Tuesday, July 28, 2020

A Sunny Day in 1952 or so

Edwin Denby is a pleasure probably as obscure to most people as one might imagine, given the scope and intensity of his work. 

He was a professional ballet dancer in his youth, and would become one of the best writers (or critics) about dance there has ever been. Along the way, he produced some very original verse, which even fewer people probablyt know about. His Wiki gives the basic bio, though it tells you nothing about the quality of his writing.   

I have appreciated his poetry, and it's eminently quotable, but here I just want to quote this stunning passage from his essay on the New York City Ballet company, from 1952. For me, it evokes some of the gentle serenity of its time, when people had the leisure to enjoy a quick diversion from the business of living and working, or getting from place to place. Denby loved New York, and this is how it feels to love something that is complex and somehow fleeting and permanent at the same time. 

"I hadn't expected so intense a pleasure, looking at New York again, in the high white February sunlight, the chidishly euphoric climate; looking down Second Avenue, where herds of vehicles go charging one way all day long disappearing into the sky at the end like on a prairie; looking up a side of a skyscraper, a flat and flat and a long and long, and the air drops down on your head like a solid. Like a solid too the air that slices down between two neighbor skyscrapers. Up in the winter sunlight the edge of such a building far up is miraculously intense, a feeling like looking at Egyptian sculpture. Down in the streets the color, the painted colors are like medieval color, like the green dress of the Van Eyck double portrait in the National Gallery, intently local and intently lurid. And New York clothes--not a trace of charm, dressing is ritualistic like in Africa (or the Middle Ages); the boys are the most costumed; dressed men and women look portentously maneuverable; one set looks more dry-cleaned than the other, and those count as rich. New York is all slum, a calm, an uncomforatable, a grand one. And the faces on the street by day: large, unhandsome, lumped with the residue of every possible human experience, and how neutral, left exposed, left unprotected, uncommitted. I havve never seen anything so marvelous. A detachment from character that reminds me of the Arhats in Chinese painting. Women as well as men in middle age look like that, not comforting but O.K. if you believe in marvels, "believe in" in the sense of live with. They have no conversation, but a slum movie put on its marquee: "Sordid"--Times; "Unsavoury Details"--Herald Tribune. I never saw so civilized an advertisement in Paris. Manners are calm, everybody is calm in New York except where maybe somebody is just having a fit. No one looks dominated. But one minority looks sometimes as though it suffered acutely, the adolescents. They throw themselves about the city, now supersonic, now limp as snails, marvelously unaware of adults or children. Suddenly across their blank faces runs a flahs of anguish, of huntedness, of brutal vindictiveness, of connivance--the pangs of reformatory inmates; a caged animal misery. They are known as punks and jailbait and everybody defers to them, everybody spoils them as people do to what they recognize as poetic. They are not expected to make any return. A few years later they have put on weight, whether girls or boys, and the prevalant adult calm has commenced for and closed on them too, and others are adolescent. Another magic thing about New York is that everything you look at by day, people, buildings, views, everything is the same distance away, like in Egyptian sulcpture too. When I look about me in New York I feel as if I saw with an eagle's kind of eye; lovely Italy I looked at with a dear simpatico horse's eye. But you want me to tell you about the city's ballet company, which I adore . . . ."

--from Dancers, Buildings and People in the Street [New York: Horizon Press, 1965, p 23-4. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Sierra Club Turns Left

Fair warning here: I have never been a member of the Sierra Club, and I have never spent time supporting any environmental protection organization, though I have occasionally given money to support them. Some will always accuse you of not putting your time and money where your mouth is, but participating in a political debate doesn't require that one must have been involved in something to have an opinion about it. 

From an early age, I was taught to respect nature, and to view with suspicion and disdain any attempt to compromise the health of the natural environment through resource exploitation or unrestrained human expansion. Our family took camping trips, where we hiked and fished, frequently in National or State Parks in California. Later when we were raising our family, we took trips to Montana, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. 

I tacitly accepted the value and purpose of nature reserves for public appreciation, though I later came to be somewhat disillusioned about how those reserves were managed and maintained by the agencies and services empowered to run them. Later still, I came to understand more about the history of the American environmental movement, and the various continuing disputes regarding its mission and strategies. 

