Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Time is a Wedge

is a wedge
expanding outward
from a blade
of velocity--

of error
rolling off the
leading edge of

like fractal
equations, un-
daunted by

across an
expanse of

Monday, July 29, 2013

More at Plural - A Reply to Henry Gould's Note Contra Conceptualism

Let's begin by saying that I don't disagree with what Henry Gould has said on his blog HG POETICS on July 26, 2013. There's an implied definition of conceptual art which I won't disagree with, since it serves as a pretextual platform for the points I want to make.

The breakdown in the traditional artistic sensibility which occurred during the years surrounding World War I produced a crisis in Western culture, the effects of which continue to be felt today. I'd like to take two obvious examples, and try to present them in terms of the birth of conceptualism, which I see as a component of Modernism.

Eliot's The Waste Land, and Duchamp's early Readymades, each signaled an armature of reaction to traditional approaches to respective crafts of artistic production. 

Eliot's Waste Land "borrows" language and situations from earlier literatures and languages, and puts them "on exhibit" as peculiar manifestations of cultural data; there's a passivity about that that is masked by Eliot's considerable genius, his skill to make a collection of fragmentary "movements" or sections to produce an overall effect that is much more powerful than its parts. These fragments ape specific modes of lyrical or meditative tropes as specimens of out-moded (defunct) sensibility. As his career progressed, Eliot found more convenient forms to express his growing philosophical and religious certainties, but at the earliest stages of his artistic life, he used a kind of conceptual approach to form and subject matter which allowed him to portray feelings and actions as alien specimens of certain kinds of representation. In other words, he was able to treat his material from the outside. In the simplest sense, this constituted a sort of objectivity which permitted him to keep an ironic distance from his artistic materials.   

Duchamp's abandonment of painting, and his subsequent series of transgressive assaults on official artistic canons, has traditionally been regarded as a repudiation of the materials of artistic production, and of the cliché-ridden formalities of craft and subject matter. Ostensibly, he no longer felt the urge to participate in the continuing production of framed scenes, and the framing metaphor included not just the literal wooden frame around the canvas, but the salons and galleries and museums and guilds and societies and critical milieu through which such productions were viewed and interpreted. There is a dryness, a diffident removal in Duchamp's position with respect to the history of art.  

These departures were variously regarded over the intervening years as symptoms of cultural exhaustion, or of spoofing demonstrations of mischief. Surrealism, too, which developed closely on the heels of these works, depended to a large degree on just this transgressive mode of forbidden, disruptive contrariness.    

Conceptual art involves, first, seeing straightforward artistic products as things, from the outside, and describes them in terms of the typical, predominant qualities or formal attributes which they exhibit--consciously or unconsciously. It treats traditional art as a worn-out, old-fashioned, amusing game, played by rules which either no longer apply, or which do not accommodate newer realities or ways of approaching the game. Indeed, the whole concept of an avant garde, is based on a progressive view of history--and of the history of art--in which successive revisions or revelations follow one upon the other in chronological order(s), each more advanced or modern than the last. One could say with some justice that a conceptual view of art, at any point in history, is a reprocessing and a criticism of existing modes. An art which purports to express anything new or challenging is almost by definition conceptual, at least in its earliest stages. 

A traditional artistic endeavor involves expressing a sensibility from inside an existing tradition of form and reception. It takes as a given certain presumptions about the relationship between maker, object and audience. In this traditional sense, a lyric poet's function is to create a verbal music which expresses the author's feelings or thoughts about life, or the world, or other relationships, in such a way that it rises to a level of measurable intensity or formal perfection, which is measured against the existing aspirations which precede it. Any legitimate artist's function is to portray something in the world in such a way as to evoke feelings or reactions in the viewer that credit his skill or insight at recreating or reinterpreting phenomena; and in the case of art, to establish a value which inheres or coheres in the physical art object itself.  

A poet like Jack Gilbert, or Robert Bly, or W.S. Merwin writes from within a tradition of address and syntactic occasion which is agreed-upon beforehand in the context of a given audience. Their function is to "communicate" feelings and thoughts along a predictable range of objects, or emotions, which are delivered to their readers through a given set of typical organs of exchange--journals, books, readings, recordings. 

Any writer or artist who wishes to challenge the system of values or behaviors or modes of transmission upon which these modes of exchange depend, may be attempting to repudiate, or alter, or augment those existing media and presumptions. 

No writer or artist exists, or produces, in a vacuum. So it may be possible to say that any work of art, no matter how disruptive or negative in its intent, is always to some degree, a mediation in history (or in the history of art or literature), or as it were, in a conversation (or dialogue) with existing modes of expression. 

If some conceptual art appears to lack certain of the qualities of specific feeling and deliberate gravity which earlier modes of writing or artifacts contained, it does not follow that conceptual art is by definition less committed to the purposes of art; indeed, it may seek to redefine, or expand the possible uses and meanings of art into areas that had not been explored or considered before. 

