Thursday, April 30, 2009
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
What a fascinating publication.
I know I'm supposed to sneer at it because it's in the check-out line at the supermarket. I suppose a cover that simultaneously exhibits a Turbo Juice Diet and cupcakes is a target rich environment for making sport. It says "God Bless America" right in the title block, which would propel the average hipster intellectual directly from derision to rage. Me, I'm kind of in awe of the thing.
I never looked in one until I was in it. That's not that unusual for me. I've been on TV and in a handful of newspapers and so forth. I've been on some radio stations. Way back when, I was sunbathing at the beach, and a biplane droned by dragging a banner with an advertisement inviting me to go and see the band I was in that evening. It had to be pointed out to me. "Isn't that, you know, you?" I had never paid even cursory attention to any of those outlets or venues before I was featured in them. I'm in the Noel Coward camp on that issue.
But that has no meaning, at least from my point of view. I heartily disdain the common attitude that everything that I don't like, or simply isn't entirely geared towards my world view, is bad and should be banned. I'm not interested in cupcakes or dieting. So what?
The really interesting thing about Woman's World is that like most things that are "square," it's useful to a lot of people and it makes money. Think about that in the publishing world. That's an exclusive club they've joined.
I'd point you to their website, but it doesn't exist. Think of the nerve of that. All the whiners in the newspaper business say the Internet is killing them because they can't charge for their content. Man up, shut it off, and charge for your content. It's very simple.
Pinch Sulzberger would rather give Bill O'Reilly a loufah rubdown than deign to pay attention to Woman's World. But Woman's World charges 62 bucks a year for 52 issues. They have 1.4 million subscribers. The New York Times is a daily, of course, but they barely crawl over the million subscriber line, and likely won't be able to keep their head above the million paying customer line much longer. And since they're hemorrhaging money like a print version of an abbatoir, they're basically paying people to read them, and borrowing money to do so. My wife had to pay $1.79 to purchase a Woman's World today to see if I was in it. If you want to read it - pay, is such a wonderful bet to make, and win at, for a publisher these days.
I certainly have learned more about what the average person wants, needs, and is interested in by reading Woman's World than I would by reading a week's worth of The New York Times. I've known lots of women, and many are interested in dieting and cupcakes - simultaneously or alternatingly, take your pick, - no matter how strenuously they try to convince you they've removed themselves from the hoi polloi.
People will pay to read Woman's World, and wouldn't cross the street to read 100 pages of editorials masquerading as news if it was free. Which one is useful and interesting? Come on, it's science; don't be a denier.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
You're really not supposed to take pop music too seriously. That goes for the audience, too. It's just supposed to be fun, and ephemeral, and that's it. You're not going to save the world with your two minutes and forty eight seconds of foot-tapping goodness. And generally, introducing much more than foot-tapping to the proceedings brings the whole edifice down on your heads. You can't make bubbles out of iron.
The Beatles killed pop music, though it was not their intention. They could write very high quality pop, with just the right balance between sophistication and raucousness; and if you set up two boom mikes and their instruments, they could entertain you.
But they went searching for the holy grail of seriousness, and they began to put together pop confections by using the entire array of studio technology available at the time, and so made music that was not possible any other way --the studio album.
The records they made were almost uniformly wonderful, so where's the problem, you're asking? Well, everybody else is busy Not Being As Talented As The Beatles, but they're using the same techniques plus all the other aural spackle and visual wallpaper to make studio silk purses out of the sow's ear of their meager talents, and then compounding their errors by taking themselves seriously. And we have to listen to it.
There's a lot of potential to make interesting cultural artifacts with the studio system. But its been taken too far, and simply made it possible -- if not required -- for the most avaricious and outrageous among the already mildly inspired to elbow their way to the front of the pop music line. It's killed the thing that spawned them, for all intents and purposes.
A few friends got together in Wales forty years ago, and played in some bands together. They didn't take themselves seriously; their very name was an offhand joke -- The Iveys, after a street in their town, and a play on words referring to the pop group The Hollies.
They learned how to play their instruments and sing a little, and made friends with the Beatles. They changed their name to Badfinger, apparently a snippet from a working title of a Beatles song. And when you've got the Beatles helping you out -- at least the ones not named John Lennon, who thought you too, well, unserious -- you're likely to do OK. It doesn't hurt to have Paul McCartney singing back-up on your songs, like this one, (knock down the old grey wall) and George Harrison and his friends playing on your others.
Thirty-five years ago, simple, lyrical, happy, glittering pop used to come out of the radio every few minutes, like No Matter What. It didn't save the world, or grant any inner peace or enlightenment, it didn't rage against the... well, let's just say, there was no rage in it at all. It was fun and vibrant, harmless and marvelous.
Those Welsh fellers with the little knack it took to write tuneful nursery rhymes fell in with gangsters and lawyers, or the other way around; in the music business you need dental records to tell them apart anyway. They made all kinds of money and got all kinds of girls despite their golden retriever haircuts, bad teeth, and sunken chests. They managed to get their own sort of Yoko Ono. They took themselves very seriously, and two of them eventually hanged themselves over the idea that it all mattered a great deal more than it does, or should.
My friend Steve calls suicide "The permanent solution to your temporary problems." It was better, for everybody involved, when they were supplying us with the temporary solution to our permanent problems, at least for two minutes and forty eight seconds.
Monday, April 27, 2009
He held the sway of money over us. You'd open your folio after the obsequies. The formality of manners was all on you. He'd never speak. But in his way, listening to your entreaty was his way of acknowledging you as a fellow human. If he had no business with you you didn't exist.
