Sunday, July 31, 2011

All Our Memories

Beginning in his teens Noël Coward published more than 50 plays spanning as many years. He composed hundreds of songs, over a dozen musical theatre works, he wrote poetry, several volumes of short stories, a novel and a three-volume autobiography. Throughout this constant flow of written material Coward also appeared in countless plays, revues and films. On his seventieth birthday British statesman Lord Mountbatten said this about Coward: “There are probably greater painters than Noël, greater novelists than Noël, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars. If there are, they are fourteen different people. Only one man combined all fourteen different labels—The Master.”

Among the 185 poems included in Garrison Keillor’s anthology, Good Poems for Hard Times (2006) is one by Noël Coward from his book Collected Verse. Contrary to Coward’s usual image of cocktails, high society and witty banter, his poem “Nothing is Lost” shows us a more serious side of the writer.


Deep in our sub-conscious, we are told

Lie all our memories, lie all the notes

Of all the music we have ever heard

And all the phrases those we loved have spoken,

Sorrows and losses time has since consoled,

Family jokes, out-moded anecdotes

Each sentimental souvenir and token

Everything seen, experienced, each word

Addressed to us in infancy, before

Before we could even know or understand

The implications of our wonderland.

There they all are, the legendary lies

The birthday treats, the sights, the sounds, the tears

Forgotten debris of forgotten years

Waiting to be recalled, waiting to rise

Before our world dissolves before our eyes

Waiting for some small, intimate reminder,

A word, a tune, a known familiar scent

An echo from the past when, innocent

We looked upon the present with delight

And doubted not the future would be kinder

And never knew the loneliness of night.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Party Time Plastic

What would mothers and housewives of the 1950s and 60s have done without Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise? Tupper’s invention and Wise’s savvy made it possible for women to work and earn money while keeping a focus on the domestic front in a setting of home, gossip and games. The workforce of women employed during World War II was one thing, but Tupperware parties in the post-war years were instrumental in creating a new labor demographic among women. The man who gave us Tupperware was born 104 years ago on July 28.

The inventor of Tupperware, an airtight plastic container, was born on a farm in Berlin, New Hampshire. Earl Tupper grew up dirt poor, never got beyond high school yet dreamed of becoming a millionaire, deciding his route to success would be as an inventor. Fancying himself another Thomas Edison, he carried pads of paper for scribbling down ideas. These he elaborated into notebooks filled with crudely drawn ideas for improvements to everyday gadgets, notes, descriptions and advice to himself. Tupper sent letters and drawings to different companies, but got little response. He earned a living doing landscape gardening, but was forced into bankruptcy during the depression. Tupper then found a job with Dupont Chemical.

During the 1930s, plastics were notorious for being greasy and extremely brittle with an unpleasant smell—not the kind of material that got wide use. Though Tupper’s claim to fame is the invention of Tupperware, his contributions to the science of plastics went even further. He was the first to develop a way of purifying a by-product called polyethylene slag into a form of plastic flexible, clear, and durable. He molded this new plastic into lightweight and non-breakable containers, such as cups and bowls. He later improved his design by duplicating the lid of a paint can and making the containers liquid proof with airtight lids. Tupper founded his Tupperware Plastics Company in 1938 but did not begin began selling his products in hardware and department stores until 1946.

In 1948 he joined forces with a dynamic woman named Brownie Wise who was having great success with a new scheme—selling Tupperware at home parties. She sold Tupper on the idea of parties that were fun, included silly games and a demonstration on how to use the products, as well as innovative uses of the Tupperware. The parties also happened to be an excellent platform for socializing in post-war America.

Based on the Wise marketing strategy, Tupperware products were taken off department store shelves in 1951 but experienced massive growth in sales at home demonstrations. This “party-plan” marketing conceived by Wise was a first. She enjoyed being in the spotlight with press releases and television interviews, exposure that eventually led to rumors naming her as the driving force behind Tupperware, as perhaps the woman who had rescued Earl Tupper from oblivion. In a fit of jealousy Tupper fired Wise in 1958. With no stock options, she received as severance a year’s salary. Not stopping there, Tupper purged her name from company records, removed photographs of her from the offices and threw the 600 remaining copies of her inspirational autobiography into a hole behind the company headquarters to be buried.