Finally, the interest afforded by certain conceptual artistic endeavors, does not in itself imply that the kinds of formalities it ignores, or differs from, are necessarily inferior, or passé. We are always on the threshold of the unknown, and no one can predict with any certainty what kinds of art or literature may alter our view of what is typical, useful, valuable, or lasting. 

Does the pursuit of new, conceptual formalities discredit or tend to suppress the traditional qualities of art and literature--imaginative responses to reality; or visual, oral, tactile effects--preferring a "technical" analysis and solution to problems which should not be addressed in this way? 

All art is technical. To see how others may approach the problem(s) of formal exploration, one must begin from outside the progression of history. Sensibility--the specific and eccentric combination of thought and feeling within any individual's mind and being--is not a constant quantity which can be separated from its means. No one can ever write Keats's poems again. Or Coleridge's. 

Would it be possible to write a poetry or paint a picture unconsciously?--living within the dream of language or within the known colors and shapes of our reality? Possibly. But we cannot not know what we know. Conceptualism is like the riddle of the Sphinx: if we knew what the question was, we wouldn't have to ask.  

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Creepy Corkscrews

I came across a delightful little compendium recently, published in France (and in French), about the history and design of corkscrews. Leave it to the French, where wine is king, to focus on the tools of this trade, since the removal of corks from wine bottles is something that is performed all over France (and the world), millions of times every day. Its title in English would be Folies of Corkscrews, or Madness of Corkscrews, or Silliness of Corkscrews. (Folie is difficult to translate into English; in its English incarnation folly it can mean waywardness, wickedness, lewdness, foolishness, costliness, whimsicality, uselessness, prankishness, etc. In my mind, all these qualities are contained inside the French folie, echoes of which I "hear" in the title of this book. 

The history of the use of cork (literally the bark of a tree, which traditionally has been harvested in Spain) parallels the invention of the corkscrew.  Wikipedia traces its origin to the appearance of a description from 1681. Referred to as a "steel worm" it began apparently as no more than a modified drill-bit, and became more sophisticated as time wore on. The interesting side of the evolution took place on the handle part of the tool, and this little novelty volume is largely devoted to the multiplicity of designs that people have devised down through the centuries. On the technical side, the only major design innovation was the invention of the so-called "twin prong" cork puller, shown here--

--which, rather than being screwed into the center of the cork, functions by sliding its two long thin metal strips down opposite sides. Pulling on the handle--for reasons that are not clear to me--causes these strips to tighten around the sides of the cork, which comes up, usually more easily and with less force, than with the traditional corkscrew. (Its drawback is that it isn't always easily pushed in.) I don't know how popular the twin prong model is these days. For myself, I prefer the "wing corkscrew" (or "Italian" design shown here)--

--which, perhaps because of its seating ring at the base, provides a much firmer grip on the bottle head, allowing one to lever up the cork from its snug fit with little side bias. There have been some pretty weird shapes devised over the years, which depart radically from the practical, functional shapes seen here--

Elegance would be expressed in any aspect of life, and in the days when royalty prevailed, the most ornate and ostentatious kinds of elaborate carvings and novelty adaptations were done.

As these light-hearted examples show, designers were beginning by the turn of the last century to employ "naughty" ideas--perhaps in sympathy with the negative association of alcohol (and drinking) with bad behavior (or the dissolute evils of drink).

Any appendage one could imagine began to be incorporated into the design motif--

A little Scottie dog's tail might inspire one designer, whereas--

--another might be moved to these awfully frank and scatological versions. 

Though these lewd little examples might be well beyond the limits of good taste, I find them absurdly innocent and funny nonetheless--

One like this (below), would probably fit nicely into our sense of the Gay Nineties--of Parisian dancers kicking up the Can-Can and showing a good bit of petticoat and stocking-garters--  

--which might conjure up bustles and bodices and whalebone stays!

These sturdy designs suggest for me a kind of Anglo-Saxon quality which I find manly and forthright. Long live the King and his labyrinthine wine cellars!   

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Looking Backwards Towards the Future

The Hispano-Suiza was one of the most stylish automobiles of the golden age of automotive design. One of the original automobile manufacturers (from 1898-1904), the company spearheaded engineering innovation, and branched out quickly into aeronautics with prop-engine manufacturing, begun in Barcelona, branching out in France (and even Argentina). The Hispano-Suiza, for instance, was the first to unite the engine block with the crankcase, permitting the development of the modern single cast engine block.    

In the 1920's and 1930's, the big Hispanos were famous not only for their power, but for their elegant and streamlined construction. The futuristic example below was a concept car intended primarily as an attention-getter for the marquee, something it accomplished for posterity, after being set aside during the war years following the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Imagine what it might have been like to drive one of these rockets down the boulevard in 1933! It's so sleek it could pass for a contemporary design in 2013.   

