Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Getting Over the Hump

Obviously experience teaches. Do something often enough and the chances are good you will get better at it. The ‘urge’ to stay with a particular discipline day after day is not always easy, and in fact can be maddening, but in the end no teacher is required to assure that progress has been made. Practice may not always make perfect, but it definitely does develop ease and facility. This is especially true in the arts, where repetition, rehearsal, draft and concentration lead in the end to a work of satisfaction.

In a creative writing journal designed for exactly for this purpose, Allegra Newman and Peter Trauth have given young, or even published writers a format to inspire short imaginative pieces on a multitude of topics. Ms Newman and Mr Trauth published this past July a writer’s exercise journal called 365 Things to Write About! a get-started tool geared to the young or stymied writer’s needs. With a list of 365 one or two-word clues, a blank journal and sharp pencil, most will have all that is required to write descriptions, stories, poems, or simply a page of journal-like thoughts or feelings. The idea is to free the mind from hemming and hawing about ‘What can I write about?’ and set the writing-on-whatever in motion. Getting started is all by itself a huge leap forward and this format puts it all in your head and hand.

365 Things to Write About! is basically a thick, lined notebook of blank pages with a top corner word clue about either an object, place, concept, action, food, person, instrument, room…well, you get the picture, and that mental picture is all you get to set your pencil moving. With that one word and image in your head, forgetting all but the flow of thought that image unleashes, the chances are excellent that within fifteen minutes your page will be full.

The beauty of this type of exercise is in the confidence it builds on a daily basis. For some, day one may be grueling, day two only slightly easier and day three still a struggle. Little by little the process is going to get faster, less encumbered and more fluid—stick with the program and that’s a guarantee. It is to the credit of developers Newman and Trauth that they hit upon this method and laid it out in such simplicity without a camouflage of essays, guidelines, recommendations and theories. Here’s an idea—a hat—now write about that. Straight to the point.

I only wish this exercise book had been in my toolbox for the numbers of Japanese students who once daily moaned to me about their inability to fill one page in their journals. In those teaching days I could have made great use of 365 Thing to Write About! No question the students would have found some needed stimulus.

The simplicity of the idea and its get-started-now basis is without question, a system that inspires belief because it is a proven method. The developers have presented the plan in a no-frills format, that for all its stripped down efficiency does call out for a spot of color or visual enhancement. Being little more than a hefty, blank, black and white notebook with word hints printed at the top of pages, some might balk at the price. The book’s allure could be improved by a dash of color, and in one opinion at least, a binding that allows the pages to open flat. The meagre word clues are just right, still there is the feeling that the notebook-journal could have included graphic content to brighten the experience—a drawing of raindrops and a splash or two, a jumble of hats, a mound of fallen leaves. The plain blue cover reproducing a lined notebook page is less appealing than it could be, and the hope is that interested browsers won’t judge this notebook by its cover.

My appreciation to Allegra Newman for asking my opinion and sending a copy of 365 Things to Write About! The overall positive feeling about this exercise-journal is bolstered by Ms Newman’s and Mr Trauth’s agreement to donate one hundred percent of their royalties from sales between August 1 and October 31 to the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education.

The book is currently available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Meanwhile, take a look at what some writers have done with 365 Things.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Wondrously Multicolored

Once in a while childhood memories of Saturday afternoons in Baton Rouge float to the surface and I think back to those strolls down Third Street after a showing of Old Yeller or Jailhouse Rock at the Paramount, that aimless drift that sometimes carried us to the open doors of Woolworth’s. A store long gone, its aisles and smells are still anchored in some part of my brain awaiting the next spur.

The spark this time was a poem stumbled upon in one of the three Garrison Keillor anthologies, Good Poems for Hard Times, a poem by Minnesota poet Mark Irwin. It comes from Irwin’s 1996 collection, Quick, Now, Always and is titled “Woolworth’s.”

By way of introduction to readers unfamiliar with the name, Woolworth’s was one of the original American five-and-dime stores and one of the largest retail chains in the world during the twentieth century. It was one of the first American stores to put merchandise out for shoppers to handle and select without the assistance of a sales clerk. From 1913 until 1930 the Woolworth Building in New York was the tallest building in the world.


