Wednesday, November 29, 2017

What Does it Feel Like ?




How are you feeling today?

As the day opens up, broadens and elaborates into the complexities of living, are thoughts and feelings ascending into consciousness, appearing and moving?

Today, everyone says they feel like

The phrase has become so common, it's gone totally viral in our culture, infecting not just the susceptible young, but people of every age and sex and class and persuasion. Its apparent harmlessness may be one reason people seem to regard it with such pathetic affection. It just feels so nice and smarmy and innocent and innocuous, that people can't resist using it in place of more active, deliberate and frank expressions. 

In fact, what people really are saying when they say feel like is that they think, or believe, or accept. The choice to retreat from directness to the indirectness or equivocation of feeling allows them to insulate themselves from possible misapprehension, or to hide behind the excuse of personal feeling (i.e., IMO or IMHO). 

My objection to this verb phrase is that it's clearly ungrammatical. It is perfectly possible to feel like one is stupid, or to feel like a bird. But to say that one feels like a thought, or a feeling, or an opinion, is to put oneself in at least one remove from the original motive. Like is a simile, which is to say it sets up a comparison, between one thing and another, or between oneself and something else. But if you say you feel like something is the case, you're actually saying you feel like someone who has a certain thought or feeling, as if you were comparing yourself to someone who had this thought or feeling. 

Feel like is a deeply corruptive and corrosive instance of insincere, imprecise and sloppy language. People who use it with confidence have accepted it as a substitute for direct assertion, as a way of denaturing their thought, as well as the quality of their communication with others. It's a deflection of responsibility not only to quality of one's own thinking, but to the clarity of all discussion. 

The next time you catch yourself saying feel like, say I think or I believe instead. After all, you ARE the person who thinks or believes, not a stand-in. 

If you feel something, by all means describe that feeling. But if you think or believe something, by all means say that, and leave the feeling part out.  

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Soglow's Igloo


I first began reading The New Yorker in the early 1960's, when my mother gave me a subscription as a Christmas present. But I had seen the magazine on newsstands as early as the late 1950's. In those days, it was a very fat and prosperous looking rag, often well over a hundred pages an issue. It intrigued me, with its suppressed by-lines, encyclopedic register of events in New York City. The masthead of the magazine sat atop The Talk of the Town, and underneath it ran the lead editorial pieces. There were never any photographic illustrations then, but they had cartoons, and in the Talk of the Town section, they usually had little cartoon vignettes by a cartoonist named Otto Soglow, though the ones in the Town section weren't signed. Soglow's vignettes and cartoons had a simplicity of style, geometric and controlled, and a kind of innocence that was utterly dry. 

Soglow, born in 1900, fell into cartooning by accident, and never left it. Eventually, his association with The New Yorker was so firm and familiar that his visual style was virtually synonymous with it.  



Soglow as a young man

Soglow "illustrating" a model as a gag 


Soglow mixing a cocktail (probably during Prohibition) 

Lots of Soglow's cartoons work off a simple joke--

 



I wasn't able to locate any of the Talk of the Town Soglow vignettes online, though there must have been hundreds over the years. This is typical of many of them (note Thurber's droopy dog following the wagon) --


Soglow's cartoons relied heavily on immediate recognition, since he rarely had captions. Today's hip New Yorker cartoons often have no obvious subtext, and the irony of the tension between the action and the meaning seems almost anti-humor. Soglow's work is reminiscent of an earlier, perhaps more innocent time of simple, light-hearted amusement. 

I haven't been a regular reader of The New Yorker for many years now--I got off that train about the time that Tina Brown was hired as conductor. She's long-gone too, though the magazine still runs good cartoons, but nothing like those Soglow used to contribute. 

Did Soglow ever do a cartoon of eskimos? I like to think so. He'd have done a very satisfying little igloo, with furry collared natives indomitably confronting some redoubtable absurdity. 

Here's a cocktail I've just made up, to celebrate the work of Otto Soglow. It's pleasantly refreshing, and perfectly suited to a carefree afternoon or early evening, when the frustrations and obstacles of the day have been left behind, and some amusing conversation is in order.  


The ingredients, as usual, are by proportion, though the recipe will do nicely for two.  

