Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Make Mine Sanka

Somewhere back in the mists of time past hovers an image of me sitting on the brown tiled floor with my dog, Sabre, while parents and friends squabbled at a nearby card table over a game of bridge, a card game that I didn’t understand. I remember my mother saying that she was going to make a pot of coffee and Aunt Sadie calling out, “I can’t have any coffee this late, Annice Loyd, but I’ll take a cup of Sanka?”


Don’t drink Sanka, never did, but it’s a name that has stuck with me over a lifetime. Clearly another of those brand names that advertising engraved into the longterm memory of an impressionable child. Other Sanka memories include the Sunday after church lunches that our family enjoyed at the Piccadilly, which always included passing the tall stack of little orange Sanka packets arrayed beside the coffee urn just before reaching the cashier at the end of the line, a woman with a giant frilly handkerchief artfully folded and draped over one side of her blouse.


Sanka is one of the earliest brands of instant decaffeinated coffee. The story began in Bremen, Germany in 1903 with Dr Ludwig Roselius. Roselius searched for a way to remove caffeine from coffee without diluting the flavorful taste and aroma. With an odd-sounding technique of using brine-soaked coffee beans, he plunged them into the sea during a storm and ended up with beans that reacted differently to roasting. By 1906 he had developed a patented technique that removed ninety-seven percent of the caffeine without removing the flavor. Roselius started a coffee company called Kaffee HAG and introduced his new product in Europe. In France, the brand name became “Sanka,” derived from the French words sans caféine or ‘without caffeine.’ In 1923, Roselius introduced the product in the United States as Sanka coffee, founding the Sanka Coffee Corporation in New York. It was first offered in only two Sanka Coffee Houses in New York, but not long after made available for retail sale. Five years later, General Foods Corporation began distributing Sanka coffee and in 1932, purchased the Sanka Coffee Corporation.


In an intensive American advertising campaign in 1927 Sanka sponsored the Sanka After-Dinner Hour broadcasts heard on Tuesdays on New York’s WEAF. During the 1950s and early 60s Sanka was a sponsor of I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show on CBS television. It was also a sponsor of the The Goldbergs, where on many episodes Mrs Goldberg addressed the camera and speaking directly to the studio audience sang the praises of Sanka coffee. After her sales pitch she walked away from the window, and started the show.


With such promotion, Sanka became a nationwide sales success. The easily recognized bright orange label found its way into coffee shops around the country in the form of the decaf coffee pot. Coffee pots with a bright orange handle are a direct result of the American public’s association of the color orange with Sanka, regardless of the brand of decaf served.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Occasion for Grace

Editor and director of the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference since 1995, poet Michael Collier has long been an influential member of the writing and teaching community. About teaching poetry he has said, “I think poetry does have this ability to help us deal with things that aren’t black and white and make our thinking more subtle.” Collier is the author of five poetry collections and editor of three anthologies.


He grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, studied at Connecticut College and the University of Arizona and has received numerous awards for his poetry, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Thomas Watson Fellowship. From 2001 to 2004 he served as Maryland’s poet laureate. He has taught for many years at the University of Maryland, is married and the father of two sons.


Collier writes his poetry in a studio above the detached garage of a brown shingled home in Catonsville, Maryland. First drafts are hammered out on one of several old garage sale typewriters—a habit from youthful days in Phoenix. In recalling those years the poet says, “I remember very distinctly when writing became more than just keeping a diary and more than just trying to characterize an emotional state. There was a little bit of technological intervention." Collier received an electric typewriter as a graduation gift from his parents, a Royal typewriter and no doubt the result of an uncle working for the company. “Every day I would put a sheet of paper in it, and I would fill it up with words,” says Collier, recalling that he started without any kind of goal other than trying to fill a page every day, subject never important and never going back to revise. “It was the joy of feeling language come out on the page.”


The poem “Robert Wilson” first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in August of 1990 and was later included in the 1995 book of poems, The Neighbor. The story in the poem certainly has shades of being created from the poet’s own experience, possibly built upon a recollection of his high school days at Brophy College Preparatory.


