Saturday, June 30, 2012

Escape From Almost Alcatraz

Pandemonium too grand and a surfeit of people living loud and partying long, Friday morning found me skedaddling from my beachside haven to parts removed. Basket case pretty much describes my nerve jangled condition this past week, the beach starting to look like the place not to be—and with 4th of July festivities just over the horizon. In the words of my also frazzled neighbor, “Get out while the getting is good!” So I threw some gear in a bag and headed for Maitland, to my sister’s empty house fifty miles west where the blessed quiet has already begun restoring my sanity.

Last Saturday brought the invasion of a wedding party of fifty or sixty adults, who along with their beach trappings and wedding baggage all brought five children under the age of ten. By noon my quiet spot on the beach had morphed into Wet ’n Wild at high season. Loud disco music thumped from speakers set up around the pool, the water seethed with a mass of children and their water toys, while forty big-bellied men stood around pouring can after can of beer down the hatch. Others stood on their balconies having shouted conversations with people on opposite balconies across the wide courtyard. Over my head a child drummed on the balcony railing sending resonant vibrations through half the building. I looked out the window to see a plastic bottle of Coke tumbling down from a floor above, and when it hit the brick walkway and burst into a foaming spin, the waiting munchkin screeched in fury that his drink lay spilled on the ground. 

Heading out for a walk early Sunday morning, I found the shower and hose both spouting water, left to run all night, and nearby trash cans stuffed to overflowing with a ring of beer cans and pizza crust around the base, the oceanfront deck littered with cigarette butts, the sand off the front of the deck an oversized ashtray. On a table by steps leading down to the beach one of our guest clowns had arranged a spill of soggy corn chips into a plate-sized smiley face.

Later in the afternoon I watch a father playing catch with his six year-old son, throwing a football from his second floor balcony down to the boy at ground level. The ball bounced onto my patio two times before I said anything. Maybe I should learn to keep my mouth shut. With the pounding disco beat unbearably loud, I walked down to the pool to remind the Shake that Booty Dance Team that house rules disallowed music around the pool without earphones. I was almost attacked by a woman with three pounds of turquoise and silver attached to her navel, screaming, “I paid my money and I’m gonna have music, dammit!” The crowd in the pool shook their beer cans and hissed at me. The property manager was having a harder time of it than I was.

The mid-week wedding ceremony (seen from a distance) turned out to be a dusty pink eyesore. I had a feeling the wedding planner told the bridesmaids design didn’t much matter if their dresses were something close to pink. The only thing that matched were the beer cans.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Life of a Book

An article from NPR on Saturday reignited thoughts on the changing fate of printed books, leading me to wonder what will eventually become of my own carefully collected library of books. Some might question what the concern is, since I won’t be around to care one way or the other, but that thought does little to alter my hope that all the books I have lovingly collected over the years won’t end up discarded or destroyed. Likely it is a question that all book lovers ask in these days of e-book popularity, when Amazon sales of e-books are higher than their printed book sales, when the format is now available in a range of devices and when independent booksellers are fighting for the scraps. But this is not the point of the above mentioned NPR story, one that examines how books are passed on from one person to another, how lines of sharing and communication are often part of a book’s life, and how certain qualities—no matter the razzle-dazzle of technology—are untranslatable to the e-book’s metallic shell.

The first books of pages ‘bound’ inside two covers came to us from the Romans, and though each of the pages was handwritten, the package was at least in a shape close to what we know today. People had been writing and disseminating their words and thoughts for long years but the Roman codex gradually became the dominant form in the ancient world. The next great leap came with water-powered paper mills around 1282, replacing the labor intense handmade paper of China and Muslim cultures and increasing the production of paper. Paper-making centers multiplied in Italy especially and by the late thirteenth century paper was being made and sold at a fraction of earlier prices. Bookmaking entered the mechanical age in 1440 with Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, a shift that continued to lower the cost of printing as well as the price of books. By the mid-nineteenth century growing industrialization made it possible to print books faster, in greater quantities and with less labor. Mechanical typesetting made the process more efficient and efficient distribution of printed material by railroad put books into more hands. 

The span of years between then and now is about 150, a number long enough to imply an age or era and hint that we are on the verge of another radical shift in book production, book buying and the way we read. No doubt an exciting era of book publishing for many, one that has opened a door of opportunity to writers, publishers and retailers alike. The phenomenon will reap rewards (of whatever nature) for many people worldwide and will be added to the list of advances made possible by technology.

