Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Silk Stockings - Seductive New Mix

The most unlikely combinations of flavors can occasionally surprise your taste buds. This is one of those instances. To be completely honest, I'm not sure how I came up with it. Initially thinking I would sweeten the combination with simple syrup, I found that the bottle had turned stale, so I had to cast around for alternatives. Sweet vermouth and brandy are not strangers, but ginger is rarely combined with either. I had some German honey liqueur, but then I noticed the bottle of butterscotch liqueur. Hmmm.... At that point, I hadn't even decided to add citrus. But once I had, as I would realize later when I tasted it, I had chanced upon an odd mixture that really was a winner.

Silk stockings were supplanted by nylons. Nylons necessitated a seam down the back, which became a kind of signature of feminine elegance for several decades. But eventually, they improved the manufacturing method and seamless sheer stockings became the style. Women still wear stockings, but less than they used to. They're almost camp now, retro chic.

In any event, the quality that this drink exudes is suavity, smoothness, a meltingly seductive sweetness as tantalizing and mesmerizing as a luxurious kiss. What is it that Updike said about it?--"the mouth moves in the mind's court"? Ah, yes.

The mixture, as usual, by proportion--

3 parts sweet vermouth
3 parts brandy
1 part ginger liqueur
1 part lemon juice
1 part butterscotch liqueur

I Take Issue With John Berger

John Berger is a Left art critic and novelist, whose opinionated essays have put him at the center of political and aesthetic debates for a half century. T0day, over lunch, I was reading his essay "Understanding a Photograph" [1968], from the collection The Look of Things [New York: Viking Press, 1974]. 

I don't read a lot of photography criticism, since I think I know pretty well how people react to photographic images, and what their significance is, in and to the culture generally. Criticism often stands in awe of the photographic image, unable to refine or improve upon it or to render an authoritative analysis of its speculative meanings. Berger manages to make a few general statements which I find very interesting, but these derive from very dismissive conceptions of how photographs are made (controlled), and how photographic image-making, as a deliberate act, is accomplished. 

"By their very nature, photographs have little or no property value because they have no rarity value. The very principle of photography is that the resulting image is not unique, but on the contrary infinitely reproducible . . . Let us consider them no closer to works of art than cardiograms. We shall then be freer of illusions . . . It is more useful to categorize art by what has become its social function. It functions as property. Accordingly, photographs are mostly outside the category [of art]." 

This argument is familiar to anyone who knows Marxist art criticism, as an attack on the artifact based on its commodity value as elevated fetish of capital. For anyone with a passing knowledge of photographic processes--that is, in its pre-digital phases--nothing could be further from the truth than to claim that photographs are "infinitely reproducible." A static negative--which of course is itself subject to many different kinds of manipulations--is, in fact, as Ansel Adams famously said, the "score" while the print is the "performance." It is true that any photography student, with a week's training, could indeed make a recognizable print from any of Adams's important negatives, just as they could of any of a hundred famous photographers' negatives. But the comparison stops right there in its tracks. No two prints are ever "the same"--and even if one wanted to make an endless string of identical images from a single negative, the mechanical methodology required to do that would remove the process from human creative intention entirely. The fact is that every photographer sets out to make a specific image of a specific scene, but that the final realization is almost never the result of fully conscious and controlled intent. And the process of making a specific print which satisfies the complex demands and intentions of any artist can require hundreds of man hours or trial and error, subtle adjustment(s), etc. Berger betrays a deep lack of sympathy for, and a shallow understanding of, the "values" of photographic prints--apparently relegating these gradations to pointless fiddle. It's rather like saying that all prints are technically of about the same utility and weight.  

"The objects recorded in any photograph (from the most effective to the most commonplace) carry approximately the same weight, the same conviction."

How could any serious critic make this astounding assertion? In one sweeping gesture, he dismisses subject matter, point of view, technique, feeling--everything that distinguishes one photograph from another--making of photography a generic, dry industrial function without any range of value or subtlety. And yet even industrial processes involve enormous subtle and delicate and difficult adaptations and incremental planning and quality control. Nevertheless, Berger has at least two, maybe three other things to say about photography that are sheer genius.

The first pertains to the image-maker:

"Photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious." 

--which is another way of saying that when we "take" a photograph (or make one, or one takes us), we are realizing our being alive at that moment, we are memorializing that instant as a symbolic record of what occurred to us to think and feel about it (the scene, or subject). This act can be measured as a gesture or act of greater or lesser intent, of how accurately or powerfully or emotionally we have experienced it. Just seeing with our own eyes is a step less "conscious" than making a photograph--that's an unusual idea--particularly when you realize that our visual-mental apparatus is in fact a kind of camera, one in which the "saved" images are constantly being sorted and filed and saved in the vast storehouse of our visual memory.   

The second thing he says is:

"For a man with a [photographic print] . . . in his pocket, the quantum of truth in an "impersonal" photograph must still depend upon the general categories already in the spectator's mind."

In other words, there is a corresponding mental equivalent (Stieglitz's idea) for any image, and the degree to which an image or scene corresponds to something powerful or significant is a measure of its meaning and value. But I have trouble following Berger's characterization of a photograph as an "impersonal" thing; in a specific sense, nothing is more personal then a photograph. It is true that the range of kinds of images that are most often made become generic and predictable and consequently bland, but those superficial limitations are routinely exceeded by those with talent. Great portraitists, for example, are able to take our breath away with the revelations they make out of great faces and dull. If what anyone could deduce from an individual human face were nothing more than a lolly-pop, then perhaps Berger's verdict would be proximate.

It's as if Berger needed to be able to believe that making a photograph were an inert, almost automatic process, by which anyone could take a picture of anything, with no effort and no pre-visioning at all. And further, that it would involve no aesthetic deliberation, no conviction, no familiarity, no responsive impulse, no feeling. Berger's a great critic, but he certainly misses the point with photographic image-making.    

