Monday, March 30, 2009

Old School

"What is the use of a book without pictures?" asked Alice.

In 1930, my dad's neighbor Jane Ressing gave him this illustrated book for Christmas. It was his favorite and as you, faithful reader, know, mine too. This was one of Publisher John C. Winston of Philadelphia's series of out-of-copyright reprints in the 1920s, all illustrated in color and with pen drawings. I also have An Old Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott, but just for the illustrations (1925 also). Frank Godwin was the artist, working very much in the style of his famous predecessor, N. C. Wyeth, whose earlier Macmillan edition is the definition of a classic. Ever since latching onto this now dilapidated volume, I have loved a great story married to inspiring artwork; like lyric and music together the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

Howard Pyle was the father of the golden age of American illustration, considered to be about 1895 - 1945. Two of his students who went on to become his equal were N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish. Pyle and Wyeth illustrated historical and adventure yarns featuring Robin Hood, real and fictional pirates, sailors, knights and tattered Revolutionary soldiers. Call me a fossil, but I think growing up on this rich fare beats Grand Theft Auto or the Bratz. I have seen Wyeth's original works at the Brandywine River Museum near his home outside Philadelphia and Parrish's at the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis and feel very fortunate to have done so. All Wyeth's books are available in the Brandywine's gift shop; only the greatest willpower prevented me from buying them all. I was in Wyeth's studio, full of his original props bathed in a dusty, cool, expansive light and felt the giant there.

Maxfield Parrish's otherworldly, luminous colors are unique. How, I wondered, did he make paint perform such miracles? His technique was inventive and original: he built models and photographed them, then laid down a blue and white monochrome underpainting with alternating layers of color and varnish over that. His life models are quite recognizable and appear over and over again, often looking fey and androgynous, and he portrayed himself as both male and female. He changed his first name from Frederick to his mother's maiden name. It's easy to jump to conclusions, but he had several children and seems to have been as straight as anyone. Along with many magazine illustrations, he produced a great deal of advertising art, and then spent his later years creating only landscapes with none of those puzzling costumed human figures or ethereal "girls on rocks," as he called them.

Writing about the nature of art is just stirring moonlight reflected in a pond. This is just to say to all those illustrators, past and present: thank you.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Open Up, It's the Law!"

