Thursday, June 30, 2011

Different Strokes

Following the big earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan last March 11, one part of the news I read each day is about the conditions, developments and ongoing problems many Japanese continue to struggle with in overcoming the destruction and loss in that catastrophe. Tremendous progress has been made in providing those affected with basic necessities and a place to stay, and from what one can gather the lack of this or that need grows smaller week by week. There has also been a big effort by professionals to help the victims deal with stress and the mental pressures that follow such overwhelming loss.

Clicking on first one link and then another this morning led me to a CNN based story that surely anyone would describe with a variety of adjectives—strange, obscene, nutty, obsessed, lascivious, funny, practical—and yes Japanese. At first, aid for the tsunami victims took the form of food, blankets, clothing and essential toiletries. But three months later and little hope of a return to home in sight, one man at least believes there’s need for a new sort of aid. Most would have thought the very last thing on anyone’s mind in the earthquake-tsunami stricken areas would be sex toys. Apparently we would have thought wrong. One shrewd good Samaritan has also given consideration to hankering of another sort.

According to volunteer Shinichi Motoyanagi, life in a shelter means living in close quarters with other couples and families, and can become stressful for some of the men in an unexpected way. Motoyanagi returned in late March to his home prefecture of Fukushima to assist in recovery efforts. He discovered that the shelters were full of healthy males with no outlet for relief of sexual frustration. That’s where a company called Tenga comes in.

According to the tabloid Tokyo Reporter, Japan’s top sex toy manufacturer has created a sensation in recovery efforts by donating hundreds of its most popular product to Tohoku shelters. Tenga’s can-shaped, lubricant-filled and totally ergonomic synthetic “girlfriend” has already made a splash among young men and loners in forty countries around the world. Now, we’re told, they’re doing their part to ease tensions in crowded shelters up north.

It all began with Motoyanagi’s observations and conversations with a few of the males living in Fukushima shelters. Using his own money he purchased and donated several dozen of the Tenga products to shelter residents in Iwaki City. Word of Motoyanagi and the Tenga ‘aides’ spread quickly and it wasn’t long before Tenga Co., Ltd. stepped in to provide their devices to residents free of charge.

My personal feeling is that we shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgement on this kind of assistance. After all, masturbation is hardly a practice that is Japanese specific. We may not like to talk about it (and neither do the Japanese in my experience) but it’s there, always was and always will be, no matter the saints, Sunday school teachers or any amount of repressiveness. In the thoughts of some, the only less than altruistic part of this story is that Tenga has in mind something more than community aide, and that is surely a profit motive stemming from the free advertising and likely recommendation of its product. After all, among the 2.53 million Tenga customers worldwide one satisfied user commented, “Tenga don’t talk back at you.”

WARNING: The Tenga product commercial advertised in the YouTube clip below is a very frank explanation of its Tenga Cup series. Viewer discretion is advised.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Late At Night


What pleasure there is in sitting up on the sofa at night smoking cigarettes, having a small last drink and petting the dogs, reading Virgil’s sublime Georgics, seeing a girl’s bare bottom on TV that you will likely never see again in what they call real life, remembering all the details of when you were captured by the indians at age seven. They gave you time off for good behavior but never truly let you go back to your real world where cars go two ways on the same streets. The doctors will say it’s bad for an old man to stay up late petting his lovely dogs. Meanwhile I look up from Virgil’s farms of ancient Rome and see two women making love in a field of wildflowers. I’m not jealous of their real passion trapped as they are within their exhausting days and big incomes that have to be spent. Lighting a last cigarette and sipping my vodka I examine the faces of the sleeping dogs beside me, the improbable mystery of their existence, the short lives they live with an intensity unbearable to us. I have turned to them for their ancient language not my own, being quite willing to give up my language that so easily forgets the world outside itself.

“Late” is a poem by Jim Harrison from In Search of Small Gods (2009)

Harrison is the author of forty-one books that include poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, and writing on food. He is the author of the novella Legends of the Fall, which was made into a movie with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. A native of Michigan, Harrison divides his time between Arizona and Montana.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jungle Flower

A couple of nights ago clicking through television channels the numbers eventually rolled around to Animal Planet, and I was pleased to hit upon a favorite type of documentary. Hadn’t seen anything on that channel for ages, maybe the last being an episode with the late Steve Irwin a couple of years back. This time the camera crew was in the Amazon rainforest observing a small part of its vast and teeming life—animals, insects, birds, fish, trees, plants and flowers—and the dependency of one upon the other. We all know that animals eat other animals, birds pollinate flowers and trees make a home for monkeys, but there is an intricacy about some relationships in the rainforest oftentimes beyond our imagination.

