Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Saturday, June 28, 2008


I dropped off two people at the Taste of Tacoma today; they're volunteering at the Wine Tent. Naturally, I'm inclined to take such titles as the "Taste of Tacoma" literally and imagine morsels of sidewalks, slices of warehouses, salads of rhododendron leaves, and distilled paper-mill excretion.

As I let them out of the car and saw how many people had already gathered, I realized the degree to which I'm not much of a "festival" person. I find something fatiguing about all that humanity milling about, literally grazing, and there's a lot of pressure to have fun. My impulse is to retreat to a quiet corner and observe, or to go where people aren't. I've also been accused, rightly, of catastrophizing such events, for I invariably speculate that these Taste events are chiefly a breeding ground for food-poisoning and savage sun-burns.

--Interesting how "taste" took on the connotation of generalized discernment. I haven't checked the OED yet to see when this happened, but I suspect it happened in the 19th century, and maybe the French triggered the move of applying aesthetics to food, beverages, clothing, and interior decoration. Allegedly, they are the inventors of the middle class and of middle-class "taste." But who knows? Maybe "taste" goes at least as far back as the classical Greeks. This will require a visit to the OED.

Apparently at the Wine Tent there are spittoons, into which you may expectorate the wine you've tasted, although I'm not sure whether expectorate takes a direct object. Hmmm. One of my departed uncles had the job of cleaning genuine spittoons, the tobacco-kind, when he was a lad in the 1930s. I think he told me this fact to suggest that my work for him--which included breaking rocks with a sledge-hammer, which he insisted upon calling a double-jack and not a sledge-hammer--was more pleasing than I might think.

I believe that rock-breaking and spittoon-cleaning both require a kind of detachment. One has to focus on the grain of the rocks, and I imagine one has to find a way not to dwell on the fact that the spittoon holds a great deal of saliva.

My dad owned a spittoon but never deployed it. It was considered okay in our household to spit tobacco juice into the wood stove (as long as a fire was burning), the fireplace (same rule), or off the back porch. I chewed tobacco for a while but gave it up long ago--although occasionally I do look nostalgically at a can of Copenhagen in the grocery store. I used a "spit cup" sometimes in the days of "dipping" tobacco. My intuition tells me that this discussion of tobacco and spitting is not very tasteful. Ya think?

I also learned today that a piece of dark chocolate--the unsweetened kind?--is a better way to cleanse the taste-buds than eating a bit of citrus fruit, in between gulps of liquid sour grapes. How to cleanse the taste-buds after chewing tobacco is different subject altogether.

I do hope they have a Poetry Tent at the Taste of Tacoma. Maybe you can go in there and ask to be read a poem, or leaf through an anthology, or write a poem and give it to someone, after which you'd say, "Here you go. Here's my poem." The Poetry Tent might be a good place to go after tasting a lot of wine and spitting it out.

Friday, June 27, 2008

What Do I Expect?

When I was growing up, I never did like it when, in response to something that went wrong (something with which I was concerned), an older person would say, "Well, what did you expect?" This sentiment was memorably rephrased in Robert Towne's script for Chinatown: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

I don't think Jake ever learned the lesson, the lesson being a blend of cynicism, nihilism, and fatalism, nor have I. I keep expecting cable-news and metropolitan newspapers to report in much greater detail on the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan (along with what looks like the impending exhaustion of American forces there); on the demi-monopolies of media-ownership (I think there are basically only 6 or 8 large owners now, such as G.E., Viacom, and Murdoch--mainly I'd like to see a mainstream report on this just to see how quickly the reporter would be fired); on the alleged fact that most of the oil from Alaska and Canada gets sold to . . . China; on what life is like for wage-earners in the U.S.; on the vastly disproportionate number of African American men and women in prison; and so on.

McClatchy, which owns a ton of newspapers and which bought Knight-Ridder (who did some of the best--only?--American reporting on Bush's "build-up" to the Iraq invasion), just fired a bunch of people from its papers, including the Tacoma News Tribune. One person I know who was fired may be one of the most community-service oriented citizens I've every met here. Another was heavily recruited from the Midwest just six months ago. The editor, of course, wrote a lachrymose column on the firings, said the paper still had 100 reporters in the South Sound, and said everyone was committed to hitting the "reset" button. Whatever the hell that means. I wish he'd write a column in which he tries to defend the benefits of media conglomerates and hostile take-overs, and how the story of media conglomeration is one "his" paper will not and cannot cover objectively. I also think that because of the proximity of the military bases (Air Force and Army), the paper has never been able to cover all aspects of the war, including protests, AWOL stories, the abandonment of veterans upon their return to the States, and torture. The paper has never analyzed its own complicity in taking the bait Bush threw it. (The News Tribune prints the newspaper at Fort Lewis. I think that represents a conflict of roles.) I found the reporting on the port-protests to be especially thin, biased, and incomplete. The paper flat-out missed some great stories within the story.

I know. What do I expect?

I expect Hollywood to make a good movie one of these days. I'd even settle for a movie based on a script that Robert Towne has lying around. Forget it, Jake. It's Hollywood. Maybe Adam Sandler will play the lead role in The David Hasselhoff Story. Maybe Pixar will do a documentary on veterans' affairs, war-protests, poverty, or torture. It can be narrated by a Pixar-lated, virtually stuffed animal.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

162 Beers; More Than a Woman

So we trekked to Seattle today for a bit of business, and then we had dinner at a place called the Tap Room Grill. One of us (me) was out of place because the joint seemed geared to young urban professionals. I'm not young, I'm just barely urban (and not urbane), and although I have a profession, I don't really look professional.

