Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Great Wave

When the great wave approaches, it's important to know that you should simply dive through it, and to believe that by doing so you will come through alright on the other side. It is of course possible that you may not come out, but in that case, do not trouble yourself, you will not be conscious of it. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Boston Marathon Whitewash

A good deal has been written and said about the Boston Marathon bombing of April 15th, 2013 and the aftermath of the pursuit and capture of the accused bombers, Tamerian Tsamaev (26) and Dzhokhar Tsamaev (19), two Chechen-born legal residents of the United States. 

Since the successful capture, and the subsequent general sense of relief in Boston and around the country, there's been a surprising amount of self-congratulatory back-slapping and high-fiving and general smug boasting about how efficient and courageous our law enforcement community was in the "solving" of the crime, and their successful apprehension of the bombers. Bostonians cheered in the streets when Dzhokhar was discovered huddled in a residential backyard under a tarp inside a boat. 

Since 9/11, there have been a number of fairly amateurish attempts at terrorism in this country. Most have been thwarted. What the Boston Marathon event proves, in my estimation, is that for all the homeland security measures, all the protective systems put into place to reduce our exposure to unwanted foreign or domestic terrorist incursions, we're still not really very safe. 

The signal characteristic of all of the known (or at least publicly acknowledged) cases is their amateurish incompetence. What we know now is that it takes very little effort to acquire the means to construct and deliver an explosive device. In addition, it's become clear that very little indoctrination or "training" is required to animate individuals to perpetrate an act of sabotage or anarchistic destruction. It's relatively easy to "radicalize" a sympathetic mind, and even easier for that converted radical to carry out a simple act of terrorism. A teenager could do it. 

In the case of Boston, the bombers were able simply to walk into the crowd and deposit their devices in full daylight, with many police in the immediate area. Apparently, our Homeland Security people had already been alerted, by the Russian government no less, about the older brother's extreme Muslim sympathies, and yet a brief investigation of him had been concluded without further ado, despite the fact that he had been posting radical Islamic messages and videos on the internet--activity which we've been told is routinely monitored by our Homeland Security people. 

What seemed perfectly obvious to anyone who watched the unfolding drama in the days following the bombing, is that the two brothers could very easily have escaped the Boston area, either in a stolen car, or by some other form of transportation. Their behavior following the bombing was plainly irrational, killing a security guard, then attempting a hold-up of a convenience store, you could almost believe that they wanted to be caught, or wanted an open confrontation with authorities. Those with a death-wish may feel that a perfect escape is somehow less direct a message; we've known in detail that many of the Muslim "suicide" bombers regard an honorable death as the highest form of religious sacrifice, which may explain the reckless actions of the Tsamaev brothers. 

But the really simple conclusion to draw is that the authorities--at all levels, local, state and Federal--would never have caught them, if they hadn't given themselves away in the immediate aftermath. Their capture had nothing to do with good investigative technique or rapid response or great bravery by the police. The suspects, in effect, gave themselves up. What's even more troubling, in this respect, is that the second of the two bombers actually escaped, after having been cornered on a suburban residential street. After reportedly exchanging stolen vehicles, he continued on foot. It remains unclear why he didn't--as he should have been able to--leave the area at once, realizing that a dragnet would shortly be underway and the area encircled. The area where he was believed to be hiding was so large, that authorities were unable to close off all roads leading out of the neighborhood. 

In short, there is nothing in what we have been told of the events of the bombing, or the pursuit of the bombers, that would inspire confidence either in our ability to identify and intercede, before the fact, or to "solve" the crime and apprehend the perpetrators. I see nothing particularly "heroic" or impressive about the abilities of the authorities to pursue the criminals. These two brothers were rank amateurs, who made every mistake in the book, and might still have gotten away with not only the terrorist act, but the subsequent deadly incidents, if they had managed to make any kind of intelligent escape plan, or had been just a bit more clever. 

It may be helpful to the American public, or to Boston's residents, to feel pride and relief, but there is nothing about the whole affair to make a sensible person feel secure, or proud of the performance of the local law enforcement. There was nothing but blundering incompetence shown here, from the failure to accurately identify a known terrorist suspect, to the lack of adeequate security at a public event, to the pursuit and capture of the equally incompetent suspect(s). If this is evidence that we're "winning" the war on terror, I think the victory has a hollow ring. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Wing Nuts in Never Never Land

If you've ever tried sky-diving (I haven't), or hang-gliding (not me), ballooning, or even high-diving into water, you may understand part of the attraction--as well as the sensible terror--involved in what is called Wingsuit Flying. Wingsuit flying involves jumping from a plane, or from a high cliff, and falling through space using a specially designed webbing (or wing) suit, which enables one to conduct a controlled glide through wide space or very close to the edge of a steep terrain. 