The giant waterlily Victoria amazonica, largest of all known aquatic plants, grows in the Amazonia region of central Brazil, its immense leaf-pads floating on the surface of hidden ponds and lagoons deep in forest tributaries of the Amazon River. The huge ‘leaves’ with their upturned rims often exceed seven feet in diameter and are anchored by long stalks rising from an underground stem buried in the mud of the river bottom. These stems reach as much as eighteen feet from the river bottom, and grow with the rising waters that cover lowland floodplains during the rainy season from December to March. In that rich fertile mud of the Amazon the monstrous lily pads grow from a pea-sized seed to a huge blooming plant in a matter of months.

Victoria amazonica was first described by British explorers in 1837, who named it after Queen Victoria. But little was known about the life-cycle and natural history of the plant until the twentieth century. The plants sprout from seeds and burgeoning stems grow in a race to stay ahead of the water that can rise six inches in a day. In time each plant produces five to ten lily pads over a month. Victoria amazonica are night blooming, and in a rush of fertility they scent the late afternoon and evening air with a pineapple-like fragrance, foretelling the bloom of the first night flower, huge and white. Magnificent white female flowers appear one day before morphing into pink male flowers the next. The white flowers are pollinated by a species of beetle that crawls inside the open petals rubbing its pollen coated legs against the waiting anthers and filaments. The flower assures pollination by closing its petals and locking the beetle inside. On the second night the flower opens once more, but is now a deep pink and no longer female, but male. And the beetle-emissary, coated in fresh pollen trundles off to his next mix and match.

Despite their beautiful blossoms and the smooth upper surface of the pads, these plants are heavily armed with thorns for protection. The upper surface has a quilted appearance and a waxy layer that repels water, but the purplish red underside is a network of ribs covered in sharp spines, possibly a defense against herbivorous fish and manatees. Air trapped in the spaces between the ribs enables the leaves to float.

For a long time it was a mystery how these waterlilies survived the dry season. Seeds deposited on the parched floodplain during the hottest weather will dry out and die, while seeds falling into the river are eaten by fish. So how do the seeds survive? During low water among the grassland marshes filled with spongy muck, the main lily seed beds are spring fed from underground pools. These isolated ponds hidden and protected from the main river and impossible to cross have no fish in them to eat the seeds. And so, another combination of circumstances—a beautiful twist of nature—holds the secret to the fragile survival of the giant Amazon waterlily. Resting secure in the wetness of a remote underground spring, the seeds of the amazonica will bring life anew to the Amazon rainforest once again.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Rampant Dust

Mary Oliver’s name first popped up here on March 1 of this year, an offering of three poems by the poet The New York Times called far and away America’s bestselling poet. Little question of her popularity or her reputation as poet exemplar—probably one of the few who has enjoyed the success of earning a living as a poet for many years. So, let’s skip the rehashing of her résumé or accumulated awards and go right to a prose poem called “Dust” published first in 2000.

The poem is in three parts and was first published in Shenandoah. The next year it appeared in Best American Essays 2001, and later in Long Life: Essays and Other Writings, a 2004 collection of Oliver’s work. I came upon “Dust” randomly. In a mood for non-fiction and picking up the Best American Essays, the book fell open to Mary Oliver. Yeah, I know—a poem included in a book of essays? I think the editor looked at it, saw an unbroken string of prose-like lines and declared it an essay. Fine, whatever you call it the beauty of the piece can’t be altered by editorial classification.

For Oliver, dust is a ghost that ‘lives’ in the aftermath of life and existence, in the wake of creation, in the rubble of crashing lives and heavenly bodies. Reading even a small selection of the writer’s poems and essays will bring some understanding of how closely Mary Oliver holds the word ‘dust’ and how often, how well she employs it to strike the perfect chord. The word appears again and again in poems, in the whole of Oliver’s writing as an old shoe, a photograph, deceased dog, bright dust, gardens of dust…ghosts of things past.

In the words of one Mary Oliver admirer, the poet ‘…captures the grieving world in all its beauty.’ We can apply those words very fittingly to the prose poem “Dust.” Unfortunately, there’s room here to include only the last section of a poem in three parts. Part 1 gives us a catalog of kept tokens, envelopes, photos, the anonymous collections of a loved one; Part 2 brings the expected Mary Oliver, the eye on nature and it’s connection in our lives, and the dust it leaves behind; Part 3 is an elegy to the absence of departed pets, the absence of things connected to that life passed, a dog’s footstool…