He wasn't short, but he'd always stand on the last step coming down. You'd have to hold out the papers on the folder or your briefcase laid on its side on your palms, and he'd take out his pen and sign. Or not. He'd never ask a question or answer any. It was expected that it would all be on the paper. God help you if it wasn't.
He signed every paper with the solemnity of ceremony for the Declaration of Independence. His handwriting was perfect, but florid. It was his art.
The city went to hell and gone all around him. He'd never go outside, and after all the help lit out or died on him, the place had a ramshackle and gloomy aspect. The local kids would saw the little five-pointed nut off the tops of the fire hydrants for the nickel they could get for the brass, and would generally break anything they couldn't steal, but no one dared approach the house, even after the old man died.
It was left to me to close up his affairs. Astonishing that he never had any money, really, that I could find. He would study the world in some unseen way and send a note to our modern day counting house, offering to broker some arcane shift of the numbers from one column to another in some hidden ledger, and the people I worked for knew his name on the paper would make it happen. His name was the key in all those locks.
I could feel the dead weight of his soul in that house. I sat in church every Sunday, and even with the thurible swinging right under my nose and the wafer disintegrating in my mouth, I felt nothing. Stand inside that guy's door for half a minute and you feel like you just broke the seal on a mummy's tomb that maybe you should have passed on by. He was a dread god, my signatory.
My boss told me the man with the fine fist was once filled with bonhomie. He'd travel and sip champagne for dinner and smoke big cigars after the deals were struck. Then his daughter died from the influenza while he was away, and he never left the house again that anyone saw -- until they carried him out. If you ask me, he never left it.
The maid from back in the fifties that drank a bit and got flirty said he wouldn't even let a curtain be drawn back from the windows, because he said he saw the girl he left to the fever in the garden.
They'll knock it down, because no one will buy it. He isn't around to put his name on the deal, after all, and his name was all there was to it.
I knew I shouldn't, but everybody touches the stove once or twice in their life. I looked back at the house.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
There's more to it than that for me, perhaps. To be an expert, you have to know so much about something that you can't even look at it for the pure joy that's in it anymore. If you've ever been in the office of a really accomplished specialist doctor, you can always spot them looking at you -- eventually, if not right from your greeting -- as the bundle of bones and guts you are. As they say in the mafia movies, it's not personal, it's strictly business.
I worry about doctors that take too much of an interest in me personally anyway. I'd be in a tavern if I wanted commiserating companionship, after all. And the medicine in the tavern is more efficacious, generally. The best and most competent doctor I ever met told me the worst news in the most businesslike manner, and left the room to leave me alone with my wife. He tended to his business, and left us to tend to ours. We need more of that, and not just in the medical profession.
I can't enjoy recorded music if it's a selection I've learned to play myself. I see the bones and the guts of it, arrayed like cadavers in the music morgue, when I should be getting the lilt. I have gone way out of my way to avoid ever deconstructing any of the music of a certain soul singer, because I never want the magician to show me his trick after he performs it, and I don't want to peek either. I don't want to ruin it by understanding it.
I don't want to ruin it by understanding it. Hmm. Music. Gardening. Love.
It's a geranium. It not the genus Pelargonium of the Kingdom of Plantae of the Division of Magnoliophyta of the class Manoliopsida of the order Geraniales from the family of Geraniaceae.
I think when the sun comes out, I'll sit with my wife on that brick step next to the pots of geraniums, and open the window a little so we can hear, indistinctly perhaps, Al Green sing on the box.
End of story.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
I can't stop watching the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. It was a sorta flop when it came out, but it's one of those movies that allows for a great deal of reflection over the themes in it, which are profound. Or you could just gape at it. When I was but little, I remember seeing it on a drive-in screen the size of a football field, entirely enthralled with the blue of the Pacific sky and sea. A meal in a restaurant was exotic to us. Tahiti was as much another world to us as any tar on the Bounty.
You have to take Marlon Brando as Christian in the spirit in which it's offered, I guess. He's always interesting to look at, if not always exactly suited to the work. Trevor Howard is an enormously talented guy, mostly overlooked, and is perfect for the job of Bligh.
The theme that that which is allowed is not necessarily recommended, or even tolerated in retrospect, is important, and timely still.
It was assumed that a gentleman would have an internal moral clock that would keep him from what Churchill later called "frightfulness," and so it was best to leave the direction of men to gentlemen. If only.
An excess of zeal.
Friday, April 24, 2009
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Oh how he railed at the bankers. Mother would remind him, occasionally, that he was a banker. He'd splutter and rage and Mother would leave to see what the cook was doing and return and neither of them ever missed a beat. I'd watch the dirty urban raindrops make their way down the panes, backlit by the milky sunshine that was our ration at the end of the brownstone canyons, and wait for it all to end. The rain, the impotent rage, all of it. Now it was done.
I wander through the rooms, and they are full of nothing. I never heard it put better than that. A life full of nothing. There was always someplace to be, something that required immediate attention, something that would bring on the stemwinding peroration, to no one in particular, about the hard, cold heart of everyone who came into his line of sight when he was trying to make the column on the left and the column on the right match up. A life devoted to those damn dots.
I never could muster any awe or fear of the old man. He was volcanic, and yet the rumblings signified nothing. The threat of the eruption is daily, but the actual item never comes, and so one develops a certain ambivalence about it. It was always like waiting for the last dull minutes of a boring sermon to end. There was no sin in it, and none in ignoring it. You endured it only, but did not suffer, really.