I was surprised to learn that people have been trying this out since the early 1930's, with limited success, until this century, when better engineered materials have permitted the invention of more reliable outfits. Everyone has seen film of people sky-diving, facing downward, sometimes in groups, the illusion of floating a visual trick. Parachute jumpers may reach speeds of 100-150 miles per hour in dead-fall, but sky-divers generally go slower through a controlled glide. Sky-diving is dangerous: Uncontrolled "spins" may lead to extreme dizziness, preventing the proper use of the parachute. 

But if familiar sky-diving seems absurdly dangerous and foolhardy, consider wingsuit flying. Rather than jumping from a high-flying craft, with miles and miles of open space within which to maneuver and focus on the safe cushion of air, wingsuit jumpers prefer to leap off sheer cliffs, placing themselves directly in the line of descent towards the ground. Thanks to the minor miracle of digital video technology, these jumpers are able to record their flights. Check out the following two videos--the first "Grinding the Crack" and the other "Gliding through the Crack Gorge"

At first, looking at these videos, you lose the sense of orientation, and must remind yourself that the slope of the descent is very much steeper than it can seem, as seen looking straight ahead from the vantage of the jumper. Traveling at speeds of 140 mph this way is a revolutionary step for humankind, albeit limited to a handful of daredevils willing to train and risk the worst. Jumpers wishing to try this maneuver must pass a daunting apprenticeship of hundreds of sky-dives, and then go through a build-up of easier jumps, gradually increasing difficulty. At the top of the sport, a few fearless wing nuts test the outer limits of possibility. Lest you assume that such feats are only accomplished in the outback, check out this scary descent between to twin skyscrapers, and at night!   

The ultimate in death-defying risk must be this fellow's desire to aim himself right through a rock window, at speed. This almost stretches credulity. Is this really happening?   

This one can literally take your breath away. If it seems visually stunning, imagine what it must feel like physically, the continuous sensation of falling, falling, the intense air pressure, the unrelenting demands of attention, constant adjustment and anticipation in which the loss of focus for even a tiny fraction of a second could mean instantaneous violent death on impact. 

What is it that drives individuals to put themselves at this edge of terror? Men have been testing limits for all of recorded history. Is this kind of stuff just dumb joyriding with a deathwish?  You might want to turn the sound off, or at least down a bit, as the accompanying music to this last one is a little brutal.

In dreams, we overcome the limits of gravity and fly. But my flying dreams were never like this. In mine, there is no fear, just the ecstatic release, an exalted sense of freedom combined with the drug of a new kind of power over my body. I think we want to know that someone, somewhere is trying things like this, though we may not want to experience the direct rush and mortal risk ourselves. Skateboarders, snowboarders, skiers, surfers, parasailors, stuntmen, race-car drivers. But these aren't things you just do; they require years of training and work, just to get to a level of competence that allows you access to the experience. 

Animals don't do this. It's our higher brains that are to blame. In space, weightlessness is the ultimate light-headedness. This is probably what attracts people to computer games.As for me, I was never even able to turn cartwheels.  At 6'4", I learned to dunk a basketball--my sole physical feat. In my work, I once met a professional stuntman, who had done all the stunts on the television series Sea Hunt (with Lloyd Bridges); he was a textbook case of all the different kinds of injuries you can suffer by trying the impossibleWhat are the survival advantages of these kinds of feats?

"Reality is greater than our dreams." --Frederick Sommer. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Salter's ALL THAT IS

I've spoken before on this blog about the novelist and short story writer, James Salter, in the Gallery of Heroes. Any book by Salter is for me an occasion, an event, an opportunity to celebrate. 

Salter's life has a dramatic shape. Beginning, almost by accident, with attendance at West Point, and a 12-year-long career as an Air Force pilot (seeing action in Korea), during which he managed to complete two published novels based on his service experience, he abruptly switched direction, resigning his commission, and starting a new career in the motion picture business which lasted over a decade. (His first published novel, The Hunters [1957], had been adapted by Hollywood.) This included script work, and even an independently directed film (Three, 1969). During which period, he managed to complete his first substantial book, A Sport and a Pastime (1967), before finally abandoning Hollywood altogether. Since then, his production has continued sporadically, with two short collections of stories, and two more novels (Light Years, 1975 and Solo Faces, 1979). That last work had an interesting germination. Working on the script of Downhill Racer (1969), the idea of writing a similar treatment for Redford led to a parallel narrative of a mountain climber. Since that book appeared, Salter had produced some travel journalism, and an autobiographical memoir (Burning the Days, 1997) but nothing substantial. 

