Wednesday, June 30, 2010

One Man’s View

Not one who can be counted among soccer fans, more often than not soccer news, World Cup or otherwise doesn’t color my day. But I saw in the news this morning that Japan lost to Paraguay in the best sixteen series of the World Cup. Can’t really say that such news brought me down, but it did make me wish the result had been different. Seems I’m on another missing Japan low and waxing nostalgic about most things of my longtime home.

With my mind on ‘the good old days’ I spent a few minutes looking through one of my books illustrating and describing the Japan of old. It might have been better had my hand fallen on a different book, because in looking again at The Japan Diaries of Richard Gordon Smith, I opened it to a page that immediately raised my ire. The back flap of the book’s cover makes no pretense of hiding the author’s attitudes toward his host country and states, ‘His views may be chauvinistic, even racist at times, but he was a man of his time, proud to be British and not afraid to express strong opinions.’ You have to read a little deeper to learn that as a young man he failed his exams and was forced to derive his income from the family’s business investments, and though not actually rich, never had to work for a living. This left him free to pursue his real interests—fishing and shooting.

Gordon Smith first arrived in Japan in late December of 1898. He returned to England several times, but spent most of his days in Japan until spring of 1907. There is little doubt that his “Ill-Spelled Diaries” offer a wealth of fascinating observations and odd facts about the country, and his name deserves to be remembered as one of Japan’s early archivists. There were few places he was reluctant to go, few experiences he was afraid of at least sampling. The problem with travelers of Gordon Smith’s time, and this is perhaps especially true of the British, was the superior mind-set engendered by colonialism. Everything in his upbringing and world view told him he was superior to the Japanese. This attitude supplied the palette of colors through which Gordon Smith described Japan and his time there.

The photo shown here of the fisherman includes partial comments about an experience on May 29, 1900. ‘I got up in a bad humour ordering five boatloads of fishermen, who surrounded the yacht, to clear off at once; I had a quick shot at one boatload who did not, and had them told that I did so because they were the ugliest men I had ever seen (and so they were). Their idiotic and insolent staring is at times most insulting. They think nothing of laughing at you yet they, themselves, have positively diabolically ugly heads and are more vulgarly clad than the naked savages of the tropics. A blue shirt comes only to their hips leaving bare all that is supposed to be covered; it is almost impossible to imagine what low looking beasts they appear.’

In the photograph of Gordon Smith with two of his house staff, you can read his somewhat demeaning label, ‘My two smallest servants, Egawa and O-Miyo-san.’

We have to comfort ourselves with one of his reflections upon returning to England when he found the contrast with the East thoroughly distasteful: the people, the climate and culture had all become unpalatable.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Wise Caution

Basically, car ownership is a new, or at least unfamiliar experience for me. For many years I lived in places where a car was the least of necessities. Still, I did own two different cars during the few years I spent in Los Angeles. With both those cars the investment was small, and I didn’t give a lot of time over to pampering either of the cars. Can’t recall spending much on anything other than gasoline, or an occasional minor part.

Different time, different place and now my song has changed. With the still new Toyota I bought not long ago, I’ve decided to make an effort toward maintaining it wisely. At this stage of using the car, problems are still something more likely in the future, so my maintenance for now is mostly cosmetic. The dashboard falls into that category, so I’m concerned now about long exposure to hot sun.

Never really liked those silver foil-looking windshield shades and had no notion of getting one for my car—until recently. To be completely honest, the blast of hot air coming from a car long in the sun doesn’t bother me a lot. I like hot much more than cold, and can bear heat well. But then someone told me that the sun will eventually crack and warp the dash console.

That put things in a different light and a windshield shade started sounding like a good idea. Lucky enough to have a friend nearby with an extra, new and unused shade, I got one for nothing. Problem is, the clumsy thing doesn’t fit very well and putting it in place is hardcore troublesome. I was told by one person that they are a one-size-fits-all item, but advised later by someone else to choose from several sizes to get the best fit.

That is the first of my negative impressions. Spending five minutes wrestling the cheaply designed and cheaply manufactured shade into position, I return two hours later to find both interior space and dashboard console furnace hot. To my senses, it isn’t serving the slightest purpose.

