Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"Spare the Air Days" - Travesty of Media Manipulation

When I was growing up in the Bay Area in the 1950's, there was little or no regulatory control of air pollution in America. In those days, the route from Northern and Central California, Hiway 80, into the San Francisco Bay Region, via San Pablo Avenue, threaded through Vallejo, across the old Carquinez Strait Bridge, and the towns of Crockett, Rodeo, Hercules, San Pablo, Richmond,  Berkeley and Emeryville, before turning onto the Bay Bridge towards San Francisco. That was before Hiway 80 was extended across the inland hills and onto the tideland bay-fill flats of the eastern shore. 

In those days, when the road led right through the midst of the Rodeo Refinery (now owned by Phillips 66) plant--an enormous forest of chemical towers, smokestacks and piping structures--the air quality in and around the plant was simply beyond belief. In those days, before the construction of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, transport between Richmond and the Marin Peninsula was by ferry, and the road to the Richmond Point Shore slip led right along the edge of the huge Chevron Petroleum Refinery, beneath the range of low hills where dozens of glowering cylindrical holding tanks were ranged. Driving through the Rodeo Refinery then was a daunting gauntlet, in which normal respiration was impossible. One drove at high speed, with car windows up, holding one's breath for as long as one could, to avoid inhaling the noxious, stinking fumes spewing from the countless stacks of smoking discharge. 

Anyone living within a mile of these huge plants was at dangerous risk of a number of health problems, including extraordinary lung cancer rates. Beginning in the late 1950's, state and federal agencies initiated a number of regulatory curbs on the plants, and by the 1970's, there had been relatively significant improvements in the air quality at and around their immediate vicinity. The petroleum industry fought these initiatives at every turn, and the history of their compliance has been marked by repeated acts of open defiance, absorbing symbolic fines and penalties while routinely exceeding statutory limits on the amount and kind of pollution they release into the environment.       

The effect of the refineries on Bay Area air quality is severe. Even at the markedly reduced levels we experience today--many times less blatant than they once were--populations living within their immediate geographical region can expect to suffer a number of serious health consequences. These effects occur year round, 365 days a year. Frequent "emergency" "accidents" occur on a regular basis, during which large releases of toxic substances blanket the surrounding urban and suburban precincts with foul-smelling chemical clouds which settle and linger in the landscape. 

The Bay Area enjoys a marine aspect. That is, due to its proximity to ocean breezes and cooling fogs and general mild atmospheric turbulence, the worst effects of this ongoing pollution are not noticed, because they are literally shifted away. San Francisco and the Marin Headlands are notoriously windy places. 

But during periods of stagnant air massing over the Bay basin, this natural sweeping action is suspended, and the sources of pollution become more concentrated. Pollution levels build up, and the  agencies (such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District) tasked to look after the health of the environment and inhabitants of the region, issue warnings designed to allow people to avoid the worst aspects of air-born pollution, wherever they may reside.        

Over the last couple of weeks, due to a general warming trend in the Bay Area, we've been hearing a lot lately about the stagnant air mass, and have been alerted to what are called "Spare the Air Days"--with calls for less driving, less private combustion, and burning generally. People are being advised by the commercial network news programs' weather-persons to refrain from burning in their fire-places, and barbecuing, etc.     

When stagnant air masses settle over the bay, the first thing you notice--if you're paying attention--is the unmistakable odor of burning oil. As residents of the East Bay Hills, we've become familiar with this smell, a phenomenon which occurs whenever breezes stall, or when the prevailing winds shift from the Northeast, to the East, or back towards the West, and the pollution is blown back across surrounding cities and residential neighborhoods. In other words, whenever stagnant air conditions persist, the population is once more reminded that the actual cause of our local pollution is the oil refineries. Wood burning hasn't been a significant source of pollution in the Bay Area for decades; most people heat their homes with natural gas or electric heaters, or with radiant heat from heated water circulation systems. The actual effect of wood-burning, as a contributor to local pollution, is negligible, in the larger scheme of total measurable pollution. 

