Monday, October 31, 2011

The Bright Altar

In my first year of high school my father bought a new car and decided that the old one would be handed over to me. At the time it didn’t seem like a groundbreaking event, but the significance of having a car all to myself began to grow and within a few weeks that old car had become the crucible of my teenage life, its four tires elevated to wings that lifted me to a whole new realm of freedom. Though he was not writing of cars and teenagers, Charles Dickens described it well: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light…it was the spring of hope.’


Returning to a later century, poet Stephen Dunn says it another way. Dunn is the author of sixteen collections of poetry, including the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning Different Hours. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Georgia Review, and the American Poetry Review. He has for many years been the Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. One poem from his 1989 book, Between Angels is about flying free, that part of youth that, car or not everyone can relate to. The poet has zeroed in on an experience most common to teenagers and their cars, but in a broader sense his poetry is a reflection of the social, cultural, and psychological territory of the American middle class.


THE SACRED

After the teacher asked if anyone had
a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrank

in their chairs, the most serious of them all
said it was his car,
being in it alone, his tape deck playing

things he’d chosen, and others knew the truth
had been spoken
and began speaking about their rooms,

their hiding places, but the car kept coming up,
the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person

who understood the bright altar of the dashboard
and how far away
a car could take him from the need

to speak, or to answer, the key
in having a key
and putting it in, and going.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Heavyweights

Saturday brought to hand two big books that have been on the horizon for a while. Wasn’t sure that both would arrive on the same day, but that’s the way it happened, adding a little weightlifting exercise to my day, with the combined pages of the two coming to 1,581 pages. Not possible to have already read very many of those pages, so the purpose this time is to briefly introduce the two books in advance of saying more about one or the other in a longer and future post. The author of the first is hugely popular, the subject of the second a name on everyone’s lips recently.


1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

The title of this novel is a play on the Japanese pronunciation of the year 1984, a reference to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Japanese reading of the title is Ichi-kew-hachi-yon and the letter Q and the Japanese number 9 are homophones, a type of wordplay not uncommon in Japanese literature. Prior to the publication of 1Q84, Murakami announced that he would not reveal anything about the book, feeling that pre-release talk had diminished the novelty of his previous books. Despite the secrecy 1Q84 received an unprecedented number of advance orders.


The book was first published in Japan in 2009 and 2010 where the first printing sold out on the day of the book’s release. An English translation was published on October 25 of this year by Knopf, the translation by Jay Rubin (volumes 1 and 2) and Philip Gabriel (volume 3). The English translation is three volumes in one binding designed by Chip Kidd and Maggie Hinders.


Before reading even the first lines of Murakami’s novel, the book’s size and design are impressive. There is a look to the whole package that impresses. First off is the almost three-pound weight of its 925 pages, but heavy or not, immediately clear is that this Knopf edition was beautifully put together to accent the author’s story. There is none of the expected in opening the book and turning over the first few pages. Chip Kidd and Maggie Hinders have given 1Q84 a look all its own from front cover to back. Facing pages are interesting for the way title and page numbers appear on left and right margins, straightforward on the left but flipped on the right, as if reading through a mirror.


The first two chapters have me eager to continue on.


Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

It’s a good guess that Simon & Schuster will have a hard time keeping up with demand for the recently released biography of a man whose influence reached into personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, digital publishing and retail marketing. In August of 2011 Apple become the most valuable company in the world. There was something Olympian about Steve Jobs and the impact he had on many of the things that occupy a majority of people in the twenty-first century. Forget the fact that Jobs has long been something of an enigma. Apple developments of the past year leading up to, and including his death on October 5, played out like a storybook of greatness, the timing of everything happening in such a way that by October 6 the man and his company stood at a pinnacle of greatness. And nineteen days later a biography of Steve Jobs by the highly respected Walter Isaacson hits bookstores. The presses must be working night and day.

The biography is based on more than forty interviews with Jobs, and more than a hundred others with family, friends, adversaries, colleagues and competitors. Jobs asked for no pre-publication agreements, or opportunities to read any of the chapters prior to publishing. He gave Isaacson total control over the content, asking only that he write the story honestly, including the recollection and opinions of anyone interviewed. There is no gilding of the lily in this biography.


As a longtime Apple fan and buyer of at least one of everything the company has ever made, it's no mystery that Isaacson’s book has been on my wish list. Published on October 24 by Simon & Schuster, the Steve Jobs biography, like the Murakami book is also a hefty read of 656 pages weighing almost two and a half pounds. So far, there’s been time to read only the introduction, but that was enough to assure that I will have to steal some time from the reading of Murakami’s book.