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Gilding the Lily

Calla Lilies, 1987 [4x5, Kodak Tech Pan film]

Here is Shakespeare in King John [1595]:


Therefore, to be possess'd with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To see the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Or here, on roses, by William Carlos Williams--

The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air--The edge
cuts without cutting
itself in metal or porcelain--

whither? It ends--

But if it ends
the start is begun
so that to engage roses
becomes a geometry--

Sharper, neater, more cutting
figured in majolica--
the broken plate
glazed with a rose

Somewhere the sense
makes copper roses
steel roses--

The rose carried weight of love
but love is at an end--of roses

It is at the edge of the
petal that love waits

Crisp, worked to defeat
plucked, moist, half-raised
cold, precise, touching


The place between the petal's
edge and the

From the petal's edge a line starts
that being of steel
infinitely fine, infinitely
rigid penetrates
the Milky Way
without contact--lifting
from it--neither hanging
nor pushing--

The fragility of the flower
penetrates space

Williams was playing with the idea that we might see flowers in a purely scientific sense, or that geometrical representation, as a technique, could be a scaffolding upon which to hang a Cubist, ironic, "labored" aesthetic. Love's diagram, a discrete regard, remote, cold, inert--like a rose placed into dry ice fog and turned brittle as glass.

The idea that man can or cannot "improve" upon nature has been a preoccupation of Western Civilization for millennia. Do we offend "the gods" by emulating "perfection"? Would it be possible to raise a competing standard to Nature by tampering with her timeless selection process?

We now routinely meddle in genetic code, and can look forward to creating hybrids not just of the flora of the planet, but to its fauna as well. But nature of course isn't fixed--it changes constantly, not just to suit new criteria, but simply through accident. Is it possible that some or many of the accidental "flaws" we see in life forms are the result merely of false leads or of some genetic experiment in the process of being slowly closed down, rejected as being of little use? We think of natural selection as being an "efficient" process, but certainly, given the mechanism of descent we think we understand now, it's just as possible that for every successful adaptation, there are many which appear, persevere for a while, but then are abandoned. Our "vestigial" aspects--such as our "appendix" organ--a useless little dead-end off the corner of our large intestine which we apparently no longer need--might, without any intervention, take a hundred thousand years to be entirely eliminated. Natural selection may simply be a plaything of God (just an expression, you understand), with no purpose other than to keep the game interesting. Think of a chess game in which only one move could be made every hundred thousand years.

Calla lilies have been a staple of large format still life photography for a long time. Their broad pristine purity, lushly white unified petal, with a little curling tendril at the tip, is irresistible, posed against a black backdrop. Many different kinds of moods can be evoked with them. Here's one of my favorites, by Imogene Cunningham--

Or, here's another by an anonymous photographer--

How anything is seen is a mystery. Certainly we can respond predictably to this or that version of an object and its objectification as art, but how each of us "sees" something is a unique process, governed by our specific experience, understanding and preference(s). Who can say what any work of art ultimately "means"? Sometimes I read a critical piece on the meaning of a painting or poem or automobile, etc., and I am completely astounded. I remember reading once in an essay by Roland Barthes, a description of the Citroen sedan which he saw as an aggressive sexual symbol of male domination and brutality. Whereas I'd always thought it sleekly feminine and even powerfully seductive--at least to this man's eyes. If you start out with an agenda, you often "see" things you wish to see, rather than what might occur if you could only look with "unbiased" regard.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

LeRoy Neiman - Dead at 91

LeRoy Neiman [1921-2012] was a popular, almost iconic, American artist in the post-War era. Rarely considered seriously by the art establishment, he nevertheless became immensely successful, and wealthy with his work. The simplest defense of the special kind of place his paintings, drawings, serigraphs, watercolors, etchings, etc., occupied, is that, looking at them, you never felt moved to criticize them on the basis of technique, or meaning, or purpose. They were clearly, unashamedly, within the tradition of illustration, and needed no higher purpose to be appreciated.

Even "serious artists" of course, such as Picasso, or Andy Warhol, routinely cranked out third-rate work, exploiting their reputations, once they had been widely accepted as certifiably collectible. But Neiman never aspired to that degree of seriousness, and once he'd made a niche for himself, he stuck with it happily, only augmenting his signature style in minor ways along the way. Employing the sophisticated reproduction techniques in the 20th Century, commercial artists were able to produce stunning facsimiles or knock-offs in limited runs, which--though not worth a fraction of original unique pieces--could still command impressive prices, and allowed ordinary people to possess decorative artifacts that were just as thrilling as originals; and Neiman made a whole career out of selling runs of his bizarrely bright limited reproductions.

Neiman's career paralleled the life of Playboy Magazine. Hugh Hefner, its founder, met Neiman while the two were working for Carson Pirie Scott department store in Chicago in the early 1950's. Hefner had an eye for art and layout, and his association with Neiman would last for the rest of the artist's life. (Other artists and cartoonists who got their start with Playboy, or found a welcome venue would include Shel Silverstein, Alberto Vargas and Gahan Wilson.)

Neiman's freewheeling style coincided with the liberalization of values which occurred throughout the 1960's and 1970's, and his work seemed an expression of that period, much as Pop Art did. Its uninhibited splashes of color, unbridled action, and candid spontaneity captured perfectly the spirit of post-War America, enjoying a spurt of prosperity and indulgence that swept its puritanical reserve aside in favor of pure pleasure, conspicuous consumption, and vicarious delight. The life-style implied by Hefner's vision of the good life--a mixture of expensive indulgence, guiltless sex and middle-brow taste--was realized in Neiman's subject-matter: Sporting events, European café society, fast cars, safari animals, fancy watering-holes frequented by beautiful people--in short, all the usual accoutrements of the imaginary world ordinary working-men might dream about.

Neiman's work was of the kind you would find in gaudy galleries in Las Vegas, or Los Angeles, or Florida, where nouveau riche on vacation, with nothing to keep them company but their boredom and their credit cards, might accidentally wander in by mistake and impulse-buy a Neiman serigraph. Those big overblown action scenes went very well with modern interiors, and you could hang them in big living rooms where guests, sipping cocktails, would notice and comment on them.

Neiman's style, of course, was not exactly new. Sophisticated illustration had been a staple of magazine and newspaper media for decades by the time Hefner started Playboy in 1953.

