October 30, 2011

But perhaps God needs the longing

. . .
wherever else shall it dwell
. . .
We are grains of sand
dark with farewell
lost in births' secret treasure trove
around us already perhaps future moons, suns, and stars blaze in a fiery wreath
~ Nelly Sachs (translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead)

In California the holiday season begins with Halloween.  Roughly in late August the first magazines start featuring Halloween crafts swiftly followed by drugstore and supermarket decorations, followed by the Dreaded Feast (aka Thanksgiving) and Yuletide trappings.  Establishments take on an eerie Nightmare Before Christmas look.  Halloween would serve California better as a national day than the Fourth of July. Certainly our spirit is more one of make-believe than independence.
Alas, Halloween’s European roots transformed into something uniquely American before finally transforming into something uniquely Californian. Spending on all aspects of Halloween, from costumes to candy, is up in 2011, with more money spent on adult costumes than children’s.
Californians celebrate with a special gusto. Several major amusement destinations turn into something unearthly for the occasion:  Knott’s Berry Farm, the Queen Mary, Disneyland, and Universal Studios come immediately to mind. Of course Universal was the birthplace of the modern incarnations of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy.
From South of the Border has wafted more than a touch of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. Contrary, however, to the writings and other inaccuracies of the Indigenistas such Mexican and Latin American customs owe much more to Catholic practices of All Souls’ Day than to the Aztecs—as any native of New Orleans, Quebec, or the rest of the Catholic world - where indigenous Mesoamericans - never trod can tell you. No taint of Catholicism affects East Asia’s religious customs, however, and although these festivals generally fall in late summer or early autumn, the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival and the Japanese Obon are widely observed here. In areas with large numbers of these folk, there is a certain carry-over into the local Halloween observances.

Traditional customs aside, the synthetic faiths which are so much a part of our state’s heritage also give Halloween a special flavour. Most notably Wiccans, adherents of an age-old religion dating all the way back to the 1920s, observe Halloween as Samhain, a sort of Celtic New Year. The Key to the Moon Coven, for example, will honor their ancestors this year in scenic Chatsworth (better known as the center of the American pornographic film industry). Theosophists, too, see a special significance to Halloween. California is a haven for paranormal activity of all kinds, and innumerable ghost walks and haunted tours are offered during this season.
But just as there are killjoys who cannot quietly allow others to enjoy Christmas, Halloween allows similarly dull folk the chance to enjoy raining on the parade. From his desert stronghold, evangelist Jack Chick annually unleashes his tracts upon unwary trick-or-treaters. Numerous other evangelical preachers vociferate against the proceedings’ evil nature, allowing various atheists to prattle on about how stupid the Christians are. Each side is thus able to enjoy Halloween in their own way. It is truly a festival for everyone.

As a true, not native, Californian I will celebrate Halloween in an eclectic manner. Alas, my amusements tonight will not include the “Trick or Drink” game once so elegantly practised by my neighbors Bob and Arnold, but I will take time to remember friends and family.

Und doch, am Ende steht wieder das Licht, wenn auch noch so fern.
However you choose to celebrate or denounce Halloween, it is a festival of the year’s dying, a reminder that however rotten 2011 has been, it is on its way into the past with all the others. It is time to take stock—but also to enjoy. So I wish you all a Happy Halloween.

October 27, 2011

Hue and Cry

Disbelief (time for a field trip) among the group of little LA urban hipsters at the library this week.  I was showing them photographs of fall foliage taken on a recent trip to Northern California. 

