pseudopodium
. . . San Francisco

. . .

The mural covering one wall of the Noe Valley cafe depicts smug colorfully clothed peasants picking (and, for unclear reasons, stomping) red coffee beans. All their feet are bare except for one Dorothy-Lamour-lookalike picker wearing a pair of stylish but sensible shoes. A rich thin woman and her four-year-old leave the cafe's toilet, the child clutching a new plush bunny. The woman says something to the child and asks me if I was waiting. I gesture assentingly. She says something else, more crossly, to the child, takes the toy away, and gestures with it towards me: "You want it?" I'm confused. She shakes the bunny at me impatiently: "Don't you want the key?" Holding it by its ear, I see the restroom key attached to a ring at its navel.

. . .

Juliet Clark kindly forwarded this excerpt from Prof. Louis Jordan's recent report on economic conditions in the San Francisco Bay area:

The wrong folks made it in my town --
They finally got in;
And now I can't even muscle up enough money
To buy a shot of gin.
She queries readers: "Anyone for a seven-dollar martini?"

+ + +

If You're Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Spear Foam Rubber in Your Ear: What matinee to see on a holiday weekend in this summer of inadequate sequels? I opted for IMAX, presenting Everest in a very tiny theater on a very large screen (though if it's really "eight stories tall," they must have mighty short stories in Japan).

I knew we were going to a commercial "documentary," and I'd braced myself for terrible music and terrible scripting. What was most interesting about the experience was the thorough inadequacy of my braces. The IMAX screen really is big. The IMAX projection really is detailed. The IMAX viewing experience really has that scary "I'm right there!" feeling. Which just means that the really really terrible music and scripting are impossible to ignore. It's like having a guy with a boombox and a cell phone sticking right beside you while you hike through Yellowstone.

Having paid for technology that reaches a new limit of realism, how dumb do you have to be to ignore the appeal of realistic treatment? How dumb do you have to be to treat your projects as if they were a Discovery Channel special on a airplane's video screen? How dumb do you have to be to ignore experienced cinéma verité directors (or Michael Snow, for that matter) who'd probably be willing to work for almost nothing just to get their hands on the equipment? Dumb enough to leave showtimes off your ten-minute-long phone message and hide them behind a graphics-only Web page.

. . .

Overheard at Haight and Fillmore, 3 AM: "I didn't call you a geek!" Stomp, stomp, crash, stomp. "I called you a Greek!"

. . .

And while the Hotsy Totsy Club is highfiving and backslapping itself, perhaps we might as well admit that Ray and Christina will be committing their soon-to-be-finished horror film, The Ichthyoid Syndrome ("The Persona of my time!" -- Camille Paglia), to the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery as of September 22, 1999. Be there or be elsewhere.

. . .

Sad streaming video always makes me cry: And still more poetry, this time from the men's room wall at a SOMA multimedia production company....

I use my antics to amuse the crowd,
of this should I be proud?
like the make-up on a clown,
my smile is my shroud

. . .

Cholly's just back from Los Angeles, and the big news in the LA Weekly seemed to be cosmetic surgery, which takes up as much space as the Web and sex combined in San Francisco papers: thirty large ads before the movie listings. Breast implant before-and-after shots, skin abrasion, nose breaking, bone scraping, hair reshaping, wrinkle stuffing, lip puffing, liposuction, hard questions ("Incision - Underarm vs. Nipple Vs. Bellybutton?"), and one thing so awful I don't even know what it is and I don't think I want to, either:


LADIES
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"THE FULL MONTY" there is a solution
LASER VAGINAL REJUVENATIONSM
Our board-certified gynecologist of the Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation
Center of Los Angeles can completely re-sculpt and rejuvenate the
vagina with a one-hour laser procedure.

Complimentary Power Pill with consultation!


This is the most disturbing mystery I've wanted to keep mysterious since reading the conclusion of Chinese Gastronomy's entry on "live monkey brain of Kwangtung":

"Any sauce?" we asked. He just shrugged. "The usual soy sauce and ginger." He went on to the description of another small horror called "Three Peeps" -- a descriptive name which requires no further elucidation. It was served with the same sauce.

. . .

Hotsy-Totsy favorite Curt Salada suggested further bean spillage vis-à-vis the movie project....

The Ichthyoid Syndrome (1999)

Directed by Ray Davis and Christina La Sala

Writing credits: Christina La Sala and Ray Davis

Genre: Horror

Tagline: The medium is the message. The message is: I don't like you.

User comments: It seemed to really click with my subconscious.

Cast, verified as complete
Christina La Sala .... Company Spokesperson
Ray Davis .... Test Subject

Music by Ray Davis, with Ludwig von Beethoven

Cinematography by Ray Davis and Christina La Sala

Film editing by Ray Davis

Art direction: Christina La Sala

Costume design: Christina La Sala

Special effects: Christina La Sala

Production companies: Catseye Productions

Distributors: San Francisco Art Commission Gallery

Runtime: 3 1/2 minutes

Country: USA

Sound mix: Mono

Plot summary: When fish are used as input devices, a former technophobe goes wild for computers.

Memorable quotes: "We like to call them... Cuddlefish."

Release dates: Part of the "Facing Fear" group show, running from September 22 1999 through October 30 1999.

Technical specifications: With its Sorenson-compressed QuickTime file weighing in at about 40 meg, this little honey ain't gonna get much Web distribution!

. . .

Steven Elliott, who once told Hotsy Totsy charter member Christina La Sala, "You can have the trains, I'm just going to cut out the sky," is currently sharing a gallery with our good friends Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp at the Berkeley Art Museum.

As if that wasn't enough excitement, Christina and Steven just last night opened up an installation at the San Francisco State University Art Gallery -- a little number they like to call "Invisible Practices." Cholly hopes to host an exclusive interview on the project in the next day or two....

. . .

Who says the vast arbitrary not-my-responsibility bureaucracy of UC has no heart? Certainly not those of us who are eagerly looking forward to "Death at UC Berkeley: Communication and Community":

This workshop reviews the work of the Chancellor's Workgroup on Deaths, towards the goal of building a coordinated, cohesive response to deaths in a decentralized environment.

. . .

I guess it's been worth living here for over eight goddamn years just so's I could reap full enjoyment from this week's San Francisco Bay Guardian....

I can practical guarantee it!

. . .

A Halloween Homily: For most of us, Halloween brings thoughts of scary candy, hanged effigies that don't have our names pinned to their chests, and folks dressed up like San Francisco rock bands. In the coming weeks, let's try to remember the true meaning of Halloween, as exemplified by this Tale of Old Hollywood:

Tinseltown's most whimsical leading man was being interviewed in a favorite watering hole (one much like the Hotsy Totsy Club that surrounds us) when he became slightly miffed by the tone of a question.

Quickly snatching the young reporter's wallet from the bar, the star asked, "And how would you feel if I was to announce loudly to all and sundry that" (he peered into the gatefold) "your driver's license expired over two years ago? Or if I pressured you as to" (pulling a worn rectangle of newsprint from out the inner sleeve) "why you show such interest in --"

But here he stopped. For the scrap of paper held nothing less than the obituary of the very reporter before him. His interviewer was a zombie -- one of the walking dead!

Silently the grand old man of the screen replaced the precious souvenir; silently he replaced the wallet; humbly he admitted, "You know, I never realized how difficult it must be to maintain both interest and propriety in one's questioning." And the interview continued.

Yes, they had faces then. What's more, beating or not, they had hearts.

. . .

The high colonic cleansing (financially speaking) of the San Francisco Bay area has resulted in almost total erasure of cultural memory. First I'm told that the earliest fancy-schmancy restaurant of Valencia Street has been replaced by a circus-themed eateria for the rich-yet-dorky called "Three Rings." Then I'm told that none of the rave reviews of this circus-themed eatery have thought of mentioning Clown Alley on Columbus. That would be like reviewing Cuisine de Chef Chien without mentioning Doggie Diner!

Not only was Clown Alley both a landmark and an institution, but it also reminded me of T. S. Eliot every time I walked by:

I think we are in clown's alley
Where the red man lost his nose....

. . .

Those of us with access to the San Francisco Bay area will get a chance to relive those fabulous '90s on December 18 at The Bottom of the Hill when my official favoritest rock-and-roll band Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 get up and then get down again.

Given the rate of their recent appearances, I expect TFUL282 to show up next in 2010 or so. And these guys make Halley's comet sound like a celestial body with a central solid mass and a tail of dust and gas! Don't miss 'em, sez Cholly!

. . .

Money talks, democracy gives up waiting for the MUNI bus: Worried that even wheeling the Willie Brown Disco Truck through the Mission and the Castro ("A vote for Willie Brown is a vote for dancing!") might not be enough to head off the Red Menace, concerned San Franciscans such as Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton deluged the mayor's constituency with phone calls yesterday. (via Christina La Sala)

I was hoping that Ammiano would win, myself. It's important that San Francisco maintain its position as a national laughingstock, and, although Brown has done his best under the circumstances, the fact is that nowadays an openly progressive politician is even more of a curio than a pro-wrestling politician.