Soon afterward Tupper sold The Tupperware Company for $16 million to the Rexall Drug Company. He divorced his wife, gave up his US citizenship to avoid taxes, and bought an island off the coast of Costa Rica. The patent on Tupperware expired in 1984, one year after the inventor’s death in 1983.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Filmmaking Master Class: Tsotsi

One legacy of South Africa’s former system of apartheid is the concept of the township or shanty town. The most famous of these is Soweto, a huge sprawl of smaller townships on the edge of Johannesburg that by the 1990s had grown to more than one million residents.

The scene is a crowded commuter train on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Four young black men close in around a man they have picked out of the station crowd. Unaware he is their mark, the man smiles until a hand reaches for his money. A knife appears and just as quickly disappears into the man’s stomach. His attackers hold him up until the doors open and the train empties, then leave him to fall dead. Business as usual for Tsotsi and his partners in the violent world of Soweto township.

Coming only five minutes into the South African film Tsotsi, the economy and editing of this almost hypnotic scene were enough to assure that a master was at the helm. Written and directed by Gavin Hood, the picture won an Academy Award in 2006 for Best Foreign Language film. Surprising that it didn’t also take prizes for cinematography and editing. The film is based upon a 1970 novel of the same name by playwright Athol Fugard. The dialogue is in Zulu, Shosha and Afrikaan, including bits of English as well, but most of it is a form of criminal slang—the name Tsotsi is a slang word for “thug.” The ‘foreign language with subtitles’ aspect often works to disadvantage with some viewers who dislike reading subtitles and often think the label ‘subtitled’ equals ‘art film.’ Tsotsi is not a difficult film and in no way fits into the arty and obscure category.

Tsotsi is a young Johannesburg delinquent who has taken to a life of crime in order to support himself. From a troubled upbringing, a mother dying slowly from AIDS, an abusive father, he has developed a talent for violence borne of necessity. On the same evening of the train killing described above, Tsotsi shoots a woman while stealing her car, discovering later that her infant son is in the back seat. He walks away but is drawn back by the baby’s cries. Confused and uncertain, he takes the infant home and tries to care for it, at one point forcing a single mother living nearby to nurse the baby. It is this baby that awakens in the young thug a sense of humanity, and a story often violent blossoms with a kind of hybrid beauty as this newfound humanity seeps into the heart of a young criminal.

The narrative structure of Tsotsi is straightforward. Other than flashbacks of childhood that Tsotsi experiences early in the film, the movement of the story is linear—everything taking place over four nights. Apart from brief scenes with police and moments in the shabeen, there are but three environments in the film: the township, the railway station and area around it, and the nearby suburb of Triumph. Within these settings it is always Tsotsi who drives the narrative.

You will find no devices in this picture, no chases, explosions or computer generated images. In a theatrical style confrontations come through dialogue and staging that is often tableau-like in the director’s storyboarding. Scenes are lit to enhance the emotional content or to accent the story’s tension and what we see are more than a few gorgeous frames of dramatic composition. Taking for example the early scene in Tsotsi’s shack during a dice game, when the character of Tsotsi is in shirtless silhouette against a dark sky, apart and behind the players. The lighting and staging tell us wordlessly much about both characters and place. With such evocative staging we have to wonder if Hood as director was paying tribute to Athol Fugard’s stagecraft. Throughout the film are sequences where nothing is said and yet we follow perfectly the characters thoughts from the use of staging, camera and editing.

Presley Chweneyagae as Tsotsi is nothing short of masterly, quite the feat for a twenty-one year old making his first film. He has the hard eyes, the face of a tough childhood and a sullen air that speak a thousand words. It is mostly the story inside his head and through his actions we see and understand the change happening to him. Gavin Hood and his cinematographer Lance Gewer underscored Chweneyagae’s performance with carefully framed and lit scenes that zoom slowly in on Tsotsi’s face to reveal his thoughts. This method works well against the director’s belief that there always has to be more going on within a character than what he lets out. In the film’s final eight minutes the actor speaks a mere ten words and yet the play of his face and eyes tells volumes about the emotion tearing at his heart.

The final scene develops along a razor’s edge of tension with several possible outcomes, but the movie ends leaving the audience to wonder what happens next. The director chose to leave the audience hanging with the belief that it leaves more to talk about in terms of meaning and the fate of the young man. The DVD offers a choice of three endings, and seeing the alternatives certainly proves that the hanging ending works best. Of the alternatives, one is too predictable and the other slightly glib and unconvincing. The story in the film deserves to be talked about and Hood with his producers has chosen an ending that ensures that.