Out with the Crayolas, to my disbelief I discovered that some of my favorite colors* had been RETIRED!
But, “Alien Armpit” from the Crayola “Silly Scents” collection was used in the groups’ creations (I am not making this up).
Did they rouge the Mona Lisa's cheeks when they renovated the Louvre? Non!
Would they ever colorize Jules et Jim to boost rentals? Jamais!
The French may not know what to like, but they do know about art, specifically, that masterpieces and cultural icons-however vague, ambiguous, grayish, pale, or wan-should not be brightened up to dazzle the unlettered novices.
The French would never have banished classic Crayola crayon colors from the now standard! 133 Crayola color box, only to replace them with colors concocted on the advice of children. Of course youth prefers wild strawberry and vivid tangerine to the less edible-sounding maize and raw umber; it also chooses beef-tallow-soaked fries over all other vegetables. On matters of taste, young opinions should never rule.
French artists used artisanally produced sticks of wax and chalk in the mid nineteenth century. But these craies, wielded so playfully by Gauguin and Matisse, were hardly toys. Expensive, fragile, and dusty, many also contained toxic colors.
In 1903, the Binney & Smith Company, makers of slate pencils in Easton, Pennsylvania, imitated European crayons, fusing wax-bound, nontoxic pigments by means of a faster, cheaper manufacturing process. The company called its product Crayolas (craie, plus ala, meaning oleaginous), saw them sell rapidly, and then fueled interest by adding more colors to the original collection of eight.
In 1949 it offered forty-eight; by 1958, a grand total of sixty four.  Over the next three decades, the colors stayed the same while the names changed: the suggestive "flesh" became "peach";   "Prussian blue" (from the substance ferric ferrocyanide) became "midnight blue" after teachers deemed Prussia irrelevant.
Then we had to witness the color expulsions. Have we been blinded to optical refinements?  Did not the subtle hues of Crayolas help enlarge our vision? For some of us, the fragrant crayons, lovingly sniffed or eaten by hundreds of millions of children for over a hundred years, are the equivalent of Proust's evocative tea dipped madeleines.  Indeed, the sole transcontinentally identical aesthetic experience we share as Americans is the childhood manipulation of sixty-four sticks of Crayolas in their original colors. Why retire part of that memory?

*The colors named Violet Blue, Orange Red, Raw Umber, Maize, Blue Gray, Lemon Yellow, Green Blue, and Orange Yellow.

May you enjoy a colorful weekend, unspoiled by “Alien Armpit" foliage.

October 26, 2011

Sunny places, shady people.

Oh what a lovely October day.   Autumn is in the air and the Swiss franc continues to go through the roof. Life is getting expensive unless one has access to the Qaddafi sovereign wealth fund, which I am sure some bankers do. Still, I know worse places to be: the Hampton's during Labor Day weekend; or if you really unlucky, the Carlton Hotel terrace in Cannes, observing shady people, well, you get the drift.

For the moment I’m sitting pretty trying to make some mischief. I failed to do so yesterday by announcing Saif al-Islam’s arrival at the chalet. No one in their right mind took it seriously—not even the hacks, who twenty years ago believed me when I said that Mrs. Saddam Hussein was moving in. Back then, journalists arrived and began snooping around. The proprietor found it amusing and refused to deny it. The hacks drank copiously at the bar and everything was hunky-dory until the powers back home froze their expense accounts. 

Apropos shady people, M. Dominique Strauss Kahn has been freed. Anne Sinclair, Mme. DSK, is no babe in the woods either. So when the press writes about that tolerant French woman I have to remind myself that it is she who wants France’s top prize even more than the short fat man with his over sized ego. Let’s not forget that Kahns first wife got him connected with the right people which landed him his first good job as a lecturer. After that he used his second wife to get him in tight with the civil servants who steered him and recommended him to eventually become Minister of Finance. Now his third good job—being a billionaire—is financing his bid for France’s top spot. She resigned her popular TV chat show when her husband was appointed a minister, claiming it might be a conflict of interest. It was nothing of the sort. She had inside info that the show was about to be canceled, so she bailed and ended up looking ‘frightfully’ honest.

Friends are right in calling DSK a chauvinist sexual predator and depicting him as untrustworthy, greedy, and unscrupulous. He is all that and more. But his wife is just as tricky, as is her billion-dollar fortune, one that derives from her grandfather Rosenberg’s art dealership. Rosenberg’s deals were as shady as Wildenstein’s, but unlike the latter he never got caught.

What did the French people do wrong to deserve such low-lives? Is it punishment for collapsing so quickly against the Wehrmacht? Or for collaborating so eagerly with the conquerors? "Veni, Vidi, Vichy!" It could also be that since the French have such a beautiful country faith made sure the French people have DSK, Rosenberg, and Wildenstein to balance things out.