ROBERT WILSON

Though he is dead now and his miracle
will do us no good, I must remind myself
of what he gave, plainly,
and without guile, to all of us on the crumbling
flood-gutted bank of the Verde River
as we watched him, the fat boy,
the last one to cross, ford the violent shallows.
And how we provided him the occasion for his grace
tying his black tennis shoes to a bamboo fishing pole
and dangling them, like a simple bait,
out of reach, jerking them higher each time he rose
from his terrified crouch in the middle
of the shin-high rapids churning beneath him,
like an anger he never expressed.
And yet what moved us was not his earnestness
in trying to retrieve his shoes, nor his willingness
to be the butt of our jokes. What moved us
was how the sun struck the gold attendance star
pinned on the pocket flap of his uniform
as he fell head first
into the water and split his face,
a gash he quickly hid with his hands,
though blood leaked through his fingers as he stood
straight in the river and walked deftly toward us
out of the water to his shoes
that lay abandoned at our feet.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

From Montana to London

Montana-born artist Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890–1954) ranks as one of the most significant designers of the twentieth century, noted for his avant garde graphic design and poster art. With long years of living in London, connections to the artistic avant-garde in Britain and France put Kauffer at the forefront of developments in the visual language of advertising during the 1930s. Retrospective exhibitions of the artist’s work have been held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Two airbrush illustrations from the 1930 book, World Polity in 2030; both illustrations show the artist working in the style of vorticism which favored machine-like forms.


A Lithograph titled Cricketer done in 1923


By the age of twenty Kauffer was living in San Francisco and studying art at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute. Through connections at the Art Institute, Professor Joseph McKnight of the University of Utah became aware of Kauffer and his work and chose to sponsor the young artist, paying for further study in Paris. In gratitude, Kauffer took his sponsor’s name as his own middle name.


Flea; Lithograph done in 1926 for the London Underground


Before leaving for Paris Kauffer studied briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago. While there he attended the much heralded Armory Show which introduced post-modernism to American audiences. The exhibition had a major impact on Kauffer, and many of the same styles showed up in his later career. He arrived in Paris in 1913 and studied at the Académie Moderne until 1914. He moved to London with the start of the World War, and remained there for the next twenty-six years. After only a year in London he had already become an extremely influential designer of posters, theatre costume, exhibition designs, murals, book illustrations, carpets and textiles. He and his wife-to-be Marion Dorn, also a designer, were a dynamic, glamorous couple in London’s art scene.


On the left is a lithograph from 1924 for Eno’s Fruit Salt; the right shows a lithograph for Gilbey’s Invalid Port done in 1933.


Kauffer is perhaps best known for the posters he produced for London Underground, and later London Transport. Those posters span a number of styles: many show abstract influences that include futurism, cubism, and vorticism, while others evoke the impressionist influence of Japanese woodcuts.


One in a series of illustrations done in 1946 for a 2-volume set on Edgar Allan Poe


The Lodger, 1926; tempura on paper


The artist returned to New York City in 1940 and sought work in advertising. He managed a few jobs designing posters for war relief agencies and the United Nations, but the atmosphere of the New York art world at the time was highly competitive and Kauffer struggled until 1947 when he was asked to do a series of posters for American Airlines. The airline continued to be his primary client until his death in 1954.


1931 lithograph, You Can Be Sure of Shell

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hachioji Triangle House

Smallness is a quality that can be enjoyed. It is also a quality that in architecture can turn into spare beauty on a human scale. Geography has always played some part in Japanese building, with space a constant consideration because of the narrowness of the country, within which large areas are mountainous and unsuitable for building. Japanese architects, especially in modern times have taken this limitation as a challenge and arrived at solutions that turn smallness into highly livable and innovative housing.


The photographs below are from Space: Japanese Design Solutions for Compact Living by Michael Freeman. The house pictured is in the Tokyo suburb of Hachioji, built on a steep slope right at the limits of practicality in an architectural sense. It is situated on a narrow access road too steep for vehicles, one that also serves several other conventional dwellings. Architects Akira and Andrea Hikone wanted to avoid leveling the ground because of the greater limitations that would impose. They decided to experiment with a shape that would fit the ground rather than fight the slope. They call it a triangular section.


This photograph shows a view of the exterior from the rear looking downhill. The town of Hachioji is downhill on the right.


A double bedroom for the two boys, who enjoy its den-like atmosphere. Several skylights set into the sloping roof make the space bright and airy. Not visible is a glass facade extending up from the ground creating maximum enjoyment of the view overlooking Hachioji.


The living room downstairs faces out through that same double-height glass facade.


A view of the kitchen and dining area looking out onto a back garden


Take a look at another clever use of space in a backyard soy barrel house in Ibaraki, Japan.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Heavy on the Mayo

As a schoolboy it wasn’t uncommon to return from school hungry and make myself a mayonnaise sandwich, two pieces of Sunbeam white bread slathered with mayonnaise washed down with a glass of milk. These days mayonnaise isn’t a regular ingredient on my plate, but along with mustard, I do keep a bottle in the refrigerator for those times when a visiting friend wants it on a sandwich, or a recipe calls for it. Despite my own take it or leave it attitude, and the so-called war against obesity, America is a country where good and bad cholesterol numbers are tossed about with the same frequency as Kim Kardashian’s problems, and where mayonnaise defies any trend toward healthy eating. As someone said, it’s the glue of salads and celebrations. Whether it’s full strength mayo, fat-free, low-fat, soy-based, organic, trans-fat-free or flavored, supermarkets are stacked with mayonnaise choices, and shoppers are emptying the shelves.