So, it looks as though a visit to the auto store is upcoming. A good chance to look for another sun block I heard about, a Wet ’n Wipe type of throwaway cloth that uses a protective chemical much like sun screen for the beach, but for vinyl, not skin. According to the story, if you wipe down the console from time to time, it will prevent heat damage.

For now, I want to thank the unknown manufacturer of my current windshield screen for including the wise caution: ‘Do not drive car with sun screen in place!’

Monday, June 28, 2010

No Bodies or Bombs

I continue to enjoy the offerings at my public library, and expect my face is becoming familiar to the several book mistresses on weekly duty. One thing I have noticed is that male employees are rare, and that in this library at least, there is no such thing as a 'silence is golden’ philosophy, that loud voices are the norm.

But that’s another story, so using an idiom from the movies let’s cut to the chase. I checked out of the library recently a movie I missed at the time of its release in 1999. It was a CBS Sunday night movie in that year, and starred Sidney Poitier. Written by Sterling Anderson, the movie is, The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn. It was directed by Gregg Champion, and also starred Mary Louise Parker and Dianne Wiest.

An ageless carpenter (Poitier) untouched by the corruption of modern 20th century life, becomes the target of greedy land developers. Noah is a master carpenter who, despite his 91 years has stayed young through a lifetime of meaningful work. He is a quiet, respected man in rural Georgia who spends his days building things, helping others, farming his land, making apple brandy and generally being a quiet blessing to everyone. Enter the dragon.

A consortium of investors looking to build a strip mall across Noah’s thirty-five acres bulldozes its way into the picture, and none of them much concerned about the old fool who lives on the land. And with this set up the real story begins. Let me be quick to add, the story is stretched thin through a good portion of its 87 minutes.

But it is a story with all those things we are suckers for: simplicity, honesty, doing a good job, helping others and good winning out at the end of a touching drama. There’s never a moment’s doubt that the honorable man will prevail in the end. The only question for us viewers is HOW he gets the better of the bad guys. But as I said, the writer offers up some pretty thin bait, and we are left with gaping hopes, in spite of the happy ending.

The three main actors, Poitier, Parker and Wiest are the glue that holds the story up. Poitier is impressive once again in a role Morgan Freeman would have enjoyed doing. I have always found Mary Louise Parker to be a very interesting actor. In this one she is a psychiatrist recruited to prove Noah incompetent, but sees the mistake early on and changes sides. Dianne Wiest as a longtime friend of Noah is fine in her quiet but symbolic character reflecting town opinion. I like this actor, too, but prefer her younger, kookier characterizations in earlier films.

No grandstand flag waving about this story, or great filmmaking, but it would be unfair to say the movie lacks strength or appeal. I have no doubt the picture would move a great portion of its audience. Despite some deficiencies, The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn will touch you in some way, and if you like heartwarming, then this is your ticket.

The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn | Dianne Wiest | Sidney Poitier | Gregg Champion | Mary-Louise Parker | Movie Trailers

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Gazing Afar

There are times when I sit on the beach with my feet in the surf, gazing across the ocean blue off to the horizon, imagining that I can see shapes and silhouettes on the west African coast. I’ve thought more than once about where I would end up if I could whiz across the Atlantic in line with where I am in Florida. What would I see?

This spot on the east coast of Florida is at 29° latitude, which is pretty much across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands and Morocco, Northern Africa. Checking an atlas I found that 29° latitude runs through New Smyrna Beach, across 3,900 nautical miles, passing close to Tenerife in the Canaries and Agadir on the Moroccan coast.

But what kind of place is Agadir, Morocco? A tourist brochure calls it the most visited city in southern Morocco, with palm-lined boulevards and beachfront bars that give it a resort feel. It has even been called the “Miami of Morocco.” During the winter months, with its tropical temperatures it becomes a vacation magnet for many Europeans. Agadir is situated on the coast near the foot of the Atlas Mountains, and the city proper has a population of about 200,000. It is a fishing and commercial port, but also a seaside resort with long sandy beaches. Because of the many European visitors, Agadir is not a typically traditional Moroccan city, but a modern, busy and spirited town. It is famous for its seafood, but that is not surprising.

From 1913 until the 1950s, the French were instrumental in improving the port facilities, the fishing industry and the city’s exports. Then in 1961 a major earthquake mostly destroyed the city, killing 15,000 people. Agadir was rebuilt in a modern style unlike the more traditional cities of Fez and Marrakech.

