Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Jeopardy and the Nanny Society

On March 21st, 2015, at 6 PM in the evening, a section of seaside cliff along the Point Reyes National Seashore coast trail broke off, precipitating (a word I always remember Thornton Wilder used to describe the party of unlucky souls who perished in the foot-bridge tragedy that generates his famous narrative called The Bridge of San Luis Rey) two hikers down with the collapsing rock rubble 60 feet below. One of them died, the other was seriously injured. Signs had been posted at the trail head warning hikers not to take this route, due to a large fissure that had appeared in the cliff just a few days before. 

Last Sunday (March 29, 2015), the San Francisco Chronicle's outdoor recreation editor-columnist Tom Stienstra published a story about the incident. 

The odds of being born, according to one legend, are the same as if you were to throw a life ring on the open ocean, and at that exact moment, a blind sea tortoise poked its head through the ring. The odds of dying, on the other hand, are 100 percent. Each day in between, since it's a miracle you're alive in the first place, should be treated as a blessing. Considering the events of last week--the catastrophe at Point Reyes and the arrival of spring--it might be a good idea to dump your "should list" and do what sets you free to travel, explore, hike, bike, fish, camp, boat, or stalk and photograph wildlife. . . . There are so many warning signs when there is no immediate danger that many understand why several hundred people ignored the warnings at Point Reyes and ventured out to the bluff at Arch Rock. But then, even if you do everything right, follow every rule, your number can come up. . . . The reality is that it is a miracle, no matter what your age, that you are around . . . . spend each of your days wisely--doing what you love.  

Reading between the lines, you can see that Stienstra isn't recommending that we disregard warning signs designed to protect you, but on the other hand, he isn't recommending that you lock yourself in your house and never venture out, lest you fall prey to some unexpected accident. 

Odds-makers like to calculate what the risks are in any part of life. Life isn't a gamble, but calculating risk is only human, and many of the decisions we make in life are based on such calculations. Every day I go driving, I undertake what I regard as calculating the odds--of a child running in front of my car from a side street, say, or a cop tearing after a call at 30 miles over the speed limit, or someone cruising through a stop-sign while texting and broadsiding me. I've been in my share of accidents, none of which have been my fault (when I was driving). But we all know that we take our lives in our hands, as the saying goes, every time we go driving, especially on highways and turnpikes. 

Society always tends to over-react to unexpected and unlikely tragedies. Airline crashes (like the one that just took place in Switzerland), terrorist bombings, random shootings, mountain-climbing mishaps, swimming pool drownings, mountain-lion attacks, and of course, the suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge. Inevitably, after each reported incident, we hear calls for more safety measures, more restrictive access, tighter controls, more barriers, and more elaborate rules to govern our behavior for our own good

There are some people who seem particularly prone to advocating greater control over human behavior. Governments are always wary of the risk of being held responsible for, and therefore liable for, accidents and "preventable" acts of nature or human waywardness. Private interests are no less aware of the dangers of being held accountable. We live in a litigious world in which anyone, at the drop of a hat, is likely to sue another individual, or a company, or a government agency, for damages suffered through some supposed failure of duty or vigilance. 

The idea that people must be protected from the hazards of life has evolved into a separate segment of the law, called risk assessment. Lawyers and professional sociologists advise insurance companies about how to gauge the probabilities of valid claims against policies. We try to control risk in residential real estate insurance by hiring geologists, structural engineers, arborists, fire experts, and even psychologists to provide reports about the likelihood of claims against coverage. 

The idea that life is so dangerous that we must all be safe-guarded against it is a very modern notion. You might think that it's because we value human life--regard it as so precious--that we tremble at the thought of anyone suffering any injury, no matter how slight. Or that we cringe with fear at the notion that anyone--even ordinary citizens--might be responsible--just because we share in the greater implication of belonging to society--a city, a state, or a nation--for the jeopardy of any one of its members, or even visitors or tourists from some other place. 