Another one I am itching to get back to.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Clown Act

It was a pretty ordinary idea, something many people do once every week or two that requires nothing more than water, a hose pipe and a couple of rags, maybe a plastic bucket. Got the time, the sun is not too bright and the car needs washing. No big deal. Or so I thought.


We have an out of the way spot here that’s good for car washing because it’s off in a corner and next to a water spigot and a hose, with a good ground surface and drainage. I’ve washed my car there a couple of dozen times and seen others doing the same countless times. What’s the big deal? A suddenly irritable and life-like hose that fights back. We’ve all seen hose pipes squirming, jumping around on the ground and spouting water, but it normally doesn’t last more than half a minute before everything is under control. The experience yesterday made me think the hose had a vendetta and wouldn’t stop until I was throughly drenched and brought to the ground.


I should have been on my guard after the first burst of water backfired out of the bucket and shot spumes of soapy water into my face. It knocked my glasses off which promptly fell straight into the bucket of water. Before I could release the lever on the nozzle the hose whipped out of my hands and began a slithering dance around my feet like angry tentacles looking for a grip on my legs. After a few dodges I managed to capture the damn thing and unlock the open nozzle. Head and face wet, glasses in the soapy water and a pulsing green hose resisting my attempt to get it aimed at the car.


Finally managed to get the car wet from top to bottom, but when I casually dropped the hose to the ground it fell in a way that when it hit the asphalt—lever first with the nozzle aimed straight at me—it fired off a high-powered jet of water straight into my chest. I was about ready to run, but side-stepped the blast of water and grabbed the nozzle. By then, the only place not soaked with water was the seat of my pants. Water firmly off, I carefully laid the hose in a place off to the side, tiptoed away and began to wash the car with a soapy mitt. Both soap and mitt were more agreeable and I managed to go over the whole car without losing a finger or drowning.


But success breeds complacency and I returned to the hose with all thoughts of coiled defiance forgotten. In the space of a breath the hose lurched and once more spit in my face. If at that moment a pair of hedge clippers had been handy I would have snipped the rubbery demon into parts. It was like an evil television program with me as the sacrifice. I considered the option of giving up the spiteful hose and wiping the suds off with towels, but decided I couldn’t let the hose get the better of me…

Everybody has foolish moments.


With obvious reluctance the hose did its job for the next few minutes and I was just about ready to turn the water off and begin wiping the car with towels. I noticed some soap suds around the license plate and aimed a final spray of water in that direction, but at the last moment the green monster found a way around my ankle and tripped me up. With wet asphalt and a slippery pair of Crocs my feet went out from under me and I did a pratfall onto the seat of my pants, by now definitely no longer dry.


Solidly defeated, I moved my car and myself away from the spiteful hose pipe. Next time I’m going to a carwash.

Friday, October 28, 2011

That Old Black Magic

For reasons without solid connection to anything dark or gloomy, my thoughts yesterday began roaming over the customs that surround the modern approach to death, and the treatment we give to honor and respect our deceased loved ones. Practices are not the same everywhere and ceremonies vary greatly in some cases, but there are ideas and steps taken in Western culture that have an ancient resonance.


Our word “funeral” derives from the Latin funus meaning “torch,” stemming from the Roman practice of lining the route to a burial site with flaming torches to guide the departed soul to its eternal abode. The Romans also believed that lighted candles placed around the deceased would frighten away spirits hoping to reanimate the corpse and take possession of it. The use of candles at modern day services for the dead extends back to that old custom. Traditions surrounding death, in Western cultures at least, pre-date the Romans and have been ongoing for something like 50,000 years. Archeology has traced the funeral tradition back to Western Asia’s Neanderthal man and found that they began the practice of burying their dead, interring the deceased with food, weapons for hunting, and charcoal for fire. In a final homage they scattered flowers over the body.


There is nothing inherently respectful about the color black and the wearing of black at funerals grew not out of respect, but out of fear. In ancient societies a stranger, a foe or a dead body were each something to be feared and it was this fear that brought black into ceremonies involving the dead. Anthropology has taught us that primitive white men painted their bodies black at funerals in an attempt to disguise themselves from spirits. Like the Roman tradition of torches and candlelight, the idea of black worked its way down to us in a slightly altered form. Rather than paint, people began covering themselves in black clothing for rites of the dead. Those relatives who wore black for weeks or months were not necessarily paying respect, but hiding behind protective camouflage. The wearing of a veil as well came out of this fear.