For the first time in twenty-five years there’s no small footstool next to the bed on which to break one’s toes. The little dogs, first Jasper and then Bear, are gone. How neatening is loss, since it only takes away! One less mouth to feed, to walk, to bathe, to hold. One less sentient creature to cherish, to worry over, to feel for, to receive comfort from. And where is he, little Bear, the latest to leave us? We watch the white clouds carefully; sooner or later we will see him, sailing away in careless and beautiful serenity. Of what rich and ornate stuff the powerful and uncontainable gods invented the world, out of the rampant dust! The silky brant, the scarf of chiffon, the letter, the empty envelope, the black ducks, the old shoes, the little white dog fall away, fall away, and all the music of our lives is in them. The gods act as they act for what purpose we do not know, but this we do understand: the world could not be made without the swirl and whirlwind of our deepest attention and our cherishing. And if I mean the god of the sky, I mean also the god of the river—not only the god of the gold-speckled cathedral but the lord of the green field, where people pause casually and snap each other’s picture; where thrushes pump out their darkling songs; where little dogs bark and leap, their ears tossing, joyously, as they run toward us.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hobby Box Treasures

The latest issue of Stationery Hobby Box (Shumi no bungu bako) came out in Tokyo last March but I was unable to get a copy until recently. The fact that I did finally receive it is thanks to my always faithful friend K there in Tokyo. As I’ve said more than once, this is one of those magazines that spares nothing in its aim to produce a gorgeous magazine of over 150 glossy pages, filled with photographs, essays and presentations of new products in the world of paper, ink and fountain pens. Volume 19 immediately grabs the eye with its cover of light olive, red lettering and a close up of the issue’s showpiece, the recently released limited edition Sailor Shima Kuwa.

Eleven pages of the magazine are devoted to Sailor’s 100th anniversary and the release of two specially designed fountain pens to commemorate that milestone. One of the two is a pen made for a special few connoisseurs and far beyond the scope of what most can imagine owning. A few words about that fountain pen will follow a description of the pen shown on the magazine’s cover, the Shima Kuwa.

For its 100th anniversary Sailor released the exquisite Shima Kuwa, a limited edition of 1000 handcrafted fountain pens made from a rare mulberry wood. The wood is a premier grade of mulberry that comes from Mikurajima, a small island in the Izu archipelago famous for this rare natural material. The mulberry of Mikurajima is often used in making special gifts, known as the golden mulberry because of its natural golden grain. In Japan’s Edo era, this particular mulberry was considered precious and usable by only the most highly respected artisans called kuwamono-shi.

An even deeper beauty is coaxed from the mulberry using a deep burnishing process with urushi lacquer, one called fuki urushi that originated at the famous Jôhô Temple in Iwate Prefecture. Decoration is in the form of gold powder maki-e used to create a wave pattern on one side of the cap below the clip, while the alternate side bears the number, ‘100th.’ The lacquer work and the decoration were done by master maki-e artisan, Oshita Kôsen. The pen’s gold plate clip is a special design, an ‘anchor’ clip that echoes the longtime anchor emblem on many Sailor pens. Each pen is individually engraved with the serial number on the barrel end.

The Shima Kuwa comes with a large 21k nib plated with 24k gold. The Sailor anchor and chain are stamped on the nib. Perhaps a disappointment to some, the nib comes in only an M size. It uses a cartridge / converter filler. Dimensions are: length-162mm capped / uncapped-150mm; diameter-20.5mm; weight 36.8 grams. It is packed in a special Aizu-urushi lacquered gift box and comes with a silk pen wrap made in the ushikubi–tsumugi style, a traditional craft for 800 years. Also included is a bottle of black ink and five black cartridges. The top of the presentation box shows a maki-e decoration, a picture of Sailor’s original Hamada factory from 1911.

Sailor sells the pen for $1,958 and I feel certain that is the price at pen shops across Japan offering the Shima Kuwa. Classic Fountain Pens here in the US is offering the pen for $2000. Photographs of this very beautiful pen are excellent on that website.

If nothing else we can all dream about owning one.

Sailor’s second 100th Anniversary release is another limited edition of only 100 fountain pens, and one for those aficionados with deep pockets. It is the Arita Yaki Sometsuke-Kiri-Houou made of porcelain from the Imari area of Saga Prefecture. Arita-yaki (porcelain) has a tradition going back 400 years and is considered to be the origin of Japanese porcelain. The pure almost transparent blue and white is in a design immediately recognizable as Imari. Despite the porcelain’s thin smoothness it is strong, resistant to breaking and easy to care for.

The pen is made of Arita koransha porcelain, is 163.7mm long, 19.4mm in diameter and weighs a hefty 63 grams. Again, the nib is available only in M; the filling system is either cartridge or converter. It sells for $13,050.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Nose to the Air

Big, crowded, car-stacked cities with almost granular air quality were home for many years, though never in my case a cause for coughs, complaints, irritated eyes or throat, or any regret about living in a pall of bad air. It might have been a matter of not knowing what I was missing. Occasional trips into the country or desert always prompted a comment or two about the freshness of the air, something like, “Feels good to breathe this clean air, doesn’t it?” But in the end it never rankled much to leave that behind and return to the smog of big city home.

Saying goodbye to life in a giant metropolis, trading it for small beachtown life distant from all that traffic, smog, haze and grainy air certainly didn’t produce anything like an epiphany or a Eureka! of sudden appreciation for clean air. That took some time, some daily exposure to limitless horizons of ocean, sand and air. But it did eventually come.

