring.

The town of Lee Vining lies just at the western edge of Mono, right beside the road exiting out of the eastern side of Yosemite National Park. Visitors coming down out of the Tioga Pass side drop down into the Owens Valley and Mono Basin to the awe-inspiring sight of this big flat round pond. It's a wonder of the world.   

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Howard Hughes

Last month I read a book about Howard Hughes [Hack, Richard. Hughes. The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters. The Definitive Biography of the First American Billionaire. Beverly Hills: New Millennium Press. 2001]. Ordinarily, I don't read biographies of the rich and famous. Vicarious curiosity that the public holds for its fame-encrusted figure-heads I tend to regard with disdain. But I thought it might be diverting to see how a biography could be framed through the use of "memos"--particularly since the shadowy, secluded subject used inter-organizational memos during the last decades of his life to engineer nearly all of the business and personal transactions he conducted. 

The outward events of Hughes's biography are generally known by now. Hack, the author, gives fairly short shrift to the early years of Hughes's life, preferring to concentrate on the middle and later periods, when his subject's behavior became not just a focus of the most lurid kinds of gossip-columnist speculation, but a matter of national security. Born into a rich family built upon the successful invention by his father of a petroleum well-drilling-bit device, Hughes might have spent the rest of his days basking in the accumulated wealth of the family corporation. 

An indifferent student in school, he nevertheless showed early on that he had engineering aptitude. Inheriting his Father's fortune at the tender age of 19, he set about at once to exploit his interests and ambitions in the field of experimental aviation, and in the movie production business--both industries then in their infancy.

Hughes made brilliant innovations in the field of modern aircraft design, in large measure to facilitate his personal ambition to achieve preeminence as a speed-setting pilot--all of course financed through his personal fortune. His management of his movie company was initially at least as successful as his competitors, as he produced a number of very successful films that were considered benchmark successes in their day (i.e., Front Page --1931 [one of my all-time favorites, with Adolph Menjou and Pat O'Brien], Hell's Angels [1930] and Scarface [1932]. 

It isn't difficult to see how a young rich boy might become overwhelmed by his own good fortune and midas touch, and that's just what happened to Hughes. With each plateau of accomplishment, his ego doubled in size. Along with his ambition, he developed a ruthlessly efficient financial acumen, turning untenable debt into undreamed of profits, selling off assets and investing in new ones with astonishing aplomb. After his first failed marriage, he became a relentless philanderer, sweeping gullible ingenues off their feet with promises of riches, then quickly abandoning them after a quick conquest. 

As his wealth grew, his influence in the aviation industry grew right along with it. Encouraged by the publicity he gained from his successful world-record-setting prototype racing planes, he parlayed his connections into big contracts with the government during WWII. He was heavily involved in the early development of commercial (passenger) aviation as well (TWA, Hughes Aircraft), and later Hughes Aerospace Group.

However, as early as the late 1930's, Hughes had begun to exhibit worrisome symptoms of obsessive-compulsive behavior. He would segregate batches of peas, for instance, according to size, agonizing over insignificant details to a maddening degree. During his tenure as the controlling shareholder of RKO studios, for instance, he held up production of his latest Jane Russell potboiler for weeks while he had a different brassier designed for his well-endowed starlet.    


The special combination of vast wealth, ambition, power, desire and contempt for other people is not unique in history, of course. One could say, without much exaggeration, that Hughes was a later incarnation of the Robber Baron of the Gilded Age in American business, an American version of the enlightened gentry, partly a prince of endowed means, partly a self-made man. What set him apart from the other business-types of that class, such as Ford, Rockefeller, Buffett, Gates, etc., was his derring-do, the lust for adventure (in aviation). Great wealth may make someone cautious, or brashly impulsive--the common thread is an anxiety that one may lose it all, leading to elaborate security measures, checks and balances, and a lack of trust in nearly everyone, leading to a condition of isolation. On the basis of his fame, and wealth, and decisive management style, one might say that he had a strong ego structure, that of a confident loner, selfish and driven to excel. 

