Monday, December 31, 2012

Eureka! Boy led horse to San Francisco's de Young Museum!

Two weeks ago this morning I posted about my month-ago-yesterday visit to MOMA in New York, Finding what I wasn't looking for. I wrote:
I was hoping that I would also get to see an old favorite from MOMA's collection, Picasso's Boy Leading a Horse (1905-6), a painting I've mentioned twice before on this blog. Alas, it wasn't on view at the end of November...
Well, guess what?

I visited San Francisco's de Young Museum yesterday, and found where MOMA was hiding the canvas. Yes, I'd figured it out before showing up to see The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism, but the monumental, Rose Period canvas doesn't need surprise to deliver dramatic effect, time after time after time.

I could have known last month that the painting was on local (to me) loan, as the de Young show opened to the public on 15 September; but I hadn't paid close attention, figuring that I'd visit during the holidays when I'd have time off from work. Regrets if you didn't get to see the show yourself by the time these words hit the intertubes: yesterday was the exhibition's last day in San Francisco.

Glad as I was to salve last month's specific disappointment, the Paley Collection exhibit included beautiful work I don't ever recall seeing at MOMA in New York, including a ravishing Degas drawn in charcoal and pastel, Two Dancers (1905).

I can't say I'm an ardent fan of Degas' work ... in fact, I'll even admit that I start to go cross-eyed when a museum gallery mounts canvas after Degas canvas depicting female dancers performing, rehearsing, at the barre, adjusting their shoes, taking a curtain call, etc., etc., etc.

Two Dancers cut right through my Degas defenses. Judge for yourself, at left.

The curator's note for this piece claims that:
Of all his paintings and pastels, nearly half depict dancers. [...] When asked why he made so many drawings and paintings of dancers the artist replied, "It is only there that I can discover the movement of the Greeks."
I could just about see what Degas meant in those charcoal lines, on paper from which color is almost entirely absent.

Drawn in the same year Picasso began Boy Leading A Horse, both works give a window onto artists' fascination in the early twentieth century with the tension-in-stillness of classical form. (How much more dramatic the connection between Picasso's boy and horse because the boy is grasping reins that do not appear in the painting? It's as if they had melted into the centuries between the classicality -- is that a word? -- of the image and the century in which Picasso painted his canvas, as if the reins had been mere twists of hemp, while the figures were painted in enduring stone.)

If there had been museums in Heraclitus' time, might he have observed that one can never step into the same exhibition twice?

Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for his photos...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Finding what I wasn't looking for
Art bliss at MOMA
The Steins Collect at SF-MOMA

Friday, December 28, 2012

A petulant landlord's agitprop: politics, art, or irony?

Ken Sarachan owns a number of properties and businesses on Berkeley's iconic (and much-decayed) Telegraph Avenue, which is not to be confused with a stretch of Telegraph Avenue a couple miles south, in Oakland, where Michael Chabon set his eponymous novel, published in September of this year.

Since the 1980s Blondie's has been the go-to spot for thick, greasy pizza slices; the store is sited a single block south of Sproul Plaza, epicenter of UC Berkeley's Free Speech Movement in 1964, and many more since. Rasputin Records (now called Rasputin Music, since "records" is something of an anachronism in the current century) is one of The Avenue's remaining well-stocked, independent music chains (Amoeba Music, founded by former employees of Sarachan's Rasputin Records, is another).

One of Sarachan's undeveloped properties is a lot on the northeast corner of Haste and Telegraph, where the Berkeley Inn used to stand before it burned to a crisp more than twenty years ago. Sarachan assumed more than six hundred thousand dollars in liens against the property when he bought it in 1994: costs associated with cleaning up the site after the Berkeley Inn fire. The city offered to waive those liens if Sarachan builds stores and affordable housing on the corner lot; the first deadline for development that would trigger forgiveness of the liens was in 2004, according to a Berkeleyside article last year, City hands ultimatum to Sarachan on vacant Telegraph lot. That deadline was not met.

It's hard to get a straight story about who's to blame for the fact that the lot stands empty 18 years after Sarachan bought it, but here's an excerpt from what the NY Times reported in a February 4, 2012 article titled Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, Hit by Hard Times, Needs a Makeover:
Once the home of the Berkeley Inn, the lot has been vacant for 25 years, despite city incentives to its current owner, Ken Sarachan, to waive $640,000 in liens and interest if he builds stores and affordable housing.

Mr. Sarachan, who also owns Rasputin Records and Blondie’s Pizza nearby, and the vacant Cody’s bookstore building, has offered a number of ideas for the property over the years. But he has never submitted completed plans, city officials said.
So those of us who walk down Telegraph Avenue to get to work, school, or Café Milano were bemused last month to see that someone had erected a sign on the fenced-off property. A big sign. Was it Sarachan himself? Someone else? (The original message was signed "Ken and Kirk," as can be seen in an image published alongside a Daily Californian article of 20 November, but Kirk -- Kirk Peterson, the architect Sarachan hired to develop plans for the lot -- claimed he knew nothing about the sign before it went up; it is now 'credited' only to Ken Sarachan.) In any case, here's what the sign looked like a couple days ago when I walked by:

Yep, it says "Free Speech Board" across the top, as you can see. 'Merican flag motif, peace sign, it's ... well, it's Berkeleyesque, isn't it?

