May 29, 2012

Less Than One

I have had to suffer many a Commencement Address, I don't know in what state of mind you hear them but torpor is, usually, my default setting.  Presumably bushy-tailed expectation should be the ideal. Either way, the students at Williams College in 1984 may have been a little discomfited by Joseph Brodsky's opening words:

"No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what's known as Evil."

Well, I would have sat up sharply at that point; and would certainly have still been awake by the end, when he is arguing for a very careful reading indeed of the biblical exhortation to turn the other cheek:

"In post-Tolstoy Russia, ethics based on this misquoted verse undermined a great deal of the nation's resolve in confronting the police state. What has followed is known all too well: six decades of turning the other cheek transformed the face of the nation into one big bruise, so that the state today, weary of its violence, simply spits at that face."

His evocations of life in Soviet Russia should be compulsory reading. He evokes not so much horrors as the quotidian, grinding strictures and what it's like when it gets to -25 degrees in St. Petersburg, and the glass is still dropping.

Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky was born in St. Petersburg on May 24, 1940 he was arrested in 1964 and charged with the crime of "social parasitism".

Judge: And what is your profession in general?
Brodsky: Poet-translator.
Judge: Who recognized you as a poet? Who listed you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who listed me in the ranks of humanity?
Judge: Did you study this?
Brodsky: This?
Judge: To become a poet. You did not try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?
Brodsky: I didn’t think you could get this from school.
Judge: How then?
Brodsky: I think that it . . . comes from God.

For his “crimes,” Brodsky was sentenced to five years of internal exile with obligation for physical work; he served 18 months in the Archangelsk region. His sentence was commuted in 1965. Brodsky emigrated to the United States in 1972 as an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union.

“A language is a more ancient and inevitable thing than any state.”
~Joseph Brodsky

In 1987, Joseph Brodsky was awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature “for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity.” After I read Watermark I thought this a fitting description.

It was the brilliant first sentence of Watermark that enticed me in…

“Many moons ago the dollar was 870 lire and I was thirty-two…

The book is only one hundred thirty pages, comprised of forty-eight chapters, each recalling a specific episode from Joseph Brodsky’s many visits to this ephemeral city. But what this book lacked in length, it more than made up for in poignancy and enchantment.

“Every traveler knows this fix: this mixture of fatigue and apprehension. It’s the time of staring down clock faces and timetables, of scrutinizing varicose marble under your feet, of inhaling ammonia and that dull smell elicited on cold winter nights by locomotives’ cast iron. I did all this…
…I felt I’d stepped into my own self-portrait in the cold air… The backdrop was all in dark silhouettes of church cupolas and rooftops; a bridge arching over a body of water’s black curve, both ends of which were clipped off by infinity. At night, infinity in foreign realms arrives with the last lamppost, and here it was twenty meters away. It was very quiet. A few dimly lit boats now and then prowled about, disturbing with their propellers the reflection of a large neon Cinzano trying to settle on the black oilcloth of the water’s surface. Long before it succeeded, the silence would be restored.”

It is a beautiful, confessional meditation on the relation between water and land, between light and dark, between past and present, between the living and the inanimate, dreams and achievements.

“It all felt like arriving in the provinces, in some unknown, insignificant spot—possibly one’s own birthplace—after years of absence. In no small degree did this sensation owe to my own anonymity, to the incongruity of a lone figure on the steps of the stazione: an easy target for oblivion…
…The winter light in this city! It has the extraordinary property of enhancing your eye’s power of resolution to the point of microscopic precision—the pupil, especially when it is of the gray or mustard-and-honey variety, humbles any Hasselblad lens and develops your subsequent memories to a National Geographic sharpness.”

I liked this paragraph about finding an interest in someone based on their reading tastes-

“In those days we associated style with substance, beauty with intelligence. After all, we were a bookish crowd, and at a certain age, if you believe in literature, you think everyone shares or should share your conviction and taste.”