Salter in middle age

Now, after a fallow period of about 25 years, his sixth novel appears. 

Not sure of what to expect, I responded to the advance publicity with some excitement, and read the book straight through, something I rarely do, especially with a writer whose prose I enjoy savoring, like Salter. It may be that this is Salter's "easiest" book, the prose flows effortlessly, and there is less density. It is in many ways, the most traditional of his novels, less poetic, more straightforward story-telling--more event, less impressionistic description--more accessible to the average reader. 

It may be that when you tire of a writer whom you've always loved before, it's something in yourself that has changed. A Sport and a Pastime is without doubt a young man's book. Though Salter was 42 when it was published, it seems the romanticization of a much younger sensibility. Many of the same kinds of themes that he first explored in A Sport were continued in the next two novels, and which reappear here again in the new work.  

Above all, Salter writes from a man's point of view. All the women in his books are beautiful, it seems, and the affairs they have are often, if not usually, with older men. Heterosexual calisthenics is celebrated with uninhibited gusto in his fiction, so that the more of his work you read, the more likely you are to feel that this is an aspect of his character, rather than the testing of limits. Sex is among the most difficult things to write effectively about, and Salter has mastered it. But what always made his work interesting to me was its style, the effortlessly deft metaphors, the shrewd pacing, the triple-edged ironies, and its majestic sadness--as elegant as a crumbling French chateau. But in the end, you realize that what makes great stories isn't the detail, the graceful sentences, the "attitude" of an omniscient narrator laying out scenes; it's the ability to make powerful actions, turns and dilemmas in the lives of characters we are persuaded to care about.           

Contemporary photo

In Salter's new novel, we trace the life of Philip Bowman, a WWII veteran who finds a life in the New York publishing world. This is clearly a world that Salter knows with some intimacy, though the interior concerns of editing and making books isn't his focus here. It's merely a platform for accessing the upper-middle class world of the rich, New York culture, European cities, and the beautiful and seductive (and available) women who people it. (One could say, too, that one meets here rather the same kinds of people one finds in the fiction of Marquand, Auchincloss or even O'Hara, though their versions are always less poetic, and they'd probably not credit the romance that Salter sees in them.) Here, for the first time, Salter traces a single life end to end, and for the first time we see him addressing the implications of a life devoted to the selfish dissolutions of those who live for pleasure, for the transitory indulgence. Too, we begin to see an underlying distrust of women which was probably always present in his work, though disguised by the lavish charm of its surface. This is a novel of some 300 pages, and at the end, after a life of failed relationships with a series of fascinating women, we feel, with the narrator, that Bowman's life has been a tragedy. 

In A Sport and a Pastime, the central character, a young American, pursues a French girl through an erotic tour of France. We never learn much of either one of these people, who seem like stand-ins for our vicarious curiosity. It's much the same in Solo Faces, we're seeing life through the eyes of a young, intense man with a single-minded devotion to a physical test. 

In All That Is, the saga begins during the end of WWII, as the Navy steams towards Okinawa and the final great battle in the Pacific. But we aren't concerned with Bowman's war experiences, only what will happen to him in the future. Almost by accident, he falls into the publishing business, and begins the first of a series of intense relationships, a marriage to a self-involved blonde patrician ingenue from the prosperous horse-farm country of Virginia, which ends in a mutual loss of interest. As the decades pass, Bowman encounters one after another of these ravishing women, each of whom seems, at the time, to offer the ultimate fulfillment. By the end of the book, all these relationships have come to nought. Unlike the earlier narratives, in All That Is we trace the hero's whole life, eventually at the threshold of old age, with the ultimate foe, death. In the earlier books, the male testing has an heroic quality, a challenge that each protagonist meets with confidence and aplomb. In All That Is, there are no such rigorous tests, only the ineluctable progress of failed encounters. Peripheral characters curve into the orbit of Bowman's existence, but they're so fleeting, and typical, that we hardly remember them. They're types of people, the kind the narrator dismisses as symbols or clichés of a certain class of privilege and presumption. 