A final word about music. The scoring of Tsotsi uses throughout the music culture of the township, a type of music called kwaito, the perfect fuel for this story. Most popular among the black youth of South Africa, it is similar to hip hop with lyrics sung, rapped and shouted. Interesting that the sound of kwaito originated from the use of European instruments by African laborers. The soundtrack for Tsotsi is at one moment beautiful and pounding, the next lyrical and soft.

I happened to see it a little late, but Tsotsi is easily the best film of my year.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Perfume and Oranges

During the Reconstruction years following the Civil War, in a building dating from 1832 two New Orleans sisters opened a notions shop at 613 Royale Street in the French Quarter. The structure included three stories, an attic, and a generous inner courtyard. Members of a proud and aristocratic Creole family, Emma and Bertha Camors outfitted many of the city’s finest women with formal gowns, lace and perfumes imported from Paris. Today, the former notions shop is a restaurant set in a large wisteria covered courtyard named Court of Two Sisters.

The poem below, “The Court of the Two Sisters” is from Phillip Lopate’s recent book of poetry, At the End of the Day (2010) and brings together the majority of his poems, most written during his youth. Lopate describes it this way: “Though I am known today mostly as an essayist, occasionally as a fiction writer, for about fifteen years I wrote poetry…When I look back at those years during which poetry formed such an important part of my identity, I am tempted to rub my eyes, as though recalling a time when I ran off and joined the circus.” He is also the author of numerous essay collections, including: Notes on Sontag (2009), Portrait of My Body (1996), Against Joie de Vivre (1989), and Bachelorhood (1981). Getting Personal (2003) includes both the writer’s prose and poetry.


The slow green fans turning in the courtyard

Of the classy restaurant in New Orleans;

The green napkins and the Negro waiters

Advancing in their bright green uniforms, superiorly

Filling the large water goblets dusty in the sun.

The hot rolls with curled butter shells like snails

And the enormous breakfasts served at all hours

Of Eggs with lemon sauce, asparagus, ham and toast points;

Cold creamed shrimp soup, oranges.

I read two newspapers at once, starting with sports;

Crowding the tablecloth with unwanted sections.

And when I was too stuffed to go on

I ordered a chickory coffee, dark and bitter

And a Charlotte Russe bursting with whipped cream.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Another Kind of Day

Leaving home at 7:30 headed for the station and a train to Shibuya, there is a chill in the morning air of Tokyo. A light jacket is enough in early December but the overcast sky shows signs of rain as I cross the bicycle parking lot, pass along the riverbank and join the crowd entering the station. On the escalator I become one in a sandwich of businessmen, students, shop girls and part-time office ladies, all plugged into iPods or cell phones, the electronic security blanket that will enfold them for the time between home and wherever.

The ride from Kugayama to Shibuya has me wedged against a schoolboy on one side, his lumpy backpack pressed hard against my right arm, a businessman’s oily head with barcode strips of hair against my chest and two inches under my chin, and somewhere behind me an umbrella handle presses into my back while muted sounds of J-Pop leak from nearby headphones. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Twenty minutes later people pour out of the train’s doors at Shibuya Station galloping for the exits and transfer points, a kinetic burst of pandemonium that hides purpose and direction beneath an almost frenzied scatter and dash of bodies. I navigate the shoulder to shoulder traffic under Tarô Okamoto’s giant Myth of Tomorrow mural, down a short flight of steps and onto the Yamanote Line, but not before a bustling grandmother jostles the Kindle out of my grip, which I save with a lucky catch.

Another twenty minutes, a less crowded train and I’m let out near the end of my commute, but still two subway stops away. Climbing out of the station I turn away from the thick stream of students following the main road and cut through narrow lanes leading eventually to the university campus. Always a quiet pleasure to pass through that oasis of calm green, the precincts of Hakusan Shrine where tailless cats lounge under wisteria trees and lone supplicants sound a bell to announce their presence to a dozing god. My path leads through an alley of giant hydrangea bushes and under a low bridge that necessitates ducking the head. Something this time distracts me and failing to duck properly I crack my head on the overhead cypress beam.