Why do we routinely hear these "warnings" about air quality, with reminders to "spare the air" by driving less and not lighting fires in our fire-places? There is no doubt that any moderation of the burning of fossil fuels is a good thing, and any reasonable excuse that discourages us from unnecessary use is probably a good thing too. I'm certainly not suggesting that people pretend that all sources of pollution--both essential and flagrantly irresponsible (and within our control)--should be ignored. Quite the contrary.   

The petroleum corporations want to divert the public's attention away from the obvious fact of the continuing levels of pollution which they cause and produce. When stagnant air causes the petroleum refinery pollution to be noticed, the public is reminded again of the dangers in its midst, and the issue becomes a public relations problem for Chevron and Conoco Phillips. Dampening the public's perception of the continuing environmental crisis which these plants cause is crucial to the industry's attempts to control political sentiment, and keep down the costs of controlling the pollution they produce. (Anyone with ears and eyes has been reminded repeatedly of BP (British Petroleum)'s public media campaign to salvage its image following the gulf oil platform disaster. "We're just good people trying to do a good job, and you can rest assured that we will continue to provide cheap energy with a minimum of impacts on the environment." Right.)  

Who are the media affiliates fooling? Do they think the residents of the Bay Area are so naive as to believe that wood burning is really a major source of our local pollution? Or that vehicular use, during the Christmas holidays, when more people are off the roads on vacation, not commuting in typical numbers, is the real cause of the air quality "crisis"? They must.  

As a result of fracking, across the U.S., there are some who now predict that America will become "energy non-dependent" within a decade. We once might have regarded that development as a blessing. Fracking is a technology that has been known about for decades, but has not been "perfected"--made economically viable-- until recently. Unfortunately, the environmental hazards and devastation it brings will make large parts of our country essentially uninhabitable. What price are we willing to pay to achieve "cheap" energy. Of course, there is no such thing as "cheap" oil--there never was. The costs are hidden behind a public relations campaign to conceal both the short- and long-term effects of continued over-exploitation and consumption.

Our planet is a bank, and there is only so much treasure contained within it. If we spend imprudently, and use up our precious equity (resources) as if there were no tomorrow, there won't be a tomorrow--at least on the terms we dream of. 

The first step in moderating our consumption of world resources is population control; need can overwhelm supply, no matter how conservative our approach to use. The second step is to husband the resources we have, so we don't use them up faster than necessary. The third involves research into less dangerous and dirty forms of energy, which don't harm the environment, and which aren't literally finite. Science may eventually make our present predicament look like child's-play, but we won't know that until and/or unless we get lucky and actually solve that problem. 

In the meantime, we should stop letting ourselves be duped into believing that the undesirable side-effects of petroleum exploitation, purification and consumption aren't costing us dearly. Maybe we want to be told that everything is rosy. Maybe we like not being reminded of the poison in our midst. People can be very immature, especially when they lie in a pleasantly reassuring media bath. Wake me up when the crisis is over. The world is getting better. Eventually we'll solve this problem. In the meantime, don't bother me. Is that some guy barbecuing steaks on his grill, or is Conoco-Phillips spewing a little more shit into the atmosphere this evening? Don't depend on the local weathermen to tell you. If we were routinely kept informed about the real dangers and harm the refineries are continuing to cause, we might not be so forgiving. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Least Marketable Skill in America (Ya gotta love it)

Only in America.

There are ways to make a living, and there are ways to make a living. In America, even criminals can think of themselves as responsible family men. But in the entertainment industry, comics and clowns and magicians and gurus and dumb pet trainers all can find a place. It's the land of opportunity.

I don't know how Gar Ryness got started, but his first home video went viral in 2009, and he hasn't looked back. The National Pastime will never be the same, now that the mimics have hit the scene, and every star's quirks are the stuff of once and future legends. 

BattingStanceGuy now has is own website, and has been featured in several news stories and media feature pieces, including The New York Times. Basically, Ryness's shtick is to imitate (or make impressions) of the physical stance (with all the antics and peculiar poses etc.) of professional baseball players when they're batting. 

Traditionally, batting stance and swing theory have emphasized certain basic requirements. In order to complete a swing, with a minimum of wasted energy and delay, a batter should stand with his feet a bit apart, facing 90 degrees from the pitcher, with the bat held in a position about 45 degrees vertically, and a comfortable distance from his body. If you watch any batter swing--especially professionals--you will notice that nearly all of them begin and end their actual swings in roughly this classic way. But all similarity ends there. 