Some months later and I am keenly attuned to the quality of air here along the Atlantic coast. Hard now to miss the slight change in wind and ocean, the presence of seaweed in offshore water, the passing of someone slicked with suntan oil, daubed with perfume. A smoking cigarette or cheap cigar fifty feet distant, and the now and then whiff of rotting fish. But most of all is the physical awareness of breathing clean, wind-driven air that reaches to the tips of the toes and provides a heretofore unknown fuel that makes you feel you could walk forever.

Living on the beach is sand between toes, salt water in your mouth and that aromatic sea air in your nose. But what gives the ocean air that delightful and distinctive smell? From the scientific standpoint the smell comes from a gas produced by ocean-dwelling bacteria. Bacteria consume decaying plankton and seaweed and produce a gas called dimethyl sulfide, or DMS. This pungent gas is what often gives ocean air a fishy-briny-tangy smell. Some seabirds rely on DMS as a homing scent to find food. This fact was illustrated during field research when scientists on deck opened a bottle filled with the DMS-producing bacteria. Within minutes their boat was bombarded by hungry seabirds.

Ocean water, in descending amounts is composed of oxygen, hydrogen, chlorine, sodium, magnesium, sulfur,calcium, potassium, bromine and carbon. Look at this list and think for a moment about the human body. Perhaps we are drawn to the sea because we came from the sea, because we are made of the same. For all of us the blood in our veins has the exact same percentage of salt that exists in the ocean; we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. When we go back to the sea, be it for swimming, sailing, walking its beaches or gazing at its depths, we are in some primordial sense returning to the place we came from.

The sea smells of ancient infinity, a briny aroma carried on wind out of the primal water we evolved from long ago.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Too Weird for Color TV

Once in a while I get a kick out of browsing websites reporting weird news around the world. Hard to tell how much if any of certain stories is true, but that doesn’t necessarily deflate the laugh that many of the stories produce. For the same reason tabloids at the supermarket checkout are always on my radar and on visits to my barber flipping through The Globe and laughing at the stuff they pull up is always fun.

I found a new place to get crazy news, a website with a huge archive named News of the Weird. Below are a few of the stories from their latest discoveries.

A fifty-three year-old man with failing eyesight who had recently undergone intestinal surgery told Sonoma, California police that on May 1, a woman came to his home and instructed him to drop his pants and lay face down on the bed so that she could administer an enema. He said he assumed his doctor had sent her and so he complied. It was over in two minutes, and she was gone. The man’s doctor later said he had no idea who the woman was. This home invasion brings to mind a series of incidents in the Champaign, Illinois area when a man operated in a similar fashion as the “Illinois Enema Bandit.” Frank Zappa was inspired to write “Illinois Enema Bandit Blues” based on this case.

Several funeral homes in the United States have drive-thru windows to serve rushed mourners, or those stressed by the funeral parlor experience. “Not quite as emotional,” said one visitor to the Robert L. Adams Mortuary in Compton, California, referring to the need not to linger in the queue of bereaved, idling motorists. The Adams facility was even more popular during the peak of gang murders in the area, according to an April Los Angeles Times report, because the drive-thru window’s bulletproof glass offered protection from the dangerous indoor service where gangbangers tried to desecrate their late rivals’ corpses.

Cat Failing to Know Its Role: In Cleveland, Texas, a man had to be airlifted to an emergency trauma unit after losing a fight with a house cat. Though he was armed with a knife as he took on the beast, somehow the attacking cat caused him to lose his balance and fall on the blade.

An unidentified man told police in Niles, Illinois that he had been victimized by a medical exam, which was conducted in an otherwise abandoned office, by a lone “doctor” wearing a white lab coat, who used toothpicks for acupuncture pressure points, and who dispensed a container of pills labeled “dietary supplements” with an expiration date of February 2002. The man said he paid $200 but is not sure he got his money’s worth.

In a widely reported story originating in the Brazilian press, thirty-six year-old accountant Ana Catarian Bezerra, a sufferer of severe anxiety and hyper-sexuality was said to have won her April court battle to be allowed breaks during the workday to masturbate.

And from another interesting website, Stunning Stuff, comes this story of a dog…

A dog that often jumped out the window of his owners’ ground-floor apartment jumped out of the window of their new flat forgetting it was six floors up. Fortunately the lucky dog was saved when it landed on a balcony three floors down from the apartment in Cologne, Germany. The dog’s owners Udo and Angela Baecker called the fire department when they heard their pet boxer whining from the balcony below. They couldn’t get him themselves because the tenants were away on vacation. “We've only been in the new apartment for a week, but thought TJ would have got used to it after climbing up all the stairs. We never thought he’d try his usual trick of jumping from the window to get into the garden,” said Angela.