But something smells funny about this little construction, I thought to myself when I first caught sight of it.

Sarachan's "Free Speech Board" is erected on private property, apparently by its owner, and serves a single purpose: to advance the owner's economic interests. The rest of the text goads recently re-elected Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates to push Sarachan's latest plans for his property through the city bureaucracy.


Ken Sarachan is as entitled to put signs up on his property as anybody else, and to goad -- nay, even skewer -- all the public officials he chooses to goad or skewer. But ... assuming the mantle of "free speech" when he does so?

A little over the top, I'd say. The notice is on his own property after all, and no one is trying to tear it down.

Take a step back and the "Free Speech Board" on the corner of Haste and Telegraph smells even stranger.

See, unless you're holding a camera between the bars -- as I was when I snapped the image above -- you can't help noticing that the only vantage points available to the public from which to view the "Free Speech Board are ... wait for it ... outside a heavy, pointy-tipped iron fence designed to keep out the riffraff. The property has been fenced off for years.


That doesn't look like a free speech board to me. Does it to you? To me, it looks downright incarcerated.

(It's Berkeley, you have to wonder whether someone will start a movement to Free the Free Speech Board. That's People's Park in the background, if you're curious.)

I've got a feeling that Ken Sarachan didn't get the memo explaining the free speech concept, particularly with respect to its local historical context.

The irony would be amusing if it weren't for the fact that his property has remained a blight and eyesore in a commercial district that has gotten shabbier and shabbier as Sarachan diddled around, playing chicken with the City Council, instead of doing something with his corner lot and paying off its debts.

According to the NY Times article,
After years of frustrating and unsuccessful negotiations, the City of Berkeley finally sued Mr. Sarachan on Jan. 28, 2012. The city wants to seize the lot to pay off the liens and interest that have accumulated since it cleared the land after the Berkeley Inn burned down in 1990.
I'm not a big fan of cities seizing property from citizens ... but I guess a court will decide if Sarachan has been playing too fast and too loose with the 'bank of Berkeley' as far as those liens -- which he freely assumed -- are concerned. I guess we'll see where that goes.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument
A lost midwestern pizza opportunity
The blurry line between Landlord and Supreme Power

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mayan apocalypse spoofs were funny, but Weather Underground was right

No, not the Weather Underground, as in Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, and Bernardine Dohrn.

I mean the Weather Underground you do need to know which way the wind blows.

On the morning of 21 December 2012, yesterday -- the day some said the world would end because they had some whack take on an allegedly-implicit prophecy in a Mayan calender -- Weather Underground (as in meteorology) had something to say about San Francisco.

I had an errand in San Francisco yesterday morning. I wondered if it would be raining as I walked from BART to California Street.

Here's a screenshot of yesterday's actual weather report (no, not Weather Report as in I Sing the Body Electric ... this could recurse forever but maybe I should stop).

The screenshot is of the actual weather report for San Francisco. Actual, I mean, as opposed to the gone-viral spoof depicted above.

'What to cue up on the soundtrack?' I asked myself as I decided whether to bring an umbrella along to the city (answer to the umbrella question: yes).

Candidates for the soundtrack: REM, Simon and Garfunkle

If this blog post goes live as planned, on the morning of 22 December 2012, either I can gather all the news I need on the weather report or Google's servers are very well-protected.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Bubblegum: an affliction in every generation
Who was that masked man: Mr. Trololo leaves our earthly plane
Apocalypse and Zeno's paradox

Monday, December 17, 2012

Finding what I wasn't looking for

In New York late last month I visited MOMA to see Edvard Munch's 1895 pastel The Scream, one of four versions of this image produced by the artist between 1893 and 1910, and the only version that is privately owned. It's on view at MOMA for only six months, through April 29, 2013.

My lo-qual photograph is taken at a poor angle because you would not believe how many viewers were crowded around to view (and photograph) this rare exhibit. I had to jockey even for even that position. At least it proves I was there. Sort of proves?

I was hoping that I would also get to see an old favorite from MOMA's collection, Picasso's Boy Leading a Horse (1905-6), a painting I've mentioned twice before on this blog. Alas, it wasn't on view at the end of November, but I was glad to revisit the artist's Three Women at the Spring, and also a favorite by Marc Chagall, I and the Village.

The next day I took the subway up from Union Square, where I was staying, to the Guggenheim. I wanted especially to see another favorite painted by Chagall, Paris par la fenêtre, also the topic of a prior blog post (because the painting figures in my novel Consequence). But that canvas, too, had gone missing, taken from the gallery walls in favor of other work from the museum's collection. Well, you can't always get what you want, as that skinny English fellow once sang.

Up on the top floor of the Guggenheim -- not the iconic core of the building, the spiral ramp that Frank Lloyd Wright wound around the building's open atrium, but the north side of the museum where the concept of "floors" actually applies -- I found something I hadn't known I wanted to see until I saw it laid out on the gallery floor.