The place's claim to fame is that it has 162 different kinds of beer available. That's impressive, and that's too many. At some point, the tyranny of choice (not quite as bad as the tyranny of no choice, I admit) kicks in. I wonder if anybody comes in and just gets stuck in a an Escher-loop by reading the beer-menu. Because I was going to operate a motorized vehicle weighing thousands of pounds, I went with the the one kind of mineral water they had, San Peligrino.

The conversation at our table focused chiefly on movies, for I was with the family's movie-expert, so expert that he actually knows how to download sub-titles for obscure foreign movies and has an encyclopedic knowledge of arcane strains of the horror-genre. Recommendations included a film called Torso and one called, I think, Shocking Mall. Then there's one that sound like a whimsical take on the chainsaw-movies; it's called The Tool-Box Massacre, or something like that. We both like Jim Jarmusch films, including Dead Man, with Depp (Robert Mitchum's final movie), and Coffee and Cigarettes.

On the music machine in this place, they played the Bee Gees' "More Than a Woman." My goodness, that took me back a few eons. Many of my associates at the time despised the Bee Gees for starting the disco-rage, killing off rock and roll (so the reasoning went), and leading to the unimpressive 1980s. I remember some of my friends being most amused by Paul Simon's comment that the Bee Gees sounded like singing dolphins. I thought that was pretty funny, too, but I also thought it may have been sour grapes. Also, I think music that gets people up and dancing in any particular eon is okay. Saturday Night Fever wasn't a bad movie, either, especially insofar as it took the trouble to look at working-class issues.

The Bee Gees did mystify me with some of their lyrics, however. "I Started a Joke" is a bit Kafkaesque. And "More Than a Woman" is perplexing. Is the woman a Supreme Commander or a demi-god? Is she Woman 2.0? Is she a Woman and also a CEO of the speaker's corporation? Or maybe the woman isn't just a woman but a trans-gendered person. Maybe that's it.

A bonus on the way home was that I got to hear "Boogie Shoes" by K.C. and the Sunshine Band, a group also despised by some of my friends back in the day but not by me. "Boogie Shoes" always struck me as more of a funk-song than a disco-song, and a darned good funk song. I'd recommend for your Ipod. What I liked about K.C. was that he was completely unpretentious, unlike some singer-songwriters we might mention from the 1970s and 1980s.

Somehow, however, I've misplaced my boogie shoes. They were more than some footwear to me (more than some footwear, more than some foot-wear to me).

Before we pulled into the driveway, I got to hear "Throw It Up" by Little John, or is it L'il John? He's so over the top that he amuses me to a laugh-out-loud extent, and of course I thought of Chapelle's impression of him and laughed more. I'd guess Little John's music is not on the Ipods of Clinton, Obama, and McCain.

Poets, Philosophy, Pyrrhonism, Pragmatism

Poets have a bit of a checkered history with regard to philosophy, among other things. Aristotle used dramatic poets, the playwrights of his time, or at least their work, as the basis for his Poetics--after Plato had suggested that in the perfect Kingdom, poets probably shouldn't be included, apparently because they make things up, unlike philosopher-kings, who always speak the truth, unless of course they're inventing dialogues between Socrates and opponents who always seem to fall for his tricks.

One of many problems may be that poets treat philosophy as they treat other items, as raw material for poetry. So literary critics can argue about how much German philosophers influenced Coleridge or how much Kant and Hartley influenced Wordsworth, but the by-product of such influence is always going to be idiosyncratic and quirky, especially in the poetry itself but also in the nonfiction prose the poets might write. One might also posit that the more purely philosophical a poet becomes, the less interesting his or her work may become, and one might go on to cite Alexander Pope and Matthew Arnold. Pope was a superb versifier, master of the heroic couplet and great manager of extended conceits, but oh my goodness, sometimes his poetry just wears you out with its "ideas." Ideas seemed, in a way, to paralyze or enervate Arnold, whom I don't think was a very good poet. Arguably, Yeats and Pound get downright loony in their philosophical and political turns.

A hopelessly broad generalization is that poets tend to be Aristotelian--grounded--as opposed to Platonic, tempted to look past or through what is here. "No ideas but in things," as Williams wrote--in a poem. Two schools of philosophy that might well be appealing to poets, then, are Pyrrhonism, a form of skepticism, and Pragmatism, as practiced, so to speak, by William James, bro of Henry "Hank" James, but not, apparently, a member of the James Gang, although a movie in which William and Henry rode with Jesse, or one in which Jesse lectured at Harvard and Yale, might be moderately amusing.

My understanding of Pyrrhonism is that it assumes for every good argument, a very good counter-argument can be found, and whether we can know anything for sure is not only doubtful but actively doubted. So I think you're just supposed to go with the flow, live according to the way things seem. Of course, extreme skepticism can lead to what they call "quietism," in which you accept all manner of things without squawking, including things that appear to you, in spite of your skepticism, obviously wrong. Unjust. Undoubtedly bad. I guess one appeal of Pyrrhonism is that in does focus on "appearances," on the concrete aspects of life, or at least on the sensory reports about same. Poets do seem inordinately fascinated by really specific, ordinary stuff. I mean, Hopkins wrote a great ecstatic sonnet about "dappled things," for Heaven's sake (literally for Heaven's sake).

Pragmatism, as advanced by Charles Pearce and William James, doesn't doubt everything; it just doubts philosophy, unless and until one or more persons can see how any philosophical idea will play out with Charles Pearce, William James, or whoever, literally, happens to be living at the time, breathing air, thinking, talking, trading, laughing, gardening, and blogging. Pragmatism in this sense is not anti-intellectual; the question is not, for example, "How will philosophy help put food on my table?" The question is more like "As I'm eating at the table, how will this or that philosophical idea alter my experience of eating at the table, along with everything else I'm doing at that moment, and everything else everyone else is doing?" My reading of James is that he constantly tries to remind philosophers and anyone else who will listen about how messy, voluminous, and shifting reality is. (At one point, he suggest that reality often "boils over" and overwhelms a fixed philosophy.) James isn't flatly opposed to idealism, or to a skepticism that suggests we can't really know anything, but he counters with the idea that, well, we apparently do know things, in the sense that we go around knowing and acting on knowledge all the time.