3 parts gin
2 parts dry vermouth
2/3 part ginger liqueur
1/2 part maraschino liqueur
1 part fresh lime juice

Shaken and served up in chilled cocktail glasses. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Indian Summer Buzz



Walker Evans Truck and Sign, 1930

There's something wrong with America. We didn't sort out the classes and put them in their places the way they did in Europe. Things got really mixed up here. A lot of the energy was stifled and twisted and fermented and synthesized into a rich brew, an alembic of pain and greed and dreams and grief-stricken loss and betrayal and hopelessness.

America is a country increasingly in flux. Our demographics are shifting. The so-called "races of color" are streaming in, and will soon overwhelm the so-called white races. As the era of the great European diaspora was thought to be dwindling, the third world is now spilling over. Are we any more tolerant of "diversity" than we ever were, or has all this flux just produced tension and free-floating animosity? I've always felt that forcing people to "accept" other ways of doing things is a recipe for resentment and identity anxiety.

One aspect of America's energy and drive and expansiveness has been its alcoholic indulgence. We went through a deep introspective convulsion in the 1920's, attempting to "temper" our temptation through Prohibition. It's widely thought that Prohibition was responsible for most of the big crime wave that swept over the country during that decade. The Stock Market Crash may have put an end to the sinful flagrant waywardness associated with it, but crime continued to flourish throughout the 1930's and 1940's. Where would Hollywood have been without the inspiration for the Noir paradigm, with its dark shadows and haunting evil undertones? 

Drinking--that is, the "hard drinking" we associate with hard living and a devil-may-care attitude towards our own welfare and well-being--has also suggested the "high life"--care-free pleasure and a release of inhibitions and cautions. 

Capitalism runs in cycles. Boom times and bad times. Overheated markets and periodic recessions. I've lived through a couple during my lifetime, but nothing like the 1930's, the Great American Depression. 

America's drinking habits have been partly a reflection of the economy, and the general mood of the nation. After Prohibition, the American wine industry languished for decades, until its revitalization during the latter third of the last century, when it really took off. Drinking wine is usually associated with food, though taking it alone has its adherents. 

Some people actually have hard drinks with food, though they're more often appreciated as a pre- or post-dinner libation. I like them best as a pre-dinner start, though I also like them for a mid-afternoon snack. In Berkeley, Cesar's is the perfect fair-weather hang-out, with seating that abuts the sidewalk, and a fascinating bar menu that changes constantly. It's very like a Spanish tapas place, but with a full bar that can handle a wide range of mixes--something that is pretty rare these days. 

Here are three more recipes that I've chalked up on the weekly board over the last couple of months. Who knows whether these were invented sometime in the past by another curious bartender? There are hundreds of drink recipe books, whose contents aren't ever likely to be collated. So I'll have to assume originality here, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Cheers! 
      


1 part tennessee rye whiskey
3/4 part sweet vermouth
3/4 part Sambucca Black
1/3 part creme de cacao
1/2 part fresh lemon juice

served on the rocks



4 parts dry vermouth
1 part blue curaçao
1 part anisette liqueur
1 part lime

served up with a lime twist



3 parts gin
1 part dry vermouth
1 part mandarin orange
1 part violette
1 part lime

served up with a lime twist


Monday, November 6, 2017

Near the Arctic Circle


My maternal ancestors came from Northern Scandinavia. Norway, apparently. I've never been to Norway, but whenever I see a travel show on television about Norway, I try to imagine--from my "deep" racial memory (if indeed there is such a thing!)--how "at home" these chilly green and white landscapes seem to my sensibility. 

Personally, I don't particularly like extremes of either hot or cold. When the temperature rises about 85 degrees or falls below 45 degrees, I get sort of miserable. The heat makes me lazy, takes away my appetite. The cold makes me want to bundle up. Doing physical work in the cold is probably easier, since the heat generated from exertion tends to moderate the affects of cold on the body. 

In the movie Fargo, there's an attempt to satirize Minnesotans by having them mouth Scandinavian pronunciations, like "Yah!" or "Jah!" Maybe Minnesota, with its cold weather, is just enough like Scandinavia to justify this kind of stereotypical mugging. It's amusing, but maybe a little exaggerated.