Mayonnaise began its spread around the world in the town of Mahón on the small island of Minorca off the coast of Spain. In its earliest form it was a simple condiment made of raw egg yolk and olive oil which the natives of Mahón called salsa mahonesa in Spanish and maonesa in Catalan. While expelling the British from Minorca in 1756 the French general Armand de Vignerot du Plessis sampled the salsa mahonesa of Mahón and liking it, took the recipe back to France.


French chefs adopted this sauce of Mahón as a high quality condiment and renamed it mahonnaise. By 1823 it was in use in England and had also spread to America where it was viewed as a French sauce difficult to prepare. The invention of an electric mixer solved much of that problem, and it was also made more popular by the spread of inexpensive bottled dressings. Richard Hellman was a German-born delicatessen owner in Manhattan who realized that there was a market for what had by then become mayonnaise. His wife’s recipe for ready-made mayonnaise was already a popular condiment in the deli, even sold in scoops for take out. This popularity led to Hellman selling it in bulk to other stores. He built a factory in 1912 and began producing and selling Hellman’s Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise in one-pound wooden “boats.” A year later he began packaging his mayonnaise in large glass jars. An increase in the popularity of cole slaw as a side dish is closely connected to Hellman’s Mayonnaise. The business was so successful that in 1917 he closed his delicatessen to devote himself full time to the mayonnaise business.


Known as Best Foods west of the Rocky Mountains, Hellman’s is the leading US mayonnaise brand with over fifty percent of the market share. As of September 2010, Hellmann’s accounted for 31.8 percent of the nearly $1.3 billion US mayonnaise market, with total sales of $401,204,800.


Oleg Zhornitskiy is a man who loves his mayonnaise and currently holds the world record for competitive mayonnaise eating—four 32 ounce bowls in eight minutes.


The postcard above is one from 1932 advertising Japanese Kewpie Mayonnaise.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Velveeta & Beer

A portion of the days around here include an unavoidable wandering between staggered piles of books, an on-purpose arrangement that maintains a desired curiosity about what book is where. Nothing follows alphabet, subject or author. Books are stashed in random places that often end with a Mexican cookbook nestled up to Emily Dickinson. The way I want it, and a system that keeps daily browsing off-balance and unpredictable. The unpredictable on Wednesday was a poem from the usually astonishing ‘gathering’ of Garrison Keillor. I can only imagine that Keillor spends an hour or two each day perusing poetry collections with the aim of finding work that brings the genre another step closer to the average reader, searching for poems that make a daunting form more approachable. Mentioned once before perhaps, but surely deserving of a repeat: Treat yourself to a reading of the Introduction in Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times.


Ronald Wallace is the author of twelve books that include poetry collections, short stories and literary criticism. His latest is the 2008 poetry collection, For a Limited Time Only. He is the founder and co-director of the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is Felix Pollak Professor of Poetry and Halls-Bascom Professor of English. He lives on a 40-acre farm in Richland County, Wisconsin.


“Fat of the Land,” the poem below, is taken from Wallace’s 1991 book of poems, The Making of Happiness. It is also found in the Garrison Keillor anthology, Good Poems American Places. Wallace’s poem abounds with words that play off the American penchant for piled plates, large sizes and the effects of it all. From cornucopia to Velveeta to triple chins he paints a picture of ‘one big happy family’ living on the fat of the land and comfortable in their loving likeness and ‘love’s large company.’


THE FAT OF THE LAND

Gathered in the heavy heat of Indiana,

summer and 102°, we’ve come from

all over this great country,

one big happy family, back from

wherever we’ve spread ourselves to thin.

A cornucopia of cousins and uncles, grand-

parents and aunts, nieces and nephews, expanding.

All day we laze on the oily beach;

we eat all the smoke-filled evening:

shrimp dip and crackers,

Velveeta cheese and beer,

handfuls of junk food, vanishing.

We sit at card tables, examining

our pudgy hands, piling in

hot fudge and double chocolate

brownies, strawberry shortcake and cream,

as the lard-ball children

sluice from room to room.

O the loveliness of so much loved flesh,

the litany of split seams and puffed sleeves,

sack dresses and Sansabelt slacks,

dimpled knees and knuckles, the jiggle

of triple chins. O the gladness

that only a family understands,

our fat smiles dancing

as we play our cards right.

Our jovial conversation blooms and booms

in love’s large company, as our sweet

words ripen and split their skins:

mulberry, fabulous, flotation,

phlegmatic, plumbaginous.

Let our large hearts attack us,

our blood run us off the scale.