Father had that Irishman that worked for him. The only one. He was as full of life as Father was full of worms. Father mocked him when he was not here. There was a touch of the obsequious about the guy that my Father loved. "Oh, that Hibernian tugs his forelock and backs out of here like a serf, but you know he's in the tavern right now in his cups and laughing at me, and all his cronies with him. He'll never amount to anything."
Now the old man was done. Mother was gone two decades ago. It fell to me. I'll have nothing to do with this place. It had the smell of the grave in it all along. The lawyers pushed the papers under my nose, with the same dull mechanical mannerisms and basilisk expressions on their faces as their customer, laid out like a Pharoah in the funeral parlor. I suppose they laughed later, too, when they offered me a third of the value of the place, and I took it. I would have paid them to take it.
I'm going to the tavern, to look for a man.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Hollywood likes to show gangsters being Machiavellian, but they're usually just willing to use force to get what they want, and are willing to take chances. Fearless and arrogant will get you a long way in a world full of the meek. Gangsters are in a state of nature, red in tooth and claw, while John Q. Public thinks meat comes in little packages from a deli.
Al Capone was not a sophisticated man. He was a Camorra gangster, a Naples thing, which is not the same thing as the Mafia, which is a (the) Sicilian thing. Camorra gangsters don't have a lot of redeeming family values to add spice to your Pacino movie. Just violent and grabby.
That picture is Capone's cell in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. He spent eight months there for carrying a concealed weapon.
It would appear that the cell testifies that prison authorities could be easily bribed. Not exactly. I imagine that it was fear of Capone that got him his goodies, and the warders accepted his money as gravy. If they weren't afraid of him, they would have just taken his money, or not taken his money, but he wouldn't have got his goodies either way.
Al Capone was literally a barbarian. And yet he could assemble truly salubrious surroundings for himself in any circumstances. Tradition based in wholesomeness trumps intellect searching for thrills, every time, for comfort.
A Queen Anne wing chair is very comfortable to sit in. It affords motility -the ability to slightly shift your position without thinking to avoid discomfort. The wings and sides shield the occupant from drafts. The open shape of the arms invites the sitter visually. The patterned fabric has a certain light friction that keeps the occupant from slipping forward.
The floor lamp gives a pool of light. The shade is angled downward, because the purpose of the lamp is not general illumination. It is to make a well-lighted spot at a sitting area without producing any harsh glare. The other, table lamp does so even more, and softens the downward directed light with a tasseled fringe to avoid severity.
The carpet on a hard floor is a no-brainer. Living on hard floors so your Swiffer or Roomba is comfortable instead of you is not smart. And nailing the carpet down is like wearing the same underwear too long.
The Chippendale drop-front desk is elegant and useful. Books are precious, or should be, and you can keep them best where they can be seen, but are not open to dust. You can write and then close up the clutter writing brings.
There is a chair and a mirror at the entrance/exit. You need to look at yourself before you leave your abode, and you often need to put things down, including yourself, for a moment when you enter. Capone understood that even though his door was a modern porticullis.
There is a piece of art hung to contemplate while seated or standing. The radio for entertainment is not treated as solely an appliance; it needed to be as elegant as furniture, because when you put it in a room, it is furniture. And Al wanted to listen to opera in the evenings, because he knew it's crazy to wallow in misery voluntarily, even for your entertainment. There is something green next to it, to amuse the occupant with its tending, and to suggest the outdoors indoors.
Picture a contemporary person, not even a criminal, put in this place. They'd put in Pergo floors and have an X-Box or a crummy computer on a shabby rickety IKEA monstrosity instead of a writing desk. They'd have a glorified office chair with lumbar support on the wrong lumbar. There's be a nasty flatscreen instead of a radio and a picture, about as elegant as a water heater when considered dispassionately, playing porno and gangster movies all the time.
As I said, Al Capone was a barbarian. I'd rather live in his prison cell than your house.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
I have a soft spot for weirdos, cranks, freaks, dopes, and the great majority of the minority of strangeness.
I concurrently have a great deal of respect for the mundane, the average, the square, the nerd, the: Hey expecting highwater with those pants? sorts of people.
Apparently, I've got it exactly backwards.
You see, I don' t fit in very well with the second group. Let's call them the joiners. I don't have the mental toughness to work my whole life at the same thing. I don't have the simple piety required to enjoy the benediction of regular churchgoing. I don't have the ability to willfully suspend disbelief enough to watch television and get any enjoyment out of it; I'm always looking at it as a useful catalog of modern day affectations and avarice, but I can't bring myself to look at it as entertainment. In short, many would say, I belong with the first group: "Hey ottist, paint this!"
I don't fit in very well amongst the strange set, either. I'm not able to hide my admiration for the joiners, and that's a deal breaker with the freaks, generally. "It's my way or the highway" sounds very second groupish, but it's really the outlandish brigade that tolerates nothing outside its little world. The joiners just shrug their shoulders if you say you don't watch American Idol, and maybe figure you're a little odd. The freaks will picket your house if they decide your kid's habittrail keeps hamsters against their will or something equally trivial. When I say, against their will, I mean against the freaks' will; the hamsters seem to have no opinion other than a certain enthusiasm for free sunflower seeds.
As I was saying, I seem to have the whole thing backwards. If the television, newspaper, movies, and radio are to be believed, I'm supposed to get my cues on how to behave from the freaks, and I'm supposed to get my cues on entertainment from the joiners.