My maternal grandmother's maiden name was Redner, or Raedner. I tried once to trace it back. I even visited the genealogical library in Salt Lake City, the one the Mormons maintain. Mormons are very interested in tracing ancestry. Ancestry has become a big part of the internet database, where you can interact with other "relatives" and build up surprisingly complete lines of verified descent on your family tree. At the Salt Lake library, I was only able to find a few faint references in Wisconsin, but nothing before about 1850. I haven't seriously followed the trail online, but I suspect I'd get somewhat farther back, if I tried. 




Anyway, all this as introduction to my latest cocktail invention, for which I haven't found an appropriate name. Here's the recipe:


1 part Boodles gin
1 part limoncello
1 part Key Lime Liqueur 
1/2 part fresh lime juice

garnish small wedge of lime if desired

mixed together over ice

makes one portion

____________________

The only unusual ingredient is the Key Lime Liqueur, which I find locally at BevMo. It has a pale green smooth creamy texture, and it's unlike almost any other mixer that I've tried. It's smooth without being dry (the way lime usually tastes). I've added some pure lime juice to this mixture, and even then, the Key Lime tends to make this gin-based drink on the sweet side. If I wanted, I could put in a whole portion of fresh lime juice, which would make it a bit more "cocktail-y" I think. 

Sweet and cold, with a bit of citric acid. It's a classic combination, augmented by a commercial mix that is proprietary. The Key Lime may have other flavors added to it--perhaps cinnamon, or licorice? Who knows? Using proprietary mixes suggests that you're not completely in control of the combination, since some of its ingredients are unknown. But that's always been the case. So-called "bitters" fluids are mostly also secret, and those have been used for over a century. There are today dozens of new bitters formulas on the market. It seems to be the new horizon of cocktail mixing! Personally, I like to know what I'm putting into a drink, rather than using a brand-name combination which serves as its own advertisement. 

Cheers!  


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Walk in the Woods


For a long time, I've wanted to write a poem about an experience that was very vivid in my imagination, but which I've never quite figured out how to do. 

As anyone who has ever camped in the outback (or wilderness) knows, when there are no "facilities" you just have to find a private place to relieve yourself. 

I can still recall, as a boy going camping, the eerie sense of isolation and spookiness I had when I walked some way out of camp, far enough away that I'd have privacy, a sufficient distance away that I wouldn't disturb others and stink up the place. In the forest, you don't have to walk very far to feel totally "lost"--away from civilization and the comforting sense of protection.

This is naturally an experience that our ancestors undoubtedly were very familiar with, before the invention of technology. For tens of thousands of years, people have been finding a convenient tree or shrub, some distance away from camp or settlement. 

People rarely talk about this, but it's something humans and animals have done for a very long time, but which we now hardly ever experience or think about.    




I remember peeing onto the forest floor, or against a tree trunk, where my stream hissed among a carpet of pine needles or mossy detritus. 

But what I most remember is the silence, the strange listening calm that pervades a stand of timber in the wild. It can be a little frightening. 

For eons, people have been venturing out into the unknown, where predators or strangers may be lurking. Animals share this same foreboding, the sense of vulnerability, of being subject to surprise or attack. 

Our world once was an immense place, largely untracked, unexplored, unsurveyed, unknown. Out of such unknown-ness grows apprehension, and superstition. 

When I was teaching once years ago, I had a student who had recently returned from soldiering in Vietnam. He'd been a radioman, who went on patrols with his platoon, often in dense jungle. He told me once about an experience he'd had. He'd needed to take a crap, and had walked a short distance from the bivouac. Squatting beside a downed log, he heard the approach of enemy soldiers--Viet Cong soldiers--just a few yards away. "I dove right into my own shit," he recounted, and he lay there, as quiet as he could, his heart pounding, his breath pumping, as the enemy patrol passed by. They never saw him. 

The poem I'd want to write would capture the sense of silence, isolation, and vulnerability which must be a common experience for millions and millions of people in our ancient history, but also the beauty of being in nature, attuned to its sounds, shapes, relationships; the way Indians once must have felt it, knowing its familiar keys, recognizing its signs, the aliveness of inanimate things--rocks, trees, water, wind, creatures. The title might be "going out into the woods to pee" rather in the way an ancient Chinese poet might describe it. 