We’re huge and whole on this simmering night,

battened against the small skinny

futures that must befall all of us,

the gray thin days and the noncaloric dark.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Plastic Pigtails

Among a gathering of friends and family on a rooftop garden in Tokyo, with strains of “Ave Maria” playing in the background, Tomohiro Shibata and Satoko Inoue exchanged wedding vows—not under the blessing of pastor or priest, but before the flashing eyes and plastic pigtails of I-Fairy, a robot made by Kokoro. For some years now people around the world have been getting married while skydiving, in underwater ceremonies performed in scuba tanks, and in ceremonies with hundreds of bridal couples, but newlyweds Tomohiro and Satoko achieved a first in tying the knot with a robot at the helm.


Once again the innovative Japanese have taken a concept to the next level with the help of technology. First it was the K-LRMCD kiss transmission device for long distance kissing, and now we have another machine performing weddings. Could it happen anywhere else but Japan? The I-Fairy is a four-foot tall wedding robot in the form of a seated, and vaguely feminine humanoid with a head adorned in flowers and ribbons. The feminine aspect is boosted by the robot’s female voice as ‘she’ conducts the service.


The I-Fairy robot’s autonomy is impressive, but in the case of weddings, an engineer out of sight in the wings operates a keyboard to ensure a smooth ceremony. It is pre-programmed with scripted words and actions that it carries out during the service. To date, Kokoro has produced five of the I-Fairy robots and sold two of them.


The wedding couple were a natural choice for electronic nuptials. The groom is an associate professor in the Theoretical Life-Science Lab at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, and his bride is an employee at Kokoro, the company making I-Fairy robots. For her part, Satoko was more than satisfied with the decision to put her wedding in the hands of her company’s android, declaring after the wedding: “This was a lot of fun. Japanese have a strong sense that robots are our friends and hopefully our actions set a precedent for spreading the use of robots in Japanese society.” For his part, Tomohiro said, “It’s true that robots are what brought us together, and as suggested by my wife, we decided that we wanted to try this sort of wedding. It would be nice if the robot were a bit more clever, but she is very good at expressing herself.”


For anyone interested in opening a robot wedding chapel, you can have one of Kokoro’s robots for $81,000.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Norwegian Wood

Last week in the bookstore I came across a new release of Haruki Murakami’s 1987 groundbreaking novel Norwegian Wood. The book was first translated into English by Alfred Birnbaum in 1989, but in a style intended for Japanese students of English. A second translation in 2000 by Jay Rubin, is now the authorized version for publication outside Japan, Vintage International in the US and Harvill Press in the UK. The new Vintage edition I found last week was released in conjunction with a film adaptation of the book directed by Tran Anh Hung and released in Japan in 2010. The film stars Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi and Kiko Mizuhara and was nominated for a Golden Lion award at the 67th Venice International Film Festival.


Haruki Murakami, the book’s 63 year-old author is Japan’s superstar of postmodern literature whose publishing numbers continue to shatter records. Since it was first published, Norwegian Wood has sold more than ten million copies in Japan alone, and has further been read by millions of people around the world in more than thirty languages. The book’s success affected the author in unexpected ways. “It became a phenomenon. It wasn’t a book any more. I didn’t want to be famous. I felt betrayed. I lost some of my friends. I don't know why but they left. I was not happy at all.” He reacted by leaving Japan, spending time in Europe and later taking a teaching position at Princeton. He was in his late forties when in 1995 he finally returned to live in Japan.


Norwegian Wood is a coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of Tokyo in the 1960s. Murakami’s focus is mainly on the bohemian and alienated, those who rejected the conformity and self-sacrifice that contributed to the country’s increased standard of living. To a great extent Norwegian Wood defines the 1960s generation of Japanese—first to enjoy the country’s newly found affluence. The protagonist and narrator is Toru Watanabe, who looks back on his rather melancholy days as a university student living in Tokyo in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at a time when he formed relationships with two very different young women. For readers around the world who’ve never been to Japan, the book offers a detailed view of Tokyo as it was in those days.


During high school, Toru, his friend Kizuki, and Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko are good friends. Their friendship is interrupted by the suicide of Kizuki on his 17th birthday. Their friend’s death touches both Toru and Naoko deeply and the two spend more and more time together. Eventually their relationship verges on something like love and on the night of Naoko’s 20th birthday, they sleep together for the first time. Shortly after their night together Naoko leaves Toru a letter explaining that she needs some time apart, that she is quitting college to enter a sanatorium near their hometown. After some time has passed and Toru has yet to hear from Naoko, he befriends a girl named Midori, a fellow classmate. Despite the love for Naoko, Toru finds himself attracted to Midori as well. The feeling is mutual and the friendship with Midori grows during Naoko’s absence. In time, Toru visits Naoko in the sanatorium and is moved by his talk with her and knowing her as never before. Something happens that changes Toru and…

Further details of the story I will leave open-ended, unwilling to spoil the story for those interested in reading the book.