As with the Fauves, or the early Modernists, like Matisse or Bonnard, we're acutely aware of the unreality of the representation, of the up-front in-your-face counter-intuitively reverse pigmentation of the images, but it's completely in keeping with the spirit of the enterprise. The color exaggerations express an attitude towards subject-matter which is flagrantly outré, and yet still conditioned to our apprehension. Far from being grotesque, or freakish, they are playful and light-hearted.

In Neiman's world, things are bathed in a kind of elegantly brilliant wash of dazzling superimposition. They are like fantasies, and yet the fantasy is always grounded in a firm perception of balanced action, and the colors are organized into a jiggling mosaic of complementary tones, which, though initially jarring, become less and less conflicted the more you look at them.

Neiman's work clearly comes out of an earlier illustration tradition, but he combines that with all the brash, eccentric, extravagant tendencies of the Modernists and Post-Modernists, incorporated into a straightforward representational style that is individual, timely, and gently nostalgic. The style is nostalgic, and sentimental--dated. But the subject matter flows and veers through it as through a dream-like atmosphere. Neiman wants his canvases to be seen as decorative, but they're also recognizable idealizations of a time and a place. They are the product of a dilettantish mind, unchallenged by any higher calling, content to be understood and appreciated at the level of mild attention.

Is Neiman's work philistine, or schlock, or low-brow, or camp? Undoubtedly, in a sense, it is all of these things. It's napkin art. With a few dramatic flourishes, and a certain sense of the improbable, Neiman can set up a simple scene with tense--though predictable perhaps--values stretched to the limit of expectation. Neiman's art isn't of the sort that sets about to reinvent itself at each turn. Having found a method of releasing a certain kind of energy through the deft reconfiguration of the palette-wheel, he is content to repeat that trick over and over, subtly altering the effect for each study, never drifting very far away from that strongly conceived signature.

His personal style was that of the dandy--garish, accommodating, dressed in outlandish suits of yellow, or light green, or white, with a large handle-bar mustache, often nursing a large Havana. When on queue, he would dash off candid sketches and quick portraits like a street artist. By late middle-age, he had become a sort of minor celebrity, and his presence was enough to stir interest and attention in any proceedings.

Nevertheless, his work had a studied finality about it. It wasn't unsure, or timid art. It was confident, unashamed, and respectful. Its borders were clear, its edges without regrets. His work belongs to another age, and like all nostalgic art, there is a sadness to it, as of a golden age, which of course never existed, but which is pleasant enough to contemplate, when you're in the right mood. For those who demand more of art, it was trivial and meretricious--all true, but somehow beside the point. It was very much the best of what it was. With his death, we quietly close another door to our past.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Loser's Blues

Winning and losing, it's how we define our lives. Just getting by may be winning. Or maybe it's just treading water. We measure ourselves in relation to others, our next door neighbor, those we grew up with, folks in other countries. Are we better off than the next guy? Is life a contest, meted out in a series of trials and tests?

In America, we're supposed to pursue happiness. How we go about that is largely determined by the capitalist system. The more money you have, or make, or inherit, the more leverage you have in the game of life. Money can't buy you happiness, but it sure does lighten the burden of existence. In a primitive society, having three goats instead of two, might make you a rich man. It's a relative thing. I'm not sure that owning a goat would ever mean anything to me, whereas if I could catch a plane to Venice, or Tokyo, whenever the spirit moved me, I'm sure that would be a gas. But even monetary freedom can become passé, after a while. The more money you have, the more you have to worry about it, and if you become rich enough, just worrying about the people who are worrying about your money for you, can become a burden. Nursing a fortune can become a full-time job. Whereas what I've always wanted is to exercise my powers at large--to write, to photograph, to design, to--in my favorite phrase--refine my sensibilities and hone my discrimination to an ever finer edge.

Fine cuisine and exquisite liquors and liqueurs are another way to appreciate the best that life has to offer. Eating (and drinking) well is the best revenge against the physical indignities of growing old and eventually dying.

An original cocktail is one way to brighten your afternoon or early evening. Bartenders prefer to mix the drinks they put on the menu, because that involves the least amount of thought and concentration. Mixing new combinations makes them nervous. If drinking cocktails were only a convenience to get some alcohol into your stomach, I don't suppose there's be much excuse for mixing interesting drinks. Just get a can of 7-Up and throw some cheap gin into it, or spike your Coke with Jack Daniels. Bleghch!

I'm sad today about Tim Lincecum, whose magic has evaporated into thin air. The little phenom dubbed "The Freak" has lost his touch, and can't get people out like he used to. Two and a half years after winning his second consecutive Cy Young, his career is in real trouble, and people are starting to talk about removing him from the team's starting rotation. That's a precipitous drop for a kid of his age. Riches to rags. He presently leads the league in losses, and earned runs allowed, and his gaudy ERA (6.19) is depressing. He's lost velocity on his fast ball, and seems unable to control his pitches, especially with men on base, or in clutch situations. His starts have become disasters. One commentator suggested that his career is "in transition"--from a fireballer to control pitcher; unable to overpower hitters, he will have to learn how to spot his pitches, and outsmart them.

Timmy's already rich, with his big new contract. But the more they pay you, the harder it gets to feel good about not earning your keep. It isn't much consolation when fans are booing you, and you're no longer pulling your weight on the field. Barry Zito's career once looked like Lincecum's, turning sour at about the same point (age 28). Today, Zito is just an under-average journeyman, playing out the string as a fifth starter--his career could end at any time, and sooner rather than later. Will Lincecum ever return to his Cy Young form? It seems unlikely, given the statistical trending. The physical and mental qualities that produce superior results seem easy to identify, but difficult to correct when they're no longer working. Does Timmy need to increase his muscle strength, change his flailing wind-up and delivery? Does he need a long vacation?

Anyway, we still have Cain and Bumgarner and Vogelsong, and Casilla coming out of the bullpen. We aren't going into the toilet. But you have to ask yourself, if Lincecum hadn't fallen into this rut, where the team might be today. If he were, say, 8-2 instead of 2-8, we'd certainly have a better record than the Dodgers, and would be running away with the Division title. It would be ironic if it weren't so frustrating, and sad.