There is sometimes an "entry" into a poem, that allows you to carry it through. But I haven't found it yet. I may never--one of the ideas for poems that may simply never happen. It's a little frustrating. But on the other hand, it's a "poem" in my head, one which I have the experience of, even if I haven't found the words, the sequence of statements to capture it yet. 

How many unwritten poems have mellowed or ripened in the minds of men, without ever having been captured? Before writing was invented, they may simply have been stories told around the fire. Or perhaps only known as memories. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Northern California Fires





We're all familiar by now with the cluster of fires which have ravaged parts of Northern California over the last 10 days. 

Like most people, I have a feeling of futility about the damage that has been caused, since the manner in which the media usually portrays such events, seems intended to create in the viewing public either a sense of hand-wringing empathy, or pointless indignation over causes and mitigations. 

I have three observations about the event. What I'm saying here doesn't in any way suggest that I do not have sympathy for those whose lives or livelihoods have been hurt or affected by tragedy. On the contrary, it's because I DO care that I make these observations. 

One: I think it's irresponsible to assume, as nearly everyone has apparently, that these fires, which began, suddenly, all at once, on Sunday the 8th of October, were the result of electrical accidents. I believe it's much more likely that some, if not all of the fires, were the work of arson, set by a mentally deranged individual, driving quickly from location to location, and igniting them in sequence. Though the "investigations" into the causes will likely take months to complete, I think the likelihood of their having occurred all at the same time, in the same general region, goes well beyond chance or accident. We'll know eventually whether my surmise is correct.

Two: Most of the fires that occur outside of large forested regions (and a few that happen inside them) usually begin close to roads or contact points. In other words, they don't begin "naturally"--they begin as a result of human error, or deliberate mischief. All such fires begin small, and grow bigger. Typically, the response time for sudden, unexpected fire events is relatively slow. Our response to such fires is scaled to the "immediate" threat they pose. Inevitably, it often seems, such small blazes "quickly" spread, engulfing hundreds of thousands of acres. By the time they've grown, they have become enormous events, requiring the coordinated action of different jurisdictions, and the probable loss of flora, property, and even peoples' lives. 

We hear a great deal about how courageous and hard-working and sacrificing our fire fighters are, about the vast resources marshaled to deal with these huge fire events. What we don't seem to hear about is how efficient such responses are in preventing small fires from becoming larger ones. What, to be very direct, would be the value of responding with greater efficiency and force to new small fires BEFORE they were allowed to grow into large ones? A small grass fire which starts beside a well-traveled road in a semi-rural area seems a small matter, perhaps involving only an acre or two. But left alone, untended, such a fire can eventually turn into a major disaster, simply for lack of attention. What if our fire authorities descended on such "small" fires with greater speed, and resources, BEFORE they became unmanageable? The crucial point of intervention is EARLY in the process, NOT later when things have gotten completely out of hand.  

  


Three: A lot has been made of the destruction of a large neighborhood in Santa Rosa (see above). And without a doubt, for those affected, this is an unmitigated tragedy. The loss of homes, cars, possessions, and even of livelihoods. And a very expensive loss it will continue to be, as federal, state and local jurisdictions and charities spend and spend to provide the social safety net everyone agrees is needed.

California has been on a steep upward growth pattern for a hundred years. As the urban centers burgeon outward, through suburban sprawl, and infill, land that once was either used for agriculture, or was simply ubiquitous "open space" is covered over by housing and paving. As this continues, the intersection between development and "wild" land--the "edge"--becomes a crucial line, where conflict between nature--in the form of undomesticated animals and natural events--and human habitation comes into focus. 

In such areas--often referred to nowadays as "Mediterranean" climates or regions--where areas of foliage dry up in the Summer, the risk of fire is much greater. Farmers and ranchers have known for centuries what this risk represents. Leaving large areas of "tinder" poses risks to anyone living or working within such a region. In some parts of the world, such areas burn "naturally"--or "controlled burns" are conducted. Deliberately ignoring the fire risk posed by such vulnerable regions, through complacent urban/suburban planning, or insufficient disaster response, leads inevitably to crises of the kind we have seen. It's just a given, a simple matter of time.

