Friday, September 27, 2013

The Expostulation Surveyed

Ever noticed how many kinds of sneezes there are?

The word sneeze has precious few synonyms. There's sniffle, snuffle, snort, sputter, wheeze, whoosh, sneer and puff. But none of these really is an equivalent noun. Most of them seem to be a description of the sound. In English, onomatopoeia refers to a word that "sounds like" what it means. But onomatopoeia is of course a Greek word (ὀνοματοποιία), a compound of "name" and "I make". Thus the Greek word actually means to "create a name"--not a word that imitates a sound. We actually misuse the original meaning of onomatopoeia; but that's a common thing in language: distortions and misapplications are happening all the time, either through creative redefinition or ignorance. Ignorance could be a driver of useful simplification, though it can also create havoc, as words are abused and lose their accuracy.

I've catalogued a lot of the kinds of sneezes there are, through simple observation. Types of sneezes seem to organize themselves into the following categories:




Stiflers are people who for one reason or another want to deny or suppress their sneezes. They may think that sneezing in public is not hygienic (spreading germs), or is indelicate (rude), or they're uptight and want to control their natural nervous energy. Stiflers will often use their hands to pinch their upper lip, or to put pressure on their nostrils. I've even seen some people make fists and close their eyes tightly, in an effort to hold down a sneeze, as if they were concentrating on a pain, or on some especially resistant mental quandary.

The Sprayers like to--or feel no alternative to--let it all hang out, so to speak. They accept the sneeze as a natural occurrence, even of enjoyment, and they welcome the sensation of release it provides. Snuff, of course, the finely ground tobacco powder, popular in Europe during the 16th to 19th Centuries, was an inducement to sneezing. Art and literature contain many representations or mentions of snuff-takers. The artificial inducement of the sneezing reflex is something which came to be identified with snuff, though it doesn't seem to have been the point--sniffing snuff was just a way of ingesting nicotine. Sprayers will either sneeze openly, or hold their hand or a handkerchief or tissue to their nose, to prevent the unwanted spread of the spittle or snot into the air around them. Snot could of course be added to the list of words that refer to or suggest sneezing.

Virtuosos are sneezers who make a veritable performance of a sneeze. With the consciousness of the approach of a sneeze, they engage in a "warm-up" including an intake of breath or a straightening of the back and neck, and then express the sneeze through both the mouth and the nose, even making singing or wailing or humming sounds during the performance. These people have taken spraying one step further. Sneezing, after all, is akin to having a small orgasm. Our autonomic nervous system, which is largely involuntary, runs the heart, breathing, swallowing, sexual arousal, as well as sneezing.

The capitulation to sneezing--or even the greeting of it--might be considered as a symptom of personality type. Stiflers may be people who habitually conceal their feelings, or at least any histrionic demonstration of them, as if they were "in church" all the time. Sprayers and virtuosos may be more uninhibited, more likely to express their emotions, or more forward in their human interaction. These are merely speculations, you understand, though I think many people would agree.

Then there are the variations in the kinds of sounds that sneezers make:






Stiflers are often chirpers. Women, especially, will often make a high-pitched "choo" or abbreviated "chuffing" sound. Since sneezing is associated with illness, the addition of a high-pitched note to a sneeze is perhaps an attempt to make the sneeze seem ephemeral or innocent, rather than the symptom of infection. Really sweet high-pitched "ah-choo" stiflers are a delight to listen to.

Grumblers are people with deeper voices, who seem to be holding the sneeze below the voice box, then, reluctantly, capitulating to it but with the "protest" of a kind of cough or grunt. They may be especially willful types, who want to master the body's unruly tendencies. Actually, grumblers are related to coughers, who may try to turn a sneeze into a cough, believing or feeling that that is a small victory over a full-blown, no-holds-barred, sneeze.

Hissers make sibilant sounds--s's or z's or whirring sounds--often with just a hint of a tone underneath. These variants often seem deliberate, as if the sneezer wants to "silence" the sneeze into a toneless rush of air.

Gulpers may be related to whoopers. Whooping is not accurately sneezing, but many sneezers may employ a kind of whoop voice wave sound, either as a build-up to the sneeze, or as an enhancement of the performance. The build-up is a common characteristic of many Sprayers and Virtuosos, who seem to be adding an enunciatory fillip to the impending act, or to give it a little boost of energy.