The giant hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management came to a disastrous end, like most of its peers. It, however, was run by Economics Nobel Laureates (named Merton and Scholes)! Former Texas Senator Phil Gramm has a doctorate in economics, and we have his expertise to thank for the gutting of financial services regulation which had kept us on course since the epochal 1933 banking act. Implementation of conservative fixed ideas such as Gramm's does not seem to be in accordance with any kind of reality, but his ilk passionately believe in things that just aren't so.
Since these geniuses don't seem to have a clue, allow your humble author to offer what experience seems to indicate are the Basic Laws of the Universe (I can't be more wrong than they are):
1. We learned the First Law of Thermodynamics in school: matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. Although we try heartily to destroy most everything, this may be beyond us. "Everything dies and that's a fact, but everything that dies one day comes back."
Bruce Springsteen and Isaac Newton, pretty reliable guides. You don't know where it all came from or where it's going; all you know is that it will transform.
2. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is just the bomb; it explains everything: an isolated system not in equilibrium will increase in entropy; all natural processes are irreversible; there is no 100% efficiency, the trend is from order to disorder; usable free energy tends to disperse or become lost in the form of bound energy.
Bringing economics back into the picture, you thus cannot make more and more of something from nothing, unlimited input and endless growth are not possible, resource overuse will hasten entropy while we ignore that equilibrium means survival of the system.
Economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen wrote on how entropy relates to economics in a 1971 book: "The entropic nature of the economic process, which degrades natural resources and pollutes the environment, constitutes the present danger...economic advance accelerates the process." If you eat all the cookies today, there won't be any tomorrow. Which leads us to the third Law of the Universe:
3. Magical thinking aside, Law Three states: Wherever You're Headed, That's Where You'll Be. Someone once said that if you do the hard things first, the rest gets easier. Look back at your own life and you may be shocked to find that taking the easy way, avoiding the hard challenges, doesn't pay, it costs. Yikes.
4. Most People Are About as Happy as They Decide To Be. Old Abe Lincoln said that, and it's all you need to know about mental health. Maybe he was the first existentialist.
5. The Law of Unintended Consequences. This one will get you, and all of us, every time. Here is an offbeat example:
Fetching water from the village pump in water jars is one of the few occasions a girl has to be seen out in public in Muslim traditional society. An aid group providing running water to every house would derail the marriage process within that society.
This can also be stated as the Law of Perverse Outcomes. Almost makes you afraid to make a move; the consequences of actions sometimes can't be imagined.
6. The Unforgiving Law of Balance. I could write a book about this, if I wanted to do the hard thing. Maybe someday. Coming across the yin-yang symbol early on, I thought about it in the typical dualistic manner: light or good chases darkness or evil, you can choose to do the right thing (as often as your equivocal human nature cooperates). Lately, though, I have come to a more onimous understanding: the universe is all about balance, not about your good intentions; it is not a moral lesson. Equilibrium in the Second Law, again. What our moral sense is, where it originates and for what purpose, is the great mystery (not that there is any lack of imaginative stories to explain it). We know it is not a necessary human component: there are and have been many sociopaths, just as successful or not as the rest of us. Populations of hares and wolves in Alaska rise and fall, maintaining balance; natural systems such as maturing forests develop equilibrium; the water cycle moves around and through the planet, never losing or gaining, always seeking its balanced level. These processes are not conscious or morally good; they just work very well.
Now here is the unforgiving part I've been thinking about: we are over 6 billion people, heading for 7 billion. The pre-industrial world, at 1 billion people, would never have run out of resources. We're way out of balance, which will be achieved whether we like it or not.
7. Everything in the Universe is On Its Way to Someplace Else. Down to the tiniest subatomic level or up to the inconceivably huge universe, nothing stands still. Time or events may not even exist; maybe everything is just spinning like a gyroscope in a whirling circle without beginning or end. Within you, and without you.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Clinton 42031

Nancy, Zach and I are looking forward to nephew John Pyron's wedding in Louisville in June. So far wedding family events have far outnumbered funerals, fortunately. It will be delightful to see these folks again; Nancy's family is somewhat odd because they are all bright, fun, honest-as-the-day-is-long people. Just imagine that they are all just like Nancy.
John is Tommy and Cherry Pyron's only child, and is clearly an acorn from the family oak: he is musical, extremely intelligent, resilient and positive. His parents have three master's degrees between them and John is completing his. He and fiancee Katie are trekking the San Juan de Compostela pilgrimage route through northern Spain for their honeymoon, and the family has worked on Habitat for Humanity projects at home and in Estonia -- like the residents of Lake Wobegon, they're obviously above average.
The Pyrons live in the southwestern tip of Kentucky near the Mississippi, outside of Clinton, the county seat of Hickman County. U.S. Route 51 runs north-south through town. The game out there is soybeans and corn, chickens and hogs. It's green, peaceful, inexpensive, and if there are any nasty people there, I haven't come across them. The weather can be extreme, tornadoes recently tore up large areas to the south, and you'd better stay healthy because medical care is 20 - 40 minutes away. The city itself is declining in population, now at 1,331. The old courthouse, pictured above, has a few employees and probably not much business (and the cost of living index is 74.4 vs. an average of 100 for the U.S.). Real estate taxes average a few hundred a year. Nothing much changes, except for half a block of aged downtown buildings falling over into the street a few years ago. A brick house, 1 bathroom, is currently on sale for the area median price of $57,000. The crime index is around 40 (U.S. average, 320).
Cherry went to high school in Clinton when her father was pastor of the Methodist church (the center of social activity, as you can imagine). She and Tommy moved there long ago from New Hampshire which they found had a growing season of about three weeks, bought some rolling farmland for a song, and built their own house, which they have enlarged upon several times. They built a cool partly-open barn which once housed an amusing variety of chickens and lounging cats. I learned that those birds will eat a dead snake, weeds, or watermelon rinds up in a minute. Truly the descendants of dinosaurs! The last animals there, in a fenced pasture, were sheep, led by a large and far too intelligent ram named Bob. Life would be poorer if we had never made his acquaintance. Once we all went out to get a couple of piglets which would be raised over the summer for their ultimate destiny at the dinner table -- let me tell you, catching a piglet is very skilled work, and those porkers made monkeys of us.
Nancy and I were married in their front yard in 1979 under two century-old oak trees. The trees have succumbed to age and storm, and we've got a little wear and tear ourselves. We spent all of $100 on the whole thing, picking the flowers across the road at the disappearing foundations of an old farmhouse no one remembers having been there, going all the way to Tennessee for wine, and serving delectable smoked turkey from Harper's Hams on Highway 51.
While the short, informal ceremony was going on, a group of escaped pigs trotted up the driveway towards the garden to wreak a little mayhem, in total silence. Cherry noticed them and chased them away with a broom (each pig outweighed her by at least twice, but they obeyed). The music was Resphigi on reel-to-reel tape, and the reception out back included fresh melon balls. You can't have a summer event in the South without watermelon. Just won't do.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Down and Dirty