One of the tourist activities in Agadir is very unlike what you will find on central Florida beaches. How would you like to forget that boogie board or frisbee and go camel riding over the dunes and through the surf?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bachelor Pieces

Only seven days ago I was digging through a box of stuff shipped from Japan. Now, here I am again in the same place sifting through another box of odd bits, bachelor pieces with unconnected histories. What I mean is, things that spend most of their time in the background, are seldom picked up or used, but still treasured. All go back a long way, following me from one place to another.

Apart from the four things in the picture here, there were another two interesting bibelots in the mix that I managed to lose or break over the years. Always have my eye out now for another tiny, brown and cream ashtray from the old SS France ocean liner. A hundred years ago I took a ride on that ship going from Southampton in England to New York. The souvenir ashtray from that time is like the ship, long gone broken. And the partner to that little ashtray was a non-nautical sterling silver Ronson table lighter from the 1950s. It was a gift from a friend, who like me, always admired the Ronson lighters in old black and white Joan Crawford movies. A small silver pine cone, or was it a petit pineapple in Miss Crawford’s elegant grip that snapped out the perfect flame every time. That Ronson was lost, fallen by the wayside and passed by.

In the photos alongside there is an old London busman’s box, one of those period pieces used by British bus conductors as a receptacle for the bus fare of coins and bills. For years it has been empty, but always dusted, always pampered. The small silver disc on the top is attached to the box’s key, and is a 16th century Dutch button with a ship engraving. The pocket watch is a Japanese train conductor’s timepiece, a duplicate of those carried by all conductors on Japanese trains, and one that keeps perfect time. I haven’t carried it for a long time, but am careful to keep it running. The Zippo lighter is one designed (painted) for fishermen, and under the picture of the hooked bass is, ‘We fish with Zippo.’ I haven’t smoked for some years, but continue to have an interest in the related accessories, like ashtrays and lighters. As for the bass-lighter, no, I’ve never been a fisherman.

Is it wishful thinking to hope that the next garage sale or flea market will one day reward me with replacements for the SS France art deco ashtray and the Joan Crawford silver Ronson?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Dreaming of the Sargasso Sea

This will not be my first mention of the sea turtles that nest along Florida’s east coast, especially along the stretch of beach just under my nose. When I left home at 8:00 this morning for my usual walk on the beach, the sea turtles were not really on my mind, and a surprising encounter with biologists, nests and eggs was far from my thoughts.

There is a blue-roofed beachhouse a mile and a half south of me, and for almost two months it has been my ‘turn-around’ marker. As I approached that spot this morning I noticed a jeep stopped there, and three people very carefully digging in the sand. I realized right off that it was a team from the Volusia County turtle watch, and that they had just come upon a new deposit of turtle eggs buried by a female turtle during the night. I quickened my pace, eager to catch as much of the event as possible.

I got to the nest maybe five minutes before the two graduate students and their senior located the cache of about ninety eggs. For the next thirty minutes I watched (and took pictures) of the gradual uncovering of the eggs. They were digging the eggs up this time because the mother had chosen a bad location, too close to the surf, and in an area of known raccoons, a natural predator. What was especially interesting about these Loggerhead eggs was the size, and the number of fused eggs. Normal turtle eggs look very much like a ping pong ball, but the eggs this time were in many cases extra large. Not only that, but a good many of the eggs were fused together. This in itself is not all that unusual I learned, but it is more commonly just two eggs. There were three and four eggs fused together in this nest.

The scientists were working as fast as possible (uncovering progresses in a manner much like that on an archeological dig—slowly) because exposure to the air, light and temperature is detrimental to the eggs. They had a site already selected for re-burying the eggs a moderate distance south along the beach. Better conditions all around.

Turtle nesting season runs from early May through late October. As of this week sixty-four nests have been logged and roped off. According to the figures from the Fish & Wildlife Agency, the 2009 nest total along Florida beaches was 52,374 for Loggerhead turtles, a number 40% below the 1998 total. Temperature is very important for the hatching of eggs. Ocean temperatures influence mating, as well as when the female comes ashore to deposit the eggs. Temperatures within the nest are relevant to determining the sex of the hatchlings. Warmth at the top of the nest results in females; cooler temperatures near the bottom produce males. Beaches in Volusia County are vital because the white sand is slightly cooler than the sand farther south.