Pyrotechnics are the real virtuosos of sneezing. They regard sneezing as the opportunity literally to ex-press themselves, and will voice loudly and vehemently, or even operatically, through the sneeze, from build-up, release and sighing aftermath.

I have also noticed a variation in the number and frequency of sneezes. My wife, for instance, who was once a stifler but now tends towards chirping, always sneezes in groups of three. I seem to be either a one sneeze guy, or a two sneeze guy. Having more than two sneezes in quick succession makes me feel light-headed or even dizzy. I've always been a sprayer, though of course I always try to contain the spray, unless I'm outside or alone somewhere. Getting to have a really intense sneeze, outside, is actually a pleasure.

Physiologically, the sneeze is the body's way of expelling unwanted matter from the air passages. We can't reach in and clean the nasal passages, so the body needs to have a way of dealing with stuff in there. Nasal discharge helps lubricate the soft sensitive lining of the nasal cavity, to gather up dust and pollen and other substances that may irritate. When a boy, I had allergies to dust and cat-hair and certain pollens. In my thirties, I finally outgrew them, and have happily lived with two or three indoor cats for the last 30 years with no ill affects.

No one enjoys the feeling of being ill with the flu, and sneezing with the affects of nasal or throat infection is no fun. But sneezing as a momentary event or minor occurrence is perfectly natural, and not the evidence--as it was once thought to be--that one has been inhabited by a satanic influence. Even today, in our very post-superstitious world, people will obsessively exclaim "bless you!" if they hear you sneeze, as if the saying were a little prayer for righteous virtue. Some years ago, when I worked for the government, I had a Chinese client with the name Ah Chui. He was a nondescript and polite little man. In Chinese, the word for sneeze probably doesn't sound anything like "ah-choo!" since it is recognized that different cultures actually "hear" things differently.

Do people in other cultures sneeze in characteristic ways, different from our own? Is sneezing--the manner of it--something we "learn" to do at an early age? Is it possible to learn to discipline the body to suppress the sneeze impulse deliberately? These are important questions which remain to be answered. For my part, I'm neutral on the issue of sneezing. I don't want to sneeze more, but if a sneeze comes, I'm not opposed to experiencing it, without attempting to suppress it. On the other hand, I'm wary of repeated sneezing, which is often the harbinger of the coming of a case of flu.

Bless you! 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Eggleston's Tricycle

William Eggleston - Memphis [circa 1969-70]. Dye-Transfer Print

It's not always easy to say why a certain photograph works. Often, that difficulty is a measure of a picture's success. 

Our brain processes visual data in ways that are not completely understood, but we do know that it begins by transferring initial signals into an adjusted orientation--upsidedown to right side up, transposing left and right, so that we can respond to our "actual" position in space. Sensitivity to color varies from individual to individual, but the color spectrum can be objectively represented on an accurate graph, based on frequency of the waves of light. 

The symbolic and intuitive and denotative senses of things among perceivers are ambiguous and never completely specific. We all see and feel experience a little differently, and even if we share the same rough history or environment, there will always be isolating qualities of our selves which are fixed inside our uniqueness. But common properties can still be assigned to "universal" objects and relationships. As children, we enter the world by stages; we aren't mature enough to drive an automobile, or to handle guns, or to experience sexual interaction. Instead of driving cars, we learn to navigate on small scooters, or tricycles, like the one above. 

American childhoods are built out of "toys" like this, and over time, these toys become iconic symbols or images of our common heritage of shared memory. We've all ridden tricycles as children, and we've seen them from a million different vantages, in as many different ways as there are. But there lies hidden, in and around the world we live in, views and angles of vision which we may not notice, may never know are there, simply because no one ever had thought to bring them to our attention. 

Most of the time, in our lives, things seem "normal"--that is, they seem as if they're the way they're supposed to be, where they "belong." So as our eyes scan our environment, we tend not to "see" a lot of what's there--it just all fits in to the general gestalt of our familiar surroundings. There's a sense of permanence, constantly being altered by the progress of decay which is the entropic fact of the universe.