Everything stands wondrously multicolored

and at attention in the always Christmas air.

What scent lingers unrecognizably

between that popcorn, grilled cheese sandwiches,

malted milkballs, and parakeets? Maybe you came here

in winter to buy your daughter a hamster

and were detained by the bin

of Multicolored Thongs, four pair

for a dollar. Maybe you came here to buy

some envelopes, the light blue par avion ones

with airplanes, but caught yourself, lost,

daydreaming, saying it’s too late over the glassy

diorama of cakes and pies. Maybe you came here

to buy a lampshade, the fake crimped

kind, and suddenly you remember

your grandmother, dead

twenty years, floating through the old

house like a curtain. Maybe you’re retired,

on Social Security, and came here for the Roast

Turkey Dinner or the Liver and Onions,

or just to stare into a black circle

of coffee and to get warm. Or maybe

the big church down the street is closed

now during the day, and you’re homeless and poor,

or you’re rich, or it doesn’t matter what you are

with a little loose change jangling in your pocket,

begging to be spent, because you wandered in

and somewhere between the bin of animal crackers

and the little zoo in the back of the store

you lost something, and because you came here

not to forget, but to remember to live.

Currently teaching at the University of Southern California, Mark Irwin divides his time between California and Colorado. He has published six collections of poetry, the latest in 2008.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Crawling in Ranks

Nightcrawlers. The name is creepy enough, and surely spookier than the more common name, earthworm. ‘Nightcrawler’ comes from their habit of feeding above ground at night, but most of the time we expect to see them on a fishing hook or nosing through soil under the house. There are more than a thousand different kinds of earthworms worldwide, some of them growing to three feet in length. Probably to the relief of most people, common earthworms, especially the North America variety are just a few inches long, but nightcrawlers do claim the title of largest of North American earthworms and may grow to eight inches long. A few have been found to reach a whopping fourteen inches, weighing almost half an ounce. Earthworms do burrow deeply, but generally stay close to the surface, which is why we sometimes run across one when gardening or playing in the dirt.

During a heavy downpour yesterday, on the way out to the car to get something I found myself confronted by a near invasion of earthworms crawling in ranks across the covered walkway outside my door. My first thought was “Whoa! What the hell and where are they going?” I could see them slithering up out of the grass at the edge of the walkway as though desperate to get out of the sopping ground, but since there was nowhere for them to go, I couldn’t see their purpose. As it happens, rather than being flooded out of the ground and their tunnels, on rainy days earthworms seek out new homes and extra moisture. But what would encourage them to strike out across an expanse of clean concrete heading for a dead end wall?

Maybe not the most dependable of research, but students at one Florida elementary school found that European settlers brought nightcrawlers to North America, that native earthworms disappeared long ago. Nightcrawlers live in soil where they dig long tunnels, swallowing and digesting dead organic material as they go. Look and you’ll find them along damp river and stream banks, in the grass of lawns, gardens and parks. Their burrows may be six to eight feet deep, and according to the Florida State University website, as many as seventy nightcrawlers may be present in a square meter of soil. Their most common predators include frogs, turtles and birds.

Nightcrawlers live in large colonies that can grow by several meters a year. An individual may live as long as six years and produce an average of thirty-eight cocoons yearly, each cocoon containing a single egg. Earthworms perform the highly beneficial task of decomposition and aeration of the soil. They break down and assist in the decay of dead plant material that leads to improvement of the topsoil. As they burrow through the soil they mix nutrients, creating a network of tunnels through which air, water and nutrients travel. As they move through layers of soil from deeper soil toward the topsoil they carry minerals and nutrients from the richer bottom soil to the topsoil.

Though simple organisms, nightcrawlers have some interesting features. Their bodies are made up of approximately sixty percent protein; they have both male and female reproductive organs; they can regenerate a severed body part, though will die if cut in half; they breathe through their skin, and therefore must stay moist to aid breathing. When you examine a nightcrawler up close you see a reddish gray color and ring-shaped segments called annuli. Tiny bristles called setae cover each annuli. Nightcrawlers use the setae to slither and move, as well as burrow into the ground. Like all invertebrates a worm lacks a backbone. The first segment of the nightcrawler’s body contains the mouth. The fact that they eat decomposed plants for energy makes them herbivores. They will eat almost anything organic, but are not fond of citrus. In a single day a worm can eat up to a third of its body weight.