The Hughes H-1 racing airplane partly designed and commissioned by Hughes, with which he set the world land speed record of 352 mph in 1935

And yet, Hughes was a fragile character. Following a bad plane crash in Los Angeles in 1946, Hughes had a difficult recuperation, suffering from serious internal injuries from which he never fully recovered. During the recuperation period--which doctors at the time thought miraculous--he developed a dependency on pain-killers, particularly codeine, which he continued to use, in increasing amounts via direct muscle injection, for the rest of his life. His physical fragility following these injuries affected his judgment, and led to long periods of psychological withdrawal, during which he ate little and would watch movies over and over again. He developed paranoid obsessions about personal hygiene, diet, secluding himself and communicating with the outside world via a small group of select lieutenants and body-guards.  

Hughes testifying before a Congressional subcommittee investigating charges regarding his misuse of federal contract money

In the management of his vast holdings, he became increasingly impulsive and irrational. He bought up franchise chains in Texas, on a whim. He acquired several large hotels and casinos in Las Vegas. Confined to penthouse suites in large hotels, he sat surrounded by boxes of Kleenex, naked, with a towel draped over his lap, writing elaborate memoranda on yellow legal pads which he handed on to aids, detailing his orders and requirements. 

Though it is unclear what would have caused such extreme paranoia in one with his great freedom and power, irrational insecurity seems to be the cause. Unable to make meaningful connections to other people--lovers, associates, friends--he fell into a state of static immobility, in which the external world of his financial empire became less and less real. The fictional realm of movies--of directed narrative--became more and more important to him, and he came to see his life as a series of moral crises and challenges which he could manipulate from behind the curtain of his isolation, inside an empire of his own design. He seems to have had an inkling of how peculiar his life had become, since he went to some pains to make as few public appearances as possible during the 1950's, and understood the potential embarrassment that his obvious deterioration would cause, were it become widely known. No one seems to know whether this was a style of life that he actually preferred, or one which--as with classically disturbed individuals--he couldn't escape. The dilemma was exacerbated by the fact that given his great power over his subordinates, there was no one to challenge the course of his descent.     

Leonardo DeCaprio--playing Hughes in the Martin Scorcese movie Aviator--looks a bit like young Cassius Clay   

Ironically, as the value of his holdings and influence over political events--through secret bribes and pay-offs etc.--grew, his physical presence in the world declined. There's a peculiar passivity about his manipulating vast sums of money and literally changing the economic landscape in certain parts of the world from a position of such pathetic physical vulnerability--a figure who could buy and sell large swaths of whole cities if he chose, needing to be carried from one place to another in a makeshift stretcher, because he'd become too weak and fragile to walk. It's like a fantasist, trapped in a masturbatory swoon, dreaming of majestic feats and harrowing intrepid escapades. Not unlike how people nowadays spend countless hours engaged in computer games, preferring the animated interior world of virtual reality to real life.      

By the 1960's, he had become so long insulated from reality that it had literally changed around him. And yet he continued to work his will through his trusted business officers, whose consternation and frustration with his increasingly scatterbrained orders led to resignations, as well as schemes to divert some of his wealth from under his nose.       

The so-called "Spruce Goose" or H-4 Hercules, originally intended to be a transport seaplane to ferry soldiers and materiel across the Atlantic to the European Theater was not completed until after the war, and remains today as an odd obsolete relic.  Oversized, fragile and inefficient, it could never have accomplished the tasks for which it was designed.   

Nearing the end of his life, he began to move restlessly from one venue to another, around the world, always occupying the penthouse suite of a large hotel, as his body shrank to to a skeleton. As his paranoia got worse, he refused to let anyone even approach him except under the most controlled conditions, leaving many of the important decisions about his empire to a single individual.