When we grow up, we can remember some of what happened to us as children, but not all. Some people recollect more, some less. What we tend to forget is how things may have looked to us when we were just "little people"--only 3 or so feet tall. What did it feel like to look "up" to adults, those monstrous big creatures ambling around, towering above us? We wanted things to be smooth, and happy, and fun. Adults moved in a world of commands, responsibilities, stern denials and mysterious motives. We were under their power. They praised us, or scolded us, or ignored us, or kept us moving in the right direction. 

The photographer William Eggleston's work presents art that is superficially bland, even banal--made up of people and buildings and vehicles and landscapes that aren't asking to be seen, or studied, or appreciated. The things in his pictures just are. You can see scenes like this every day of your life and not have any particular feeling about them at all. But when you look at an Eggleston photograph, something else is definitely happening. I could go on talking about his work generally for a long time, but I need to focus on this one image.

The vantage-point of this image would be about 1 foot or so from the ground. The photographer was probably lying right on the ground, or maybe sideways. He liked the relationship that the trike created, framed against the neighborhood house in the background. The bike seems huge from this view, and that is precisely what we notice, perhaps subconsciously, right off the bat. We're returned to the perspective of our childhood, when we saw things from nearer ground-level. As a kid, I remember I used to like to turn my head upsidedown and see things from that perspective. The perspective in this photograph might be just a bit exaggerated, i.e., the lens might have been just a bit wider that "normal" focal length, making the background appear further away than it really is. 

So there's this trike, and it's not being ridden. There are no people in this photograph. There's an implied narrative, unspecified, that could be deduced from the placement of things here. Has the trike been left out on the sidewalk? Is the distance between the trike and the house a kind of measure of the degree of freedom or attachment the rider senses? The trike is a metaphor for getting some place. As kids, we will grow up and leave home, and our bikes, then the cars, become the vehicles for that departure. 

Of course, there are disturbing narratives too. The owner of this bike is gone, or he/she is missing. What might that mean? Has the kid been kidnapped?! We don't know. How much should be deduced from a situation like this? It's certainly possible to read too much into any situation. And yet this is something we do all the time. We make up stories.

Is childhood a time of certainty, or of doubt? Riding a trike is just a pleasant activity, feeling the sense of efficient movement, control, performing a simple task.

As our childhood inexorably recedes from us, the part we played in the time of our life becomes smaller and smaller, like a shrinking memory. In the picture, the tricycle occupies a foreground between the viewer, and the recession of time represented by the house in the distance. The house may stand for the world we were born into--its pleasures and terrors, its security and ephemeral stability. In the suburban paradigm, this home is not a farm, or a cave, or an apartment building, or a castle; it's the American mid-century world that Eggleston is documenting: The slightly over-rich Kodachrome color palette, the post-War preoccupation with building up pathetic little archives of personal, familial history, which seem so futile in retrospect . . . . It has a quality of sad absence, a wistful sense of passing that is not grandeur, or monumentality, or joy. The trike, though, is magnified in our vision of it. They say that as we get into old age, our mid-range memories recede, while our earlier, or earliest memories become more vivid. A favorite doll, an early playmate, a special toy, a certain place may expand in importance, in retrospect.

The photograph is like a diagram of the structure of mortality, how the material world, which surrounds us, and of which we are a part, is moving gradually towards an end which is our death. Reality can only have a meaning for us in the brackets of this segment of consciousness. The rusted tricycle exists only in a ghostly suspension, a context we outgrew. In the brief slice of time represented by the trike--the color slide of the shutter's click--a whole civilization comes and goes in the blink of an eyelid. But in our mind's eye, which is where memory lives, there is the fragile template of our own regard. We may long to return, or resist that disintegrating legacy, but it is beyond change. We escape the past, only to discover the inevitability of the present--a presence that is constantly dissolving into an irretrievable past.  

You can't go home again--Thomas Wolfe.  


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Elephant in the Room - How Population is Ruining the Planet

As non-human species continue to be pushed into extinction, so must the intellectual metaphors derived from them become extinct too. Trends in human expansion and exploitation of the earth are nearing crisis stage, or are already here. 