How a batter approaches the plate, prepares himself to swing, what position feels proper to him, along with his eccentric body movements and reactions and superfluous tics and flinches and adjustments--all constitute the host of variations which separate all batters from each other. Successful hitting is a combination of intense focus, coordinated body movements, and a psychological mantra (or set of rhythmic steps) which help a batter focus his attention and energy on the contest between himself and the pitched ball coming towards him. Each batter has his peculiar method. Some are extremely relaxed, others are all wound up and tense. Some batters go through a set of odd body motions. Others hold the bat in extreme, counter-intuitive positions prior to executing their swings. Some can't stand still, and wiggle or twitch as they await the pitch. Some go into a kind of wind-up, similar to pitchers' wind-ups. Some point the bat at the pitcher, until the pitcher begins his wind-up. All these different mannerisms become characteristic of a batter's specific character, a kind of signature style of play. 

Ryness has studied every player's physical antics and stance, and he can imitate them with impressive skill. He has an impressionist's intuition about how to capture body movements, how to emphasize the nuances of a person's carriage and exaggerate them to comic effect. And he's discovered the perfect medium--the brief You-Tube spot video clip, ideally suited to a couple of quick impressions. And he's even extended this to include a full work-up of an imaginary Brian Wilson "work-out show"--or Brian Wilson Fitness Minute. Check out this extended spot video of Ryness entertaining Manny Ramirez (when he was with the Dodgers) and teammates with multiple impressions. 

Probably, Ryness is a new hybrid entertainment wizard, who's turned a nifty little concept into a whole new career, so take it on the road! (David Letterman Show clip). If it's 15 minutes of fame you want, why not 3 minutes? People have been looking at baseball players for a century and more, but Ryness is the first person to build a routine out of it. It's a typical Horatio Alger success story. I don't do plugs, but I salute Ryness for a brilliant bit of trivial pursuit.    

Famous Weird Batting Stances

Craig Counsell
Reach for the sky!

Jeff Bagwell
The classic deep squat

Kevin Youkilis
Is this to build up torque?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Absolute Zero

We sit at the edge of something that is so vast that it is inconceivable. But we may be at or near its imaginative center--a vanity which has a seductive quality. 

What is a thing

Absolute Zero is a conceptual possibility, not yet achieved, in which there is no measurable energy being emitted from a substance. Where there is nothing--no matter--there is nothing to measure. Our minds evolved over time to facilitate interaction with the material world, and incidentally developed the capacity for independent symbolic speculation (or thought). Scientific experiment, and language--the tools by which we measure and gauge the speculative apprehension of phenomena--appear to be unique to our species. 

In order to measure a condition, or effect, we must utilize material. In other words, our measure is matter itself, of which we and everything else animate, or inanimate is comprised. Can temperature be measured without the presence of matter? All matter is energy, and we've been told that all matter is, in effect, light. Matter is "arrested light"--or light that has partially congealed into substance. 

All substance, then, contains energy. Even at a point very near absolute zero, in fact to within a billionth of a degree short of it, matter exhibits properties which suggest that it might cease to be matter, without any measurable energetic exhibition. Like infinite space, and anti-matter, the idea of absolute zero seems beyond our reach, perhaps because we're not given to apprehend it. 

As material beings, we disport within the dimensions of our consciousness, and accept our limitations with joy or frustration. To be in anything, is to be contained, and all languages--verbal, visual, abstract--are attempts at limiting the terms of agreement in order to obtain sufficient specificity. But it may be that the universe is far too complex to be grasped with efficient systems. 

Absolute Zero is one dilemma (a limit) which we can describe in the abstract, but science so far has been unable to produce an experimental perfection that would permit us to get our minds around it. We don't yet understand the full implication of what a pure emptiness might consist. To have an emptiness, one must postulate it within a containment, else it ceases to have any meaning. A sensible emptiness, then, is a toy of the mind, at least for the time being. 

