Sunday, January 19, 2014

Going Green

Everyone wants to be considered ecologically correct these days. The watch word of the day is green. Going green, being green, thinking green, practicing green. The land masses of the earth, from space, exhibit vast areas of green, where forest and jungle predominate. Our planet is undergoing significant change, due mostly to man's devastating exploitation of the carbon bank. 

Life is about burning, the oxidation of compounds that releases energy--energy to drive all movement, all work, all activity. But too much burning, uncontrolled burning, is not a good thing. Fires burning out of control, burning more than is good, produce excess waste products that the earth cannot absorb. Life on earth is sustained by a kind of balance between burning, and the absorption of the products of burning. Man has tipped the balance in favor of burning, and there isn't enough green flora on the planet to absorb it. This has led to Global Warming, as the temperature of the earth's atmosphere rises gradually, causing incremental, severe changes in the planet's mean balance. We've all been indoctrinated in the consequences of Global Warming. 

Here in California, we're beginning to see the immediate effects of Global Warming, as the current drought progresses into its second year, and the meteorologists predict little rainfall in the coming months. Rationing and scarcity are coming, and no one is certain about how this will play out. The state's agricultural interests are tense and poised to fight over dwindling supplies, and historical and statutory water rights and claims are once more coming into the spotlight. 

One thing seems very clear to me: The state's fragile riverine network has been taxed to its limit, and we're already at the threshold of a "watershed moment" in the growth paradigm. The American West's prosperity has largely been mounted on a platform of reclamation, vast hydro-electric projects that permitted the rapid increase of urban and suburban development. That rapid expansion has reached and exceeded the limits of the state's fresh water. The aquifers, the mountain stream watersheds have been exploited to their ultimate limits. Our Governor has advocated a new version of the "peripheral canal"--a huge underground diversion of the Sacramento River under the Delta, which would spell the final doom of the ecological health of the Delta itself, in order to serve the thirst of the Southern California agricultural interests, and the continued explosion of urban and residential development in Los Angeles, San Diego, etc. 

Everyone knows the end has already arrived. The state's water resources cannot be taxed any further. You can forget about ecological concerns in the coming years--fish and wildlife--because the powerful interests vying for a share are stronger than the protectionists. Fresh water is finite. And without fresh water there is no prosperity. No settlement, no industry, no agriculture. This is a fact, blunt and inescapable. But somehow, people think that just one more dam, one more diversion, one more "miracle" in the desert can save us from scarcity. They are deluded.

In any case, there isn't anything the ordinary citizen can do about it, except husband the water they use personally, and not waste what is left. In this household, we've had a water-saver shower since 1991, we covered our yard in hard landscaping in 1994 (brick), and we have low water flush toilets. Our water usage is less than one-third of the residential unit average for our area. I suppose that if rationing comes, the water authorities will expect us to cut back based on our average annual use, though our neighbors have been using three and four times (at least) as much as we have over the years. This isn't fair, but fairness doesn't seem to matter to bureaucracies; they make rules that are simple, and easy to carry out. Thinking microscopically doesn't suit their agenda.  

In the meantime, here are two very nice green cocktail recipes which will soften the dry winds of unwelcome change, as tumbleweed skips across the arid sands of the Central Valley, by abandoned mirages of oases. The coming scarcities will likely mean the forced closure of some of the state's towns and ranches. We can pollute and spoil land and water through pollution, but the devastation caused by severe water shortages could dwarf those effects. The future of water use in the state isn't bright.           

Mixed, as usual, by proportion, and served up. Guaranteed to slake your thirst.  

2 parts gin
2 parts dry vermouth
two parts Midori (melon liqueur)
1 part Parfait d'Amour Orange


2 parts white rum
1 part yellow Chartreuse
1/2 part Key Lime liqueur
1/2 part fresh lemon juice

It's mid-January, and the weather here in Northern California feels like early June. My God!, it's like Lozangeleez!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Skunk Hour

We live in a typical densely in-filled suburban residential neighborhood, bounded on the east side of the ridge by a regional park, Tilden Park, which runs north and south along Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. Though the park isn't technically wild, it has enough forest and brush cover to harbor a number of species of wild fauna--deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, squirrels, possums, and many kinds of birds. 

Typically we see deer in the very early hours of the morning, wandering through the neighborhood looking for food. Occasionally we'll see a raccoon hunting for garbage, or crows, or the occasional condor gliding overhead. 