. . .

Support Our Sponsors: A dark alley in North Beach. The camera frames above the waist a grinning midshipman swaying against the wall.

Voiceover: "What do they really do with a drunken sailor? Find out. Join the Navy."

. . .

The San Francisco Bay area: William H. Chambliss had the style and humanity of a 19th-century Limbaugh ("Then a man named Booth took pity on society and killed Mr. Lincoln, to keep him from making a giant April fool of Uncle Sam..."), but he also had the gossip of a Drudge:

Married men who were determined to bring their wives out here were advised to steer well clear of San Francisco. They were told that any place in the State, even Sacramento and Oakland not excepted, would be better for married gentlemen who entertained hopes of raising children of their own.
. . .
These were not by any means the only interesting persons whom I saw at San Rafael. Besides Mr. Wilberforce, who always makes people weary when he attempts to talk, and Webster Jones, who is always talking about the quantities of wine consumed at the latest parvenu dinner party, -- but never mentions his father-in-law's "business," or past record, -- and Charley Hoag, who was looking around to see if there was anybody in the crowd whose name he did not have in the Blue Book ; and "Billy" Barnes, who ruined his prospects of getting the nomination of the "Octopus" party for governor, by publishing his picture in the Wave ; and Ward McAllister, Jr., whom C. P. Huntington appointed to a fat position, as Pacific Mail attorney, in order to curry favor with a certain leader of some of New York's prominent dancing people, there were some remnants of a crowd of silly parvenus who disgusted everybody of any refinement at the Sea Beach Hotel, Santa Cruz, in June, 1893, by putting "private parlor" signs on the reading room door.

. . .

San Francisco présent (via Juliet Clark):

"The great goal so long sought had finally been achieved: that of making Paris an object of luxury and curiosity, rather than of use -- a ville d'exposition, a display city placed under glass... an object of admiration and envy to foreigners, unbearable for its inhabitants."
from Victor Fournel, "Paris futur," quoted by Walter Benjamin in the Arcades Project

. . .

The Information Supergayway

Start to Shine for Thirty-Nine!
Browse the home stages! Visit the virtual communities! Surf the globe!
  • Headless girl!
  • Large horse!
  • Octopus wrestler!
  • Life-like painting of a beautiful woman!
  • Snake!
  • Naked ladies in cowboy boots!
  • Midget Village!
  • Live babies in incubators!
  • Television City, "The City of Tomorrow"!
  • Greenwich Village!
  • The Holy Land!
  • Estonia!
  • Scotland!
  • Panama, home of dancing girls!
Leave a message on the Voice Recording Machines!
Jack Glicken, Chief Of Police for Midget Village...
... who bears a striking resemblance to a later resident of the Gayway, Jack Spicer.

. . .

Irony Watch

Chris Ware - art = Dave Eggers ?
'Cause I remember that comic Eggers did for the SF Weekly, and -- hoo boy, he sure ain't Chris Ware!

Among other equations derivable from San-Francisco-to-New-York transformation functions (well, more like Berkeley-to-Brooklyn, but you'd hardly expect a bohemian spokesperson nowadays to admit to being from Berkeley, would you?), we find that old favorite:

Snob + hypocrisy = Times rock critic

. . .

Overheard in the Castro / Noe Valley overlap:

"...get home to the kids."

"Oh.... Are they real kids or are they dogs?"

. . .

Uneconomical guy that I am, I never all through these decades understood why it is that we have government spokestypes saying stuff about needing to "maintain a high level of unemployment" amongst us governed, unless out of pure meanness. To my clarification leaps the 13th issue of The Baffler with a Little Business Monkey's Guide to Big Business Monkeys called "Atlas Finally Shrugged" by Christian Parenti.

In the late 1960s, large chunks of America had been doing nicely for a long time. Too long. Unemployment was low and social services were high. Those conditions make the prospect of losing your job less scary: if you get fired, you can always find another job; until you find one, there's welfare. (Speaking as a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay area, I can testify that it is yes indeedy pretty nice not to be scared all the time.) Lowered fear increases employee power at the expense of owners, since employees can more easily afford to risk a confrontation.

And so, starting in 1968, employees (especially those in unpleasant or dangerous jobs) started pumping strikes like so many wah-wah pedals, with or without the support of their unions. In 1970, 66 million work days were spent on strikes; between 1967 and 1973, 40% of the work force had been involved in strikes, and had won most of them. Wages went up. Health and safety laws were put into effect and, worse yet, enforced.

What a predicament! 'Cause the costs of wages and safety have to be taken from somewhere. Bosses tried raising prices to keep their own profits going, but with so much power on the worker's side, they couldn't keep inflation of the prices they took in much ahead of the wage inflation they had to shell out. The average company's after-tax profit was cut in half between 1965 and 1974.

From the business owners' point of view, the only solution, painful though it might be, was to induce a recession, a process started off by Paul Volcker ("The standard of living of the average American has to decline") in 1979, and pushed forward with enthusiasm by the Reagan administration. Interest rates were boosted to reduce access to the financial cushion of property investment; taxes were cut; business was deregulated; the safety net of welfare was eliminated; domestic unemployment was bullied upwards -- all to make workers more frightened of the prospect of job loss and to increase owner profits.

What a success story! By 1982, 44% of new contracts included wage freezes or cuts. And nowadays the proposed solution to all employee discontent is to buy stocks, joining in the triumph of the owner -- no one even bothers to dream of the possibility of being successful as a mere worker!

So that's why I was always mystified by those pro-unemployment squibs in the business news. Since it's aimed square at the owners, business news has to talk about these tactics. But since the owners already know what the tactics are for, business news doesn't have to spell the motivation out.

Also, if the motivation was spelled out all the time, it might start to sound kind of unpleasant.

. . .

Field notes, Redwood City, 1:30 pm

. . .

Two tales of downtown San Francisco (as told by Juliet Clark)

1996, Montgomery St. BART station 2000, Montgomery St. Wells Fargo bank
Panhandler: "Please help me. I'll work for food."

Tall 30-ish woman dressed in black: "Hmph. Can you code HTML?"

On the back of an ATM receipt:
HTML stands for Hot Meal!

. . .

Napa Valley travellers who need a break from beautiful scenery and no-nonsense boozing will want to visit the Coppola Winery, a self-aggrandizing museum and museum store which really packs in that Hard Rock Cafe crowd.

Here, the model some uncle glued together from toothpicks demonstrates (according to the museum tag) the genetic basis of Coppola's remarkable manual dexterity. Look, there's Sofia's vanity license plate, still attached to the "too dorky to drive" car her father bought her! Savvy shoppers know it's the only place you can find Tucker: The Man and His Dream T-shirts for sale. But it gets kind of frustrating seeing Francis's selection of the best extra virgin olive oil and Francis's selection of the best pencil and best yellow legal pad (I'm not kidding!) and Francis's selection of the best kitchen apron and never getting to the consumer guidance I'd really appreciate: Francis's selection of the best nose hair trimmer.

. . .

Headlines for a New Society

While indexing articles at the Pacific Film Archive library, Juliet Clark came across this rather racy item from the San Francisco Sunday ChronEx of February 10, 1985:

FLAMING SAMURAI SAGA BY THE JAPANESE MASTER

Kurosawa Makes 'Ran' Atop Mr. Fuji

. . .

Continental Divide

Excerpts from a poem by Frank O'Hara

what does San Francisco have
that we don't have
a volunteer Fire Department and a Skid Row
you're like a wall that shuts out all the sunshine from the park
I don't want to be but I am

Look, a knife has just dropped into the ocean.

Frank O'Hara
Jack Spicer Excerpts from a letter by Jack Spicer

any letter written from/to NYC is full of worms.

They made it utterly impossible to identify God. They purged history of contemporary reference.

Religion is the shadow of the obvious. On holidays you can see the shadow that the thing casts.

When you rush bravely against the mirror shouting 'This is also my universe' you are likely merely to get a bloody nose. That surface has no patience with violence.

... the violence of the impatient artist

. . .

Doug Asherman queries: "Here's something probably no one cares about, but....is there a conspiracy to hide all the good music from us? And the good books? Are people in the arts laughing at us for buying their crap? And if so, what can we do about it?"

Meanwhile....

Disclaimer: Ray Davis is a paid contributor to The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors.
 
Despite my familiarity with Salon, I was surprised by the Reader's Guide. It's like stooping to pick up what looks like an ordinary mediocre valise only to find that it's been packed full of mediocre lead bricks. According to the official mission statement, "We decided to let our contributors' enthusiasm and curiosity be our guides." These guides would seem to share one enthusiasm (the New York Times Book Review), one curiosity (what's on the front page of the New York Times Book Review?), and one path (to the trade paperback table at Borders).

I'm hardly a specialist in late-twentieth-century fiction, but if I'd wanted to provide a service to readers I would've found room for Joanna Russ, Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Carol Emshwiller, Jack Womack, Bob Gluck, Barbara Comyns, Thomas Disch, Alexander Trocchi, Wendy Walker, M. John Harrison, Pat Califia, John Crowley, would've asked someone to tell me more about Patrick O'Brian and Dorothy Dunnett....