At the other end of the scale, it appears that entropy, that quality of the loss of energy, or the spontaneous depletion of measurable energy at a rate, actually decreases as matter reaches its maximum load of energy, a curious and paradoxical fact that runs counter to intuition. 

Absolute Zero for me is a ravishing conception, one that titillates and provokes my imagination. Speculation swirls around it in my mind like a series of nested gyroscopes, so that I'm not sure of exactly where I am, or in what direction I'm moving. Stillness and movement may be simultaneous, in happy intersection, and emptiness may be hiding inside the fullness of the moment, surrounded by consciousness and the richness of the material world. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bill Berkson Dream

Bill Berkson Dream

I’m at the Four Seasons for a quick solitary lunch, sitting at the bar. After a moment or two, I notice Bill Berkson sitting diagonally from where I am, but he doesn’t see me. He’s wearing a very expensive medium grey suit, and his hair is sculpted onto his head. He’s talking to another man, a client, and I realize he (Bill, in his other life) must be a stockbroker. This doesn’t surprise me at all. Turning sideways, I can just hear scraps of his conversation. “The residuals will knock your sox off,” says Bill, and “you wouldn’t even be here if your weren’t.” Bill sips a pink cocktail, then notices me watching. He winks, not wanting to interrupt his meeting, and motions slightly with his head towards the door. A few minutes later, I see him get up and give me another confirming look. He heads for the door, and I follow a safe distance behind. Out on the street, he shakes his head as if waking up from a daydream. “Hey, man, whatcha’ doing here?” “Not much. What was that, a ‘power lunch’?” “Nah, just something I needed to tie up . . . Hey, I’ve got to run, so let’s get together later.” Suddenly, Bill pulls his jacket lapels apart, and in a single motion, his whole outfit falls away, revealing a superhero get-up with black tights, a white T-shirt with big blue "BB" capitals in the middle. I never suspected how muscular he is. “Alright, I’m off, brother,” he adds, as he bounds away, taking 20 foot leaps down the street. I stare after him in disbelief, with mixed feelings of envy and barely suppressed admiration.

Friday, December 13, 2013



                         on a



                                        blades of grass

                                     not quite

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Song for the Unsung

American Football is a team sport. In team sports, it is not always possible to accurately assess the value of any single player's contribution to his team's success. Great players may play on mediocre teams, or average players may play on very good teams. The context of one's accomplishments in a team sport do matter, though truly great performers are usually recognized as such, even if based only on purely statistical measures. In football, the key positions are traditionally the quarterback, running-back, receiver, linebacker, and defensive back; but players at any other position may achieve prominence, and be appreciated for their superior play. Players whose job it is to handle the ball tend to draw the most attention, however, and it is they who become the usual focus of fans and the media. One minor exception is the punter or kicker. Once upon a time, it was common for kickers to do all of a team's kicking duties: kick-offs, punts, free kicks and field-goal tries. Over the years, these have become specialized, and today almost all place-kickers specialize as field goal kickers (who also do the kick-offs), with the punter  only doing punting. Like field-goal kicking, punting has become a specialty. Usually a punter has no other function on the field. He's a little like a "closer" in baseball, a player whose sole purpose is to do a single thing in a specific situation, and nothing else. 

Mediocre kickers are a dime a dozen. Even in the pros, kickers who were stars as college players usually do not have very successful careers. A kicker's "life" in pro football is usually very short, despite the fact that they suffer the least amount of physical abuse. Because of the job required of them, a kicker's maximum body profile tends to be a lot less bulky than his teammates. He's not expected to block, or tackle, or take hits. In fact, the rules now forbid "running into the kicker" since a kicker is in a very vulnerable position with respect to oncoming rushers, and there is a severe penalty for being flagged for that. 

