Caught this strange shot looking up along a side-street in Charleston, South Carolina during our swing through the South in April of this year. I think of it as an expression of skewed perspective rather suggestive of Escher's visual riddles. Though the fire-escape staircase exists in vertical space, the shadow it casts can also be "read" as in horizontal space.
Sunday, July 14, 2019
Tuesday, May 28, 2019
Many people prefer to believe that the world is entering a post-apocalyptic stage, that the peoples of the earth will soon co-exist in harmony with one another, and achieve a general prosperity and enlightenment.
Science and technology have wrought enormous changes over the last three centuries, completely transforming life on the planet. The pace of this change is increasing, and it is difficult to know how these changes--and those to come--will affect the nature of our existence.
Human society, which subsisted for millennia against the challenges of survival, has overcome many of the obstacles placed before it, and seems on the verge of complete domination of the environment.
Marxist economics posited a violent transition from industrial commodity capitalism to top-down planned economy in which the hierarchy of labor value would be dictated--hardly a "withering away" of the state aparatus. Post-Mao China's hybridized version of an authoritarian state-sponsored entrepreneurism, fueled by technology theft and unfriendly corporate piracy, caught the West by surprise.
Since the rise of nationalism over the last 400 years, we've seen an entrenchment of nativist and colonial policies, which show no signs now of "withering away" either. China's selfish trade and territorial policies are another proof, if one were needed, of the continuing appeal of self-interested diplomatic and economic postures in an increasingly interconnected world.
Despite temporary periods of relative calm, nations habitually reassert their separatist aims. Democracy, after all, is about the will--not "the people"--but of the enfranchised citizens of separate nations, whose first priority has always been, and will probably always be, self-interest according to national borders and identifies.
What nation would willingly sacrifice the welfare and benefits of its citizens to those of another power, another interest?
America's trade relationship with the People's Republic of China
has been characterized over the last 30 years by a glaring imbalance. This is expressed as an enormous deficit in net parallel purchases--a "trade deficit." This deficit has ballooned to historic proportions as China has maintained a steadily restrictive and exploitative position with respect to tariffs and access to markets. It has in turn fueled one of the great economic booms in all of history, lifting China out of the doldrums and into second place, behind the U.S. This could not have happened without the willing participation of its trading partners, particularly the U.S.
Not satisfied with being the world leader in manufacturing, China now wants to dominate the technology sector. Unwilling to develop its own educational and scientific research and development, it has chosen to appropriate ("steal") the technology of older, more mature rival economies, then outproduce and outsell ("flood markets") them.
They have been entirely successful, in large measure because the Chinese government has worked hand-in-glove with its own industries--manipulating currencies, restricting foreign investment and control, using trade as an aggressive form of foreign policy.
An interesting broadside essay on China's trade behavior--How China's Economic Aggression Threatens the Technologies and Intellectual Property of the United States and the World is here--which is heavily footnoted and quite persuasive in its essential thrust.
I would recommend further reading. There is nearly universal sentiment regarding the threats that China now poses to the U.S. and other Western powers. China's authoritarian power structure has shown no signs of moderation, and appears committed to bludgeoning its rivals into submission, one way or another. Though its tools may not now include actual military means, its ability to do so, given its fast-accruing wealth, is now major concern throughout Asia.
For centuries, European powers ruthlessly exploited Asian territories, so Beijing well understands the subservient colonial position. Meanwhile, as the rest of the "civilized world" appears to have abandoned the colonial strategy, China has adopted it.
Since the rise of nationalism, nations have contended for leverage and advantage over neighbors. Concepts such as "detente" or "peaceful coexistence" or "mutually assured destruction" or "coordinated resistance" now seem quaintly old-fashioned in the 21st Century dog-eat-dog world of trade.
We are now clearly dealing with an opponent who regards ordinary courtesy and the rule of law as minor obstacles. Personal and political freedom have been tossed aside, in favor of single-minded pursuit of economic conquest. Like traditional dictatorial regimes, they only understand, and respond to, power. They may pay phony lip-service to "negotiation" but in the end they can be counted on to seek total victory in every encounter--compromise isn't a part of their vocabulary.