And every once in a while, especially on warm windless nights, and most particularly when the moon is full, we'll detect the unmistakeable presence of skunk. Once you've smelled skunk, you never forget the scent. It's not like any other smell. 

Our yard is surrounded by a big fence, so you might assume that it would present a barrier to a small animal's progress, but you'd be wrong. Skunks aren't climbers, but they are good at getting under things, like gates. Dogs in the neighborhood will often bark if they hear or sense a wild animal, or another domestic animal present. So I used to think that when I smelled a skunk, it was because a dog or person had confronted the skunk, stimulating it to spray defensively. 

But it turns out that skunks don't really need a confrontation to spray. They do it for territorial marking, to leave a calling-card to other animals, or skunks, that they're there, or have been there. Invariably, the skunks seem to prefer our yard to others in the area, though I may simply be feeling persecuted here. 

In the movie Elephant Walk [Paramount, 1954] with Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Finch and Dana Andrews, a tea planter in Ceylon builds his plantation home right in the pathway of the local elephant herd's favorite passage. It may or may not be true that elephants prefer one familiar pathway to water or food, or will insist on using it even in the face of obstacles. In the movie, the elephants eventually break through the surrounding compound walls and tear down the big white mansion, at great risk to Ruth Wiley (Elizabeth Taylor), whose Indian servant, named Appuhamy (played by the Indian actor Abraham Sofaer), tries to shoo the elephants away, while he futilely cries "back, back, back!"before being picked up by the trunk of one and thrown aside, to Taylor's cries of "Appuhamy! Appuhamy!" 

Appuhamy: "Stay back, mistress!"  

I surmise that we may well lie directly in the old skunk path of the neighborhood, dating back to a time before this area was settled. Maybe we're right in the middle of the old "Skunk Walk"? There's really nothing here for them (our garbage cans have secure lids), and we don't put garbage in them until an hour before pick-up on Friday mornings. 

Like clockwork on the first warm evening of a full moon, we'll smell the critters. Occasionally, if I'm dressed, I'll turn on all the external floodlights and maybe even step out onto the deck and make loud noises. Skunks aren't frightened of this, but it will often succeed in making them uncomfortable enough to leave. Skunks are nocturnal animals, and they don't like company. They aren't aggressive like raccoons. Never having owned a dog, I've never had to address the problem of a sprayed pet, which can be a real hassle.      

Skunks spray from two small orifices on either side of their anus, and have either to be turned away from you, or literally to bend their back and tail forwards over their head, to hit you. Their spray can reach 10 feet, so keeping a good distance is advisable. Apparently they hiss and stamp their feet before they spray, as a preliminary warning (like a rattlesnake uses its rattle). 

I once thought that skunk spray was just skunk piss, but this is wrong. The chemical composition of skunk spray is specifically produced by these special glands, and it's very powerful stuff. It's called thiol compound or acetate thioesters of these. They're so powerful that the human nose can detect them at concentrations of only 10 parts per billion. When you get close to skunk spray, the smell seems actually to be "hot" the way green onions are when you are chopping them. Apparently, if you get the spray into your eyes, it can be very dangerous. 

One of Robert Lowell's most famous poems, and a favorite of mine, is--

  Skunk Hour 

for Elizabeth Bishop

Nautilus Island's hermit 
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage; 
her sheep still graze above the sea. 
Her son's a bishop. Her farmer 
is first selectman in our village, 
she's in her dotage. 

Thirsting for 
the hierarchic privacy 
of Queen Victoria's century, 
she buys up all 
the eyesores facing her shore, 
and lets them fall. 

The season's ill-- 
we've lost our summer millionaire, 
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean 
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl 
was auctioned off to lobstermen. 
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill. 

And now our fairy 
decorator brightens his shop for fall, 
his fishnet's filled with orange cork, 
orange, his cobbler's bench and awl, 
there is no money in his work, 
he'd rather marry. 

One dark night, 
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull, 
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down, 
they lay together, hull to hull, 
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . . 
My mind's not right. 

A car radio bleats, 
'Love, O careless Love . . . .' I hear 
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, 
as if my hand were at its throat . . . . 
I myself am hell, 
nobody's here-- 

only skunks, that search 
in the moonlight for a bite to eat. 
They march on their soles up Main Street: 
white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire 
under the chalk-dry and spar spire 
of the Trinitarian Church. 