He actually pays philosophers (and scientists and anyone with bright ideas) a compliment, though, by arguing that what this or that age sees as "common sense" may be the result of a long, evolutionary process influenced by a person who had a great new idea. For instance, "common sense" now tells us that the Earth is round, but only because leap-ahead work by Copernicus and friends finally, slowly, got absorbed into everyday knowing. James thinks knowing is under constant revision, even when it may not seem to be, so he embraces the view that we simultaneously go around knowing things for sure and knowing that things for sure may not be for sure for long. This is sort of thinking is mightily bothersome to those craving absolutes, of course. At the same time, James by no means shies away from establishing an ethics.

James's work is highly poetic--full of imagery, anecdote, warm irony, and some jokes. He's far more accessible--and in a way, less abstract--than some of the prose from his brother Henry (I really mustn't call him Hank). Of course, people who "do" philosophy, will point immediately to the imagery, anecdote, and familiar rhetoric and assert "not philosophy!" People who "do" poetry, as readers or writers or both, are likely a) not to read William James's work at all and b) if they do read it, like all the arguments in favor of the contingent, ongoing, frustrating, but specific messiness of life as we, as you, live it.

In any messy case, here's a shout out to the four P's: Philosophy, Pyrrhonism, Pragmatism, and Poetry. What a mess they make.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Lyricism of Politics

Ah, I love it when politicians wax poetic in their constant effort to keep the herd hypnotized.

Bush: "They [terrorists, presumably] hate our freedoms." But not as much as the Bush administration hates them, apparently. Warrantless wire-taps, suspended habeas corpus, executive power stretched to tragi-comic limits (the people have no right to hear what Cheney said to "energy" executives?), "signing statements" ("I laugh at your legislation, elected legislators! I am Texas's answer to Mussolini!").

Obama: "The Audacity of Hope." Has a nice ring to it. But if to hope has become audacious, then hope is probably just a lovely gesture. I think one aim of government might be to make hope commonplace. "Change you can believe in." Is that Obama's or Clinton's? I can't remember. I'll believe it when the next president completely revamps the machinery of secrecy and executive privilege started by Eisenhower and made worse since then. I'll believe it when the next president breaks up media and oil conglomerates, with the help of Congress. I'll believe it when the military tribunals (which Obama supports) go away. Etc.

McCain: As I've mentioned, if a person really favors straight talk, he or she doesn't lyrically refer to a bus as the Straight-Talk Express. McCain is also a self-styled "maverick," a poetic word that appeals to Americans' fondness for frontier independence. Oddly enough, here's the original meaning of maverick, according to the OED:

1867 in J. G. McCoy Hist. Sketches Cattle Trade (1940) 83 The term maverick which was formerly applied to unbranded yearlings is now applied to every calf which can be separated from the mother cow.

To be fair, we must acknowledge that the connotation of "maverick" has changed; nonetheless, the bar of independent thought is set pretty low when all you have to be is weaned and a year old--but still a part of that herd on the Chisum Trail. And what is McCain independent from? Not from any major policy-decision Bush has made, with the possible exception of torture. Not from lobbyists. Not from all the Anti-Trust abuses. With regard to the ever-expanding "privileges" of the Executive Branch, I suspect McCain would be like a pig in--I mean a maverick in manure.

It's a measure of a) my befuddlement and b) the blurring of campaign slogans that I don't know whether "Change you can believe in" belongs to Clinton or Obama. In any (or either) case, the phrase would have been trochaically more interesting (but far more nerdy) as "Change in which you can believe," which has roughly the same rhythm as "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright." Anyway, one can still believe in change with which one disagrees, so I'd need to hear more about what changes the person has in mind. I think "Good change you can believe in" is a more persuasive phrase, potentially.

I think that among Obama's most audacious moves is to decide to (and demonstrate the capacity to) raise a lot more money than McCain. When was the last time a Demo was that audacious? LBJ v. Goldwater? "Change (as in ka-ching) you can believe in."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Responses Appreciated

Recent comments on recent postings have informed me of the following, which I appreciate:

1. In Tacoma, not only does Alder (Street) turn into Pine which turns into Cedar, but Cedar turns into Oak. Maybe it just continues on down to California and becomes Palm Street. I think there's an idea for a movie or a short story in here somewhere. In Tacoma, people just blithely note that (for example) Pine turns into Cedar. No one seems to want to explore why this is so. I believe there's an existential and/or epistemological debate lurking in this street-name phenomenon. I don't recall Kant or Hegel writing about the streets in Tacoma. Clearly an oversight. Please note, however, that Hammett, in The Maltese Falcon, does mention the philosophy of Charles Peirce in a Tacoma-street context--in the splendid "Flitcraft" chapter, which all philosophy students, but especially those who like detective novels, should read.

2. The New Incredible Hulk may be worth seeing. I think I'll still wait for it to come to television, whereupon I can watch it in pieces. It's hard for me to digest these blockbusters at one sitting. They bust my block. I like to watch European movies on the IFC. The Europeans still make movies about people with human problems. It's very old-fashioned of them. The movies have stuff like conflict and dialogue. Actors play scenes. It's all very quaint.

3. Ants in some parts of Japan are a huge problem, so watch out. Apparently, they're a lot more trouble than humans are over there. Hmmm. Maybe there's a connection here to all those great giant-insect movies from Japan.