Ernest Hemingway suffered a similar kind of deterioration after his airplane crashes in Africa (and other injuries) in the early 1950's. He began to drink more heavily than ever, and eventually submitted to psychiatric treatments at the Mayo Clinic, including shock treatment and pain killing drugs. The depression which led to his suicide has traditionally been assigned to his frustration at no longer being able to write, but subsequent revelations about his literary production throughout the '50's prove that this was not the case. The continuing pain from his skeletal and internal and head injuries would have turned almost anyone else into a bed-ridden recluse, and yet Hemingway remained active physically and socially to the end. The "suicidal" tendencies may have been the simple result of agonizing pain and a realization that he would never again be able to pursue the sporting life--which had been the primary driver of his imagination--again. Hemingway, suffering from his recent injuries, sent his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize to Stockholm, emphasizing the writer's "lonely" position--the isolation which he seems to have shared with Hughes. 

Reading over the accumulated memos and notes Hughes wrote during the last decades of his life must have been a sad task. Hack's biography is not very penetrating, but he seems to get all the facts straight, something that--given Hughes's penchant for secrecy and isolation--would have been impossible during his lifetime. I can still remember the famous fake autobiography perpetrated by the author Clifford Irving in 1972, which was eventually exposed as a hoax. Most of the events described in this new biography are well-known now. It's just the strange details and incredible machinations that animate the story.      

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Harpsichord with Pluck

Laurette Goldberg a long time ago

I couldn't have been more than 15 when I first heard Laurette Goldberg perform. A family friend was managing a little coffee-house on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, across the street from Mel's Cafeteria, called The Florentine. The Florentine was about as hip as you could get in those days, which would have been in the early 1960's. The smart and the sophisticated rubbed shoulders with the young kids playing hooky from the straight world, and on any given evening, you could listen to Laurette Goldberg knocking out some Bach or Scarlatti, squeezed into the back corner of the place, tinkling above the murmur of talk and clinking dishes at the counter. (The Florentine and Mel's are long gone, but the memories of that time live on in my imagination.)

Laurette Goldberg in middle age

I was no stranger to this kind of music, having taken up classical music a couple of years earlier, when my little transistor radio had some juice in it (I would lie in bed at night listening through the little earpiece, so I wouldn't disturb my parents--shades of the future!). Later that same week--or was it a few months later?--I got to visit Laurette at her house in Oakland (or was it Berkeley?), to hear her play under more controlled conditions. Laurette was a tiny woman, clearly overweight, but bubbling with energy and enthusiasm for music, for performance, for the harpsichord, and for Bach and Scarlatti and Soler etc. Once, just a few years ago, I met Laurette in front of a residence along upper Marin Avenue in Berkeley, a place that she'd arranged to dedicate to holding musical events. She had lost a lot of weight, and looked a little tired, but she'd lost none of her spirit. I don't think she remembered me, but she did remember my family friend and the good old days at The Florentine.   

I thought then, back in the 'Sixties, still a high school student, that playing a harpsichord was just the neatest thing I could imagine doing. Later, when I had the opportunity to try playing on one, I discovered its limitations, and the difficulties it presented. In the history of keyboard music, the harpsichord preceded the piano, and composers for it conceived works that exploited (explored) the potentialities of that instrument, not realizing that one day they would be played on a much grander and more elaborate instrument (the piano). Playing (and hearing) pieces from the harpsichord era played on "original instruments" (or built to mimic them) is an especial treat, because you get to experience what that period felt like. 

We don't know, of course, precisely how they may have played them, because nothing from that period was recorded; and that would be true all the way up to the invention of the phonograph. Electronics had to wait another century and a half to be invented (Bach and Scarlatti both lived roughly during the same period--early 18th century), before we could begin to "save" the performance.

Elaine Comparone

While Goldberg was a pioneer of sorts, her way had been blazed by others. Wanda Landowska, for instance, and Ralph Kirkpatrick. Surfing around on YouTube last week, I discovered the harpsichord's new master and sponsor of the instrument, Elaine Comparone. Comparone has by now had a distinguished career as a classical performer, but I didn't know about her until now.  She had a special stand built for her harpsichord, which enables her to perform standing up! This may seem odd. I once read Vladimir Nabokov's account of how he wrote his books: He had a stand-up desk, and he wrote out the outlines of his novels on little 3x5 notecards, which he kept in little shoe-box files, expanding his narrative outward from these fragments and notes. He said he would do this in the morning "until gravity began to nibble at [his] calves," and he'd knock off for lunch, or an excursion to look for interesting butterflies (Nabokov, as everyone knows, was a lepidopterist). Anyway, here's Comparone playing Scarlatti's Sonata in D minor [Kirkpatrick 517] on her stand-up harpsichord, with a double (reverse color) keyboard.  