1933 Hispano-Suiza Xenia Coupe

In the spirt of such elegance, I dedicate the following cocktail recipe to the memory of the classic Hispano-Suiza, a vestige of the dream of speed and grace of the industrial revolution in its salad days. The flavor has all the dignified, sensual, sophisticated seductiveness of the fashionable Twenties. In 1933, designers were probably thinking more nostalgically of the pre-crash prosperity than towards any utopian future.

The automobile was once the harbinger of human ingenuity, and an expression of our romance with the wheel, and of the convenience and excitement of movement, the very spirit of freedom. It could still be today, if we weren't so preoccupied with the depletion of the resources needed to feed the rapacity of an ever-mushrooming population of consumers. The Hispano-Suiza is a symbol of a time when the world was young, before it became cynically suspicious of fun and luxury. 

This one may be better swirled than shaken, given its rich ingredients, but it still wants to be very cold. As usual, the ingredients are by proportion (this makes two drinks). This one may look a bit uncomfortably like crankcase oil, but sometimes you have to take your medicine like a man. People who like drinks that "look nice" probably don't have much discrimination. A lot of things men and women do--especially with each other--aren't particularly "nice" but are still quite a lot of fun. This is certainly one of them.    

3/4 parts Famous Grouse scotch
2 parts French calvados brandy
1 part Parfait d'Amour
1 part Patron Cafe Dark
1 part fresh lemon juice

Friday, July 19, 2013

The GOT Virus

American speech is lively, but it tends towards fewer words, and slangy abbreviation. 

We should celebrate our language, and indulge it. We don't know how lucky we are to have inherited it from our European ancestors. 

There are many who now believe that we may be in the earliest stages of the decline of English as the lingua franca of the world. Some believe that Spanish, or Chinese, may one day become our national language. 

What a pity that would be. I don't have a dog in the fight, as they say, since I don't have any descendants, though I still may enjoy my "native language" for the few remaining years of my existence. 

In the meantime, there are the sins of the fathers, and the general distress of our vulgar tongue, ubiquitous throughout the culture.

I was not surprised to learn that I'm not the only one fed up with over-use of the verb to get. Someone named Stephen Wilbers has a page devoted to this problem here. As Mr. Wilbers notes, get (and got) are honorable trusty Anglo-Saxon words (from the old Norse), which we would not wish to see banished to the obscurity of un-use.

There are variant related forms from other Indo-European languages, but geta (to obtain, reach) from the Germanic old Swedish getan (to guess or to try to get) seems the clearest root. Old English only had get in compound form, i.e., begietan (to beget) and forgietan (to forget). The proliferation of applications fills up 29 columns in the OED 2nd edition. 

Get and got have become so widespread in our speech that they threaten to become almost as common as articles and conjunctions. 

Among the several uses of to get are

--to obtain
--to go after
--to arrive at
--to be subjected to
--to receive
--to learn
--to find
--to perceive
--to cause to occur
--to take
--to overcome
--to evoke
--to take
--to annoy
--to take revenge
--to become or grow
--to possess
--to depart
--to conceive or bear (children)

--but of course this barely scratches the surface, since the compound forms are at least as common today, and show little sign of decrease, i.e., to get down (to lose one's inhibition or enjoy oneself wholeheartedly), or get by, or get off, or get to cracking, or get even, or get away (with), or get it on, or gotcha, etc.  

As powerful as the word get has become, there is a danger that too many applications may supplant more efficient and accurate words. Its overuse may facilitate the winnowing down of vocabulary--never a good thing in my view.

I've got to get going; if I don't get with it I'm going to get behind. You get me? You got me there. 

Just for the sake of variety, I wish people would simply say I have (instead of I've got), or I've become (instead of I'm getting or I've gotten). The tendency towards slang is a generative function in the language. The cutting edge of the genius of a people often occurs through the use of short-cuts and novel inventions. But in our relentless consumer culture, people may become so lazy that they simply abandon many useful and accurate descriptives and verbs. The less often people use words, the more obscure they become. Words may sicken and even die from neglect. 

Ever since junior high school, I've kept a copy of Roget's Thesaurus at my side. Since the advent of the computer revolution, I've tended to use online versions in place of the material text--and of dictionaries too--but the principle of use is the same. If you want to improve your speaking or writing skills, it helps to elaborate your speech or writings with different words, to put a little different spin on things, or to employ more accurate words. 

When I was in public school, speaking well was regarded as the province of eggheads. Talk filled with slang and neologisms was thought to be cool and neat. I can recall the first time I heard my son say "awesome" and "tubular" and "Hell-of-live." Cute or ingenious new words and usages may make you feel out of date, or just irritable. Or you may see them as interesting new mintings, bright new pennies that shine with optimistic utility. Or they may seem like fool's gold. 

This evening the Giants begin the second half of the new season against the Diamonbacks. Here's hoping that Buster or Hunter goes yard, and that Chad Gaudin shuts'em down.       