Have you seen how celebrities, and celebrity politicians order their affairs? Taking advice from them on any topic seems about as efficacious as looking for a dowser on the Titanic after you hit the iceberg. Not. Likely. To. Be. Of. Any. Help.
And I said any topic, because you can't even ask them about their own craft. They don't even understand that, and it shows. How do you explain why a zillion people will line up to see an aging midget, in the third iteration of an adaption of a lame television show about spies, who's simultaneously publicly demanding his third or fourth or fifth wife have a baby without saying anything aloud? They themselves really can't explain it either, so they go to the default position: I must be wonderful.
No. No you're not; you're dreadful human beings, in general -- and in particular, some of you are even worse than dreadful.
Conversely, a great deal of pains are taken to inform me what the great mass of people think I should be interested in. You must like this; everybody does. We took a poll.
I know I should be interested, but I'm not. And I'm not not interested as a sort of gesture, either. I leave it to others to say one thing and then do another. I don't secretly watch American Idol while disparaging it openly. I'm really just not interested one way or the other. If it doesn't matter enough to me to like it, why would it matter enough to hate it?
I don't go to the water and sewer commission meeting looking for entertainment. Why would I conversely pay any attention to advice from someone who's never gotten up before noon in their life, and demands that their M&Ms get sorted before they eat them?
Stick to your trades, people; stick to your trades.
Monday, April 20, 2009
(Ombudsman's note: There is no editor, so you know I don't exist, either)
I'm beginning to think that the only immutable law of my universe is: The bigger the budget, the worse the outcome.
Let's test our hypothesis:
CBSNBCFOXABC / Any Internet news aggregator
American Idol / Any bar band
Lehman Brothers / Grameen Bank
$750k snouthouse / My house
Yeah, it's looking pretty grim for the Daddy Warbucks production effect. Let's try a doubleblind/Folger's Crystal/Pavlov's Dog/Rorschach Blot test on you, now.
Here. Watch as much of this as you can stand. Don't worry, I'm standing by with a supply of the antivenin for pitch-shifting vocals at the end of this entry.
I have no idea if you'd subject yourself to a Katy Perry music video. I know pop music isn't supposed to be Stravinsky. But come on; there's got to be a million bucks tied up in the concatenation of visual cliche tripe that accompanies a singsong ditty. But there isn't enough money to hire a drummer. I still have to listen to a wan mechanical buhm, chick, buhm, chick for percussion, like any act in a chinese restaurant lounge.
I like these guys so much better. Los Colorados!
You can't argue with that. It's science. Don't be a denier.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Beside the green Loire, or by the pleasant Seine,
Adorning ancient mansions with your stately ways -
There in the shelter of the shady groves, you'd start
A thousand sonnets blooming in the poets' hearts,
Whom your great eyes would turn to sycophants and slaves.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Friday, April 17, 2009
He's got a long resume. I won't belabor it.
He was only a little older than my father. He represents one of the two types of men that post-war veterans like my dad wanted to see on the screen. There was the overtly masculine Holden, and the passively masculine Jimmy Stewart. You can fill everyone else into the two columns as you like.
My father liked Jimmy Stewart. Stewart was a pilot in WW II, and had that self-effacing dutiful dignity the fifties had in spades. Holden was something else altogether.
I remember them both mostly cast as a regular "everyman," thrust into daunting affairs, who shrugged their shoulders, winked, and carried on. Self-reliance was big then.
David Lean is the greatest filmmaker ever. No one will likely ever match a career that encompasses the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai again.
One of the rare and wonderful things that happen too occasionally in films and plays is the encapsulation of great themes into compact settings. Henry V's big speech can be yelled off an empty stage and still resound, after all. The superfluous writ large is more the modus operandi now.
Actors live to be given great things to say, and work and pray that dumb luck and effort will give them a chance to say the magic thing that makes them immortal. William Holden dragged his arse all over an imaginary Burma fashioned in Ceylon for his chance to explain the passing of the dutiful splendor of the British Empire into oblivion, and the concurrent ascendancy of America. It's featured at the 1:18 mark of the trailer:
Sleep well, Bill Beedle. Oops. You'll always be Commander Shears.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
I know you like the back of my hand, dear reader. And right through these here Intarnets, I can feel the vibrations and emanations. Your chakra and your aura and your vibes come through, and as I lay my hand on the CPU, I can hear it, in my very bones:
The eighties were a time when the world was waking up from a kind of torpor, or stasis. New possibilities were opening up. The shooting wars had calmed down a bit. And the ideas from the technology and commerce side of the aisle were ascendant, and things got downright hopeful compared to the enuui mixed with depression the seventies encapsulated. My high school yearbook in the seventies had a two page spread that simply had the word APATHY printed in big letters across it. Hey, don't knock it 'til you've tried it; when you're taking a beating, sometimes it's best to curl up and wait for the blows to stop raining down.
Anyway, XTC encapsulates the marvelous and clever hive of activity that eighties music was, if you scratched the chrome off the arena rock bumper and looked a little deeper under the hood. They embodied the ideal of a few talented guys writing quirky, pleasant, tuneful ditties for our --and their own -- amusement. It was nice to see people look like they were having fun, and not taking themselves too seriously for a change. To paraphrase Jeff Lebowski- God, I hate the Eagles.