In the 2013 Consensus Statement from Global Scientists by the Millennium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere, released this last May, there are five major areas of concern: Climate Disruption, Extinctions, Ecosystem Transformation, Pollution and Population Growth and Resource Consumption, in addition to an "interactions" summary which describes how all these effects produce accelerated and compounded synergistic consequences. 

Over the last quarter century, birth rates, primarily in the major developed nations, have been declining. As the report details, however, the population of the earth, which presently stands at roughly 7 billion, is expected to rise to 10 billion by mid-century (2050). While birth rates have been declining in some places, in others they've been rising. The human population of the earth has tripled in just a little over half a century. The wave of increase will continue to push the numbers ever higher, despite an expected moderation of increase in the immediate coming decades. 

As the report says, although each individual contribution to global change and consumption is tiny, when multiplied by billions, the effect becomes inordinately large. The loss of habitat (and open space), the exhaustion of available resources (including food, energy, raw materials for clothing and shelter and goods), the extinction of other animals and plants, and the growing mass of pollution (sewage, garbage, and industrial waste) all are direct consequences of rapid, uncontrolled population growth. 

Today, 80% of the world's population lives below the poverty level. A third of the world's people lack basic sanitation. 15% lack access to fresh water and any kind of health services. And these numbers are growing worse. 

Despite the most dire predictions for human catastrophe, including famine, plagues, poor quality of life and hopelessness, the issue of population control has virtually disappeared from the public political arena of debate. 

Here in California, despite a mathematical decline in domestic birth rate, we've seen a 30% increase in population, almost exclusively the result of an increase in immigration (10 million of a total population in the state of 38 million), most of it illegal. The population of Mexico has tripled, in the last 50 years, to over 105 million. The direct effect of the poverty of third world nations, such as Mexico, has been to drive populations, as "diaspora" refugees, into neighboring regions, such as the U.S. Critics point out that what the streams of illegals are seeking is economic freedom and opportunity. But the real driver is uncontrolled population growth, in a country that cannot support them. 

We have seen how the "global economy" exploits these inequalities, at the expense both of the industrial nations, and the backward ones. The great irony of the modern world is that, had population not so rapidly overtaken us, the improvements of technology and farming and health and transportation would have permitted a prosperity around the world that would have astounded thinkers and dreamers just a century or so ago. The quality of life which we enjoy in what used to be called the "civilized nations" of the world--if it is to be perpetuated--depends on a sustaining balance between numbers of people, and the available resources and space.  

There are those who point out that if and when prosperity can be spread, birth rates will come down there as they have here. But the new global economy model has had just the opposite effect, by driving down the standard of living, and therefore encouraging over-population as a consequence. Rather than helping deprived nations to streamline the consumption of resources, which will only deepen the crisis, we need to be devising ways to slow population growth. 

Population growth inevitably drives demand, and over-demand destroys the environment, and the quality of life, not just for people, but for all living things, with it. Do we want a crowded planet, perpetually teetering on the edge of eco-bankrupcy, or a sustainable pathway where fewer people live better, more fulfilling lives? There are certain subjects which almost no one wants to address. Even the Sierra Club has abandoned the issue of population, worried that the public will think it's too "un-PC" a topic. When all the forests have been cut, all the rivers dammed, the aquifers drained, the atmosphere fouled, the seas barren and polluted, will it be a place anyone wants to live? 

The capitalist model demands more, always MORE! More people, more stuff, more consumers, more money. 

When the world population crashes, as theorists and economists and scientists believe it is on a course to do, the "correction" that will bring humankind back to "level" will likely involve the miserable death and suffering of billions of people--the dreaded apocalypse predicted in early religious texts. Whether this occurs as a war, or a famine, or a plague, or some combination of these, is imponderable. But we do know it will happen, without some moderation of current trends. Business as usual won't get us out of this dilemma.    

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A la Maniere de Pauline Kael - the new Anna Karenina

There has always been a strong tradition of fantasy in Hollywood films, and the re-cycling of classic material was present from the beginning. In theatrical productions, big panoramic narratives were limited to a few set-scenes in which the sweep of landscape and large-scale adventure was merely referred to off-scene. What movies brought to historical fiction and recorded historical or Biblical accounts was a sense of the dimensions and echoing reverberations of crucial events.

Keira Knightly--is that a hair-lip, or an expensive plastic surgeon's mistake? 