In ancient Sumeria the family of the deceased wove large baskets from plaited twigs to place the deceased into for burial and interestingly enough, the word “coffin” comes from a Greek word for “basket.” But here again, the placement of a dead body in a basket, or other container is a custom that grew out of fear. Some societies went even further in their attempts to prevent haunting and cut off the head and feet before binding the body securely. The route to a place of burial was circuitous and confusing so as to stymie the corpse’s return to home.


These precautions were not enough to assuage the fears of the living, and so further measures were devised to make burial permanent. Six feet under was a comforting precaution, but to that had to be added a wooden coffin, with the lid solidly nailed shut. Archeology has unearthed coffins that show evidence of once being sealed with many more nails than needed. After the coffin with all its nail-tight closure was placed in the ground, the next barrier-to-escape came with the placement of a large and heavy stone on top of the coffin. The dirt was filled in and a final large stone was placed on top of the grave—a tombstone.


Fear kept burial sites lonely and untended and it was many years before people began visiting the places where deceased family and friends lay in their eternal rest. In time it became a practice to inscribe names on the large stones seated upon the graves, eventually leading to longer inscriptions to include dates and a few meaningful words.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Gentlemen’s Hour

Back in 2008 southern California crime writer Don Winslow published The Dawn Patrol and along with a bang up story, gave readers the ultimate in San Diego surfing culture and history. As much as James Lee Burke has made south Louisiana a vibrant, living and breathing character in his novels, Winslow has done the same for southern California and that stretch of ocean and beach around San Diego where American surfing was born. The Dawn Patrol also introduced a cast of characters that probably had most readers begging for a sequel. Chief among them was Boone Daniels, surf bum-ex-cop-private investigator, and the most laid back ultra California cool guy on the planet. The sequel wish came true for British readers in 2009 with publication of The Gentlemen’s Hour, but for mysterious reasons we here in the US had to wait until July 2011 to get the book. It was well worth the wait.


Winslow is possessed of a special idiom and style that embraces a story not a whit less than such well-known California crime writers as Raymond Chandler and Michael Connelly. In an earlier review of Winslow’s 2010 novel Savages, I described his economic prose as ‘short haiku-like paragraphs…a lesson in spare, lean prose rich enough to eat with a spoon.’—The impression is no different in The Gentlemen’s Hour. This is a writer who knows how to say everything needed in a stretch of three words, and leave nothing out. It is an impression that holds together even when Winslow is off his beat and aping the style of another writer, as he did earlier this year with a Trevanian remake called Satori, an effort that might have been better left unwritten. But looking at a cross-section of Winslow books, from California Fire and Life to this latest work proves that he is a master of different styles, able to switch them like the baseball caps he likes to wear.


Boone Daniels spends most of his time surfing and when the waves aren’t cooperating he does a little private investigating. This time he has two cases on his hands, neither one to his liking. A longtime buddy is looking to get the goods on a wife he thinks is cheating on him, and the possible results are not something Boone wants to discuss with a friend. Unrelated to that, he has been dragged into a murder investigation that crosses lines of friendship and threatens to isolate him, leaving him without all his lifelong friends. It has all the trademarks of an open-and-shut case. A local rich kid admits to killing a well-loved San Diego hero, a man much respected and admired by Boone and his Dawn Patrol surf buddies. One case threatens his life, the other a loss of all his oldest friends. Everything points to a partying wife in the first case, and everyone, including witnesses believe that a spoiled rich kid killed the local hero, but something about it all doesn’t smell right to Boone Daniels. Winslow has hung his hugely likeable protagonist up on a cross and every turn in the story winches his bonds tighter.


One of the most colorful characters in the book is another returning from The Dawn Patrol, a real bad dawg who goes by the name of Red Eddie (real name Julius) but a man with unbreakable loyalty to Boone for saving his son from drowning years back. Eddie has dyed red hair, a dozen or more tattoos, a degree from the Wharton School and a drug empire. He also entertains guests with crazed and unrestrained biting fights with his pit bull. But Red Eddie is not the only standout, The Gentlemen’s Hour has at least half a dozen other supporting characters, each with his or her distinctive style of cool.


All the ingredients are there: style, characterization, story, setting, tension, romance, action and suspense. Don Winslow at the very top of his game—The Gentlemen’s Hour.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Divine Retribution

While rescue workers continue to dig people from the rubble of a large earthquake in eastern Turkey, the catastrophic combination of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan this past March 11 remains fresh in the minds of many as that country continues to struggle with resulting problems. It is made visible by the ongoing repair of nuclear power plants still in a fragile state, still a threat, and the thousands of people yet unable to return to their homes. Such disasters teach big lessons about how we live, but one time is not necessarily enough to make us invulnerable to divine retribution.