XTC look like dweebs, and they are. The lead singer and one of the founders, Andy Partridge, canceled a whole tour because his wife hid his valium, and he was terrified to go on stage without it. He really belonged in a cubicle somewhere, or a library or something. He wrote songs about his comic book collection. His sort of Star Wars action figure collector comic book guy ugly guitar buyer home studio recorder computer geek TV Guide obsessed Avengers wannabe persona didn't exist yet then in pop culture. Everybody's like him now.
We dragged poor Andy out onto the stage he feared so, to distill the intellectual and the artisitic and the pop culture wag "vibe" into those toe-tapping songs. My, they were clever.
Enjoy it. I did. You've worn out your Talking Heads records anyway.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
I make things. I inhabit the shadow world between art and utility.
I've always been there. Architecture is my kinda sorta background, and it's neither fish nor fowl in the same way. I drifted away from formal architectural education because they aren't the slightest bit interested in the inhabitants of their buildings anymore. They are indulging their own cranky ideas, and treat the people that use, see, and pay for their misanthropic creations in the same way street urchins pull the wings off of bugs for their own amusement. They massage their egos with your submission to their sticks-and-bricks hairshirt misery and disorienting visual style. Bye bye Vitruvius, hello Doctor Caligari.
According to Oscar Wilde, no real artist pays any attention to what other people want. I don't think he knew what he was talking about. Or more precisely, I think he knew exactly what he was talking about, but was playing hide-the-truth with that observation. We always fall for that one. It's the reason everyone thinks if they simply act dissipated, they're an artist of some sort.
Like all successful artists cum celebrities, Wilde was shrewd above all things. They minutely gauge the zeitgeist for possibilities, and push a little at the edges. He's fooling when he says he doesn't care what others think. If he didn't care what you thought, he'd have no idea how to shock you, and get all famous doing it. The fellow on the subway that reeks of urine and the dumpster, mumbling to himself? That guy really doesn't care what you think. There's no money or fame in that.
There are many ways to shock. Some are plebeian, and dashed difficult to pull off, so they are rarely attempted by those who know they can go the easy route and simply make things weird and ugly to annoy the masses and cash checks from the glitterati.
People often give me parameters to work within, but they don't bother me, as I've never really made anything for other people, even though I've spent my life making things for other people. I make it for me, and then give it away - for money sometimes.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
But you need only bravery, and time, to make it instead of inherit it. It takes a sort of bravery to acknowledge that everything in this life has a trajectory, and allow that trajectory to be followed. You can tend to a building, but you can't make it immortal. A structure that requires no maintenance allows no maintenance and so is not "green," a term I don't use because it signifies nothing to me. It is disposable, in the only true sense of the word --brand new, until you throw it away.
If you shoot poison in your face you are not young. Who are you fooling? Do you have the nerve to allow the wrinkles to show? Did you have the temerity to use your youth when you had it, and so not attempt to counterfeit it when it is gone, to try to one more time to recapture the reckless courage you squandered? And would squander again, no doubt?
Put that useful thing out in the landscape. You'll go there to fetch the rake, and be presented with other, more pleasant things, unwonted. The genie is blind and deaf, so your wishes are worthless. But he is still powerful in his caprice, and conjures many wonders. It's as if you were dragging a millstone to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and were kidnapped partway there and given cotton candy to carry at party instead.
You forgot your rake.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
I've got to steal one. God forgive me. I've got to steal a flower from you. There are so many, God, and mother only needs one. I'll burn forever but mother needs her Easter lily.
"Child, what are you doing?"
"I need the lily for Easter, Sister. I have no money and there are so many."
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: miserere nobis.
"It is a sin to steal, child."
" I know it is, Sister, but I can't help it."
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: miserere nobis.
"You can always help it child. Where is your mother and your father?"
"Father is nowhere, Mother says, Sister, and I don't know where nowhere is. Mother is sick and I think she needs an Easter lily or she'll die."
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: dona nobis pacem.
"Where is your mother, child?"
"She's in the bed with the diphtheria, Sister."
"Is she alone?"
"Yes, as I am here, Sister."
"When did you eat last, child?"
Panem coelestem accipiam, et nomen Domini invocabo.
"It's another sin I know, Sister, but I ate the heel of the bread this morning while Mother was moaning. She wouldn't eat it, and I needed it."
"I see. And before that?"
"I don't know. I was sick first, and Mother might know but she can't tell you. She is hot and talks of places I don't know and people that are dead, Sister."
"And she sent you for the flower?"
"It is my own sin, Sister. She said "The lilies, the lilies, the Easter lilies... " over and over until I promised I'd fetch her one. She would not have me steal, but she cannot come. Will I burn forever, Sister?"
"You will have your flower, child, and the kingdom of heaven besides, for to tend to the afflicted is the hallmark of the saint."
"And saints can steal flowers, and God don't mind?"
Indulgentiam, et absolutionem, et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum, tributat nobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus.
"No, God does not mind. Now take me to your mother, and we will give her the lily together.
Friday, April 10, 2009
Now when I was a kid, baseball was different. I'm not ancient, so you'll be relieved to know there'll be no talk of stickball in a Brooklyn street or Ty Cobb's sharpened spikes. The players we admired on our playing cards are coaches now, not dead. And the playing cards we had were worthless, and the gum was precious, thank God, so we enjoyed them, and flipped them for Face up/Facedown on the bus seats on the way to school, or lined them up against the old brick wall in the playground and played Knockdown. And we gave shopping bags and shoe boxes filled with them to our cousins and younger brothers when we came of age, and laugh when we think of the fortune just one of those cards commands from memorabilia freaks now.