For readers unfamiliar with Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood is the perfect choice for sampling Japan’s most popular writer. In this novel Murakami hadn’t yet begun his experiments with magic realism and there are no odd characters or talking cats to figure out and put meaning to. That isn’t to say that the later work incorporating magic realism is anything to steer away from. However Haruki Murakami chooses to tell a story the result is masterful.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Vogue

Over the years a few Madonna CDs have found their way to my shelves, and memorable among the two or three is the 1990 release, I’m Breathless. It sticks in mind because of one particular song on the album, “Vogue,” which is a standout on the CD, but comes blazing to life in the video made by director David Fincher, in which he (and Madonna) pays homage to several golden era Hollywood actresses. Shot in black and white the style is all 1920s and 30s. It has been ranked as one of the greatest music videos of all time in different critics’ lists and polls, and won three awards at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards out of a total nine nominations.


The song and video release became hugely popular and people in dance clubs everywhere were doing what they called ‘vogueing,’ a graceful style of dance using the hands and arms, struts and model-like poses of angular, linear movements. True enough to say that super pop star Madonna gave a boost to this type of dancing, but it did not originate with her or her concert choreographers. Vogueing is a dance that began with the Harlem ballroom scene of the 1960s.


Originally called “presentation” it later became “performance” and grew out of the dance of Black and Latino Americans in Harlem. The original vogue dancers were flamboyant drag queens in elaborately sequined gowns, strutting and posing like models out of Vogue magazine. Madonna was inspired by vogue dancers and choreographers Jose and Luis Xtravaganza from the Harlem “House Ball.” They introduced “Vogueing” to her at the New York club, Sound Factory. Use of the word ‘house’ to designate the different cliques of vogue dancers grew out of their attraction to the big couture houses like Dior and Saint Laurent. In essence, the dance was a way of imitating the jet set’s beautiful people and front page fashion models.


Jennie Livingston’s award winning 1991 documentary film Paris is Burning documents the origins of this dance movement and Livingston described the dancers as “…people excluded from the mainstream in every way, yet their whole subculture was based on imitating the very people who were excluding them.” It was a gay subculture of grand balls, flashy gowns and couture houses.



Madonna - Vogue by zocomoro

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Snap, Snarl, Go to Hell

Now what could bring a person to act like that?

Not the first post written about HOA problems, and what draws me back to the subject is the realization that uncomplimentary behavior is the identifying mark of too many property owners looking to sound off about their opinions in a tidal wave of recrimination aimed at elected Board members, and anyone else who gets in the way. Not much different from the name calling that characterizes Washington politics.

Since my term of office on the HOA Board of Directors expired, and running for election a second time the last thought in my mind, staying away from Board meetings has been the norm. On a couple of occasions something on the agenda has drawn me back, but only for a portion of the meeting time. A full length HOA meeting no longer fits into the lifestyle I would describe as temperate. Some people enjoy conflict, enjoy trading nasty comments, the gnashing of teeth and the less than circumspect baring of naked emotion. Unfortunately, in the case around here, it continues to be one contingent against another, old Board members trying to force their way of thinking onto new Board members; unelected candidates aggressively trying to find a place on the decision-making panel.


Flush in the middle of a scenic paradise seethes a grumbling and backbiting among people who apparently have little else to do with their time. But no, let me amend that. There are also those who have no idea what’s going on, never read communications from the Manager’s Office and or the Board, and rarely show a face except for the rare appearance at a Board meeting to indulge in some browbeating and goading. These are people Dracula would see coming and turn around to go the other way.

Everyone has an opinion and certainly when conditions allow, it’s satisfying to see policy or plans settled in agreement with your opinion. If things don’t happen to work out in your favor, then why not accept it graciously and hope that the decision you opposed doesn’t turn out badly? Why work behind people’s backs with insinuating email and endless repetition of the bad in settled decisions? What kind of person writes nasty letters, leaves them unsigned and mails them out to the membership?

Thinking about running for the Board of your HOA? I would suggest instead a tall glass of hemlock. It would be less trouble.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gag Shop Stamps

Outside of some defunct addresses, you never know what thumbing through an old address book is going to turn up. Looking for a misplaced postcard in a drawer with old letters, I came across a small brown leather notebook that was my address book sometime in the mid-90s. I forgot about the errant postcard and spent the next twenty minutes looking over the old names and addresses. A good many of the people in that brittle old notebook are listed today in another updated book, but a few pages show names I look at now and wonder where they are these days.