Sandstars, a "monumental, sculptural carpet of nearly 1,200 objects" (says the curator's note) that the artist found on a playing field in New York City, and on a wildlife reserve at Isla Arena, Mexico, was created by Gabriel Orozoco.

It's ... just a bunch of old stuff, worn out by the city or the sea, things you certainly wouldn't stare at if you were hanging out on a playing field in New York City, and might be only mildly curious about if you found them washed up on a beach in Mexico. Yet the artist's arrangement of the objects -- by size and color, more or less -- made a compellingly beautiful floorscape:

I was glad I'd come. Paris par la fenêtre will have to wait for another visit...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Art bliss at MOMA
The Steins Collect at SF-MOMA
Allusion in fiction

Sunday, December 9, 2012

An Egon Schiele vision in Berkeley

Late yesterday afternoon, walking to the grocery store, the night sky glowed cobalt and purple-grey and pink and yellow through bare winter trees. This photo, taken with an iPod, really doesn't do the scene justice.

Matthew and I were both reminded of a Egon Schiele painting, Vier Bäume (1917), that we saw in October at Vienna's Belvedere Palace:

What great fortune it is to be in a world brimming with life and art.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Amateur food porn from Austria and Italy
Déjà vu at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Amateur food porn from Austria and Italy

When you tell people you've just been to Austria and Italy most people want to know one thing and one thing only: what did you eat?

In October I had the good fortune to take a jaunt through those two countries and thought I'd answer that question with a sampling, in photos. It's Thanksgiving weekend here in the U.S., after all. Though some of these are mine, many thanks to Matthew for the best of the images included in this post...

First up, the unsurpassed cafés of Vienna, starting with my favorite café in all the world. We visited Café Central twice in six days:

Café Demel was our first café visit this trip:

And there was also Café Landtmann, an old hangout of a certain Viennese shrink, fellow by the name of Sigmund Freud:

Vienna's not all cakes and coffee, though. The city loves its cured meat too, in endless varieties, as in this supermarket near where we stayed with friends, just outside the Ring:

Cured meat, cheeses, exotic fruits, olives, and prepared seafood is a fraction of what's on offer at the outdoor stalls of the old Naschmarkt, near the Secession Building:

Venice's Rialto market on that city's Grand Canal is legendary, a visual feast from the produce sellers to the fish market. We didn't sample the horsemeat...

In Bologna we stayed in the heart of a district packed with produce sellers, bakeries, fish sellers, butchers, and cheese shops.

But what we'll always remember about Bologna, our last stop before heading home, was the best gelato of our entire trip, right in the shadow of the city's most identifiable landmarks, the adjacent, 12th century Asinelli and Garisenda Towers.

The most intense flavor? A cherry and white-chocolate concoction called Inferno (what else?), which drew us back to the gelateria that sold it over, and over, and over again. One has to wonder whether this infernally tempting gelato is named as it is because the Garisenda Tower that looms over this fine gelateria is cited in Dante's Inferno:
As when one sees the tower called Garisenda
from underneath its leaning side, and then a cloud
passes over and it seems to lean the more,
thus did Antaeus seem to my fixed gaze
as I watched him bend -- that was indeed a time
I wished that I had gone another road.

 --- Divine Comedy, Inferno, XXXI, 136-141 ---

While staying in Bologna we took a train to Ferrara for the day. On the city's central square we ordered a regional specialty, a pumpkin-filled pasta called cappellacci di zucca, cooked in butter and sage.

Satiated? Or are you salivating?

Buon viaggio!

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Monday, November 19, 2012

Déjà vu at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

My trip to Austria and Italy in October included fodder for more blog posts than I'll likely ever write. I'll start, belatedly, with one of the first among our many museum visits in Vienna, Graz, Venice, Padova, Bologna, and Ferrara: a visit to Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Back up for just a moment...

Late last year, between Christmas and New Year's Day, I visited San Francisco's deYoung Museum (across the bay from where I live in Berkeley), to see an exhibit of paintings by masters of the Venetian school on loan from the selfsame Kunsthistorisches Museum. I wrote about that visit in Portraiture and history: Masters of Venice at the de Young Museum.

Among the many treasures on view in early October at the Kunsthistorisches were the very portraits that had been on loan to the de Young a little more than nine months before. These included both paintings I mentioned in my blog post of 2 January: Tintoretto's Portrait of Sebastiano Venier (and the Battle of Lepanto) and Bernardino Licinio's Portrait of Ottaviano Grimani.

For recidivist museumgoers it's not unusual to find a work of art in Museum X that one saw previously in Museum Y. The proximity in time, though, between the Venetian Masters' visit to San Francisco, and when we encountered these paintings again at their long-term home in Vienna, imbued last month's re-viewing with a strong sense of déjà vu. This sense was heightened by the fact that we were en route to Venice -- whose rulers, landscapes, and history were the subject of these paintings.

But there was more.

As I explained in that prior blog postI visited the de Young museum in San Francisco with my partner and an old and dear friend.

We visited the de Young on the 27th of December last year. The old and dear friend was Susan Poff, whose life -- along with the life of her partner, Bob Kamin -- was taken suddenly and brutally less than a month later. Our museum visit was the second-to-last time I would see Susan alive; she was like a sister to me over the course of our thirty year friendship, much of which we spent living in a collective household.