In fact the book includes only two authors that really matter to me: Karen Joy Fowler (given a short entry) and Samuel R. Delany (a short entry). Broadening my selection to writers I merely respect would add Elmore Leonard (a short entry) and Toni Morrison (a long entry, because she publishes in the mainstream genre) to the overlap.

And it's not because I haven't heard of the book's choices, which are beautifully (if unintentionally) parodied by John Updike's inset guide to "Timeless Novels about Loving," apparently repurposed from TV Guide:
"Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - A young bourgeois wife seeks spiritual and sexual fulfillment away from the marital bed and runs grievously into debt."

"The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - Among the Puritan pioneers of Boston, a promising clergyman falls afoul of a dark-haired protofeminist and her wizardly older husband."

Yeah, my list is idiosyncratic. An idiosyncratic list is what you'd expect to get from a serious pleasure reader. Whereas the Salon.com Guide is what you'd expect to get from a serious follower of publicity.

The depersonalized author selection ensembles beautifully with the reviewers' khaki prose. Dumbed down for ease of swallowing, it's the house style of virtually every free weekly paper: "authority" and "irreverence" and "wittiness" depilated of information or personality or humor. Journalistic blatherers used to flatter their readership by pretending it was full of good taste and morality while somehow simultaneously dumb as a stump. Nowadays the readership's still dumb as a stump yet somehow full of detached ironic wit.

Thus it makes sense that the only writer given full stylistic rein is "Pagliacci Dave" Eggers, who ends his celebrity roast of Kurt Vonnegut:

"So. Vonnegut is good. If you like books, and like to read them even if they are easy to read and frequently funny, you will like the work of Kurt Vonnegut, a writer. Also: He has a moustache."
Robert Benchley, move over! ... Or roll over. Do something, man! ... Guess he's dead.
Even John Clute, one of the most eccentric stylists ever to write a review, is sanded down to transparency here. Which is extra sad, since his argument against the tyranny of the "mainstream literary" genre lances so precisely the core of this book. Restricting yourself to mainstream fiction in the late twentieth century is like restricting yourself to heroic tragedy after 1650. The mainstream's just not where good writing is being done. Unless you crave watery flavorless writing.
How did this awful thing happen? One clue may be found in the opening of the entry for Angela Carter:
"Carter enjoyed little renown during her life, but after her death...."
"Little renown"? Say what? Angela Carter? The only way I can make sense of this is to translate it as "I wasn't assigned Carter in high school and I didn't read the New York Review of Books back then, but after I graduated...." An editor should've caught the gaffe, but since an editor wrote it, it was probably immune.
Someone on the staff did make time, though, to reduce my already undistinguished sentence:
"An early devotee of poststructuralist and feminist theory, Delany in 1979 began Return to Nevèrÿon, an archeological fantasy series that was to occupy him on and off through the 1980s."
to complete nonsense by deleting "in 1979." Maybe someone in the publishing business could clear this up for me: Are copyeditors paid more for adding lots of mistakes to a manuscript, like programmers whose productivity is measured by lines-of-code? Or do they fuck things up out of sheer gotta-leave-my-mark egotism, like programmers who work nights and weekends?
Another clue: from what I can gather, my topic was originally assigned to a friend of the editors who decided only when the deadline was nigh that it was too hard to finish the research. These aren't enthusiasts trying to communicate their enthusiams: they're a clique trying to act like grown-ups.

From the mission statement:
"We encouraged our contributors to think of you, the reader, as an intelligent, interested friend or relative who'd just asked, 'So tell me about John Updike. What are his books like?'"
I find it unlikely that your auntie would be asking you such a thing unless she was checking how well you'd learned your lessons.
What we got here is not just smugness, but downright noisy celebration of shared limited knowledge. It's like that guy in the museum painstakingly explaining every perfectly obvious thing to his wife. It's like my geeky friends parroting TV shows. It's what they teach you to do in school. And it's what makes a successful journalism career. Salon.dot critics are they who seek to enjoy, without incurring the Immense Debtorship for, a thought thunk.

See Also: Anyone who enjoys this crap should probably seek out the opinions of more journalists. Those intrigued by my crackpot theories can find them expressed more calmly in a 1998 response to Jonathan Lethem.

Ray Davis will be appearing with other contributors to The Salon.com Readers Guide to Contemporary Authors at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, Thursday, September 14, 7:30pm.

. . .

When you talk about what's "natural," you restrict yourself to what you "know"

During my couple of years of software engineering in New York City, three of my best co-workers were black. In San Francisco and Silicon Valley, I have yet to meet a single black software engineer at all, good, bad, or mediocre -- although I've certainly met plenty of bad and mediocre software engineers.

Does that mean there's a genetic difference between African-Americans in New York and African-Americans in California? Or does it mean that the oh-so-wired-and-aware computer culture of California works hard to maintain its blind spots?

That example's hard to change, but it was easy to express: all in newspaper language, ready to say. The next one's harder -- I've been trying for twenty years and haven't managed it yet.

. . .

[sic], [sic], [sic]

Plucky gal reporter "Torchy" Clark forwards a choice example (lead paragraph of a front-page feature story!) of the San Francisco ChronEx's ineffable wordcraft ("No Sentence Left Unbruised"). Watch out for those dangerously small parents.

Baby Louie was born four months too early. Dangerously small, his parents, Hortensia and Dayo Sowunmi, felt Louie's will to survive strong, and so prayed while Dr. Gregory Organ operated on the 'micro-preemie.' Filled with hope and anxiety, the Sowunmi's waited for miracle.

. . .

Without a strong hand at the till of the ship of state, our nation's copyeditors continue to run wild in the streets. From the very first issue of the Acme Novelty Library to the current Amazon bestseller, Jimmy Corrigan has remained consistently The Smartest Kid on Earth. But evidence collected by conspiracy theorist Juliet Clark suggests that over half of the newspapers who've responded with "Zoom! Bam! Pow! Comics Aren't Just For Geeks Anymore!" book reviews instead for some reason consistently refer to "The Smartest Kid in the World."

In the race to incompetence, San Francisco's own ChronEx wins by a bulbous red-veined nose. Directly beneath a large reproduction of a graphic containing the original title, it refers consistently to "The World's Smartest Kid," trimming Chris Ware's wordy epithet by a full 20%. Compare and contrast; let the voters decide!

  this second sort

. . .

On my only day off for the last two weeks of February, I visited the inspiring and inspiriting Joe Brainard show at UC Berkeley's art museum (a little room packed to the gills with lovely bustle -- may we someday have a Brainard Memorial Mansion packed to the gills with such little rooms). More than any other late-20th-century artist I know of, Brainard created for the sheer consummating-and-fecund love of artifact. Sings like a fucking bird.

Not an easy bird to spot, either. Although I expect to expound more after my return visits in March and April, here's early notice so that other San Francisco Bay Area clubmembers can have their own shot at multiple visits.

. . .

My Life of Crime (linked with the proviso that "State & Local" governments are clearly more villainous than "Big" government)

Virginia
  • No trick-or-treating on Halloween.
  • No tickling of women.
  • No spitting on sea gulls in Norfolk.
Missouri
  • No oral sex.
  • No worrying squirrels in Excelsior Springs.
Pennsylvania
  • No more than 16 women can live together (accessory after the fact).
  • No singing in bathtub.
  • No public arousement in Allentown.
New Jersey
  • No frowning at police officers.
New York
  • No flirting.
  • No hanging clothes on clotheslines without a license.
  • No jumping off buildings.
  • No talking in elevators.
  • No slippers after 10 pm.
  • No greeting by putting one's thumb to one's nose and wiggling one's fingers.
  • No body-hugging clothing on women (accessory).
Massachusetts
  • Mourners may eat no more than three sandwiches at a wake.
  • No snoring unless all bedroom windows are locked.
  • No going to bed without a full bath.
  • No sex with woman on top.
  • No reproaching of Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost.
  • No Quakers or witches (accessory after the fact).
  • No kissing in front of a Boston church.
  • No crossing of Boston Commons without a rifle.
New Hampshire
  • No tapping of feet or nodding of head to music in a tavern.
  • Machinery cannot be run on Sunday.
  • No excretion while looking up on Sunday.
California
  • No oral sex in San Francisco.
  • Ugly people cannot walk in San Francisco.

. . .

Our San Francisco readers, along with any friends they can fetch, would do well to make all conceivable effort to reach A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books (Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness) by 7:30 tonight to listen to Karen Joy Fowler, who, besides being one of the greatest writers of our time, puts on a very entertaining show.

Believe me, your English major grandchildren will look at you pretty funny if they ever find out that you saw Neal Pollack but skipped Karen Joy Fowler. Don't let that happen!

. . .