Spring is filling the air and land with energy, pushing groggy Winter back to his northern domain. I think I see the goldfinches turning yellower each day, the brave crocus tribe is on Carnivale parade, the lilac is covered with bursting green buds. The flannel sheets will be folded and stored, outside will be invited back in, and we may well be less cautious and ready to risk some foolishness.

Yesterday I headed down to son Zach's creekside manor and constructed a 3' x 8' box for a raised bed garden in the side yard -- haven't had a garden beyond a tomato plant in years. While looking way ahead to snapping beans and shelling peas, I'm wondering whether I'll have a chance of getting there, since I spotted a groundhog ambling around down the hillside. There are also a number of rabbits nearby. We feed the house pets and the birds outside at home, and it seems likely we'll be feeding these furry critters too. Let the games begin!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Medium Popcorn, Please

We could live without movies, but I'd rather not.
There are a number of them I remember fondly, but are in general forgotten. They just seemed to hit the right note: Robert Newton, above, is the foremost example, from Disney's first live-action film, 1950's Treasure Island. That became my favorite book because of the movie, and it remains the perfect theatric rendition of it. And one commentator on IMDB added that "Talk Like a Pirate Day" would not be what it is without Newton's growling West Country accent, which established forever what we think pirates sound like. A lot of them came from Wales, so it may even be accurate. "Them that die'll be the lucky ones!"
He was a lovable ham, perfectly cast and let loose by the director; you can see why he was so good as Blackbeard and as Bill Sikes in 1948's Oliver Twist.

Not as well regarded critically, another film I can't forget is 1967's Charlie Bubbles, a personal project by producer, director and star Peter Finch. I'm a sucker for these introspective character studies, existential stories where nothing much really happens. Unsatisfied with their early success, both Finch himself and the title character became detached and confused after they found that when you get what you want it's not quite what you thought. The silent final scene is the memorable part: Charlie parks his Jaguar by a green pasture in the countryside, and walks wonderingly toward a red hot-air balloon anchored by a fence. He gets into the basket, looses the weights, and just drifts up and away. Perfect.

When I saw 1970's Adam at 6 A.M. on late night television, I was shocked. Shocked!
Michael Douglas' second movie was pretty much a story I was writing in my head at the time. Well, damn! -- no screenwriting fame for me. The story is very similar to Charlie: Mike is a California university professor who travels to Missouri to attend a relative's funeral, decides to try something different and stays the summer, and, being Mike, finds romance. He works as a laborer. A long journey to a disorienting time and place results in self-discovery, and questions about which direction to take in life.