Against the backdrop of Salter's previous efforts, here the routine of seduction, conquest and aftermath begins to seem wearying, and stale; by extending the scope of the mythic quest into later life, we're deprived of the luxury of romanticizing the physical, sensual thrall of the male hero's pursuit of ecstatic self-realization. Which may indeed be the secret trope. By the end of the book, we've become accustomed to the let-down, and as each new affair begins, we sense a skepticism, a slim hairline fissure that will eventually develop into separation. Am I wrong in sensing a whiff of misogyny here? At one point, having been jilted by one of his flames, cheated out of a house he paid for, Bowman later ruthlessly seduces her daughter, then leaves the girl (who must be less than half his age) alone and penniless in a Paris hotel room--a finely honed revenge. Even as we see him do this, we watch in disbelief as he glories in her beauty, her vulnerability, her trust. 

For me, that episode lies at the heart of the book's meaning. In the context of the post-War American excess of wealth and privilege, and the over-riding presumption of power (and the aura of potency) with which Salter always seems to be preoccupied, there is a self-delusion which is almost unconscious. Authors get to choose their characters, good or bad, but reading Salter's fictional narratives is like being inside a body that has little self-consciousness. Other figures, especially women, after an initial flurry of interest, seem hardly to matter. For all the deft touches which I always appreciated in his work before, I must admit that his characterizations lack a certain solidity. We sense life's richness, its fatal attractions, its deep undercurrent of sadness and waste. And there is always a dramatic awestruck aftermath of astonishment--after beautiful scenes, after sex, after the triumph of a physical excitement. But beyond that, there is only jealousy, envy, contempt, pity--that the world doesn't live up to its billing, to the protagonist's exalted expectations. Salter's heroes demand a lot of the world, and though they may be courageous, honorable, and attractive, they don't possess staying-power. And that's the message of All That Is: That a life devoted to the hedonistic model ultimately leads to dissolution and decay. 

In a short note preceding the text, Salter writes this--

There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real. 

What this means in the context of Salter's career as a writer is that, as he approaches the end, what endures is the record he has created (through his work), rather than any of the fleeting (though endlessly seductive) moments of a long life. All That Is addresses the riddle of mortality, of that fulcrum which balances the attractions of pleasure and indulgence, against the probable benefits of an enduring legacy. Salter set himself a high standard as a writer, but in the end, as E.B. White once said, "each of us who puts pen to paper writes of himself"; or, as the poet Charles Olson said, "people don't change; they only stand more revealed." The young boy of A Sport and a Pastime has grown up, has grown old. As he looks back over his life, the sexual conquests, the physical testing, the panoramic tapestry of the passage of time through the world laid end to end, is studied, and surmised. The verdict is ambivalent, as it must be. None of us can be completely sure of what it all has meant. Was it all a dream? If we could re-write the story, one more time, could we make it all come out right? Or would that be simply another story, another version of the great journey?    

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Toilet Paper - The Over-Under Debate

Of all the frivolities of modern culture, one of the most intriguing is the debate about what the correct position should be of toilet paper rolls. In surveys noted on Wikipedia, the "over" advocates always win out over the "under" faction, but the difference is not usually very great. More interesting, perhaps, are the reasons that people give for their preferences.

When I was growing up, our family invariably loaded the toilet roll over. When we visited other people's houses, I often noticed that the rolls were mounted under, and I was puzzled as to why this would be. I think my parents believed that people who mounted it under were being pretentious, as if under were a sense of exaggerated appropriateness--perhaps what we would today call political correctness. People who did under were more inhibited, perhaps more embarrassed by normal bodily function, who liked to conceal such things as much as possible. Going "under" meant a kind of subtly more faux polite attitude towards elimination, and a moral unctuousness that was almost religious in its aspect. Since, in our family, priggishness was frowned on, we tended to regard such behavior with private amusement.    

On the one hand, any earnest preference for one over the other might seem silly, since the actual effect of the difference is inconsequential. The social meaning of such distinctions is the subject of study by sociologists and psychologists, who measure the significance of such choices as clues or symptoms of behavior, towards a higher understanding of culture generally. But the process has its amusing side. 

Since bathroom behavior (and bathroom facilities) aren't something people normally talk about, the isolate opinions that people formulate on an individual level may tend to be eccentric or odd. Training and habit play a part, but it's when people speculate about the coded justifications for preference, that they may reveal things about themselves that they were hardly aware of.          