As for predators, the newly hatched turtles run a gauntlet for survival, racing against the sea birds, raccoons, crabs, and once in the water, against fish and sharks. From a nest of 100 eggs only a handful will survive. Those babies who make it through all the hungry obstacles swim straight out to the Sargasso Sea, where they eat and grow for a year or longer. This is a region of the western Atlantic between the Azores and the Caribbean, so called for the abundance of Sargasso seaweed, its deep blue color and exceptional clarity. Blue heaven for newly hatched sea turtles.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lost Travelers

There are somewhere among the books I keep, a half-dozen publishing jewels that never tire, and call me back for another look, another read. For that reason, those half-dozen jewels are stashed in places I often return to, there to show me again what imaginative publishing looks and feels like. I like a good story to read, but the physical book, the binding, design, these aspects too, grab the attention. I admire and appreciate those books that radiate a skillful combination of these qualities.

One special San Francisco publisher consistently puts out books that the reader can recognize immediately as a rare collaboration of artists. Browsing in a bookstore and glimpsing the small trademark eyeglasses at the lower end of a book’s spine, Chronicle Books leaps to mind and my hand moves automatically to take down that book for a close look. I have no knowledge of Chronicle Books sales records, but I believe one of their more memorable releases was the Griffin & Sabine series of books published in the early 1990s, written and illustrated by Nick Bantock. Another Chronicle title I stumbled upon in a bookstore I half remember is The Tattooed Map, by Barbara Hodgson, an entrancing novel of Morocco, bizarre happenings and mysterious Arabs.

The first scan here is from facing pages in the Hodgson book, showing clippings of old postcards, stationery and notes in the narrator’s hand, wrapping the text of the story. In the top left are small notes on photographs taken, roll # 8. (Amazon link here)

The second scan comes from the book, Griffin & Sabine, and is one page of a letter folded inside an envelope; the next image shows the facing pages and that envelope. (Amazon here)

The bottom picture is another set of facing pages, these from Sabine’s Notebook, the second in the series. (Amazon)

When I look at any, or all of these books I am impressed again by the ravishing book design, and at the possibilities in publishing that Chronicle Books brings to life.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Work in Progress

In retrospect, whether from a sense of nostalgia, or from the desire to have a hardbound copy, I decided a while back to transfer to journal my record of the final days that closed out the many years in Japan. Sure, it’s all recorded in the daily posts on this blog, but somehow I have more faith in the preservation of a handwritten copy. I also believe, as I’ve said before, that handwriting is a supremely individual mark, and in many ways more resonant than Lucida Grande, or Times New Roman. And so, for the past three weeks I have been slowly copying those blogged thoughts and preparations into a linen covered Faber-Castell journal (here) using a different fountain pen and different ink for each entry.

The nineteen-day span begins on March 31 and runs until April 18, the last day I had the iMac and Internet access before shipping. In total, there are twenty-two blogged pages. A good workout for my pens and ink.

Up to now I have copied eleven of the nineteen days, which runs to about forty handwritten pages, written with eleven fountain pens and eleven colors of ink. The Faber-Castell paper is a dream to write on, better even than Clairefontaine. Problem is, I don’t have an idea of what the paper is, or if it is Faber-Castell paper.

In these first days of transcribing, I have used the following pens and inks:

Sailor Naginata — J. Herbin Rouge Hematite

Lamy 2000 — Sailor O-cha green

Sailor Professional Gear — Waterman Florida Blue

Pelikan Souverän 1000 — Pelikan Violet

Pilot Custom 823 — Pilot Iroshizuku, Fuyu-syogun

Pelikano Junior — Pilot Iroshizuku, Tsutsuji

Pelikan Souverän 600 — Athena Sepia

Aurora (details a question mark) — Montblanc Turquoise

Montblanc 146 — Sailor Blue Black

Pelikan 100N — Montblanc Violet

Sailor Realo — Sailor Blood Orange

For now, it is a work in progress, and one that brings me a measure of satisfaction with each entry, each fountain pen, each ink.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Dwarf’s Song