Some sixteen years after our household scattered across the Bay Area and beyond, we didn't often get a chance to enjoy Susan's company unencumbered by the many demands on her life and time and attention: motherhood especially; her relationship with Bob; an intellectually and emotionally demanding career providing medical and social care for the deepest down and furthest out in San Francisco's Tenderloin. Most often we saw Susan at reading group meetings, where we talked about fiction in the company of six or eight others of our close community.

That de Young Museum Tuesday in December, Susan was giddy to have the better part of a day as 'adult time' to do as she wished: time to be with a couple of close friends and take in an exhibition well beyond the usual orbits of love and commitment that filled her life. Matthew and I were buoyed by our outing with Susan, even during the serious bits of our conversation over lunch.

In Vienna we immersed ourselves, for the second time in ten months, in works by Giorgione, Licinio, Mantegna, Tintoretto, Titian, and Veronese. The echoes that reverberated that day were certainly echoes of the people and histories they depicted; and echoes of thought and feeling inspired when we saw the same cavanses in San Francisco late last year; but, beyond these expected resonances, also the echoes of a penultimate, glad, and -- especially in retrospect -- precious day with Susan.

As we moved through the rooms of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, I reflected on the layers and dimensions of culture carried by paintings, sculpture, architecture, and artifacts preserved there.

After our visit to the de Young I focused on the human history directly depicted and deliberately enshrined in portraits painted by the Venetian Masters whose work was on loan to that museum.

Like any regular museumgoer, the manner and technique of representing (or abstracting) the sensed and conceptualized world -- forever evolving as artists push the boundaries of representational media, and seek their own voices and the voice of their time and place -- is another dimension I mull over most every time I step into an exhibition, whether fresh or familiar.

And this time around, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum galleries that host the great portraitists of sixteenth century Venice, I was keenly aware of the way that repeatedly viewed and considered artworks can become  personal touchstones, imbued with meaning idiosyncratic to the viewer over the long and winding paths of life and friendship.

That's a lot of weight to load onto a canvas. The master painters of Venice were up to the task.

Susan and Bob, rest in peace.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Portraiture and history: Masters of Venice at the de Young Museum
A eulogy for Susan and Bob
Shape, stone, seeing: Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, Michael Ondaatje

Thanks once again to Wikimedia Commons for the image of Bernardino Licinio's portrait of Ottaviano Grimani. Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for the image of Susan in front of El Anatsui's installation Hovor II, photographed at the de Young Museum on 27 December 2011.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Microbiome research vaults science and politics in reach of Lao Tzu

I believe that our dawning understanding about how deeply individual living beings interdepend on other living beings -- not just at the species and interspecies levels but as individuals -- is the next huge thing in human apprehension of what it means to be. As I wrote this summer, in One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you:
What I find staggering is how this newly-understood scope of the human microbiome impacts any conceivable concept of "self" -- a topic of interest to narcissists, philosophers, and readers of Ayn Rand throughout the ages. What does "I" mean when each of us is a massively populated ecosystem? When each of us is, so to speak, a teeming zoo enclosed in a bag of skin.
But enough about me. Let's turn to an exhilarating article Michael Specter recently published in The New YorkerGerms Are Us: Bacteria make us sick. Do they also keep us alive? I include excerpts in this post, but I recommend the entire article, whether you find it in your personal stash of unread magazines, at your local public library, or in the on-line New Yorker Archives, where one can purchase digital access to the issue of 22 October 2012.

Specter's piece begins with an introduction to the bacterium Helicobacter pylori.

H. pylori is a creature that co-exists with -- a.k.a. "infects" -- more human beings than all other bacteria combined, according to Specter. In 1982, a couple of scientists, Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren, discovered the bug was responsible for gastritis and peptic ulcers in humans. Marshall and Warren later won the Nobel Prize for this work. Following their discovery, a long period of discussion and experimentation around a quest to rid human beings of H. pylori altogether ensued.

Luckily, this effort didn't succeed.

Why luckily? Because H. pylori does more than wreak havoc on human digestive systems. As the chair of NYU's Department of Medicine, Martin J. Blaser, put it to Specter:
"Germs make us sick [...]. But everyone focusses on the harm. And it's not that simple, because without most of these organisms we could never survive." [...]

"I love genetics [...]. But the model that places our genes at the root of all human development is wrong. By itself, it simply cannot explain how rapidly the incidence of so many diseases has risen." He stressed that genes matter immensely, but that one must take into account more than just the twenty-three thousand genes we inherit from our parents. The passengers in our microbiome contain at least four million genes, and they work constantly on our behalf: they manufacture vitamins and patrol our guts to prevent infections; they help to form and bolster our immune systems, and digest food. Recent research suggests that bacteria may even alter our brain chemistry, thus affecting our moods and behavior.
The article goes on to describe the mass extinctions [the phrase is mine in this context] of the microbiome in the bodies of people who live in developed countries and subject themselves to regular courses of antibiotics; as well as the loss of microbiome among babies delivered by Cesarean section (our first romp in the microbial fields naturally occurs in the course of vaginal birth, during which a child is draped in the protective mantle of her mother's microbiome).