Of greater interest to me personally, has been the evolving technology of public facility appliances, the structure of bathrooms, of toilets, sinks, soap dispensers, and hand-drying devices. I seldom used such facilities when young, except in school restrooms. (Not many people rest in bathrooms, which is why calling them restrooms is evasive, something our puritanical ethos seems to demand.) 

The new brands of toilet paper dispensers seem to be designed to reduce the cost of paper usage, as well as the frequency of servicing them. The new ones I've seen are variations on the example shown below. They carry very big rolls, but prevent the user from accessing them except from a thin slit in the bottom. Some have two rolls, one on each side. What they all seem to have in common is that the paper is much narrower than traditional paper rolls, and it's not easy to pull enough out to accomplish the task. I've had fantasies of "institutional" toilet paper getting stingier and stingier, until it's about an inch wide. That would make using it nearly impossible, which would seem to be the ultimate end of these new design trends. Also, of course, the paper is thinner than ever, and even a bit rough. This makes it difficult to break evenly; and it tends to twist; and it can't be folded easily. All of which seems, as I say, very intentional. They don't want you to feel comfortable using it--that's the point. "Don't use the toilet paper!"      

I remember reading an account once about W.H. Auden, who lived a life of noble poverty, telling a visitor once (seriously), who was heading for the bathroom in his apartment, "only one section of tissue allowed!" 

Soft paper products are one of the marks of a civilization. We're blessed to have Kleenex and soft toilet tissue to use. In Russia and China and South America and Africa, such things are true luxuries. Perhaps it's true, as a poet I once met at Iowa told me, peeing outdoors is "healthy" (healthier than urinating inside, into a toilet). In many parts of the world, the "conveniences" are much less up to date than one might expect. When we lived in Japan, we experienced that culture's notion of dumping into an oval opening in the floor--something which, if you haven't tried it before, can present a real challenge. I've never used a bidet, but I can see how it might be a mark of higher hygiene, particularly in a society where regular bathing isn't a frequent routine.

Over or under, we're privileged to have toilet tissue at all, and we should be grateful for it, no matter how it's dispensed. For myself, I prefer a free-standing roll, which I can dispense in any way I choose. And I also prefer to use the "disabled" toilets in public, since they provide enough room to remove your coat, without dropping your sunglasses or wallet into the bowl, and the inward opening door doesn't force you back against the flushing appliance when you're trying to exit.   

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Greinke-Quentin Incident

It may be helpful, or at least helpful to know, that I have no particular feelings about either of the two men (Zack Greinke of the Dodgers, and Carlos Quentin of the Padres) who were involved in the bench-clearing brawl at Dodger Stadium last Thursday. That's because both players have spent their earlier careers in divisions that I don't follow--Greinke for the Royals and Brewers and Angels, Quentin for the Chicago White Sox. Both have had impressive years, Greinke winning a Cy Young in 2009, and Quentin having a string of impressive power years (2008-2011) with two All Star appearances. 

Though as a Giants fan, I have a healthy dislike for the Dodgers' organization, I really couldn't care less about the fate of either player. So I think I can be objective about the meaning and implication of this latest example of the "hit batsman" dispute which has been continuing for many years in professional baseball. Sports-talk shows have been chewing this over lately, and there's a lot of disagreement about how we should regard it, and what our appropriate response to it should be.    

A little background: It has always been the rule in pro baseball, that whenever a hitter is struck by a pitch, he is "awarded" first base. The technical rule is discussed clearly in this Wiki entry. There has been a history of teams using brushback pitches deliberately, and then of retaliation by the other teams' pitcher. Let's be honest about the dangers inherent in throwing at, or even accidentally hitting, a batter. Regulation baseballs are hard, and when thrown at speed by a pitcher, between, say 65-95 miles per hour, can be a deadly weapon. Head injuries ("beaning") can be very serious, even fatal. Hand, wrist, elbow, shin and foot injuries occur with some frequency, and many players wear protective gear to protect their arms and legs and feet. 

Effective hitting involves taking a position (a "stance") in the batter's box that allows the hitter to comfortably reach all parts of the strike zone (the "plate"). Stand too far away, and he can't reach an outside pitch. Stand too close ("crowding the plate") can make it difficult to hit an inside pitch. Generally speaking, players prefer to stand a bit closer than a bit further, particularly those with shorter arms. Stances are based on individual preference and style, but many players like the idea of standing closer, to have more leverage in covering the plate. Players who habitually do this may expect to be hit accidentally, from time to time, and there are even players who actually get hit regularly. Quentin is one of these players, who crowds the plate and has a record of being hit a lot.  