Obviously, nightcrawlers provide a valuable service to the earth, to gardeners and to farmers. Nasty, slimy looking creatures, but the advantages they bring are many. Scream, jump on a chair or run away, but keep in mind the part they play in keeping the earth rich and green. Charles Darwin said about them: ‘It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Falling Into Life

Not much chance that Hollywood stars Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan have escaped the attention of even rare moviegoers. Between the two, they’ve made something like 111 movies, most of them in starring roles. They have only co-starred in one movie during that time, the 1998 fantasy romance City of Angels, a remake of the 1987 German film by Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire. Despite lukewarm reviews at the time of its release, and comparison to the earlier film by Wenders, City of Angels has a lot going for it, standing up well in the thirteen years since 1998.

Apart from one or two missteps and indulgences by director Brad Silberling and writer Dana Stevens, the screenplay and direction are solid, and the two actors, deviating from their usual screen personas show another side of themselves and their craft. But the real strength comes from an original screenplay by Wenders, Der Himmel über Berlin, a thoughtful and intelligent story of angel and mortal. It’s an old story that angels watch over us, that somewhere on the periphery is a guardian angel to nudge us along the better path, to protect us, but more often to be merely a comforting presence. But this time one angel wants to cross the line.

Seth and his buddy angel Cassiel, are two among hundreds of other black-clad angels in modern day Los Angeles who gather on beaches to listen to the music of sunrise and sunset when they aren’t hanging out at the library. Mostly their job is hovering in the background to observe the mortals around them, and when duty calls, ushering dying humans into the next existence. They mostly live in the library (filmed in the impressive main branch of the San Francisco Public Library) and hang out on freeway signs or skyscrapers under construction. Seth has a new soul to usher out of life, a husband and father undergoing heart surgery at the hospital. Inside the operating theater he observes a surgeon fighting desperately to save the patient he himself has come to meet. Struck by how the man’s death affects this doctor so strongly, he begins to invisibly follow her, intending to soothe her distress. Not as easy as he anticipated, he decides to make himself visible as a kindly hospital visitor. Pretty much after that first meeting the two are mutually drawn closer and closer. In a new experience for him, Seth is falling in love with Doctor Maggie Rice (Ryan), and he is soon wondering what it must be like to experience taste, touch and smell. He wants to be human, to love this woman and to feel the joys and pain of mortal life. And so he does…

Both Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan are good as angel and surgeon, and are helped by their obvious chemistry as actors. For the most part, Cage is as soft and quiet as a new born mouse in his approach to Ryan, while her emotions and realities are shaken by this odd but compelling stranger. This combination of softness and puzzlement plays well and helps us attach our feelings to the developing relationship. Meg Ryan is an actress who has unfortunately done too much cutesy romantic comedy, but still proves every now and then that as an actor she has some appealing depth, and is a little more well-rounded than she lets on. And that’s where she is as Maggie Rice in City of Angels. She is impressive in playing this troubled but love swept surgeon.

Not familiar with other work of director Brad Silberling, it’s difficult to surmise what stage he is in, filmmaking-wise. He handles the subdued quietness of the film effectively, never letting it weigh the story down, or preventing the viewer from getting involved. His way of handling the film’s frequent crossovers from the spiritual to the material world makes those shifts easily believable. His best fortune in this film was in the casting.

In a supporting role, Dennis Franz steals every scene he’s in, hands down. Whether he’s paired with Cage or Ryan, in front of the camera our attention sways to his marvelously realized heart attack ex-angel hedonist. Wonderful. We first meet him hiding his pint of Ben & Jerry’s under the sheet of his hospital bed.

Probably not an award-winning movie, probably panned by many of the mainline film critics, still City of Angels is a movie to get comfortable with. The story works. Dish of ice cream, bowl of popcorn, cup of coffee, lean back and allow Hollywood to work its mildewed magic for a short time. You might just end up with a teary eye and a catch in your throat.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

“Short Sale”—The New Oxymoron

Today’s guest post is another by my good friend Kathleen, who last March wrote something here about their azalea-cloaked home in the nearby and charming town of Deland. Though she and her husband already have a retreat here at the beach, they have recently been looking for a larger place. The experience has been interesting.