On September 1, 1923 at two minutes before noon, a devastating earthquake hit the densely populated area of Tokyo and Yokohama. The shocks rattled both cities at 7.9 on the Richter scale and set loose a forty-foot high tsunami, with a series of towering waves sweeping away thousands of people. At the time the first shocks hit, charcoal stoves in most homes were being used to prepare midday meals. The tremor scattered coals and fires, and fanned by a steady breeze spread quickly to become raging firestorms with deadly cyclones of superheated air from which most of the oxygen had been burned. In the Tokyo area of Honjo alone 38,000 died of suffocation.


140,000 people lost their lives—58,000 of them in Tokyo. Fire had long been a major threat in Japanese cities, the typical house of the time a light building with a wooden tile roof, built close to other houses with little empty space between. With no place to escape most victims suffocated or burned in the fires. Seventy to eighty percent of both Tokyo and Yokohama was destroyed. Writing for Trans-Pacific magazine, Henry W. Kinney painted this picture…

‘Yokohama, the city of almost half a million souls, had become a vast plain of fire, of red, devouring sheets of flame which played and flickered. Here and there a remnant of a building, a few shattered walls stood up like rocks above the expanse of flame, unrecognizable…It was as if the very earth were now burning. It presented exactly the aspect of a gigantic Christmas pudding over which the spirits were blazing, devouring nothing. For the city was gone.’


Martial law was enforced by 35,000 troops. Among those in power at the time, certain elements took advantage of the confusion to kill ‘suspicious’ Koreans, eliminate leftist radicals and murder ten labor union activists. These deaths exemplified the breakdown of order among those sworn to uphold it. In his book Yokohama Burning, Joshua Hammer suggests that the earthquake accelerated Japan’s drift toward militarism and war. With conservative elites already nervous about democratic forces emerging in society, the earthquake presented an opportunity to reverse some of the liberal tendencies. In the months and years following the disaster there was a sizable increase in right-wing patriotic groups which possibly laid the groundwork for eventual fascism. Historians have agreed that it was this great earthquake of 1923 and its devastation that gave voice in Japan to those who believed Western decadence had invited divine retribution.


Trains crowded with passengers were thrown from their tracks as depicted here by an unknown artist.


A tidal wave sweeping in from Sagami Bay prefigures the ruin that hit northeast Japan eighty-eight years later.


The first three woodblock prints, from top to bottom:

Kyôryo no ensho (Burning Bridge in Honjo) by Hamada Nyosen. An estimated 44,000 people died when they sought refuge near Tokyo’s Sumida River in the first few hours. They were immolated by a freak pillar of fire called a “dragon twist.”


Bahitsu no sanka (Tragedy of Horses) by artist Hamada Nyosen.


• An especially evocative 1925 woodcut by Takashima Unpo showing Tokyo’s Ueno district ablaze—In the words of a Jesuit priest who witnessed the calamity, “Each gust of wind gave new impulse to the fury of the conflagration.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Watt Chips Bowl

Don’t know, but I may just have gotten myself into one more collecting hobby with a visit to the flea market last Saturday. It has been said that every day a new door opens, and that certainly was the case for me with the discovery of something called the Watt Pottery Company that operated between 1922 and 1965 in Crooksville, Ohio and was active in producing stoneware crocks and kitchen ovenware until a fire destroyed their plant.


Through the early 30s, Watt focused their manufacture on stoneware crocks, butter churns, storage jars, preserve jars and jugs, but in the mid-thirties switched from stoneware to modern oven ware. In the early years of producing oven ware their products were solid color kitchenware in patterns called Moon and Stars, Arcs, Loops, Diamond and Grooves. Today these pieces are popular among collectors. By 1949 the company was producing hand-painted ware and expediting their production at lower production costs. The designs were basic, in bright colors on an ivory-colored background, a look that exemplified country life and appealed to housewives. From 1949 to 1953 Watt produced their classic patterns: Rio Rose, Moonflower, Dogwood, White Daisy, and Cross-Hatch. A second set beginning in the early 1950s included: Starflower (1951), Apple (1952), Cherry (1952), Silhouette (1953), Rooster (1955), Dutch Tulip (1956), American Red Bud (1957), Morning Glory (1958), Autumn Foliage (1959), Double Apple (1959), and Tulip (1961). The perennial favorite among collectors has always been the Apple.