From the same site comes news that turtles can breathe through their butts, and that Marilyn Monroe had six toes on one foot.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lost Art

Earlier this year I introduced a book on the history of Japanese picture postcards, showing a few examples of the art as it developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the earlier post explained, picture postcards of those days have gradually been replaced by digital images manipulated on computers, photographs owing much of their appeal to Adobe Photoshop. Really, the difference is like day and night and in the eyes of some a serious art form has been rudely replaced by glossy souvenir shop photos.

To my regret the days of sifting through boxes of old postcards in Japanese flea markets and junk shops never turned up any treasures like those shown here, but that is perhaps a naive regret. The examples in Art of the Japanese Postcard all come from the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The book also includes several penetrating essays about the art as it developed through the late Meiji Period, into the Taishô and later Shôwa eras. Here are more examples from that excellent book.

This card created just after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) shows an image of the “Japanese Empire.” Japan is centered against the military flag, the rising sun, a time when the country was sometimes referred to as the Land of the Rising Sun. The process is color lithograph, collotype and embossing; ink and metallic pigment on card stock. The back is undivided.

An example by Hashimoto Kunisuke from an unidentified series, inscribed 1904 and showing crowds gathering to read the news. The style in this card is influenced by Western pen and ink drawings. The artist skillfully captures the anticipation of the crowd as they huddle around a posted notice of war news. This one is color lithograph; ink on card stock, also with an undivided back.

The artist is Kawabata Gyokushô and the subject is the torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine, a scenic spot near Hiroshima. It is one card in a series commemorating the ultimate victory of the Japanese over the Russian forces. Color woodblock and embossed texture; organic and inorganic colorants on Japanese paper adhered to card stock; undivided back.

This card shows a cancellation mark of 1907 and is by the artist Nakazawa Hiromitsu. It shows an overhead view of two swimmers and a lifesaver (red cap and goggles). Color lithograph; ink on card stock; undivided back.

Information about this card is limited, but it is another from the late Meiji era and shows three women gathering salt. The striking color and line make the card a standout. Notice how the artist has created movement of the water. Color lithograph; ink and metallic pigment on card stock, with an undivided back.

Another card with scant information, this one shows a dragonfly with two fingers at the bottom reaching out to catch it. It is from 1908 and is a color lithograph with ink on textured card stock. The back is divided into thirds.

A personal favorite, this card uses an image from a scene in Chûshingura (Revenge of the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers) when Kinpei is hunting boar in the rain. The boar tells us it is a New Year’s card from 1911. The artist is unknown but the card is a color lithograph and embossing with ink and metallic pigment on card stock. Once again the back is divided into thirds.

Certainly in a category far, far removed from the other examples, this is one of my own New Year cards from around 1985. The medium is Japanese sumi (India ink) and watercolor on Japanese card stock.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lesbians Held Hands

More often than not a poem by Mary Jo Salter fails to hold my attention beyond a span of five or six lines, too frequently being a string of moments tied to the quotidian flow of domestic life. I suppose that criticism could be countered by someone pointing out that in my case, Charles Bukowski, a great favorite, also wrote volumes about unremarkable and seemingly mundane situations in life. In defense of that I would say that Salter is simply not the poet that Bukowski was. In Salter’s case there is sometimes the sense of attempting to weave television sets into lines of poetic meter while on another page casting a critical eye upon the already proven:

…give me Sondheim any day.

I’ve had my fill of Frost,

proud again to be lost,

coming upon his fork

in the road for the millionth time,

or stumbling upon woodpiles

of somebody else’s work.

—excerpt from “Out of the Woods” The Atlantic, October 2009

Certainly a writer is free to express opinion, observation or belief in any way that opens a chink of light for the reader, but it doesn’t always seem to work for Salter.

Salter was born in Michigan in 1954, received her BA from Harvard and an MA from Cambridge; was a staff editor at The Atlantic Monthly and poetry editor of The New Republic before co-editing The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th and 5th editions. Salter’s essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review. She has spent extended periods of time living abroad, alternately in Japan, England, Italy, Iceland, and France. Currently a professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, her sixth and latest collection of poems, A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems, was published in March 2008.

I thank The Writer’s Almanac for bringing to my attention a poem by Salter that I do like very much. In “Au Pair” a poem originally published in a 1999 collection and included in the more recent A Phone Call to the Future, the poet calls upon her experience of living abroad to paint a portrait of a French girl working as an au pair in American suburbia. Whether she means to or not, Salter shows us a fierce perspective of the American way. There is also a delightful sense of humor throughout. It might be that I connected with this poem because as a former expatriate most of the French girl’s observations about Americans and the American way of life mirror my own thoughts.