Straightforward narrative adaptation carries risk. There is always the danger of conducting a slavish adherence to a plot line, which can be very powerful and convincing in a novel or a narrative poem, where the author can throw emotion and implication into sharp relief with explanation or interior meditations; but in a movie, slow moving, heart-rending involvements among characters can put an audience to sleep. Daytime television soaps have been built on this fluff and nonsense for decades, but movie-makers have known for a long time how dangerously melodrama--as a generic alternative to action--can turn out.

Did this guy wander in from the set of Sailor's Night Off?

In the 19th Century, hand-wringing cliff-hangers were born. Dickens, a popular purveyor of the early forms of schlock in literary fiction, picked up on the theme of the billet-doux (Richardson had invented it a century earlier), and expanded it into a vehicle for muckraking and vicarious serial obsession. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is many things, but it is first and foremost a story of adulterous degradation, romantically driven, among the European upper-classes, amidst the tumult of late 19th Century Russia.

What Tom Stoppard, the playwright/screenwriter, and the director, Joe Wright, seem to have wanted to do with this old warhorse was to provide a camp, post-Modern conceptualizing frame, taking the story on its face and dressing it up in exotic drag. There's precedent for this, of course. Ken Russell, in the Music Lovers, or Mahler, or Lisztomania, indulged in a kind of free-lance variation that glorified the over-romanticized fantasy-vision the subjects' music seemed to evoke. The pop-operas of Andrew Lloyd Webber, which contain elements taken from grand opera, musicals, music-hall, to front essentially uninspired musical ideas to audiences unfamiliar with real opera.

Tom Hooper's recent Les Miserables, a pathetic light opera dramatization of Victor Hugo's towering novel, set the stage for fellow "innovative pioneers" like Wright, looking for precedents to justify the dismantling of other seriously conceived works of literary or dramatic art. It's really only a hop, skip and a jump from Johnny Depp mugging and smirking in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the latest Pirates of the Caribbean episode, to the mooning, dewy-eyed Aaron Taylor-Johnson sashaying in circles around Keira Knightly as the anorexic Anna. There's about as much erotic energy between these two onscreen to keep the energizer bunny strutting for one half second. Pardon my indelicacy, but am I the only one who's grown tired of Knightly's weirdly constructed face, which looks as if she's had an operation for a cleft palate?

The early scenes of the film take place on a traditional stage. The curtain rises, and the action begins. As things progress, scene shifts take place right in front of the viewer, as if we were following a hand-held through a round-robin of shifting sets. This constant shifting gets a little trickier as the movie progresses, but the point seems to be to emphasize the dramaturgical clunkiness of trying to make a movie out of static stage set-ups. In some scenes, the extras go through choreographed syncopated motions, in once instance, clerks at desks all thumping ink stamps in unison. In another scene, dancers in a formal ballroom are frozen while the lead couple moves among the inanimate groupings. Actors move up wooden stairways to the catwalks above the stage, where other scenes take place in suspended  space. In another, a horse race begins right on the stage, and in a screwy climax, the horse takes a flying leap off the stage into the audience. With all this chaotic, expressionist nonsense, I half-expected the participants to break out in song. If this were Les Miserables, they would have. If Woody Allen were directing, Konigsberg would leap out of a flaming ring in a cossack's cloak, spouting Spinoza or Nietzsche.

Undermining your own drama with awkward theatre props and surrealistic effects may work with something like Orlando [1992], where the story-line is already an elaborate fantasy with sci-fi pretentions, but attempting to treat a straight late Victorian novel by Tolstoy as if it were a Philip K. Dick daydream is just dumb. Like everyone else in this mess, Jude Law was miscast as the "older" husband of Anna, but at least he soldiers through with something like honest conviction. The rest of the cast probably understood very early on that they were trapped inside an absurd flop, and did their darndest not to be noticed. Joe Wright apparently believes that he was born to direct movies, that he's more comfortable behind a cameraman than doing anything else. Since Robert Altman did Nashville [1975], directors have come to believe that the less control they exert over the making of an ambitious movie, the better. Wright's enormous failure here is but another demonstration--if one were needed--that "accidental" movie making is just an excuse for being unclear on the concept.