Even the most confirmed Luddite will have to admit to the benefits of reading brought by the advent of e-book technology. Denying the advantages of reading a book on Kindle, Nook or iPad might be described as flirting with masochism—like saying that cell phones are uniformly bad. Some of us could list half a dozen things that e-readers fail to do, but in the end it adds up to nit-picking. But wait, hold on, because there are an equal number of us who can wax poetic about the advantages of reading from a real book that requires actual page turning, doesn’t include a built-in dictionary, and can’t be downloaded at home in sixty seconds. There are after all, two sides to every question.

Real books are my passion, hardback first edition books, first printings, and if signed by the author, then it becomes a blessing increased. Books have an almost tactile heartbeat and warmth that invite the reader to value them as something more than the paper and price tag imply. Holding a book in my hands, savoring the feel of it in my lap, the sound of pages turning, the smell of ink and binding—all the sidelines that are the small relish of reading a book. Maybe I was fortunate years ago in a part-time job at the public library where I worked with people who respected books and who taught me much about the life of books. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred I will choose a hardback book over either a paperback or e-book. Children’s author Cornelia Funke said it eloquently… 
“Isn’t it odd how much fatter a book gets when you’ve read it several times? As if something were left between the pages every time you read it. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells…and then, when you look at the book again many years later, you find yourself there, too, a slightly younger self, slightly different, as if the book had preserved you like a pressed flower…both strange and familiar.”

Happy with my ten-pound hardback copies of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Stephen King’s 11/22/63, when I began reading each of the books, I sorely wished for e-book copies to save my overworked hands the pain of reading from leaden volumes. At other times I find the clarity of pages on my iPad unbeatable, and the sharpness of a Kindle in the noon glare of the beach amazing. And then there is always the price difference in an e-book and a hardback first edition. Good Louisiana friend R says it all in a word— “Convenience.” 

Hard to count the times I go back to a book to flip through the pages, look up a particular passage, or maybe just reacquaint myself casually with the feel or flavor of a certain book. Then, there is the increasing value of a book, especially one by an enduring author, even more if it’s a signed copy. Should the day come when you either want or need to sell a book, the rewards are going to be much higher for a printed book. The e-book in its nebulous digital lifetime offers no such return.

The NPR article describes a book given by an uncle to a nephew in 1898. The nephew died in 1945 and in the mid 1950s his wife passed the book on to her husband’s biographer. When the biographer died in 1966 the book passed on to his widow, who lived until March of this year. As her grandchildren sorted through her books, they came upon that old edition of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. It now rests on a shelf in the home of one of those grandchildren, author of the NPR article. I love stories like this but they make me wonder about the favorites among my own collection and where they might one day wind up. Hope is it will end up on a bookshelf somewhere where others can enjoy what it has to say.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Haunted Icon

Discovered in 1942 by press photographers during a World War II photo shoot at the Radioplane plant in California, Norma Jean Mortenson left her job to sign with a modeling agency, ultimately becoming the most beautiful woman in Hollywood’s pantheon of stars. According to her dressmaker, her classic shape measured 37-23-36. She was voted by People magazine the ‘sexiest woman of the century’ thirty-seven years after her death. Wherever she went, at home and abroad her presence caused riots. Marilyn Monroe made only thirty films but will forever be an icon in film history. She died in 1962 at the age of thirty-six, discovered in her bedroom on an August morning, nude and face down on the bed, a telephone clutched in one hand.

In 1957, at the invitation of Britain’s eminent Laurence Olivier, Marilyn made her first trip to London to star alongside Olivier in a film called The Prince and the Showgirl. It was a difficult time for both stars and the film ended up a disappointment. Though he had great difficulty working with the American star, Olivier didn’t hesitate to acknowledge the peculiar genius of his co-star. Like many before him, he was forced to admit that the camera was in love with Marilyn Monroe. One of those working on the film was a young man hired as a third assistant director, in reality little more than a gofer. His name was Colin Clark and over the difficult months of filming he became close to the star. He kept a diary of those months and later published a book titled The Prince, the Showgirl and Me. That book served as the basis of the 2011 Academy Award nominated film, My Week with Marilyn.

On-set troubles with Marilyn Monroe had been a problem for some years before her arrival in London. She had already been replaced in two films for failing to show up, and her chronic lateness was legendary. Another problem came in the shape of her ‘acting coach’ Paula Strasberg, who often interfered with the director’s work. In addition to the well-known emotional troubles the actress suffered, her intake of pills and alcohol was increasing. On the first day of filming for The Prince and the Showgirl, all these problems were in attendance. When the situation became untenable, the young gofer Colin Clark proved to be the one a haunted Marilyn turned to as confidant. 