The first thing she’d noticed, as they sat her down for lunch
by the picture window, was flags all doing a dance
in front of houses: was today a holiday?
No, they said smiling, it’s just the American way,
and she couldn’t help reflecting that in France
nobody needed reminding they were French,

but the neighborhood had turned out very nice,
no fences, big yards, kids racing back and forth;
you could let the shower run while you were soaping
or get ice from a giant refrigerator’s face.
She couldn’t believe how much the franc was worth
and she had no boyfriend yet, but she was hoping,

and because her father was the world’s best baker
she naturally thought of his bakery in the Alps
whenever they passed her a slice of their so-called bread,
and sometimes she wished she could hire a jet to take her
back just for breakfast, but as her great-aunt had said
so wisely more than once, it never helps

to make comparisons, so she mostly refrained.
She couldn’t believe, though, how here whenever it rained
the mother sent children out without their coats,
not carelessly, but because she had no power
and nobody made them finish the food on their plates
and bedtime was always bedtime plus an hour,

so au pairs were useless really, except for the driving.
Yes, that was puzzling: after she cracked up the car
they didn’t blame her or ask her to pay a thing,
but once she let Caitlin eat some sort of cherry
with red dye in it, and then the were angry, very.
Americans were strange, that much was clear:

no penmanship, and lesbians held hands
on the street, and most women carried a pair
of pumps in a bag they never took out to wear;
it was so disrespectful, she couldn’t understand
how the older ones got called nothing, not even Madame,
but then nobody in this country had a last name

which was going to make it hard to write them a letter
when she got back. It was really bittersweet
her visa running out; she was sad that all
she’d done with her days off was go to the mall,
she’d bought a million T-shirts and that was great
but she had to admit it, saving would have been better,

and she knew somehow that when she got on the plane
she’d probably never live anywhere foreign again
which filled her American family with more pity
than she felt for herself, because at least she was coping,
she’d work at her sister’s shop and stay in the city
where she had no boyfriend yet. But she was hoping.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Nasty Stuff

Naw, that doesn’t happen to me. Heard a lot about it, read about it, and like everyone else gotten dire warnings about it. Every so often somebody tells me or emails that such and so virus is crippling computers like crazy, that I’d better be careful or run out and buy virus protection software. It happens to people I know, but every time I hear the story it’s about a PC running the Windows OS. And each time the answer is, “I use an Apple computer and I’ve never had a virus. I think it’s a Windows thing.” Always an easy answer…until yesterday.

Yes, it does happen on Apple computers, and for a while there some kind of nastiness had my iMac going bananas. Thankfully it wasn’t one of those bad strains that gobble up all your data and leave you dead in the water, but for neophyte me it was frustrating enough. There is no anti-virus software installed on the computer for the simple reason there’s never been a need for it. Other computers get viruses, not mine. Or so I thought.

It started with an image search. Putting together yesterday’s blog post on Viggo Mortensen it came time to find a picture to go with the words and Google was the most likely place. You know the drill; type ‘peanut butter images’ into Google and you get a hundred pictures of peanut butter. I typed the name and came up with several pages of Viggo Mortensen photos. Wanting a larger view of one possible choice, I clicked on it and everything went nuts. The monitor looked like a slot machine when you get five cherries in a row. For a second I thought celebratory smoke was going to come out the top. The noise settled down and a new window opened and began counting all the viruses that had built up in my system. After a couple of minutes it tallied the list and told me to click the remove button. That raised a window asking for my credit card number and how many months of Mac Shield guardianship did I want to purchase. I caught on to the scam then and started closing the windows that had popped up everywhere, dragging the already installed software to the trash. Then came the message about being unable to trash open software. I hadn’t ‘opened’ any software and couldn’t find anything to ‘Quit.’

Then the bad stuff started. Without my touching keyboard or mouse an Internet porno page popped up on the screen. I closed the page, but a minute later another porno site popped up, this time in a different gender—masters wielding whips against the cherry red buttocks of male slaves. In spite of the frustration I had to laugh. Closing that one I wondered what would be next. This is most of the time a G-rated blog site so I’ll say no more than that it involved women with oversized chests on rubber sheets. It was almost as though the demon now inside my computer was trying to determine which way to go, offering up a revolving smorgasbord of smut, trying to find the one that would slow my rush to close it. And then the pop ups switched gears and opened a list of places I could get Viagra at a discount. I quit Safari thinking that would finally turn off the slideshow of Sinderella and the gay dwarfs, but to no avail. This stuff didn’t need a web browser to open its doors and windows.