Here is a picture of a stand-up keyboard. This is not the one you see her playing in the YouTube video above, but it's very similar.                     

I don't know quite what it is with the harpsichord, why it's so satisfying. Its sound was obviously derived from senses of the lute, and other stringed instruments, though the player lost the ability to moderate the string-sound, once the strings were put inside the sounding-box behind the keyboard. A harpsichord plucks the strings, as opposed to the piano (or pianoforte or grand piano) where are struck by little hammers. Once a key is depressed on the harpsichord, all the player's control over the sound made is complete. You can't control the intensity or the duration of the vibration, which functions every time in its limited way. Some harpsichords can be "dampened" to create a sound that is almost identical to the medieval lute (hence, the "lute" control-setting on a harpsichord). The harpsichord makes what you might call a "twinkling" sound, delicate and spine-y. But with larger harpsichords, especially, when you play big chords, you can create a considerable "wall" of sound that can be very effective and powerful. Also, playing very rapid series of notes (as with fast runs) you don't have the problem of blurring that can occur with pianos. The individual notes of a harpsichord stay separate and clean, without the "wash" of mixed notes you sometimes get with big romantic keyboard pieces created on the grand (modern) piano. Also, the harpsichord, because of its finer, more subtle sound, is more suited to certain combinations of instruments than the piano is. Concerts nowadays are frequently made out of wholly "period" instruments. The development of musical instruments over time has led to the formal traditions that govern any particular epoch. The big classical orchestra, for instance, was unknown in the time of Bach. By the end of the 19th Century, composers could create big symphonic works for orchestras with over a hundred players, capable imposing gigantic tsunamis of sound. 

Perhaps it's the antique flavor of the instrument that gives it much of its charm. It seems suitable to a small living room, rather than a huge concert hall. Important concerto works for the harpsichord are fairly uncommon. Two of my favorites are those by Poulenc and de Falla. There's always the question of how much amplification to devote to the harpsichord, against the context of a full set of instruments. One recording of de Falla's which I bought many years ago, probably has a separate microphone right inside the body of the instrument, which makes the harpsichord part sound like it's in an echoing hall. Since that was the first recording of the work I'd ever heard, I've always tended to think in terms of that version, instead of the more balanced ones I heard later. (I think that's a common tendency among listeners.) 

Here's Comparone playing Couperain's "Les Baricades Misterieuses." And here's her version of Scarlatti's Sonata in C minor [Kirkpatrick 48 L 157].  And here are four more for your delectation. If you don't like the harpsichord, or even if (poor soul) you don't like Scarlatti or Bach, then bully for you. Was there ever an artist more perfectly suited to his medium than Scarlatti? Hard to imagine. 

Playing a harpsichord is a lot different than playing a piano. The depression is like a click or thump on a harpsichord, whereas on a piano it's like a kind of sponge, with a range of touch. You could even make the case that playing a harpsichord is easier, though when actually performing, there are few harpsichord masters who would be likely to accept that judgment. It's such a noble instrument, with such a distinctive quality. I've always felt that it ennobles one in the listening. Some people don't like to feel uplifted by music. I think, for instance, that a lot jazz is intended to put you into a kind of laid-back trance of decadent languor. Not a bad thing, but not all the time. 

Handel is another composer who always seems to be trying to raise your moral bar. Ostensibly, he has a religious purpose in doing this, but he also wrote secular pieces of great joy and dignity. Is Handel a composer for the "upper classes"? That could be argued. Pomp and circumstance, and the ultimate refinement money and power may impart. But to feel proud or inspired or enthralled by love of something or someone isn't limited to those with means, though our access to art and the better things of life can literally limit our appreciation of the world. Gratefully, few people today are completely closed-off from the appreciation of music, no matter what kind. Millions of recordings have been made of every kind of music there is. We live inside this richness, but we hardly appreciate it. It's now a commonplace, but once upon a time it was completely non-existent.    