Slightly dazed I reach the campus with a trickle of blood from hairline to cheek, my handkerchief red with sopping at the small cut. It’s nothing serious and a nurse in the clinic patches me up, suggesting I come back if the headache is still there after my first class. In the few minutes before the class chime, when cell phones are still out and in the grip of addicted fingers, I imagine students clicking off a fast text to friends, reporting that their teacher arrived bloody and bandaged.

Done with classes and on the way home, the afternoon sky has kept its cloudiness and people around me hold onto furled umbrellas. I pause at a greengrocer’s to admire a box of fat and beautiful shiitake mushrooms. Along with onion and green pepper, I buy a large handful of the shiitake, imagining it all drizzled with olive oil and miso.

A minute’s chat with Nakajima-san in the secondhand shop on the corner. I am looking for an original train conductor’s silver pocket watch and he has promised to hunt one down for me. Knowing that Nakajima-san will find the watch either soon or later, patience is easy.

A quick change of clothes, the gym bag, and off from home again. Tipness in Kichijôji is within walking distance and it’s my day for a workout on the machines and treadmills. Lucky, I arrive just as heavy clouds let go with a sudden gush of rain.

Sweating under sixty pounds of clanking iron I wonder if a size 32 is forever in my past. When Takehara-kun, one of the Tipness trainers reminds me that hot dogs and beer might have something to do with it, I laugh, knowing he hit the nail on the head.

The rain has washed a part of the soot and grime from the face of Kichijôji, just coming awake in its nighttime neon facelift as I walk through a light drizzle and orange-haired club touts scouting for hostess material in the flow of passing girls. Before getting on a train I stop in the station office to renew my train pass for another month, passing over a stack of bills amounting to almost $80, comfortable that the full amount will be reimbursed by my employer.

Kugayama’s streets are wet and dark, reflections of headlights sparking patterns of gold on my road home. Tired now and thinking about a plate of stir fried shiitake, onion and green pepper. And yeah, maybe that bottle of beer Takehara-kun has me worrying about.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tortoiseshell Crisis

Remember back in 1965 while filming Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine Annette Funicello announced in the tabloids that her worst nightmare come to life was the day her hair rollers disappeared? I’m sure it was horrible, but then we all have our nightmares.

Sensitivity to strong light is a daily problem for many people, and in my case even the thought of leaving home without sunglasses is enough to bring on a squint. Harsh light along the coast of Florida is often hard on sensitive eyes, and other climates as well no kinder to certain eyes, mine among them. A rainy late afternoon in Seattle would probably see me in sunglasses. And with that dependency, being without is not an option. Sunglasses in my world are not anything I want to leave at home, forget in a restaurant, carelessly break or ever be without.

For so many years I’ve lost count, the same pair of Ralph Lauren Polo sunglasses has been my daily walk out the door and forget-me-not accessory. So long ago, it’s hard now to remember where I bought them, but something makes me think they are from a Tokyo optician in Shibuya named Paris Miki. Can’t recall the price but if it was Tokyo then they were probably expensive. The glasses are Italian made of tiger tortoiseshell, proven strong through multiple lens changes, hard travel and the occasional fall to the floor. For a long time they have been as much a trusted friend as a useful tool.

Too bad that such good things eventually come to an end. My old stand by sunglasses are in their last days and won’t last much longer. They are dying of old age and have a fragility about them that translates as worn out, used up and falling to pieces. A trip to the local optician only proved the case. I took them in hoping they could turn a screw, make an adjustment and tighten up the tired frames, but learned that the old specs are beyond help. No surprise to anyone, Ralph Lauren discontinued this particular style long ago, making a replacement pair near impossible. Tortoiseshell sunglasses in a design not greatly different are still in the Polo line up and that will likely be the solution. Brand wise I'm not married to Ralph Lauren and would be just as happy with Magnavox or Plymouth, but they don’t do tortoiseshell, which is my true eyeglass love.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Fancy Shower Curtains

Idle Sunday, hours of no account, eyes aimed at blue waves and summer, mind seeing another side of the world. Late in the afternoon, the bright red of another Garrison Keillor anthology caught my eye and after a dull poem or three, I stumbled upon a diamond, or at least another view of department store sales. Here is a poem by Faith Shearin from her 2002 collection The Owl Collection.


My husband and I stood together in the new mall

which was clean and white and full of possibility.
We were poor so we liked to walk through the stores

since this was like walking through our dreams.