You would think that kicking, given that it involves only a couple of physical functions--catching the ball as it's hiked by the center, holding it in front of one's body, and kicking it as far as possible downfield--would be a simple thing to do well. Not so. To do it well, and consistently, is very difficult. In the first place, there is no room for error. A kicker can't move to elude oncoming rushers. He has only a hectic second or two to execute his play. Clearly, getting even a poor kick successfully in the air is better than not getting it kicked at all, so the margin for error is usually razor-thin. In order to kick a ball so that the maximum amount of force is transmitted from the rising foot of the kicker, to the inert ball above, there must be a perfect collision. A slight deviation of impact will result in a "shank" or weak kick with shorter distance. Both height (length of "hang time") and distance are required for a superior kick. You want to force the opposing receiver to catch the ball as far back from the line of scrimmage as possible, and you want it to take as long as possible to reach him, in order to allow your teammates to run downfield to "cover" the receiver's return-attempt. And, of course, in cases where the field is "short" the kicker is required to attempt to kick the ball out of bounds as close to the end-zone line as he can, but without crossing it before going out of bounds, which necessitates accuracy as well as control of force.        

Most teams settle for mediocre kicking, and work to overcome the deficits which result. "Field position" is regarded as a strategic approach which is less important than having a superior offense or defense. "Short field" drives are obviously easier than long (sustained) ones, but short field approaches are typical of defensive-oriented teams, generally. Playing for position is like playing poker, whereas in the world of high-power pro offenses, a good passing game can make playing for position an inappropriate choice. The most crucial situation involving the kicking game is when a team is backed up almost to its own goal line, and must punt out of its own end-zone. A safety is always a risk in these circumstances, and no kicker wants to get caught for the dreaded two-points--or even, god forbid, a touchdown. The ability to kick for distance when "backed-up" can mean the difference between winning and losing a game.

Andy Lee has been the 49ers punter now for nine years. In each of his nine seasons, he's been a stand-out, qualifying for All-Pro status three times. He's always among the leaders in average yards, and hang-time, and his efficiency is nearly perfect--he never gets tackled, and always gets his kick away. For a decade, the 49ers have had the luxury of not having to worry about their punting game. Punters come and punters go, but good ones are hard to come by. When you have one like Lee, you feel blessed. One very vital aspect of your franchise is taken care of, reliable. In professional sports, reliability is usually in short supply. Which is why Andy Lee is a star, in a role that most fans usually don't appreciate, or appreciate enough. Over time, a great punter may actually account for several wins, singlehandedly. That's a rare gift, a claim that only a great quarterback, or a star running-back can make. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

O'Hara / Dean

James Byron Dean - 2/8/31 - 9/30/55

On September 30th, 1955, the popular young screen actor James Dean was driving his new Porsche 550 Spyder convertible towards a racing event in Salinas, California. Using newly acquired earnings from his two movie roles in Rebel Without a Cause, and East of Eden, he'd been buying fancy racing cars and competing in amateur and professional racing events, with some success. Racing had become a passion for him. Proceeding in stages towards Salinas, he was speeding at 85 mph, and had already received one speeding citation earlier that day, when, trying to beat another oncoming car to a cross-over intersection, his vehicle impacted a 1950 Ford Tudor coupe head-on, in a horrific crash. 

Dean sustained serious injuries, and was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital in Paso Robles early that evening.         

For those too young to remember him, James Dean [2/8/31 - 9/30/55], had taken Hollywood almost by storm in the 1950's. In his first movie role, as Cal in East of Eden [Warner Brothers], directed by Elia Kazan, he blossomed overnight into a major star in the current "Actor's Studio" "Marlon Brando" mold, with a kind of sullen, smoldering eccentric persona that captured perfectly the confused, rebellious, over-emotional, adolescent spirit of early Beat Era youth. This role was followed closely by Rebel Without a Cause [Warner Brothers, 1955], in which Dean played the classic mixed up teen-ager, a gang-member with a death-wish and a flashy fragile sexiness that drove fans wild: Drag-racing, switchblades, sex, booze, delinquency--all the vital ingredients of the underground frustration with the conservative middle-class world of 1950's America. And in his third major role, and his last, he reprised this persona one more time in Giant [Warner Brothers, 1956, released after Dean's death], playing a poor white neighbor of a big Texas ranch family who strikes it rich and rises to prominence as a super-rich, emotionally wounded, but morally debased, oil baron. 