At Saturday’s flea market I came across a bowl that immediately appealed to my sense of ‘old’ kitchenware. At first, looking closely at the bowl didn’t push any buttons and checking the name on the bottom didn’t help either. I saw concentric rings with ‘oven ware U.S.A.’ in the outer, and ‘7 watt’ in the inner ring. No question the bowl was old, but other than that I couldn’t say. Then the man behind the table spoke up, saying it was Watt pottery. To the right of the bowl was a book about Watt pottery, so I looked through it getting an idea of what the name Watt means. The bowl for sale is one manufactured as part of a snack set, probably in the late 40s, these days selling (as a set) for about $400. The one I was looking at, with the word ‘chips’ painted on its side was marked $12.00. I didn’t need to ask because the man spoke up to say that the low price was because of a small crack. I suppose for the ‘real Watt collector’ this tiny defect would be enough turn him away. Can’t say I wouldn’t also prefer the bowl to be perfect, but it’s a small crack on a handsome old bowl, and I'm not a real collector. I brought it home.


Problem is, the more I look at it the more I think I’ve found something that will have me looking for companion pieces in the future. There are already enough old bowls and dishes in my kitchen cabinets—most of them Japanese— but it’s the kind of thing that catches my eye on junk shop shelves and flea market tables.


Monday, October 24, 2011

A Toy Whistle & Pure Honey

One of the $3.00 treasures found in last Saturday’s flea market is a small book that deserves its own spotlight. While stirring through the piles of bric-a-brac that turned up the plastic doll and the Westclox Big Ben mentioned yesterday, I uncovered an almost grubby book that even under its blanket of dust stood out with a pretty and stylish cover. Under most circumstances books for young readers, and especially those with water damage, are not the type likely to encourage my interest. But the cover on this one grabbed me.


It didn’t take long to realize that Starlings by Wilfred S Bronson, published by Harcourt, Brace & World in 1948 is a small gem bursting with the charm of its many pencil illustrations done by the author. Knowing almost nothing about starlings, and not especially drawn to the bird, page by page Bronson reeled me in, almost defying me to not turn the page. Halfway through the book I was captivated and couldn’t wait to find a quiet corner at home to read the book cover to cover. The book was clearly designed for children, to teach them about a bird not native to the Americas but now quite common here. The text is juvenile, but definitely not lacking in interest and a certain style. Easy to imagine that many young readers would gobble this kind of thing off the page…


‘When the singing time of other birds has ended, when many have flown away, starlings stay with us and still sing. All through the year, in good weather and bad, in town or country, a starling will sing. He sings for many minutes at a time, and many times a day. With a steady stream of soft gurgling sounds he mixes every now and then a single higher, clear, sweet note. But very often the starling tries to sing this note much louder than he can. Then he doesn’t quite scream. He doesn’t quite squeal. He “screals.” “Screaling” may sound cross to some of us, but really it is not. The starling just feels so gay he uses more breath to tell it than his throat can manage.’


The drawing above is meant to show the starlings right after their annual molting in August. Bronson describes the birds as looking in winter like ‘a patch of midnight sky sparkling with little stars.’


In this illustration the author explains the molting process, the sequence of dropped feathers and the manner of maintaining balance and the ability to fly as the feathers are replaced a few at a time.


Here we have drawings showing how the starling’s muscles work both at rest and in flight. Notice the difference in the feet when the bird sleeps and when it perches.


One of my favorite drawings in the book, this one shows a pair of elves mixing up a waterfall of starling music. Ingredients: several drops of pure honey, a toy whistle, a waterfall, and naturally a starling.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Telling Time in 1918

Turned loose at a flea market there’s good chance you’ll have to lasso me and drag me back to the car to go home. That’s mostly the case, but I did go to one in Daytona last year that had me running for the exit after a quick look around. The big feature there was funnel cake and interior decor for trailer homes. I have driven past a big flea market in nearby Port Orange on a couple of occasions, a Thursday through Sunday gathering with most of the action happening on Saturday and Sunday. Yesterday seemed like a good time to give it a whirl, so I got over there mid-morning hoping to stumble over an old fountain pen or two, maybe a lost and wandering first edition, a bowl, plate or something otherwise on my menu of favorites.


I wasn’t disappointed. No fountain pens, but a couple of good finds in other areas, and surprising low prices. After walking around and talking with a number of the sellers for a good while, I realized that several of them had low price tags on things simply because they didn’t know what they had. At one table I picked up what was to me clearly an ashtray, and the man said I could have it and the piece next to it for $4.00. I wasn’t interested in the flower dish, but the ashtray had my eye. He continued on, admitting that he didn’t know what either of them were. I wasn't going to offer a higher price, but did explain what each item was, an explanation easy for me since both were Japanese. The idea of a dish made for flower arrangement was a new concept, but maybe he took the hint and will add a couple of dollars to the price. My friend K in Tokyo would have walked across hot coals to get that particular dish for $2.00. Meanwhile, I got the beautiful and old ashtray for the same price.