Joseph Brodsky died in New York City on January 28, 1996. For Brodsky, as Watermark attests, Venice was where his heart was forged, and where Brodsky’s spirit endures: he was buried at Isola di San Michele cemetery in Venice.

“Every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language”
~Joseph Brodsky

May 21, 2012

I see your spam and raise you...

Mega spam - graceless waste.
Out of Babylon - much discussed - palm greasing.
Silky smooth - political panel - flowing oil and gas party.
Serendiptious – never ending – pan satanism.
Mind wrecking – money making - voter register.
Moeso gothic - naphthyl methyl ketone.
Mid Victorian - night warbler.
Mild spoken - mildly savored - zero valued -West Coast old timer.
Bathsheba - man eating - neutral position - day nurse.
Evening trumpet flower - double loaded.
Heart burdened - chicken hazard.
Garter snake - day husbandman.
Hand fire - stomach filling - shaft horsepower. 
(Haven't had one of these in ages! Spammers getting less creative?)

May 18, 2012

Passion and Sticky Wickets.

“Ms. Edna”, inquiring urban hipsters ask, “explain to us the game of cricket.”
“Short version?”  
“Please! And, in American English.”

The short version:
Remember, cricket is a national mania.  First of all you must own a pair of white flannel trousers in order to play.  Secondly, the rules of cricket have become English laws, and you wouldn’t dare break them unless you do it so skillfully that you won’t be caught (everyone knows that gentlemen are the most skillful and surreptitious cheaters).
A game is played for a specified period, which can be anything from a few hours to a few days-obviously having to be at work would be a bother.
First they get together two groups of gentlemen (and you know that they’re getting harder to find every day!).  For a little friendly weekend game there’s a little leeway, as to the absolute number of players required per team (11 players for official games).  Then they find a nice green lawn.  There’s a little leeway here, too, since there is no absolute size specified for a cricket field (as you may expect, like most laws, the rules of cricket are subject to the interpretation of the individual court, so, if it’s your court…well then, your rules.)
Then they play.  At the start of the match, a coin toss determines which side has the choice of batting or fielding first.
Cricket, like our baseball, is played in innings (always in the plural). 
The teams take turns batting and fielding. Two batters stand opposite each other; to score a run, they change positions.  The bowler throws the ball toward the batter.  This is a true test of a gentleman’s courage, since a good bowler can deliver a ball at upward of 100 miles per hour (or in England, 160,930 meters per hour).  If a player winces or runs, he is obviously only a pseudo-gentleman.
Behind the batter is a construction consisting of three wickets supporting two bails (in plain American, five sticks), which he attempts to protect.  If the bails fall, he’s failed.  If he hits the ball, or if the wicket keeper (catcher) misses the ball, the two batters can run from wicket to wicket as long they feel that it’s safe. 
As you guessed, the team that scores the most runs is the winner.
So, if you are playing, remember to own a pair of white flannel trousers and you must try to appear to be a gentleman, or a lady, as the case may be.  I also recommend a hat, an umbrella, and a tall, cool drink to create this image.  Since the most classic of all cricket matches, Eton versus Harrow, is held in early July, you will probably want to start practicing your gentlemanly image in mid-June.  Beyond the shadow of a doubt anyone with a modicum of intelligence can master it within two weeks!
Respectful silence, then, “interesting, now teach us how to make peanut butter.”