Movie Comment: Crime of Passion

Butch cabbies
Typical Ferguson readers
One of the problems with neo-noir is that its creators are all self-involved boys, and so (Safe gratefully excepted) have restricted themselves to the basically reassuring narrative clichés of men's noir -- e.g., average Joe drops out of domestic bliss into a nightmare with no escape -- and ignore women's noir, which tended to hit much closer to home.

Precisely at home, in fact. In women's noir, domestic bliss is the nightmare with no escape. And no hard nut ever cracked more exquisitely under the loving pressure of domesticity than Barbara Stanwyck.

In Crime of Passion, Stanwyck plays Kathy Ferguson, a newspaper writer who works hard, loves her job, and is fabulously popular with the very, oh, diverse population of San Francisco. Unluckily, she also lives in 1957, reports to a dismissively sexist boss, and has to deal with uncooperative macho cops and demeaning assignments like the Miss Lonelyhearts column (in which she advises one reader to ditch her two-timing boyfriend and run away with the other woman).

To a fish out of water, a bicycle can start to seem pretty appealing. So when Ferguson meets an undismissive unmacho nice guy cop who adores her (Sterling Hayden, never more puppylike), she understandably decides to do what the movies tell us and take the easy way out into eternal happiness.

And the honeymoon goes well: it's true that mutual love is all you need when love is all you have to deal with. It's normal life that stinks -- 'cause what's the point of mutual support if one partner's content as a cow and the other one's not doing a goddamned thing? Hayden works long hours, and Stanwyck's only social outlet comes in a crushing party scene that none of the film's ensuing shenanigans come close to matching for sheer horror: all the wives interested only in girl talk and all the husbands interested only in pension gossip, and even clamming up about that when Stanwyck invades their turf. At least as a reporter, she was allowed to prod 'em!

Husband   So then she finds herself a hobby.

And I admit that the end results aren't good, but hey, she's engaged -- anything's better than slow suffocation....

Note to historians of film sexuality: This caustic assessment of the high cost of closets was written by Jo Eisinger between Gilda and Oscar Wilde, and directed by Gerd Oswald between A Kiss Before Dying and Screaming Mimi.

  Wife
Husband Wife

. . .

Token Non-Trivial Item of the Day

Juliet Clark forwards her sighting of a very rare bird, actual reporting from a San Francisco newspaper!

"Tens of millions of Americans can no longer get medical treatment, a job, a home, a credit card or a host of goods and services without agreeing to resolve future disputes in confidential, unregulated proceedings riddled with conflicts of interest. They cannot claim injury, fraud or discrimination without paying filing fees that may reach thousands of dollars. They cannot rely on legal guarantees of due process and fair treatment. They cannot appeal, except in rare circumstances...."

. . .

Remember these names

The Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA) prohibits the sale or distribution of nearly any kind of electronic device -- unless that device includes copy-protection standards to be set by the federal government.... Joining [Fritz Hollings (D-South Carolina)] as co-sponsors of the CBDTPA are one Republican and four Democrats: Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), John Breaux (D-Louisana) and Dianne Feinstein (D-California). At a hearing last week, Feinstein showed her colleagues a pirated movie that she said an aide had downloaded from a file-trading service.
One of them sort of springs out, doesn't it? Few South Carolinians outside Senator Hollings himself are likely to feel particularly tied to either movie-corporation or software-corporation money. But Senator Feinstein continues to betray the commercial interests of her Bay Area home base (not to mention such non-bottom-line interests as intellectual freedom, consumer rights, and cultural history) in favor of entertainment moguls. Isn't it about time for the computer and networking industries to start supporting legislators who'll protect their rights and the rights of their customers?

Then there's Feinstein's tired dog-and-my-little-nightmare-pony show, the exact equivalent of saying "I recorded a movie from cable on my VCR last night, and therefore VCRs should be illegal," probably because the RIAA used exactly that argument back when they wanted to ban VCRs.

God, I'm sick of Feinstein and her RIAA friends flaunting their lives of crime. She might just as well brag about parking in a disabled-only space before insisting that all car engines be stoppable by remote control, or about shoplifting from a used book store before insisting that no bookstores be allowed to operate without strip searches, or about stealing candy from a baby before insisting that babies not be allowed candy, or about letting her vicious untrained dog bite a caterer before insisting that caterers buy and wear padded clothing at all times. (Actually, according to a caterer friend, that last one is true, except that Feinstein didn't suggest the padded clothing, just told the caterer to get back to work. Actually, from what I've heard of Feinstein, she's probably done all those other things too.)

Earlier in the month, I wrote to California's other senatorial product of the Bay Area Democratic political machine, Barbara Boxer:

I have been a lifelong Democratic voter. But as a writer, an engineer, and an American citizen, I am concerned enough by this issue for it to decide my vote in future California elections.
Boxer is a liberal on other issues, so I wouldn't enjoy voting against her. Feinstein's a different kettle of day-old fish: she would be a Republican if she'd started from anyplace other than San Francisco, where her initial power-grab was only made possible by the assassination of Mayor Moscone. She's propped by corporate funds, and some of the funding should migrate.

United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary "User Comments":
0 arguments for; 186 arguments against

. . .

Quaking in Their Boots
or, These Colorful, Stylish Coordinates Kill Fascists

Fashion Statement
(Bay Area activism via Juliet Clark)

. . .

Fleet's In

 
"In the beginning of our government we were willing to introduce the least coercion possible on the will of the citizen. Hence a system of military duty was established too indulgent to his indolence. This [War of 1812] is the first opportunity we have had of trying it, and it has completely failed...."
I'm a liberal who wants a big fat federal government that gives big fat services to its citizens and rewarding employment to the citizens who staff those service industries -- one such service industry being the military. I respect the pacifists I've known infinitely more than the warmongers I've known, but abolishing the armed forces didn't work so well for Jefferson and Madison.

My opinion is biased by personal experience as well as historical evidence, since my father, my mother, and my brother are all Navy veterans. Our education, our excellent health care, and our eventual move to the middle class of the proletariat have all been funded by the Navy. Although I'm the odd civilian out -- it always being clear enough that my tour of duty would be divided between sick bay and the brig -- I'm grateful to the Navy. I simply wish more Americans had similar access to federally aided education, health care, and class mobility.

As you might imagine, should you feel up to imagining the feelings of someone who writes a weblog, I'm occasionally irritated by the presumptions of the fine young people who've surrounded me in Cambridge and San Francisco and Berkeley. If our armed forces have generally been deployed to bolster corporate profits -- well, what hasn't generally been deployed in that never-ending chore? including mass media, fast food restaurants, universities, computer programming, and much more that fine young people have no trouble sucking down? That happens to be the kind of history we're stuck in.

More often, though, I'm angered and frightened by what's behind their presumptions.

 
"... you'd think they'd treat our forces like human beings."
"That would be 'no'."

I blame the Vietnam War. That's safe enough; nobody likes the Vietnam War.

Talk about being "pro-military" or "anti-military" is as nonsensical (and common) as talk about being "pro-economy" or "anti-economy." There are at least two sides to an economy -- worker security and big business profits -- with party lines drawn between them. Just as clearly, there have always been at least two sides to the American military: the armed forces themselves and the profiteers who leech from them.

The leaders of the Republican Party have never been subtle (in their actions, anyway) about which of those sides concerns them. They were against the GI Bill as a democratizing force and they're certainly against bringing anything like it back. On the other hand, no pork barrel sweats more fat than military contracts: virtually no competition; virtually no punitive action for fraud; a captive audience of "consumers" whose whistleblowing can be stopped by direct order....

 
"In 1976, the senior military officers he polled were one-third Republican. Today, it's two-thirds. Liberals have all but evaporated. You go from a conservative-to-liberal ratio among senior ranks of 4-to-1 in 1976 to a ratio of 23-to-1 in 1996.... I was out in California recently, and a Marine told me that the commanding officer of his unit would play Rush Limbaugh's show over the unit's loudspeakers so everybody could listen to it while they worked."
By conflating those two sides into "the military," we've handed the armed forces over to politicians whose chief concern is profiteering, never more openly than in the current administration. "A strong military," "the military budget," "military spending" -- all these terms bandied about by the news media refer to transfer of money from taxpayers to the corporate friends of the Party. No distinction is made and thus no regard need be given to military personnel or national security -- as was made grotesquely apparent after last September's low-tech hijackings, when Bush claimed that the Star Wars pork fest was now more essential than ever.

Meanwhile, the left's withdrawal from and frequent vilification of "the military" has slaked the thirsty ghost of Joe McCarthy with sweet victory: the United States officer corps now consists overwhelmingly of right-wing extremists. Given the nature of the military hierarchy, once such a trend is in place, it's almost impossible to undo.

Except maybe through a resurgence of patriotism or a draft or whatnot....

. . .

Notes & Queries

A reader submits a candidate for the FAQ sheet:

Bologna Tines?
Yes. Very much so.

Another requests:

Please send me evenings and weekends.
Honest I do, honest I do, honest I do.

Paul McEnery posted from San Francisco's fashionably lower Haight:

In re: Wilensky.