At another booth was an odd plastic doll made in Hong Kong in the 1950s, a Charlie Brown type of character wearing short pants and boxing gloves. Dolls are not my thing, but this one was immediately recognizable as a rare example, one possessing a goofy and wonderful expression. Again, underpriced. I bought it and in walking away spotted on a second table an old silver Westclox Big Ben wind-up alarm clock. This is a hard to find item made between 1918-1935 of nickel plated metal and steel. Neither the man or woman selling the clock knew anything more than that it was a clock. “Does it work?” I asked. The man didn’t think so but was surprised when he wound the clock and heard ticking. I bought it for $6.00.


I left the flea market happy and drove straight to Dairy Queen (a rare treat) and had a delicious but probably unhealthy lunch of a chili cheese dog and a black & white milkshake. The Dairy Queen in my little beach town is always crowded with customers and it might be because they provide a large almost park-like area with tables and umbrellas. A 1950s and 60s radio station plays through speakers hidden in the trees. I ate lunch listening to Gene Vincent sing “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” Remember that one?


Down the road a ways is a farmer’s market called Perrine’s, a place that’s been on my radar for a long time. Still wiping the chili and cheese off my mouth I stopped to have a look. Foolish of me to have waited so long. They have most of what the supermarket offers produce-wise and at better prices. Fresh baked breads and cakes, their own sauces, dressings and seasonings, and this time of year a mountain of pumpkins. Got back to the car with a heavy bag to add to the flea market pile. My return to Perrine’s won’t be so far down the calendar.


With the beautiful autumn-like weather, all in all a great Saturday.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Walking Over Bridges

Something always brings me back to Charles Bukowski. It’s easy to get lost in a new book, to be caught in the pull of a new or unfamiliar writer, and for a few days lose sight of the familiar standards on the shelves around you, but in my case not too many days will pass before my eye returns to Bukowski. If we were not out of touch, I would thank for the third or fourth time the friend who introduced me to the writing of Charles Bukowski over twenty years ago.


Henry Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was never one for failing to acknowledge the writers who were an influence in his life, either positive or negative. He was as easy with praise as he was with criticism both on the record and off. Among the writers that Bukowski admired were the Norwegian Knut Hamsun, Frenchman Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Americans John Fante and Sherwood Anderson.


Bukowski deeply admired Sherwood Anderson’s work. Writing about him in his journal-like book, The Captain is out to Lunch and the Sailors have Taken Over the Ship, he said, ‘I think Sherwood Anderson was one of the best at playing with words as if they were rocks, or bits of food to be eaten. He painted his words on paper. And they were so simple that you felt rushes of light, doors opening, walls glistening. You could see rugs and shoes and fingers. He had the words. Delightful. Yet, they were like bullets too. They could take you right out. Sherwood Anderson knew something, he had the instinct. Hemingway tried too hard.’ Talking about him near the end of his life Bukowski again praised Anderson, saying, “Sherwood Anderson knew something. He had the instinct.”


The poem below first appeared in Bukowski’s 1981 collection Dangling in the Tournefortia, and later in the posthumous collection, The Pleasures of the Damned, published in 2007.


ONE FOR SHERWOOD ANDERSON

sometimes I forget about him and his peculiar

innocence, almost idiotic, awkward and mawkish.

he liked walking over bridges and through cornfields.

tonight I think about him, the way the lines were,

one felt space between his lines, air

and he told it so the lines remained

carved there

something like van Gogh.

he took his time

looking about

sometimes running to save something.

then at other times giving it all away

he didn't understand Hemingway’s neon tattoo,

found Faulkner much too clever.

he was a midwestern hick

he took his time.

he was as far away from Fitzgerald as he was

from Paris.

he told stories and left the meaning open

and sometimes he told meaningless stories

because that was the way it was.

he told the same story again and again

and he never wrote a story that was unreadable.

and nobody ever talks about his life or

his death.


Anderson’s death was an unusual one. While eating the olive in his martini, he accidentally swallowed the toothpick on which the olive was speared. Death came as a result of peritonitis caused by a perforated colon.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Fast Food, Fast Women

From an old Japan journal…

Kugayama soggy wet from a heavy early morning rainfall, a half hour of fat raindrops bashing houses and buildings. Hoping the plants on the veranda might enjoy a natural watering, I nudged them toward the front. Probably by now so accustomed to tap water out of plastic bottles, the sweetness of rain has become to them an alien drink.