In his private life, Dean followed a parallel path. He liked to be on the edge, and automobile racing was the perfect vehicle for it. Reports concerning his love-life are contradictory, and clouded, but it seems probable that he was mildly bi-sexual, and enjoyed relationships with both women and men. Fatally handsome, and with a charming combination of flirtatious sexiness, and feinting vulnerability, he had his pick of partners. Audiences projected every kind of obsessive regard upon him. If he had not died when he did, there seemed almost no limit to the dimensions his career might have attained. 

But like the fallen heroes of history and literature, Dean's early death made him into a classic romantic idol, in the Keats/Shelley mode, and in this sense, the perfect subject for elegy and memorial. His funeral on October 8th, 1955 in Fairmount, Indiana, was attended by more than 3000 mourners. America had lost one of its true media heroes, and a movie-star legend of major proportions was born. 

In our media-obsessed contemporary milieu, it may be difficult to realize how unusual and novel the idea of turning a movie matinee idol into poetic subject matter would have been in 1955. The movie promotion system was already well into high-gear in the 1920's, and it only grew bigger over the succeeding decades. But famous figures from popular music, the cinema or the theatre weren't commonly regarded as "serious" personifications in highbrow art forms like opera, poetry or drama. 

In the early 1950's, the original New York School Poets--John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest--who of course weren't known as that then, and certainly didn't think of themselves as a "movement" at the time--were experimenting with form, and seeking new strategies to express the meaning of their time. As Gay writers in the immediate post-war period, O'Hara, Ashbery and Schuyler (not to speak of Edward Field, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Goodman, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, John Wieners, Jonathan Williams, and James Merrill, to name a handful), they were seeking to express themselves using either older traditional structures and themes, or by adapting exotic European models, or simply by trying something new. 

O'Hara, a lyricist, a social creature, voluble and daring, ventured to declare his homosexual nature directly through his poetry. Trained in traditional literary styles and models (he won the Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan as a graduate student in the M.A. Program, before moving to New York in 1951), he was attracted to the revolutionary writings of the French Surrealists (as well as to Mallarm√©, Apollinaire, Reverdy), the (early Soviet) Russians (especially Mayakovsky), and was strongly influenced as well by the new painting of the period (Abstract Expressionism etc.). Also, particularly, he was moved by cinema, and was keenly aware of the relationship between the cultural counter-currents, and the the ways that movies might mirror or inspire changes in the zeitgeist. As a progenitor of a rising Gay consciousness, he was acutely sensitive to the subtle revelations of behavior and coded cues that might be revealed on the silver screen. Gays had traditionally enjoyed the ironic privilege of identifying with both the male and female protagonists, with the femme fatale stereotype who draws men to her sexuality like a moth to the flame, as well as the male heart-throb who functions in both genders/dimensions at once. In the case of James Dean, the sexual ambiguity of his "underground" reputation did nothing to discourage this kind of fantasy-projection. 

During 1955, O'Hara had spent a good deal of mental energy meditating about the persona Dean portrayed in East of Eden. It wasn't simply that Dean was gorgeously endowed with a photogenic face, and a rustic, lyrical (almost balletic)  physical grace; O'Hara saw aspects of his own emotional development in Cal's (Dean's) intuition of his own difference, a metaphor for O'Hara's homosexual awakening, with associated guilt and confusion. O'Hara saw in the narrative a psycho-drama of his own emotional history, and when Dean was killed, he responded predictably by attempting to address the tragedy as a personal loss--not merely as a private projection, but as an allegory for society's condemnation of homosexuality, with Dean as the symbolic martyr to the cause of sexual emancipation. 

It didn't matter that Dean mightn't have been a full-fledged homosexual; what mattered was how O'Hara felt about him. Inspired by the death, O'Hara re-read Milton's Lycidas, Tennyson's In Memoriam, and Shelley's Mourn not for Adonais, as warm-ups for a serious attempt at an elegy on the late young actor's demise.     


The poem O'Hara eventually completed has entered the canon of post-war American verse as an artifact in its own right. O'Hara's own tragic and bizarre death--run over by a dune buggy on the beach at night [7/24-5/66]--enhances the poem's interest, in retrospect--an ironic parallel.   

For James Dean

Welcome me, if you will,
as the ambassador of a hatred
who knows its cause
and does not envy you your whim
of ending him.