I'll trade you some Raisinets for some of that popcorn.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Right Jab

From today's Daily Kos:

Republicans are like alligators -- all mouth and no ears.

The most violent element in society is ignorance.

Some people are like Slinkys -- worthless -- but they still bring a smile to your face when you push them down the stairs.

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad as hell.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cafe Society

I love coffeehouses and outdoor cafes. It seems you have to don a persona for most activities, like sports fan, concert goer, bored shopper, polite wedding guest... but the cafe demands nothing of you. Just show up. You might spy an intriguing couple about whom you can spin a story, or you might hear something. If you're lucky, good music and not radio jabber will be playing. It's quality entertainment, even if nothing happens except you reading the paper, and it will cost you about $2 (Mom and Pop shop, not Starbucks).

Like opportunistic weeds, they're the first thing to pop up if a place is developing into a diverse, walkable neighborhood (see my FB post from YouTube on Suburbia dying -- yay!). The first one I found, as Richmond woke up from its deep sleep from 1865 on, was the cleverly named Coffee House on Cary St., opposite the Golden Buddha, probably the most repellent, greasiest Chinese restaurant on the planet (which we patronized, since it was also the cheapest). It was on the second floor of a narrow wooden house; they had live music and served only cider and tea. That resulted in its short and memorable life, economics being what it is; but it touched something in me. The only other place I had found that felt good in my short and unmemorable life up to that point was the main library. Then I found the delicious funkiness of Shafer Court and RPI when that time suck known as high school was over. Three for three.

Then came decades of too much work and not enough hanging out. I rediscovered the seductive aroma of coffee and the ambience of the cafe right at the source, Pikes Place Market in Seattle, where that original Starbucks is, while there attending a conference. Now, weather permitting, that's what I do most mornings -- head out for one of the four places I can reach on foot, and read the paper, do no harm, hardly make a ripple.

I spent the last two Augusts house-sitting for my brother and sister-in-law in Santa Barbara, and that, gentle reader, is a wandering cafe man's Nirvana. Down the hill -- always sunny and cool in the morning -- and left to Goleta Coffee (and straight for their Mexican Organic), or down and right, across the creek and to Hollister Avenue and the Java Station. Once a gas station, its doors are all completely open, fans turn patiently and so slowly high in the rafters, bicycles and scooters and Mercedes in the lot, palm trees by the sidewalk... Someone whose name has probably appeared in TV and movie credits earnestly addresses his laptop, elegant ladies of a certain age sport perfect tans and sandals just as they did 30 years ago, regular guys in pickup trucks sneaking a break into their day, the staff probably UCSB students working on their doctorates, cinnamon and honey to add to any of the dozen brews, and a display case of 8,000-calorie muffins the size of volleyballs... and yes, my favorite yellow table outside is available, just a shelf attached to the planter full of succulents, with its wobbly plastic chair nested under, never disturbed by soap and water.

Someone just departed has left two of the local papers in the seat. I'm $2 poorer, but am rich.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Brothers and Sistahs Doin' It for Ourselves

I'm jazzed about Facebook, especially the phenomenon of us old Boomers storming its ramparts, using it to get together once again. It's like the Grove Avenue Republic has been resurrected.

In the 60s, stirred up by the folk revival which showed us authenticity for the first time, we unexpectedly started doing those things for ourselves which the powers-that-were thought they owned: music (singer-songwriters instead of Tin Pan Alley & record corporations), homegrown literature (great example in the illustration), and a philosophical-values system to live by (Readers' Digest vs. the Acid Tests). No one thought we could, or should, be allowed to come up with satisfying alternatives to the plastic, artificial, consumerist airconditioned nightmare.