Back in the day, the great Willie Mays was routinely "decked" by aggressive pitchers; that is, pitchers would regularly aim a pitch right for Mays's head, and Willie would be forced to unceremoniously "hit the deck" to avoid being "beaned." In those days (1950's-1980's) umpires rarely were proactive in trying to prevent this kind of behavior. Mays was one of the first African American big leaguers to cross the color barrier, and this contributed to the disrespect shown him as a racial minority star player. Mays never retaliated by confronting opposing pitchers, though there often was retaliation by Giants pitchers "sending a message" to the opposing team by throwing at their players in response.   

Baseball was not designed to be a "contact sport." It's a game of "inches"--of controlled exertion, attention, timing, guile, honed skill, endurance, speed, power, and sequencing--but success, either at the individual or team level, has nothing to do with impact, except by implication (as intimidation). Physical collision can only occur in the normal course of a game, at second or third base, at home, and by the ball (hit batsman). Because of the limited opportunity for physical contact, and the relatively measured pace of games--a lot of poised waiting and readiness against a few seconds of very limited action-- baseball is very much a thinking man's game. Statistics and strategy dominate. Some men may play into their forties.        

Despite this, the macho aspect of the sport--exemplified by "dirty" players going in "high spikes" at second base, or a runner tackling the catcher at home plate to shake loose the ball, or of pitchers using "brushback" pitches to keep batters from being too aggressive at (or close to) the plate--has persisted. Arguments, or even fights are usually the result of an over-reaction by one or another player(s) about the challenge of a "physical" aggression. Physicality is usually regarded as provocation, which incites emotion and notions of unfairness. 

In the culture of this macho behavior, there are perceived limits to this marginal activity, though they're poorly defined, and technically forbidden by the rules of the game. Under what conditions is a runner allowed to "take out" a fielder on the base paths? How can an umpire decide that a pitcher has merely lost control of a pitch, or is intentionally throwing at a batter? What seems clear is that as a practical matter, the rules are routinely "bent" to accommodate a certain amount of provocation, as long as things don't get out of hand. Pitchers are routinely allowed to hit batters, but batters aren't allowed to charge the mound and confront the pitcher. Runners are routinely allowed to go in "high" with spikes flying, to take out a second baseman. 

My feeling is that base-running plays are more easily interpreted, and that dirty play by base runners should be punished. If a runner clearly is more interested in blasting the catcher off the plate, than he is in touching the plate, then he should be penalized. By and large, major league pitchers are considered skillful enough that they won't hit batters by accident. Especially successful pitchers--those with good or great control, who can hit a spot within 6 inches of a target--should under no circumstances be allowed the freedom to throw a pitch aimed directly at a batter's head or hip, especially at key points in a game. 

The culture of "retaliation," of pitchers "disciplining" batters with brushback pitches, of pitchers "sending messages" must stop. 

In the incident in question, Zack Greinke, who had hit Quentin twice in their previous meetings (over in the American League), threw deliberately at Quentin on this day, and followed this up with a verbal challenge. Batters are in a vulnerable position in the batter's box. There is no "acceptable" stance for batters, and pitchers don't have the right to force them away from the plate by sending "message" pitches. Whether or not you believe that baseball tradition exempts Greinke from any responsibility for this kind of behavior, Quentin cannot in any respect be held responsible for having provoked the act. Batters are up there to hit, or walk; there's the occasional player who makes little effort to evade being hit by an inside pitch, but the idea that a hitter must "expect" to suffer the occasional very dangerous warning from a pitcher is sheer nonsense.

In my view, despite their history, despite the culture of macho provocation and retaliation, Quentin had every right to be enraged by Greinke's violent challenge. In the scuffle that followed Quentin's charging Greinke, Greinke suffered a broken collar bone. Had Greinke actually hit Quentin with the pitch; had he even seriously injured Quentin, everyone would have been indignant and scornful of Greinke. But since Quentin decided to retaliate for an unprovoked act of violence, he's been suspended for his action. The Dodgers have bitched to the League office to suspend Quentin for the same number of days that Greinke will be out of action on the disabled list. 