I’ve always been fascinated by oxymorons—you know, those two words of contradictory meaning that are placed together for special effect, like “deafening silence” and “mournful optimist.” A new oxymoron has come into our vocabulary in the past few years and it has had predicted “special effect” on many people—like ME! It’s known as the “short sale.” It’s a real estate term that refers to a sale in which the proceeds from selling the property will fall short of the amount actually owed by the seller. As someone who has become way too knowledgeable about the “short sale” process, let me advise you that it definitely qualifies as an oxymoron—rarely does a “sale” actually take place and “short” applies to absolutely nothing except my patience right now and the “special effect” is my rising blood pressure.

Initially these sales sound like a gift to potential buyers—a property being offered much below what it is really worth. Who of us doesn’t love a bargain? Of course, you must first get past the fact that the disgruntled owner has most likely moved out and taken, along with his/her personal belongings, all appliances, light fixtures, doors, window coverings, light bulbs, electrical outlets, wall switch plates, and the occasional faucet. They do, however, generously leave behind dead creatures, crumbs, dust bunnies, what my Irish grandmother called “Irish Lace Curtains” (cobwebs), usually a foul, musty odor due to no electricity and therefore no A/C, and the occasional odd undergarment. I certainly do not intend to include ALL sellers of short sale properties—only the ones I have seen personally.

As to my current involvement in one of these oxymoronic sales, the “short” part of the saying is truly a joke. Our contracts were signed in early May and, as of today, no decision has been made. We are ready, willing, and able to purchase the property, but we don’t have the permission of the “money lenders.” Maybe that’s why Jesus threw them out of the temple all those centuries ago. To make things worse, just because the property is listed at one price, the final negotiator doesn’t have to approve that. They can ask for more—and actually have in our case.

As for the “sale” part of the saying, we could have bought and sold three other properties in the meantime—but it’s a bargain! I’ll have to keep repeating that while the men in the white coats are carrying me away to the funny farm in a straightjacket. At least I’ll have a place to live while the short sale negotiators continue negotiating!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Fringe of Green

For life at the beach, the singular hour each day is the one spent walking on hard sand a few feet above the the white froth of spent waves, a path that leads through scatters of seashells, gatherings of birds that peck at sand or stare hard into the unfolding water, the occasional starfish or gaudy pink of washed up plastic, the dangerous red of a beached jellyfish, a track that never dulls, never deadens, always enlivens. Conditions most of the year are agreeable enough to allow these short walks on the margin between ocean and firm ground. But once in a while hurricanes come along and though their passage may be a comforting distance offshore, that never dull track of local sand becomes a seething chaos of clashing waves, uncertain footing and high tides, a place even the birds abandon.

At such times I move the footwork inland a few hundred feet and walk the unshifting sidewalk or road that parallels the beach, offers few views of ocean or beach but instead pleases the eye with green rather than blue. Below are a few snapshots of that place just over the dunes where a beach view is available on tiptoe and where the driveway of beachhouse meets front door.

You wouldn’t guess it, but the backyard of this house opens onto the dunes. From backdoor to ocean is no more than a two minute walk across the beach. A beautiful house, is has none of the characteristics that are most often associated with a house on the beach.

Another 300 feet down the street we catch a thin wedge of ocean through the dune growth. At some time in the future when this oasis of green finds a buyer, a house will block this view from the road.

A very different look here, perhaps a shade closer to the beachhouse look, but it is probably the long staircase leading up to the front door that gives it a beachy flavor.

This empty lot on the same road offers a wider perspective of the ocean, but it too is a temporary portal sure to be shut one day by a newly built dream house on the Atlantic.

Nothing but an ordinary utility pole surrounded by palmetto. What catches the eye is the color and grain of the weathered wood in contrast to the fresh green of the palmetto.