The address book has a pocket on the inside cover for tucking slips of paper, namecards or whatever, and halfway looking through the old addresses I felt the thickness of something pushed out of sight in the bottom of the pocket. What I pulled out was a madcap blast from the past, a handful of ‘stamps’ purchased in a Los Angeles gag shop during the time I lived there years ago. Yellowed, stuck together, frayed and torn, the stamps are head shots of totally ordinary and anonymous American faces with weird, funny or outrageous captions below the pictures. Big risk that someone will find these gag stamps offensive, or perhaps insulting to contemporary people with similar looks. It’s my guess that nobody ever intended insult or injury.


Disregarding the captions, something about the faces reminds me of company advertising back in the 1950s, old photos of company sales staff or bank officers the kind sometimes seen printed on calendars or in brochures.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Dreaming Chickens

A couple of days ago mention was made here of a new book recently brought home. In December of last year Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released a small but beautiful book of “stories” by Lou Beach titled 420 Characters: Stories. The catch is, each of the stories in this book of 176 pages is limited to 420 characters, including letters, spaces and punctuation. They were each written as a status update on the author’s Facebook page.


Facebook status updates and numbers aside, the format of 420 Characters is jet fuel to a longtime personal attraction for a couple of reasons. It started with the discovery of an even shorter format in the style of Japanese haiku, a type of poem impressive for its three lines of seventeen syllables sparsely hinting at an unvoiced thought. There always seems to be more to it, that the reader is being encouraged to participate in filling in blanks toward the creation of a bigger picture. And then Nobel Laureate Kawabata Yasunari produced over the years a collection of stories ultimately called Palm of the Hand Stories. Most of those stories are a page long, the longest no more than three, and like the traditional haiku form, emphasize the power of reduced words in calling the reader to greater participation.


Lou Beach is in the same stream of style. Like the haiku poets he gives himself a goal of pitching a tiny story into its greatest arc within the space of 420 characters. Kirkus Reviews described Beach’s stories as: An adroit experiment that marries linguistic restraint to literary cool.’ Within the small space prescribed, Beach writes about criminals, bimbos, animals, small town girls, divorcées, sentient objects and two dozen others acting out their moments in a mini-world that fronts for something much wider, much deeper. The reader jumps from the surreal to the lyrical, to the puzzling and bizarre, and then suddenly back to chickens who smoke cigarettes. Beach has such color and tone in his tiny palette of possibles that the reader is alternately dazzled, bumped, soothed and then slapped in the face by these stories that take up no more than a third of the page.


Lou Beach is an artist/illustrator, and now with the publication of 420 Characters: Stories, a writer. He passed his early years in Rochester, New York until the 60s led him to California where he has lived ever since, happily married to photographer Issa Sharp, with two children, a dog, a cat, a backyard full of cactus and an orange tree. Asked about himself, Beach says…“I was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, killed me a bear when I was only three. No, wait..I was born in Germany of Polish parents, came to the US when I was only four, spent my youth in Rochester, New York, riding my bike, building snow forts, throwing chestnuts at the kid down the street. I was a fair student, no great shakes, disappointing several teachers by not realizing my “full potential.” Higher education was a two-year community college affair followed by a year of night school at a state university. I did not graduate or learn much (in class).


Below are five of the stories from 420 Characters.


‘The gunnysack hangs from the pommel, full of sparked ore. I let Shorty sip from the stream, long neck arching in the sun. There is a ghost in the cottonwood I sit under to reread your letters. It tries to sniff the pressed flowers you sent from the garden in Boston, but the scent is gone. The petals and paper, envelope, all smell like campfire now.’

‘Cheap and gaudy as jellybeans, hard as a jawbreaker. Candy Nelson sat on the bench in front of Jessups Hardware, filing her nails. Discomfited by yet another yeast infection, she crossed and uncrossed her legs, finally just opened them like a book, displaying to the illiterate Luther Choate, driving by, a page from heaven, causing him to lose control of his pickup and run over a red hound that was crossing the road.’

‘The nurse left. Ann’s eyes were closed so I dumped her meds into my shirt pocket, snapped it shut. I looked around the room, put her laptop in my backpack. I leaned over to give her a goodbye peck on the forehead. She smelled like her next bath was going to be in the Ganges. Her eyes flew open, she grabbed my wrist and said: “Ronnie, give me a smoke.”’

‘FOR-EV-UH. She had it tattooed in a little arc over her left boob, like a military patch. She’d punch me in the arm, punctuate each syllable, leave a blue mark. Told me that’s how long her love would last, shouted it out. After a few months she seemed distant, took off one night for Tulsa with the drummer from a hair band. I went to Skin’N’Ink, asked Mooney if he could make me a tattoo of a bruise, put it up on my arm.’

‘“Are you my mommy?” said the little blue egg. “No, dear. You are a plastic trinket full of sweets,” said the brown hen. “My baby is over there,” and she pointed to a pink marshmallow chick being torn apart and devoured by a toddler. The hen screamed and woke up, her pillow wet with sweat, the sheets twisted around her legs. “Christ, I hate that dream.” She reached for a smoke.’