In one we admired coffee makers, blue pottery

bowls, toaster ovens as big as televisions. In another,

we eased into a leather couch and imagined

cocktails in a room overlooking the sea. When we

sniffed scented candles we saw our future faces,

softly lit, over a dinner of pasta and wine. When

we touched thick bathrobes we saw midnight

swims and bathtubs so vast they might be

mistaken for lakes. My husband’s glasses hurt

his face and his shoes were full of holes.

There was space in our living room where

a couch should have been. We longed for

fancy shower curtains, flannel sheets,

shiny silverware, expensive winter coats.

Sometimes, at night, we sat up and made lists.

We pressed our heads together and wrote
Our wants all over torn notebook pages.

Nearly everyone we loved was alive and we

were in love but we like wanting. Nothing

was ever as nice when we brought it home.

The objects in stores looked best in stores.

The stores were possible futures and, young

and poor, we went shopping. It was nice

then: we didn’t know we already had everything.

A good poem, wouldn’t you say?

Faith Shearin’s first book of poems was The Owl Question, published in 2002. A second collection, The Empty House, came out in 2008. Her more recent work has appeared in North American Review and Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework. Ms Shearin is a recipient of a 2009 NEA fellowship and lives in North Carolina.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rosemary Tenderloin

Dinner with friends one night recently was an unexpected delight of beautifully cooked pork tenderloin. Hours later, with the flavor of the meat still lingering on my palate, the idea arose to try my hand at cooking a pork tenderloin, a particular cut of meat outside my cooking experience. Fortunately, there are a few cookbooks on the shelves around here and finding a recipe that looked easy enough for a first timer wasn’t hard. The Louisiana cookbook, River Road Recipes includes one that looked just about right without requiring three bags of groceries. But before pulling out the pots and pans I read the recipes and comments on pork tenderloin in two other books.

Tenderloin’s small size and leanness make it susceptible to overcooking, so an instant-read digital thermometer is a helpful tool for cooking the meat perfectly. The National Pork Board suggests cooking the meat to an internal temperature of 160°, and that is achieved by removing the tenderloin from the oven at 155°. The pork will continue to cook for a short time after being removed from the heat. If you ask Gordon Ramsey or any others on Master Chef they will tell you to remove the pork at 145° or 150° (it is safe at this temperature) and let it rest five minutes. If you don’t like pink pork, use the higher number, but bear in mind that 150° will result in juicier pork.

The recipe I chose comes from River Road Recipes III (The River Road, running along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans is an area famous for good cooking.) and is the third volume of a series that first appeared in 1959. This dish is called Rosemary Pork Tenderloin.


2-3 lb pork tenderloin, well trimmed

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Zest of 1 lemon

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper


Combine everything but the pork in a 12x8x2-inch dish; mix well. Add the tenderloin and turn to coat in marinade. Cover and chill for 1 to 2 hours. Watch your time on this because some recipes for tenderloin warn that if the marinade includes citrus juice anything over two hours will make the meat mushy. Remove the tenderloin from the refrigerator thirty minutes before cooking. Preheat oven to 425°. Coat an iron skillet with oil and sear the tenderloin over medium-high heat to brown on all sides, about five minutes in all. Place the skillet with the tenderloin in the oven and roast from fifteen to twenty minutes, until the internal temperature is 145°. Remove from the oven, tent the pork with foil and let it rest about five minutes before serving.

Overcooked tenderloin is dry and not what you want to put on the table, so care is needed in monitoring the meat’s internal temperature. I use a digital thermometer because it gives an instant read out and lessens the chance of overcooking. No question that the older dial-type thermometer will work and I know some who can use it skillfully, but with my lack of experience I feel more comfortable with the digital.

Any number of vegetables (or fruit) can accompany this dish, and I chose three of my favorites: potatoes and zucchini roasted in olive oil and rosemary, along with steamed fresh asparagus, and a green salad to add some color to the table.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Words and Pictures

Something of a mixed bag this time, not a whole lot on my mind, jumping from one thing to another, fiddling with a couple of things around the house. Somewhere last week I came across a funny story about the antacid medicine, Rolaids I want to share, along with a couple of nutty bits from In the end I decided to tack on a page from my journal for Friday that shows a sketch of the old Adirondack chair from where I sit and look out to the waves and soaring pelicans.