Neither Dr. Blaser nor other responsible scientists dispute the effect and value of antibiotics, specifically the relationship between application of these treatments and freedom from disease. Put simply, without antibiotics, lots of people who are alive now would be dead. Antibiotics have dramatically increased longevity among populations to whom they are available when needed. Moreover, doctors' ability to safely and routinely perform Cesarean section has similarly saved millions of lives, both of mothers and their babies.

And yet.

Experiments conducted by Blaser, his NYU colleague Yu Chen, and Ann Müller of the University of Zurich, strongly suggest a relationship between absence of H. pylori and the occurrence of asthma. Similar findings are reported by Blaser's lab and others in relation to stomach hormones that regulate appetite, suggesting a relationship between absence of this bug -- so recently on most doctors' hit list -- and prevalence of obesity.

From Specter's article:
He [Blaser] took the theoretical case of a woman who was born at the turn of the twentieth century and possessed then thousand species of bacteria. Beginning in the nineteen-thirties, with the advent of antibiotics, most people began to have one or two courses of antibiotics in their lives. After the war, hygiene improved as well. The result: fewer bacterial species in our microbiome. "Let's say that the woman is down to nine thousand nine hundred and fifty," he went on. "And then she has a daughter. That child is likely to take many more antibiotics than her mother did. She starts life with fewer species, adn she will lose more as she goes along." Project this trend forward a few generations, and the implications are worrisome. "A lot of things are happening at once," he said. "The rise in obesity, celiac disease, asthma, allergy syndromes, and Type 1 diabetes. Bad eating habits are not sufficient to explain the world-wide explosion in obesity."

[...] "We are not talking about illnesses that are increasing by ten per cent," Blaser said. "They are doubling and tripling and quadrupling. With each generation there is heavier impact on the early-life microbiome. And it means we are less and less able to metabolize the food we eat."
It's complicated. And that, really, is the point.

At the risk of introducing a sour aftertaste of the 2012 election season that many would prefer to put behind, here's a short passage of President Barack Obama's speech to the Democratic Party convention on 6 September, as transcribed in the Washington Post:
We don’t think the government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that the government is the source of all our problems, any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.

Because -- because America, we understand that this democracy is ours.

We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.
What does a political convention speech have to do with the science of species interdependence? Queue up that second-to-last sentence from the exerpt, above:
It’s about what can be done by us, together [...]
Here's the thing.

Whether you're interested in effective action in the realm of politics, medicine, food policy, or energy investments, alignment to the world's reality is prerequisite -- including alignment to the existential truth of deep and pervasive interdependence. We've known this at least since Lao Tzu gave humanity the Tao Te Ching. In Stephen Mitchell's translation:

In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creatures flourish together,
content with the way they are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.

The Master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn't glitter like a jewel
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as a stone.

Here's hoping we all -- not just the recently-reelected POTUS -- can find our way forward in harmony with the Tao through these staggeringly complex and dangerous times.

Thanks to Dr. Laughlin Dawes and for the image of a ulcerated tumor that is not associated with H. pylori.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The controversy machine v the reality machine
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you

Monday, November 5, 2012

A queasy election season

I have three good reasons for posting infrequently over the last five or so weeks. For one, I was traveling for most of that time. The other two good reasons? I'll get around to those. My travels provided rich fodder for future posts, and I'll get around to those too.

But the thing that has paralyzed me above and beyond anything else has caused a lot of other people to check out too. You know what I'm talking about: it's the savagely stupid, money-corrupted level of discourse at which U.S. citizens permit U.S. democracy to be conducted.

The so-called Founding Fathers must be spinning in their tombs.

Like many people I know, political circulars, party fundraising solicitations, and other abuses of innocent trees addressed to my abode go straight to the recycling bin. Yes, there are exceptions. Rare exceptions.

One exception in my household this season was an envelope with Mitt Romney's return-address right there in the upper left corner.

I just couldn't help myself. It was, straining credulity, addressed to me. So I opened it. I began to read. Then I began to laugh. Then I read the whole thing and ... well, never mind what happened then.

Here's what I laughed at:
Dear Steven,

I am running for President of the United States and because you are one of America's most notable Republicans, I want to personally let you know why. [...]

If you ever read anything posted on One Finger Typing that I've labeled politics you know exactly why I started laughing. Let's just say that I am not one of America's most notable Republicans, okay?

I mean, it's true that the first electoral campaign in which I volunteered was a campaign to elect a Republican congressman. He was the only Republican congressman at the time who publicly and vociferously opposed the war in Vietnam. Pete McCloskey. I was eleven years old when I showed up at McCloskey's campaign headquarters on University Avenue. Nobody there could think of anything an eleven year old could do to help other than to stuff envelopes. So I stuffed envelopes. I stuffed envelopes like a kid on a mission, for hours, sheltering under a folding table to stay out of the other volunteers' way.

I'm pretty sure I even registered Republican for at least one election, but I don't recall why or when. That's probably how RMoney got my name. Some computer, somewhere in the twisted bowels of that opportunistic twit's campaign organization, must have recorded that I registered as a Republican once upon a time.

But please ... can we dial down the sycophancy? "America's most notable Republicans"? I think not.