4. I was very glad to hear from another Chickering-piano-player (and Chickering-player-piano-piano-player).

5. At least one reader liked Browning's short poem. Those who didn't like the poem can take some consolation in the fact that the poem is short.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


So we went out to a restaurant to celebrate a birthday, not mine, and as a Hemingway narrator might say, "it was good."

It was, however, a Friday night, and the restaurant is a venerable one in these parts, and it wasn't close to full. I assume the economy that Bush's witchcraft has created with much toil and trouble is having its effect on restaurants, the income of which depends upon discretionary spending.

Another effect is that the wait-staff have clearly been directed to try to sell more food and beverages. Our waitress, or server, was extraordinarily competent, but, albeit sweetly, she put on the hard sell. A member of our party who had worked as a busser in a local restaurant noted, "They're hurting, so they're really trying to push the booze, where they make all their profits."

Some people like a lot of interaction with waiters. I don't. I think I'm more of a reader. I like to study the menu as if it were a poem, and I like waiters and waitresses to be laconic advisers. I like to see how the management has decided to describe the dishes. On this menu, after the list of entrees and of all the entrees had to offer to the buds of taste, there was a note mentioning that any of the fish on the menu could simply be grilled. I rather enjoyed the subtext of that message--namely, that nouveau cuisine may be okay, but nothing beats the atavistic practice of gutting a fish, flattening it, and putting it over the campfire. Of course, you'd want to serve a wine that had an after-taste of plums, gasoline, pears, and Roundup (or whatever it is those wine-critics say).

One of the waitress's techniques was to tell us what her "personal favorites" were on the menu. This rhetoric only confused me. If I chose something else, would I implicitly be casting doubt on her judgment? Does she really try all the dishes, and if so, would it be appropriate, then, to interrogate her and ask whether all the dishes were really that expensive to make? A stubborn streak in me always prevents me from ordering what is the favorite of the waiter or waitress. Terribly petty of me, I know. I did mind my manners, however, and I betrayed none of this confusion and resistance to her. After all, she's just working the job, out on the front line. The decision-makers are nowhere to be seen. It's no good giving grief to people who aren't in management, just because they happen to be visible.

--And by the way, do you think "appetizer" is really the appropriate term for a first course? Usually, the appetizer takes away one's appetite because, well, the appetizer is food, and if you eat food, you're less likely to remain hungry. Also, "appetizer" sounds a bit like science fiction. "Put him in the appetizer! Appetize him! Invasion of the appetizers!" Under "Appetizers" on a menu should be a list of things that will make you hungry: Poverty, Exercise, Working All Day, Fasting.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


On my urban hikes, which used to be called taking a walk, I have an opportunity to see things that won't make the evening news but may be more interesting than the evening news. Today I walked for an hour and was reminded of one of Tacoma's anomalies: sometimes sidewalks just disappear. There must be some kind of gray municipal legal area in which neither the city nor the landowners are primarily responsible for putting in sidewalks. So you might be traveling by foot on a sidewalk for several blocks, and although the neighborhood doesn't change architecturally or topographically, the sidewalk will stop, and in its place might be weeds, rocks, dirt, or a wee path. I have come to cherish Tacoma's anomalies, another of which is that Alder Street turns into Pine Street, which turns into Cedar street. It's as if someone deduced that after a few blocks, a street will get the urge to have its name changed.

I've also seen many ants, chiefly tiny brown ones which appear to locate the seam between sidewalk-segments, burrow down, and leave conical piles of dirt they've displaced. I don't know the proper name of these ants, and I don't know what they eat. I grew up observing red ants, which would build massive teeming hills so thick with ants that they stank: fabulous to observe. The ants seem to prefer to eat other insects--or any kind of protein, really. Also, there were black ants, which grew wings and flew during one of their phases. We also had the ants that came inside and looked for something sweet. But these tiny brown ants I hadn't seen before.

Then today I saw a small nest of black ants, smaller than the kind I saw in California. The nest was right next to the sidewalk, and hundreds of ants were traveling on a two-lane ant-highway, which ran parallel to the sidewalk. I think these ants are called "workers" or "soldiers," the former if they're getting food or debris for the queen, the latter if they're occupying foreign ant territory (and perhaps drilling for oil). However, there was also a smaller stream of commuting ants that crossed the sidewalk between the next and a patch of grass. Someone had written on the sidewalk, in chalk, "Ant Crossing." I found this notation to be charming.

Apparently, an ant's life-cycle is something like 6-10 weeks, although the entomologists seem to hedge their bets and suggest that some workers can live for years, and queens can life up to 15 years. I need to find out the species of ants I've been looking at. I also wonder how these ants decided where to place a nest or underground network before sidewalks existed. That is, before geometic patterns of concrete existed, what were the criteria for selecting a nest-site, and why are sidewalks so appealing to ant-ontology now?

All of this reminds me that when I was an undergraduate, I hung out for a while with an entomology major. Her name was Paulina, a name I quite liked, but she preferred to go by "Mouse," which was her nickname. I don't think I ever learned how she got that nickname. She smoked Marlboros, if memory serves, and she was, pardon the pun, quite antsy--amped up, fidgety. But also humorous. I do hope she was able to become a professional entomologist, if indeed that was her dream.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Credible Hulk

Opining not so much as a poet but as a person who generally and specifically enjoys words, and as a person who is weary of Hollywood's main fare, I assert that a movie entitled The Credible Hulk would be more interesting than another remake of The Incredible Hulk. The plot might focus on a large person who is believable, perhaps an immense trustworthy politician, a robust honest person, or a body-building soothsayer. Didn't Hollywood just make a version of the angry green man a few years ago? Is this new version absolutely necessary? Would the money be better spent on necessities for impoverished persons?