As I write this sitting on the balcony I see a large limousine pulling up at the chalet. A short fat man is getting out… oh dear, please, say it ain’t so.

October 24, 2011

The demise of the old-fashioned love letter…

…no matter what format, is a loss romantics the world over - however few of us are left - will always mourn. And with summer romances fading faster than August's tan, what would be more pleasantly surprising than an epistle from a beloved?
It costs not much, it takes some effort and a little time, but the result is everlasting. No one, not even the philistines who rule our culture nowadays, despise a love letter. My father, a connoisseur of the fairer sex, used to turn them out effortlessly. He once admitted to a friend of his that the best love note he ever received simply stated, "I do love you." Alas, love letters do not have to be long.
Not surprisingly, people today prefer the world's most annoying instrument, the cell phone. The intrusive contraption demands less concentration and therefore less commitment.  Mind you, in certain cases it's understandable, now that selling personal memorabilia to the press has become big business. And divorce lawyers counsel, "Don't text it!"
What is truly sad about the death of the love letter is that an entire aspect of romantic expression known to our grandparents has now vanished. Back in the good old days, people got to know each other through words rather than through deeds. Or, translation: syntax rather than sex. Relationships were more stable as a result. Just imagine if young people would correspond with each other for one year before taking the plunge. Would they take it?  Probably not, but then I am assuming they both know how to write.

Of course, some people are better at writing love letters than others. I have a personal favorite that went as follows:
"Dear X, There's a marvelous line in Romeo and Juliet when Romeo, having avenged Mercutio's death, is banished from Verona. ‘Heaven is here, where Juliet lives’, he proclaimed. However sudden this may sound, or corny, this is how I've felt about you since the first moment I met you. Love, Max."

My brother Max first wrote that letter over fifty years ago, and to his great delight it worked, so he tried it again and again. Now before any of you scream foul, I don't think there's anything wrong with repeating a love epistle. It's the message that counts, not the wording. And the message is that he loved her. Some might say repetition dilutes the meaning. But not for him. The reason I can go public with it is that he got caught and became the laughingstock of, well, I will keep that under wraps.
Two girls were discussing Max, and both said how they thought very little of him. Then Angela said, "But he does write wonderful love letters."  Emma agreed and read one out. When she had finished, Angela had a wicked grin on her face. She had received the same letter. They both started to laugh. Word got out, and people never stopped laughing. One wit said that the original one, the one that Mona received, could be worth a lot by now. I hope so.

Women, far more than men, are the victims of the love letter's demise. They like to be wooed, and nothing is better for a courtship battle than a letter. Being pounced on is not a woman's idea of romance, or so I believe, but then again I'm awfully old-fashioned. And it is far harder to win a woman's heart than to win her body. Robert Browning won Elizabeth Barrett's heart through the written word, not the spoken one. Furthermore, shyness does not inhibit when writing, at least not nearly as much as it does when speaking.  This is why today's lack of love letters is a paradox. We are a far more prurient society, exposing ourselves in the most ludicrous manner, yet we will not write from the heart.

Now some of you will see this post as yet one more manifestation of Ms. Edna's leanings and tendencies, traits passed down from my father.  As far as I'm concerned, women have suffered more from the lack of romance than men. Now I admit my mother may have suffered from my father's cavalier behavior, but she loved him until the very end because he always flirted and romanced her as well. And he meant it. To my mind, my father's pursuit of other women never diminished his love for my mother.  After their death, I found their letters, but I can't pass them on because it would be too painful.  Still, when his mistress came to see me and showed me some of his letters, I refused to read them out of respect for my mother.  My father's mistress only wished for me to know what a romantic man he had been. But I already knew.
Although I'm getting a bit too long in the tooth, my heart still skips a beat whenever I hear from or see a man I like, and it will until it stops ticking altogether. But until that time, I will continue to love romance and write love notes -although no Romeo and Juliet ones.


October 13, 2011

There’s good news…

…for those of us who have occasional pangs of insecurity.  A group of distinguished psychoanalysts announced that keeping “security blankets” throughout your whole life can be beneficial to your health-better, even, than that aspirin regimen.  Normally I shrug off such august pronouncements with skepticism, but this one got me:  I’d been a secret blanket user for years.
The good doctors listed ten “most popular security blankets,” including such calming and reassuring things as “talking to oneself”, watching TV, eating, reading, listening to music, a favorite walk, a memory, someone special, and a prayer, and suggested that you make a list of your own. 