When the Internet arrived, it's like we got a whole new green Monroe Park to play in again. Remember the Be-Ins there and in Forest Hills Park? Now they're worldwide and still free admission. Imagine Earth Day being invented by the WWII generation if you want to crack yourself up! Our energy lives on in the succeeding generations who invented Napster, Facebook, You Tube and blogs, who live tolerance and gender equality because they are not radical concepts anymore. Doin' it for themselves, just like we still are.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Up Side of Down

When gas prices went up, then when everything went down, I thought that less consumption of fossil fuels and less of everything eating up resources would be a quiet "plus," but the job losses incurred would mean much pain. An essay in the current Newsweek provided some data that showed this is indeed happening:
- trucking is down, and Mexican cargo crossing the border decreased 40%
- CO2 emissions have dropped in Europe and the U.S.
- the global recession shut a paper mill on the shores of Russia's Lake Baikal which environmentalists had failed to budge. Fish and crabs as well as fresh air have returned, and tourism has increased fivefold
- around Delhi, small steel mills closed and sulfur dioxide levels dropped 85%
- a 50% decline in beef prices and a shortage of credit has given the Brazilian rainforest a reprieve; the rate of deforestation has dropped 70%. Again, nothing environmental activism could have accomplished

As Leonard Cohen put it, and this applies to everything I can think of -- "It did some good, it did some harm..."

But hardly anyone chose to limit their consumption beforehand, voluntarily, or chose to put science on full tilt to discover better ways to make paper and steel instead of better ways to "shock and awe."

People have woken up with that hangover that tells them they way overdid it: no more cashing out insanely inflated home equity, living on 8 credit cards, loading up their business with debt just to buy more businesses (that's what is killing the Chicago Tribune), or thinking they're masters of "investing." Rats are smarter than people; they can see a trap, and would probably learn something from a hangover.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Uneasy Rider, Part Deux


After returning to Richmond in late May 1967, I had to consider that I'd been reclassified by the draft as 1-A. Desiring to miss such frolics as the Tet Offensive, I quickly applied to the Univeristy of Richmond for a full summer session (I was pissed off at VCU, remember). I had to keep the bike for two reasons: UR was much more expensive, so buying a car again was not an option, plus summer was coming up and I was rarin' to pin that tachometer in the afternoons. I got a job proofing checks in the evening at First & Merchants, and took bags of 'em up to the Federal Reserve on my bike (no traffic downtown at 9 PM). All went well, especially the time on Southside when a lovely lass jumped off someone else's bike at a stop light and onto mine. Livin' large, for sure.
The first indication that I was not Superman was when I approached a turn in the "P" parking lot and saw two things, too late: a very large pine tree in front of me, and nothing but gravel between me and said tree. I went down, then underneath my machine, skidding right up to the tree but not hitting it. My jacket, shirt, and belt were all completely missing on the back as well as lots of skin. And as fickle fate would have it, I'd just filled the gas tank and the cap popped off, soaking me and that raw back.
I had never been in shock before, and believe me, you don't know what's up. I wandered into class, got a lot of turned up noses and dirty looks (imagine the smell), but no help. I returned to the scene, righted the bike, saw there was a trace of gas left, started it and drove the mangled thing all the way back home. Cliff's Marine picked it up on a trailer and replaced footrests and most of the front. When winter came, I bicycled to school and stored my steed in a garage three blocks from Cliff's (Marine, not Clyph's). Come spring, I decided to start it (it did, right away) and drive it to CM for a tuneup and state inspection. Wouldn't you know a police car stopped me in that brief three blocks and gave me a ticket for the expired inspection.
With warm weather back, I was tooling down Quioccassin road and saw a huge dirt pile where a new church was to be built. My Yamaha was built for the highway, but off the road I went and right up the 30' pile. I lost momentum shifting down and arrived at the top only to see there was no downhill -- there was nothing but a vertical dropoff. I squeezed the front brake lever so hard it almost snapped off, the wheel dug in up to the brake, and I stopped in breathless astonishment at my vast stupidity. Backed down, just a little wiser and in one piece.
Then there was the time I approached a "T" intersection with a car coming up on the left to a stop sign. Again, I was astonished as the car blew through the sign, headed right for me. In a split second, I saw my choices were: I could go under him, or bounce off the side and go under the next car, or accelerate and hope to pass in front and hit the iron fence on the other side. Fence it was. I hit the curb, flew through the air avoiding the impaling spikes on top of the fence, once more losing skin and the front end of the Yamaha, which fortunately was very good at quick acceleration.
OK, even I saw the odds were not on my side, like a gambler who's put his food money in the slot machine once too often. I sold my much-repaired friend, who had served his idiot driver well. Back to the bicycle for the next few years.
Of course, I was run down on the bicycle twice, too.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Uneasy Rider