For a young actor I am begging
peace, gods. Alone
in the empty streets of New York
I am its dirty feet and head
and he is dead.

He has banged into your wall
of air, your hubris, racing
towards your heights and you
have cut him from your table
which is built, how unfairly
for us! not on trees, but on clouds.

I speak as one whose filth
is like his own, of pride
and speed and your terrible
example nearer than the siren's speech,
a spirit eager for the punishment
which is your only recognition.

Peace! to be true to a city
of rats and to love the envy
of the dreary, smudged mouthers
of an arcane dejection
smoldering quietly in the perception
of hopelessness and scandal
at unnatural vigor. Their dreams
are their own, as are the toilets
of a great railway terminal
and the sequins of a very small,
very fat eyelid.
I take this
for myself, and you take up
the thread of my life between your teeth,
tin thread and tarnished with abuse,
you still shall hear
as long as the beast in me maintains
its taciturn power to close my lids
in tears, and my loins move yet
in the ennobling pursuit of all the worlds
you have left me alone in, and would be
the dolorous distraction from,
while you summon your army of anguishes
which is a million hooting blood vessels
on the eyes and in the ears
at the instant before death.
the menials who surrounded him critically,
langorously waiting for a 
final impertinence to rebel
and enslave him, starlets and other
glittering things in the hog-wallow,
lunging mireward in their inane
moth-like adoration of niggardly
cares and stagnant respects
paid themselves, you spared,
as a hospital preserves its orderlies.
Are these your latter-day saints,
these unctuous starers, muscular
somnambulists, these stages for which
no word's been written hollow
enough, these exhibitionists in
well-veiled booths, these navel-suckers?

Is it true that you high ones, celebrated
among amorous flies, hated the
prodigy and invention of his nerves?
To withhold your light
from painstaking paths!
your love
should be difficult, as his was hard.

Nostrils of pain down avenues
of luminous spit-globes breathe in
the fragrance of his innocent flesh
like smoke, the temporary lift,
the post-cancer excitement
of vile manners and veal-thin lips,
obscure in the carelessness of your scissors.

Men cry from the grave while they still live
and now I am this dead man's voice,
stammering, a little in the earth.
I take up
the nourishment of his pale green eyes,
out of which I shall prevent
flowers from growing, your flowers.

--March 1956 Poetry Magazine

In searching for metaphors for his sardonic, smoldering indignation against the generalized prejudice of the cultural machines of taste and permitted behaviors, O'Hara extemporizes a collective persecution originating in a kind of Hollywood of the gods--all the machinery of production-executives, publicity departments, gossip columnists, fellow aspirants and groupies and parasites to fame and talent--and imagines that he is "this dead man's voice" from the grave ("a little in the earth"), who will "prevent flowers from growing, [their] flowers." 

As a plateau in the historical progression of literary archetypes, it's probably among the very earliest examples of the use of a modern public media figure. One might have imagined that George Gershwyn, or Dylan Thomas, or some similarly early casualty could have inspired some of the same kind of classical martyrdom. But Dean wasn't just a talented actor, he represented the struggle of a whole society to come to terms with some of its biggest demons. The exploitation and debasement of talent, the relentless inquisitiveness into privacy, the corruption of innocence, the ephemeral (and empty) fruits of success. Youth identified with him as an ambassador of its own adolescent frustrations and thwarted desires.

The poem's openly fatalistic, petulant, depressed mood struck a new chord in O'Hara's poetry, one which would come to seem familiar in his work as it developed over the next decade. Its impassioned rhetorical flourishes ("the ambassador of a hatred" "I speak as one whose filth is like his own" "lunging mireward in their inane moth-like adoration of niggardly cares and stagnant respects paid themselves"), on the precarious edge of sense, are just barely admissible as serious writing. They owe more to the work of someone like Neruda, for instance, than they do to any American literary examples (except, perhaps, a work like William Carlos Williams's Kora in Hell). Bringing in a real pop cultural icon allowed O'Hara to perform a kind of exhibitionism which was a characteristic of his nature, drawing friends and acquaintances and figures from the New York art and music scene into the sphere of his public utterances. Like Ginsberg's Kaddish (for his mother Naomi), For James Dean strives for rhetorical extremities which are well beyond the bounds of "good taste" and proper practice. "Nostrils of pain down avenues of luminous spit-globes" evokes a kind of adolescent futility, of self-pity and impotent dejection, wallowing in a sort of fashionable, camp melancholy. 