About a week ago I mentioned in this blog that a friend has stirred my interest in the Bohemian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). I have been reading this past week from the 1989 Vintage International edition of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

Despite, or because of the beauty of Rilke’s words and images, he can be difficult. There is the feeling that what we are reading is from the greatest recesses of the poet’s heart, a crooning in our inner ear, calling us into the same deep well. A strong influence on Rilke’s work was his relationship with the sculptor, Auguste Rodin, for whom he served as an assistant, or secretary for a time before their eventual falling out. From Rodin, who Rilke revered as the greatest of all artists, he absorbed the idea of writing not about feelings, but about THINGS he had felt. He called the work growing out of this, thing-poems (Ding-Gedichte), poems about looking at people, animals, sculpture, or paintings, with the focus taken away from the speaker-poet and re-centered on the THING viewed. Examples of this newly conceived perspective produced the poems, “The Panther,” and the dazzling “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” From Rilke’s collection, The Book of Pictures is a poem called “The Dwarf’s Song.” The collection is one put together between 1902-06. It is dated June 7, 1906—Paris.


My soul itself may be straight and good;

ah, but my heart, my bent-over blood,

all the distortions that hurt me inside—

it buckles under these things.

It has no garden, it has no sun,

it hangs on my twisted skeleton

and, terrified, flaps its wings.

Nor are my hands of much use. Look here:

see how shrunken and shapeless they are:

clumsily hopping, clammy and fat,

like toads after the rain.

And everything else about me is torn,

sad and weather-beaten and worn;

why did God ever hesitate

to flush it all down the drain?

Is it because he’s angry at me

for my face with its moping lips?

It was so often ready to be

light and clear in its depths;

but nothing came so close to it

as big dogs did.

And dogs don’t have what I need.

In a letter to writer-critic Hermann Pongs years later, Rilke wrote: ‘If at any time I was able to pour out into the mold of my heart the imaginary voices of the dwarf or the beggar, the metal of this cast was not obtained from any wish that the dwarf or the beggar might have a less difficult time. On the contrary, only through a praising of their incomparable fate could the poet, with his full attention suddenly given to them, be true and fundamental….’

Monday, June 21, 2010

Feet in the Water

An hour before high tide, water temperature 73°, on a near perfect day for fun in the sun. Good time for walking through a stretch of surf looking for Gidget and the cast of Beach Blanket Bingo. When I lived in another place, I used to enjoy walking along crowded streets, building sand castles out of the parade around me. Walking on a Florida beach offers a thousand opportunities to do the same.

There is a lot to see on a beach in the early days of summer, and for once, rather than brown pelicans, my eyes are on the people, the faces, shapes, chairs, coolers, kites, toys, tents, and towels, all swamping my vision. And at my feet the plash of water swarming over my ankles and legs.

There is one clan-like gathering of 20-25 family members staked out under, or nearby three broad Beach Gazebo cabana sets and all the convenience of what could pass for a portable version of home. Two children are stretched out on their backs in the surf, half buried in the re-assembling rush of sand, and the bubbly retreat of water sucked back into the ocean, the deep blue simple. Two attractive young women in bikinis, one of them elaborately tattooed draw more than one lingering appraisal from the college boys tossing a football. Unknowingly, a woman stoops and picks up a bean bag, while from a short distance away someone calls out that she is moving a game marker. Two boys decorate their sand castle with red and blue, shaking out drops of color from two small bottles that appear to be food coloring. Untanned grandmothers from Ohio search for seashells, their pale legs shocked by public exposure and burning sunlight. One well-shaped woman of about forty has commanded space enough to practice tai chi, a discipline, one would think, at odds with the rowdy soundtrack of whizzing balls and frisbees, the happy squeal of toddlers.

Straight in line with the usual personality of this climate, this month, out of the west comes a slow moving tumble of gray clouds. I am not alone in seeing the approach, and now people here and there stare up into the western sky. Mothers begin gathering beach toys and fathers start their tussle with the Beach Gazebo take-down. Aunt peggy is wrapping the sliced watermelon and brother Bill calls the kids out of the blue green water. But there are still hundreds who refuse to stop their play, to give up this day. After all, that rain looks like taking its time getting here.

Back on solid ground and walking along the brick pavers to my door, I come upon a cute little tyke of about three, and he says in passing, “Thunderstorm comin’.”