Every Spring I get two wheels on the brain. Yesterday I mentioned Robert Pirsig's enlightening 17-day motorcycle journey to California. Some friends of ours have a cycle and are thinking of buying a second so the Mrs. can get her road rash on. More power to 'em! I still get all a-twitter when I see a Triumph or Norton or Royal Enfield (ah, British bikes and roadsters -- maintenance nightmares, but what style).

I'm never going to take that long ride, though, because this cat ran through all his alloted lives in the late 60s and I think a next time would be the last. I did, however, ride nonstop with just $5 in pocket from Boston to Richmond in late May 1967, and that was fun. I have never been so filthy. Traffic was a lot lighter then, and the cost of travelling a lot less.

How this came about starts with a lousy art teacher. In December 1966, I was taking a drawing class final exam in that ugly VCU gym building on Franklin St. I was so fed up with paying for classes I got less than zero from, and taking exams but learning nothing, that I just dropped the charcoal stick (I despise charcoal drawing; it's for cavemen) and walked out. I gave my dad the keys to my car and took a plane to Boston (wretchedly sick from the smoking going on), to hang around Harvard (because of the folk scene on the Square) and listen to the smart people in a stimulating environment. Experience in time makes us much more cautious (OK, makes us weenies) -- imagine pulling a stunt like that now!

I got a job at the Harvard Law Library, in the stacks, and established a HQ in the study carrell used by John Kennedy. I fetched requests and put them on the dumb waiter, and worked in the faculty stacks which was in a metal cage suspended below the ceiling. I even pissed off famous professor and lawyer Alan Dershowitz, despite getting him exactly what he wanted immediately. Nice guy. Other adventures included buying the first Buffalo Springfield and Doors albums at the Harvard Co-Op when they came out in January, visiting the excellent ice cream parlor on the Square weekly, going to the Automat cafeteria with food items behind little glass doors (they're history now), and going to the "head" and clothing shop called Truc on Brattle St. I just found out what that word means: "knicknacks" in Turkish. The owner looked Turkish, so that explains it.

I almost bought a huge black BMW RS600, but gave up on that idea when it went down on its side and I couldn't get it back up. Scooters and cycles were big with the students at the countless colleges in the area, so, all cranked up with that idea I caught the MTA to Commonwealth Avenue and bought a black-and-white Yahama 305 tourer after I asked Dad to sell my 1958 Mercedes back home (should have kept it, obviously). Right after that, it snowed, and I took my shiny beast on a moonlight drive at midnight along the Charles. The snow rooster-tailed in a beautiful arc from the rear tire, and the white blanket silenced all sound -- it was like gliding along in a dream. One cold Sunday morning I decided to check out Revere beach and actually found it without Mapquest. I was tooling along the sidewalk along the beach, since it was still cool and no one was about, except for the Revere police (natch). They gave me a ticket and a few gratuitous insults, but that didn't dampen my spirits. I got terribly lost on the way back, but the sun was out and abnormally warm for the season, so as it set I found my slum dwelling and returned safe, sound, and with a minor criminal record.