Gotta get to work now. See ya'.    

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What About Hoodies?

When I was a boy, growing up in the 1950's and 1960's, I owned a red sweatshirt with a hood. This wasn't called a "hoodie." It was a utilitarian article of clothing meant to be worn on very cold days, when just turning up your collar and wearing a hat wouldn't have sufficed to keep your neck and head warm. Jackets and coats with built-in (or attachable) hoods were a commonplace long before people began to think of hooded wear as a fashion statement. 

In considering the meaning and effect of wearing certain kinds of clothing, it's best to remind ourselves that clothing is never a purely neutral--or purely utilitarian--statement. Every kind of clothing, from underpants and suspenders to pierced body jewelry and hoodies, is a fashion choice. This is not to say that much clothing worn by people around the world isn't primarily a response to necessity, or a simple lowest denominator of choice. But in Western cultural traditions, going all the way back to antiquity, the meaning and significance of what is worn, how it is worn, and what kinds of combinations and adornments are added, has constituted a form of taste and expression--personal, social and artistic. It's nearly impossible, in our epoch, to wear anything at all, without, in effect, making a statement about one's identity and background and so forth. Unintentional connotations are ubiquitous, but stereotypical fashion statements usually are easily recognizable as to source and basic meaning.

A prostitute with a mini-skirt and skimpy top, heavily made-up, standing smoking on a street-corner in the city at midnight, can be expected to be recognized. An executive wearing a $4000 suit in downtown Manhattan on a Thursday afternoon can be expected to be recognized. A Catholic school girl in a wool plaid skirt and white blouse standing at a bus stop can be recognized for who and what she is. 

Certain kinds of clothing become identified, through the evolution of fashion throughout the culture, with certain identities. Fashion trends may originate from anywhere. Fashion may be a way of defining class distinctions, or of reinforcing typical or marginal kinds of stereotypical identity typing. Certain kinds of fashion statements become familiar signals, intended to express a political or social message. Such messaging may have crucial purposes in certain contexts. 

Among minorities, in America, certain kinds of fashion statements serve as badges of pride or flags of warning by users. Among African American men and youth, most heavily influenced by the facts of incarceration and crime in their communities, the uniforms of identity have moved towards an adoption of prison uniform styles, as both a kind of statement of macho "badness" and a protest against the imposition of a perceived prejudicial persecution in the typecast "white" culture generally. Low-rider pants, for instance, became adopted first in the African American ghettos, and then spread throughout the culture as a fashion statement. 

Among youth, what's "cool" or "bad" may be adopted or incorporated into the culture as a form of adolescent rebellion, though only as a form of playful indulgence, since it's unlikely that most white American teenagers would adopt any of the associated identity behaviors that characterize ghetto youth or criminal types. It's the attraction of that aura of naughtiness, even of dark ambiguous threat, that appeals. The glorification of the criminal sub-type is a common cliché in our culture, going back to the wild west, the bootleggers and crime syndicates of the 1920's and 1930's, and continuing all the way up to the gangs and drug lords and Mafia underworld of our present day.

Among the criminal sub-cultures of the African American and Hispanic communities in America, wearing a hoodie has become a de facto self-identifying uniform, associated with the criminality of disguise and "dark"anonymity. "I'm black, I'm covered up, you don't know me, you aren't going to know me, I'm dangerous, watch out for me, leave me alone, beware!" 

We're all familiar now with the surveillance tape sequences of youths wearing hoodies holding up convenience and and liquor stores and pharmacies. The hoodie shields the wearer from identification, and thus serves as a disguise for the "hood" who's committing crimes in the "hood" (neighborhood). The root word hood thus becomes a heavily weighted signifier, filled with menace and threat and dark power. Vicarious borrowing of all these negative qualities is undoubtedly going on throughout the culture, but only under certain conditions, i.e., in urban streets after dark, it's the full expression of the hood culture at its most potent and dangerous. 

Black teenagers and youths sporting the "hoodie" look thus become de facto emulators of the criminal sub-type familiar in their own communities. They are identifying with the dark side of their own culture, and ramifying its contextualized rebelliousness as a form of "bad" behavior, even if there is ambiguity in the equation. "I be bad" may be nothing more than playful mischief, but the associations are all frustratingly negative. If being "good" is corny, compromising and even ethically unattractive, the opposite can't be regarded as a positive choice. The persistence of the "bad" stream of African American culture--the stereotype of the macho black youth, violent, sexually aggressive and dominating, an outlaw "gangsta" filled with pent-up resentment, cruelty and bad vibes (a la hip-hop and rap)--does enormous harm not only to African American communities, but to the greater sphere of culture. 