But is society really responsible for accidents that are so rare, and so unlikely, that the odds are staggeringly tiny? Odds are, according to one source, that you could fly once a day for 4 million years before succumbing to a fatal air crash. In fact, 95.7% of passengers involved in air crashes survive. Whereas, odds are one in 5000 that you may die in a car crash. Or, 1 in 3.1 million that you will be killed in a shark attack. The point of these statistics isn't to calculate risk assessment, to safeguard your pocket book, let alone your personal safety. 

The underlying point is that most risk is random, and can't be controlled or managed out of existence. Refusing to ride in automobiles, or in planes, or in trains, because of safety concerns isn't completely irrational. Caution is a prudent component of the rational mind. But the notion that everyone must be ruled by a vast network of strict limits, or enclosed in a harnessing safety web,  for our own good,  is one of the popular illusions of our culture. 

Reasonable people accept reasonable limits to freedom, in exchange for being held individually responsible for their own protection. If, as a pedestrian, you choose to barge into moving traffic, you're voluntarily choosing to place yourself in jeopardy. If you take a jet flight from San Francisco to New York, you're putting your safety into the hands of an airline company, its mechanics, pilots, and the airport traffic system personnel. It's a considered risk, which most accept. 

Anyone walking on a cliff overlooking the ocean, accepts that there is a chance, however slim, that a part of the earth at that edge, may crumble. A large crack in the cliff's edge may be a warning sign, but such occurrences aren't predictable. Earth movements can be speculated, as earthquakes are; but it's doubtful that humankind's empirical science will ever be able accurately to foretell the odds of earthquakes or landslides. 

People are often stupid, but when calculating risk, we need to remember that, as precious (and improbable) as being born is, the risk of falling victim to unlikely occurrences is inherent in life itself. We can't prevent people from doing stupid things, and we can't prevent all accidents from happening. If people want to kill themselves, or to live on the edge,  they will find a way. For the rest of us, prudent precautions make sense.  

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Candy Cane

3 parts golden rum
2 parts cream
1 part lemon
3/4 part praline liqueur
3/4 part créme de noyeux (almond)
1/2 part Frangelico (hazelnut) liqueur

Not much to say about this one, only that it's a fatally seductive preparation, guaranteed to lift your spirits and assuage your ills. With addition of the praline flavor, there are hints of the Deep South, perhaps New Orleans, though I doubt this drink has ever been mixed there. Like all the other concoctions featured on this blog, it's my own invention--I never consult the literature of mixology in devising my combinations. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Limited

What is a "traditional cocktail"? Of what would such a recipe consist?

Tradition is what we make it, the constantly unweaving or weaving (raveling or unraveling?), unfolding present, which is being in process, or becoming. 

Traditional cocktails are always going to taste familiar because they are part of our immutable past. We can't change the past, so we can't change what traditional means, except by deliberately altering versions of past practice and formulae, through experiment and accident and testing. New combinations. Different approaches. 

The spirits that have been invented by humankind are givens: They were developed over time, and we have inherited these prototypical substances through sheer passivity. They are what we've inherited. Whisky, tequila, gin, rum, brandy, vodka, aquavit--these are the classic "goods" from which all variations of mixture derive. They are the foundation upon which the taste pyramid--if you will--is built. The number of such variations isn't infinite, of course, but the numbers of possible permutations is vastly expandable, simply through minor variations in proportion. 

Tradition is also popularity--the acknowledgment that one or another taste is very satisfying, or desirable. A Lemon Drop or a Rusty Nail aren't simply familiar because someone made them up and gave them a snappy logo, they're popular because they satisfy a universal quality of taste. 

The following mixture uses ingredients whose basic flavors are wholly familiar, which is to say anyone who drinks recognizes them. The combination of bourbon and Drambuie (a proprietary orange flavored liqueur) is familiar as the Rusty Nail, mentioned above, but with the addition of these other flavors, it is only vaguely "reminiscent" of that familiar taste. Supposing no one had ever before tried combining bourbon and Drambuie; then what we know as the Rusty Nail would not exist. 