Gird your loins for the long version:

The image of cricket is for me timelessly fixed in an embroidered tableau of white figures on an English green, fringed with retired colonels snoozing around the boundary under straw trilbies, while cheery matrons inspect the cucumber sandwiches. To be sure, it must be the most visually ravishing of games, a lantern-slide memory of an Edwardian garden party. Cricket is baseball strained through the finest muslin and then choreographed by George Balanchine.
But despite its impeccable pedigree which dates back at least two centuries to the aristocratic dandies who founded the Marylebone Cricket Club, still cricket's governing body - the game perfectly expresses ambiguities that lie close to the heart of the English spirit. Under the graceful and elegant surface, under the playing codes raised to the level of a morality that extols "the stiff upper lip" and "the straight bat," lurks a rich vein of unacknowledged deviousness and deep reserves of sheer physical menace.
It's no accident that when delivering his death-blow attack on Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons, her senior minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe, armed himself with an arsenal of cricket metaphors. He was, after all, only drawing on a splendidly combative tradition: About eighty years ago, during a blitzkrieg tour of Australia, England's bowlers so regularly felled Aussie batsmen with wickedly well targeted 90-mile-per-hour projectiles that there was talk in high places of dismantling the British Empire.
England has long looked to cricket as a uniquely powerful weapon in pacifying the troublesome natives. A hundred years ago, clean-limbed missionaries brought their bats along with their Bibles to the South Pacific. They were convinced that a healthy injection of cricket was guaranteed to inoculate the locals against their unfortunate inclinations toward sex and violence. As a consequence, the warring tribes of the Trobriand Islands abandoned centuries of murderous mayhem in favor of cricket. These days, the Trobriand warriors play out their vendettas in an uproarious but recognizable version of the most English of games.
But I reckon the canny Trobriand's recognized the true spirit of England's gentlemanly-seeming summer sport better than those mild men of the cloth. For it's my belief that only croquet approaches the same schizophrenic blend of demure appearance and killer reality that lies at the heart of cricket.
Englishmen have toiled for a hundred years to explain cricket to bewildered foreign visitors.  It has usually ended in hilarity or strained international relations. With a due sense of trepidation, let me try to shed some light on England's most mysterious summer activity.
First, there are these two teams, you see, of eleven players each. If it's not already raining, the two captains toss a coin to decide which team bats first, though sometimes the winner decides not to if the weather looks unfavorable. Then there's the state of the pitch to consider-that's the strip of grass where bat and ball will do battle. The thing you must understand is that no game and indeed few human activities are more involved with the moods of the weather. Cricket responds with exquisite paranoia to the vagaries of the English climate, and "Rain Stopped Play" can be a tragic headline in the evening papers. Spectators, commentators, and players debate the state of the pitch with the obsessive gravity of medieval theologians: "Will it play true or will it take spin?" "Will it break up and become a sticky wicket?" Anyway, I think I was trying to tell you about the start of the game . . .
If it's still not raining, the first two batsmen take the field. They alternate in trying to score runs, hitting the ball as elegantly as possible, and then dashing up and down the twenty-two yards between the wickets-they're the wooden sticks, by the way, which ... but I'd better not get into that yet. Back to those scampering batsmen; their hits are called strokes and are savored by the spectators with the discrimination elsewhere reserved for a bullfighter's passes with his cloak-even though no runs may result. All this time, the two bowlers on the opposite team are spinning or swerving or hurling the very hard, very red ball at the batsmen, trying to dispose of them in a variety of tortuous ways, not excluding thinly veiled intimidation.
Meanwhile, the other members of the bowling team stand around for hours, trying to keep warm or suddenly rushing about like anxious sheepdogs to round up the ball. They're deployed in an elaborate geometry of positions, each with a name that sounds as though it was borrowed from some rustic freak show: "long leg" and "square leg," "silly mid-off' and "deep fine leg."
After a couple of hours, the players leave the field to eat salad. In the afternoon, if they haven't already stopped for rain, they stop for tea. In between, if it's hot, someone will bring lemonade onto the field. Sometimes, someone bowls "a maiden over." That's when nothing happens for minutes on end, and everybody applauds. Then I should tell you about the "googly"...
Actually, the further I get into this, the more I feel like the harassed Chinese official who tried to explain the Peking opera to me as I struggled for sanity during a four-hour performance. I never did manage to decode the minute but significant eye movements or the maddening symbolism of the long sleeves; and I guess cricket has something of the same elusiveness for the newcomer. And that's the point, I suppose. Like Chinese opera, cricket is a ritual as well as an entertainment. So, like me at that opera, you can always nod off when the thing finally defeats you.
When my induction into the cricketing ritual first began (thank you Charles) the game had not changed much in half a century. Indeed, it would still have been recognized by the nineteenth-century genius of the game, W. G. Grace, a bushy bearded giant who transformed cricket over three decades starting in the 1860s.