The Travon Martin killing in Florida has drawn public attention to the plight of African American youth and its preference for the trappings of the criminal sub-type. But this is not a new phenomenon. In African American sub-culture, calling a black man bad ("He be so bad!") has actually been seen as a kind of badge of iconic attractiveness. Whether conceived as another expression of the frustration of a suppressed minority, or as an attempt to erect a countervailing antithesis to the dominant cultural profiles, it leads only to bankrupt ideologies and futile demonstrations of destructive behavior--all the devastating effects of dependence, crime, neglect, self-hatred, smoldering unrest, violence, etc. 

We live in a free country, and anyone is allowed to wear whatever their personal taste dictates, within the laws of decency. When an underground fashion statement spreads throughout the culture, it may or may not continue to carry its original associations. But there are degrees of taste, and context does matter. If you are a young African American male, wearing a dark sweatshirt with a hood is a symbolic act. 

In Ralph Ellison's great novel, Invisible Man [1952], the protagonist-narrator passes through his life as a nameless entity, seeking an identity in the highly charged antagonistic world of pre-War Harlem. Today, we would probably regard the narrator as a naive, well-intended victim of racism, but much of Ellison's frustration is directed towards the corruption that besets the black community itself. Ellison's story is told from the inside out; what we see and know comes through the mind and eyes of an invisible man. In the end of the story, this invisible man believes that experience has taught him to honor his own priorities, and that he must not allow his obligations to both the white and the black to deter him from his own personal realization. 

The central issue for many African American men is to find a place in the world that is not seen as a capitulation to exploitation and manipulation. As a metaphor for the invisibility of the black identity, the wearing of a hoodie is a perpetuation of the anonymous stereotypeAfrican American society must discipline itself, to reject the profile of a sullen, rude, lazy, flagrant, bullying, unkempt, menacing, kinky dark angel. Mimicking the trappings of the criminal look leads not only to the tragic consequence of being perceived as a loser, a dark angel fated to perpetual "badness," but keeps alive the lie that a pathetic rebelliousness can be an honorable alternative to joining the larger society. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Books Recently Read

One of the pleasures of being retired (sort of--I'm actually a "full-time" antiquarian bookseller, though I can organize my own time now in a way I never could have back in the day when I worked for wages) is that I can take leisurely lunches, either with other people, or alone. When lunching out alone, I always take a book, as I find this is the one time in the day that I can have an undivided hour or two to devote to a single task (between bites--I'm a multi-tasker). I don't see people do this much in this part of the country, though in Europe it's much more common to see people eating or drinking alone over a book. Perhaps Americans are too busy, or embarrassed to be thought idle in the afternoon.  

I missed the boat with Christopher Hitchens, a lapsed British socialist who morphed into a naturalized American hawk, but retained many of his liberal biases, becoming in the process a notorious American media wonk, with regular appearances on TV political discussion venues, live debates, and panels, finding time between regular journalistic assignments to lecture and write books as well. A firmly entrenched agnostic, he liked nothing better than to puncture pieties and bland presumptions with a lively wit and a determined conviction. I became aware of him just at the point that he was beginning treatment for a terminal cancer that would shorten his life by a couple of decades. 

I picked up his autobiography, Hitch 22, A Memoir, just to see what all the excitement was (or had been), and was pleasantly surprised at the honesty and analytical acumen he showed, obviously under the mood of the hour. The book is interesting for the minute detail furnished of the British Left political scene of the 1960's, when Hitchens, a budding labor activist, was beginning to find his political sea-legs. The book exudes multiple ironies, since the older man is judging the credulous younger self from a vantage distinctly more shrewd and seasoned. Anyone wanting to understand the conflicted position of the British intellectual against the backdrop of Cuba, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11--could learn a great deal from this book. I certainly did.       

Christopher Hitchens in his youth

My interest in Gertrude Stein dates all the way back to my 3rd year in graduate school, when I was casting about for a probable candidate for a thesis subject. That became moot when I decided not to pursue my Ph.D. in English. In those days, circa 1975, people in the academy didn't take Stein seriously. I stopped in one afternoon to talk briefly with Richard Bridgman, who was then teaching at UC Berkeley, and had written a long study, Gertrude Stein in Pieces (1970). Bridgman actually discouraged me from studying Stein, whom he said was a complex person but a thin writer whose work wouldn't repay my interest. Whatever my proclivities, it was obvious I wouldn't find a very welcoming audience for an extended investigation of the spurned lesbian Modernist at Cal. At least in the mid-70's.

All that has changed in the intervening decades, of course. Many of the Modernist heroes of the immediate post-War period have been demoted, and Stein is now one of the still-standing ikons of the Modernist avant-garde. This sophisticated collection of essays and accounts is another indication of the respectful, almost shamelessly worshipful regard with which she and her work and interests are now viewed.  

I've often wondered what I would have thought of Stein, had I been able to know her in her youth, before she had seen the path she would pursue as an adult. She seems to have known clearly, early on, that there would be no men (in the romantic sense) in her life. And she was serious about her studies, actively pursuing course-work with William James at Harvard (Radcliffe), focusing on motor automatism, an interest that leads directly into her later prose experiments in stream of consciousness, free association, and cubism in language. Possessed of an indomitable self-confidence and determination, she was able to insulate herself from the neglect and contempt that her early publications evoked, especially in America. She lived her life as if it were a work of art, and seems never to have had any serious doubts about what she should be doing.   