A commercial from the 1970s is well-known for the familiar tag line: “How do you spell relief?” Of course, the answer was always, “R-O-L-A-I-D-S.”

According to a Wikipedia article, during classroom study in the 1970s, schoolchildren asked to spell the word ‘relief’ would on occasion answer in all seriousness— “R-O-L-A-I-D-S.”

For anyone who hasn’t discovered the website of broken English aptly titled, click over there and have a laugh or two. It’s all in fun and meant as no slight or insult to students of English in other countries, particularly those in either Japan, Korea, China or Thailand. The website has grown tremendously in the last few years and now offers terrific entertainment. For the long time I lived in Japan there were always examples of fractured English to be found on packages, signs, T-shirts and in the trains. For some months Tokyo Gas had an ad in trains and subways shouting out, ‘MY LIFE, MY GAS!’ Then there was the commercial in movie theatres for Kanebo cosmetics. It showed a beautiful young lady applying make up with an overly saying, ‘Kanebo—For Beautiful Human Life.’ Maybe directions on the box explained that it wouldn’t work on cows and monkeys.

So, here are two funny photos from The red sign makes you wonder just where the hotel is located, in a jungle or gay neighborhood.

The photo of the out of order urinal certainly stimulates the imagination. Right off it makes me think that the urinal will pull a reverse and pee on the person standing in front of it.

Haven’t used the watercolor pencils in a long time and figured the time was right. Out of the drawer now hopefully they’ll get more exercise.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Plug In, Tune Out

Isn’t the idea of a vacation or holiday to set aside a period of time, whether a weekend in the mountains or three weeks in the Greek Isles, for relaxing, breaking routines and turning your back on pressures? Roll those things together and it will likely spell something along the lines of TEMPORARY DISCONNECT. By all that’s logical the goal should be refreshment, renewal, a charging of the batteries and at the same time an emptying out of stressful thoughts. And for those who don’t try to squeeze too much into a holiday, the return to home, work and daily customs is more often than not accomplished with a renewed feeling of energy and optimism. The time away has served the very purpose it was designed for.

That’s not the scenario these days when staying connected supersedes just about every other priority. At this time of summer carloads of people arrive weekly to spend some days on the beach here in Florida—to swim, surf, fish, build sandcastles, to walk or lay about on the beach. Every day is an almost endless vista of blue-green ocean, white sand and clear skies; a setting famous for natural scenery, sea turtle nesting sights and endless flights of soaring pelicans. All that and a good percentage of the holidaymakers spend their time here plugged in to cell phones, iPods and laptops. There seems to be a fear of being disconnected, however briefly, a need to escape the present moment or reality, to get back online with distant friends and workmates.

Walking on the beach each day I pass dozens of people lost in either a phone call or text message—eyes glazed, steps unseeing and the world around them invisible. They are connected to someone or something not a part of the present moment beyond the 2.5 inch screen of a cell phone. An equal number disconnect themselves from the sound of tumbling surf, the bird calls and laughter of people at play by plugging their ears with a custom made soundtrack from their iPod.

Sadly, those who most abuse the modern convenience of cell phones and anytime-anywhere connectivity are the teenagers. Under pretense of taking a survey I asked a young lady by the pool how often she used her tightly clutched cell phone. She said that she was twelve years old and that she never ever put her phone down, but probably sent no more than twenty-five texts in one day. Another—a young fella around fourteen or fifteen has walked past my patio several times each day for the past week, heading for the beach, always eyes down, always texting. And yes, we do have bosses on vacation walking around with a Bluetooth gadget in the ear talking and gesturing like lunatics to invisible employees.

Aloneness, isolation, out of touch, disconnected—are these perhaps the new fear and trembling of our society?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Rock Star Manual

I’ve never been much of a hard rock fan, but personality with the magnitude of Steven Tyler’s is hard to miss for even a lawn chair on the dark side of the moon. The hard rock band Aerosmith, with Tyler as its frontman has been around since 1970, and though he may be more familiar now as a judge on American Idol, the man has been a legend in the music business for over forty years. There’s talk about a “Back On the Road Tour” for late 2011, playing eighteen shows in Latin America and Japan and the sixty-three year-old Tyler says, “I’m looking forward to sweating up a storm with the crazy Latin American fans.”