President Trump has been criticized for embarking on an ill-timed and ill-conceived "trade war" with China. While this may indeed be one aspect of the President "playing to his base" it does not suggest that the factual motivation is without merit. Previous administrations have sought, politely, to persuade China to loosen its restrictions, quit manipulating currency, refrain from unfriendly practices (like "dumping"), etc. This approach has had no effect whatsoever.
On an even playing field, the U.S. economy is fully capable of standing toe to toe with any competitor in the world. But China refuses to play by the rules. It's high time we said "enough is enough" and made them retreat a step or two.
Ultimately, there may be no future in which nations can agree to share wealth and opportunity. It seems endemic to nation states, that they will always seek the high ground in any confrontation. The days of regarding China charitably--as being in need of understanding and assistance--are long over. We are dealing with a nation state that displays all the worst aspects of fascistic, communistic and colonial regimes--a new hybrid state-run gangster capitalism.
Friday, May 17, 2019
This morning I had a fantasy meditation about the crisis at our southern border with Mexico.
It was an exaggerated version of the sort of media event we've been subjected to routinely over the last few years.
Though it probably hasn't happened, it certainly could happen, and would likely be interpreted in the way I imagine it, by our devoted national broadcast news services.
A Salvadoran woman (let's call her Luz), 8+ months pregnant, with no husband, decides she's tired of living in a poor country, with no prospects for employment, under a corrupt regime in which violence and bribes are the order of the day. Luz has heard rumors that Central Americans may find "refuge" and comfort in America, if they can manage to get across the Mexican border into the U.S. She's heard that there are caravans of such "refugees" traveling north, on trains or on foot. She's also heard that if a baby is born in America, it automatically acquires American citizenship, and provides the mother with legal residence as well. The risks of injury, imprisonment or death are very real, but she decides it's worth risk.
Towards the end of her long journey, she is within a few miles of the Arizona border. Bone tired, dehydrated, with sores on her feet, her great belly sagging, she's a pitiful sight to behold. Her companions are no better, sunburned, sick and crawling with lice.
Meanwhile, an American news service, on the hunt for juicy "human interest" stories, is tracking the caravans, interviewing and filming them along their way, creating copy for the pro-immigrant advocates back in the States.
One reporter, a Mexican national working with the news service, approaches Luz, noticing she's very near term, and asks her what she hopes to do.
"I'm trying to get to America," she replies, "because I want my baby to be born there, to have a better life, and to escape the poverty and crime in my country El Salvador."
"What if you're stopped at the border, before you can cross? What will you do then?"
"I really don't know. I pray to God. Mexico will not take care of us. I just want to get there. We are all refugees, and Americans will take refugees, no?"
Suddenly, Luz feels faint, she looks down at her stomach, fear in her eyes--
"Oh, my God, I am having my baby, right here in the desert!"
Two men nearby rush over and carry her over to a bush and lay her down.
"Oh no, this can't happen! We must do something! We need a doctor here!"
She turns to the cameraman, "we need to get this woman a doctor!"
"How the hell are we going to do that?" he replies.
"Call that number we have for the U.S. Border Patrol, maybe then can send someone down here?"
Instantly, he takes out his cell phone, and dials the number. After going through a series of referrals, he's connected to a supervisor. They argue over details. The supervisor says they have no jurisdiction in Mexico, they can't cross the border without violating regulations. If they can get her up to the border, they'll assume control, etc. After more haggling, the supervisor says "Okay, okay, we'll fire up our helicopter, but it's going to take a little time." "We don't have time!" the cameraman screams into the phone, "the woman's contractions are starting!"
Ten minutes later the helicopter is on its way--choppita-choppita-choppita--as it hurries south over dry desert landscape.
Meanwhile, an American television station has gotten wind of the crisis, and is reporting the unfolding narrative. "We interrupt this broadcast to bring you fast-breaking news about a Mexican refugee woman having a baby just a few hundred yards from the American border! We're hooked up to a reporter in the area, and we have a drone hovering over the scene!"