Looking down the entrance road to a sprawl of condominiums called Turtle Bay. The beach is through the keyhole of light at the far end and another dozen or so condos are off to the left of the one in view.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Stationery Hobby Box No. 20

Thanks to a faithful friend in Tokyo, I recently received volume 20 of Stationery Hobby Box (Shumi no bungu bako), the sumptuous magazine for pen, paper and ink enthusiasts published three times a year. As much as I look forward to each issue of the magazine, reading it has become something close to exasperating. For a long time it was easy to run out and buy many of the goods advertised, as well as encounter on occasion some of the people featured in the stories. These days a ten thousand mile distance make that next to impossible.

This new issue is as beautiful as ever, chock full of fountain pens, ballpoint pens, pencils, notebooks, paper, stationery, ink and a dozen more categories of goods. The cover feature in this issue is the new Caran d’Ache RNX 316 series, which includes a fountain pen, rollerball, ballpoint and pencil. The body in this new series comes in either a round or hexagonal shape and is crafted of something called 316L stainless steel.

A feature article in the volume 20 issue is one on vintage Montblanc 146 fountain pens made between the years 1949 and 1993. Beautiful, each and every one, but something of an investment considering the least expensive is listed at $688.00 (seventh from the top, a black 146 made in 1980) and the most expensive at $3,767.00 (second from the top, a green and black 146 made in the years between 1949-1960). The average price of these eleven vintage Montblanc fountain pens $1,247.00.

The page above shows a spread of notebook, memos, passport cases, pencil cases and tiny pencils from Italian company, Fabriano. This page is one of several advertising quality European stationery goods.

The pages above and below are part of a feature on “The Strength of Handwriting.” The caption on the top example describes the pages of handwriting exhibited as having the qualities of ‘warmth and sound.’ The bottom examples are all the handwriting of men.

Popular with many people now is the collection of Mix Free inks allowing users to blend inks and create their own colors. The scan below shows a color wheel of the shades possible with just three colors: Aqua Blue, Cyclamen Pink and Sunny Yellow. Mix amounts are shown between the outer and inner swatches. M=Aqua Blue, M=Cyclamen Pink and Y=Sunny Yellow.

Interested in earlier posts about the magazine Stationery Hobby Box? Click on the links below.

No. 13

No. 15

No. 16

No. 17

No. 18

No. 19

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Fragrant One

During the years of living in Tokyo, lunch or dinner in one or another international restaurant was a regular treat each week. As is the case in any major city around the world, there is no shortage of restaurants in Tokyo serving food and recipes from all around the world. One favorite always looked forward to was Indian and it’s hard to count the many different Indian restaurants in Tokyo visited over the years. I have missed Indian food since leaving Japan to live in Florida.

As much as I like it, I’ve always been daunted by the thought of cooking Indian food myself; with all its exotic spices and ingredients, balancing all those flavors in the pot doesn’t seem easy. Indian cookbooks often describe elaborate spice mixtures in creating the curries and particular ethnic flavors of the Indian subcontinent. From who or where it came from is a mystery, but a curry cookbook wound up on my kitchen shelves and until today had never been opened. I looked through the book trying to find something uncomplicated that wouldn’t require buying every ingredient in a long list, and found in the ‘Bite on the Side’ section a fruit and nut pilaf that set my mouth to watering.

Basmati is a variety of long grain rice notable for its fragrance and delicately nuanced flavor. The word ‘basmati’ means ‘the fragrant one’ in Sanskrit, though an Arabic translation of the word comes out as ‘my smile.’ India is the largest cultivator of basmati rice, but it is easily available in the US from California growers. The grains of basmati are longer, and when cooked do not have the stickiness common to most long grain rice. Available in either a white or brown variety, the fluffy quality of the rice makes it an excellent choice for curries and pilafs. Basmati rice is the central ingredient in this fruit and nut pilaf.


What you will need:

1 generous cup of basmati rice

Scant 2 cups of water

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons ghee*, vegetable or peanut oil

Generous 1/3 cup of blanched almonds

1 onion thinly sliced

1 teaspoon cinnamon

seeds from 4 green cardamon pods**

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon black peppercorns, lightly crushed

2 bay leaves

3 tablespoons finely chopped dried mango

3 tablespoons finely chopped dried apricots

2 tablespoons golden raisins

1/3 cup pistachio nuts, chopped

* Ghee is clarified butter customarily used in India.