The population of Santa Rosa has literally exploded over the last several decades. It's one of the fastest growing areas in the country. It isn't a "city" in the urban sense, with high density housing within a confined area. It's a huge, sprawling suburban mass, pushing out into the countryside. Both "tract" development, into the immediate surrounding jurisdictions, and more remote "custom" housing out into the outback, have been allowed to proceed, without regard either to environmental consequences, or to the risks involved in living cheek-by-jowl to dry wooded and grassy landscape. 

Those who choose to live in such places, must accept the risk that comes with exposing their lives and property to calamities they can't foresee, and which society can't (and shouldn't be expected to) control. California's growth has been posited on cheap open space, a thriving economy, and presumptions about resources that are not unlimited. This growth paradigm has gotten completely out of hand. Its manifestations are everywhere, and hardly need to be reiterated here. Suffice it to say that the "answer" isn't higher density urban centers, or easier pathways to new construction.  

These disasters are but another reminder that California has grown too big, and can no longer support these mindless expansions. Humans were never intended to live in the desert. They were never intended to live underwater, or on snowy mountain tops. Despite the engineering "miracles" we've accomplished to bring food and water and space to millions, we can't keep drawing against nature's equity forever. Why allow people to build and live in homes that are next to huge fire traps? If people choose to do so, against advice, then they need to accept the probable risk. Ultimately, we need to stop breeding like insects, and husband what resources and space still exist on the planet.   

Does this sound hard-hearted? Not if you compare it to the ruthless alternative. Mother Nature takes no prisoners.  








Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Kaepernick - Hero or Victim?


I have been a fan of the 49ers, off and on, for over 60 years. My stepfather, Harry Faville, had followed the team from its inception in the late 1940's, and by the time television arrived in the mid-1950's, he'd become a confirmed armchair athlete. As a boy, I dreamed of becoming a star receiver or defensive back, but I wasn't built physically to be a football player, and that idea quickly dissolved by the time I was in junior high school. In those days, people didn't worry about the fate of professional athletes. They might be injured from time to time, but it wasn't a concern. Similarly, the political opinions of professional athletes was never something fans or the media paid any attention to. In those days (the 1950's) public figures such as athletes, Hollywood actors, artists, or national heroes might have personal beliefs and sentiments, but they weren't considered important to the general public. Fame itself wasn't a credential. 

All that has changed, of course, over the last half century. 

Today, in our media-drenched world, everyone is supposed to have an opinion about everything, and what celebrities, and private citizens think or feel about any issue, is presumed to be newsworthy and important. 

If Y.A. Tittle or Joe Perry had had opinions about Senate races or race relations, the media in those days would certainly not have considered it worth reporting, and hardly anyone would have cared if they had been. We didn't expect celebrities or high profile athletes to advise us about politics and public relations issues. 

Today, we expect Barbara Streisand and Sean Penn and Meryl Streep to tell us what they think about political candidates, and important public issues. They have a lot of capital, and they can make an impact not just with their pocketbooks, but with their public personas. Today, professional athletes may presume to offer their opinions on any subject, and we're expected to listen seriously to them, as if their fame, and their accomplishments on the field of play, made them qualified to speak with authority.     




Colin Kaepernick came to the 49ers as a rookie in 2011. In very short order, he established himself as the team's star quarterback, leading the team to a Super Bowl berth in 2012 (which he missed winning by a whisker on the last play of the game), and to a 12-4 record (and a play-off appearance) in 2013. Kaepernick was tall, strong, fast and presented defenses with the quandary of having to cover his runs as much as his passing. Following the 2014 season, team management ushered head coach Jim Harbaugh out the door, in what must be one of the stupidest moves in the history of sport. 

After two stellar seasons, Kaepernick was faced with having his role redefined by an unqualified line coach who understood nothing about guiding an NFL offense. As the team tanked under Tomsula (in 2015) and Kelly (in 2016), Kaepernick was blamed for much of the team's lack of success. 

Kaepernick was not designed to be a traditional pocket passer. Harbaugh understood that, and used him in such a way as to maximize his gifts. The frustration which hung over the team the last two years, came increasingly to be focused on his shortcomings, rather than on management's failures to find a suitable coach. Owners who blame good players for their teams' poor performance, are scapegoating, and that's exactly what happened to Kaepernick. 