"Will the American authorities arrive in time? Will they save the lives of this poor innocent woman and her unborn baby? We've learned that the American border patrol hopes to pick her up and fly her back across the border to safety. Will Luz's baby be saved? We're all hoping this can happen! If they can get her across the border before the baby is born, then it can be born in America!"
The helicopter finally arrives, amidst the excitement, and Luz is placed on a stretcher and hauled aboard the chopper, which rises up majestically--choppita-choppita-choppita--and leans toward the north.
But before they can land, Luz's baby is born, to the loud vibrations of the copter's engines, the physician yells at Luz "it's a boy! You have a boy! An American boy!"
That evening, the story is carried on all the major networks. Commentators argue over whether the boy was born "on American soil" or was technically in Mexico when she delivered.
Meanwhile, volunteers have come forth offering to "adopt" Mother and child. Luz is taken the next day to a detention center, where her claim of refugee status is recorded and she is given a hearing date and released. Because she already has multiple sponsors, and an assigned lawyer, she's allowed to relocate to her new home in Minneapolis at once. "It's like a dream come true," Luz confesses, "I knew God would hear my pleas, now my son will grow up in the promised land, and we can live in peace and harmony forever."
Thursday, March 7, 2019
Time and duration. Increments. Segments. Blocks. Threads. We tend to think of time in terms of the astronomical events that govern our existence. The turning of the earth, day and night, the seasons, the passage of a year, the duration of a life.
Time may be an illusion. Try to imagine time without the material clock. Anything can be a clock. The universe is a vast clock--beyond the limits of our comprehension.
Days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia.
We often think of centuries as demarcations of cultural descent--as if human history could be characterized by the familiar qualities we assign to them, in retrospect. The 19th Century is the "Victorian Age." Sometimes, we think of the 20th Century as the "Atomic Age." Perhaps the 21st Century will be known as the "Digital Age."
It's the same with decades, which seem somehow more proximate. A single human life--in the classic phrase "three score and ten" [or 70 years duration, as an average]--encompasses, then, seven decades. Someone born in 1901--as my Stepfather Harry Faville was--who lived for 72 years--could think of the passage of time and fashions as distinct segments of duration, each with its own familiar--
The Roaring Twenties
The Depression Years (the 30's)
The War Years (the 40's)
The Silent Fifties
The Swingin' Sixties
We divide up the passage of our lives into such convenient brackets of time, in order to get a handle on the course of history.
What is it about decades that makes them seem so specific and meaningful?
When I think of my life, it is as a series of stepped ratchets, a progression of rising increments, which are years, months and days.
The year I was born, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first African American to break the barrier of the Big Leagues. The Hollywood "Black List" was created by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Andre Gide won the Nobel Prize. A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway, starring Marlon Brando.
In 1957, when I was 10, Kerouac's On the Road, Cheever's Wapshot Chronicle were published. The Bridge on the River Kwai and Peyton Place debuted in theaters. The Soviet Union launched the satellite "Sputnik."
As we grow up, our consciousness of the limits of our attention expands exponentially. As toddlers, our world consists of the dimensions of the world we inhabit. By late childhood, say age 12, we're aware of our neighborhood, our town, our state, our nation, the globe, and outer space. Our sense of our place in the larger scheme of the progression of time begins to materialize--we begin to think of years and decades as having almost a physical presence, as if they were plateaus of space, though we know this is only hypothetical, that there is no marked transition between the tenth year of one decade, and first year of the next.
Did I feel anything specific or memorable, in 1970, as the Sixties passed into history? I can't recall. There is often a feeling of a new beginning, of a promise of something going to occur.
Historically, time may be measured in administrations, or in the life of a monarch, or in convulsions, such as the American Revolution, or the Russian Revolution, or great wars.
Technologically, we may measure time through the incremental advance of inventions: The Cotton Gin, The Railroad, The Telephone, The Automobile, The Radio, Television, The Atom Bomb, The Airplane, The Computer, The Pill. These are both mind- and civilization-altering developments, which create their own demarcation in time, after which things can never be the same.