Tomorrow I'll tell you why I should never get on a cycle again.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Presence or Absence

Low quality in product and service is bugging Rus and Cliff lately. The weather's unsettled, we don't feel like we're either here or there, and we reach but cannot hold.
There's something missing and I think I saw what that is yesterday. While Nancy had some business at Camp Hill Shopping Center, I wandered around the suburban apartment complex nearby to work up an appetite for our upcoming free lunch at Arby's (it is economically advantageous to be married to the Coupon Queen). This nameless sprawl is older, but not low-rent, given its location in the second most prosperous community in the metro area. It was, however, appalling in its resolute and regimented blandness. Lots of grass to maintain, and mulched beds with 1' high shrubs, but no outdoor space to actually use. Barracks, chicken coops, human warehouses splayed out like spokes on a broken wheel with no center... I realized this was all built and operated by bean-counters to generate income for absentee investors. Aristotlean rationality only -- and there is the problem. No quality here, in design, function, architecture or that indefinable joy in nature; if creativity and the numinous are not partnered with cognition, there is nothing to enjoy, nothing to love, no sense of purpose.
Quality is a force, like nature, hard to identify except in its presence or absence. To the complete rationalist, these do not have real existence, and certainly no value, because you cannot quantify them. One of my many gripes with the WWII and Silent generations is this rejection of wholeness and authenticity (which led to ugly entities like the apartment complex) and embrace of the artificial and the strictly ordered. Life and joy must be killed on sight; cold, quiet isolation and obedience to the authorities in power are your lot. You must surrender your senses. Buy something on credit.
Try to research "quality" and all you will find will be about business processes and products. I remember hearing about TQM, Total Quality Management, the biz buzzword at C&P Telephone decades ago. I foolishly thought they were on to something until I read it and burst out laughing. No chance. The only thinking on this elusive concept, quality, was by Robert Pirsig in his 1974 book, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," which is a sort of Socratic dialogue taking place during a 17-day motorcycle journey to California. He found it hard to describe, but the quick take is that to understand the concept and experience it, a person should use both sides of the brain, rationality and Zen-like nonconceptualizing. Using these "maps" together, that apartment abomination could have been designed and built to be profit-producing and a pleasant place to live.
I can't be objective here, but compare the Justin Timerlake/Janet Jackson Superbowl performance a while ago to Bruce Springsteen's this year. Which one was authentic and true?
More apples to apples, compare a Chevette and a Honda Civic.
Or try Clark's shoes and whatever Wal-Mart offers. Whom do you trust on that?
More lack of objectivity, but put Miles Davis and any rap fool side-by-side. Or Ray Charles next to any top-20 "country" fool.
Maybe the American idea of quality is just what thrills a shallow ego, like McMansions and Escalades.
Why are quality people so rare? I've got a unique one here who glows like Venus in the sky. And I remember three artistic families from years ago in Richmond, who were so unlike the usual suspects that they might have been aliens.
Budweiser and Sam Adams. Do people think they don't deserve quality, or just have no clue?
So quality has to be teased out; it cannot be present if we do not care enough to know ourselves.
Quality lasts, most would admit. Time is powerless to diminish Bach's music. What is done well and truly is done forever.
Once we had a perfect pizza at an outdoor cafe near the Pantheon in Rome on a sunny, vibrant day. That was it, what we can't define in words; but we know it when we see it, feel it, taste it, or hear it. But not very often.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

High Concept

A movie or TV show that can be pitched in one sentence is called "high concept," which it is usually anything but. A fly on the production office wall heard these:
Misery: If Mama's not happy, ain't nobody happy
Casablanca: You can't always get what you want
Seinfeld: No hugging, no learning
Will & Grace: They're hanging out for love, and they'll hang that way forever
Twin Peaks: Who's your daddy?
Everybody Loves Raymond: My mother, the monster
The Flintstones: The "Honeymooners" with a better standard of living

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What's Goin' On?