Apparently there's also another Batman movie coming out. Once again, the movie seems to be about a man who dresses in dark leather outfits. That is, he's really not a batman. I'd like to see a version where the person is actually a bat/human hybrid--you know, like that movie, The Fly, which was really about Flyman.

I think maybe all Hollywood movies, but especially the remakes, should be shorter by two-thirds. Then they could show three sequels in the time it takes to view one. More value for your movie-going Euro. We already know the plots, the plot-twists, the moments when explosions will happen, and the moments when the antagonists must seem to prevail. Just speed it up!

Or they could make a very short film entitled: Sequel: A Cry for Help, followed by a plea to the general public to send Hollywood some fresh ideas for movies. The short film could be narrated by the Credible Hulk.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Short One by Browning

I like the following short poem by Robert Browning, who's probably best known for longer narrative works and those famous dramatic monologues, such as "My Last Duchess." I always thought his sensibility and that of the 20th century American poet, Randall Jarrell, were similar. In fact I wrote a long paper once in which I attempted to characterize this sensibility, which I argued had a lot to do with empathy. Both were quite learned poets, but they understated the learning by means of relatively plain phrasing. Jarrell was undoubtedly more interested in criticism than Browning, whose contemporary Matthew Arnold was arguably the chief poet/critic of th era, in England at least.

Night Meeting

by Robert Browning

The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

I especially like the way Browning works in basic colors here--grey, black, yellow, blue. I like the bookend rhymes he uses in both stanzas, too--very effective. At the core of each stanza is a couplet, and the distance between rhymes widens from there. This would bed a nice rhyme-scheme to imitate, as an exercise.

I might have left off the exclamation point. . . .The penultimate actions--someone taps on a window-pane to announce arrival, and someone inside lights a match: wonderful--basic but precise and evocative, like the colors. Well done, Bob.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Memory's Trains

So I had to drive up near the Canadian border, in a car, and take the train back. It was like a Hitchcock movie. Right after I got on the train, I tried to think of the last name of my wife's first boss when we first moved here, 25 years ago. I knew it began with a "B," but my memory blocked the rest. One tactic my memory used was to put the name, "Shirley Bassey," in place of the boss's name. (Shirley Bassey sang "Goldfinger.") I was angry with my memory, so I worked on the problem for about an hour, off and on.

Then I gave up, and I told myself that when my wife picked me up at the train-station, I would ask her the name, surrendering to my misbehaving memory.

I was standing outside the Amtrak station, waiting to be picked up and thinking about this and that. Then I saw my wife in the car, and I remembered that I needed to ask her the last name of her former boss. At that instant, and only at that instant, the name popped into my memory.

I believe there is something like an elaborate switching-yard in the brain, where memories are lined up like trains, but they have to wait until the track-switcher lets them through. I imagine a train-yard about a million times more complicated than the ones in L.A., Paris, London, or Vienna.

The memory-switcher stalled that name until the switcher was good and ready. I saw my wife, and the train was let through. Probably about 100 years from now, the switching-yard of the brain will have been mapped carefully, and someone will be able to explain exactly what goes on with a delayed but suddenly triggered memory. All aboard!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Mandatory Minestrone

Since Congress isn't doing much anyway, I believe it should pass a federal law stipulating that all Italian restaurants in the U.S. must have minestrone soup available any time they are open. I'm very weary, and wary, of "Italian" restaurants that do not have minestrone soup on their menus. I suspect and fear that some of these restaurants worry that minestrone isn't hip enough. Imagine almost any kind of popular music without a bass-line, which isn't hip but necessary.

For minestrone purists, any time is the right time for minestrone, but for generalists, I will concede that the temperature outside should probably be below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

The best recipe I know for minestrone is Marcella Hazan's. I've been using it for at least 20 years. When I cook guests a meal, they rarely if ever expire, but they also rarely ask for a recipe. When I serve the minestrone, they often ask for the recipe.

I'll try this from memory, but to be sure, find Hazan's book, Cooking the Italian Way. What does this have to do with poetry? Minestrone soup is a poem.

Get a big old stock pot, preferably cast iron. Chop about one half a yellow onion finely, and sautee it in olive oil and butter, quite a bit of the latter. Then chop the following vegetables finely, and add them one by one to the simmering onion, butter, and oil, stirring for a minute or so between additions: a cup of carrots, two cups of potatoes (two small potatoes, finely chopped), two cups of zucchini squash, two cups of white Italian beans (Cannelini, I think they're called--canned is fine; cook your own if you're a purist), a cup of green beans (French cut, chopped further), and three cups of finely shredded Savoy cabbage. Finally, add just 2/3 cup of Italian stewed tomatoes, with the juice. I think those are all vegetables, but double-check. By the time you stir in the last of the vegetables, you'll think you'll have a thick vegetable stew on your hands, and you will, because there's not all that much liquid yet. Don't panic, but if you get nervous, add a bit of red wine. And we're simmering, remember. Then add somewhere between 4 and 6 cups of beef broth, or vegetable broth, if you're a vegetarian. Hazan calls for six, but sometimes six seems like too much. Minestrone shouldn't be watery. Spices I like to add almost at any point are a bit of powdered garlic (or fresh and sauteed, if you like), rosemary, parsley, and pepper.

Then add the rind of Old School Parmesan or Romano cheese. Yep, right into the soup. It will not disintegrate; it will add much flavor and body. Put the lid on the pot. Leave a wee gap, if you like. Simmer.

The genius of this minestrone, in my opinion, is that it's both more rustic and more complex than what you get in most restaurants--which is usually a quick-and-dirty, tomato-dominated soup. You'll note that there's only a hint of tomato in Hazan's. Simmer it for as long as you like, hours. Keep an eye on it. Mainly, you don't want it to boil excitedly, and you don't want it to be watery.