Seems like this kinda goes back to Lakoff's argument that we have to choose between Mommy Government and Daddy Government. Lakoff's superficial argument tends to imagine that an infantile polity is the only kind the US has to offer (at least, that's what I got from the book reviews and reading the back of the book), but it gets close to the nub. What we really got here is (sticking to the infantile polity script) a choice between the two least recommended parenting strategies: authoritarian and permissive. Both of these produce neurotic people who are incapable of fully individuating. The recommended course -- authoritative, according to the book -- is firm but fair, and does all the things that any parent with a lick of common sense would do. Now take this lesson and apply it to the big, bad world, and we're in business.

In some distress, I wrote back:
Since democracy is supposed to be about self-governance, I have a hard time seeing any way to go right once you've decided to think of your government as your parent and yourself as a child. Is this uniquely unimaginative of me?
Mr. McEnery was kind enough to respond:
Well, that's my problem with the Lakoff analysis. He appears to accept the state of affairs, whereas I regard it as a uniquely pathological relationship to the democratic process. Of course, not having done more than skim the book, I might be giving him short shrift. However, I'll stick to my guns: it's a sound diagnosis of the problem, the prognosis is to ditch the party system (and the electoral system past the level of state congressman) as an irrelevant boondoggle, while working at the local level to increase democratic participation wherever possible. Except for the last step, I think that's the point of view of most Americans.
I wish I could believe you, Mr. McEnery. But I'm afraid that, as another reader has pointed out, given complete freedom of choice, the mob will always instead let themselves be distracted by free access to peculiar short fiction by young Israeli authors:
speaking of Etgar Keret I just read a great new story at openDemocracy
Puppies. I ask you. Puppies.

. . .

I'll wring the neck of any fucking bastard says a word against my bleeding fucking king

Ron Silliman has been writing again about poetry and politics. And a very sensible job he does; until the Justin Timberlake crack, anyway. (I'll take Atmosphere over Bob Dylan. Over Bob Hass, too.) But the most instructive aspect of his series may be the sidetracking of his comment thread onto the purported snub of one poet's weblog.

That's why, if anything, we need less poetry in politics: it's a bad example. San Francisco is likely to get a rich right-wing mayor because none of the three leading liberal candidates will give up the mic. If CNN thinks of politics as a football game and Fox as pro wrestling, the Greens think of it as a slam. The petulant is the political.

For over a century, English poetry has been marketed as self-expression, a category which comfortably includes the self-congratulation of repeating-what-all-right-people-believe. Silliman's counter-example -- early 1970s lesbian-feminist presses -- confirms poetry's selling-point: the (rarely so politically useful) inflation of the individual ego. So although poetry's political limitations can be glaring, I don't believe it can have any direct political influence.

What happens when poets try?

"Political poetry" wasn't oxymoronic for William Langland, but Langland's readers aren't John Ashbery's. Even the coat-turns of Wordsworth and Southey facilitated little but their own careers and own embarrassments.

Pound's propaganda found its most avid audience in his judges and its most tangible result in his incarceration; maybe Fascist profiteers would've been grateful for the distraction, but I doubt the case was important enough to be brought to their attention.

A political artist is a scapegoat deluded into thinking it's a Judas goat.

Poetry does nothing. (Except kill poets.)

Nobody listens to poetry. (Except in a deposition.)

. . .

On the Internet, No One Knows You're an Ex-Abstract-Expressionist

An American 1 grid, two by two, class by medium.

  Eye Word
High Painting Poetry
Low Comics Science Fiction

By "class" I don't mean to imply financial security or inherent merit. It's more an institutional distinction. The lowbrow is subject to cultural and economic pressure en masse; the highbrow is sustained largely by individuals' nostalgia for roles which are (now) free of such pressure. No one talks about a painting or a poem outside the brand of its creator, whereas comics and science fiction packaging may barely register the authors' names. Training in the highbrow tends to be academic; training in the lowbrow tends to be vocational. It's all business, of course, but the rhetoric of the businesses differ.

Although love is blind to such divisions, who we love is at least somewhat influenced by who our neighbors are and which strangers we most resent. And so it seems to happen that painters know poets and science fiction writers know comics artists.

When they start out, that is. While no one has money. Before the business side of the business becomes too apparent. As we've touched on here and there before, if the rows split by rhetoric, the columns split by business relationships.

Notoriously, a great many purchasers and publishers of poetry are or want to be poets to such an extent that contemporary literary journals cynically count on receiving more prize contestants than subscribers. The positions of consumer and producer within science fiction fandom are almost as fluid: critics regularly become authors; authors regularly become editors.

On the other column, in both brow levels of visual arts, the most powerful influence isn't the wannabe but the collector, who's very rarely any sort of producer themselves. And here's where economic class becomes explicit.

High Art, being about individual taste, individual genius, and the glamorized pre-industrial, requires the personal touch. Only the rich can collect art because the valued artist can only hand-craft a limited number of products. Even when the artist's product could be (or clearly is) factory produced, scarcity is enforced. During a painter's lifetime, the dealer may take a sizable cut, but the painter still profits from profitability. Commissioned works are not yet extinct.

Low Art, being the art of our own culture, openly depends on mass reproduction. In the comics world, work tends to be for hire, copyright owned by the syndicate rather than the artists. Creator, customer, and the financial exchange all become abstractions managed by The Company, or a series of companies. Meetings are awkward. Even when brought face to face with collectors, the good cartoonist is liable to stay with communal gift ethics rather than advancing into capitalism. Unsurprisingly, the comic book portrayal of comics collectors is less flattering than the typical patron's portrait in the high arts: grubby, infantile, tasteless.

Artists' personal inclinations and illusions aside, the businesses of visual art pander to the collector and the connoisseur. That's what they were made for. This can lead to a closed-room-where-something-died atmosphere that we outsiders find offputting. You don't get to be (or enjoy) Alan Moore or Grant Morrison unless you're comfortable with Silver Age superheroes, and you don't get to be (or enjoy) a San Francisco Art Institute graduate unless you're comfortable with bullshit "Statement"s. Not that I'm any fan of wall labels, but this attack on gallery pretensions by someone who's done a Spider-Man comic made me feel a bit queasy.

Now, as a thought experiment, drop the economic barriers even lower than pulp. Imagine vastly increased distribution for a vastly lowered cost. Community and collectors would no longer be in conflict except as copyright makes them so. Comics could be sold directly to customers. High art might rub elbows with low. Poets might associate with fanboys. Hell, fangirls might get a chance to be heard.

In some ways it's not so bad to live in interesting times.


1.

American comic books, comic strips, and science fiction are all explicitly (if sometimes misleadingly) rooted in juvenile pulp, whereas European comic books appear to carry more genetic material from middle-class nineteenth century albums of engravings. European science fiction publishing seems to maintain some continuity with furrowed-brow Edwardian futurologists. I don't know from manga.

Responses

A concerned reader informs us:

neighbor saw me in my boxers, I FEEL VIOLATED

Atomized junior properly ties class to collection management. The canon and the blockbuster determine what's most likely to be preserved and passed along; as barriers to transmission grow ever higher, less of the "uninteresting" non-canonical non-blockbuster survives to refresh future stagnant water. Again, web publication might work as a counterbalance but only if left to its own indiscriminate and promiscuous devices.

. . .

In Other Consumer News

With disarming directness, Jack Fritscher reports:

In the 2005 edition of the now legendary book POPULAR WITCHCRAFT: STRAIGHT FROM THE WITCH'S MOUTH written by gay San Francisco author Jack Fritscher, Tuesday Weld is mentioned glowingly by Satanic High Priest Anton LaVey in terms of her mesmerizing blond presence in the classic interview Fritscher extracted from the enthusiastically cooperative LaVey who spoke to the ages. Book is endorsed by Magus Peter H. Gilmore, current High Priest of the Church of Satan. Published by the University of Wisconsin Press, March 2005. Available at Amazon.com

. . .

Nothing Personal, 7

It's not true that only poets read poetry. It is true that keeping up with poetry comes close to a full time job, like keeping up with international cinema or popular music or genre fiction.

Job markets vary by geography even avocational job markets. Taking similar land routes, I and Joshua Corey traced similar reading histories, and the ten years between us made comparatively little difference. Although a quirk of publishing history had led to Zukofsky being stocked by the Chillecothe, Missouri, library, and although the Black Mountain lost-leaders were widely available, there was no collected Niedecker or Spicer in my youth, and what I could find in Philadelphia and NYC led me, like Corey, to posit a post-1940 decline into the poetics of lithium. (Things are better in Brooklyn now.)

When I moved to Cambridge, Mass., I lost access to international cinema but gained access to WordsWorth Books and the Grolier. (I also gained a three-hour daily commute, and I also lost my lover and my mind.) At one of those shops, I bought Sal Salasin's first book because it reminded me of Ed Bluestone in the National Lampoon. And I bought Bloomsday by Jackson Mac Low because it was Bloomsday. And then I bought Sulfur 24 because Jackson Mac Low was in it.