It may be that most of the "easy" combinations have all been tried, at one time or another, and that the contemporary trend toward "flavored" bitters, spicing and so forth, is just an obvious symptom of the exhaustion of possible combinations of the usual spirit goods we know. The challenge, with cocktail mixes, as in life, is to find the novel or unique version that can capture attention and enter the permanent collection of desirable choices.  

A great cocktail is like a poem. Its ingredients may be familiar, but the way it's constructed, its specific combinations make it unique. We can paraphrase its qualities, but the actual experience is always more compelling than the explanation, the alembic of its effect. If we could package poetry, the way we do liquor--bottle its essence, preserve it and market it in abbreviated form--we could make a bundle. But there are no shortcuts to healthy experience. Sex and eating and swimming, and drinking a perfect cocktail at 5 PM can't be captured and made more convenient, can't be duplicated or saved or prolonged through some device or potion. 

So let's live and appreciate what there is, because our time is limited. Let's call this one, then, The Limited, since it reminds us of the fragility and ephemerality of life, passing us by. Like the little trays passing before us on the sushi conveyer track, decked out with clever arrangements of fish and rice and vegetable concoctions, we have to select. And so we shall.    


3 parts Woodford Reserve bourbon
1 part madeira
1 part amaro
1 part 151 rum
1 part fresh lemon juice
1/2 part Drambuie

All ingredients (by proportion) shaken and served up into chilled cocktail glasses. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Tom Selleck's Late Career Surprise

I don't want any swingers out there to get the wrong impression. Hunks and studs don't turn me on, but I thought this shot might get your attention. I assume it's not a constructed photo (placing the head on a body--a little trick you see now sometimes on the web), since Tom Selleck was one of Hollywood's most attractive and well-constructed male lead actors, known primarily for his Magnum P.I. television series. Female fans undoubtedly found him irresistible, but I'm sure he generated interest on both sides of the aisle. 

Fair warning: I'm not a fan of Tom Selleck The Man. And this isn't a political piece. We can have disagreements about what people think about entertainers "in their real lives" but that doesn't, in my opinion, have any affect on what we may or should think about their artistic accomplishments. 

Back in the day when Magnum P.I. was on television (the series ran from 1980-1988, and was Selleck's "breakthrough" role), I must admit to not have been impressed with his acting skills, or indeed the show itself, which I regarded as an exploitation production--exploiting the star's good looks, the character's laid-back life-style, exploiting the tropical scenic values of Hawaii, and generally providing the sort of low-grade pop entertainment typical of television shows of that time--one part surfer dude cruising the island beach scene, and one part dumb crime solving. Not a formula destined to achieve immortality.   

Nonetheless, actors can occasionally "grow up"--not just in the sort of roles they are likely to play, but in the skills they hone over the length of a career. As an early middle-aged heart-throb playboy (Selleck was 35 when he began his Magnum run), his acting skills were pretty limited. He could smile, he could frown, he could show mild irony, and he could run athletically across the beach sand. But that was just about his full range. 

Imagine my surprise, when, just a few years back, I saw the first installment of the Jesse Stone franchise, based on the novels of the late Robert Parker. Jesse Stone is a complicated man, unlike the earlier Magnum character. He carries a load of trouble from his past, and is a depressed loner with a private code of honor. He doesn't get close to people, and spends a lot of time alone. You might think that this sort of character would be beyond Selleck's range as an actor, but you'd be wrong. Something happened between the end of the Magnum period (1988) , and the first Jesse Stone TV movie in 2005: Tom Selleck the actor grew up. 

You always figured that Selleck's career would go the way of similar kinds of TV actors. He'd do another private eye or "soldier of fortune" series or two, and age out gracefully in his early Sixties. He certainly didn't need the money. But Selleck wasn't done. He had more to do. 