No doubt many fans would laugh, but most of my exposure to the megastar rocker has been through his weekly appearances as a judge on American Idol this year. There is always something about his look and his comments to the young wanna-bes that I like, often wondering how far removed the Idol personality is from the rocker persona. Not long ago I saw that he had a newly released autobiography called, Does the Noise In My Head Bother You? in bookstores and I ordered a copy, eager to get a peek into the mind and personality of the always interesting Mr Steven Tallarico, aka Steven Tyler. (Should you ever meet the man face to face DON’T call him Steve.)

No attempt here to recount episodes from Tyler’s outrageous and wild and high speed life in the business of rock ’n roll stardom. Too many, too much and far too X-rated for any telling in the few lines permitted here. Easy to sum up however: Sex, drugs & rock ’n roll, more sex, more drugs, 24-7 rock ’n roll, rehab, sex, drugs, rehab, rock ’n roll and more rehab. From what I gather in the book, Steven is clean, sober and drug-free now, but until he achieved that stage in his life he was in rehab so often he even met Lindsay Lohan. Much of the book is an explanation of the process of writing hit songs, and there have been many over the years and reign of Aerosmith. Anyone who has seen Steven on American Idol has heard examples of his crazy word rhymes, and one of the pleasures of his book is the great number of rhymes and wordplay that he uses to describe his life. Near the end of the book he writes:

Ah, yes, it was the best of rhymes it was the worst of rhymes…

I’ve been mythicized, Mick-icized,

Eulogized and fooligized,

I’ve been Cole-Portered and farmer’s-daughtered,

I’ve been Led Zepped and twelve-stepped.

Tyler’s is a hard autobiography to read for a couple of reasons. The weight put on song lyrics gets to be tedious after a while, and while it is interesting to know how and where inspiration came from, complete lyrics of song after song begin to wear, especially for one unable to put a tune to those words. And then there is the relentless, but I mean RELENTLESS sex and drugs for year after year. You wonder how any of them are still alive today. The fact that Steven Tyler is alive today and looks as good as he does at sixty-three, well, that is some kind of miracle. Sure, all the money helps, but he is walking testimony to the bounce back quality of the human body.

I should make clear that in saying Tyler’s book is hard to read, it is still one that held me through the last page. Most of the book is interesting and the personality of the writer keeps the reader curious about how things turn out. But for me it was a slow read, meaning that I rationed the pages to about ten per day and that way got over the ‘hard’ parts. There is something to be learned from a book like this. Though Tyler and the others in Aerosmith have weathered the pressures of super stardom, his story makes it easier to understand what happened to those who didn't, the Jim Morrisons, Kurt Kobains and Janis Joplins. Let us not mistake it to be all roses, champagne and big paychecks. Tyler tells the other side as well.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Kuroda Seiki: Painting Light

In writing about Japanese artist Tsuguharu Foujita recently, the name Kuroda Seiki was mentioned as a teacher of Foujita. In Foujita’s younger years Kuroda (1866-1924) was already firmly established as an important artist in Japan, one who had spent ten years in France studying and one whose contribution in bringing Western painting to Japan is obvious from the label, “Father of Modern Japanese Western-Style Painting.”

Kuroda’s original purpose in going to Paris had been to study law, but while there he met several painters who encouraged him to paint. Not a new idea for the twenty year-old Kuroda who had been painting as a hobby for several years, and in a letter to his father he wrote: “Everyone says that Japanese art does not equal Western art, and is strongly urging me to study painting. In addition, I have also been told that I have the fundamental skills to take up painting, and that if I were to study, I would become a very good painter, that my study of painting would be more meaningful for Japan than the study of law.”

In 1886 Impressionism was already a reckoning force in Paris and while honing his painting skills through academic training, Kuroda also began to absorb the theories of that school. He began to mature as a painter around 1890. Prior to that time he had occasionally taken short sketching trips, but in May of 1890 his work began to show great progress during a stay in the village of Grez, where he settled for some months. Kuroda began to paint in the ‘plain air’ style that was a big part of Impressionism. The Impressionists had already shown the effect of natural light and Kuroda was learning to paint light.

Four years after returning to Japan Kuroda was a recognized and well-regarded artist not only in his own country, but internationally as well. By the time of his death in 1924 his impact on Japanese art was enormous. One of his major contributions was in convincing his fellow Japanese of the validity of the nude figure as a subject for art.