(Is it worth noting that Pete McCloskey changed his political affiliation in 2007, more than thirty-five years after I volunteered in his bid for re-election to Congress? McCloskey at long last declared that, "I finally concluded that it was fraud for me to remain a member of this modern Republican Party...")

One of America's most notable Republicans ... The rest of RMoney's letter was even more vapid than it's ridiculous opening.

As for that other candidate?

I have my complaints about him too, and I've voiced some of them here in this blog. I didn't mention the POTUS's shameful lack of leadership on the critical issue of climate change in a litany composed a couple months ago, but plenty of others are lining up to criticize Obama's inadequate attention to that issue in response to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent endorsement.

Bloomberg's endorsement is pretty telling, really, with respect to that level-of-discourse thing I mentioned at the top of this post. But because there are exactly two candidates who have a prayer of winning the contest, the choice Bloomberg made is a no-brainer. At least Obama has done something during his first term ... and hasn't backed away from his principled position in order to pander to an antediluvian party's so-called "base."

What's with these candidates?

Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University, had some interesting opinions on the topic of political polarization -- the politics of pandering to fundamentalist wingnuts -- in in his NY Times blog on Saturday, America's Leftward Tilt. To wit:
The reality is that our government hasn't become this dysfunctional because the parties are so "polarized." It's because there is only one pole in American politics today, and its magnetic field is so powerful that it has drawn both parties in the same direction -- rightward. And it is in that same direction that the magnetic field of contemporary American politics is likely to pull the stories the two parties tell after the election -- and the policies the winner pursues.

The data, however, suggest just the opposite -- that both candidates have benefited in the general election every time they have taken a left turn. [...] For both men, a pragmatic left-hand turn helped them steer their way toward a middle class desperate for hope.


So what underlies this powerful pull to the right? Many factors, but two stand out. The first is campaign money. When Americans saw the scope of the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s, which today seems like just a bad day on the unregulated derivatives market, Ronald Reagan's attorney general, Edwin Meese III, put nearly a thousand bankers behind bars. In contrast, Mr. Obama's attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., can't seem to smell the stench of a fraud that cost millions of people their jobs or homes.

The second is an ideological vacuum. For years, even Republicans accepted the premises of the New Deal, which drew them leftward just as today's political winds blow everything in their path rightward. President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Interstate highway system. President Richard M. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. Neither believed in the radical dismantling of programs that protected ordinary Americans, and both believed that a crucial role of government is to provide the infrastructure that makes economic prosperity possible.

Then came the conservative movement that ushered in Reagan, whose ideology has dominated our political discourse ever since, even after its proven failure. If Nixon and Bill Clinton were the last gasps of Roosevelt's breath, then Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama and perhaps Mr. Romney may well be the last gasps of Reagan's. If the centrifugal pull of the 2012 election is likely to be to the right, is there any potential counterweight?

Perhaps one: both presidential candidates want a legacy. The most important legacy Mr. Obama could have would be to spend his second term using executive orders, judicial appointments and the bully pulpit to return democracy to everyday Americans by demanding clean elections, uncorrupted by money. [...]

If Mr. Romney wins and wants a second term, he would be wise to wed an economic narrative about innovation with a narrative that will save his party from extinction by making comprehensive immigration reform a central item on his agenda. If Mr. Romney succeeds in reviving a moderate Republicanism that recognizes that an increasingly interconnected world will require an increasingly diverse work force, he could potentially drag his party into the 21st century.

In other words, if the candidate who wins takes a left turn like the one that won him the presidency, the Reagan era would finally be over. We can only hope.
I wish I could be so sanguine. In fact, I'm too nauseated by this year's election season to take a philosophical view. Escaping the hysteria by hiding out across the pond for three of its most hysterical weeks? It wasn't long enough.

Get it over with.

Cast your ballot tomorrow if you haven't already.

Democracy is on the ropes; abdication of citizenship isn't going to help any.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
What do baseball and presidential elections have in common?
The controversy machine v the reality machine
Post-convention blues (the sky, I'm sayin')
North Korea, women's rights, and post-truth politics

Thanks to 99 United for the image from Lobbyist Central in Washington, DC, via Flickr.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

What do baseball and presidential elections have in common?

There must be at least a bazillion answers to the question posed in this blog post's title.

But on the eve of the SF Giants third win of three to-date in the 2012 World Series, I'm thinking about that arcane, obsessive, obscure quantification thing. Stats. Or, as XKCD spun it a week and a half ago, precedent:

If you use an RSS reader and aren't subscribed to, I contend that you're pretty much missing the point.

Hilarious, once again... Thank you, Randall Munroe.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Early e-publishing: 30 Million Book Giveaway! (circa 1995)

Recently I was combing through back issues of a now-defunct New York literary magazine, the very one in which I first published short fiction. That story, "What was Slain in the Sun," appeared in the penultimate issue of Christopher Street, in November of 1995. I was looking for the magazine's circulation figures (this to do with eligibility criteria for a short story contest), but what I found was more interesting than that.