Most straight Hollywood heavies over the last 30 years have been smaller men, intense, quirky and unpredictable: actors like Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro,  Sean Penn, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris. These actors could carry a heavy load in a movie, but they tended to turn straight acting tasks into complex, eccentric versions of themselves, often at the expense of the narrative thematic material they used. They were all good, but they weren't the classic "big jacket" types who could fill out a powerful character with subtlety and understated technique (like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, George C. Scott, Charlton Heston, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper). 

Selleck might be compared to actors such as Sean Connery, Russell Crowe, or Clint Eastwood. Or even perhaps Tom Hanks. But we wouldn't be making this comparison, if Selleck hadn't upped the ante. Selleck's Jesse Stone is a brooding, thoughtful, emotionally subtle persona, with real depth. He's able to convey delicate shades of sensibility with small, economic gestures and movements and intonations of voice. Like Parker's deft dialogue scenes, he transmits irony and frustration and amusement with deft pacing and queues. Physically, Selleck is big, but fit, but there's no attempt to make him seem physically dominating. 

It isn't easy to bring life to a character who speaks little, and thinks a lot. Private investigators in fiction tend to speculate and calculate--they're figuring out plots and uncovering secrets. But cinema is about action. The Jesse Stone franchise doesn't rely on action, or violence, or big slushy romantic entanglements. It's all about poise and negotiation and authenticity. Stone can wrestle and even kill when he has to, but he's a little like Richard Boone in Have Gun Will Travel, who would "prefer to avoid violence" but is fully prepared to engage in it, should the need be.

Sellect communicates this sense of fortitude and smoldering resentment barely held in check. Frustrated in not being able to make it to the big leagues as a pro ball player, betrayed by his x-wife, fired from his job as a police investigator, he's a refugee from fate, without self-pity, and without excuses, too crusty to admit weakness, but smart enough to know when he's wrong, and still committed to getting the bad guys, while not allowing himself to be seduced into bureaucratic corruption, no matter how petty. 

Alone with his depression, sipping scotch and talking with Reggie, his Golden Retriever, isolated on a little islet house connected to land with a narrow-walkway, he perseveres in his campaign against his own hopelessness and the evil that threatens to eat away at the picturesque idyllic little seaside community he watches over. 

Now, in the television series Blue Bloods [2010- ], in which he plays New York City Police Commissioner, he's expanded his new range with an even larger character, one not only with a difficult past, but with complex, public, and significant issue-driven tests. He's as good here, as he is in the Jesse Stone pictures, but perhaps a bit less attractive, since he's playing a high-profile urban executive, instead of a common man in a small place. It's no secret that some of Selleck's personal political points of view have found their way into these important dramatic productions. Self-reliance, shouldering tough burdens without giving up, and without compromising personal values--are clearly on the agenda. Selleck now produces the Jesse Stone series, so presumably it carries a fair load of his input.

Selleck is officially a political conservative, something of an anomaly in Hollywood. A case could certainly be made that Blue Bloods is about supporting your local police department. But the Jesse Stone franchise--currently on its ninth iteration--is just very good entertainment, with very good acting. It's quietly raised the standard for the generic noir whodunit. It's easy to get hooked on, so embark at your peril. You might fall in love with this guy.   

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Malamud's A New Life

Occasionally, drawn by a nostalgic urge, or the need to go back over something I had experienced in the past, I will reread a book I had first encountered decades ago. 

I first read Bernard Malamud's [1914-1986] novel A New Life [New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961] in the summer of 1963, when I was 15. My stepfather had read it, and the mass market paperback copy was lying around the house. I picked it up, half out of curiosity. 

I had been raised in a fairly old-fashioned household, where things like sex and adult rivalry weren't ordinary subjects of conversation, at least around "the children." How much of my sex education and emotional maturity had their roots in the reading I did during my impressionable adolescent years? My surmise is that this happens a good deal more than we usually acknowledge. I grew up in the 1950's, when pornography and frank discussions of vital matters like sex weren't nearly as commonly available as they are to kids today. For one thing, the internet didn't exist. For another, the puritan ethic was alive and well then. That tended to make adolescents cautious, if not outright fearful, about exploring forbidden topics. 