Ain't no blue in this drink, unless you drop in a little food coloring. But it is sure to raise your spirits. So raise your glass and salute the guy that you once were, or were hoping to be, or hope to be again. As Scarlett O'Hara says in Gone With the Wind, "tomorrow is another day!"

Proportions as per usual--

2 parts straight rye
1 part campari
1 tblspn simple syrup
orange peel garnish

--shaken and served up in the proper way.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Obama's Little Dream Order

On Friday, President Obama announced that by executive order, the I&NS will offer an amnesty loophole to undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children (before age 16), have lived in the U.S. for at least five continuous years, are under age 30 and either enrolled in high school or have a high school diploma, and have not been convicted of a serious crime or pose a national security threat. Such individuals, if they voluntarily step forward and self-identify, will not be deported, but will be granted "work permits" and be put onto a track for possible citizenship. It has been estimated that there may be between 800,000 and 1,300,000 individuals who might qualify for this exception.

Obama's order seems an obvious public relations move, designed to bolster his image to the Latino voting constituency, and is a premonitory hint of what he intends to do on immigration, should he be elected to his second term. The Latino community has expressed satisfaction that Obama has decided to simply sidestep the Congress, which failed to pass his Dream Act, by simply enacting the legislation by fiat. The order is, in effect, an amnesty. Having already been rewarded with a free elementary and secondary education paid for by the American taxpayer, these same people will now be rewarded with legal residence, work permits, driver's licenses, and other kinds of documentation. The order will allow them to attend American universities and colleges as legal residents, at preferred residential rates, and even to qualify for financial aid and loans. At a time of particular stress in our educational institutions, when both our public schools, and our advanced institutions of learning are struggling to maintain standards of performance in a time of squeezed funding and shrinking state and local budgets, it seems painfully inequitable to create set-asides and preferences for foreign nationals--not even highly qualified ones like those from Europe and Asia who have come here as graduate students--who have already benefitted from every conceivable advantage, including bi-lingual instruction.

As readers of this blog know, I am a hawk on immigration. Though a liberal on most issues, this is one where I cross the line to join those on the side of enforcement, and a strict policy with respect to legal residence. I have always had Hispanic friends and colleagues whom I respected and liked, just as I have Native Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and African Americans, etc., and my feelings and positions with respect to illegal immigration are in fact color blind and ethnically neutral. Most apologists--especially in the public media--think that by demonizing, by branding you as a bigot--or someone driven by racial or ethnic prejudice--they can undermine the other arguments against uncontrolled immigration, as if these were all simply deductions from a primary principle of unreasonable, or irrational, hatred. No sensible person accepts that argument, which is nothing more than a cheap debater's trick. Being against uncontrolled, runaway immigration is a perfectly reasonable position, which any thinking person can understand. I see runaway illegal immigration in these terms:

Population control. Most of the world's present problems are the result of out-of-control population growth, in one way or another. That would be true of the so-called "civilized" Western bloc countries, as much as it is of the so-called Third World. The world's resources are finite, not unlimited, and humankind's consumption of water, energy, arable land, food and open space has already outstripped supply. For good or ill, we are still a world of nations, and nations can only have legitimate control over that land that lies within their own borders. The uncontrolled movement of people across borders is a symptom of disequilibrium among nations. Rapid, uncontrolled movement of large numbers of people is really a form of refuge-seeking--from war, privation, drought, economic hardship, ethnic conflict etc. The larger the numbers of refugees, the more pressure that is brought to bear upon the destination country. Large, rapid transfers of population create intolerable burdens upon society. Any nation which wishes to manage its own population, its own resources, the welfare of its own people, must limit uncontrolled growth and influx, lest it be overburdened and overwhelmed by needy newcomers. The United States once stood, empty and vast, as an inviting open-space. Our immigration policies of a hundred years ago were an explicit expression of the capacity to absorb new population. But that condition no longer applies. Domestic population, and world population, have been expanding in ever-growing, even exponential, rates. Almost no country in the world now "needs" more population, and most countries are beyond crowded. Sensible immigration policy today must take account of this change, and moderate our regulation of influx, such that we can commit ourselves to a no-growth condition. A sensible immigration policy now should be built around a static population concept. Policies built around a constant growth paradigm of continuous economic and consumer expansion, must end. The U.S. no longer needs more people.

Unlawful Intrusion. Illegal immigration creates large numbers of outlaws. People who are living in America illegally maintain a shadow existence, evading authority, and creating a ghetto-ized network of crime and exchange "under the radar." On the one hand, they present as a large disorganized labor pool, vulnerable to exploitation, without tax liability, legal protections, insurance. Technically, foreign nationals have few rights, and live in constant fear of discovery, prosecution, and deportation. On the other hand, unscrupulous employers are all too anxious to use the cheap labor they represent. Both sides of this equation are bad, a mutually exploitative symbiosis. Cheap labor drags down wage-levels, and undocumented workers inevitably become a burden to society when they use our medical system, public schools, police and fire safety, while they pay nothing for these services. Because they're living outside the law, they tend not to assimilate, but cling to the language, customs and habits of the "old country" for security and guidance. Since they are not able to pursue their lives openly as full citizens, they tend to become alienated and resentful. This resentment and frustration, in turn, then becomes the basis for bitter political partisanship, especially when these sentiments are manipulated for political gain and advantage by unscrupulous politicians and pressure groups. Despite the fact that such illegals have no real legitimacy as citizens, they become emboldened to demand rights and privileges, which they could not enjoy in their own country. All this provocation inspires resentment and impatience among native citizens, who see an increasing body of foreign nationals, technically without legitimate rights, demanding power and concessions from a government whose laws they openly and routinely flout.

We have been having this debate about how to deal with the continued flow of illegal immigration across our southern borders for a long time. Americans have expressed the desire to see it stop, and to have our residency and travel laws and regulations enforced. The general public is tired of the refusal of those in both parties at the national level to respond to their will, choosing instead to court the "hispanic vote" by pandering to those who want open borders, lax enforcement of our residency and voting and labor laws, and a vast welfare infrastructure designed to facilitate massive refugee migration.