I stand on top of our back steps and breathe the rich air-- 
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail 
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup 
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail, 
and will not scare.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Alexander Tansman [1897-1986] was a Polish composer in a typical 20th Century mold. Growing up in his native Poland, when it was still apart of old Czarist Russia, in a well-to-do Jewish household in Lodz, he studied law but chose to emigrate to Paris to pursue a musical career. For a while, he performed as a piano virtuoso, but eventually his talent as a composer became the focus. Despite producing music for many different kinds of instrumental combinations, today it is his works for guitar that he is remembered. These comprise just a hand-ful of pieces, but they seem as natural (and inevitable) to the instrument as any by Spanish, Italian or South American composers. It was through the influence of Andres Segovia, who throughout his lifetime encouraged contemporary composers to explore writing for the guitar, that Tansman came to write for it. There were others, including the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce, and the Brazilian Villa-Lobos. 

Tansman and Segovia in middle age

Tansman often used Polish thematic material, as well as traditional Polish musical forms, such as the mazurka and polonaise. But his work shows no explicitly "Chopin-istic" qualities, at least to my ear; Tansman said that he used "folk-like" material but never specific themes. His guitar compositions for solo guitar are among the most popular concert pieces in the repertory. 

Tansman and Segovia

Tansman emigrated to America when the Nazis rose to power, and worked in Hollywood for a while, scoring for films, and was even nominated for an Oscar for his work on Paris Underground [1945, Constance Bennett Productions]. Finally, he returned to Europe, spending the last years of his life in Paris, where he continued to compose until his death in 1986. 

Here is a tidy gathering of YouTube links. 


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Tying Shoelaces (Northridge: Santa Susana Press, 1989)

Occasionally, in the book world, you encounter an author, or an artist, who knocks your socks off, whom you've never heard of. You can live with books for 100 years, and there's always someone you haven't yet discovered, whose efforts bear the mark of genius, but who for one reason or another, has eluded your prying curious eye. 

My knowledge of the history of modern American painting leaves a lot to be desired, but some of the blank spots are filling in. Irving A. Block was an aspiring canvas/mural painter in the 1930's, who eventually would go on to work in Hollywood, contributing variously as a writer, producer and special effects designer on such films as Forbidden Planet [MGM, 1956], and The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock [Columbia, 1959]. Some of his early paintings can be viewed on his daughter Francesca Lia Block's website here.  

I stumbled on this precious little letterpress book a while back, and realized that it was one of only 15 special hand-colored copies. As the colophon states, this edition was limited to 265 copies, published as number eight in the California Masters Series published by Santa Susana Press, California State University, Northridge, in 1989. The author of the poems is Jill Block, the wife (widow) of Irving, herself a poet.   

Letterpress printing is an old art, kept alive today primarily by small craftsmen laboring in relative obscurity, usually on shoestring budgets, connected to institutions or struggling along doing livres d'artistes or vanity projects. The process and the materials are too labor-intensive and expensive, in our age of technological automation, for general publishing jobs. Their projects are labors of love and devotion to a craft, which makes the kind of products they produce as unusual and prized as they have ever been.    

Juvenile or naive illustration is a whole special department of book art. I've commented before on this blog about the work of Beatrix Potter, Virginia Lee Burton, and E.B. White (whose classic Stuart Little was illustrated by Garth Williams), J.R.R. Tolkien (some of whose work was illustrated by Tolkien himself). There are dozens of different kinds of styles. Bemelmans, Gorey, Theodor Geisel, Maurice Sendak. The list would go on and on.    

But when I discovered this item, I'd never even encountered the name. Block worked in different genres, but the illustrations here seem perfectly suited to the text and feeling of the dimensions of the book itself. They're line drawings, which depend initially on the clarity and precision of of the representation, but the delicate pale pastel color wash makes them seem more fragile and delicate.  

The writing and publication of Tying Shoelaces appears to have been truly a family affair, which grew out of the life and energy of both parents, as collaborators and companions. 

Husband and wife collaborations in the arts are rare. Think of the Eames, of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Collaboration, in fact, is a difficult process. 

Childrens book illustration can end up being too crude, or too precious. The problem lies in avoiding the natural condescension of talking down to your audience, not being too pedagogical. Ultimately, the problem involves approaching subject-matter in a manner that is as direct and inquiring as innocence itself.   

Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of children's verse, or even light verse. Rhyme tends to lull me to distraction, it tinkles and hops, clangs and thumps along, and seems intended to remind me continually of how inevitably dull life is. Hickory-dickory-dock. The little pink Energizer Bunny. How cute can we be? But it can be done well, and when it is, it's a small miracle. In another blog, I discussed Tennessee Williams's poem For Carson McCullers. How to make a poem sound sweet and simple, without seeming to be too precious or patronizing. He was like the S.J. Perelman of light verse.   

Ogden Nash perfected the nonsense rhyme, stretching it and tweaking it into preposterous shapes and attitudes. A little of that goes a very long way. The poem below is both a poetic description, and a witty little concrete poem at the same time.  

Childrens books that address the subject of death, or suffering, or deprivation, usually fail. Here's one, about the death of a pet, that just manages not to sound too sad, but is quietly grave.

It's amazing how various Irving A. Block's artistic career was. Read an interview with him here, for an interesting skip down memory lane.  There's a lot of stuff about the WPA, and some of Block's contemporaries who later became famous.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Building Castles in the Air

Putting things together, and taking them apart. So much of invention and creativity involves these very crucial processes. Seeing congruencies in nature or technology, imagining new combinations, deconstructing existing structures, natural or man-made, synthesizing new wholes out of disparate parts, altering contexts and scales. 

I don't remember how it happened, but somehow I found the following aerial photo of a great array of container cargo boxes. Who knows where this might be, or what it means.

Is this just a storage site, or a dumping ground? Even when we can easily identify what something is, its purpose or meaning may be obscure. Container cargo technology devastated the dockworker trade, and the unions which represented it. Seen at this scale, the power of engineering to dwarf the hand, and move mountains, is daunting. 

But the other picture is familiar and obvious. Anyone born between 1890 and 1970 would know these as Legos@, the toy building blocks which generations of kids, not just in America and Europe, but around the world, have played with or seen. Stray pieces have been swirled and scattered and lost and sprinkled across our landscape, orphans from the sets they came in. Building toys have a proud tradition: There were Froebel blocks, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, and dozens of other kinds. Their purpose was to entertain children, while providing a platform for their instruction in the functions of construction, creative adaptation, systems segmentation, etc. These were toys for boys, who were expected to grow up to run the world, to build things, to solve practical problems in the real world. Girls weren't expected to need to learn these lessons, since their place was in the home, bearing and raising children, keeping the house in order.   

That must have changed by now. Women's liberation has freed womankind from the burdens of dependency. Girls are now encouraged to study math and science and engineering, computers and law and medicine and business administration, just like the boys. So I suppose it may be that girls are now given building toys, instead of dolls and sewing-machines and perfumes. 

Each generation passes its accumulated knowledge onto the next. In civilized societies--i.e., the "West"--that has become an ambiguous function, since the technology of life has been changing with increasing rapidity over the last couple of centuries. What befits a properly educated adult? In primitive societies, the "coming-of-age" initiation is filled with foreboding and anticipation, usually involves a rite of passage, which may be terrifying or painful, but once completed, entitles one to full membership as an adult in the tribe. In Western societies, becoming an adult is more difficult, because the definition is vague, and the rituals by which it is attained are not universal. Problem solving, vanquishing obstacles, achieving agreement and compromise, leading and following, etc., are among the skills we commonly associate with successful adult performance. 

The world(s) of adults, and the world(s) of children. They intersect, and overlap. Innocence and immaturity, age and maturity. Two precincts, separated by a no-man's land of uncertainty and transition. Some children abhor childhood, long for escape into adulthood. Some adults pine for their childhood, a time perfect and simple. In America, adolescence has been idolized as a kind of ideal period, when the first stirrings of sexuality, the first apprehensions of the joys of art and adventure and freedom, are experienced. In America, the notion that one can choose whatever one might become, as an adult, is presumed. You can become anything you want, given your lights and conditions. This is of course not true. It is usually as difficult to become what you're not expected to pursue, as it is to pursue what you're supposed to. Some people seem destined to become exactly who they were born to be. One of the hallmarks of our so-called classless society is that you aren't born into an identity. That, then, becomes the risk--that one may fail as easily as succeed. The responsibility for one's own identity and outcome rests officially on one's own shoulders. We value personal responsibility, while accepting the risk of failure.

Sitting on the floor, of a Christmas morning, hundreds of small plastic Lego@ pieces spread out before one, one's future life may hang in the balance. "What can you build?" What indeed?