My list had not only well-worn blankets in the top ten categories but drawers full of new ones.  If one’s insecurities are in proportion to one’s blankets, this was revealing.

A drive. With (almost) anybody.
A car. 
A walk.  Rome.  The nirvana of walks, a mystery story of time revealed with every step.  You can walk from Sabine and Oscan times to today in a couple of hours.
A memory.  Bittersweet: all those heady years I was driven.  Sweet: All those times I learned I had made the cut.
Music.  This is intensely personal.  I hanker for the conventionally dull and numbingly dreary and I am besotted with Mr. B.  But lest you think I suffer from necrophilia, take heart I do venture into the 20 and 21st centuries.
Spirits. The drinkable kind.
Reading (big blanket).
Art. An afternoon alone at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.  Comforting.
Bed.  (How could the psychoanalysts miss that one?) My Simmons - after all these years, still perfect.
Architecture.  Drop me into the Pantheon when it’s snowing.  Of course, the pyramids at 2:00 A.M. under a full moon don’t exactly jangle the nerves. 
Landscapes. The “American West”.
Pet. “Ditto”, a few pounds of unpredictable cat fur.
Expert opinion.  Jack Lenor Larsen, best “eye” in America; Felix Rohatyn, “king of candor”;  Gore Vidal, “republican”; and, of course, my bullheaded, infallible self.
Garden.  The Huntington, in San Marino. Soothing.
Place. California.
Low, middle & high technology. My Swiss army knife-‘comes to the “big one”, I’m prepared.
Someone special.
Basic.  A cool, pure glass of water.  One of the most calming and comforting natural things I can think of.
Fast food. An apple.
Prayer.  That my “security blankets” will comfort me for a long time.

I wish you a “comforting” weekend.

October 10, 2011

It’s been said…

…that if you removed the lyrics of Johnny Mercer from the American songbook, you’d be left with a gaping silence.
Imagine clubs and concert halls without the ineffably poetic words for Skylark, Laura, One for My Baby, Come Rain or Come Shine, Old Black Magic, Autumn Leaves, I Remember You, Satin Doll, Charade, Moon River, Blues in the Night, Fools Rush In and Too Marvelous for Words.
It is nearly impossible to do a comprehensive post on the life of the prolific lyricist and songwriter Johnny Mercer, who published some 1,600 songs, received four Oscars and eighteen nominations.
As if that were not enough of a contribution, Mercer’s cultural influence stretched well beyond lyrics. In 1942 he co-founded the famed Capitol Records, becoming its first president and signing Nat “King” Cole, Jo Stafford, Peggy Lee, Margaret Whiting and Stan Kenton. So dominant was the label in the 1940′s it boasted one-sixth of total record sales in the United States.
In recognition of Mercer’s 100th birthday his legacy was celebrated in Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me. What a perfect way to spend an evening.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to his nearly five decade career, however, is Knopf’s critically acclaimed The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer with 1,200 of his lyrics, several hundred of them published for the first time.
Stories and anecdotes abound — one of them concerning the Oscar-winning song Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a song that according to Mercer, was originally entitled Blue River, depicting a characterization of the river as his huckleberry friend and a reference to the color of the water as well as to Mark Twain’s adventure-loving, river-traveling boy and the dreams of youth.
Moon River is actually the name of a tiny rivulet that runs out of the Vernon River, where Mercer’s family kept a summer home during the teens and ’20s. It has been described as practically a stream compared to the Wilmington, but to a little boy playing there, it must have looked wider than a mile.
What distinguished Mercer from other first-rank American lyricists of his era, such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Lorenz Hart was his ability to craft lyrics that fell easily from the lips since he, himself, was a performer. His Southerness, which he is widely noted for, is more audible in his singing than his songwriting. Although he tended to disparage his vocal abilities, Mercer had a very winning way with a song. When he sang, he sounded smooth, unhurried, joshing.