Some of the frustration of the team during the 2015-16 seasons inevitably rubbed off on the players. It can't have been easy for Kaepernick, who had basked in the limelight of a Super Bowl appearance at the age of 25, after only two years in the league, to deal with the negative publicity aimed at him and his team.  In 2016, he began "taking a knee" during the National Anthem played before games. 

I have mixed feelings about the purpose and importance of our National Anthem. On the one hand, I resented having to parrot the "under God" clause in the Pledge of Allegiance. My stepfather Harry, once said that he felt playing the Anthem before every professional sports event, actually diminished its value and weight. Does playing it in this way--over and over (162 times for each game in a major league baseball season!)--really reenforce patriotic feeling and commitment, or is it just a distraction and cliché, going through the motions for the sake of appearance? 

Patriotism is a mixed bag. In any democracy, we have the right and obligation to form our separate, various opinions about issues, and to be suspicious and skeptical about what is expressed or advocated in the name or spirit of patriotism. In wartime, patriotism serves to unite and reenforce our devotion to the nation's cause. In peacetime, it may have other purposes. 

The idea that a protest of social or political conditions should be directed at the government, and its symbols (including the flag, or the National Anthem, or the Pledge of Allegiance) is a hotly debated topic. Context is very important. If Arabs burn an American flag in the streets of Cairo, that is a very different thing than kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem during a sports event. 

Public sporting events are not underwritten by our government, and they aren't by any stretch of the imagination an expression of patriotic feeling. They're entertainment, presented for the enjoyment of their audience(s), and for the sake of profit. The National Football League is a private league, a collection of very rich men and women who invest in teams and facilities as a pastime to generate financial gain. The same is true of the players, who are paid handsomely for their service. 

But why should we think that star players such as Colin Kaepernick, or Tom Brady, or Steve Young should be any more skilled or qualified to advise the general public about important political or social issues than anyone else? Does their ability to play a game well suggest that such figures deserve to be regarded as experts? Though most of the players in the NFL went to college, no one would suggest with any seriousness that as a class they have anything interesting or persuasive to offer about important issues. 

When Colin Kaepernick first began to be seen in public as the face of the 49ers franchise, he didn't even look to me to be African American. With his short haircut, and typical midwestern speech, he seemed a well-balanced fellow, neither excessively vain nor modest. But over time, he began to change. He grew big "Afro" hair, and had an air of resentment which was obvious on the field, and in front of the microphone. As the team's fortunes declined, he seem to want to transform his persona from one of talented athlete to that of a rebellious malcontent, as if to compensate for the decay of his reputation. 

Personal resentment can sometimes get mixed up with a false sense of entitlement. Kaepernick never struck me as particularly intelligent, so his increasingly "politicized" stance seemed to me to express an unfortunate confusion of opportunity. He ought to have let his commitment to his job, and his success on the field, be his statement. To use his celebrity and visibility to harangue the sports audience with his personal protest, was impertinent. 

If Kaepernick and other professional sports figures want to express their opinions about politics, they should do so in print, or in other venues. While I'm not personally invested in the notion of the public display of patriotism, I'm also inclined to view the opportunistic expression of personal opinions in sporting events as grossly inappropriate. 

Kaepernick's behavior was stupid.

Since professional sports franchises are business ventures, there is no legitimate appeal to the league for personnel decisions. If owners want to sign some players, and not others, that's their choice. If they wish to express their political or social opinions through their running of their franchises, that's their right. Owners are not required to hire or fire according to racial quotas, or to fulfill some idea of social justice. 

Personally, though I abhor Kaepernick's political antics, I think he's a very good player, and deserves to play. But he's responsible for his behavior. He may have the right to kneel during the National Anthem, assuming his boss(es), the team owners and management allow him to do so, but that doesn't in itself entitle him to be hired to play on the field. And it doesn't suggest to me that he's due some extraordinary esteem or admiration. 

Kaepernick has made a choice, one which you may or may not admire. But that doesn't suggest that any owner is obligated to hire him to play quarterback in the NFL. Kaepernick may eventually come to regret his career choices. There's a risk in taking controversial positions in public.