In my view, Greinke got what he deserved. But obviously the ultimate solution to the problem of throwing at hitters is to make it illegal in the first place. If I had anything to say about the official rules, I'd advise the committee to institute a regulation which would automatically penalize any pitcher for hitting a player, whether by intention or accident. That would put an end hit batsman. All cries of unfairness to the contrary, if pitchers had nothing but punishment to contemplate, it would be the rare instance where a pitcher would be dumb or belligerent enough to threaten harm, if he knew there would be certain consequences. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Lobos --the Shrine

This photograph was taken in the late 1980's at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, just below Carmel along the California Coast. This is familiar terrain for landscape photographers, since the days when Edward Weston (and his son Brett) haunted it, beginning in the 1930's, looking for interesting natural subject matter. The Reserve is almost a shrine to Weston pére, whose images of it constitute one of the great loci, like Cezanne's Estaque, or  Cheever's fictional New England town St. Botolph's.  

Coming back from Japan in 1986, I was anxious to pay my own humble homage to the place, and traveled there several times in the late 80's and early 90's. The area offers a number of specific kinds of views and textures, all of which Edward discovered. Odd rock formations, windblown cedars, cypress, pockets of tide-pool, blustery surf, undulating pools--all bathed in a changing light, sometimes bright and dazzling, other times overcast, moody with mist and fog. 

I had wanted to get closer to this little rocky bluff, but there was no closer vantage, and the Reserve's rangers don't like you to stray outside the narrow little pathways laid down for visitors. I had my 8x10, but my 480mm lens was the longest I had with me. In the end I had to crop about 60% of the negative away to make this composition, which I had formed in my mind's eye through the ground glass. Though it's quite clear, if I had had my 600mm it could have been a bit better. Clarity of image, as with quality of reproduction (print) are debatable characteristics. Wonderful images sometimes don't depend upon the exactitude or technical precision of the final image. A communicable content may not be "in the details." But clear seeing is equivalent to clarity of image, and very clear photographs are an ideal for which one must almost always strive. This is what I saw on the ground glass.  

The great beauty of branches blown by wind over many years I've always found compelling. It seems to refer to a determination to survive, to bend without breaking, like the portrait of an old seafaring man with wild hair. In this picture, the arrangement of the rocks, wholly unplanned, seems to organize itself into a balanced composition, the counterpart of thrusts and lodged weights holding under the strains of gravity and settlement. There is a logic that dictates the positioning of everything in nature, neither man-made, nor man-related. To look at such phenomena in the natural world is to perceive the truth of a cosmic structure, which predates our witnessing of it, and tells an ancient story.

Someday, I'll need to get back to Pt. Lobos. It's calling to me, a summons I need to answer.    

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Bathroom Book

Reading in the bathroom is a cultural tradition. Whether sitting on the pot, or languishing in the tub, or sitting in the window alcove, reading in the bathroom is a form of pleasurable relaxation, an indulgence, a slightly louche depravity, a private thing which you don't have to share, a mixing of bodily service with mental diversion. 

Reading may be about waiting, or occupying yourself when there's nothing else to do. There's necessary reading, compulsive reading, ceremonial reading. But reading in the bathroom is about personal preference--you get to choose. 

Reading on the pot may not be a good thing. Doctors tell us that we shouldn't spend too much time there, since it can be a sign of unhealthy bowels. You can develop symptoms if you sit there too long. 

Reading in the tub's a different matter. If you stay too long, the water may get cold, or your skin may become water-logged, and wrinkle up. Some people like to drink in the tub. You can have music on, a drink on the ledge, and a novel in your hand. That's involving all your senses at the same time. And then there are people who like to keep a phone handy, just in case. But reading and talking on the phone seem mutually exclusive to me. Reading by yourself in the bath isn't the same as being in touch. It's more like being deliberately out of touch.   

I don't think there's a sexual distinction here. Anyone can read in the bathroom, and lots of people do.

What kinds of books are best for the john? Personally, in cases where I can't devote hours to the task, I tend not to prefer books that require a train of attention, like novels or non-fiction studies. I like to skip around and pick things at random. That means I like anthologies of poetry, or books of quotations, or selections of brief prose extracts, which you can sample, without having to keep track of characters and plots and threads of argument. I can read as much or as little as I like, and not get stuck in the middle, or frustrated by having to leave it hanging. 

While reading too long on the commode is not recommended, reading in the tub always carries the risk of water getting on your book, or of actually dropping your book into the water. It's best to confine your tub reading to cheap mass market paperbacks, just in case of accidents. 