Friday, September 14, 2012

Upsidedown & Disappearing Fast

The days of postage stamps may be numbered. From what I hear around the U.S. Postal Offices, stamps may soon become obsolete, ending a nearly two century love affair we have had with these lovely little adhesive wafers. The first postage stamp was used in 1840--the one penny black with Queen Victoria's profile portrait.

As a boy, I took up stamp collecting with some enthusiasm. I got a big black world stamp album for my 8th birthday, and began assiduously to fill it up. I had two companies sending me little envelopes of stamps "on approval" each month, and I remember being frustrated, month after month, that I couldn't afford to keep more of the selections offered. Even at a few cents an envelope, the cost mounted up fast. A few little packets could cost up to $5-15, and for a paperboy whose monthly income total amounted to little more than $25--most of which went right into my college savings account--I was usually right on the edge of my budget.

The "stamp" world resembled the real world only tangentially. The world of the National Geographic, or of Boy's Life, or of U.S. News & World Report, or (later) The New Yorker--all of which I subscribed to, as I was growing up--presented a different picture. Some countries, like Monaco or Vatican City, printed stamps principally for collectors, and they were usually more valuable if they had actually been used to send a letter, than they were in their unused "mint" condition. "Commemorative" or special issues were also made for collecting. Stamps have always featured engraved imagery, instead of photographic pictures. Originally, it was the only practical way to make a stamp that couldn't easily be counterfeited; but it's still the way most stamps are printed, I think. I suppose it might even be possible to make fair copies of stamps nowadays, with computer printers, though I doubt anyone would go to much trouble for the small amounts of postage that still apply to letters. Parcels are heavier, but I don't think you can simply put stamps on packages and drop them in a post-box. You still have to visit the post office and pass them through a teller.

I was always fascinated by stamps that had interesting images. One of the best was the one showing a blimp, or rigid airship. The famous U.S. Postal Stamps featuring the German ship the Graf Zeppelin in 1930 were designed to commemorate the visit of that craft to the United States, and were only good for mail carried by the dirigible. These craft had already become obsolete, for practical purposes, by the beginning of the 'Thirties. Passenger fares were exorbitant--in the case of the 1930 trip, individual tickets went for $9000 a piece (or $126,000 in today's dollars). Perhaps a little like going up in a space station today!

In 1933, the U.S. Postal Service issued another Graf Zeppelin stamp, this time showing the starting and ending destinations--the Chicago Federal Building on the left, and the Friedrichshaven on the right, with the words "A CENTURY OF PROGRESS FLIGHT" across the top.

Just four years later, the Hindenburg passenger airship would crash in Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, which effectively brought the airship era to a close. Blimps, of course have continued to be maintained and flown, mostly for advertising and public relations purposes, in the decades since.

The cause of the ship's demise has never been conclusively demonstrated, but the highly flammable gas (hydrogen), and the flammable skin of the body of the craft, both made fire a highly likely event, given any kind of ignition, man-made or naturally occurring.

The Hindenburg disaster was one of the first great media events of the modern age, with its newsreel film and Herbert Morrison's hysterical voice-over as the event unfolded in front of his eyes. Though only 36 people total lost their lives, it was as if an atom bomb had exploded in New York City, given the coverage and attention it garnered. It showed how candid moving picture photography could not just record history dramatically, but could evoke powerful reactions.

The dramatic conflagration against the black early evening sky filled people's imaginations. The intersection of technologies--manned flight inside a big cigar shaped machine--and the rapid dissemination of the live images by way of recordation and image and sound reproduction--created a crucial, unforgettable moment in history.

The scale of the event seemed overwhelming. The tiny dark stick-figures watching from the ground of the air field are dwarfed by the immensity of the crumbling superstructure, the collapsing curved rectangular girders, melting like plastic.