A Prehistoric Peeps cartoon from Punch about an ancient game of cricket at Stonehenge.

The codes bred on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow still held sway, dictating an apartheid of amateurs and professionals, of gentlemen and players (though officially dropped in 1963).  After the war, gentlemen still maintained changing rooms separated from players, and marched onto the cricket field through a separate gate. England's captain was still obliged to be an amateur, disdaining payment for his skills.
It remained the game celebrated by the greatest of all cricket writers, Sir Neville Cardus of the old Manchester Guardian. Cardus relayed his passion for cricket with the fine rapture of a deck-chair Wordsworth. "When cricket burns a dull slow fire," he wrote, "it needs only a single swift wind of circumstance to set everything into a blaze that consumes nerves and senses."
My first affair with cricket had no swooning flavor. I first noticed, I think, the smell of the game. The heady blend of grass, leather, and linseed oil that had enslaved a schoolboy newly migrated from Scotland, where cricket was derided as an effete lowland aberration. You could hardly play cricket, it must be admitted, in a kilt.
Despite the annual tyrannies of the delinquent English summer over English cricket, devotees continue to subscribe to the myth of the golden summer game. With a bottle of lemonade and sandwiches, Charles and I queued from first light outside cricket grounds; we filled hours imbibing cricket commentaries. For a while, Charles even became some kind of player. It was then, in his foolhardy teens, that he discovered something of the tough realities of cricket. He acquired a bat stamped with the autograph of his hero, the great Yorkshire and England batsman Len Hutton. But although he practiced for hours in front of mirrors trying to emulate photos of the mighty Len in action, nothing prepared him for the real thing - the punishing thwack of a cricket ball against your thigh, even when delivered at a gentle schoolboy pace; the ordeal of trying to run wearing pads on your legs as heavy as medieval armor; the numbing impact of fumbling to catch a firmly hit drive. With the verbal terrorism of well bred student opponents added in, he began to get an idea of cricket's real demands which he now recognizes as the agility of rap star Hammer, the cunning of General Schwarzkopf, and the guts of Jimmy Connors.  He decided to nurse his wounds and retire to the pleasures of armchair cricket.
Today, cricket is big business, a satellite relayed international spectacular. Cricketing superstars flex their contracts. The long dismembered British Empire, from Australia to the West Indies, from India and Pakistan to New Zealand and Sri Lanka, is reconnected by television deals and sponsorship campaigns.
The one-day game, a kind of rock video version of cricket, has come to stay, flourishing lustily alongside the three and five day fixtures Sir Neville Cardus would have recognized as real cricket.
From late April until mid-September, there's a lot of cricket around in England. The three- and four-day county games may be ghostly charades attended only by a handful of the faithful, but the breezy one day contests and the showpiece international test matches draw big crowds. If you want to sample the peculiar pleasures of cricket, the place to dip in must be Lord's Cricket Ground in North London, the holiest place in world cricket.
If you don't fancy trying to grapple with the monumental convolutions of a five-day test match, sample the brisker charms of a One-Day International at Lord's. There'll be plenty of action with fearsome batteries of fast bowlers firing their thunderbolts at batsmen prepared for combat behind visors and protectors reminiscent of battle-ready knights. It may be derided as cricket on speed by the purists in their club blazers, but at least you'll see a result-if it doesn't rain.

For a more restful alternative, you could pop down to Canterbury to drowse and dream on one of the game's most exquisite grounds, where Kent plays cricket in a landscape by Constable.
And wherever you travel through England on a summer weekend, you'll come upon cricket.