It's a very short walk from Gertrude Stein to Stanley Karnow's memoir of Paris in the 1950's. Karnow, a journalist throughout that decade, later went on to write serious popular histories of Vietnam, the Philippines (Pulitzer Prize), and China. Rather than a cheap series of romanticized personal anecdotes, the book delves deeply into French history and culture, with sharp immediate bits of encounters Karnow remembered from those days. It was probably cheap, and relatively easy to live the bohemian existence in France during this period, but Karnow was a working journalist, who was obliged to dig for material that might interest an American audience. He covered a wide variety of material, which is what makes his account as eclectic and diverting as it is.

When you live to a great age, like Karnow (aged 87), you acquire a perspective on events that authenticates the old adage about respecting your elders. In our fast-paced world, it's hard to see how people can become wise, since the terms we might use to measure our knowledge are changing as fast as events do. But people like journalists are in a crucial position to witness such transformations. Karnow saw WWII, Korea, the A Bomb, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to the French adventures in Algeria (and its own Vietnam). The last of the generation of the 1920's is now passing into history. The "lessons" of the Cold War are rapidly being forgotten, as our own "wisdom" is thrown up like detritus onto the ruined beach of our desires. 

There have been many biographies of writers and artists of the 20th Century, but studies of Gay writers and artists had to wait until society was "ready" to know the truth of their private lives. Because E.M. ("Morgan") Forster's writing career had ended prematurely (he stopped publishing novels after A Passage to India in 1924 when he was 45, though he lived another 45 years), the meaning of his work and life tended to focus on issues and conflicts that he'd addressed in the distant past, when homosexuality was still literally a crime in England and in much of the rest of the civilized world. Wendy's Moffat's coolly impartial account addresses Forster's sexuality from a sympathetic vantage, and looks unflinchingly at his cautious, tentative gestures towards intimacy and sexual bonding, which now seem touchingly pathetic and even a bit naive. Having grown up a Victorian, he wasn't the sort to test boundaries casually, and having written a frankly homosexual narrative (Maurice, written in 1913-14, but not released until the year after his death), he decided not to publish it, postponing its publication until such time that society might be ready for it. That event clarified and altered not only the literary world's sense of Forster, but of the world in which he had lived. 

I have always been an admirer of Forster's novels, but like a lot of his readers, I suspect, always was mystified by the long "silence" of his later years. A career like Forster's, in which a serious, committed writer abandons his craft after a string of competent triumphs, is rather more English than American. In America, we tend to view the writer's art as a continuous pursuit, as an enterprise that is never complete. That a writer might decide, with perfect justice, that he had said his piece, without further elaboration, seems alien to our native optimism and drive. But Forster's duty lay in the public realm, as he saw it. If he could neither live nor write with honesty about what most moved him emotionally, without hedging, there were other, more demanding tasks at hand, and he went about working on those instead, using his pen and his intelligence to campaign for openness and justice in public issues.              

Homosexuality is also an issue for Evelyn Waugh, the British comic-satiric, and eventually Catholic, novelist, author of Brideshead Revisited. I took an interest in Waugh back in the 1970's, and systematically read all his earlier novels (Scoop, A Handful of Dust, Decline and Fall, Black Mischief, Vile Bodies, The Loved One), but I didn't read Brideshead until some years later, savoring it slowly like fine wine.

Though its ostensible subject is Waugh, Humphrey Carpenter's The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and his Friends (1990), covers a great deal of ground, delving into the lives of dozens of Waugh's social connections, and documenting the world of undergraduate Oxford, London in the Twenties, British publishing, Catholic circles, foreign situations (Absynnia) etc. It's a wide-ranging account, and cannot be easily summarized.        

What I found most intriguing, and useful, was the material on Waugh's failed marriage, his economic difficulties, and his spiritual journey towards Catholicism, involving a kind of rejection of the life he had led up to his mid-thirties, though by no means vacating his penetrating wit, jovial (and cutting) humor, or his mischievous sense of fun. As anyone who has looked into his life knows, Waugh became a kind of tyrant and foul-tempered old drunk in his later years, but when he wrote Brideshead, he was still capable of tenderness and a lilting nostalgia, which is what gives the book its lyrical and even romantic air. Though it is not a tragedy, it is like a long act of mourning, for a spent youth, a lost love (or two), and a world of upper class privilege ruined by the Depression years. It's the only work I can think of which compares favorably in style and substance to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Both books deal in fading glory, and what takes place is as if seen through rose-colored glass. I have no doubt that Waugh would have been at least difficult at any age. The close-knit little world he made for himself didn't admit of many intimacies, and most of his charm and intelligence seems to have been captured in his writing--luckily for us. If you want a snapshot of the grouchy old novelist, read the Paris Review Interview in The Art of Fiction No. 30 (1962) here online. Interviewed on the BBC at the nadir of his career in the early 1950's, it was remarked that it was like "the goading of a bull by matadors." At least he still had his horns.    