I tried everything twice then shut down the computer and went to bed. This morning with Apple Support on the phone and explaining the problem, the tech support guy cut in and said, “Say no more. I know all about it because we get hundreds of calls about this stuff. I’ll walk you through it and we’ll get rid of it.” And so it happened. In the process of cleaning the bad stuff out of my system he related a story of his own experience with the same kind of bug that got into his system through email. His final advice… If you click on something that prompts unexpected or unexplained behavior in your computer, immediately hit the ‘Force Quit’ in your Apple menu. You might catch it in time.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Watched a movie this week, the 2008 English-German production of something titled Good. It stars Viggo Mortensen as a university literature professor in Berlin, the late 1930s. Nothing specific about that picture, but…

Those of us who enjoy watching movies have personal favorites among the top (or otherwise) faces that turn up with some frequency. In most cases it probably has little to do with reputation, awards or star power, but more to do with a particular look or personality that strikes a chord. Sometimes the lavish praise and accolades heaped upon a certain film actor leave one completely unmoved. Just don’t care in some cases, despite the winning of awards and starring in big films.

Viggo Mortensen has received a slew of nominations for his work in movies, and on a few occasions has come out the winner. But his being recognized for the ‘Best’ this or that doesn’t play any part in the fact that I always enjoy a movie he appears in. May not be the best story, maybe not too gripping, but considering the fifteen or more movies I have seen in which he played a part, there is always something about the actor’s persona that holds my attention. I am never reluctant to buy a ticket when Viggo Mortensen is in the cast.

He was born to a Danish father and American mother in Manhattan in 1958. He lived for several years of his childhood in South America where his father was a ranch manager. After graduation from university he moved for several years to Denmark and began writing poetry. In 1982 he returned to New York and began taking acting lessons. He landed a small part in the 1985 Harrison Ford picture, Witness and that work drew him to Los Angeles where he began to work with some regularity.

No doubt most remember the actor for his role of Aragon in the popular The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and reading his film biography those movies are treated as a watershed in his career. That all happened between 2001 and 2003 but he did some interesting work before that in Carlitto’s Way (1993), Crimson Tide (’95), G.I. Jane (’97) in which he and Demi Moore had a terrific down and dirty physical fight scene. One of my favorites was the ’98 A Perfect Murder, a remake of the earlier Hitchcock film, Dial M for Murder. He followed the three Lord of the Rings movies with Hidalgo, a thoroughly entertaining horse race movie, then A History of Violence and in 2007 Eastern Promises which drew some critical acclaim for his performance, including an Academy Award nomination.

Aside from his acting career, Mortensen is the owner of publishing company, Perceval Press and continues to write poetry in his spare time. As a jazz musician he has released three CDs, and has had exhibitions of his photography in New York galleries. In A Perfect Murder, playing the part of a painter, the large murals hanging in his studio were all his own work. An accomplished horseman, he did all his own stunt riding in both The Lord of the Rings and Hidalgo, and after the completion of each film bought the horses he had ridden during the filming. Mortensen speaks Spanish, Danish and French fluently, and says that he can handle Swedish and Norwegian with some degree of fluency. In 2010 he was knighted by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.

“Be kind. It’s worthwhile to make an effort to learn about other people and figure out what you might have in common with them.” —Viggo Mortensen

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Eighty Years of Humor

Anyone even casually looking at a copy of The New Yorker magazine will notice the cartoons, regular readers of the magazine often confessing to flipping through and reading the cartoons before anything else. Since its founding in 1925 cartoons have been an essential part of the magazine, and the list of contributors reads like a who’s who of cartoon greats: Charles Addams, Reginald Marsh, William Steig, Roz Chast, James Thurber, Liza Donnelly, Chon Day and a few hundred others. Looking back at the work of these cartoonists as it appeared in The New Yorker over the years, provides a comic chronicle of eight decades, a funny, concise and timely commentary on the American experience. The publishers call it ‘the longest-running popular comic genre in American life.’

In 2004 Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers released a massive tribute to The New Yorker and its contributing cartoonists over a period stretching from 1925 to 2004 in the big, very big, The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker. This one requires a shopping cart to carry and a very large bookcase to accommodate its 13 x 11 x 1.5 inch measurements and over seven pounds of bulk. The problem with this book is that it requires a library table to read it comfortably. Not satisfied with all the material inside the book’s covers, the publishers added two CDs which include every single cartoon published in the magazine between 1925 and 2004. That’s over 68,000 cartoons all beautifully presented in digital format. The price? Unbeatable. I call it unbeatable based upon the price shown at the link above, but a big nod of thanks is due to my friend K who got tired of hefting her copy up and down and passed it on to me.

One of the highlights of the book is the essays prefacing each decade and introducing the reader to what was happening either in the wider world or on the American scene, along with other cultural pointers that help place the cartoons in a frame of sorts. There are also profiles of the leading cartoonists, those whose contributions were especially noteworthy—Peter Arno, William Steig, Roz Chast. There is a lot to read in this book, but close reading is not a requirement for uncovering hours of enjoyment with the cartoons alone.

I haven’t had time enough to go through the cartoons (or the essays) front to back, but I’ve seen and read enough to realize that Editor Robert Mankoff has done a tremendous job of putting this book together. His work has been complemented by essays from Calvin Trillin, John Updike, Mark Singer, Lillian Ross and others.