** With its strong taste and aromatic resinous fragrance, cardamom is a common ingredient in Indian cooking. Green cardamon is one of the most expensive spices by weight, though little is needed to add its special flavor. There were no cardamon pods in my supermarket and with the small bottled variety selling for $8.89, the cardamon was left out of my recipe.


Rinse the rice in several changes of water until the water runs clear, then let it soak for 30 minutes. Drain and set aside until ready to cook. Boil the water in a pan. Add the saffron threads and salt, remove from heat and allow the saffron to infuse. Put the ghee or oil in a large pan with a tight fitting lid over medium-high heat. Add the almonds and stir-fry until golden brown, then use a slotted spoon to scoop them out immediately from the pot; reserve for later. Put the onion in the pot and cook, stirring frequently for 5-8 minutes until golden but not brown. Add the spices and bay leaves and stir fry for 30 seconds.

Pour the rice into the pot and stir until the grains are coated with oil. Add the saffron-infused water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, stir in the dried fruit and cover the pot tightly. Simmer without lifting the lid for 8-10 minutes until the grains are tender and all the liquid is absorbed.

Turn off the heat and use two forks to mix the almonds and pistachios into the rice. Adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Re-cover the pot and let send for 5 minutes.

Serve with a green salad and bon appétit!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Wash of Sea Water

Bluenose Bear—If nothing else the name is interesting. Seeing as how it’s attached to a particular color of ink, it becomes even more interesting considering that color and name are as far apart as bobby pins and pizza sauce. Ridiculous to think that somewhere a bear with a blue nose gave Nathan Tardif an idea for a new ink. Looking at a swatch of Noodler’s recently released Bluenose Bear ink, not many would imagine bears with blue noses. Putting aside bears for the moment, the bluenose part holds no mystery.

Bluenose was a Canadian fishing and racing schooner from Nova Scotia built in 1921. It was a celebrated racing ship and hard-working fishing vessel that became an icon for Nova Scotia as well as an important Canadian symbol in the 1930s. The name “bluenose” originated as a nickname for the people of Nova Scotia around the late eighteenth century. In 1929 Canada issued a commemorative stamp honoring the schooner. A picture of the schooner appears on the bottle of Noodler’s Bluenose Bear ink.

When it comes to bears, the closest match might be polar bears, but rather than the bear or its nose, the new ink from Noodler’s is a color imagined for the water that polar bears swim in, perhaps even the water that the Bluenose sailed in. Something cold about the shade, a wash of arctic sea water with a dash of milk. Somewhere in the mixing bowl is a blend of green and blue, a smidgen of black, a dollop of white. Some of that can be seen in the photo of the Bluenose schooner. Whatever the particulars are that brought Mr Tardif to this color, I for one am happy it came to pass.

Not all reviews of this ink have been good. Complaints of feathering and bleed through are the biggest problems, mostly on Rhodia paper. That said, neither feathering or bleed through have been a noticeable problem in my experience—on paper not made by Rhodia. Most of my Bluenose Bear pages have been in the ever present Japanese notebook, Noble Note Plain with unlined ivory pages. Using the ink for just about three weeks, the reaction is an every time Wow! The enthusiasm could be dampened with different paper and a fountain pen other than the Sailor Professional Gear with medium nib, but something about the Bluenose Bear spells optimism.

The handwritten sample here is in a Rhodia Webnotebook, the swatch on white Clairefontaine paper. The Bluenose ink shows no feathering at all on the Rhodia paper or the Clairefontaine, and bleed through is minimal.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What Price Bananas

The 1956 publication of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” included a handful of other poems, among them one called “A Supermarket in California.” Written in 1955, this shorter poem, like “Howl” was also an experiment with the long line form which later became a Ginsberg trademark. A major influence in Allen Ginsberg’s life was Walt Whitman, and “A Supermarket in California” is in some ways an ode to Whitman. In more than one or two poems Ginsberg strove to find resonance with Whitman both style-wise and thematically. Like Whitman’s assaults on industrialized society and its encroachment on nature, there is much of the same in Ginsberg’s poem in a California supermarket. If not all, then most readers will be aware of the poem’s sexuality, something hard to miss with Ginsberg’s hand at imagery, but I will leave that for the reader to spy out. He starts by setting the scene: He is walking down an urban street, under trees and a full moon, having thoughts of Whitman, and pulled by two sides of life—the urban landmarks around him and the natural world of trees and moon. He enters a supermarket hoping to find beauty in the natural products there, hoping to see beyond the ‘commodities’ of modern society.