The core purpose of nature reserves it to preserve them against development, environmental degradation, and to facilitate access without compromising their values. There are many kinds of appreciation of nature. Most people are not interested in "roughing it" in nature, and would be incapable of doing so. But most people have also come to understand that the environment is a whole condition, interconnected and indivisible, which must be viewed in its totality. Though most people in the modern world live "inside" civilization--in cities and precincts that are not natural, but artificial--they do accept and acknowledge that our connection to the whole of the planet's systems is a fact. We can't separate ourselves from nature, and pretend that it (nature) is something "out there" which we can exploit and visit and treat as a discrete entity. Philosophically, this suggests that whatever we do "to" nature we also "do" to ourselves, that use or misuse of the environment affects everything else, including all the land and water, and the creatures who occupy it (including humans). 

Human civilization is not static. It has evolved over time, through movement and development and struggle. The earth has evolved into a collection of nations, or nation-states, each of which dictates to a greater or lesser extent, what happens within its boundaries, and to and among its people. This is a sovereignty that is generally respected, but frequently violated. The history of civilization over the past two millennia is the record of conflict, shifting boundaries,  imbalances, oppressions, and instabilities. But the notion of national sovereignties living peacefully, in cooperation, is a persistently expressed goal. We pay lip service to that principle, though we seldom live up to it. 

What seems clear is that in disputes involving environmental preservation, national sovereignty holds sway. One country cannot dictate to another country, what its politics should be with respect to environmental practice, human habitation and economic development. Each nation is restricted by this principle to the affairs and laws that apply within its own boundaries. As much, for instance, as we would like Brazil to stop burning its rain forests, or China from damming its rivers, we don't have the authority to force them to do so. 

This is another way of saying that we only can have control over that which belongs within our jurisdiction. As long as we live in a world of nations, we're largely restricted to focusing on conditions within our own territory. If we wish to apply the principles of environmental balance, or piecemeal environmental preservation, we're limited to our own borders. 

John Muir with Teddy Roosevelt 

Yesterday, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune issued a press release, "Pulling Down Our Monuments" in which he outlined the club's new position with respect to its founder John Muir. Brune accused Muir of being "racist". The proof he gives of this assertion is that he "maintained friendships with people like Henry Fairfield Osborn, who worked for . . . the conservation of the white race . . . [and] helped found the American Eugenics Society in the years after Muir's death." He says that Muir "made derogatory comments about Black people and indigenous peoples . . . [which] continue to hurt and alienate indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club." 

Has there ever been an outcry in the Media or from private citizens about the racist nature of The Sierra Club? If there were, I've never heard of them. Was the Sierra Club formed as an "white supremacist" organization, like the Ku Klux Klan, to enforce bigotry and oppression of minorities? On the contrary, the Club was created to foster protection of nature, and to encourage its appreciation through sponsored visitation and appreciation. The Sierra Club, though highly political in its operations--through its attempts to influence and direct legislation and rulings favorable to its environmental mandate--was not created to foster social justice or racial equality. 

One could make an argument that any organization which has a high profile, and carries a charter that sets up social and economic goals, would need to conduct itself in a free and open manner, not making decisions and choices that reflect undemocratic sentiments. That's what you might expect. 

But that is not to suggest that it should alter its mission to make itself an advocate or player in legal disputes surrounding race or ethnic identities. Why should it be necessary to demonize the founding members of an organization, in order the suit the political vagaries of various pressure-groups which want to penalize and hijack the organization for their own purposes, which have little or nothing to do with environmental protection? 

Does it help the environment in the Southwest to allow unbridled illegal immigration from Central and South America? Who benefits if millions of such "refugees" stream northward, straining the limits of our resources to accommodate them? Are we to set up a choice between "humanitarian" concern for the poor of Third World nations against the environmental health of our own country? Can the Sierra Club solve the inequities of racism by dethroning its founder? 

The attempt to accommodate political pressure groups by adopting internally embarrassing or destructive policies is a phenomenon we're seeing across the board right now. Some years ago, there occurred a schism within the Sierra Club, when its then head David Brower, who felt the club needed to take strong stands against extractive industry, population growth and uncontrolled immigration, left the organization to found a new group called Friends of the Earth. Brower felt that too many concessions had been made to industry. The Glen Canyon Dam and the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant both happened during his tenure. Clearly, the club had not succeeded in its core mission to protect these important natural places. 

Some would argue that Brower represented a liberal revolution within the environmental movement, a radical departure. But Brower's version of the club's mission was closer to its original mandate, than what the club had become by 2000. 