Serve it with some bread, and with some freshly grated Parmesan on top of the soup. Red or white wine, or water, your choice. Need something more hefty (the soup holds up well as its own meal): some pasta, maybe, or some grilled Italian sausages.

Hazan's minestrone has a quasi-spiritual effect on people, even those who do not have Italian or Sicilian background of some kind. The soup comforts and nourishes. The chopping and stirring and observing take quite a while, but they're worth it--a fine food-favor to do for your family, friends, and other loved ones. A food-poem.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Traveling Piano

June 10, 2008

Our piano, a smaller kind of grand piano--parlor grand?--was finally released from the custody of storage--and then tuned.

Therefore, I can hack away at 30s and 40s ballads, Broadway songs, and very simple classical and ragtime things. I'm essentially self-taught, so I had the worst possible instructor, although my mother attempted to give me formal lessons when I was in 7th grade. It's basically chords and melodies for me. I'm good at reading the guitar chords above the melody, a short-cut for the left hand. I like the ballads in part because of their lyrics; e.g., "I got it bad, and that ain't good,' but also for the rich chords, with which one can improvise.

The piano's more interesting than the player pounding on it. It's a Chickering, made in Boston in the 1920s or 1930s. Our tuner says the Chickering craftspeople worked without a blueprint, so every piano has its own design-personality. A decal on the piano has the dealer's name--the Johnson Piano Company in Portland, Oregon. So we know the piano traveled--by train or boat, I guess--from Boston to Portland. (The photo here is of a Chickering that has a more ornate music-stand gizmo than ours.)

Then the piano's biography becomes quite fuzzy--until the piano ends up in a bar in my hometown, way up in the Sierra Nevada. They guy who owned it had bought the bar from my uncle. How the guy got the piano, nobody seems to remember. Then he got married--to a woman he later characterized as a "gold-digger," and she divorced him. So he hid or gave away lots of stuff to keep it away from her. He gave the piano to my father, probably as barter for some work. So my mother played it a bit, and I started playing it. In one octave, the notes always sounded tinny because somebody in the bar had spilled some whiskey on the hammers. After my parents died, we had the piano shipped up to the Pacific Northwest--through Portland again, as karma would have it.

It also happens to be a player-piano, and we have a huge box of the old Ampico piano rolls. Before radio got really popular, people gathered around a player piano and had a good time. But the player-part--a very complicated system that literally involves plumbing--doesn't work. We had the parts removed, and we kept them, so some day we'll restore the thing to its original state. We've already had the piano itself restored--new hammers, strings, felt, etc.

The Chickering has become like a member of the family--a member that weighs 800 pounds, even without the the player-piano equipment. I wish my two hands could get the keyboard going up to its specifications, but I do what I can. The best part is thinking about how much the piano, like a blues musician, has traveled. At the moment, it seems content in this house. It doesn't yet have those traveling blues.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Down Escalator?

So we went to Le Mall to try to outfit a guest-room. The goal was to get things to put on a new bed, not just sheets but the whole arsenal of textiles.

If I go someplace to buy something, I like go in fast and buy it, almost like a raid. The only exception is in a used bookstore, wherein a might dawdle for a few minutes. I don't mind strolling down the main avenue of a mall. I rather like that experience. There is much to observe and question. But I hate "shopping" of any kind. The person I was with likes to sort through options in a rational, linear, patient way. She and I both joke about the possibility of our different approaches' being gendered, but actually, neither of us believes they really are. Put most men in an auto-parts store or a hardware-store, and they will dawdle and graze. Send most women to an auto-parts store, and they will not "shop." They will quickly identify and buy.

To get to a textile-venue, we had to go up an escalator, which was marked "UP." I found this to be redundant. Where else would an escalator go? Of course, the problem is that when they invented and named escalators, they had to have a analogous machine that took people down, and the inventors and namers boxed themselves in by using "escalator." Thus we now have the contradictory name "Down Escalator." This is like a forward retreat. What should the "down escalator" be called? I suppose it should be called what it is called. Everybody seems used to the name. I'd prefer the descender, however. The same problem obtains in the case of elevators, of course. To go from floor 3 to floor 1, one must be elevated downward. Escher.

We did find what we sought, but I found myself immersed in another set of language I did not understand--that of beds. There are duvettes. Is that the right spelling? I don't know what they are. On my own, I would never buy such a thing. There are comforters and quilts and bed-skirts. There are mattress-pads, and in the arena of sheets, there are thread-counts. I do hope someone has written a history of beds and bedding, just as one person has written a history of salt.

At my parents' house, I slept for years on what was called "a Navy bed." It was a simple wooden frame, with wire mesh (no springs), and a mattress of sorts thrown on top. One never knew how my parents ended up with such things, but apparently this thing had once belonged to the United States Navy. My father had served in the Army Air Corps, so obviously he didn't steal it from his "employer" during WWII. However, on that bed was a genuine Army blanket, green. I think in fact that he did haul that home from Europe, but who knows? It was a pretty short blanket, but it was all wool, and it was a horrific shade of green, of which I grew quite fond.

My parents themselves slept on a double-bed, not even a queen-sized mattress, and they had attached a reading lamp to the head-board. My father never required much sleep, so they might go to bed at 10 or 11, let's say, and then he might wake up at 1:00 a.m., smoke a cigar and read a Louis L'Amour paperback "western" in bed. My mother slept through all of this activity and pollution. When I learned of this, from my brothers or my mother, I naturally thought all parents engaged in such behavior. Of course The Father would wake up, smoke a cigar, and read a book, while The Mother slept. Thus had it been so since Adam and Eve. It all made sense, just like the Down Escalator does today.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Rumpole and Keating: Brits Fit For Reading

I'm having a great time reading short stories by John Mortimer, whose protagonist is an English barrister named Rumpole. Mortimer's Rumpole novels and stories (famously adapted to the small screen by the BBC) fit into the legal-detective genre, but they're exceedingly character-driven, witty, and literate, and without being heavy-handed, Mortimer also likes to examine social issues, such as colonialism and feminism. One could say Rumpole is Britain's answer to Perry Mason, as Rumpole is a defense "attorney" and tends to win, but he's more cerebral than Mason, and Mortimer likes to raise good if basic questions about law and morality. The short stories themselves are superbly constructed, and anyone interested in short fiction generally would benefit from reading them. Rumpole also loves to quote poetry, so really, what's not to like?