Thomas Wolfe wrote several fictional novels about his own experience. Pouring out thousands of pages, living in New York, the over-riding sensation he felt was nostalgia, a nostalgia which overwhelmed him. His fictional record, which was the only means by which he could revisit the events of his past life, was like a vast project to defeat time by preserving and recreating it. He was only 37 when he died in 1938.
Wednesday, January 9, 2019
The current heated debate about security at the U.S.-Mexican border offers few new ideas or analyses.
Despite fluctuations in the number of illegal crossings, the problems of illegal entry, drug and human trafficking, etc., opposing camps appear further apart than they have at any time over the last 30 years.
The main reason for this, as I see it, is the considerable gulf between the assumptions people hold, which makes compromise impossible.
This vast separation is an expression of differences in how people view the problem. A priori points of view insure that they are very unlikely to agree about any proposal.
Many of those who are against tight border security measures, such as walls, military-style check-points, efficient deportations, and personal ID systems, simply don't want any kind of border limitations at all. For them, divisions between nations and peoples are artificial constructs, based on bogus national, racial, ethnic or economic distinctions which hinder freedom of movement or commerce. The notion of unregulated borders, "international" citizenship, and unlimited quotas seems perfectly reasonable to such people. They will make arguments to claim that these are actually good things.
Many of those who favor such measures, on the other hand, insist on the priority of citizenship, legal residence and lawful conduct, and point to the social and economic costs of entertaining large numbers of uncounted and unwelcome "refugees" inside our borders. They view the concept of "sanctuary" as an expression of lawlessness.
In order to address any measures to control our southern border, there has to be some agreement about just what illegal immigration is, and whether it is a good thing in itself. If you begin with the assumption that illegal immigration is a good thing, it's very unlikely that you will favor any kind of barriers--physical or bureaucratic--which threaten actually to prevent people from crossing illegally. If you begin with the assumption that illegal immigration is a bad thing, the question is less about "how" you go about preventing it, as long as it works.
In a very real sense, those who oppose barriers, oppose them in principle. For them, walls are a sad expression of the failure of nations to reach common understandings and agreements. For them, walls are bad whether or not they actually work; they will criticize them both as futile, and as immoral; walls that work are bad, while walls that don't work are a waste of resource. But the point is they don't want barriers in the first place, and will use any argument to support this position.
While it is true that no barrier mankind can construct is indestructible, there are degrees of security which can be achieved. If you accept the notion that illegal movement is wrong, and should be interdicted, then whatever reasonable measures can be employed, should be. Those who take this position are less worried about the symbolic significance of a wall between nations, as long as the solution is reasonably successful at preventing the crossing.
What's most frustrating, is that both factions routinely summon the most extreme, and most irrelevant versions of the meaning and consequence of illegal immigration, in an attempt to sway public opinion.
On the one hand, President Trump invariably tells us that lax border security poses a threat to our national security, conjuring up visions of drug gangs, ruthless felons, political terrorists, and human traffickers ("coyotes"), to whip up fear and consternation. While there is no doubt that drug trafficking occurs, and that some relatively small percentage of illegals is potentially dangerous, these aspects are less important than the crucial issue of mass uncontrolled refugee-ism. Such visions are inflammatory, and may play well on television, but they really aren't the point.
On the other hand, the immigrant lobby enjoys portraying the situation as an humanitarian crisis, of hoards fleeing political persecution, babies dying in the desert, and the cruelty and violence of interdiction. They frame the debate as an obligation which Americans have, to "save" oppressed and persecuted "refugees." Rather than being concerned about hundreds of thousands (even millions) of illegals inside our borders, they're delighted with the fact, and would like to see more resources devoted to making their lives easier, of providing them with the "American dream" of a better life, with the same opportunities and freedoms as native citizens.
Whatever your position, it seems reasonable to acknowledge that unless or until we're willing to have an open debate about the meaning and significance of illegal immigration, we won't be able to agree about the issue of border "security."
Personally, though I can understand why people might theorize about the advantages of open borders, I've not been able to imagine a narrative which would entail a complete breakdown of control. What would happen if we abandoned our I&NS system of quotas and regulation, and simply stood by and watched as humanity flowed flagrantly from point A to point B, without regard for national borders?