We did not have uniforms. We played with baseballs that looked much older than us, and cracked wooden bats with electrical tape holding them together, and had to mow the field before we could play on it. There were never enough of us, so we pitched to our own team members, and right field was an out. Period. And more often than not, right field went unmowed, too. We played in jeans and canvas sneakers, and a hole in the knee of your pants wasn't yet stylish, it was a calamity when you had to face your mother, who knew what they cost. And we played until we heard our mothers yell our names for the second time, like a town crier, and hurried home to a scolding for tarrying, and dinner.
All of that is gone now, like so many things, changed by time, and prosperity, and other things. Our mothers thought nothing of turning us out of doors at daylight in the summer, though we were but small, because forty years ago, someone who would hurt a child would have more problems in this world than registering at the police station, and paying their lawyers. And we mowed the grass ourselves, with a mower that shot gravel out the unbaffled chute at our confederates, and we could barely reach up to the handle to push it, and we didn't maim ourselves, and sue anybody, that I recall. And we settled the rules first and our disputes later among ourselves without the guiding hand of our parents, except what little sense they had managed to get into our heads, and rarely resorted to knuckles. Funny that. We had it sorted out in 1965, when we were but children, but forty years later we assault the umpires at our children's games. Something was there, and has slipped away, I think.
I remember lots of things about that little diamond, carved out of the trees as an afterthought by the developer of our little neighborhood, long before the word "developer" became an epithet hurled at conservation committee meetings by people who live in houses made by a "builder." The builder and the developer look identical to the unaided eye, but people who already have a house have a different perspective, and thesaurus, than those that need one.
And I remember Cookie. Now, our children should be collecting Cookie's rookie trading cards, to put them through college when they sell them on ebay, and not community college either. But it was not to be. Because Cookie, although the greatest baseball player I ever saw, didn't want to be a professional ballplayer. He wanted to be a barber.
Now that last sentence clanged to the floor at your house, and you thought: He's kidding, or he's nuts. Well, I'm not kidding, anyhow. Cookie wouldn't have it if it was offered.
Now, Cookie was a little older than us, and that brought out the Paul Bunyan side of it a little I'm sure. Remember when you thought your father could lift a car, or paint the house by having you hold the brush while he moved the house up and down? Later you found out he was just another middle aged guy that emitted an audible gasp every time he sat down. Well, I'm sure that entered into it a little, that perspective from down where the little kids are, looking at big Cookie, but that wasn't all of it. He really was a wonder, I think.
Cookie would show up when we had been playing all day, and to this day I don't know his last name, or where he came from, or where he went to after he was done. But every time he came, we stopped whatever we were doing, and Cookie put on a Ruthian barnstorming exhibition. The biggest kid among us would pitch to Cookie, and the rest of us would scatter into the woods beyond the field, and wait for the balls to rain down on us. Because Cookie was a machine for hitting home runs. If the pitcher would wince during his delivery, human nature being what it is, knowing the ball might be coming back those 60' 6" in a big hurry- he'd maybe sail the ball wide and three feet off the plate. It didn't matter. Cookie would step on the plate, and lean over, and flick his wrists, and it would rain down into the woods, every time.
And with Cookie, right field was in play for once, after a fashion. We'd grow tired of fishing our precious baseballs out of the oaks and poison ivy in center field, and beseech Cookie for a real show, and he'd get up lefty, his switch hitting a revelation to us, and hit it out over the unmowed grass. Right field had no natural end, so the balls would roll when they hit, like cannonballs that had missed their fortress, but occasionally Cookie would clear the whole distance, and hit the pavement at the foot of the road that entered the field. And we'd ululate like madmen, and didn't care our precious baseball was no longer round. We adored him.
Cookie even sort of looked the part, if I recall correctly. The major leagues were filled with midwestern farmboy looking lummoxes like Mantle and Killebrew back then, and Cookie had the rangy frame, reddish blond stubble head, loping strides and laconic demeanor of our icons.
But with glasses. But not coke bottle glasses. Those wouldn't have brought a billboard into focus for Cookie. Cookie had the sort of glasses that seemed like the windows on a deep sea submarine. It was disorienting just to look at him, and if the barbering trade didn't fly, I imagine mesmerism would have been a cakewalk for him.
And perhaps Cookie knew what we, in our innocence, did not; that his eyesight would forever make him an also-ran, and it was best not to dream overmuch and better to make use of your gifts to amuse your neighbors and spice your life than to try to squeeze every drop of mammon from them. Maybe. But I really think that Cookie didn't care if he became what was to us an exalted thing: A big league ballplayer. He wasn't interested. He wanted to be a barber, and that was that.
I recall reading a story about Eisenhower when he was young and a cadet at West Point, and not yet the general who beat the Axis armies or the President who presided over my birth, though perhaps he did not notice it. He was no longer a "plebe" then, and was allowed to order the newcomers around, and haze them, as he had been hazed the year before. And for amusement, he picked out a goofy looking recruit, and made him stand at attention in front of his peers, and lambasted him, for no good reason, simply because it was expected of him. And he wrote in his memoirs, that he always remembered, to his shame, that as a capstone to his string of abuse, he asked the plebe what he did in his civilian life before he entered West Point, because he seemed such a numbskull that he couldn't be more than a barber. And the man, showing no emotion, but feeling some, no doubt, answered that he was indeed a barber in his short pre-military working life.
Eisenhower wrote that he had never known real shame before that, and he remembered that moment for the rest of his life, when he had disparaged the honest toil and effort of his fellow man. And he said he owed that man a great debt, though he couldn't remember his name, and he never again wanted to look down his nose at any man.