With the support of two remarkable performances from Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh as Monroe and Olivier, director Simon Curtis has given us a beautiful film chronicling the story of the American star’s time in London. The director and his producers have created a film bristling with authenticity, and in fact, it was filmed on the same soundstage used for the 1957 picture. In addition to that, the house used for Marilyn’s residence was the very same one used originally. It is all a treat for the eyes, backed by a glorious soundtrack from Conrad Pope. The film’s theme is especially haunting, one composed by Frenchman Alexandre Desplat that Pope incorporated into his score. We are also treated to several numbers sung by Michelle Williams, including “That Old Black Magic” and “Heat Wave.”

In a period of filmmaking when bombs, bullets and CGI take precedence, it has become a rare treat to find a film showcasing a collaboration of good writing and directing, fine performances and beautifully conceived production design. My Week with Marilyn fits the bill perfectly.

I was so taken by the composer’s “Marilyn’s Theme” and the playing of Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang, I wasted no time searching out the film’s soundtrack CD. The YouTube clip below is one of Lang Lang playing “Marilyn’s Theme.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Japanese Manner Posters

A lot has been said about the politeness of the Japanese people. Not a reputation arbitrarily bestowed, it is still one that should be taken with a grain of salt. In a city the size of Tokyo, the hurly-burly of daily life, of getting from point A to point B and of moving in and out of unrelenting crowds all in a hurry, there are occasions aplenty when the last word that comes to mind is ‘polite.’ To be sure, the case is pretty much the same in any bustling metropolis where thousands of virtual strangers brush up against each other in the ever-cycling course of big city life. Certainly no one is going to pull a gun in the Tokyo trains and no one is going take the train hostage, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get your toes trampled, your seat taken and your nerves frayed by selfish behavior. It happens everywhere.

Since 1974 Tokyo Metro has tried to leaven the cooperation and behavior of city commuters by means of posters asking riders to observe certain guidelines toward making everyone’s experience on the train comfortable and stress-free. The practice now is to release a new poster each month emphasizing common behavioral problems, but just how long the once-a-month schedule has been in place is uncertain. The posters are much more prevalent today, posted in greater numbers in more locations, and very likely easier to grasp than some of the older traditional posters.

For the past couple of years Tokyo Metro has adopted a three-color scheme of yellow, black and white showing cartoon-like depictions of antisocial behavior subway riders should avoid doing. Examples include talking on cell phones, taking up extra room on crowded trains, putting on make-up, blocking the doorways and failing to give seats to the elderly and infirm. 

The older style posters while employing more sophisticated graphic techniques and offering a kind of enjoyable puzzle in making the ‘behavior’ connection, are designs less likely to work on Japan’s young population in the twenty-first century. Today everything must be clear in the 140 character mode of modern social networking. These days no one has time to look, read, ponder and slowly arrive at the point with an appreciation for how the idea was presented. 

The first three images below are examples of the newer Tokyo Metro Manner Posters, while the remaining five are from an earlier period, a time when commuters were more likely to take a moment to consider an eye-catching poster before getting the point.

Please refrain from drunken behavior.

Please refrain from putting on make-up in the train.

Please share the seat with others.

Please wait behind the white line.
This poster from May 1979 shows an image of sumo wrestlers teetering on a white line. The large black characters at the right are isami-ashi, literally ‘loss by stepping over the boundary.’ It serves as a reminder for passengers to stand safely behind the white line when waiting for the train. The small characters on the left read, ‘Please wait behind the white line.’

Please give your seat to the elderly and infirm.
I’ll Stand Up is from July 1979 and uses the comic character Uesugi Teppei from the popular manga Ore wa Teppei. With a shout of “Boku, tachimasu.” (I’ll stand up) he quickly stands, offering to give up his seat to the elderly and infirm.

Please do not smoke on the platform during designated non-smoking times.
A poster from January 1979 titled Coughing on the Platform is modeled after the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. Titled Hômu de Concon (coughing on the platform), the poster makes a play on the words concon (coughing sound) and cancan (French chorus line dance) and urges people not to smoke on the train platforms during the designated non-smoking hours. Today smoking is not allowed at any time inside train stations.

Please do not throw gum onto the platform or the floor of trains.
I Stepped in Gum is a poster from March 1980. The image of a cat stepping in gum is a playful twist on the popular children’s song Neko Funjatta (“I Stepped on a Cat”).

Please do not forget your umbrella when leaving the train.
Don’t Forget Your Umbrella from October 1981 is a reminder to riders not to forget their umbrella when leaving the train. The text at the top of this poster showing Jesus overwhelmed with umbrellas at the Last Supper reads Kasane-gasane no kami-danomi (literally “wishing to God again and again”). The artist is making a play on the words kasa (umbrella) and kasane-gasane (again and again).

Friday, June 8, 2012

Paradise Gets Wet

The elements having some time to themselves on Florida’s east coast. A day when people are not welcome, when we’re all glad for the glass between inside and out.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Watermelon What?