I can't find that issue must've lent it to someone and never gotten it back. The web tells me it included one of my favorite Ron Padgett poems, and something by the incomparable David Bromige. But what struck hardest was a long excerpt from Ron Silliman's Toner.

"It spoke to me."

Diction is about shared assumptions, and diction varies because what's "universal" varies. For example, pace Berryman and Hacker, not all of us have had the universal experience of sleeping with our students. So it's possible that you just need to have been a commuter to really get Silliman's poetry. But I got it, and got it bad: here was someone who'd experienced this previously unsung, astonishingly stupid side of life, and found redemptive lyric possibilities in its suspended-yet-mobile state of consciousness. A suspension so extended that it became epic: Kinda-Ron kinda-Endures.

One Age of Huts later, I walked away with the ugly mossy block of In the American Tree. I wouldn't say it changed my life I haven't led that sort of life but it certainly changed my buying habits.

What the anthologized pieces shared was an absence of recognizable names (other than the dedicatee, Larry Eigner) and anything resembling well-established subjective lyric stances. The range of alternatives seemed even wider than what Donald Allen had come up with. And yet Silliman didn't present himself as an outside arbiter or professional event organizer; apparently this range belonged to something he thought of as one group, his own.

The nearest thing to a new norm here was parataxis, which seemed to account for many of the precursors paid tribute in the essays at the back of the book: Ashbery (although not Allen's Ashbery), Stein, Spicer.... Still, there wasn't a "standard Language Poet poem" as far as I could see at least not among the ones I liked. Lyn Hejinian's My Life and Bob Perelman's a.k.a. were both beautiful little books of paratactic prose paragraphs, but you couldn't mistake Hejinian's VistaVision montages of Northern California for Perelman's grim resignation to "cleverness", young Beckett pressed into an old Beckett role:

He heard the music and stood up. Played at appropriate speed, incurable motion out the window. The names are maintained to prevent the accumulations of self-esteem from crashing too harmlessly into private abysses. As if hearing were a perfection of air perpetrated among rivals, sets of teeth, synonyms, sentence structure, ruptured blood vessels. He held on, in advance. Night fell, and I lived through that, too, expressing the expressible in terms of the expressed. On good terms with neighbors, dependable, daily, there, smiles, and is currently writing and reading this sentence.

Susan Howe suffered megalomania of the archive in a way I found much more congenial than Charles Olson's: high on dust mites and the glare of wide margins, the texture of the paper, the impress of the type, a whited-out thought balloon of imminent immanent insight tugging gently at our scalps....

And sure, lots of us have words appearing on our foreheads, but Hannah Weiner was the first to accurately transcribe them.

Depersonalized? No, just respecified: new specs in front of the eyes, less heavily tinted, and, in some cases, less smudged.

I moved to San Francisco in 1991, when Small Press Distribution and Small Press Traffic both had storefronts, and my binging intensified. Like Corey, I learned to browse bookshelves by publisher name. Some of Silliman's also-rans were as good as he'd implied: Rosemarie Waldrop, Robert Glück (who turned out to be a very different sort of writer indeed), Beverley Dahlen, Alice "Notely", Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Some of the included gained importance: speaking of Campion, Stephen Ratcliffe's spaces in the light said to be where one / comes from is subvocalized MDMA. Some seemed to drop out: Stephen Rodefer's Four Lectures were primo, and his Villon translation was a pungent pinch of Spiceresquerie, but then what happened?

Most were uneven. There was such a thing as The Charles Bernstein Poem, and I didn't think much of it, but just often enough he'd come up with something unexpected like "Artifice of Absorption" or "I and The", and even The Charles Bernstein Poems had their place. On the other hand, Susan Howe, always worth reading, was worth surprisingly less in dowdy paperbacks than in her expansive expensive smaller press editions. Silliman's Tjanting played to his weaknesses, despite the conceptual catchiness of its form.

But they continued to be more uneven sometimes than others, and they led other places, like Jackson Mac Low had, and so the binging goes.

Here ends my happy consumer conversion narrative. "Or like stout whosits when with eagle eyes," "Nirvana made me a better student," "I can't believe it's not butter," and so on.

Happily, I wasn't a participant.

Next: I finally get back to where I was more than a year ago!

Responses

Joseph Duemer has some questions.

. . .

Christina La Sala and "Petrified Forest"

May 8th - June 5th, 2009
ampersand international arts
1001 Tennessee Street (at 20th. St.)
San Francisco, California 94107

In writing, it's called "a strong voice." Across materials, across moods, a sense of continuous engagement with another. Maybe not quite the human being you meet at the reception, the reading, or the party, but not a pose or a persona, no formula. Something wholer than that, someone you recognize when you enter the room.

In the voice of Christina La Sala, there's wit and inwit, with no hint of smirk. There's painstaking elegance, insisting on beauty even in shabbiness and loss. Art is what this voice does, and making art is necessarily making do.

There's a sort of dyslexic synesthesia, modal wires crossing at a dreamlike concept both reasonable and uncanny: Braille chewing gum, for example. ("'Well, I've tried to say How doth the little busy bee, but it all came different!' Alice replied in a very melancholy voice.")

There's a poised sense of confrontation: a dare to make the first move, to cross this line, tip this balance, pop the bubble, eat me, shatter me.... We're being asked, I think, to make a decision: to consume and have done, or to live with the experience. To live at all is to live with one's decisions and actions and circumstances.

Which is to live with one's art. The least escapist of artists, La Sala affirms without flurry or bluster, but hour by hour, week by week, over what Louis Zukofsky called "a poem of a life": the work of a life in work. Duration itself becomes preoccupation: the times that bind, as in the obsessive stitching of La Sala's "Stay Awake" bedsheet, with its dare to fall asleep.

When these characteristics coincide, there's nothing anecdotal about the result, but we're tempted to narrate, to put this perplexing artifact in its place in some known story. The voice resists us. The Rapunzel-length hair-and-steel-wool braid of La Sala's "Straw into Gold," for example, intertwines aging's fairy-tale transmutation of brown-to-gray with our age's science-fiction transmutation of organism-to-machine. Its weave is clean; the tangle is in the yarns we spin.

A return to glasswork after many years, "Petrified Forest" carries La Sala's voice at its strongest. In writing, it would be called a serial poem, a unified work made up of sets of paired individual works:

There's a row of large glass panels etched with various patterns floral garlands, diamonds diamonded, curved boxes, pinstripes made more elaborately decorative by shadow-play as each leans against the wall from a painted wooden platform which, in turn, has been marred by carved tally marks.

There's a column of squat glass strips, smeared by tally marks, as if by a fingertip dipped in acid. Each bar is held flush close against the wall; the shadows turn them into a trompe l'oeil of greasy icicles or streaked unguents.

Naturally, I'm tempted into narrative. I recognized one pattern from gift wrap or wallpaper of my childhood, and then I thought of cargo cults and Renaissance reliquaries: how the fragmented kitsch of one culture, after everything falls apart, inspires the high craft of another culture. And a prisoner in the ivory tower leaves marks which, preserved and honored after everything falls apart again, become reproduced in their turn. As Alan Squire said in The Petrified Forest, "I've formed a theory about that that would interest you. It's the graveyard of the civilization that's shot from under us."

But my ramshackle construction, full of plot-holes, hardly matches the piece's confident coherence. Perhaps I should be thinking instead of natural history and microbiological cultures: a science museum with brittle slabs impressed by ancient ferns, flowers, floods, and crystals, and with slide mounts demonstrating, oh, the effects of antibiotics?

But that hardly conveys the piece's aggression, humor, and endurance. I might as well take the etymological approach: Arizona's fossilized trees are extinct members of a botanical family that includes the Chilean monkey-puzzle tree, named Araucariaceae for the Arauco people who live in the region. "Contrary to popular belief, the Quechua word awqa 'rebel, enemy', is probably not the root of araucano: the latter is more likely derived from the placename rag ko 'clayey water'." Yes, clear as mud.

Or maybe it's best if I pass this to the strong voice of Alice Notley, a poet born in Bisbee, Arizona, about 300 miles south of Petrified Forest National Park:

" This is distinction, says a voice,
Your features are etched in
ice so everyone can see them"
" Poverty much maligned but beautiful
has resulted in smaller houses replete with mysteries"
" there's the desert beyond them that I try to keep housed from
no thin flesh there no coursing fluid no thought"

Responses

I am eagerly awaiting the future retrospective or permanent wing to be entitled The La Sala Room. Not that it's any of my beeswax, as it were.

. . .

Ba-lue Mun-deii Ba-lues-Are : Ed's Man's World

Like everyone else I liked Mudhoney and acknowledged the one hit of the one-hit crybaby. But my favorite grunge band was Ed's Redeeming Qualities. When I first heard them in '89, Ed's consisted of four songwriters and one musician:

Eugene the Jeep
Sleeve of Ed's Day EP

Together they seemed happier than they expected to be apart; they sounded like a 1989 unheated-apartment version of boiled cabbage at the Hungry Hash House. Or, OK, then, they sounded like "garage-folk, with an emphasis on storytelling and black comedy and poignancy." They taped a couple of cassettes and released an EP, curated and hosted a fine vaudeville series, made mistakes on the radio, and then Dom Leone got sick.