What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman,

for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees

with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went

into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families

shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives

in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you,

Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old

grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator

and eyeing the grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed

the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?

I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans

following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.

We strode down the open corridors together in our

solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen

delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in

an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?

(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the

supermarket and feel absurd.)

Will we walk all night through solitary streets?

The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses,

we’ll both be lonely.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love

past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?

Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,

what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry

and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat

disappear on the black waters of Lethe? —Berkeley, 1955

In Greek mythology Charon was the ferryman who carried the dead across the river Styx and into the underworld. The River Lethe was one more river in the underworld; drinking its water made one forget.

The photograph above was taken by William Burroughs in 1953 on the roof of Ginsberg’s Lower East Side apartment. Ginsberg was 27, publication of “Howl” three years off.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Counting Steps in Rhythm

Another HOA meeting on Saturday, another morning of baiting and battering among the homeowners in my pot of domestic soup, and another contaminated day when thoughts are unable to breakaway from the influence of nasty-cantankerous neighbors.

With an empty bag of ideas, the time seemed ripe for closing my yap and serving up a fun and exotic in-the-way-of Japan ‘precision’ video clip I found on YouTube recently. Good in the way it displays a wholly Japanese characteristic, an admirable quality in some eyes.

Nine minutes long, but you can fast forward the progress bar.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Getting at the Suds

Rummaging through a kitchen drawer recently a rusty old tool turned up under the slush of tarnished and half bent spoons, a set of long unused steak knives with oddly shaped handles and half a dozen broken corn-on-the-cob holders. The rusty surprise was a church key but not one I remember ever using or bringing home. No doubt a remnant from past gatherings where people brought food or drink, a few cans of beer. But this old relic of former days was enough to draw my thoughts back to the time when church keys were so common a college student could occasionally be seen wearing one on a string around his neck.

Most will admit that ‘church key’ is an odd name for something regularly used to get at a swig of beer. The earliest evidence of the phrase used in print is 1951, but stories about it date from 1935, which coincides with the time that beer was first sold in cans rather than just bottles. Pull tabs on cans didn’t appear until 1962, so the early beer cans required a tool of some kind to open. Nothing complicated—a flat but stout strip of metal with a sharp point which could be pressed into the top of the beer can to punch a triangular hole. This simple, easily made tool was immediately called a church key, taking the name of its predecessor, a bottle opener made of metal, with a round, oval or triangular open shape at one end to grip and pop off a bottle cap.

The shape of this earlier opener reminded people of the ornate handles of old fashioned door keys. A link with churches was probably formed because the keys that opened church doors were often large and ornate. Chances are good that another part of the name’s origin is an irreverent joke, since drinking beer is something that might be called un-churchly.

When beer cans first came out in 1935 they created a new problem—how do you get into the darn things? The new flat top cans made by American Can Company and National Can couldn’t be properly opened with existing tools. You couldn’t use a regular can opener without having a mess on your hands, counter top and floor. The can companies realized that to sell their product they would need something to open the new flat top cans, so the triangular hole punch opener was developed and called a church key, like it’s bottle opening predecessor. The earliest flat top beer cans included a small panel near the seam with instructions showing how to open the can. People were not yet comfortable with the new container and many of the beer cans displayed a full length opener (church key) with multiple instructional panels. By the late 30s the instruction panels were reduced in size and featured an abbreviated can opener view. In those early days customers usually got a free church key when they bought a case of beer, or if not, they were readily available from a grocer, package store, or even a bar. The giveaway church keys came with the beer or brewery name stamped on them, reminding you what brand to buy next time.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Grave of the Fireflies

Japanese animation, both in film and manga has garnered a wealth of attention and praise outside of Japan over the past ten years. The impetus, for animated film at least, stems mainly from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which reached American audiences in 2002, won an Academy Award and became the most successful film in Japanese history with earnings topping even the Titanic blockbuster. The film was well directed, beautifully animated and most important of all, produced by animation film studio, Ghibli. Spirited Away was just another of many feathers in the cap of Studio Ghibli.