Probably a childish game but I sometimes enjoy asking others what one thing—book, tool, food, CD or movie—they would choose to have on a deserted island. Another question is something like, ‘If you could have only one dessert in the whole world, what would you choose?’ Asked what I would choose if there could be only one fruit from tomorrow onward, my answer without a moment’s hesitation would be, “Watermelon, watermelon and more watermelon.” Like many who line up for ice cream at Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s in the dead of winter, I could enjoy watermelon sitting on a snowbank.

Someone passed over to me a recipe last week, and as soon as I looked down and saw the name it quickly became something I wanted to try. The combination of three main ingredients struck me right off as a potentially delicious medley, and though unsure about a couple of other ingredients, it was still an enticing recipe and easy enough to modify if the first go-round turned out not quite right. One perennial favorite at meals is a salad, most often green with lettuce, tomato, cucumber and avocado. But those requirements are not strict and other types of salad occasionally find their way to my plate. The alternative below is both inexpensive and easy to prepare.

5 cups seeded watermelon cubes (approximately ¼ of a whole large melon)
3 large ripe tomatoes cut into bite-sized pieces.
½ medium red onion halved and thinly sliced
7-8 whole leaves of romaine lettuce
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
Cracked black pepper
Fresh mint for garnish

Combine the watermelon, tomato and red onion in a large bowl, sprinkle with salt and sugar and toss well. Allow to stand for about 15 minutes. Add the olive oil and vinegar and toss once more. Because the watermelon and tomatoes contain a lot of water, drain the excess off after the last mix. Cover and chill in the refrigerator at least an hour. Line a salad bowl with the romaine lettuce so that the leaves resemble the petals of a flower. Scoop the watermelon salad into the bowl with the lettuce providing a bed and border. Add some cracked black pepper, garnish with a sprig of fresh mint and serve. The amounts above will provide enough for 3-4 people, 5 if the servings are small.

Depending on appetite, the salad alone may be enough for lunch or a light dinner. I served it with cold roast chicken, the two together a bountiful meal. An especially good salad for a hot summer day—Bon appétit!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sandbars & Driftwood

Barefoot in the surf again on Sunday. The last few weeks have taught that a walk in ankle deep water offers a completely different perspective, lowers the heat factor by several degrees and takes the mind off time and distance. Tidal flow these past few days has created a long sandbar about twenty yards offshore, a swath of nearly submerged sand enclosed on either side by knee deep water. Constantly washed by the surf, it offers the perfect conditions for wading birds hunting small fish, and for the solitary shell collectors who meander among the pools and inlets. 

Summer is at our doorstep here on Florida’s east coast, a season when few could ask for a prettier or more felicitous environment. While schools are still in session the weekdays remain quiet and unruffled. Weekend crowds are still small, still manageable and arrive with their temporary dash of color and unthreatening ruckus. The days are still untroubled by the furor that comes in mid-June with a bombardment of families on holiday arriving with insatiable children and 200 pounds of beach equipment. For now, a few children romp in the pool, build sand castles and watch daddy fish, but hardly a number to dent the passage of golden days.

Not the avid shell collector, my walks on the beach are never an eyes-down search for the perfect specimen. That’s not to say that I amble along uncaring or blind to the possibilities of the unusual, and I do turn my attention to the curious shape or color half-buried in sand. By now, the dime-a-dozen examples that blanket the sand seven days a week go by unnoticed, but I am vigilant for a couple of the rarer shells or lifeforms. One favorite is something called a seaheart, and in my days here I’ve managed to find eleven of them, most often pulled from a tangle of seaweed. A dark brown tropical seed, they are carried to the ocean by freshwater streams and rivers, drifting on ocean currents and later washing up on distant shores. They float because they have an internal air pocket trapped by a hard outer covering on the bean.

Another hard-to-find favorite is the sand dollar, something that is commonly seen in broken pieces on the beach. These shattered remnants are part of the animal’s sun-bleached skeleton, minus its skin of tiny velvet-textured spines and small hairs. Only once have I come across a whole, unbroken sand dollar skeleton, and until Sunday had never found a living specimen. Conditions were right, and suddenly there at my feet, half buried in sand three inches underwater was a brownish-green sand dollar. From the moment I lifted it from the water I could feel the spines and tiny hairs moving in my hand. In spite of my fascination with a living sea creature I had never seen up close, underlying that feeling was a tinge of guilt at killing it by not returning it to the water.

The photo above shows a white sand dollar skeleton and the brown sand dollar picked up on Sunday. Along with it are two shells, a starfish and three small pieces of driftwood that caught my fancy on different walks.         

About Me

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