Provisions such as the Dream Act encourage and reward illegal immigration. Foreign nationals constitute cheap labor, ready recruits to military service. They exploit and overburden our public school and medical care systems, and commit crimes at many times higher than normal rates. They bring with them the cultural corruption of outlaw nations where bribery and favors are the social order.

Why should the United States, at this point in its history, be fulfilling the dreams of young foreign nationals who have entered our country illegally, and have exploited our generosity by taking hand-outs and freebies, in the full knowledge of their wrong-doing. Advocates of such policies ask us to be sympathetic to the plight of "children" who "through no fault of their own" have grown up inside our society, with the same expectations of the pursuit of happiness and personal fulfillment. But citizenship is a precious right; it isn't something that can be stolen or traded or enterprised. It shouldn't be possible to seize or fake or "negotiate" citizenship as if it were a commodity.

During the Obama Administration, enforcement has increased, and deportations are way up. We're finally sending a message that America will no longer tolerate the scofflaws sneaking into our country. But the message has been made ambiguous by the administration's "dream" policy. Obama has targeted the younger electorate as a major part of his political strategy, and seeking to win over Hispanic youth appears to be a key segment of that platform. He thinks he can "buy votes" by pandering to their needs and desires. But it may backfire on him. If I were a college student today, or a young person trying to find decent work, I would resent attempts to allow or encourage foreign nationals to have preferred access to enrollment or employment.

If Obama loses the Presidency, and I righteously hope that he doesn't, it will be precisely because of actions like this, which alienate those of us who believe in the welfare of our country and its citizens first, before the welfare and rights of foreigners. Americans are by their nature a trusting and generous people, but that trust and generosity has been exploited by the illegals and their advocates. Wanting a thing does not make stealing it somehow justifiable, and squatting can't lead to ownership by default. As unpleasant as it may be to carry out our laws, from time to time, failing to do so only encourages more crime. These foreigners, and their children, need to be treated just the same as other criminals. If they're citizens of Mexico, or Honduras, or Guatemala, or Colombia, or China, or the Philippines, and they have no legal right to be here, they should be processed out, and deported, just like any other illegal. Following our laws can't simply be a matter of voluntary convenience, and the prosecution of crime can't be measured or applied only as an opportunity for compassion and charity. Compassion and charity both begin at home, and before you can entertain guests--especially uninvited ones--you have to put your own house in order. As the American standard of living erodes, our capacity to "save" other nations and other nations' citizens from themselves and their problems, declines.

Dear President Obama: Enough is enough. No more pandering to the illegal voting bloc. No more amnesty. No more rewards for cheating.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Pox on all Greeters !!

Sometime back in the 1980's, retail and service businesses in America got it into their heads that an effective way to cultivate good will and appreciation among their customers was to put a glad-handing public relations person near the front door of their entrance(s).

We've all been familiar with the bouncer, the valet, the maitre d' and the host. These people serve a visible function, and actually provide a service which customers can appreciate and take advantage of. A small- or medium-sized tip might grease the gears of commerce, but as a general rule, such "guardians" of the gate are not a barrier to the needs of customers.

But these new greeters are a different matter entirely. Today I had to make a deposit to my Wells-Fargo business account, and as usual, as I entered the bank and approached the teller window line, a tall African American boy of about 30 sidled over to me and asked "how are you today, Sir?" Having been nudged in this way before, I knew he meant no harm, but I knew he still expected a response, so I said "thank-you" and continued towards the line. When I got to the window, the woman (a young Asian--perhaps an Indonesian or Filipino) asked again "how's your day, Sir?" and stood waiting while I formed an answer. Having handed her my deposit slip and pile of checks, this struck me, as it always does, as an impertinence. How I'm feeling has nothing to do with my banking business, and it is really none of her business.

I suppose part of the training of bank tellers is to "engage the customer in some harmless light banter" to put them at ease. Or, it occurred to me today, it might be a way of testing the customer to see how "up-tight" he/she is. Perhaps potential bank robbers can be spotted by trying to engage them in trivial conversation? There probably is a stereotypical "normal" customer behavior, and a typical "abnormal" customer behavior, which it is the business of the bank to determine.

I've noticed that these "greeters" are almost always people "of color"--which is to say they're people identified as "minorities," and they're usually very young, often in their early twenties.

Do banking management think that placing these greeters at the entrance to their offices gives customers a feeling of welcome, or well-being, or privilege? If so, I believe they are deluded. Most people I've spoken with cringe in dismay when queried about these greeters. Nearly everyone I've discussed it with, or heard discuss it on the media, has a negative reaction to being "greeted" by someone who obviously is not interested in helping them or saving them time, but who is just there to present a phony happy face on the business.

I resent being "greeted" in this way by any establishment with which I have important business. If I were entering a circus, perhaps I'd accept the idea of a clown standing by the entrance, to put me into the proper mood to appreciate the playful and astounding sights I'm expecting to watch. But banking, and furniture marts, and chain bookstores, and home supply warehouses aren't places I go to be treated as if I were a child entering a circus tent.

The next time one of these clowns tries to importune me, I'm going to tell him or her to buzz off, or, at the least, ignore them completely. When I'm doing business, I don't need someone interrupting me with stupid, quasi-personal questions. If you want to improve your business, put that greeter to work doing something which actually makes my errand easier, or more trouble-free. I can do without the public relations crap.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Cain's Perfecto

Baseball is a funny game. A series of sudden engagements separated by waiting and patience and space and idleness. Two players--the pitcher and the catcher, take up at least 85% of the activity, while everyone else tries to keep prepared for an instantaneous response to action. What the players do--throw, catch, hit, run--must be done with perfect efficiency and accuracy. Every tiny failure of precision or timing counts against you.

It's also a game of statistics. Everything is weighed, recorded, measured. The dimensions of the playing field--the diamond--are perfectly constructed to test the limits of each player's (or team's) competence to accomplish an end. But there are other things which are largely beyond control, such as the umpire's calls, the greater dimensions and conditions of different fields, and the weather.

Pitching is probably the most demanding role on the field. Certainly, that's been common wisdom since the game's inception in the 19th century. "Pitching is 90% of the game." I don't know who first said that, but it's a perfectly reasonable statement. If a pitcher can keep the other team's batters from hitting or getting on base, they won't score any runs.