420 Characters: Stories is a book that could be on anyone’s ‘Best’ list.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hairy Little Fingers

One of the several things missed about Tokyo evenings is going out after work with a couple or three friends to a favorite izakaya. Apparently izakaya restaurants are popping up here and there even in Florida. Sushi bars and karaoke bars are not hard to find anywhere in the US these days, but I wonder if the traditional Japanese izakaya is something that will bridge the gap. An izakaya, a restaurant serving traditional homestyle dishes is identified by an aka-chôchin (red lantern) hanging over the restaurant’s front door and more often than not a noren curtain in the doorway. Passing through the noren, the first sound is a blast of welcome from several employees shouting, “Irasshaimase!” In the next instant the senses are overcome by a cacophony of laughter, shouted orders, a blast of old enka music, a rattle of plates and scrape of chairs. Pretty secretaries and handsome young businessmen red faced with the effects of beer lounge at tables on one side, while a tilting group of older men toast each other with glasses of whiskey nearby. A waiter races past with a plate of nikujaga, a traditional stew of meat, onion, carrots and potatoes. Here comes another with plates of kawa-ebi (river shrimp) and pickled vegetables. The delight of eating in an izakaya is in the discovery of a new taste, a recipe special to that one restaurant and the relish of eating from half a dozen or more small dishes. Grilled smelt here, over there a bowl of chilled tôfu bean curd, octopus with hot green mustard, a platter of raw oysters…


About an hour outside of Tokyo, in the town of Utsunomiya is an izakaya that features two monkeys ‘working’ as waiters. The area around Utsunomiya has its share of mountains and in those mountain live quite a few macaque monkeys. The owner of Kayabuki decided to turn the monkey angle into a theme. At his izakaya two monkeys, Fukuchan and Yacchan, bring hot towels to guests and help out in other small ways. Fukuchan, the female of the pair is dressed up in a woman’s mask and wig and in all truth looks just a little creepy. With encouragement from the master, Fukuchan and Yacchan will deliver bottles of beer, take bills with the money and return with change and perform a few other simple tasks. They are encouraged by the tips they get from customers in the form of edamame (boiled soy beans).


Because I never had the pleasure of eating at Kayabuki, stories of “monkey business” have to be taken as reported. For some customers the cute simian help sometimes crosses the line into bad behavior when the master is occupied elsewhere. One or two diners have complained of being slapped by Fukuchan, nipped on the finger by Yacchan and burglarized by both. Apparently their desires sometimes reach beyond a measly soy bean. But for those who suspect the animals are being mistreated, it may offer some comfort to know that their ‘work’ schedule is monitored and they are allowed only two hours a night on duty.


I love a good izakaya, but don’t fancy monkey fingers in my dinner plate. Color me picky.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Random Book Babble

Despite the wide open spaces surrounding my four walls here on the edge of America, a familiar closing in kind of mood crept up yesterday, signaling that a few hours escape to Daytona was in order, a drive to help blow away the metaphoric cobwebs. Daily views around home are unfailingly those of distant vistas, panoramic swaths of deep blue and sandy white and people at either at rest or play. Infrequently it’s good to get away from a day of losing oneself in cloud formations and sandy sculptures, to jump into the liveliness of people hustling about their daily work or on errands in crowded shops and streets.


All that is probably just an excuse for me to spend some time in the big Barnes & Noble store in Daytona. I tried a temporary fix the other day by visiting the local Bookland store (a small bookstore owned by Books A Million), but it’s the mini-stop of bookstores and more often than not a waste of time, a useless placebo for book junkies. So it was off to Daytona and the big B&N.


The past two weeks have been a designated re-read period for me, and while keeping up with what’s new on bookstore shelves and in related newsletters, focus has been more on a second look at three books read over the last few years. Not an unusual plan, being one who enjoys returning to a book after a passage of years, this time it was a Julia Glass book from 2002, Three Junes, Haruki Murakami’s novel, Kafka on the Shore (2002) and Edward Rutherfurd’s 2009 historical novel, New York. As it happened, a pre-ordered new release arrived in my mailbox and I squeezed it in between the Murakami and Rutherfurd books; that was Michael Connelly’s latest, The Drop.


Three Junes is a book I would recommend to anyone unreservedly—a fine, fine book. The wonder and skill of Murakami’s latest book 1Q84 is precisely what sent me back to his earlier Kafka on the Shore. Another one to recommend without hesitation. Before the third book on my reread list, I took a couple of days to work my way through the latest Michael Connelly featuring his long established Los Angeles detective, Harry Bosch. Such economic writing from Connelly, not a wasted word or phrase that doesn’t propel his story. Stories about New York, be they old, fictional, historical, contemporary or non-fictional are right down my line. I have always liked the epic books of Edward Rutherfurd and his 2009 book, New York is another historical novel, surpassingly picturesque and studded with fascinating facts concerning the city’s development.