Obviously, there was never a postage stamp designed to commemorate this air disaster. But there have been postal "errors" which are like a metaphor for the fallibility of human ingenuity. The famous so-called "Inverted Jenny" is probably the most prized object in American philately (the study and collecting of postage stamps). The error occurred as a result of the printing process having required two separate runs through the press, a procedure notoriously prone to error. Individual frames in good condition now go for about a million dollars apiece on the auction block.

The desirability of this error stamp is due in part to its scarcity--as very few were printed and even fewer, of course, survive--and also, I'd wager, because it depicts an early design of aircraft. Postal air service was a very novel thing in 1918, when the U.S. Postal Service initiated service, at this astoundingly high rate! The plane pictured is a Curtiss Jenny, a bi-plane of the kind initially used to carry the new air-mail. It is believed that only a single whole sheet (of 100 stamps) escaped into use. This sheet was bought, whole, by stamp collector W.T. Robey, who sold it for $15,000, after fending off the postal authorities, who wanted to buy it back and remove it from circulation. Eventually, the sheet was partially broken up, and the resulting singles and blocks of four (and one of eight) went on to be traded over the years, always rising in value.

Postage stamps are fascinating objects. Earlier, on October 18, 2009, I wrote a blog about the artist Donald Evans, who created imaginary stamps as works of art. The stamps are designed and painted at scale, the difficulty of which may well be imagined. His work also involved the invention of imaginary countries and events, a metaphor, to my mind, of how in childhood we create private universes or worlds, into which we escape. Private aesthetic worlds are of course akin to the generic narrative formulae we're all familiar with: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, Westerns, Horror, and lately the worlds of Comix and Graphic Novels.

Once upon a time, manned flight was just strange and amazing enough to seize people's imaginations that having a postage stamp with an aeroplane on it was like using a hand-held communication device for the first time. A little like a magic trick from the future. Airplanes and blimps and postage stamps--someday they'll all take their place beside buggies and bustles and bundling boards. They all have their devotees, their admirers, and their detractors.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Monopoly & Capitalism

Several years ago, I had the occasion to meet Ralph Anspach, the inventor of Anti-Monopoly@. We were putting our house on the market, and Anspach and his wife ambled in one Sunday afternoon, more out of curiosity than any interest in buying. Our house was located in a notorious "slide zone" on a hillside, and it turned out that Anspach had also purchased a house, some years earlier, in a similar "zone" and was curious to learn how other homeowners might have dealt with their situation. Anspach was a creative tinkerer, and he'd invented a foundation adjustment system that allowed him to level his house periodically, which avoided the myriad problems associated with unequal settling (which causes havoc with the typical perimeter foundation construction paradigm). Anspach was a retired economics professor, and he'd developed his Anti-Monopoly@ game as a kind of protest against the brand of American entrepreneurial capitalism embodied in the original Monopoly. To make a long story short, we ended up not selling our house, but tearing it down and building a new house in its place, designed by Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977) co-authors Murray Silverstein and Max Jacobson. But that happened about a decade later.

When I was growing up, in the 1950's, board games were very popular. In the pre-television age, families and friends tended to engage in common or social activities more. My stepfather Harry Faville became obsessed with the card-game Bridge, and spent most nights during my late childhood and adolescence (when he wasn't actually playing in tournaments) studying how to improve his game, dealing himself game hands and calculating moves and odds. He was more married to Bridge than he was to my mother, and less of a father to me as well. In consequence, I came to hate card games. I was never much interested in games of chance, anyway . . . that is until I discovered the Stock Market--but that's a different story, for another day and another blog. But as I say, board games were popular then, and we played a number of them: Chess, Checkers, Parcheesi, Chinese Checkers, etc. Puzzles were popular too. We spent many weekend afternoons sitting around the kitchen table, absorbed in these diversions. I'm not sure people do that much anymore. Television and the internet are probably the sedentary distractions of choice. Kids don't seem to exercise much anymore, either, judging by all the fatties you see. I think, on balance, I spent at least 30% of every waking hour as a boy playing sports or running around. I played so much I was too skinny, no matter how much I ate (and food wasn't of much interest to me, either, until I was well into late middle-age).