I believe that legal immigration is a good thing, but illegal immigration is not. Having said that, I would clearly find it difficult to compromise and discuss "security" with someone who thought the opposite.
Saturday, December 1, 2018
Regarding the smokey air from the so-called "Camp Fire" forest fire in Northern California in November 2018.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but I grew up in a house with a man who insisted on having a roaring fire
in the fireplace, most Winter nights.
The house routinely smelled like woodsmoke, and I suppose the "air quality" was probably not the best.
I would be the last person to think that these fires are anything but a tragedy to the planet, and to humanity in general.
But everyone going around wearing masks and saying "tsk tsk" has become more of a social cliché.
The dangerous air part is clearly being over-stated, in my EVHO (ever so humble opinion).
The underlying narrative will ultimately involve determining the actual cause, which now appears to have been another PGE snafu. That's the real issue.
My wife's boss lost his big home in Paradise--house, barn, entire contents. Everything. Someone needs to answer for that, and it may be that the utility crisis will devolve into local jurisdictions, since corporate oversight seems to have been completely abandoned by the Pee Genie.
1 part Pisco
1 part limoncello
1/2 part lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon amaretto
Served over the rocks, and stirred.
3 parts aquavit
1 part cinnamon liqueur
1/3 part creme de menthe
1/3 part black Sambucco
1 part fresh lime
Shaken and served up with lime skin garnish.
Tuesday, November 27, 2018
Bill Berkson's Since When [Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2018, 262pp.], as an analogue of his life, seems pretty much right on.
It starts out with a fairly traditional straight "David Copperfield kind of" autobiographical account, beginning with his childhood, his parents--for about 40 pages--then devolves into a loose amalgam of anecdotes, portraits, isolated memories, essays, reports and odd bits. That fragmentation and disintegration of narrative says a lot about the life story of one of America's most interesting--and in many ways, illustrative--cultural witnesses: The transformation of class, the friction between and among diverging or converging groups, precincts, which characterized Bill's journey from a would-be patrician to a sophisticated artist and critic.
Because the book, though substantially "finished" by the time he died, appeared posthumously, it gives it an odd "behind the membrane" feel, as if Bill were speaking to us from beyond the curtain. And there is something conclusive and omniscient about it, as if it were about something that was already history. Bill's life and character had that quality, of a witness to event, personalities--always attentive, always recording.
New York for many people is the center of the universe, or at least the cultural nexus of the United States. People would migrate there, because it was where things happened, where careers were made, where the energy was. Bill's parents were part of that, having come to it from other parts of the country--the world they made, the world Bill grew up inside of. So that leaving that world, as Bill did, in his '30's, to come to California, represented a counter movement, perhaps in some sense a repudiation of the destiny the city represented. Though a native, who would never really be "away" in spirit, that was a distinct break.
Raised as an only child in a connected, well-to-do family--his father was the general manager of the Hearst International News Service, and his mother a professional promoter in the New York fashion world--he sidestepped the usual professions (business, the law, etc.) of his class, to become an avant garde poet and art critic, who moved seamlessly between and among groups and individuals of widely different backgrounds, never losing his center. This would probably only have been possible in New York, where the art and commerce were in such close proximity, one could assume a sort of incognito profile, lubricated with the native charm and good looks he'd been blessed with. This profile, nurtured on security and confidence and connections, would sustain him all his days.
I first met Bill in the mid-1970's. I had been loitering around in the back office of Peter Howard's small bookshop on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, when I noticed a blue folder of poems on a shelf. I picked it up, and discovered it was a typescript draft of Blue Is the Hero, Bill's selected early poems manuscript. I had read some of his poems in little magazines, and had been intrigued by his work, which seemed sophisticated and rich in ways I liked. Later, when I applied for a small publisher's grant, I listed this book as a possible project for publication. When I contacted Bill (in Bolinas), he quickly agreed to the idea. He had thought that Braziller might pick it up, but they hadn't. This led to an amicable relationship that went on for a couple of years, while the book was in the editing and printing stage(s). I visited Bill in Bolinas, and we corresponded a good deal. Afterwards, we stayed in touch over the years, first by mail, and then eventually by e.mail. As it turned out, he liked my work as well (writing a nice blurb for my collection Stanzas For An Evening Out); had I not self-published my early work, he might well have undertaken it. What was clear from the beginning, though, was that we moved in different circles, and it was unlikely, if not impossible, that we would ever really spend much time together. The first things I remarked about Bill were his appearance--sort of trusty American good looks--and his voluble charm. (The only odd things were his ears, which were widely set; and he was a southpaw.) He was a great reader of his own work, imparting almost an actor's skill in delivering his lines, in a natural speaking voice, devoid of the kind of monotone or nervously uncertain quality one often hears from writers and poets. I always had the feeling he was just "talking" his work, rather than reading it.