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Beef Stroganoff

My sister is someone I have mentioned once or twice in an earlier post related to cooking, and my efforts today relate to another of her suggested recipes.

Count Pavel Stroganov was a Russian celebrity-gourmet in turn of the century St Petersburg, and the man some point to as having introduced beef stroganoff, but an 1871 Russian cookbook suggests otherwise. In either case, most people are aware that beef stroganov reached American dinner tables from Russia. A hundred or so years after Count Stroganov, our adaptations and tweaks have made “beef stroganoff” out of the original beef stroganov. The Russian recipe called for sliced beef sautéed, in a sauce of sour cream. No doubt there were embellishments to the beef and sour cream, but who knows what they were?

I took a notion to try making beef stroganoff, since a friend was coming for dinner on Saturday; good opportunity to try my sister’s stroganoff. This recipe is familiar from dinner at her home, and delicious each of the two or three times she has served it.



1 pound of lean ground beef

2 cups of sliced mushrooms

1/2 of one large onion, chopped

1 can of cream of chicken or cream of mushroom soup

1 package of Lipton onion soup

1 container (16 ounces) of sour cream

about one cup of water

1 package of egg noodles, or rice

Brown the ground beef in a large skillet. While that’s underway prepare the mushrooms and onion. When there is still some pink in the beef, add the chopped onion and sliced mushrooms. Next, stir in the Lipton onion soup, followed by the cream of mushroom (or chicken) soup. Now add some water to thin the thick soup. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring the mixture now and then. Allow it to simmer for about fifteen minutes while you cook the noodles, make a salad and maybe a vegetable. A colorful vegetable enhances the look of the dish, since stroganoff with either noodles or rice has a less than colorful appearance on the plate.

This is a quick and easy dinner to prepare, and with the amounts listed above, unless you’re feeding members of the football team, there will be enough leftover for another meal. Have not tried it myself, but some people use ground turkey and a little less sour cream in a bid to make the stroganoff a more heart healthy recipe. Either way, it is a dish you can prepare quickly and easily for yourself, or guests coming for dinner. As the Russians say, “Horoshiĭ appetit!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Shaggy Poet

I’ve been digging around in boxes again. Yeah, boxes, those things that have become an icon of my existence the past four months.

Papers are starting to pile up as I continue to sort, which makes me think about getting a box-sized filing cabinet, something with folders to organize the papers. But other than papers, every now and then I pull out from a neglected box some curio or precious diamond that I had temporarily forgotten. That happened today when I uncovered a near antique wrapped in packing fluff at the bottom of one more box.

Once upon a time I loved art class, and not being a very good student otherwise, gave it my best in high school. Mrs Collier was a good art teacher, a memorable woman, and in retrospect someone I imagine was saved from a bohemian, or beatnik lifestyle by an unplanned marriage. I always felt she was more open-minded than her school colleagues. She made her classes enjoyable, relaxed and informative.

One month we were practicing drawing with pen and ink. I was amazed at the variety of textures possible. Trees were a favorite subject. But in an opposite direction, haiku-like drawings, spare lines against white also caught my fancy. Mrs Collier, I recall, never brought up Japanese sumi-e, or the emptiness of Japan’s haiku style.

So, the near antique-curio I uncovered earlier is the pen and ink drawing above (badly discolored). It was my homework project for the lessons and practice of using pen and ink. The model for the shaggy Napoleonic “poet” was a ceramic statue on the mantel in my boyhood home. In my greenness it never occurred to me to wonder who or what the statue stood for. I did no more than sit in front of the mantel and, in my own way, draw the statue. Mrs Collier praised my work, and awarded me one of my few A’s.

Years later, I discovered two particular arts of Japan, sumi-e and haiku, where empty space plays a big part. I tried my hand at sumi-e, taking lessons for a while, but never managed to get control of it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Hand of Nighthawks

Suppose I’m in danger of being accused of putting up a maze of odd or pedantic blog posts over the past couple of weeks, but I’m a slave to the threads and potholes of the day. Bits and pieces of esoteric crap, mundane scraps. Whatever…

For the past week I’ve kept a close watch on the blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, very much interested in the ongoing discussion about the exact location of the diner in Edward Hopper’s 1942 masterwork, “Nighthawks.” One site under consideration is downtown on Greenwich Avenue in the Village and very near where I lived for several years in my twenties. And for this reason my mind is on Edward Hopper today.