In the end, we're left wondering whether this new Anna Karenina is destined to become one of the great camp spoofs. If it doesn't, it won't be for lack of trying. What's next, the Disney version of Boogie Nights? Maybe Coppola could come out of retirement and do a remake of Hairspray!                    

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Modest Proposal

I live in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. I commuted to San Francisco for 27 years, progressing through the AC Transit Bus system, the Bay Area Rapid Transit train system, and the private automobile. For the last 12 years or so, I didn't work on Fridays, so I never had the misfortune to experience the so-called "Critical Mass" bike traffic jam which has developed into a regular tradition in San Francisco. For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Critical Mass movement is a bikers' protest organization whose primary function is the disruption of urban vehicular traffic by devoted bicyclists, a monthly event designed to dramatize the plight of cyclists in a mostly car and truck dominated public street system.

The movement began overseas, in Sweden, but was co-opted by local activists. The movement started small, in the early 1990's, but has grown in scale, and has spread to other places, including Chicago, London and elsewhere. 

When I was a kid growing up in the 1950's and 1960's, I enjoyed riding my bike all around our little suburban neighborhood. I had a big newspaper delivery route for four long years, with over a hundred customers. I couldn't have done it without my bike. In those days, bicycles were considered childrens' toys, and by the time I was 14, social pressure made me store mine permanently in the garage: Bikes were for sissies, unless you were training for the Olympics. There's no doubt that my bike served me well, and when I had a job during my last summer before grad school, I got a three-speed narrow-gauge to commute with. I don't know what happened to that bike, but it was the last time I ever depended upon one. Years later, thinking to get some exercise, I got an early version of the new "trail bikes" which had reintroduced the thicker tire after it went out of style--and underground--for a couple of decades. 

Today, biking has had a renaissance. I don't know if kids ride bikes like they used to, but grown-ups are riding them in ever-increasing numbers. Partly in reaction to the problems associated with automobile pollution and energy over-consumption, bikes have become symbols of the disenchantment people are having about automobiles generally. 

There are good reasons not to drive cars. People have become too dependent upon them, and our reluctance to walk or cycle places is making us unhealthy. We're a lazy people who over-eat and under-excercise, and there's a good argument to be made against the continued over-reliance on automobiles. America's "romance" with the automobile has turned our cities and towns into parking lots, and our highway system has distorted our landscape with huge monstrous structures of overpass, access roads, and walls. The great majority of people need to use their cars less; there's no question about it.  

But our culture is built on a transportation system based on vehicular access. America's prosperity was constructed out of the manufacture and private ownership of the automobile. The ownership and use of cars has permitted us to live more conveniently, with less crowding, and greater efficiency, than at any other time in human history. Our ability to move about freely has permitted us to live and work and play and travel in ways that could hardly have been imagined, less than a century ago. Our present dependency upon this transportation paradigm is completely integrated into our daily lives. For better or worse, the automobile is how our society functions. Without it, most of the things we take for granted would be impossible. 

Without addressing the larger problems of our transportation systems as a whole, I would point out that our inner cities are crowded and busy, and this congestion is both a cause and a consequence of the complex, interdependent connectivity of the modern world. Prosperous and active cities are symptoms of a rich economy, and a rich cultural matrix as well, and whether we like it or not, the automobile is a crucial part in that interdependence and richness. Most of what we do and consume is only really possible with many vehicles constantly moving people and goods around.       

All that activity comes at a price. One of the prices we pay for this interconnectivity and bustling movement is dirt and congestion, and the danger of collisions. Our major metropolitan areas accommodate cars and trucks and busses and even trains, as well as pedestrians, but they weren't designed with bicycles in mind. Motorcycles can compete with cars, because they can maintain speeds and maneuverability that place them on a level plain with four-wheeled vehicles. Not so with bikes. 

In the inner city, the only bikes that really "belong" are those ridden by professional deliverymen, who ferry mail and small parcels between buildings and businesses, using their small profile to weave in and out of traffic and pedestrians without getting hung up on clogged city streets. 

In our highly mobile society, it's certainly possible to imagine that a small percentage of working people with jobs in the city can as conveniently commute on bikes as they can in automobiles. Weather permitting, they can save money, cut down on the total number of private cars being used, and even save themselves some drudgery (being caught in commuter stalls). But public transportation is designed specifically to service people in this circumstance.  