A woman sits enjoying the cool against a background of Ashino Lake and mountains on the far shore—the ideal image of an elegant Meiji era woman. Painted in 1897, the work is titled Lakeside.

Kuroda shows a young girl seated at a window concentrated on her reading. Her right hand is about to turn the page and the red and dark blue clothing stands out against the lighter background. In her face we see highlights of white reflected from the window light. The brush strokes are quick with visible strokes, characteristic of the Impressionist style. Reading, 1891.

This shows a triptych of three nudes, a work that created a near scandal when first exhibited. Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment; painted in 1897.

Withered Field, 1891; the French village of Grez on the Loing River. Kuroda noted that the winter landscape was more picturesque than the summer.

In this work, A Girl with Red Hair, painted in 1892, rather than the girl, Kuroda’s focus seems to be on depicting the sunlight shining on the girl’s red hair and the vivid lustre of the leaves. One of the most Impressionistic works Kuroda produced while in France, it was painted in Grez-sur-Loing.

A Nap, painted during a stay in Kamakura in 1894; midsummer sunlight filtered through trees on a sleeping girl is captured in strokes of red and yellow. This work goes beyond mere ‘plain air’ and demonstrates the artist’s skill with light, a strong characteristic of the Impressionists.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Chronicle of Peanuts

The average American boy eats 1500 peanut butter sandwiches before reaching the age of eighteen. It may be peanut butter and jelly or a dozen other spreads including honey, jam or preserves. Might even be peanut butter and banana, which isn’t uncommon in southern states. In the early 1930s peanut butter and mayonnaise spread on saltines was popular in Georgia, and all of us have probably known a goofball or two who liked their peanut butter in some other disgusting mix. At the bottom of it all is the huge popularity of this American tradition, one that has its roots south of the border.

Despite the name and what many people assume, peanuts are not nuts but legumes. They were known in South America, likely Brazil, as early as 950 BC. The Incas grew peanuts and made them into a paste, though it’s doubtful their peanut paste was anything like Skippy. Peanuts reached the United States via Africa, where they were carried by early explorers of South America. From Africa they were later traded to Spain, and from there to the American colonies. Commercial peanut farming began in North Carolina around 1818 and by the 1840s had spread to Virginia. During the Civil War years peanuts were being made into a kind of porridge, experience proving that peanuts were a valuable source of protein and perfect for soldiers in camp or on the march.

Crop wise, one acre of peanuts yields 2860 pounds of peanuts, enough to slather up 3000 peanut butter sandwiches. The typical jar of peanut butter that we buy in the supermarket requires about 850 peanuts. Compared to others, Americans are rather singular in their taste for this spread. It doesn’t enjoy great popularity outside the US, but Americans eat 700 million pounds of it a year, which is about three pounds per person, and an amount large enough to cover the entire floor of the Grand Canyon.

In 1890 a doctor in St Louis came up with the idea of packaging peanut paste for people with bad teeth. At the time it was selling for six cents a pound. A few years later the Kellogg brothers patented a process for making peanut butter with steamed peanuts. The Universal Exposition of 1904 introduced peanut butter to the world. By 1922 Joseph Rosefield was churning peanut butter in California and received the first patent for a spread that could stay fresh for up to one year. One of the first companies to adopt Rosefield’s process was Swift & Company, later renamed Peter Pan. A few years after that Rosefield founded the Skippy label and in 1934 produced the first crunchy-style peanut butter. Proctor & Gamble got into the game in 1955 and in 1958 introduced Jif. Now owned by the J.M. Smucker Company, Jif is made in the world’s largest peanut butter plant, producing 250,000 jars a day.

Peanut butter is made with oven-roasted peanuts, most of them grown in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Once roasted the peanuts go through a process of rapid air cooling to prevent further cooking. The outer skin is removed with belts or brushes and the waste (skins and hearts) from this process is passed on to farmers and manufacturers of bird food. In the factory the peanuts are then split, cleaned and sorted before going into a grinder where they are pulverized before other ingredients such as salt and sugar are added. A stabilizer is used to prevent the oil and peanut butter from separating.

Even skunks like peanut butter, though the video clip below shows it’s sometimes a risky business. As for me, I’m getting tired of just thinking about it, so will head to the kitchen for a crunchy-smooth peanut butter and dill pickle sandwich.

About Me

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