Within the context of the shifting definitions of environmental protection, Brune's position appears, once again, ironically, to be a hard left turn, not toward more commitment to the environmental commitments, but rather to political correctness. Whereas the club once struggled to find a political balance between hard-line and compromise with respect to the environmental struggle, it now attempts to repudiate its first founders, and will "Pending approval from our board . . . shift $5 million from our budget over the next year -- and more in the years to come -- to make long-overdue investments in our staff of color and our . . . racial justice work." In other words, the Sierra Club will spend some of its money on minority outreach and hiring, and diversity training. 

In all honesty, I have a hard time understanding how this can benefit the environment. 

Monday, July 6, 2020

Few logos have the instant familiarity of Coca-Cola. 

It's known the world over as the popular soft-drink whose taste ingredient formula is among the most guarded secrets. Over the years, there have been imitators, and probably not many people would be able to tell the difference if offered a sample of competing brands of cola. Despite this, the company is still a leader in its field--a tribute to its shrewd brand marketing. 

The idea that a constructed artificial flavor could come to have so universal quality is kind of astounding. Certain other drink flavors, such as root beer or orange soda, may seem as identifiable, but do not have the same branded strength. 

Often, when inventing cocktails, I'll stumble upon an unintended flavor, a combination which resembles a familiar taste. Coke has popped up along the flavor spectrum several times. This one, which I've named The Inspector, sidles up to Coke, and brushes it gently on the elbow, but obviously isn't a blood brother, just a distant taste-a-like. Still, it's close enough to remark, since so many people know what the sensation is.        

Coca-Cola isn't very good for you. In fact, it was probably responsible for the spate of nasty cavities I developed during my last year of high school, when I bought Coke for lunches at the little concession stand on the school grounds behind the main building. I soon gave it up, but the damage was done. No self-respecting kid in those days would have been caught dead brushing his or her teeth in the lavatory. I'm probably lucky I still have all mine, albeit with the collection of fillings and caps that constitute my set.  

The Inspector 

 1.5 Famous Grouse blended scotch
1/2 part sweet (Cynar) vermouth
1 tablespoon creme de cacao
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Demerara bitters

Served on the rocks.

The other outrider is a gin concoction that includes pear liqueur, an ingredient familiar to European drinkers, but not so much in America. Fruit flavors vary, and some have become synonymous with their brand-names. Slivovitz, a central European liqueur or spirit, comes to mind, as a mixer that approaches the pear flavor, though its typical starting base is plum. Often, characteristic tastes become associated in my mind with certain drinks, even though they may not actually be made from the fruit I associate with them. How close are plum and pear in taste? To my mind, pear has always been a sort of relative of apple, but it behaves differently in combination than apple does. In the drink below, the pear mates with the sweeter candy-like quality of Chartreuse, and the drying acidity of the lime, to produce a nice little pyramid of flavor.    


2 parts City of London gin
1 part pear liqueur
1/3 part yellow Chartreuse
1 part fresh lime juice

Shaken and served up. Garnish with lemon wedge.

During the current pandemic, most of the local liquor stores were closed, or were only open for pick-up at the entrance. This last week, BevMo finally allowed customers in for the first time in several weeks, which allowed me to stock up on some spirits I hadn't been able to find elsewhere, or which I preferred to buy at their lower price-settings. The warehouse space they have is also spacious enough to vacate any sense of jeopardy to transmission, though everyone of course wore masks. 

Here's to a healthier future, when we may toast those bad old days when the virus oppressed our daily lives in so many unpleasant ways! 

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The George Floyd Case

It's probably impossible to talk about the George Floyd case without offending someone at this point. It has become so over-hyped and exaggerated on several levels that it's unlikely ever to be rationally discussed, either in the media (television, radio, newsprint) or in public or private conversation. No matter what anyone may say about it, from whatever point of view, there is likely to be disagreement, even indignation. 

Whenever anyone's life and death are taken up so emphatically and purposefully as his, and made to serve such heavily symbolic or political ends, there's bound to be distortions, half-truths, and fantasies. Many people will believe what they want to believe, some will think what they're told to think, and many will feel constrained by the delicacy of the situation to express what they really feel personally, lest they be condemned and shamed.    

What do we know about the case? 

George Floyd was picked up in Minneapolis after he attempted to pass a $20 counterfeit bill. Small-time counterfeiting isn't a very big deal. Low denomination bills are made and distributed frequently in poor urban communities. We used to get them with some regularity in a small bookstore where I worked some years ago. I wondered then how any self-respecting crook could make much headway with bills of that denomination. The police didn't seen much interested in pursuing these cases. 