Because of his connected background, Bill had hobnobbed with famous people all his early life, and his orientation always included the social dimension. Larry Fagin's early "The Bill Berkson Story" --
The Bill Berkson Story
I discovered some bran macaroons, Sunshine
You can buy in the supermarket, Finest,
But they're Sunshine, which reminds me
Of what Norman Winston said in the Hotel de Paris,
Monte Carlo, at a party given by Elsa (Dinner) Maxwell,
And I sat one person away from Noel Coward (I have a
Photograph). Garbo was there, too, and I was . . . it was
Great. We had this very dog-faced (sad) waiter and
Norman said "Do you have any macaroons?" The waiter
Couldn't believe it. He called for the Maitre D'
Who had a batch macaroons made up special, but it took
1/2 hour (we had coffee). John Gunther was speaking.
Norman built the shopping center where Larry Rivers'
Mural is hanging I think (out at Smithtown) and . . .
--is a funny, though somewhat exaggerated, take on Bill's elevated tone. The evocation of famous people--his parents routinely came into contact with familiar figures in entertainment, the arts, the theatre, fashion and sports--became a nostalgic diorama in his memory, and I've always thought that his work (like his life) was just poised between the social and aesthetic modes, balancing an awareness of the personal, with the ratiocination of the inner visionary eye--i.e., you couldn't focus on one without remembering the other. And his ability to do that, without awkwardness or pressure, I always admired. Behind all that, too, was the knowledge that Bill, unlike almost everyone else in the Bolinas scene, was financially secure, his father having provided for him in the form of an annuity before he died in 1959.
The fact of Bill's life--his self-transformation from a quasi-upper middle class heavy to a 'Twenties style underground bohemian--was a process he undertook deliberately, eyes wide open. You might have expected Bill to be a snob, but his interest in people and things was stronger than any insecurity (or haughtiness) his background may have implied. He became, as in the tradition of Mencken, an aristocrat of complex taste.
For a long time, it was hard to separate Bill from his connection to Frank O'Hara, particularly since, as the older poet's keeper of the flame after the fatal accident on Fire Island in 1966, he seemed preoccupied with that--or at least one's consciousness of that connection overshadowed the other things Bill was doing. He worked as a writing instructor, an editor (Big Sky), and eventually segued into serious art criticism and teaching. His relationship with O'Hara, though "Platonic" in its intimacy, for many years shaped his reputation as much as anything else he may have done.
Bill's work began in a kind of wholesome confusion, then became refined and somewhat focused. Then, in later age, he dove back into abstraction and became pretty scattered. Blue Is the Hero  documents the first two stages, then, with Serenade , everything gets very ambiguous and complex and frivolous (in my view). My favorite book is Lush Life , the title taken from the great lyric single by Ellington. (If you listen to the chord changes in that piece, you have a good shorthand of Bill's character. If that sounds mysterious, then so be it.)
The last chapter of Bill's life began with his lung transplant in 2004, after 40 years of heavy smoking. He'd thinned down, and his features had changed, from the "rugged" crust of middle-, to the more fragile ghostliness, of old age. I last saw him in person about 10 years ago, after this miraculous reemergence.
Since When is filled with his familiar voice--
"That shock, shortly before my sixtieth birthday, of realizing that I had slipped over a line and had spent more than half my life in California, all the while maintaining my New York credentials . . . That natural habitat we carry in and around us is so telling."