Sat at the kitchen table with coffee, an English muffin, and a slightly damp Japan Times. According to one article, awareness of culture and art among the Japanese has stayed the same over four years, but morals and values are falling rapidly. The first part is a surprise and the second seems a little like someone informing me that cows can be found at a dairy farm. I wonder about this reported steadiness of interest in art and culture. Aren’t all these things—culture, art, values and morality—linked in a way that one informs and supports the other?


A Japanese businessman was not pleased about his transfer to Singapore from Tokyo, so decided to leave the company. He soon found a new job in research at a university, part of his work including occasional travel to the US. Before his first trip on behalf of the university his boss there gave him an insurance policy to cover his roundtrip flight and his time in the US. Looking closely at the insurance policy at home that night, the man noticed something odd in regard to the beneficiary listed on the policy. Should anything happen to him, anything including injury and death, neither he nor his family would receive a cent—all benefits from his death or injury to be paid to the university, his employer.


Some nutty Japanese-English in the paper this time. Throughout the years of my stay in this country the ongoing life of twisted English among the Japanese has never changed. It’s unkillable, immune to correction and by now almost as much a part of Japanese culture as chopsticks. Interesting examples from the morning paper…


The cover of a restaurant menu: ‘Fast Food, Fast Women’

Sign in after hours store windows across Japan: ‘Close’

Brand of children’s clothing: ‘Lusty’

A new model of Toyota: ‘Fun! Car! Go!’

Cover of a photo album: ‘For enjoy natural color and your best scene own’

Another photo album: ‘Come join the Rapid Party’

Poster at the dry cleaners: ‘Let’s go to my bag’

A birthday card greeting: ‘I wish to fall in happy drops on your head’

Language school ad: ‘For your heartful life’

And their mission statement: ‘To fulfill heartful English lives so people can gentle mind and more very enjoy Japanese English. Also pets.’


In class yesterday…

For some Japanese university students classes seems little more than an interlude in a busy life of complete vacuity. One young lady arrived late to class, entering the room in mid-conversation on her rhinestone encrusted cell phone. Not far inside the door, I halted her in mid-stride, backing her out of the door and closing it in her face. I should have asked, “What were you thinking?” But of course, she wasn’t.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mirror, Mirror…

The earliest mirrors were most likely pools of dark water, or water in a bowl or vessel of some sort. Around 2000 BC people in Anatolia, or present day Turkey began polishing obsidian for mirrors, and as the centuries passed, mirrors of polished copper or bronze turned up in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The silvered-glass examples that we are familiar with today were first made in 1835 by a German. But where did the idea of broken mirrors and bad luck spring from?


From way back, mirrors have been called a reflection of the soul, and able to reflect only the truth. From this perspective, seeing something in a mirror that should not be there is a bad omen. Many years ago in the southern US, families covered the mirrors in a house where the wake of a deceased person was being held. This was done out of a fear that the deceased’s soul would be trapped in a mirror left uncovered. More common today is the idea of a broken mirror bringing seven years of bad luck. Tracing the superstition back a couple of thousand years reveals that the belief arose out of a combination of religious and economic factors.


In the sixth century BC the Greeks practiced a kind of divination using bowls filled with water. Like the crystal ball used by gypsies, a face reflected in water was thought to reveal the future of the person reflected. As did happen from time to time, the bowl of water sometimes slipped and broke. The seer read this in one of two ways. Either the person looking into the bowl when it fell and broke had no future, meaning death was imminent, or the future held such abysmal promise that the gods were sparing the heartache of revealing it.


The Romans later adopted this idea of bad luck and mirrors, but added a twist of their own. In the Roman view a person’s health changed in cycles—in cycles of seven years. A mirror reflects the face, the outward health and always tells the truth. It followed that a broken mirror presaged seven years of ill health and misfortune.


The economic ingredient to the superstition didn’t come along until the fifteenth century, in Italy. Breakable sheet-glass mirrors with silver backing were a luxury being manufactured in Venice. Extremely costly, the mirrors had to be handled with the greatest of care and servants were warned that any movement or cleaning that resulted in breakage invited seven years of a fate worse than death. The warning was well-heeded and over time the bad luck belief intensified, influencing generations of Europeans. It was the mid-1600s before England and France began producing inexpensive mirrors, but by then the broken mirror superstition had become tradition.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Coffee & Samba


Someone tells me that a man over by the post office can repair a broken clock. Twice, other repairmen have said that the Seikosha station wall clock is too old and cranky to restore. Made sometime in the early 1950s by the company now called Seiko, it is one of many that once hung on train station walls all over Japan. In 1892, an industrious thirty-one year-old set up the Seikosha factory in Japan, choosing the name, Seiko meaning “success” or “exquisite” in Japanese. I found the wall clock hanging in the cobwebbed corner of a small shop overlooking Inokashira Park, its hands stopped at some ten-twenty-three of the past. After cleaning and a few small adjustments the old clock ticked and worked in a manner of sorts, but without much accuracy. Recently it has begun chiming on a schedule little to do with hours and minutes. I am taking it to the man over by the post office.