According to reports, however, you may have to hurry, since English cricket could be an endangered species. From across the Atlantic, where cricket never caught hold beyond the homesick exertions of the British expats in Hollywood, baseball looms.

Alas, I fancy cricket will be a feisty opponent.

May 07, 2012

Say goodnight, Irene.

Last time I was allowed onto this blog I rattled quite a few souls and was ordered to kvetch on my own blog. This time I’m here to make ripples about the depictions of Irene Adler in modern Sherlock Holmes Adaptations.  In the politest way, of course.

After A Scandal in Belgravia aired there was a lot of talk about Irene Adler, and whether or not her character was “feminist”, whether her portrayal was “feminist”, whether or not nudity, sex, rescue, romance, and whether etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. As you can see I didn’t actually find the discussion very stimulating.

What has confounded me not just about the BBC adaptation (in which Lara Pulvey was very good as Adler) but also about Guy Ritchie’s recent steam punk-inspired and anachronism-riddled films (where Rachel McAdams was at least the right nationality for the character), is the insistence on turning Irene Adler into a femme fatale –a woman who, by definition, is more prone to using her sexuality to dumbfound her opponent than solely her brain to outwit him.

This would be entirely acceptable to me as an archetype were it not for the fact that the original (and some of the later adaptations) had Irene Adler as intelligent and with a past, but not someone who was in any way interested in seducing Holmes or indeed on interacting with him much. She was looking to protect herself from a potentially vengeful and very powerful man (the crown prince of Bohemia) by using the only thing she had to hold over him: the evidence of their affair.
Holmes originally spoke of Irene Adler with admiration because she’d outwitted him, and because he places a high value on intelligence; he places rather less value on intelligence that places him in personal danger the way Ritchie’s Adler and the BBC Adler did!

There is the question, though, of whether the modern adaptations are aiming to shock or scandalise their audiences in the same way that Irene’s shady affair with European royalty might have scandalised readers of the original work; something salacious and enticing but similarly morally grey to the sensibilities of the time. Presumably then, just as now there are people saying “well if a woman wants to horsewhip royalty for money, why not? As long as the royalty in question want to be horsewhipped”, there would have been people saying, “So she had an affair, lots of people have affairs”.

The problem with using the femme fatale archetype to express the scandalous nature of the original and the shock value of a woman (a mere woman!) with the intelligence to outsmart Sherlock Holmes is that it also necessarily renders Irene highly morally ambiguous at best, and in the original she was not a criminal but someone trying to protect herself from the repercussions of a mistaken affair; in the Ritchie adaptation, for some reason, the element of fear of retribution for an affair was replaced with savvy conwomanship and some apparent debt to James Moriarty which left her in fear of him instead.

This is the primary objection I have to both the BBC and Ritchie adaptations’ use of Irene Adler; while the BBC version managed to retain a little of Irene’s vulnerability and response in “making my own way in the world”, they both trashed the idea of Irene as an independent agent at all by conflating her with Moriarty, and turning her into his pawn – either manipulated by him or ordered about by him.

Turning Irene, originally an ambiguously-moral woman with A Past, into a pawn of a character she has no connection to, is a necessary facet of the other problem with modernisations of Irene Adler; her transformation into Sherlock Holmes’s love interest. Maybe because it’s less believable to a modern audience to have a protagonist without a love interest (after who knows how many decades of a romantic subplot being shoehorned into every story), maybe because it helps allay “suspicions” about the relationship between Holmes and Watson, which you can no more stop than the rain, but making Irene Adler into a romantic interest as well as his foil in the story is sure to add a frisson of additional tension, right?