Probably, in the current scene, people are more likely to want to be on the phone than reading a book. Reading a book is a solitary activity, and no one seems to want to be alone anymore. It's important today for everyone to be constantly tagging and tweeting and teasing each other on their hand-helds. The idea of occupying yourself for more than a few minutes, alone, may be an old-fashioned habit, may be more than some people can stand. Kids today, even young adults, seem to feel lost without their devices. "What's happening?!"

I gotta go.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Pound Ear [Part I]

In a previous post inspired by the work of Language Poetry and Poetics as espoused by Barrett Watten and Ron Silliman and Charles Bernstein, I addressed the issue of how criticism could occupy a place of privilege equivalent to original creative writing (or literature). Critical literary theory, or aesthetics, has a long and dignified history, dating all the way back to the Greeks (Aristotle). Propositions about the most effective forms of art have been the preoccupation of poets, playwrights, philosophers, journalists, and critics for two thousand years.  

Prose--whether of exposition or narrative fiction--may attain the level of art, but is it possible for critical prose--that is, non-fictional prose, which surveys or estimates the meaning and value of another art form, such as poetry or music or art--itself to be on a par with the creative significance we normally reserve for original artifacts? Can criticism be art? Or is it destined always to be a parasitic attachment to original creative acts? 

Great critics, like Edmund Wilson or George Steiner, may lay the groundwork for a fuller appreciation of works we either don't understand, or haven't figured out how to interpret, or to place within a context that makes their appreciation possible, or clearer. 

But there may be another kind of criticism, which belongs to another tradition, or which has come to define its own tradition, in the latter half of the 20th century. The so-called "cultural criticism" movement, which began largely in Europe after the war, gathered steam and migrated to America. Though ostensibly devoted to the progress and purpose of art, cultural criticism's deeper function may be purely self-generating, or self-directed. It may begin as consideration of a work or works, but move beyond these to a philosophical meditation or analysis of a whole civilization; as if the pretext, the work in question, is merely a starting-point or prompt. 

In America, the career and work of Hugh Kenner presents an interesting case of a critic whose insights and interests may be said to outstrip the boundaries of mere literary criticism, and to expand outward in widening circles of iteration and implication, far beyond the limits inherent in the pretext. Kenner's area of interest, as an academic and serious critic, was Modernism, and he wrote important books on the work of Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Beckett, Yeats and Williams, among others. 

In the disintegration of European culture which culminated in the events of World War I and after, he saw the Modernist movement as a reaction to that disintegration and a reformation of sensibility, made new. 

Reading is a creative act. That may be the most crucial innovation of the post-structural era. The idea that the principles or tropes contained within a given work are not fixed, but can mean quite different things to different people in differing circumstances. The undermining of the cultural power centres which took place in the American academy in the last third of the 20th Century is largely attributed to this idea. 

But if reading is a kind of collaboration between audience and artist, criticism may take on an autonomy which does not merely mediate between work and reception, but which actively revisions a work, building systematic adjunctive buttresses. Criticism may attain a separate integrity, independent from its model, standing alone. 

Any artist or writer desires great readers, or should. Artists or writers who are content to condescend to lesser minds or sensibilities, by pandering to reduced expectations or a standard of mere entertainment, can expect to be treated less seriously. The higher an artist or writer aspires, in terms of the ambitions and demands of a reading context, the higher the stakes. 

But if the terms of a work of art's apprehension become too hermetic or complex, the artist risks sealing himself off from his audience. Who can say what the membrane is between understanding and appreciation, accessibility and effect? 

In Kenner's great work, The Pound Era, we are treated to the deepest and subtlest probing of The Cantos imaginable. We are shown connections and correspondences which are either so obscure, or concealed, that we hardly guessed they were there. 

The Cantos is a confusing mass to most readers. Formally, it isn't organized in such a way as to render the ordinary reader's comprehension probable. That would suggest that a failure of structure, or of sense, might signal a deliberate distortion of intention. The Cantos imagines a reader so polymathic or ambitiously curious as to defy expectation. Though individual lines or references or stanzas may bulge out to recognition, the overall effect of the poem is of a chaotic mass, stretching and distorting into grotesque rhetorics and untenable notions. 

Yet Kenner is inspired by it to construct a rich tapestry of speculations and echoes and correspondences, weaving reference and antecedent and incident together to make a body of animadversion which is temptingly more fascinating and organized and interesting than its model. If texts are equivalent to sources, than all traditional forms are arbitrary expedients--media for the transmission of data.