There was an advertisement in pretty much every issue of Christopher Street that I looked at in the library stacks at UC Berkeley, where I work. The advertisement was printed as a full page in many issues, and a half-page in the issue in which my story appeared. It promoted a book written by the woman with whom I'd corresponded when my story was accepted for publication, Neenyah Ostram. The book she was promoting in 1995 was: America's Biggest Cover-Up: 50 More Things Everyone Should Know About the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Epidemic And Its Link to AIDS.

I haven't read the book, so I won't speak to its subject matter. What called my attention to the ad was this bold callout, seemingly so naive from a distance of (only) 17 years:
How do you give 30 million copies of a book away? On the Internet.

It gets better:
For those of you who know your way around the Internet, access to the Electronic Newsstand is free and available through the Newsstand Home Page at URL and via gopher or telnet. Please gopher or telnet and login as enews.

For those of you who don't know the Internet from a hairnet, we suggest that you modem yourself to your nearest bookstore and buy and old-fashioned hard-cover copy of AMERICA'S BIGGEST COVER-UP. [...]
For those of you who don't know the Internet from a hairnet? Port numbers in a URL? Gopher? Telnet? It's like discovering evidence of a lost civilization!!

What's "gopher" -- both the noun and verb? Gopher was a widely used protocol for distributing documents over the early internet. It presented text menus for retrieving hierarchically organized documents, which made sense in a world in which many computer systems handled text display much better than graphics. Gopher lost out to the web, as we all know now. It was invented at U. Minnesota.

Telnet was (and is) a protocol for opening interactive, text-oriented communication sessions with remote computers. It was superseded by the still very broadly used SSH protocol, which handles the same sort of communication securely (so communications between computers can't be intercepted by tapping the 'wire' between the legitimate parties to data exchange).

I know, I know, it's like trying to explain rotary phones to today's elementary school kids. Or landlines. Grandpa, what's a modem?

Leaving aside the trip down Ancient Technology Lane, what really struck me about the ad for Ostrom's book was how clearly it anticipated the sea change in book distribution that electronic formats would make possible -- a dozen years before the explosion of e-books detonated by the Kindle in 2007, and fueled now by the likes of Smashwords and iTunes and Google Play in addition to Amazon and Barnes and Noble. These sea changes are roiling the publishing industry, hard, to this day. I don't suppose that Ostrom's work was read by all 30 million subscribers to 1995's Electronic Newsstand, but it could have been. For free.

Remarkable what you can find in the stacks of a library, at the border between the pre-digital world and the one in which we're immersed today.

Thanks to wackystuff for the rotary phone image, via Flickr.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
My short story "Martin's Pond" published as an e-book
Are dust bunnies an argument for e-books?
Getting a grip on attention span
Rock, Paper, Digital Preservation

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bubblegum: an affliction in every generation

It won't be my childhood friends who get this wrong, but lest anyone else imagine I was consistently cool from the moment in 1968 when I 'discovered' rock and roll (described on this very blog a couple of months ago) I need to make a confession. The first LP I bought might have been Hey Jude -- leaning toward cool if you consider I was eleven in 1970 (and I still want to be a paperback writer); but not long after that I became a teenager, and my musical tastes lurched all over the place. They were keeping pace, I suppose, with my hormones.

So was there a period when even bubblegum spoke to me? Yes, there was.

According to Wikipedia, Bubblegum's classic period ran from 1967 to 1972. Justin Bieber's mom wasn't even born yet, but I was there, thank you very much.

I'm sure I've self-protectively blocked out the worst of the worst songs that made me weak in the knees. Which leaves me wondering, because the songs I do remember swooning over are, um, pretty embarrassing. Take Lally Stott's Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, for example. The video's kind of hilarious looking back on it -- hilarious in the sweetest and corniest way -- but imagine taking this song seriously with nothing more than radio play and a 45 rpm disc to garner a following:

This was a period in which Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal were pulling major heartstrings with Love Story, 99 minutes of pure cinematic schmaltz. I will not admit over the public intertubes how many times I (a) sat through the film -- in a theatre, people -- and, (b) wept at the end. This as a tween. The fact that I was mad about Tin Tin's Toast and Marmalade for Tea at about the same time is confession enough:

I bought these and other 45s at a memorable record store about a mile from where I lived in the early seventies. The name of the place was Banana Records, and it sat like a gigantic fruit crate across the street from the local McDonalds.

Back then its solid cubical surface was unpainted, unfinished wood, in harmonious tune with '70s aesthetics. The sales floor was set a few stairs down from street level, and the interior of the cube was empty space, a perfect venue for whatever promotional displays the record companies sent along to help sell the vinyl.

As you can see in the photo at right, the cube is now (or was, in March 2011, when Google last did a street view drive-by) painted a dull industrial grey, and houses a computer repair shop.

The times, they've been a changin' ...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Rock and roll awakening: my first songs, circa 1968
Melancholy popular music: Lana Del Rey and her antecedents
Take a sad song

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

First sentences in fiction

It's a widely-rumored 'truth' that first sentences in fiction are key to hooking book buyers. I suppose there's a measure of actual truth in that, though when I browse in bookstores I tend to read more than a single sentence, or even an opening paragraph, to form a would I like to read this? impression.