How difficult is it consistently to throw a major league baseball 90 feet, with accuracy and varying speeds and spins, at a target, under conditions of stress and distraction? We can judge by the statistical averages of relative success or failure. It has been said that baseball performance is measured by degrees of failure. The best hitters, for instance, successfully get hits, on average, only about 28-34% of the time. In other words, they fail far more than 50% of the time. Successful pitching is far more difficult to measure.

The best measure of a team's success is winning. But with pitching--an individual's statistics may not truly capture his abilities and positive performance. Pitchers don't work in a vacuum: How a pitcher's team supports him in the field, and at the plate, is a major factor in how well he will do over time.

Perhaps the biggest aspect of a pitcher's aptitude and performance is how well he can respond to challenges and pressure, both in games, and over the course of a season or series of seasons. Great ability by itself may mean nothing. Strength and agility and concentration must be disciplined. Stretched out over 7-9 innings of a single game, or over a full season of starts (or appearances, as in the case with relievers or closers), the best talents will show tendencies which reveal a player's true value. Baseball is "slow"--which is another way of saying that it's a long season. Regular starters can expect to be asked to begin between 20-35 games a year. Conditioning, mental preparation, and experience are crucial factors leading up to the first pitch of a game. But once a game begins, action and changing circumstances take over, and problems and difficult situations happen fast.

And yet, as fast as events unfold in a game, it's also a "mental" contest. The time between each pitch is filled with tension. The mind, and the body, must be loose, relaxed, but at the same time intensely focused, cocked. There's a crucial balance. You want to throw fast, but not so fast you lose control. You want to put the ball exactly where you want it to go, but you can't "aim" it. You have to concentrate hard on making your body follow your commands exactly, but you also have to remain balanced, rhythmically poised, "loose." All the while people are trying to distract you, and there's the crowd noise, and the soft dirt in front of the mound where your forward foot lands is just a little too hard, and your left heel is a little sore from a misstep you took walking up the stairs last week, and your wife might be pregnant with your third child, or a bit of grit just flew into your right eye. Each batter presents a unique set of skills and abilities. The umpire may have a grudge against you, from a previous altercation last season, and not call your strikes strikes.

The delicate balance between accuracy, power, and unpredictability required for successful major league pitching is so difficult that few pitchers succeed even part of the time. In the aggregate, baseball is a zero sum game: Exactly as many wins as losses will take place in every regular season. That means that, on average, half of all pitchers will have "losing" records as winning records. And yet, we also know that the major leagues are comprised of the best talent in the sport, and that every player who reaches that level is uniquely talented and the very cream of the crop of talent. They're all "stars." From their earliest experiences as kids, these guys have been "winning"--and yet at least half, or more, of these over-achievers will have to adjust to being, at least in the statistical sense, "losers."

Baseball, then, in the main, is a matter of failure, of being beaten by the odds, the "averages." With all that failure and frustration to deal with, it's a wonder there aren't more nut cases like Jimmy Piersall. It's a wonder that more players like Jonathan Sanchez--a promising young left-handed pitcher for the Giants who threw the team's last no-hitter in 2009 before Cain's last night--don't buckle under the weight and become "head-cases" who can't realize their full potential. Or like Aubrey Huff, a key member of the Giants' World Series Championship in 2010, who finally cracked this year under the combined stress of family problems and poor statistical performance.

In the major leagues, for the vast majority of players, then, it isn't how you stay motivated by your own physical genius and ingenuity that defines you, but how you deal with the failure that, eventually, becomes everyone's destiny. Staying focused and unbowed by failure is often the defining measure that separates superior players, from all the rest.

I've followed Matt Cain's career with interest since he came up in 2005. He was only 20 then, an age when most men are still trying to figure out who they are, much less adjusting to the major challenges of professional sport. Some players are cursed with bad luck, and for the first four years of his young career, Cain seemed snake-bitten. His team seemed unable to support his efforts, and routinely scored few if any runs in his starts. By the end of his fourth season, he had a combined 30-43 record, and seemed destined to mediocrity, at least on paper. But it was also apparent, if you paid attention, that he wasn't the type to get down on himself. He possessed two character traits which are essential for pitching success in the big leagues: Coolness under stress, and the ability to ride out bad luck and come back with determination.

Pitching staffs can be constructed out of various combinations. Pitchers may have meteoric careers, with two or three great years, then fade fast or slow. Others, like Cain, may begin slowly, gaining steam and confidence, and perform very well over a decade or more. The greatest pitchers, who have long successful careers, generally have vastly superior skills, and are lucky enough to remain healthy over the long haul. Warren Spahn, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddox, Don Sutton, Steve Carlton, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Catfish Hunter.

Matt Cain, it would seem, may well end up having a career that resembles one of these names. Several stars would have to be in the correct alignment for this to occur. The Giants would have to remain competitive. Cain would have to stay healthy, which he has been so far. And the desire and commitment would have to be there, as well. As a person, he seems quiet and modest and humble, preferring to let his deeds speak for him. He's a country boy, a guy of few words, who doesn't crave attention.

No one deserves the success he's had more than Cain. Overshadowed by Timmy the Freak phenom, and having suffered through a very difficult time early in his young career, he's persevered to become the current ace of the staff. It would not be a surprise, given his achievement so far this year, to see him win 20 games and a Cy Young, if he is able to keep up the current pace. This may be his "year." And/or it may be the beginning of a string of great years.

Last night, Cain's perfect game showed how dominant he's become as a pitcher. As with most record games, this one included two miraculous defensive plays to save the day--in particular, Gregor Blanco's diving catch on the warning track, which might be one of the greatest catches by an outfielder in the history of the game.

Are there any lessons to be learned from Cain's example? If at first you don't succeed . . . comes immediately to mind. Just desserts is another. Poetic justice. What comes around. Certainly a heart-warming event. You can't keep a good man down.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Birthday for One to Come Dressed as You Are

Some quiet nights or mornings you hear doves cooing gently to each other. I don't know why they do this on some days, and not on others. It's a comforting, civilized sound, domestic and contented.