Floyd may have been resisting arrest, though to what degree has not been made clear. Floyd was a big man, strong, and seemed cantankerous in the brief flashes of video which have been released. It is not unusual for police officers to push a suspect down on the pavement and put on handcuffs. Though many police departments have outlawed choke-holds or knee-on-back/neck maneuvers, this has been a routine way that suspects of all denominations have been handled for decades in law enforcement. 

Video clips of police arrests have become common since the invention of cell phone cameras, and this has led to a number of disputed accounts over police practice and false reporting. The Floyd arrest and death would never have come to public attention without the private unauthorized video of the incident, which "went viral" on social media. Both public and private surveillance and recordation have opened law enforcement to a whole new sphere of exposure and revelation, which is bound to be used or misused by anyone seeking to make partisan points. 

Once the video was made public, we witnessed a widespread reaction across the nation, and even abroad, outcry and demonstration by those incensed and indignant about "police brutality" which they believe is a perfect example of racist law enforcement, of oppression by establishment power. It's been taken up as an example of unequal social justice, as proof of the "structural" racism inherent in our official laws and practices. George Floyd is being held up as the poster-child of a whole social movement whose demands include defunding of city police departments, increased funding for African American communities, reduced or commuted sentences for black prisoners, new guidelines for training law officers, etc. 

Just what sort of man was George Floyd, and why has his case become so volatile and crucial to the American body politic? His Wiki page reveals a distressingly familiar life-arc, a physically gifted big black boy growing up in the ghetto, good at sports, who gets an athletic scholarship in college, yet doesn't quite make it to the professional level, for whatever reason, who then falls back into reduced circumstances, finding pick-up unskilled work, who fancies himself a small-time Rap artist, fathers several children with different women, out of wedlock, and eventually moves on to a life of petty crime, and a prison sentence (for armed robbery). You could view his life as a tragic example of descent, from hope and effort to ultimate failure and death. Toward the end, he had made efforts to rehabilitate himself, though these efforts may not have amounted to much. Coroners reports indicate he had a virtual "cocktail" of illegal substances in his body, and had hypertension and hardening of the arteries. Watching officer Chauvin resting his knee on Floyd's neck, casually looking at this cell phone, I'm not convinced that there was either malicious intent, or any deliberate attempt to murder. Perhaps the only suprisng fact that's come out is that Chauvin and Floyd probably knew each other, having worked at the same night club as security guards in 2019.

Was George Floyd's life an inspiration? Was his death a great tragedy? In such a situation, these questions are not entirely secondary, though from the standpoint of justice and our democratic values, the taking of a life must always be regarded as a serious commission. As a matter of fact, criminals (of all races and backgrounds) are routinely treated to physical abuse and degradation, both in custody and on our streets. But does this happen to African Americans more than others? Apparently. Yet if we choose to measure these (racial) differences in enforcement, we must acknowledge the disparities in behavior as well. We may consider socio-economic factors in criminal causation, but we must also acknowledge the contexts within which such disparate events occur. If high percentages of crime in urban communities are committed by "people of color" then we should expect a consequent high percentage of such arrests and treatment to be reflected statistically. 

Perhaps the saddest thing about the George Floyd case is not its exceptional uniqueness or crucial significance, but its banal routine quality. There are tens of thousands of such cases across the land, of  poor young men, of any race or background, seduced into the remote possibility of wealth or fame by the mirage of professional sports or entertainment, who end up in dead-end lives, committing crime, abusing alcohol and drugs, leaving a trail of broken families and neglected children. At the time of his death, Floyd's life was on an all-too-common downward trajectory. 

Did George Floyd's life "matter"? Of course, to his relations and those who knew him. But to the general population, the man on the street, his life was part of the great anonymous mass of ordinary people whose lives we never know or care about. 

What exactly is "social justice"? Is it separate from actual justice, the justice we fix in law and regulation? Can what people feel, and how they behave toward one another, be legislated and enforced, the same way we legislate law and enforcement of our written laws? Can we tell people how they should regard others? Or is this "social" justice the old "eye for an eye" brand, the vigilante justice of the mob, of the vendetta? 

Was George Floyd the victim of legal injustice, or social injustice? Was his death the result of his being African American, a career petty criminal, a victim of class inequities, or some combination of these?  And if he was a victim, does his death tell us something important about racial "justice" in America? Without question, it does to a certain degree. But not to the extent that it's being made out to be. Floyds' death was unfortunate, but not heroic. Not tragic. Pathetic. Sad. Unnecessary. But not the occasion for national grief and upheaval.