But Monopoly was almost universally familiar to Americans in the post-WWII era. Everyone played it, or had played it, and some people became obsessed with it. There are accounts of serious students of the game who poured as much energy and thought into it as others did into Chess, or High Stakes Poker. Me?--I wasn't nearly so excited by it, but like everyone else who played hard enough to compete, I could tell the rules and the situation the game portrayed were an expression of the economic real-world that prevailed outside the confines of our modest lower-middle class neighborhood--or at least the world as it may have existed before World War II.

The history of the development of the game we commonly know as Monopoly is an interesting one. And the struggles over copyright are a symptom of how popular (and profitable as a marketable commodity) the game became over the last half of the 20th Century. The game itself, in other words, became as much an expression of the value of marketing and product development, as the game was an exercise in the development of real estate and/or financial investment instruments.

Monopoly was marketed as a game to be played for about an hour at a time, but of course very serious players may extend a match to several hours or days, depending upon how many strategic kinds of loans and leveraged transactions are used to keep insolvency from the door.

What are the implications of a game designed to mimic various kinds of capitalistic investment schemes, compared to the real world of land development and concentration of power?

Monopoly is a combination of chance and opportunity. Serious players rarely pass up a chance to acquire a property, since the possibility of monopolizing a string of properties on the same block, with the option to build, or at the least (as with the classic Tic-Tac-Toe) the intention of blocking someone else from achieving a monopoly on that street (color), is irresistible. Since the dice don't behave according to any skill or strategy on the part of a player, the element of chance prevents the game from becoming a pure matching of skill and/or aggressive determination (as with Chess). No matter how good a player you may get to be, the dice may still advantage an opponent and thwart your best-laid plans. This indeterminacy is like a metaphor for the unpredictability and the undercurrent of shifting opportunities which occurs in the real world. In the real world of real estate deals and changing situations, no one can have complete control over the odds, though the greater your financial weight (or influence), the better your chances will be. Money can make its own kind of luck.

Each game of Monopoly typically ends in the capitulation of a bankrupt player, which occurs when one player "lands" on a highly developed property, and, overburdened with the consequent debt, runs out of money. The kinds of stopgap escapes possible to a canny competitor are not unlimited, but may be used to stave off total collapse, as long as other players will permit the use of increasingly elegant financial instruments. "Creative finance" may involve "landlords" lending to "tenants" (or debtors), for instance, but the vast majority of played games don't get into those complexities. Highly leveraged finance is like a too-sophisticated refinement of what is basically a straightforward process meant to achieve a state of monopolistic climax within a fairly fixed number of iterations (or moves). Some players, as with Chess, will play a series of games rapidly, both as a challenge to their ingenuity, and as a way of settling outcomes (as in a best of five, or a best of seven games). For any ordinary player, one game is probably more than enough trading to satisfy their urge.

What are the implications of comparing a capitalistic enterprise game with the real world of competing capital entities? Monopoly is designed to "end" after a reasonably short period of time (a single game); but in the real world, people can't cash out their imaginary winnings (or losses) and retire to a safer world. When Monopoly was first invented, it was certainly much easier for enterprising capitalists to manipulate and wheel and deal properties right and left, to maximize opportunities. To a large extent, real estate isn't nearly the sphere of easy fortunes it once was. Small fry can buy up distressed blocks of housing or commercially zoned properties, but there are a lot of regulations and ordinances and tax laws nowadays, which makes "efficient" development more difficult. You need good lawyers and accountants on retainer, just to keep your rear end safe. Smart money today is going overseas, where corruption and graft and "favors" still govern how deals are made.

Monopoly's attractions (for me) have always included its wonderful visual simplicity, the toy-like representations of railroads, utilities, the cartoon illustrations on the Chance and Community Chest cards. The fat little capitalist with the big white mustache is conjured right out of the Wall Street of the 1920's, that carefree era that ended in disaster. In what sense, come to think of it, is a stock market crash--or, more relevantly, the real estate collapse which we're still in the midst of--rather like the climax of a Monopoly game? Mr. Ponzi, who invented the scheme which bears his name, would probably have seen the real estate monopoly model as very close to financial investment schemes. The problem with real estate is that it has a physical reality which is difficult to hide. But of course there are many ways to hide one's control or ownership of something, that's probably the least of a crook's challenges.