We know that in parts of the rest of the world--specifically in places where automobile ownership is limited--do depend upon bicycles, and we also know about the problems they can cause. When the number of unpowered human bicycles reaches a certain "critical mass" nearly all traffic movement becomes a nightmare. There may come a time when our own country reaches this "critical" tipping-point, and streets that accommodate both kinds of vehicles will become impassable. 

In the meantime, it seems reasonable to suggest that our city governments outlaw the use of private bicycles within certain urban precincts, not only for the convenience of flowing traffic and commerce, but for the protection and safety of private cyclists. This may seem counterintuitive, given the context of our recent trends towards establishing bike-lanes and pedestrian malls. But it seems perfectly obvious that unless we are willing to abandon the systems of portability and exchange that facilitate our infrastructure, and everything it provides for us, we had better curtail the increase in bike traffic in corridors that are crucial to our well-being and convenience. Police, first-reponders, ambulances, workers, taxis, buses, utility services--these all command a higher standard of access than private bicycles--particularly those ridden by people who literally have "no business" in the inner city.

It's a modest proposal, but undoubtedly one calculated to arouse the ire of self-styled bicycle activists. The more the Critical Mass bicyclists press their case, the more likely that such counterproposals will be contemplated, as well they should be. Weekend bicycle-hobbyists hogging country-roads, flipping the bird and screaming at vacationers is one thing. Thugs on bikes deliberately bringing Friday commute traffic in major city centers to a halt is another.  

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Princess

Grace Kelly [1929-1982] was that anachronism, a commoner who rose through the ranks of the entertainment business to achieve literal royal status as the Princess of Monaco. Monaco--which I've written about here before ("The Prince of Monaco Was Sick of English Ladies")--is but a tiny principality on the Southern coast of France--little more than a couple of miles in length. Nonetheless, its ruler is a titled aristocrat.  

 Map of Monaco along the French Coast

View of the Principality of Monaco from the air

Princesses are more traditionally born than they are made--through marriage. In the case of Grace Kelly, her rise to nobility seemed no more than fitting. A natural blonde beauty with a model's lines, and a classic caucasian face, she exuded an aristocracy of bearing in a series of Hollywood feature films. Her career might have continued indefinitely, had she not had the occasion during the filming of the iconic sophisticated comedy-intrigue To Catch a Thief (Hitchcock, Paramount, 1955), which takes place on the French Riviera and was filmed there on location, to meet the bachelor Prince Rainier III in nearby Monaco. After a whirlwind of a romance, she became a princess on April 18, 1956, at the age of 25. At the time, it was touted as the marriage of the century.

Though it meant the end of her film career, Kelly's marriage to Rainier made her seem even larger than did her fame as a film star. She bore the Prince three children, and carried out her duties during her reign with the utmost formality and aplomb. She died on September 18th, 1982, while driving on the serpentine road above the Riviera, losing control of the car due to a stroke. She was only 52. 

The primary function royalty serves in our time is as a focus of the public's vicarious fantasy-consciousness. Many people seem to need larger-than-life figures upon whom to project their hopes and curiosity and attention. Though we know we have no chance to have the experience these figures do, we may seem to share in their triumphs and travails, just by following the news of their comings and goings, the otherwise trivial events in their highly public lives. Royalty, in our time, has become nothing more than the official duty of acting out the part; as Hitchcock quipped, he was "very happy that Grace has found herself such a good part." As indeed she had.

As the anniversary of her death approaches, here's a seductive and sophisticated new cocktail concoction which captures the spirit of the pristine, flawless figure she cut in the world. Princess is often used as a derogatory term for women who may appear to believe they possess an unwarranted gift of nobility, of deserving adoration or esteem or idolatry simply on account of their looks, or their precious conceit. 

In the case of Grace Kelly, she became a real live "Her Grace, The Princess". There was nothing fake about her nobility. 

As usual, by proportion, gently shaken with ice and served up in chilled cocktail glasses.

3 Parts white (dry) vermouth
2 parts gin
1 part Green Chartreuse
1 Part fresh lemon juice
1/2 part St. Germaine liqueur