Mercer and Hollywood, a match made in cinematic and musical heaven. Writing songs for movies offered two distinct advantages. The use of sensitive microphones for recording and of the  lipsyncing  of pre-recoded songs that liberated songwriters forever more from dependence on the long vowel endings and long sustained notes required for live performance. Performers such as Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth could now sing more conversationally and more nonchalantly. Mercer, as a singer, was attuned to this shift and his style fit the need perfectly.
One of Mercer’s masterpieces written with Harold Arlen, “One For My Baby.” A short story or even a one man play in rhyme depicting the progression of one man’s emotions late at night, from melancholy to maudlin, aggression to remorse.
Wordsworth insisted that poetry is the overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquillity. At the end of I Remember You, Mercer’s version takes him to death’s door:

“When my life is through
And the Angels ask me to recall
The Thrill of it all,
I shall tell them
I remember you.”

October 03, 2011

Sticky Situations or Getting into a Jam.

To be "in a jam" suggests the viscous fate of a fly gummed up to the shanks in fruity ooze. "Jelled up" is a similar phrase for affairs or machines. Both bring to mind the sweet morass of the finished product, of fruit. Pulped and boiled and sweetened into a jam. But both in fact refer to the process rather than the product of jam­making; as the dictionary says, "to press or squeeze an object tightly between two converging surfaces," describing with prac­tical exactitude the plight of the young man playing footsie with the vicar's daughter only to see across the dinner table a delight­ed blush creep up the behemoth features of her huge mother adjacently seated.

The first of jams was the predicament of Paris, torn between prime beauties of his time, in his case no less than three converg­ing surfaces. Since the prize he awarded, the golden apples of the Hesperides, are modernly thought to have been Spain's southern oranges, little short of marmalade could be said to be written all over his face. He chose Helen, which began the Trojan War, which made mincemeat of him.

Few of us are likely to share so classic a conserve. Nor, in cinematic terms, is it our daily lot to wake up pinioned to the rails, an express train thundering closer every moment, Indians whooping in from left, the great dam breaking in the hills above right, a rattler playing the asp about our corded midriff. Our jams are less glorious, but in fact far stickier. They always get out of theirs, we seldom do. No deus ex machina descends to the aid of the hostess with eight expectant guests and a burnt bird-unless Heinz's Fifty-seven Varieties can be conceived as the pantheon; nor is there any way out for the person who sees his/or her upper set disappear down the aircraft toilet-stop the plane!

As we sometimes get into a jam, so often does the well­plucked plum. But too many were plucked in the Kaiser's War, when plum-and-apple jam was served as surely as howitzer shells to the very fed-up British Tommy. Use slightly underripe greengage plums if you can-called reine Claude after the queen of Francois I, during whose reign this variety was introduced into France from the eastern Mediterranean. Cut each plum in two, remove the stone, blanch for a short time (five to ten minutes), then drain. Add an equivalent amount of sugar to the plum halves. Cook this mixture very quickly, stirring constant­ly, since it has a rather pronounced tendency to stick.

No, ours are the situations without solu­tions, subtle preserves which in memory remain wincers for life. The results of compulsive lying, for instance; when to the boss a grandmother's funeral would be quite enough, an accepted formality; but of course this is not enough for the embroiderer whose many-forked tongue, like a maddened crochet-hook, must ex­patiate on the dear old lady's generosity, her lifelong devotion to wounded birds, the rack of fountain pens filled at the ready with double-cream milk, her last long illness, even the surgical boot she wore since a child- ''Three wars that boot saw, sir, the Boer conflict too!" It makes it that much more difficult meeting the man at the beach that afternoon.