The included CDs allow what the backcover calls an ‘easy-to-browse’ system using Adobe Reader to help find cartoons by artist’s name, to look up the cartoons that ran the week you were born, and to pick out cartoons by subject.

Interspersed among the paragraphs above are a few of my personal favorites. The one above from 1935 reminds me of The Far Side cartoons by Gary Larson fifty years later.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Growing Apples

Going back to 1990, the purchase of a just released Macintosh Classic computer began my long-running love affair with Apple products. Before that time computers in my experience were all ugly boxes with black screens of lime green text, possessing no characteristics or features that held any interest for me. A suitcase heavy black Sanyo word processor with an inside roll of paper for printing, and capable of producing English and Japanese served well enough. The Mac Classic though was a whole new ballgame and with its sidekick StyleWriter printer sent the word processor straight into hibernation.

New Mac models were released, I upgraded to something a little bigger each time, and in 1994 got a Newton Message Pad 120, representing a whole new direction in personal data management. It was the first of the PDA devices, and while the core idea was sound, the hardware was clunky and the operating system full of holes. An earlier Scriblets post explained this device in more detail, but to shorten the story let’s just say the Newton didn’t live up to Apple expectations and by 1998 was history.

In 2007 Apple did the expected, carrying vastly improved Newton Message Pad technology into the design and operating system of the iPhone. That was quickly followed by the iPod Touch release, more of the same technology. Didn’t take me long to buy an iPhone when it was first released in Japan, and once again I was Apple-dazzled. The next big thrill came with the purchase of an iMac, a design that deserved all the awards that eventually came its way. Sleek, classy, smart and beautiful—Apple could do no wrong.

Then came April 2010 and the ultimate device, another one that owed it’s initial development to the old Newton. Enter the iPad. But for all the whiz-bang fireworks and glamour this one didn’t grab me, didn’t leave me with tongue hanging out. No sale. I chose to watch the iPad for a while, to wait and see what would happen in a year or so with a later model. From its unveiling and the press releases that followed, the iPad impressed more as a toy than a device that would increase, speed up or improve productivity. The first thought was that it had a “get more-spend more” idea built into it, a concept that would have users regularly feeding Apple and the App Store with a desire for more apps, more games, more ‘cool’ stuff. That notion left me resistant to the idea of owning an iPad.

On March 2, 2011 Apple unveiled the iPad 2. After almost a year of looking, reading and thinking about the the iPad I was ready to take a hard look at the iPad 2 with an eye toward buying one if it impressed me as having usefulness above and beyond playing games, checking Facebook and watching YouTube. At the end of May I placed an order for the iPad 2.

It arrived five days ago and slightly disappointed is the verdict. Compare the photos here of the iPhone and the old Newton Message Pad. The iPhone photo was taken with the iPad, the Newton photo with the iPhone. The camera on the iPad 2 isn’t even close to the iPhone camera. For me the biggest attraction on the iPad 2 was the email, offering a fourth option for checking, writing and sending email apart from the iPhone, laptop and iMac. Basically, the email works just fine; fast and dependable. I also like the way I can slant the iPad by folding the cover, making typing very easy on its large keyboard. Definitely a big plus. On the other hand, the spellcheck is clunky, there is no option for bold, italic or underlined type in email—or if there is, I have not found it in five days of searching. There is also no option for colorizing text, sometimes a useful function. Most troublesome was having to input all my contacts manually, since syncing the iPad with the iMac skipped the address book. Is that really supposed to happen? What does sync mean, if not copying and aligning data on two separate devices?

Using Safari on the iPad is also less than smooth. Here there is a good possibility that I will come to understand it all better in time and find moving between websites easier. With Safari the iPad doesn’t impress me as being as intuitive as what I’ve come to expect from Apple. The hope is that more practice and experience will open a few doors, reveal a few shortcuts.

The iBooks app and the downloaded books are beautiful, much more so than eBooks on the Kindle, and I do like most of the features, but miss the dictionary that is a part of the Kindle. I also miss the lightness of the Amazon eReader. The iPad 2 is a whopping 1.33 lbs (608 grams) and feels like reading text off a brick. The Kindle is also clear and easy to read in bright sunshine, a quality missing in the iPad. The search text feature is good, the page numbering much better than Kindle, a choice of fonts and sizes is available and the brightness of the page is adjustable, but there is no one-tap dictionary like that in the Kindle.

Am I sorry that I bought the iPad 2? Mmm…probably not. I depend upon Apple’s superior technology to either show me the way or to fix the clumsy bits in future iOS system upgrades. Meanwhile, I will give the new iPad a run for the money and hope that Apple is not holding its breath waiting for me to begin purchasing apps in their humongous profit generating App Store.

About Me

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