There's something touching about the small amounts of cash represented in the classic Monopoly game. What would the mortgage value be on even a modestly sized casino on a major street on the Jersey shore today? Probably in the millions. Perhaps the easiest way to re-conceive that difference is to multiply every value in the game by a thousand, or perhaps even by five thousand. That would get us closer to the real numbers of our comparatively "inflated" times today.

You can still find promoters and front-men today offering to turn your modest retirement account(s) into fortunes. Mostly, though, what they'll offer is a weekend seminar at a third-rate hotel conference center, where they will teach you the "secrets" of making it big in the real estate market. Then there's always someone telling you that gold is about to take off.

On our block, during the real estate boom, several properties changed hands over and over again, until the last one got caught holding the bag (so to speak). A bag-full of money, perhaps, that was now worth only a fraction of what it had been before the currency bounced. They're still nice houses, of course, but they're "under water." For the losers, there's always the risk of that sinking feeling. The next throw of the dice may put you in dutch. I'm rounding the third turn and heading for home, but my opponent has two hotels on Boardwalk.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Belafonte & The Calypso Sound

Harry Belafonte has held a unique position in American culture for the better part of half a century. Born in Harlem in 1927, his was a special American story, filled with unlikely turns and opportunities, which one imagines could not have happened in any other country, even France, for instance. America's diverse cultural context provided a platform upon which a struggling Negro American performer, of tremendous artistic potential, but few actual credentials--with an almost alarmingly impressive physical beauty, and personal charm--was able to cobble together a career as a "folk" singer-cum-crooner-cum Caribbean Calypso-cum pop musical tenor in the midst of the breakdown of Swing and the birth of cool jazz and vintage rock and roll. The terms of this fostering of talent and possibility are complex and fascinating, but none of it could ever have happened without Harry's powerful character and distinctive and poetic "rough" voice sound.

I grew up in the 1950's, and no family which had a television in those early days could have missed his appearances in that decade, performing his signature pieces on The Hit Parade and other musical variety revues. In a series of pieces which have by now become canonical, Belafonte bridged the gap between his white audience and his Jamaican roots, dominating the charts over and over. It's easy to understand the seductive attraction of these pieces--

They were lyrical, comic, touching, romantic and boisterous by turns, or sometimes all in the same song! At bottom, they're novelty tunes, but with a certain ethnic twist. Belafonte has in the decades since deprecated any special qualities in his voice or his art, offering that it was either an operation on his larynx which caused him to sing with his characteristic husky tone, or just an accident of fate that allowed him to capitalize on a musical fad by which his limited gifts could be put to their best use. There is some truth in both assertions, of course. The familiar "call" thrust was wasn't the fluid, caressing sound so popular then in mainstream torch-singing. But Belafonte was nothing less than a pop phenomenon for several years running; and it was the limited nature of the musical tradition within which he flowered, as much as anything, that led to the decline in his career, a fate that befell a number of stars who found themselves trapped within changing styles and tastes during the Forties, Fifties and Sixties.

Once his career had faded, Belafonte segued gracefully into cameo roles in movies, and, inspired by the example of Paul Robeson, became active in political and social justice causes, lending his name and words whenever racial prejudice reared its ugly head, or civil rights were under threat. Over the last two decades, he has repeatedly spoken his mind about America and its preemptive foreign policies around the world, drawing critical reaction from several quarters.

But whether or not you believe an African American singer can claim the authority to render judgments on the national or international stage, no matter how long he's been around, or how many causes he's been involved in, one must acknowledge the enormous influence he's had, not just among his African American countrymen, but among traditional liberal white constituencies. But he could never have had that kind of impact without having left the indelible impression on our wider culture he made through his magnificent singing. Those old chestnuts probably sound pretty corny to young ears in these days of crude hip-hop and fusion-y hybrids. Are they the residue of the caribbean slave culture, or early pop classic examples of later jerky reggae styles? They're not angry, or nasty, or druggy, or too loud, or too vague. They're simple and direct and broadly singing.