Characteristically the opening number of Ed's next release, a final cassette of the original line-up, promised "So many things that can kill you dead; if you don't have cancer there's a hole in your head." Someone like They Might Be Giants could easily have recorded a tribute to the periodic table of elements; Ed's made it personal.

Carrie, Dan, and Neno moved to San Francisco, kept playing Dom's songs, and kept sticking Dom's scrawls on the merchandise. Their first CD was gratingly bare, but their second seemed more at home in the trio format. Third was best, recorded live, with all-musician no-songwriter Jonah Winter to put sonic love handles on the old favorites.

For now, though, and with the aid of these fine digitizations, I'm reaching back to 1989. From the "Ed's Day" EP, Carrie Bradley explains how the patriarchy maintains power in one solidly idiomatic pun. From a tape made the year before, Dom Leone explains how the patriarchy maintains power in one completely moronic consultation.

Responses

Part 2 of this exciting serial!

. . .

Down Home Music

Mojo Hand : An Orphic Tale by J. J. Phillips

1. "Eurydice's victims died of snake-bite, not herself." - Robert Graves

Protagonist "Eunice" is, as we can plainly see, an un-dry Eurydice. And love-object Blacksnake Brown is Orphic because he sets the stately oaks to boogie:

She went to the phonograph there and looked through the stack of records under it. Down at the bottom, dusty and scratched, she found an old 78 recording called “Bakershop Blues” by a man named Blacksnake Brown, accompanied by the Royal Sheiks. She lifted off the classical album, slipped on the 78, then turned the volume up. It started scratching its tune.

I want to know if your jelly roll’s fresh, or is it stale, I want to know if your jelly roll’s fresh, or is it stale? Well, woman, I’m going to buy me some jelly roll if I have got to go to jail.

Almost immediately she heard shouts and shrieks from the other room.

“. . . Oh, yeah, get to it. . . . Laura, woman, how long since your husband’s seen you jelly roll?”

“Gertrude, don’t you ask me questions like that. Eh, how long since your husband’s seen you?”

Eunice went back downstairs. Everyone had relaxed. Some women were unbuckling their stockings, others were loosening the belts around their waists. Someone had gotten out brandy and was pouring it into the teacups.

“Give some to the debs,” someone said, “show them what this society really is.”

Just as plainly, though, "Blacksnake" is a snake, with an attested bite. And for all l'amour fou on display, Eunice is only secondarily drawn to her Orpheusnake; first, last, and on the majority of pages in-between, she's after Thrace-Hades:

And even before that she had been drawn to the forbidden dream of those outside the game, for they had been judged and did not care to concern themselves with questioning any stated validity in the postulates. Playing with friends, running up and down the crazily tilted San Francisco streets, they would often wander into the few alleys between houses or stores down by the shipyards. [...] The old buildings were not of equal depth in back, nor were they joined to one another, and there were narrow dark passageways between the buildings. She would worm her way in and out of these, for they were usually empty, though occasionally as she would whip around a corner she would hear voices and would tiptoe up to watch two or three men crouched on the ground, each holding a sack of wine, and shooting dice. She would hide and watch them until the sun went down, marking their actions and words, then tramp home alone whispering to herself in a small voice thick with the sympathy of their wine, “Roll that big eight, sweet Daddy.”

This place which is also a community and a way of living maybe a good name for that would be habitus? although nowadays and hereabouts ussens tend to call it an identity. To switch mythological illustrations, what Odysseus craved wasn't retirement on a mountainous Mediterranean island, or reunion with his wife and child, both of whom he's prepared to skewer, but his identity as ruler of Ithaka.

What baits Eunice isn't so much the spell of music but the promise of capture and transportation. Brown's a thin, helpfully color-coded line who can reel her out of flailing air and into Carolina mud, a properly ordained authority to release her family curse (and deliver her into bondage) by way of ceremonial abjuration:

“We-ell, you being fayed and all, I doesn’t want to get in no trouble.”

The night was warm and easy, and it came from Eunice as easy as the night. “Man, I’m not fayed.”

He straightened up and squinted. “Well, what the hell. Is you jiving, woman, or what? You sure has me fooled if you isn’t.”

“You mean you dragged me out in the middle of the night into this alley just because you thought I was fayed? That’s the damndest thing I’ve ever heard.” But she knew it was not funny, neither for herself nor for him.

Blacksnake broke in on her thoughts. “Well, baby, if you says so, I believes you. But you sure doesn’t look like it, and you doesn’t even act like it, but you’s OK with me if you really is what you says you is. Here, get youself a good taste on this bottle.”

Eunice took the bottle and drank deeply, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

(In many more-or-less timeless ways, Mojo Hand is the first novel of a very young writer. On this point of faith, though, it's specifically an early Sixties novel: that the Real Folk Blues holds power to transmute us into Real Folk.)

2. "Meet me in the bottom, bring my boots and shoes." - Lightnin' Hopkins

Having passed customs inspection, Eunice considers her down-home away from home:

Until this night she had been outside of the cage, but now she had joined them forever.

About twenty-hours later, "the cage" materializes as a two-week stretch in the Wake County jail:

But soon she came to learn that it was easier here. Everything was decided. That gave her mind freedom to wander through intricate paths of frustration.

Jail isn't a detour; it's fully part of Eunice's destination, and afterward she's told "Well, you sure as shit is one of us now." But what sort of freedom is this?

Some people intuit a conflict between "free will" and "reasoned action." (Because reasons would be a cause and causality would be determinism? Because decisions are painful and willful freedom should come warm and easy?) Or, as Eunice reflects later, in a more combative state of mind:

Since her parents had built and waged life within their framework, in order to obvert it fully she, too, had to build or find a counterstructure and exist within it at all costs. The difference lay in that theirs was predicated on a pseudo-rationality whereas the rational was neither integral nor peripheral in hers; she did not consider it at all. To her the excesses of the heart had to be able to run rampant and find their own boundaries, exhausting themselves in plaguing hope.

When the pretensions of consciousness become unbearable, one option is to near-as-damn-it erase them: minimize choices; make decision mimic instinct; hand your reins to received stereotype and transient impulse. Lead the "simple" life of back-chat, rough teasing, subsistence wages, steady buzz, sudden passions, unfathomable conflicts, limitless boredom,and clumsy violence. A way of life accessible to the abject of all races and creeds in this great land, including my own.

All of which Phillips describes with appropriately loving and exasperated care, although she's forced to downshift into abstract poeticisms to traverse the equally essential social glue of sex.

It was completely effortless, with the songs on the jukebox marking time and the clicking pool balls countersounding it all until the sounds merged into one, becoming inaudible. Eunice felt the ease, the lack of rigidity, and relaxed. She would learn to live cautiously and underhandedly so that she might survive. She would learn to wrangle her way on and on to meet each moment, forgetting herself in the next and predestroyed by the certainty of the one to come.

3. "At the center, there is a perilous act" - Robin Blaser

In this pleasant fashion uncounted weeks pass. Long enough for a girl to become pregnant; long enough for whatever internal clock ended Brown's earlier affairs to signal an campaign of escalating abuse which reviewers called mysterious, although it sounded familiar enough to me.

Blacksnake was Eunice's visa into this country. What happens if the visa's revoked? If our primary goal is to stay put and passive, what can we do when stasis becomes untenable?

Shake it, baby, shake it.

Having escaped into this life, Eunice refuses to escape from it:

There was no sense, she knew, in going back to San Francisco, back home to bring a child into a world of people who were too much and only in awe of their own consciousness. They were as rigid and sterile as the buildings that towered above them.

She'll only accept oscillation within the parameters of her hard-won cage. This cul-de-sac expresses itself in three ways:

It seems perfectly natural for the strictly-local efficacy of the occult to appear at a crisis of sustainability, scuffing novelistic realism in favor of keeping it real. The flashback, though, rips the sequence of time and place to more genuinely unsettling effect, and Phillips handles the operation with such disorienting understatement that this otherwise sympathetic reader sutured the sequence wrong-way-round in memory.

It's unsettling because we register the narrative device as both arbitrary and, more deeply, necessary. Being a self-made self-damned Eurydice, Eunice must look back at herself to secure permanent residence. But when the goal is loss of agency, how can action be taken to preserve it?

Instead, we watch her sleepwalk through mysteriously scripted actions twice over.

4. "Black ghost is a picture, & the black ghost is a shadow too." - Lightnin' Hopkins

Immediately after you start reading Mojo Hand, and well before you watch Eunice Prideaux hauled to Wake County jail, you'll learn that J. J. Phillips preceded her there. If you're holding the paperback reissue, its behind-bars author photo will have informed you that both prisoners were light-skinned teenage girls.

If you've listened to much blues in your life, you'll likely know "Mojo Hand" as a signature number of Lightnin' Hopkins. If you've seen photos of Hopkins on any LPs, the figure of "Blacksnake Brown" will seem familiar as well.