Tuesday in Barnes & Noble was rewarding as usual. There was really only one book on my mind as I entered the store, but you know how that goes. Read the other day on NPR an excerpt of the new Alan Bennett book Smut, and was hoping to lay my hands on that. Took some digging but it was there between two distracting stacks on an out-of-the-way table. On a nearby shelf I came across a book unheard of, unmentioned, or at least in my world; a small 2011 hardback release by Lou Beach titled 420 Characters: Stories. The first thing that caught my eye was a quote from Jonathan Lethem: “Holy sh*t! These are great!” Each of the stories is limited to 420 characters, including letters, spaces and punctuation. Sound familiar? They we're each written as a status update on the author’s Facebook page. One example…

‘The storm came over the ridge, a rocket dropped rain like bees, filled the corral with water and noise. I watched lightning hit the apple trees and thought: “Fritters!” as we packed sandbags against the flood. There was nowhere to go that wasn’t wet, the squall had punched a hole in the cabin roof and the barn was knee-high in mud. We’ll bury Jess later, when the river recedes, before the ground turns hard again.’

That’s it; the end. A haiku-like story that leaves the reader to fill in the blanks.


The last was a totally unexpected find, a new release of Haruki Murakami’s popular 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood. I read this book at the time of it’s first release when I was living in Japan, a time when Murakami was still undiscovered outside of Japan. Since reading 1Q84 I have been thinking again of this and other Murakami books. The new release is in conjunction with the release of a new movie version of the novel. It is a Japanese production, but has been released outside of Japan recently.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Master Architect’s Home

Some might call A. Hays Town the premier southern architect of the twentieth century, but while that may be the case, too few outside of architects and Louisiana natives are familiar with the name. My own introduction to Town and his work was boosted by my growing up in Baton Rouge, where the sight of his designs was not rare. I can even add that my father worked at a lumber mill that did the millwork for most Hays Town designs, and my aunt worked for years as his personal secretary. But teenagers have other things on their mind and take little notice of architecture. It is my regret that I never took advantage of proximity to gain better understanding of a major architect. As Cyril E. Vetter writes in The Louisiana Houses of A. Hays Town, ‘Like jazz and jambalaya, Hays Town’s houses contribute to the sui generis nature of Louisiana life.’ The distinct nature of Louisiana life is clear, but I missed a valuable part of it in those youthful years when architecture was overlooked by young eyes mostly interested in fun. Though a couple of weeks late, think of the photographs below as commemoration of the architect’s death in January 2005, age 101.


Mr Town often recommended that clients supplement his design with a dog, preferably a German shepherd.


The photo above shows a view across the front lawn of the A. Hays Town home on Stanford Avenue in Baton Rouge. Since the architect’s death it has been the home of his son, A. Hays Town Jr. Stanford Avenue is located in an old section of Baton Rouge near Louisiana State University, and the house is diagonally across the street from one of two lakes. Not visible in this photograph is the second story located farther toward the back of the house.


In this photograph, looking through a brick arch we see into the backyard and garden. Directly in front is a small outbuilding used as a toolshed. The pigeonnier in the left background serves to evoke an earlier time. The architect added a pigeonnier to a number of his designs, but the homeowners most often used them for storage.


This offers a look at the back patio and a worktable with rocker under the deep gallery. From this view it is easy to see how the architect used native crepe myrtle trees to add twisted lines among the straight lines and angles within the patio.


Through the archway at the end of the patio above are again the irregular branches of crepe myrtle, this time framing another small outbuilding. The walls are made of crisscrossed lath and serve to house a statue. Notice the green algae growing on weathered gray roof shingles—illustration of how Mr Town incorporated the effects of nature into his design.


The photograph here shows two sets of antique doors the architect found while traveling in France. He shipped them home and installed them opposite each other across a hallway.


We see in this photo what the architect called the “morning room” with its window wall providing a sight line to a small statue outside.


Many might consider the study to be the most beautiful room in the house. A note about the artwork: All of the artwork in the house—a quite valuable collection—is carefully guarded by temperature control as well as protection from direct sunlight.


This photograph gives a look into the “Spanish room” which Mr Town added on to the house in the 1970s. He used it primarily as a home office for client meetings.


This offers a glimpse of the formal living room, and very likely a room not often used except on the occasion of parties and other gatherings. There is a formality, unmistakably a beautiful formality, but one that doesn’t encourage relaxed living.


Other views of A. Hays Town designs can be found here, here and here.

About Me

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