Which may explain why Malamud's novel made such an impression on me then. So when I decided to reread the novel last month, the first thing I recalled was the seduction scene that occurs between the protagonist, Seymour Levin, and the wife of the department head, Pauline Gilley, in a secluded forest tryst. At the time, the scene hadn't so much shocked me as stimulated my anticipation about sex, something I had no inkling of at the time. 

The narrative is about a Jewish English instructor from New York who is hired to teach at a small Oregon state college near the coast. Though it wouldn't have meant much to me at the time, Malamud's own academic career had followed a path similar to that of the main character. 

A roman a clef [novel with a key] is a novel about real life, thinly disguised under a facade of fiction. Even had I known the implications of the parallels between Malamud's own career, and that of his protagonist, I doubt this would have meant much to me at the time. Fiction was fiction, and though I understood intuitively that imaginary characters were built up out of parts of people that an author may have known or watched, it would not have interested me much to have known that this story--set in a small Oregon college English department--bore potentially striking resemblances to an actual group of real people. Rereading the book now, in light of my life experiences in the intervening decades, was an interesting exercise. One of Max Beerbohm's favorite conceits was caricaturing famous people (or authors) confronting themselves in their older and younger incarnations, sizing each other up from the contrasting vantages of youth and age; and that's partly what reading an important book at widely spaced intervals in your life can do: It can show you who you were at an earlier time, by reflecting your altered character in the mirror of a familiar tapestry--which you had experienced originally long ago. The story is a part of who you are, but seeing it anew, as an objective phenomenon, permits the kind of perspective which can be very revealing.     

Any author may take liberties with truth, in fact he's expected, at the least, to make an effort to camouflage his portrayal of people and events whenever they come close to being exact copies of the model. In Malamud's case, taking into account what was noticed and noted by his colleagues in Corvallis at the time, he may have taken more liberties (or license) than was considered proper at the time. One account, posted by one Chester Garrison (obit), one of Malamud's colleagues (and long-time family friend) at Oregon U, provides useful insights into Malamud's character, as well as a couple of key coordinates between the narrative of the book, and Malamud's tenure there.                  

Dustwrapper of the 1st Edition

A New Life is a poetic novel, which is to say that the language is musical, and minutely probing of finely drawn shades of human sensibility and motive. Discovering that Malamud's graduate thesis had been on the poetry of Thomas Hardy was a confirming exhibit. As anyone who reads even a short story of Malamud's knows, he has an ironic, droll Yiddish lilt in his voice. No matter what he says, there is this subtle undercurrent of wry humor or bitterness, a grudging twist of dismissal or amusement. In A New Life, there are long passages in which the emotional turmoil of Sy Levin courses through countless turnings and dialectical rounds, not unlike that which occurs in the iterative ruminations of Henry James's psychological fictions. Reading this today, 50 years later, I'm struck with how profoundly personal a book this was for Malamud, as if he were working out intense inner conflicts.    

Malamud, probably near the time he wrote A New Life
Photo: © David Lees Corbis

Like Seymour Levin, Malamud had come West in nearly the same scenario, though unlike Levin, Malamud was married with children (and would publish his first book, the improbable mythical baseball novel, The Natural [New York: Harcourt, Brace &; Company, 1952]), just a couple of years after arriving in Oregon. Though ostensibly the story of an outsider, a supple, subtle liberal Jew set down amidst the raw provinciality of a rural cow college, Levin is also Malamud's own imaginative alter-ego, experiencing the same emotional dislocations, amazements, seductions, and realizations his creator must have felt, coming to Oregon in 1951. 