For a writer who pays attention to the sort of advice dispensed by agents and editors, there's a lot of pressure built up around first sentences, paragraphs, or pages. Novice novelists can easily get the impression that first pages without gripping plot hooks are destined to be slush-pile rejects. And while that may be true depending on the agent or publisher reading one's manuscript, it's also true that some stories don't want to start out with a big flash-bang ... and not all readers are looking for a plot twist every third paragraph. A more subtle -- and perhaps more honest -- variation of the hook 'em early rule is that a compelling voice is as much an invitation into a fictional world as a page one cliffhanger.

A writer in my critique group asked us recently to post "the first sentences or paragraphs of the best Chapter One you've ever read." I had a hard time coming up with favorite first sentence or a best Chapter One. Off the top of my head? In truth, nothing came immediately to mind.

As it happens, on the day my fellow-writer's prompt came over the transom I began reading Open City, by Teju Cole. The first sentence was ... fine. Not remarkable. But by the end of the first paragraph I was wholly pulled into the narrator's voice:
And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city. The path that drops down from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and crosses Morningside Park is only fifteen minutes from Central Park. In the other direction, going west, it is some ten minutes to Sakura Park, and walking northward from there brings you toward Harlem, along the Hudson, though traffic makes the river on the other side of the trees inaudible. These walks, a counterpoint to my busy days at the hospital, steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway. In this way, at the beginning of the final year of my psychiatry fellowship, New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace.
Now this sort of opening may not be your cup of tea. It won't draw every reader in. But for this reader, smitten with W.G. Sebald's work from the moment I first picked up Austerlitz, an inveterate city-walker, and in love with New York City from my first sojourn there at a tender age, I knew right away that Open City was going to take me places I longed to visit.

So with no immediate favorite leaping to mind, I decided to answer the question asked of my group by looking at a couple of dozen novels I'd read recently, and star-rating the first sentences to see how my scores would correspond to what I thought of the novels as complete works.

I realized as I read these couple of dozen sentences that first-impressions aren't all about craft: my response has as much to do with the types of books I like to read as with the writer's objective talent.

For example, the start of Jodi Picault's The Tenth Circle is this: Laura Stone knew exactly how to go to hell. Not even ten words, only one of them polysyllabic, and all the punch a hard hitting, plot driven story needs. If you're looking for that sort of thing, you know right away you've found it. Me? I rolled my eyes when I read this sentence for the first time, and indeed I didn't like the novel at all. I gave the sentence a single star as I ran through my scoring exercise, but -- really? -- that's an idiosyncratic decision. The sentence represents what Picault wrote vividly and accurately.

Here's the rubric I used to apply stars to sentences in the list below:

***** Hooked! I'm compelled to read this book. I'll be shocked if I don't like it. I'm probably going to love this book.

**** Nice, an auspicious start. I have a feeling I'm going to like the voice and writing here.

*** Inviting, but not exciting. I want to keep going, and need to if I'm to get a real sense of this book.

** Can't tell anything, really, about the book, voice, or writing from the first sentence.

* Uh oh. This novel could be really painful to read.
So, twenty-four books grouped from most fabulous to least interesting opening sentences in this reader's subjective opinion:
***** Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)
**** The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks)
**** A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
**** Open City (Teju Cole)
**** This Beautiful Life (Helen Schulman)
**** Ransom (David Malouf)
**** The History of Love (Nicole Krauss)
**** Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)
*** In The Woods (Tana French)
*** When We Were Orphans (Kazuo Ishiguro)
*** Growth of the Soil (Knut Hamsun)
*** The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
*** The Sea, The Sea (Iris Murdoch)
*** An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England (Brock Clarke)
*** State of Wonder (Ann Patchett)
*** City (Clifford D. Simak)
*** How to Buy a Love of Reading (Tanya Egan Gibson)
*** War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)
** I Curse the River of Time (Per Petterson)
** The Cat's Table (Michael Ondaatje)
** The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid)
** The Gospel of Anarchy (Justin Taylor)
* The Melancholy of Resistance (László Krasznahorkai)
* The Tenth Circle (Jodi Picoult)

I won't list these books in the order I liked them, that's TMI ... and star ratings can be dangerous: look at what XKCD had to say on the topic recently, in the cartoon embedded at left. I will say that books on this list whose first sentences left me indifferent went on to be books I liked or even loved. Books whose first sentences made me swoon turned out to be serious disappointments. The few books I loathed were evenly distributed from awful to fabulous when it came to first sentences. In a few  cases, the first sentences were pretty good predictors of how, for example, I rated these books on Goodreads.

Bottom line: I found that the correspondence between how I responded to first sentences and how I responded to a book as a whole varies ... through a wide range.

If you ask me, sniffing out books I'm likely to enjoy reading involves a much more complex alchemy than can be cooked up from first sentences alone.

What's your read on this question? Do first sentences tell you everything you need to know about a book? Or do you need longer passages to get a feel for whether you'd like to read a novel?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
A childhood favorite: The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek
Parallel lives in fiction: Murdoch, Barnes, the Man Booker prize
Book first or movie first?

Thanks once again to Evan Bench for the image of a stack of books at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris; and to xkcd for all the chuckles, especially this one.