I also just found H.R.F. Keating's Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books. Splendid. Keating (photo attached), who reviewed crime novels for the London Times (maybe he still does) and also wrote mystery fiction, lists the books chronologically, starting with Poe and ending with P.D. James's A Taste for Death in 1986, when this book of "the 100" was published.

In the preface, Keating immediately admits that his task is impossible, qualifies his selections, and acknowledges that some authors he left off the list (like Dick Francis) have earned the right to be on there. After each title, Keating writes 3-4 pages that explain what the author and the book bring to the genre that's fresh and/or especially strong, and he explains why he likes the particular book. He doesn't gloss over problems a book or author may have, and he rarely if ever spoils the plot.

I was astounded that the two Simenon books featuring Maigret that he chose were ones I hadn't read--unless, of course, I've read them under a different title--quite possible with so many editions of the translations of Maigret novels out there. So I'll need to track them down. I've probably read something by 70% of the authors and maybe 50% of the books. So in general, there's some work left to be done.

Keating has convinced me that I need to read some things by Cornell Woolrich, Celia Fremlin, and William McIvanney. He has not convinced me to try Josephine Tey, Margaret Allingham, Michael Innes, Cyril Hare, or Emma Lathen again. Books by these authors just didn't click with me.

In this gem of a reference-book, Keating has written some of the best, most insightful short essays on detective fiction available. He's a discerning but generous critic--generous, probably, not just because that may have been who he is but also because he is a novelist as well as a critic: he knew how difficult the genre was. He also has a knack for saying fresh things about old war-horses like Conan Doyle, Christie, Hammett, and Chandler.

There's no sense in quibbling with such a list of 100, but I do wonder if Keating has ever read Rudolph Fisher's The Conjure Man Dies. (Keating does include a Chester Himes novel set in Harlem.) I'd love to learn what Keating thinks of that book.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Miscellany: Hovering Sparrows, Stuff I Don't Understand, Etc.

As an amateur, I've been observing different kinds of sparrows for a long time, but I hadn't seen a sparrow hover until today. He (in this case) was perched in a very small tree, really a sapling. The wind was blowing pretty stiffly from the west. He got off the tree, seemed to fly into the wind, but beat his wings just enough to hover; meanwhile, he was looking down at the ground, on which he subsequently landed, only to take off and to hover again. It had just rained, so he might have been looking for surfaced worms in the grass, or maybe there was a hatch of bugs. But the hovering clearly had a surveillance-purpose. There are so many different kinds of sparrows that I dare not hazard a guess, or maybe I do dare: house sparrow?

Which leads me to bird-poems, which I believe I've blogged about before. So, to recap, my favorite bird-poems are Hopkins's "The Windhover," Dickinson's poem about a bird coming up her walk, and William Everson's "Canticle of the Birds." Hopkins dedicates his poem "To Christ, Our Lord," and I always suspected that he felt obligated to do that because the poem comes close to idolizing the hawk, and if you're a Jesuit priest, you're not (or so I've read) supposed to have false idols. Students tend, I think, to want to make the poem too religious. I'm not opposed to any religiosity they can demonstrate to exist in the text, not by any means. It's just that I think the poem's real strengths are its linguistic jazz and its superb observation of a hovering, flying hawk. Hopkins just nailed that poem, on every level.

I can come up only with a lame transition to the next topic, which concerns stuff I don't understand, so I'll lamely say I don't understand how Hopkins could come up with sprung rhythm, any more than I can understand how Duke Ellington came up with all those great melodies and superb chords, which mange to be lush, complex, and whimsical all at once.

By "stuff I don't understand," I mean that I don't understand how the thing came to be, or I don't understand why "we" put up with the thing, or both.

1. The two-party system. I think we need at least 5 political parties.

2. When I "end" a program on this computer, after the program is "not responding" (this is a euphemism; the program failed; it didn't work, okay?), the software asks me whether I want to "Send" or ["Do Not Send"] an "Error Report" to Microsoft. I don't believe for a minute that the report goes to Microsoft, and even if it did, what does the report contain, and who reads it, and what do they do with it? This is nonsense.

3. I don't understand why Puerto Rico isn't a state. Or a nation. I think it's time to decide, and I think the way to decide is either by a vote or a coin-flip, whichever one would lead to less violence. But hell, they get to vote in a primary but not the general election? That's right out of Kafka. Or Borges, to keep it in the hemisphere. And I don't want to hear that the issue is "complicated." I know it's complicated. It's just that it's been complicated forever, so let's flip the coin and get on with it.

4. I don't understand why journalists interview other journalists. TV journalists are always having print-journalists on their shows--meaning the print journalists become TV journalists. I'd rather they pick some citizen randomly from outside the studio and interview him or her, OR interview someone who has information (as opposed to opinions) or both. What if police-persons would arrest some criminal only if that criminal were a police person? What if a pastor or a rabbi would preach only to other faith-professionals? What if teachers would teach only other teachers? WTF?--to coin an acronym. Journalists shouldn't interview journalists, except in the rare instance in which a journalist makes news--as in biting his or her dog.