In summary, I would recommend all these books as summer reading. As I get older, I find I like reading biographies and histories, which used to put me to sleep. One of my college professors believed that biography, and autobiography, were the greatest of literary forms. I would not have been inclined to agree with him then, and I wouldn't now. But I would now feel confident in saying that biography is the most accessible kind of analytic for character and conduct. Even when, as is often the case, it involves a manipulation of events and attitudes that conceals the real truth of what happened, and how one really felt, when one was young, uncertain, struggling, and concerned with how one would be perceived in an unfriendly world. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

When Uniforms Go Wrong

Have you ever happened, by accident, to step on your pant-leg?  That is, if you were walking around in your socks or barefoot, and the edge of your pant-leg slipped under your heel?  What you immediately noticed is that there would be a stretch on the pant-leg, pulling the pant down, and putting mild stress on your knee and ankle.  

In sports, uniform fashions change just as they do in ordinary life.  Look at the uniforms that football or basketball players wore 50 years ago, and it's immediately apparent.  Tight, loose, long, short, colorful or drab--long hair, short hair, beards, necklaces, etc.  

But essentially, sports uniforms are meant to serve specific purposes, to allow the body to move freely, while providing a vehicle for team or individual identification and color. No one playing a sport would wear street shoes on turf or wooden floors.  

There is little room for individual expression in the wearing of sports paraphernalia.  Football players must wear helmets and padding and cleats for protection and traction.  Basketball players want to move freely, with a minimum of weight, and they want tennis shoes that permit them to cut and weave around with confidence.  

Recently, we've seen a trend towards more eccentric "expression" of uniform styles. In basketball, the trousers have grown bigger, and longer, to no apparent purpose.  It may well have to do with African American preferences for baggier and baggier pants, a fashion trend that is purported to have originated with prisoner uniforms.  More African Americans end up in prison, as a percentage of the population, than any other group.  And professional basketball is now wholly dominated by African American players.  So it may well be that the NBA is now dominated by prison style fashion influence.  To some, this may seem contradictory, to others not.

In major league baseball, uniform design grew up in response to the requirements of play.  A player needed to be able to move freely, but because the game was played partly on raw dirt, a player needed to be able to slide and dive without his pants getting in the way.  The standard baseball uniform called for trousers that came down to the knee, and knee-socks (or knickers) were worn on the calf, tucked in with a loop around the instep.  During the 1940's and 1950's, there was some movement of the pant down below the knee, but the socks were still well above the ankle.  The pants didn't bunch at the knee.

Hank Aaron shown in the 1970's

In the 1960's, uniforms began to be worn tighter, then they loosened up again in the 1980's. Then, in the 1990's, slugger Barry Bonds began to wear his trousers all the way down onto his shoe-tops, completely foregoing knee socks, and allowing the pants to rumple up around his ankles.  Aside from the fact that this new "look" was very untraditional, the question arose as to whether the old style had actually served any real purpose, or whether the new one offered any kind of improvement. 

Bonds in late career

Were Bonds' new trousers a fashion statement, or just an acknowledgement of the demands of play on the field?  Getting back to my earlier query about pant-legs, it would seem to me that to have complete freedom of movement, combined with protection to the lower legs and ankles, would dictate that the knee and lower legs not be "bound" by having the cuffs or bottom edges of the pants hung up on the tops of the shoes, or (even worse) pulled under the heel, causing the pants to be snagged and the player's legs to be constrained. 

Over the last 15 years, Bonds' new trouser style has gone nearly viral throughout the major leagues, and now is the dominant look. Players sporting the "old-style" knee-socks are now regarded as throwbacks or eccentric sports.  Moreover, the trend has become even more exaggeratedly counter-intuitive, with many players wearing their pants so long that the rear edge slips right under the heel, much the way that current-style denim (Levis) are worn, causing (allowing) them to be frayed and soiled.  

The prerogative of major stars in professional sports has traditionally permitted them to have more leeway in attire.  Were Bonds not to have had his late career surge (enhanced with performance drugs), it's doubtful his style "statement" would have had the same impact.  Or maybe we've just become accustomed to public figures making weird fashion statements.  Fashion, after all, isn't about practical, sensible considerations.  It's at least partly, in the modern world, a creative enterprise.  There's an advance guard of fashion, which has absolutely nothing to do with comfort, or expense, or beauty (though beauty, as always, may be in the eye of the beholder).  One man's clown suit is another man's formal attire. 