Fourteen years before Spirited Away, one of Studio Ghibli’s founders made an animated feature with the strangely lyrical name, Grave of the Fireflies, or Hotaru no haka (1988). Using his own script based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel of 1967, director Isao Takahata made a movie that film critic Roger Ebert called ‘an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.’

Grave of the Fireflies is the story of a brother and sister in the last months of World War II, at a time when cites were being fire bombed and life for most was a day to day struggle. The film opens on an evening in 1945 in Kobe’s Sannomiya Station, where the boy Seita lies dying, succumbing finally to starvation. The movie shifts to a flashback telling a story of how things have come to this boy’s death. Seita and Setsuko are brother and sister, fourteen and four years old, growing up in the waning days of World War II. To Seita's great pride their father is a Japanese naval officer, and mother and children live difficult but fairly happy lives despite rationing and the other privations of war. When their mother dies from burns suffered during an American fire bombing raid, the two children are taken in by an aunt. This situation soon sours and the children are driven to move out and find their own way. For a few short weeks, Seita and his little sister enjoy what seems a happy and bucolic existence in the country, but the reality of their plight soon becomes clear to both Seita and his little sister. Food is scarce and costly when available and the stress of war and loss has hardened the compassion of most people Seita appeals to. He struggles to care for his sister while on another level coming to terms with the war and with the fate of their parents. The tragedy is both inevitable and unstoppable.

This animated feature is at the same time both poignant and agonizing, a powerful statement about the human condition, war, loss and death. Twenty-three years after its release Grave of the Fireflies stands as perhaps the most heartbreakingly human animated film ever made. On its surface the story is a simple one, but underneath are moments of such humanity that its simplicity is rendered golden. In this film we see how minimalism in the hand of a skilled director is used to create a gripping narrative that is close cousin to visual poetry.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is in its powerful imagery. Setsuko’s tin of fruit candies that empties so quickly, a metaphor for vanishing hope; fireflies dying too quickly, symbol for the falling soldiers of Japan, and the train in red sunset, a passage from life to death. There is much to consider in the firefly images that color so many of the night scenes. The short-lived insects have in Japan traditionally been a symbol of impermanence. Fireflies are also symbolic of human souls, characterized in the film as floating, flickering fireballs. In Western Japan (the setting of the film) are the Heikebotaru fireflies which hover near lakes and rivers and are considered to be the souls of a perished family in Japanese history.

The characters chosen for writing hotaru (fireflies) in the title are also particularly meaningful. Rather than choosing simple kana or kanji characters for the word, the writer combined the character for ‘fire’ () with the characters for tareru (垂る), a word meaning to dangle or hang. The combination 火垂る suggests senkô hanabi, a sparkler of fire droplets. The senkô hanabi also evokes the notion of families enjoying fireworks together in summer, perhaps a fond memory for the the boy and his sister. Further, the image of dangling fire describes how the fire bombs fall in the film. During the war many Japanese referred to the incendiary bombs as “fireflies.”

In Grave of the Fireflies no punches are pulled in showing the impact of war on the lives of Seita and Setsuko, yet the focus is primarily on the daily lives of the two children, and especially on a brother willing to do anything to spare a little sister. Life is tragic for these children but as director, Takahata balances the dark with bright colors and buoyancy. Setsuko plays with happiness untainted by the hopelessness of their condition, their lives.

The name Studio Ghibli alone is guarantee enough that the visual production is outstanding. Look for the small touches in the animation that reveal the details of a sigh, a child’s clumsy gait, the impersonal drone and flight of overhead bombers. Some will argue that in the years since Ghibli has produced better animated features, but I would argue with that, contending that Grave of the Fireflies is their masterpiece.

Another perspective in graphic format on the effects of war on young people is a 2003 book called Town of Evening Calm. Have a look here for a story that fits comfortably in the same hand with Grave of the Fireflies.

The Roger Ebert video clip below is long at eight minutes, but an excellent commentary and preview of the film.

About Me

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