Well it would do if in both the BBC and the Ritchie version (more so the latter) she hadn’t been sidelined by the presence of Moriarty as her puppeteer, reducing her to “romantic interest: subtype potential villain”. And perhaps if the possibility of a sustained love interest threatening to ruin the character dynamic didn’t then mean that she had to be summarily disposed of in both, instead of allowed, as the original Irene was, a happy ending with a man she loved and an act of kindness bestowed on a Bohemian Prince who didn’t deserve it.

It wasn’t just the woman’s mind that Holmes originally admired; it was also the content of her character.
~ ~ ~ Ripples

May 04, 2012

Digital Reflux -

Networks without a cause?








Sometimes social networks seem like a case of terrible digital reflux, where everything you consume is reprocessed, redigisted, remixed, reconstituted…and begins to repeat on you.

Surfing the net soon makes me ache for the quiet privacy and mystery of making original. Sketching, writing, playing, thinking without surfing, reading without interruption…

George Orwell once said ‘any speaker repeating familiar phrases has gone some distance to turning himself into a machine.’ Words which carry the unbearable irony of now being a quotation.

Lanier asks why the past two decades have not generated new music styles and sub-cultures, and he blames the strong emphasis on retro in contemporary, remix-dominated music culture. The democratization of digital tools did not herald any “Super-Gershwins”‘ instead, Lanier sees “pattern exhaustion,” a phenomenon in which a culture runs dry of variations on traditional designs, and becomes less creative in general.’

I almost feel guilty sharing this.

May 03, 2012

Ancient Stories

“Society does not severely punish those who sin severely, but those who sin and conceal not cleverly.”
~ Judge Learned Hand

A scandal has been reported in New York’s newspapers about a woman named Anna Gristina who has been accused of “connecting people”.  
You’re surprised there is prostitution in New York? You always thought that was against the law, like brokers stealing customers’ accounts and calling it vaporizing. But, unlike the boys (and probably some girls too) involved in the evaporation of $1.6 billion of other people’s money at old MF Global, Madam Gristina had to be handcuffed in court.
There’s something old school about this story, a story about the oldest profession, or the commerce of selling sex, or in today’s jargon, connecting people. We may despise or admire them, but from Aspasia of Athens, companion of Pericles, to . . ., they are part of the story in history.
Many years ago, at a party in Los Angeles, I met an interesting woman. If I recall correctly, her father had been German, her mother Spanish, she, born in Manila. I watched how she scanned the room, not like an aspiring wanna be, more like an accountant keeping track of available merchandise, all the while engaged in a lively conversation with me in German.  I had no idea who that woman was, then. 
She was called Madam Alex or Madam 90210.  This I found out when one night her neighborhood was inundated with helicopters, police cars and a full SWAT team all pulling up in front of her house, armed and ready for business.  She was arrested, thrown in prison, arraigned and released on one million dollar bail. The papers called her the Mayflower Madam of the West Coast.  Friends called her The West Coast’s answer to Madame Claude who according to my friend Asterix “…ran a true Spanish college of ladies of “little virtue”, as they say in French where they use a lot of quite tender expressions like “cocottes”, “dames de petite vertu”, “hétaïres”, that don’t seem to exist in English, do they ?”.
Madam Alex's legal name was Elizabeth Adams.  The gossip vine smoked with the rumor that she knew the sexual secrets of the city's most important men. Really?!  Today, it can be told who Madam Alex’s clients had been – the public ones anyway.
Back in the Gilded Age there were houses of ill-repute or to be put in more prosaic terms, whorehouses. Yes, in New York, and across America. The best of them in New York were located in Murray Hill.
In 1910, JP Morgan built a townhouse (still standing) right on the edge of Murray Hill and right around the corner from his own house, for his mistress Mrs. Adelaide Douglas.
The house built for Mrs. Adelaide Douglas by JP Morgan today the Guatemalan Consulate to the United Nations.
She of course was never under suspicion of anything but perfect goodness. The fact that he built her a mansion, with a back entrance where he could come and go discreetly, did not disturb anybody’s sleep.
Timing is everything.

Lovely weekend