When Marvin Gaye asked that question, he was wondering if we had lost our minds to violence and pointlessness. The people's answer at the time was redneck/conservative backlash -- hillbilly populism. And how did that work out for us?
Our current ball of confusion, the economic crisis, may be a defining moment come around once again. Holy crap, there may be some hope this time! There will be a lot of pain as the status quo just stops working, there will be loss, there will be blood. But we have, at this tipping point, a leader who gets it. You have been waiting a lifetime.
I noticed three places where constructive change is coming from the bottom up:
Greensburg, in western Kansas, is probably not a hothouse for growing progressive ideas or radical departures from the same ol'. But after being 100% flattened by a tornado, the locals decided to rebuild, and do it all green (and they already had the name!). Recycling rainfall, wind turbines, solar construction and panels, SIPs (structural insulated panels), walking paths, trees...
The knowledge has been there; the revolutionary thinking of the 60s was underground, not lost but growing all the while. And these regular folks just went for it; what looked like the end was an opportunity for a bold new beginning.
Today on the PBS news site two young men were featured whose mission is to establish a green initiative in Wilmington, Ohio, to help recovery from the loss of the main employer, DHL. They're trying to get stimulus funding to weatherize the county's buildings and houses, and create over 1000 jobs while saving energy expenditures people can't afford any more. They got their methodology from their Peace Corps experience and the micro-loan movement. The third world had arrived at home in Ohio -- no need to go to Ecuador to find it.
I get a kick out of how much California irritates the reactionaries. The ideas start there, just as the wind blows west to east. The city of Berkeley decided it was time to get solar and wind power out of the niche market and into the mainstream, so they now offer no-cost loans for these installations which can be paid back through tax bills (so it can be deducted on income tax?). I am short on details, but the point is a local entity stopped just talking and got moving.
Sadly, around here, I didn't see any green applications in the big new township government and services complex just opened, or in the many new schools, or in the thousands of new McMansions.
You've got to ask: What if? Why not?
It's time.

WEEKEND UPDATE, 3/15/09: The Palmyra school district (near Hershey) just announced their new school will be built green, even LEED certified! And a builder in Carlisle built a superinsulated house, using the soy-based spray foam insulation that way outperforms fiberglas. The home, alas, is 2400 square feet, which is absurdly big.
Several other cities in California and a dozen other states are experimenting with the municipal financing of solar installations to eliminate that big disincentive to do so: the initial cost. Here's how it works: financed like an infrastructure improvement, solar installations' cost will be covered by a loan from the city secured by property taxes. Any homeowner is eligile, and the obligation to pay the loan attaches to the house and passes on to future buyers. It is paid back with annual property taxes by the homeowner. That big stumbling block, gone. Virginia is one of the states! (Not us, because we don't have any sunshine...)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Gone to the Other Side Camp

I borrowed a book from a friend's library long ago and it made a lasting impression. In Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior, Ethnologist William Wildschut recorded the life story of a northern Plains native (Crow = Apsaroke, the Raven People) before his generation was no more--those who lived their Paleolithic lives before civilization overran them.
The transcript from 1919 - 1923 was later edited and published. It has been hard to find, but thanks to the internet and a reprint, anyone can get it now.
Born in 1844 in the Crow heartland of the Yellowstone and Bighorn River basins, and soon orphaned, the boy with the birth name Big Crane was full of ambition and courage and rose to war party chief; in fact he led the last Crow raid before the clans were sent to the reservation. He and his mates lived the free pirate life, stealing horses from the Piegans and Sioux, which is a dangerous business indeed. They lost friends frequently to bears and accidents. The seamlessness of that life, in which dreams, daily reality, religion and work are not separate from each other, is a wonder to us. His birth and then his adult names were not just chosen but were derived from dreams, memories and visions and those guided his people each day as well -- they lived in the dangerous, magical moment.
Inspired by this jewel of a story, I've researched and read about New World natives for decades. But I've always remembered how Two Leggings ended his story, so poignantly, at the point the purpose of life was over for him, when the raids and hunts ended with incarceration on the rez:
"Nothing happened after that. We just lived."
He passed over to what he called the Other Side Camp in 1923, just after concluding his story for the ethnologist. He endured those long dead years in order to accomplish that last deed.