Why do we celebrate birthdays? The renewal of life, nominated through the unique genetic code of the individual, named and welcomed to presence? Or to mark our incremental passage from infancy through doddering old age?

Stimulants may promote a false sense of well-being, but a crisp, bracing cocktail in the evening is a familiar pleasure, a great end to a busy day, and a graceful entré to a nice evening.

I've never been much for holidays, which always seem to me artificial excuses to take time off, or to celebrate just for the sake of celebrating. But everyone can have a birthday, it's non-denominational and unburdened with dogma.

Two doves calling to one another in the cool, quiet stillness of the early morning. Cooooooo, coo-coo. Cooooooo.

The mixture apportioned as always--

3 parts Tanqueray No 10
2 Parts Poire liqueur
1 part Cointreau
1 part Germaine
2 parts sweet lime

The gift of cool wet intoxication in the calm before night begins.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Sabrina, Sabrina . . .

Sabrina [Paramount Pictures, black and white, 113 minutes, October 1954, filmed at Glen Cove, Long Island, New York], written by Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman, Wilder Directing.

Hollywood has always specialized in the creation of illusions, and never more so than in the romantic comedy genre. America is the capital of capital, so the rags-to-riches fairy tale has always held a particular appeal to audiences in this hemisphere. The play Sabrina Fair, by Samuel A. Taylor [New York: Random House, 1954], had been a hit on Broadway the year before, with Margaret Sullavan and Joseph Cotton, Cathleen Nesbitt, John Cromwell and Russell Collins. The title comes from John Milton's masque Comus [1634]:

Sabrina fair,
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glass, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loost train of thy amber-dropping hair;
Listen for dear honour's sake,
Goddess of the silver lake,
Listen and save.

Full disclosure: I have not read the play, but judging from the movie, and the knowledge that it had been a play before it was a movie, it's obvious that the story has more specifically theatrical than visual (or cinematic) applications. It's a comedy of manners, made out of language, and the few opportunities for visual interest are limited and can very easily be referred to off-stage.

The screenplay is credited to Billy Wilder, who also directed the film. Wilder was already by this point in his long career, a well-established veteran (Ninotchka, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, The Bishop's Wife, Sunset Boulevard, and he still had a good deal in the tank, as he would follow this triumph with The Seven Year Itch, The Apartment, and Some Like It Hot). His creative control and vision guaranteed that this movie would be tight, sensible and smart.

When we first meet her, Sabrina Fairchild is the non-descript skinny little chauffeur's daughter living in an apartment over the garage with her father at the Larrabee family estate on Long Island. Quietly ambitious, but somewhat wan, she dreams of romance, as she perches in the garden tree (shades of Rima in Green Mansions ?? -- but that was in the future) peeking at the guests to the posh party in the big house, imagining herself as handsome young David Larrabee's lover.

As she watches, David escorts his latest date to the indoor tennis courts with a bottle of champagne and two flutes tucked into his rear pockets. Devastated, Sabrina falls into a deep depression, and realizing that her chances of ever being the object of David's affection are nill, decides to commit suicide. Leaving a note under her father's door, she turns on all the engines in the big garage, thinking to depart via carbon monoxide poisoning. In the nick of time, Linus Jr. discovers her and prevents her suicide.

Pulled back from the brink, Sabrina is sent off to Paris to study at the Cordon Bleu cooking school, to learn a decent trade, but while there, she soaks up sophistication and style, and grows into the lovely swan she was meant to be. In one scene, she sits at her window as a street musician squeezes out a sentimental version of La Vie en Rose.

Meanwhile, David--already three times divorced, has become strategically "betrothed" to the Elizabeth Tyson (played by Martha Hyer), daughter of another company-owning family whose business interests just happen to coincide with those of the Larrabees--never bothers to come to work, and is simply frittering away his life, while brother Linus Jr. is the company man, all work and no play. Linus and his father Linus Sr.--played perfectly by Walter Hampden (a classically trained Shakespearean, who looks exactly like the little capitalist caricature from the Monopoly Community Chest cards)--

want desperately to bring off the Larrabee-Tyson "merger" which will make everyone ten times richer than they are already, even if that means a marriage of convenience. What else is David good for, after all, except to be a blood sacrifice to Mammon?

When Sabrina returns from Paris, David accidentally meets her at the train station, luggage in hand, and he is immediately struck by her vivacious beauty. Predictably, he doesn't recognize her, since she so little resembles the gawky teenaged little girl he remembers, but he knows one thing for sure: This is one lady he can't wait to seduce!

Coyly, she refuses to let him know her true identity. He's mystified! Who is this gorgeous creature, oozing savvy and urbanity?

David hardly remembers, if he even cares, that he's already officially committed to Elizabeth Tyson, and undertakes to sweep Sabrina off her feet. Sabrina's dream seems finally to be coming true, as David falls head over heels for her.

But Sabrina, feeling her new power over men, begins to perceive how hollow her adolescent fantasy about David is. Now that she has him within her grasp, the prize seems somehow unworthy of her.

In most American movies, money and sex get mixed up together. The movie begins as the classic formula of poor girl falling for wealth and glitz and sex, transforming herself from a tawdry "garage girl" into an elegant ingenue to attain her goal. We know she's deluded, because these rich folks have been corrupted by their greed, which turns them into complacent playboys or grim corporate CEO's. It's clear that even if Sabrina were to achieve her end and marry David, the arrangement wouldn't last--not just because of David's wayward infidelities, but because of Sabrina's growing maturity. She's transformed herself in Paris, but Paris has also made her more discriminating. She's become a practical girl, as well as a beautiful one. In the "upstairs downstairs" dialectic, the servants want her to marry well, and that doesn't simply mean getting the one you had a crush on as a twelve year old.

The Larrabee family's first duty is to its continued prosperity, and that sense of mission transcends every other priority, including pleasure, mental health, and even love. If the perfect marriage of convenience would have David matched up with Elizabeth Tyson, the servants' concept of a successfully made match would have Sabrina installed in the mansion. They're like two halves of a symbiotic corruption. The fairy tale version of Sabrina's love for David would be pure Hollywood, but we in the audience know too that though love (and lust) are fun, marriages built on stardust rarely work.