Cookie, if you're listening. I'm sure you're a terrific barber.
Thursday, April 09, 2009
I had to go to the city last month on a dreary errand. It was just as I remembered it.
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
To remind a man of the good turns you have done him is very much like a reproach. -Demosthenes
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
The tell-tales whisper to me. The others think I'm daft to say I can hear them. But I've got the tiller and the bank account and there's precious little tittering. They have last night's booze roaring in their ears and don't listen anyway. The ocean is their whorehouse. It's my chapel. I hear the very beads slip through the calloused fingers as the Pater Nosters are murmured.
The tell-tales pat the sails like my father used to pat the flank of his horse. I never understood his love for that brute. Father would send me out to hitch it to the cart and snicker each time knowing if I took my eyes off that bag of leather and bones for a moment I'd get bit. He'd come by and pat-pat and I swear that beast would have rolled over and let the old man scratch his belly. They were both hitched to a sort of cart, so maybe they commiserated somehow. There is love in this world that knows no understanding.
Father would say one thing and mean another. He was downright oriental in this fashion. You had to fathom what he was driving at all the time. He said that if you went on the ocean in a boat you did not love, the ocean would know it, and you would be consumed. He said that all things in this life are that way.
It occurs to me now that father hated that horse the whole time.
Sometimes I think I'm feeling my way along the bottom. The others are pukers sometimes, but I think I can feel my mind's fingers trail along the rock snot on the bottom all the time and the rollers don't bother me. They're all afraid of that bottom, oh yes. But it's where we must go for the oysters. And it's where we must go when the tell-tales don't whisper soon enough.
Monday, April 06, 2009
A council of officials of uncertain importance decided that since Emperor Iyasus of Ethiopia had retired to a monastery, they could appoint Tekle Haymanot I to be the Emperor.
Over in Ramillies, the War of the Spanish succession had English, Dutch, and German troops defeating the French. They'd mix themselves up and fight one another in one form or fashion for 250 years or so.
George Farquar had gotten over stabbing another actor during a swordfight, and was wowing them on Drury Lane with his play: The Recruiting Officer.
John Machin the mathemetician was getting a little notoriety for computing pi to 100 decimal places.
And in Boston, Massachusetts, Josiah Franklin wiped the tallow renderings from his soap and candle manufactory off his hands, and held his newborn son - his tenth: Benjamin.
He'd have seven more children, too. But it's Ben Franklin we all remember, because he's the most American man that ever lived.
Franklin did every darn thing, and did it well. He wasn't educated formally much -- his father only had enough money for one year at Boston Latin --but Ben became an autodidact, and read voraciously. When Benjamin was fifteen, his older brother James started the first newspaper in Boston, the Courant. Ben was forced to do menial work only; setting type, sweeping up, and selling the papers in the street, which bugged him. So he invented a female nom de plume, "Silence Dogood," and started writing editorial letters about matters divers and sundry in the colony, and especially how poorly a woman like her was treated.
Ben would slip the screeds under the door of the shop at night, and his brother would print them in the paper. They were a big hit, and everyone wanted to know: Who was Silence Dogood? Ben knew he had catapulted his brother's paper to prominence, and figured he'd admit his ruse to his brother and claim his place as a writer for the paper.
His brother hit him.
Back to the compositor's bench. Eventually James got thrown in jail for annoying the local clergy about smallpox vaccinations, of all things, and Ben got to run the paper until they let his brother out of jail.
He did a great job, and asked his brother if now he could write for the paper.
His brother hit him.
This grew tiresome. So he ran away to Philadelphia, on foot, though it was illegal to do so at the time -- it made him a vagrant. Eventually he found a job working at the local printer. But that first day, he spent his last money on a few stale rolls, and sat eating them --wet, disheveled, footsore, broke, in a strange city -- and still managed to attract the attention of the woman he'd marry seven years later: Deborah Read. And all that was before his eighteenth birthday.
Benjamin's 300th birthday anniversary is this year, and the rest of his life is being endlessly dissected and pawed over for the glory and good sense in it, and like a very few men, his life can take almost endless scrutiny without running out of things to look at. I'll leave the rest to others.
But I had an adventure with Ben, and I'd like to share it.
I grew up in the first town in America named for Ben Franklin. It was part of Wrentham, which originally was part of Dedham, Massachusetts, but in 1738, when they got themselves a Congregational parish, they decided to break away, and call the new town Exeter. Later, someone got the bright idea that if they massaged the ego of the most famous -- and one of the richest -- men in America, Ben Franklin, by offering to name the town after him, maybe they could flatter enough money out of the old patriot for a bell for their church steeple.
"Sense is preferable to sound," Franklin wrote back, and sent them a crate of books instead. And so the first public library in the country was born.
The town had other benefactors over the years, and in 1904, the daughters of the most prominent family in Franklin, the Rays, dedicated a magnificent Neoclassical library to honor their parents.
I spent more hours in that library than all the Italian stonemasons the Rays imported to build it ever did, combined. I haunted it. It looked almost exactly like the picture you see above when I was a child. How could you not know that books and words and scholarship were a noble and important thing when you sat in that magnificent reading room under the watchful eyes of the semi-nudes in the mural? The semi-nudes were once just plain nudes, and Tommaso Juglaris had to return to paint additional clothes on them. Franklin's always been like that.
A book was an expensive and rare thing for my family then. I could list every book in my house in 1964 right now; it wouldn't take long. I read eveything in the children's library by the time I was seven. I wanted to go upstairs, where the adult books were, when adult books meant something else than they do now.