Upon his arrival, Levin is immediately thrown into the squabbles and entanglements common to any college English department. It isn't long before he embarks on an affair with the acting department head's wife, Pauline, which further complicates the political machinations involved in the election of the next department head. The man he has been hired to replace, one Leo Duffy, had been fired the year before, and had committed suicide not long afterwards. Levin, like Duffy before him, is regarded as a radical, bent on challenging the status quo, and (it turns out) Duffy had also had a brief affair with Pauline. Will Levin succeed in installing himself as the upstart new department head? How will his affair with Pauline play out? 

Malamud may have equivocated about the meaning of the story. When confronted about the implications of his having portrayed real people in the department, he claimed that the story was a comic riff, but apparently there were enough obvious parallels to have inspired indignation among his colleagues. In the novel's conclusion, Levin's appointment is terminated, and he drives off into a very ambiguous sunset with Pauline and her two children, uncertain of his future, unemployed, chastened by his expulsion, and not really committed heart and soul to his new responsibilities.  This may be a too-convenient exit from a comic complexity, since it would have been just a little too pat to have him win the laurels as well as the lady. I like to think of the story as a pastoral, neither comic nor tragic in its implications. 

Malamud left Oregon in the Spring of 1962, just as the novel was being published. Like Levin, he was leaving just at the moment his connection to the college was coming to a close. Malamud would go off to Bennington, where he woud remain until retirement. In essence, A New Life was Malamud's ambivalent escape from the academic dilemma he had faced in his earlier years at the college, where his "instructor's" appointment had kept from from teaching literature, even as his published works were building him a national reputation as one of America's finest writers. 

There were other interesting correspondences in the narrative to events in Malamud's career at Oregon. One involved the firing of another young English instructor, whom he helped to preserve his job, doubtless a source for the Leo Duffy character in the novel. What has always intrigued me is whether or not Malamud may indeed have had some kind of relationship--real or imagined--with one of the faculty wives. Just as Levin may be a fictionalized projection of Malamud's Brooklyn Jewish self, seeking "a new life" amid the rain forests and snow-capped mountain-ranges of the far west, the other characters in the story may stand for actual figures in the real author's life there. The writing feels so private, so intimate in its details, that one can hardly avoid making such connections. Does the crisis in the hero's saga, which is played out in a single academic year, symbolize the decade of Malamud's life in Corvallis? It's possible to see the book as a sort of summarization of his life there, and perhaps even as a judgment of sorts--first as a satire on the social life of the department, and secondarily upon his own semi-mature self, isolated and inexperienced, under-appreciated, relegated to teaching bone-head English to raw-boned Oregon teenagers. But by the time of his departure, he had won a National Book Award (for The Magic Barrel [New York: Farrar Straus Cudahy, 1958], and had published two widely respected novels. 

Perhaps in several ways, A New Life, published at the moment of his departure from Oregon, and his return to the East Coast (and the fame that would be his),  symbolizes a turning-point in his life, just as Levin's departure was for him. The story may seem like a half-serious comic rebuke to a world that he may have felt did not appreciate him, and not having to hang around for the inevitable curiosity and suspicions could certainly have been a liberating feeling.

Remembering the story from my earlier reading, the aspect that stands out for me, across time, is the rivalry between the department head, Gilley, and Levin, complicated by Levin's affair with the head's wife, the kind of sexual competition that is at the center of the plot. While Levin is committed to his teaching career, and to the ideals it represents to him of academic excellence and political honesty, he is drawn passionately to Pauline. He knows in his bones that he can't have it both ways, that if he chooses Pauline, he can kiss his future at the college good-bye. In Malamud's real life, he managed to extricate himself from a dead-end academic life through an act of will, single-mindedly producing works of high literary merit, while supporting his family on a modest instructor's salary. I wouldn't have known or cared about this reality behind the curtain of art as a boy, but now it offers a whole different dimension to my understanding of the relationship between life and art. I was once myself a college teacher, at the University of Iowa in the late 1960's and early '70's, trying to write while supporting my family. But my personal life was not nearly so remarkable as Malamud's.