Since comparisons have been made inevitable, contrasts are also in order.

Blacksnake Brown is clearly not the Lightnin' Hopkins who'd played Carnegie Hall, frequently visited Berkeley, and lived until 1982. Eunice is jailed for the crime of looking like a besmirched white woman in a black neighborhood at night; Phillips, on the other hand:

In 1962 I was selected to participate in a summer voter registration program in Raleigh, North Carolina, administered by the National Students Association (NSA). [...] Our group, led by Dorothy Dawson (Burlage), wasn't large and the project was active only for that summer; but during the short time that we were in Raleigh, we managed to register over 1,600 African Americans, which, along with other voter registration programs in the state, surely helped pave the way for Obama's 2008 victory in North Carolina. [...] On the spur of the moment I'd taken part in a CORE-sponsored sit-in at the local Howard Johnson's as part of their Freedom Highways program, which took place the year after the Freedom Rides. [...] Our conviction was of course a fait accompli. We were given the choice of paying a modest fine or serving 30 days hard labor in prison; but the objective was to serve the time as prisoners of conscience, and so we did. In deference to my gender, I was sent to the Wake Co. Jail.

[...] Thus began a totally captivating 30 days an immersive intensive in which I got the kind of real-life education I could never have obtained otherwise.

This unexpectedly welcome "captivation" brings us back to Eunice, however, and thence to Eunice's own brush with voter registration programs:

“I don’t want to register.”

The boy shifted from one flat foot to another and scratched a festering pimple. “But ma’m, it’s important that you try and better your society. Can’t you see that?”

“No, I can’t.”

He paused a moment, and then proceeded. “Whatever your hesitation stems from, it is not good. It is necessary for us all to work together in obtaining the common goal of equality. It is not only equality in spirit; your living standards must be equal. Environment plays an important factor. You must realize also that it is not only your right but your duty to choose the people you wish to represent you in our government. If you do not vote you have no choice in determining how you will live.”

Eunice chuckled as she remembered Bertha back in the jail. She crinkled her eyes and laughed. “Well, sho is, ain’t it.”

In turn, that "festering pimple" suggests some animus drawn from outside the confines of the book. And in an interview immediately following the book's publication, its author came close to outright disavowal:

"I went to jail to see what it was like. I was in Raleigh on a voter registration drive. Somebody asked for restaurant sit-in volunteers sure to be arrested. I was not for or against the cause, I just wanted to go to jail." [...] Slender, with the long, straight hair, wearing the inevitable trousers, strumming the guitar, she also defies authority in her rush to individual freedom. She lives in steady rebellion against the comfortable escapist? atmosphere provided by her parents, both in professional fields and both successful. Her own backhouse, bedroom apartment, her transportation a Yamaha and a huge, black, 5-year-old Cadillac; her calm acceptance of her right to live as she pleases are all a part of the pattern of the new 1966 young.

(For the record, yes, I'm grateful that no one is likely to find any interview I gave at age 22, or to publish any mug shot of me at age 18.)

Forty-three years later, J. J. Phillips positioned Mojo Hand in a broader context: three separate cross-country loops during an eventful three years which she entered as an nice upper-middle-class girl at an elite Los Angeles Catholic college and left as an expelled, furious, disillusioned, blues-performing fry-cook.

Which of these accounts should we believe? Well, all of them, of course. Here, what interests me more is their shared difference from the story of Eunice.

* * *

The older Phillips summarized Mojo Hand as "a story of one person’s journey from a non-racialized state to the racialized real world, as was happening to me."

As always, her words are carefully chosen. In the course of a sentence which asserts equivalence, she shifts from Eunice's singular, focused journey to something that "was happening to" young Phillips. More blatantly, she tips the balance by contrasting "a state" with "the real world."

Contrariwise, someone might describe my own wavering ascent towards Eunice's-and-Phillips's starting point as "one person's journey from a racialized state" (to wit, Missouri) "to the class-defined real world." I'm not that someone, though. Even at the age of Mojo Hand's writing, when my scabrous androgyny was demonstrably irredeemable, I understood that, should I live long enough, my equally glaring whiteness would bob me upwards like a blob of schmaltz. And indeed, although my patrons and superiors have been repeatedly nonplussed by my choices, none ever denied my right to make them.

Whereas, in America, some brave volunteer or another can always be found to remind you that you're black or female. And in the ordinary language of down-home philosophizin', if you can't escape it, it's real: truth can be argued but reality can only be acknowledged, ignored, or changed. If "race" is an unevidenced taxonomy and "racism" is a false ideology, "racism" and "a racialized world" remain real enough to kill depending on time and place.

As does "class." And, like Phillips in Los Angeles, in San Francisco Eunice was born into a particularly privileged socio-economic class. Even if she'd stayed in San Francisco, she could've chosen to remove herself from that class, most likely temporarily, anticipating the "inevitable pattern of the new 1966 young." But merely by having the choice, she would have become in some sense, in some eyes, a fraud.

The Jim Crow South, however, offered any stray members of the striving class at most the choice of "passing," faudulent by definition. Thus, with the mere purchase of a train ticket, properly propertied individuals could reinvent themselves as powerless nonentities. What racialized Eunice and Phillips was travel to a place in which no non-racialized reality existed. What made that racialization lastingly, inescapably "real" was, for Eunice, a permanent change of residence. For Phillips, back in California, it was recognizing a racism which had previously stayed latent or unnoticed, and which continued to be denied in infuriatingly almost-plausible fashion.

5. "But I didn't know what kind of chariot gonna take me away from here." - Lightnin' Hopkins

Returning to the book's one encounter with progressive politics, after Eunice shuts the door on the pimpled young man, Blacksnake is bemused (not for the first time) by her volitional assumption of a cage in which others were born and bred:

“Oh, shit. Woman, I can’t vote. I been to the penitench. [...] Girl, you got some strange things turning ’round in that head of yours. Why did you come here anyway?”

“I don’t know. I just felt like it.”

Eunice sat down on the bed and scratched her head. It was useless to try and find the causes of her being here; she merely was and could never be sure whether it was a true act or a posture of defiance.

Odysseus traveled to reclaim his prior identity. How, though, would someone establish an identity?

By fiat, by fate. With that infallible sixth sense by which we know we were a princess dumped on a bunch of dwarfs, or the infant who was swapped out for a changeling, Eunice knows she's been denied her birthright. Or two birthrights, which Mojo Hand merges:

First, racialization; that is, membership in a race.

Second, the inalienable right and incorrigible drive to make irretrievable mistakes and trigger fatal disasters. In a word, maturity.

Never had she been forced to her knees to beg for the continuation of her existence, nor fight both God and the devil ripping at her soul; never had she been forced to fight to move in the intricate web of scuffle; never had she been forced to fight a woman for the right to a man, nor fought out love with a man. She had never fought for existence; now she would have to.

In well-ordered middle-class mid-century households, these are things parents protected children from, things children couldn't imagine their parents doing. Most of them are part of most adult lives, and once experienced, they're not likely to be forgotten. But depicting them comes easiest when they're assigned to disorderly elements, and a narrative's end is more attended than its torso.

In the novel's introductory parable, a girl who finds the sun (dropped by an old-fashioned Los Angeles pepper tree) is forced by her father to give it up. During her longest residence in Lightnin' Hopkins's Houston neighborhood, Phillips met similar interference: "I especially did not want to suffer the ultimate mortification of being ignominiously carted home by my parents, so I went back to L.A."

If Eunice had been dragged back to San Francisco, that anticlimax would be interpreted as an ironic deflation of a hard-won life. And so, in vengeance for her parents' deracination, Eunice is silently de-parented, and the book instead ends with her both adopting a new mother and waiting to become a new mother.

* * *

The United States between 1962 and 2009 incorporated a whole lot of habitussles, each with its own preferred ways to swing a story. Even as something is done (by us, to us, of us, the passive voice is the voice that rings real) and certainly afterwards we're spun round by potential justifications, motives, excuses, bars, blanks.... Whichever we choose, sho is, ain't it.

One year after 22-year-old J. J. Phillips saw Mojo Hand in print, 25-year-old Samuel R. Delany saw his own version of black Orpheus, A Fabulous, Formless Darkness, published as The Einstein Intersection. Neither fiction much resembles Ovid, and where Phillips mythologizes black community, Delany mythologizes queer difference. What the two writers shared was a reach for "mythology" as that which both describes and controls the actions of the mythological hero: a transcript which is a script; a fate justified as fulfillment of fate.

A story to make sense of senselessness and reward of repeated loss.

What Phillips suffered and enjoyed as an indirect, experimental process of frequently unwelcome discovery and retreat, confrontation and compromise, Eunice is able to consciously hunt as a coherent (if not rationally justifiable) destination. The mythic heroine's one necessary act of mythic agency was to decide to enter that story and, mythically, stay there ever after. The oaks rest in place, thoroughly rooted, frozen in their dance.

Lucky oaks.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.