I have long admired the art, or non-art of handwriting, always eye-out for a sample, whether heroic or imperfect. Would never dream of criticizing or ‘correcting’ any handwriting, and see it through the same eyes as novelist Jeffrey Deaver:

‘Handwriting is a part of a human being. It’s like our sense of humor or imagination. It’s one of the only things about people that survives their death. Writing can last for hundreds of years. Thousands. It’s about as close to immortality as we can get. Whatever somebody wrote is a reflection of who they are. It doesn’t matter how the words are made or what they say; it doesn’t matter if you’ve made a mistake, or if the words you wrote are nonsense. Just the fact that someone thought of the words and their hands put those thoughts on paper is what counts. Your handwriting is a fingerprint of your heart and mind.’

The photographs here give an example of a very famous hand, Edward Hopper.

Photograph (1) Hopper’s draft of a statement for the art journal, Reality (1953).

Photograph (2) Hopper study for “Route 6, Eastham” (1941).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Jester

You can never tell when some interesting tidbit of information will find its way into your day. The very last thought or story I could have imagined catching my attention today is Polish history. My knowledge of Poland could fit in a thimble, and the closest I’ve ever come to anything Polish was a brief acquaintance with a Polish man who enjoyed practicing his English on me some years back in Tokyo. One dinner in my memory with him and his wife left me a near zombie from all the straight shots of vodka. But Poland generally calls up images of sausage, Lech Walesa and thoughts of the William Styron book, Sophie’s Choice.

I was sitting talking with a friend today, and she suddenly took from a drawer a postcard-sized piece of art, saying she wanted to give it to me. The reason, she carefully explained, was that she never took it out, never displayed it, and felt it was being wasted. She thought it something I could enjoy.

It is a pewter bas-relief of a Polish historical figure from the 16th century, a court jester named Stanczyk. The word (name) ‘Stanczyk’ is at the bottom of the relief. My friend found it at a garage sale a few years ago, and thought it worth the asking price. The small relief made an immediate impression and I promised I would look up the name molded into the picture.

There isn’t a great deal (in English) about Stanczyk on the Internet, but Wikipedia offers a brief description. He lived from 1480 to 1560 and was court jester to three successive Polish kings. He was apparently more than just the king’s fool, and had the reputation of great intelligence, and of being something of a political philosopher. His jokes often referred to Poland’s current political affairs, or matters at court. Later writers held his name up as one who fought hypocrisy in the name of truth.

One well-known anecdote about Stanczyk involves a bear the king imported for his hunting pleasure. The bear was released in the forest, but when finally cornered by the king and his retinue, it charged, causing panic. The terrified queen fell from her horse and suffered a miscarriage. When the king rebuked Stanczyk for running away, he answered that it was greater folly to let a bear out of a locked cage. The remark was seen as an allusion to the king’s policy toward Prussia.

In 1795, when Poland was partitioned for the third time by Russia, Stanczyk was turned into a symbol for Poland’s struggle for independence. In the imagination of some writers he took on Shakespearean qualities.

I guess you learn something every day. This was my portion for the day.

The painting here, below the bas-relief is one done in the 19th century by the Polish painter, Wojciech Gerson, titled ‘Sigismund the Old with Stanczyk at Wawel Castle.’

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Crab, Melon & Pig’s Head

This is an old out of print gem called, The Book of Ingredients. It was written by Philip Dowell and Adrian Bailey, with photography by Mr Dowell. Amazon lists the book as out of print, though still available in a limited number of copies. My own copy is a 1988 edition I bought in Japan around that time.

The book is 296 pages, about half of that full-page color plates, while the second half is a treatment of the origin, nature, properties and culinary applications of ingredients. Did you know that the smoked cheeks of a pig are referred to as ‘bath chaps,’ and that wheat and barley are native to Mesopotamia? Few things that we eat are left out of this book.

The photo showing a pig’s head, a calf’s head and a sheep’s head is gruesome, but oddly fascinating; the crabs are just plain beautiful, the melons luscious. As the introduction to the book states, ‘The elegant, austere and charming plates of this book picture a harvest festival of the world.’

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