But when fashion and sports mix, there has to be a middle ground.  Traditionalists like to keep things the same, just for the sake of continuity and honoring the past and history.  Innovative-minded types like new ideas, new looks, and experimentation.  But empirical testing would suggest that Bonds' low-rider pants, curled under the heel, actually makes playing a little more problematic.  Fashion may be getting in the way of performance.  Personally, if I were a major leaguer, I think I would prefer wearing my pants a little above the ankle, maybe not necessarily above the knee, but certainly up to mid-calf, in order to have complete, unfettered, movement of my legs and feet.  Stars may decide they want to "express' themselves, and if it does no harm, it's probably a tolerable thing.  But mediocre players who imitate a new fashion which may actually impede their performance, are kidding themselves.  Wearing your pant-leg under your heel is just stupid, and it looks kind of sloppy too.  At least to this benighted old fan. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Saturday, July 6, 2013

What's With the Extra Is?

Increasingly, you hear people these days using the construction is, is in sentences. 

What it is, is a new way of talking. 

The best way to think of what it is, is by imagining that people aren't hearing what they're actually saying.

Is you dumb, or is you just careless?

Is you is, or is you not, my baby? 

Ungrammatical constructions are one thing--offered as playful wit, they can be cute. Speaking awkwardly out of carelessness, though, can be irritating. 

Technically, What it is, is is not an ungrammatical construction. But why begin a sentence in this way, when it makes more sense simply to say It is followed by the object? What it is has become a lazy way many people have of starting sentences, like That said or Hey or You know what? 

A lot of conversational speech consists of such place-holders, which are nothing more than postponements of sense, or habitual interjections that persist like nervous verbal tics in the stream of speech. 

Everyone knows how frustrating it is to listen to someone who cannot say more than three consecutive words in sequence without interjecting uhh, or you know.

What most astonishes me is that people will defend their use of bad (or sloppy) grammatical constructions, as if it were their right to do so.  "Everyone says that," they will say, or "everyone knows what it means." 

Everyone knows what "ain't" means, but using it is still wrong.

Everyone knows--or should--that nu-kee-lor is a mispronunciation of nuclear. Yet people continue to punish the word by willfully abusing it. 

Everyone knows--or should--that you don't lay [yourself] down, you lie down.

There is a kind of patent permission that evolves out of lazy or ignorant usage. People who want an excuse or a pretext for their own failures, will rely on the popularity of illiteracy for support. 

Is there anything dignified or honorable about relying on other people's ignorance to defend your own?

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Royal Coachman

In the annals of fly-fishing, there are famous lures--or, as they are called "flies"--which have become established in the lore of the sport, either because of their great effectiveness, or in consequence of their ornate visual appeal. Large, traditional "Salmon Flies"--or flies tied to present to migrating or spawning salmon--are probably the most popular artistically. 

With contemporary fly-fishing imitations--particularly those used in dry (rather than wet) fishing--smaller sized hook dressings are preferred, except in the case of uncommonly large naturals--such as large damsel-flies or stoneflies. Certain classic fly patterns can be tied in several different sizes. 

Early in the history of fly-fishing, the Royal Coachman was invented. Back in the day, fishermen tended not to be empirical in their pursuit of wild fish. Rather than studying the natural diet of fish, those pioneers simply tied on different combinations of dressing--thread, feathers, hair, etc.--and tried them out on the fish. Some worked, others didn't.  No one seemed to recognize in those days why one design might work, while another didn't. 

Fish are wild. They succeed, and survive, and thrive, on instinct, and to a lesser degree, on experience. Throwing out a gaudy artificial at a wild trout might evoke different responses. It might mistake the fly for a familiar food, or simply be intrigued by it. Or it might simply ignore it as an unfamiliar freak. 

Despite the lack of a target natural, the Royal Coachman--shown in the photograph above--has been a popular fly for generations. It continues to work in some situations, though it clearly doesn't imitate any entomological object in nature. I suppose it might be like mistaking a floridly dressed prostitute for a shyly attired ingenue. Wild creatures can be unpredictable; it may be one aspect of their survival mechanisms. 

In any event, it is now officially fishing season, and like all fly-fishermen, I'm beginning to think about it. I'm not a diehard, but I am tickled by the bug. Since I can't get away right now, all I can do is speculate or dream about fishing.

And nothing is better suited to meditative ease, than a nicely made cocktail. Here's one I've decided to call the Royal Coachman, partly because of its bright, gay color, partly in homage to one of the most familiar fly patterns in history, and partly because the cocktail mix is so seductively sweet.

Combined, as always, by proportion (this would make two drinks). Shaken vigorously and served up. 

2 1/2 parts gin
1 parts Violette
1 part St. Germaine    
1 part Parfait d'Amour
1 part dry vermouth 
1 1/2 parts lemon juice

Taste is difficult to codify in words. The Violette and St. Germaine are happy bedfellows. The orange of the Parfait goes well with the lemon. The vermouth is like a platform for the Violette and St. Germaine. The gin is the "goods" and plays but a small, but vital, part in the composition.