But it also makes for an effective poetry. What is especially effecting is the combination of high address ("I speak as one" "you still shall hear" "I take up the nourishment") with the over-the-top imagery ("the sequins of a small, very fat eyelid"  "a million hooting blood vessels" "muscular somnambulists"), which produces a quality of barely controlled distress, or stress-induced nighmare-visions. But O'Hara's intelligence never permits the complete loss of control, and the poem ends on a determined, albeit mordant note: "I shall prevent flowers from growing, your flowers."    

If any teenager could have expressed the suppressed projection of the "cool" empathy, of the tragic "hip" shape Dean's life and romantic death embodied for them, it might have signified something of what O'Hara's poem conveys. Its level of ambiguity is such as to partially conceal the true nature of its point. Dean was among the earliest figures of the Teen Idol craze, not a rock music or torch singing musician, but an enormously charming but "immature" actor, just feeling his way in a difficult profession. O'Hara, too, was in many ways a struggling young writer, finding his way to the means to express what was, for him, his artistic eidelon.      

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Bachelor

All men are bachelors at some point in their lives. Except, I suppose, those of cultures in which boys are matched from birth to a picked bride. Bars or taverns used to be places pretty much restricted to men, though women eventually broke through that barrier. Today, singles of either sex can go to a bar alone, though there are some where no respectable woman would want to go. The idea of a bachelor is a little solemn. 

I recently saw again the movie Anatomy of a Murder, made from Robert Traver's (John D. Voelker) novel of the same name. In it, the defense attorney, Paul Biegler, is played by Jimmy Stewart. Biegler is a bachelor, who enjoys fly-fishing, talking the law and sipping whisky far into the night with his alcoholic x-attorney Parnell McCarthy, and playing jazz on an old upright piano. He isn't married, and there's no reference--at least in the movie--to his ever having been married, or having any plans to be.

A bachelor, like any single person, may become slightly eccentric in his ways, since he has no one to moderate his habits or interests. It may be that people who are single are just not the marrying type, or they've tried it and failed (divorce). Solitary drinkers may become drunks, without a woman around to keep them honest. 

Anyway, I like to think of a bachelor as one who might like a drink like this one, a little seductive, but proper, and serious, like a well-pressed grey suit. Straightforward and relaxed, with an orderly structure. A drink you could have over and over, not cloying or flamboyant. I haven't been a bachelor for almost 44 years.     

Swirled around in a cocktail shaker with ice, and poured up. 

4 parts rye
1 part praline liqueur
1 part triple sec
1/4 part amaro
dash of herbsaint
dash of Angostura bitters

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Green Season

As the holidays approach--well, I guess they've already arrived, since Black Friday has happened, and "holiday shopping" has already begun--our thoughts turn to celebration, and partying, and family reunions. Family reunions used to be a tradition in certain parts of America, but they're much less common today. Our economy tends to split families apart, as the restlessly mobile culture encourages people to leave the farm, or the neighborhood, or the town where they grew up, and look for greener pastures elsewhere. America used to be a "westering" culture, one looking for new opportunities in unspoiled country. That dream is mostly history now. We aren't pioneers anymore, at least in the geographical sense. The world shrinks, and there is less open space, and so we become pioneers in other ways.  

Here's a pretty easy cocktail which will tantalize your tongue. I've been trying combinations with white vermouth lately, in preference to harder spirits, and the results have been encouraging. The Midori/Chartreuse combination is a natural, but the vermouth lightens it perfectly. Chartreuse is a classic French digestif, which can be drunk by itself (cold) or in combination (in cocktails). It needs to be used sparingly, in my experience, lest it overwhelm other flavors. Midori is a straightforward melon liqueur. 

Shaken and served up with lots of ice-fragments, it's a real winner.     

1 part dry vermouth
1 part Midori
1 part lemon juice
3/4 part yellow Chartreuse