They told me I was too young and I'd tear the pages from the books or put lollipops in the card files or roller skate in there or something; my mother had to go and explain to them that I needed to see more than the four newspapers my father would bring home every night. They relented.
The library had massive bronze doors with big rings you had to turn to enter, and at first I was too small and had to wait for someone to enter or exit, and I'd dart in. It was a temple, and I was a votary. And there, in the reading room, were Ben Franklin's Books. They were just stuck in a glass-doored cabinet in the reading room. I had read every damn thing in that library, including all the encyclopedias. I had walked past Franklin's books hundreds of times, and watched others go past them without giving them a glance thousands of times.
Like the Spanish Prisoner story, one day I just tried opening it. It was unlocked. It was a wonder no one, including me, had ever thought of that before. I get the feeling Ben Franklin was cleaning out his back room when he donated the books. No matter. I don't remember exactly what any of them were. They've blended together with all the others I scoured for the next thing I wanted to know, and the next, and the one after that. And I put them back without anyone ever knowing. But I knew.
The library's still there, because stone don't burn; most every other stately Victorian era house the Rays built in town have been burned down by the dissipated Dean College students who eventually used them as dormitories. I wandered through the library a few years ago. They've ruined it of course; it's full of lousy books and rental movies I'd cross the street to avoid seeing, crummy furniture and computers no one needs in a library much. And Franklin's books aren't out where you can see them any more.
What gets into your mind? Where does the inspiration come from? What gave me the idea I wanted to look at those books like the damned want icewater? Beats me. Why do you walk to Philadelphia and buy rolls? I can tell you it was fun to hold them in my hands, all those years ago, and think about the man that sent them, through the ages, for me.
Silence Dogood would understand.
Saturday, April 04, 2009
Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I used to play in a rockabilly band or two, so I knew who the Collins Kids were. That's a long time before Wikipedia. We were mining what was, to us, ancient stuff. And now the 1980s, when we were doing it, is ancient stuff. Triple clarified ancient stuff is best.
Lawrencine (!) Collins played Ricky Nelson's girlfriend on Ozzie and Harriet, another thing too old for me, but worth a look. Hot babe, and of certain kind. I can't picture a modern metrosexual getting within a hundred yards of her.
Dear lord, they're still at it:
Most everyone hears rockabilly music and gets the urge to get up and dance. There's a problem. You all immediately turn into Elaine Benes, because it's different and frantic. Only the people who can dance to old bastige country music knew what the hell to do. They'd glide around the floor to the most frantic rhythm you could produce, and every one else looked like they were being defibrillated.
The trajectory from child star to nostalgia act must be tough. Nice to see someone who hasn't lost a step in all those years.
Dear savior; are they playing the same instruments in both videos?
Friday, April 03, 2009
Thursday, April 02, 2009
I can't linger over this.
This winter never ends. The sun still drops like Newton's Apple. In the summer, it will hang just over the edge of our world and daub the treetops with copper light for a good long time. Now it just disappears like it owes you money.
The pissing down rain magically appears for the cinematic effect. We go out to the edge of the wilderness. The boles of the trees appear like columns in some broken-down temple, full of pagan gods no one prays to anymore. We brought a light, but it's better in the near darkness. The light is like whimpering when you're sick. It doesn't make you feel better. Time to lie quiet.
The boy is old enough now, and brings the spade. We stand for a quiet moment at the spot, and the restless woods produce a flotte of geese to fan us with their wings when they light out. You can hear the rustle of their feathers like vestments.
The iron bar loosens the sandy clay, and after some chuffing there's the void we need. If you're an old hand you know they'll be a perfect brown circle on the right knee of your pants when you're done.
After a while, you have to hold the shovel like you would the paddle of a canoe. Your right hand is way down near the reversed blade; your left levering and twisting the handle to square and empty the hole. It's not intuitive; the shovel is born mute, and dies that way. Once you've seen men whose shovel is their banjo, you get it.
You wonder if the boy who named her will watch you and learn. He is here because you know he will.
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
There's a stage, capacious enough for an anorexic to tell jokes from, with four people, their instruments and equipment, and a full drum kit on it. The singer wanders the floor anyway. He sings into a bus station microphone, whispering in it like a lover, or alternately screaming into it like a Stanley Kowalski sort of lover, and peppers his delivery with winks at pretty girls and harmonica playing like a distant elegaic train whistle on the prairie at night.
The guitar is a Fender Stratocaster, of course; it's strung with strings like cable, and you never hear a note unless it's intended. You can't mash them all around. The amplifier is right behind him, that player, and if he swings his hips -- he does-- the sound shakes the strings into a sort of harmonic frenzy, and he rides the rising howl like a surfer does a wave, and then swings the neck away and the volcanic tone returns to the slow boil.
There's a lot of space in the music. The bass is an anchor. The drummer could make do with just a high hat and snare. His right foot is like a piston driving a pile. He moves his stick to the ride cymbal, and you sense that the bell of the cymbal is a world away from the edge.
The guitarist knows what he is doing, and never plays what is being sung; he winds his counterpoint around the vocal like a vine on a drainpipe, and the beautiful rainwater courses down inside, splashes down in the garden, the curb, the gutter -- into the very earth. It rises again from that earth, and forms melancholy clouds, scudding across the musical horizon, then brings the cool, gentle rain down on all of our heads, which cleanses and anoints us.
Your girlfriend goes home with the bass player, of course.