“Look here,” the man says, shining a small light inside the clock case. “That gear needs to be replaced, but with a clock this old the problem is finding a replacement…an expensive proposition. Around two-hundred, maybe.”
“That high? I can’t spend so much.”
“Leave the clock with me for a week or so, let me take it apart and play with it. Doubt I can do anything about the worn out gear, but I can get it running a little better.
“How much?”
“About $20, okay?”

Doutor Café is on the way home and with a glass of iced coffee I climb the stairs to the third floor, my usual spot for a stretch of time gazing idly out the windows, reading, writing a few lines in a notebook, or oftentimes discreetly observing others at nearby tables. Never sure what the mix is going to be on any given day, it may be quiet and peaceful one day, rowdy the next. Today the shades on all three windows are up and a flood of sunlight brightens the room. The sight of six middle-aged housewives spread over two tables in the far corner is nothing new, but for me a disappointment because it promises a tidal wave of loud simultaneous talk. I have seen these six before.

They have just returned from a trip somewhere, probably a two-night stay at a hot spring resort, or a reunion of sorts. Travel bags are stacked chest high in a corner. At the moment of my arrival voices are raised in fond remembrance of the ballroom dance teacher who hosted their getaway. In a voice toned by cigarettes and Suntory whiskey, one describes the drape of an arm, illustrating the movement with an outflung arm that threatens cups and saucers. Another moans about the difficulty of a chassé while two others try to remember the teacher’s rule about the Cuban hip motion.

Done with her explanation of arm gestures, the woman suddenly pulls another of the ladies to her feet, leading off in a rehash of the samba bounce. With little or no room between tables for two husky women to practice the samba, a college girl at the adjacent table cringes, clamping hands over her jittering coffee cup. And just as suddenly, both dancers execute a spot turn and return to their coffee.

The dance demonstration all done, another familiar face arrives and takes a table across from me. This is a college student with whom I’ve spoken on several occasions, a man whose Japanese is always a challenge. Everything is slang or vernacular mostly mumbled, a jargon that leaves me unsure of any details. He enjoys reading books in English and the last time he was in the coffee shop I gave him a couple of paperbacks. His name is Hideto and today he has a cold.

We talk across the space between tables, but after a little of that Hideto picks up and moves over to my table. A typically modern student, sloppily dressed, fond of punk rock fashion, he has an email address that begins with ‘fabricatedviolence@.’ He sits opposite me with a trail of snot dripping from one nostril. The sight makes me look away, look down, talk to my lap. Then finally he snatches up a napkin and blows his nose.

Almost dark when I leave Doutor and turn for home. Halfway, I stop in Little Mermaid and buy croissants for Sunday morning.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Jar of Octopus

Dean Young’s latest collection of poems was published in April of this year, just days after he received a life-saving heart transplant. He currently holds the William Livingston Chair of Poetry at the University of Texas-Austin, and his 2005 collection Elegy on Toy Piano was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Fall Higher is the poet’s latest collection. Critics like to describe Young as a poet influenced by the New York School, a writer combining surrealism and experimentation. The poem below, “Changing Genres” is from Fall Higher. My particular attraction to the poem is its juxtaposition of love, the brief haiku form of seventeen syllables and thousand page novels in the vein of Dostoyevsky.


CHANGING GENRES

I was satisfied with haiku until I met you,
jar of octopus, cuckoo’s cry, 5-7-5,
but now I want a Russian novel,
a 50-page description of you sleeping,
another 75 of what you think staring out
a window. I don’t care about the plot
although I suppose there will have to be one,
the usual separation of the lovers, turbulent
seas, danger of decommission in spite
of constant war, time in gulps and glitches
passing, squibs of threnody, a fallen nest,
speckled eggs somehow uncrushed, the sled
outracing the wolves on the steppes, the huge
glittering ball where all that matters
is a kiss at the end of a dark hall.
At dawn the officers ride back to the garrison,
one without a glove, the entire last chapter
about a necklace that couldn’t be worn
inherited by a great-niece
along with the love letters bound in silk.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America