At this juncture, the Larrabee family hatches a plot that promises to solve all their problems: Linus will seduce Sabrina, and offer to buy her off, allowing David to fulfill his duty to marry Ms. Tyson for the greater gain. To facilitate this, David is tricked into sitting down in a study armchair, just as he's about to head out to the tennis-courts with Sabrina for his usual champagne assignation, crunching the flutes and lacerating his hind-quarters. David's convalescence--in a hammock with a hole in the bottom--takes several weeks, during which Linus has uninterrupted access to a skeptical Sabrina.

Linus goes about this charade with slapstick good humor, singing "Boola Boola Boola" while he dons his absurd little Yale rooter's cap. He's supposed to think of himself as the romantic alternative, but neither Bogart, nor the audience, much accepts the notion of him as a romantic lover. Linus takes her out in the family yacht, to the theatre, etc.

But as they go through these motions, each becomes aware of a deeper appreciation of the other's character. Beneath Linus's meticulous sense of duty, lives a suppressed romantic, and underneath Sabrina's moony trance is concealed a practical, discerning woman. The two reluctantly, cautiously, begin to hit it off. It's the princess and the toad, of course, though Hepburn is more like a bounty-hunter than a homecoming queen.

Wilder may have chosen Bogart precisely because he possessed almost no romantic attraction whatsoever. (In passing, I should note that though Bogart was a great actor, and deserves all the praise he's gotten over the years, I could never buy into the notion of him as a sexy, commanding lover. Despite his turns with his real life love, Betty Bacall, in To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Key Largo, I could never imagine him as being anything other than a hardboiled veteran of the school of hard knocks, whom women might find attractive for his crusty world-weary maturity, but never as a "lover." At 5'8" with a homely prematurely aged face, who could? Who can figure what women will like?) The part had been conceived for Cary Grant, but Grant bowed out of the role just a couple of weeks before production began. It's instructive to imagine what the movie would have been like with him, instead of Bogart, but I think the story would have lacked some peculiar edge with Grant, whose smoothness and debonair bearing would not have fit inside the business-like Linus Jr. Cary Grant's charming lightweight banter and over-the-top good looks would have worked against type, just as Bogart's cragginess seems to. Clearly, both actors were too old for this part, but Wilder may have understood how unappealing the Linus character needed to be as a foil against Holden's golden young Adonis image. The audience's consternation at seeing Sabrina rebounding into the arms of this tired old warhorse is precisely that absurd anomaly, the spring that makes a great comedy work.

At the heart of every great comedy is a fallacy or absurd anomaly, from Shakespeare right through to the present day, and Sabrina is no exception. In the film, we are asked to accept that the younger playboy son of a fabulously wealthy down east Long Island family (David Larrabee, played brilliantly by William Holden) falls in love with the chauffeur's daughter (played by Audrey Hepburn), and that she, in turn, who has always fantasized about David, eventually redirects her affection towards his stuffy older brother Linus Larrabee Jr. (played improbably by Humphrey Bogart, who is cast straight against type), whom she eventually marries instead.

Hepburn's storybook career, launched with an Oscar for Roman Holiday the year before, had placed her at the center of the Fifties fashion whirl, the ideal of the stylish gamine, a slim, boyish, wide-eyed, mischievous teasing, naughty child. Audiences were persuaded to adore her atypical miniature, hyper-thin (anorexic) profile, despite her big feet, excessively long neck, skinny gymnast's trunk. Designers loved her, the same way they did Grace Kelly. She could wear wildly bizarre outfits, huge hats, long gloves, and by the end of the Fifties everywoman wanted to be a petite gamine version of herself. Joe the Plumber might want his women zaftig, but sophistication meant rich and thin. Hepburn and Holden are said to have had an affair during the filming. (The following year she would marry Mel Ferrer.) Their on-screen compatibility becomes much more understandable, given that bit of gossip.

Bogart's slightly gruff and diffident character persona was mirrored by his reported distaste for his co-stars. He apparently thought both Holden and Hepburn lacked acting chops, though what he may have thought about the part he was being asked to play is not recounted. He has to have known how audiences would feel about his providing the love interest to an actress 25 years his junior.

In Breakfast at Tiffany's, in which Hepburn would play the star lead, Capote had originally conceived the part of Holly Golightly as a homosexual boy, but changed the sex to suit prevailing morés. In that same picture, Patricia Neal "keeps" George Peppard (Paul Varjak) as a tame gigolo. In those days, it was perfectly acceptable for an older man to keep or wed a much younger woman, while on the other hand, an older woman with a younger man . . . well, how naughty! How repulsive! How unnatural!

As I remarked in an earlier post about Nabokov's Lolita--both the book, and the movie from which it was made (starring James Mason and Peter Sellers)--women are frequently perceived as victims in the sexual gambit, even when it is perfectly clear that they are in charge of events. In Sabrina, we'd like to hope, as does her chauffeur father Thomas Fairchild (played by the suave John Williams)--

--that she can be merely "happy" in her choice of mate. But for Hollywood, love without possibility is another kind of aesthetic mediocrity. The Fifties were a time of prosperity and ambition. In the movies of the Thirties, audiences watched as the rich sipped cocktails and bantered wittily in tuxedos and full-length gowns. It was escapism and pretense. In the Fifties, people apparently still believed that Cinderella might attend the ball, and her coach not turn back into a pumpkin.

Bogart and Hepburn may seem at first improbably matched here, but given the social trends of the time, perhaps not. Smart girls in those days couldn't sensibly wish for a career, so their best hope to achieve real prosperity and security was to marry well. Since divorce and adultery and philandering were frowned on, ruthless fortune-hunters could set aside respectability, and go straight for the gold. Using sex and guile might not be completely admirable, but with their eyes on the prize, what did they care? And if, like Sabrina Fairchild, you could snag a man with enough money, you could spend the rest of your life breezing around the world on a continuous holiday. If not, you still had your poodle and your convertible and your "bungalow" in the Hamptons to keep you warm.

I love watching this movie, but I always move my head a little sideways at the end. It's not a romantic picture at all.