5. I have no idea how micro-wave cookers actually work.

6. Why can't we take the massive profits of oil companies, divide by two (let's say), leave the companies one half, and use the other half to buy a lot of oil all of a sudden, to drive down the price? I don't understand. Why is this so hard? Congress should just look at the numbers, say what we all know ("You guys are making way too much money"), and take some of the money back. People who have to drive to work every day, or who drive for a living, need the gas and the money more than the massive oil companies do. It's just an issue of equity. I don't understand.

7. I don't understand why English barristers still wear those wigs. It's just not a good idea anymore, and I don't want to hear about what the wigs symbolize or about tradition or wool or anything like that. You and I know it's a stupid idea that's gone on way too long. If they want to retain a nod toward tradition, they can just hang one wig from a string, or have a painting of a wig, or have a ewe in court, or whatever. Just get rid of the wigs. The Canadians still do it, too. Somehow, that's even sadder. They should wear some fur from a moose, or a hockey puck, or a piece of perma-frost tundra--something Canadian, not British.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Photosynthetic Poem

A.R. Ammons (in the selected poems from W.W. Norton) has a nice little poem entitled "Photosynthesis," which I enjoyed reading very much. No good poetic deed must go unpunished, however, so I decided to write a photosynthetic poem of my own, not to compete with A.R., mind you (to him I concede the victory), but just to see what I might do with the subject.


Wherever you enter the story,
the story's amazing: Single cell
meets ball of fire, and epics
of vegetation ensue--algae,
sequoia, peat, fig, cacti.

Human history's an offshoot
of photosynthesis, a cud
chewed by divine bovinity
in green time. Whenever we

enter the story, we cast our
shadow, insert our names for
plants and stuff, study and
disrupt processes, maybe just
grab a salad for lunch, so busy.

Let's just let the scythe, mower,
chainsaw, tiller, test-tube, and gene-
splicer sit for an hour. Let's lie
in wonder under photosynthetic
boughs, yawn our wows amidst
leaf-dappled mottling of light,
graze in amazement.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom


When is a good film unwatchable? When the subject-matter is too disgusting. I made it through about 40 minutes of HBO's well crafted Recount, all about the 2000 election and the disintegration of faux democracy in Florida, not to mention the Supreme Court. But eventually I became too queasy. It all seems quite farcical until you connect the misdeeds by vacuous Katherine Harrison and amphibious James Baker to all the civilians and others dead in Iraq, the tortured in Guantanamo, the abandoned in New Orleans, Dick Cheney as Veep, Valerie Plame outed, warrantless wiretaps, a diseased Justice Department, a collapsed dollar, diplomacy adrift, incompetence as a mode of governing, and so on. Forget politics; just with regard to basic competence, Bush is so bad that James Baker probably regrets helping him get appointed to the presidency. That's pretty bad.

If your political and cinematic stomachs are stronger than mine, I hope you watch Recount. It was executively produced by the late Sydney Pollack and nicely written. Kevin Spacey, Tom Wilkinson, and Dennis Leary are wonderful, but Laura Dern steals the thing as the benumbed Harrison.

New Environs

The new neighborhood, into which we moved a couple weeks ago, has brought surprises. It's on the western slope of Tacoma, although T-Town is broken up geologically with deep gullies, so any slope, western or not, won't be a smooth one. In any event. the place is perched on a wee knoll close to the Narrows. We get to see all the weather come in from the Pacific, and a landscape-person we know claims that this part of T-Town has a micro-climate--wetter and warmer than the rest of Tacoma. The gardeners in the neighborhood--and in Tacoma, just about everyone is some kind of gardener--therefore experiment with plants of a semi-tropical nature, as well as growing the usual rhodies, azaleas, and evergreen shrubs/trees. A fellow blogger residing in Hawaii who knows something about Tacoma will find the reference to "semi-tropical" ridiculous, no doubt.

As with many American neighborhoods, this one is really neither working-class nor middle-class. Average income might put it into the latter class, but the range of occupations varies considerably. The neighborhood looks conventionally suburban--built in the 1960s, so "rambler" style houses more or less predominate, but it appears not to be a cookie-cutter tract. What you don't see are the Victorians and Craftsman houses that dominate the North End of T-Town--houses that are cheek-by-jowl and feature lots of stairs and small rooms.

The biggest surprise out here on the slope, at least for me, is the ethnic diversity. Yes, you have your basic Euro-Americans. My early working-hypothesis is that if there's an RV in the yard, the family is probably Anglo-American. I'd be happy to have the hypothesis disproved. I wonder if there are good RV ethnographies out there.

African Americans, Asian Americans (with considerable variety within this category), Hispanic Americans, and folks from the former Soviet Union dwell hereabouts as well. I know some of the latter come from Moldavia because I heard them say so. Others may come from Russia-proper or the Ukraine. I don't know. The older generation likes to walk around the neighborhood as if it were a village, and I guess in a way it is. The women wear scarves and woolen skirts. The men wear sport-coats and hats. That is, they remind me of some of the older folks from my hometown, which featured one Russian named Wanda, who'd get all dressed up and walk her two bull-dogs to "town" every day--"town" being a micro-village of 200 in the Sierra Nevada. It's not for me to say, really, but I think Wanda belonged in St. Petersburg, strolling the Nevsky Prospekt. But she married an American house-painter, and somehow they ended up in Sierra City. I still remember her long cashmere red coat.

There are two large hills between where we live and where we buy things, including groceries, so the aerobic opportunities are good, and when I'm out walking, the Moldavians are usually out, too. I wish I spoke their language. I sincerely enjoy how unamused, wary, but not unfriendly their visages appear. The older faces especially seem to report having experienced but survived much in life.

So far the western slope has been full of great surprises. I have informed our cat, a Russian blue, that Moldavians are hereabouts. So far, she has not registered a comment in response.