Preserve the pear! Don't let them rot, or wasps'll get drunk on the rotting flesh, and you'll be in another kind of jam. For the most agreeable kind of jam, you should use smallish pears, while stilI underripe. Peel them, cut into four pieces and remove the remainder of the stalk and pips. You should have a basin already on hand half-filled with water, since the pear pieces should be placed in water immediately after peeling. The addition of a pinch of alum prevents oxidation which otherwise would tend to turn the pears a darkish hue. Drain off the pear sections and cook them gently, over a low flame, in a sugar syrup until the jelling stage is reached. As with all jams, remember to heat jars before fillling.
Then there is the truffle predica­ment. Arrived from the shop carefully packed in silk, the four mouth-watering beauties are des­ignated for delivery to a sick cousin. A covering letter says so. On the way there, caught in an endless traffic snarl, a finger creeps to the little box and peeps open the lid. Almost unconsciously a thumb joins the finger. And before one has realized it, the thing is done-the truffle absorbed! "Three will be enough," says finger to thumb, rearranging the remaining trinity. But neither counted on the truffle's mental makeup, a choco­late manufacturer master of the sub­tleties of aftertaste-and bang goes another.  Now two beauties primp from what suddenly becomes a decolletage of silk-and wasn't it Cousin Betsy-Maud who had gone on so at the immodest new topless trend? Save her blushes, says thumb to finger; and then there's one left, and one's absurd, so that goes too. And after all it only takes a minute to dash round the corner for a bunch of chrysanthemums. It takes a rather longer minute to stand in a sickroom already brimful of chrysanthemums, a funeral of a place with the things bursting from every conceivable vase, and to see the wan face wavering a smile: "At last, my truffles ... the one thing left worth living for." The postman always rings twice.

Cream-complexioned, ham-feeding peaches, called in Latin Persica, originated in Persia. Glamorize, then, the glutinous predicament on your stove as no ordinary jam but-Persian Conserve. This jam should be prepared in a very similar way to plum jam, though you may find it easier to pour boiling water over the peaches and let them stand a few minutes before cutting and discarding the stones. This makes them easier to peel. Cook the peach slices in water until tender (again a little alum should be added to prevent oxidation). Add an equivalent amount of sugar and cook on a gentle heat until the mixture thickens, stirring all the time while the sugar melts. Seal in ready-warmed jars.

What happens when you bring your dog, as it truly happened to me, to a house with a free-flying canary?  And the big dog sits there with its big mouth open, and the canary flies in? Naturally the dog closes the mouth.  As the jaws clamp to, every human jaw hangs open... would a light­ning offering of Dogochoc impel the brute to swallow first? Would the cry of "Rats!" provoke a backward-sucking bark?  Would the sharp-beaked Jonah inside flush the creature's uvula? A breath-held moment ... before the owner carefully stepped forward and prized open the quiet mouth, whereat the bird, none the worse, flew out.
Many are the kinds of galloping quagmire which lay in wait-confitures de luxe among countesses and dukes, homemade jams with the wrong neighbor, dreamy concoctions of secret assignations. But one of the simplest, though in memory often the worst, a life­long wincer, is the misfired joke. Some­thing about it has a hideous ring.

"Being in a jam" means being jammed or squeezed, as was the fate of these innocent, but too seductive apricots. Not being exactly sure of the subsequent fate of fruit in jams, I slipped along to the oldest jam-makers in the world, Fouquet, at 36 Rue Laffitte, Paris 9e, where fine jams have been made for the past 130 years. They told me that only very ripe apricots should be used. Cut the fruit in two and remove stones. Place fruit in an earthenware basin, alternating a layer of apricots with one of granulated sugar, and leave to soak for twenty-four hours; use one and a half pounds of sugar for two pounds of apricots. Cook the next day, but do not add any more sugar or water.

And here we have it, say on a morning in early October, the first smells of autumn sharpening the woodland paths. Your companion is a man of authority upon whose every word you must hang.
"Hmm," the great man briskly and leanly says, "there's a tang in the air."
Words upon which you delightedly hang too closely.
"Pardon?" you say, scanning the clouds, and with, yes, a ghost of a smile on the lips: "Some sort of Chinese Mes­serschmidt?"
"What do you mean, Chinese? I said nothing about China."
"Well, sir, it's just the word Tang, you know."
"Surely appropriate to the morning? It is October, you know."
"And-er-the air, aircraft and all that."
"There's an aircraft about? What's so extraordinary in that? The skies are full of them. Though I can hear none at the moment. Was it perhaps to the absence of an aircraft you referred?"
A long, lean pause. Then briskly: "Why?"
The memory's marrow curdles to recall how he stops nowtracks, turns on you and glares, his brisk blue eyes feathered like a lobster with tufts of sprouting brow.
"Why?" he repeats.
And the ground never opens up.