Ancient Weblog

In June 2005 I moved my weblog to blogspot. Before then a sporadic blog was kept on this website. Below you'll find the entries posted to from June 2004 to March 2005.
2003 blog

Healdsburg, July 23, 2006
Look at this! A new lede graf, as we called them back at the old newspaper office, and it’s only sixteen months since the last time I was here!

In the meantime I’ve been blogging, is why nothing seems to happen here. You can go to my online blog if you like, but I just put the most recent batch of Travel Dispatches here among the Travel pages: To the Southwest, June 2006. You’re welcome to them.

And now it’s off again, in this heat, up to Ashland for a week, and then back to Portland for another...
Healdsburg, March 13, 2005
Home again, and happy to be so. I’ve put the travel dispatches from Spain where they belong, on the travel page, where you’ll now find all nineteen of them, along with ninety photographs if you have the patience to look at them.

And I’ll have things to say on other subjects when we’ve recovered from the trip…

Healdsburg, January 19, 2005—

In “the realm of the unreal”: art, biography, and cultural history

A FRIEND RIGHTLY chides me, without really meaning to, on my leaving him up in the air halfway through a visit, six weeks ago, to Glendale. Well, dammint, I think to myself, there’ve been extenuating interruptions, notably Christmas and all the pleasant family visits that entails, and then the New Year with its retrospect of regrets and memories and its forward glances toward a better use of what time remains.

We’ve been living in the middle of a train wreck, a collision between a particularly rich moment in private life and a particularly wrenching and alarming public one. By the latter I mean of course the election, the wars, and the inauguration. The friend whose casual inquiry about what may have happened next, after the Glendale trip in early December, suggested we all four go see a movie yesterday — at 10:45 in the morning! — and abandoning my two-week course in self-improvement, yes, a New Year’s Resolution, off we went. We’d never been to a movie in the morning before; it felt like a vacation.

Seeing this movie was a profoundly moving experience, first for the beauty and intelligence of the film itself, second for its relevance to the introspection that’s driven this new project of mine, third for having somehow brought together thoughts about theater, memory, the inner life, and the historical moment. So I urge any of you who think about these things to see In the Realms of the Unreal , a ninety-minute documentary by Jessica Yu about the life and work of the “outsider” artist Henry Darger.

Darger was born in Chicago, at about the time Modernism was, in the last decade of the 19th century. His mother died when he was four, and poverty forced his father had to give him up for adoption not long after. Considered a troubled child, he was remanded to a home for “feeble-minded” boys. He ran away at sixteen walking a hundred miles back to Chicago, where he found a job as janitor in a Catholic mission. For the rest of his fairly long life he lived alone in a rented room. Over the course of sixty years, quite unknown to anyone else in the world, living as a recluse in a room no one was permitted to enter, he painted hundreds of watercolors, nearly all of them to illustrate the book he was writing, a 15,000-page novel he called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, as caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.

When Darger died in 1973 his landlord, Nathan Lerner, by happy coincidence a photographer, found this amazing life’s work. Lerner and his wife, the musician Kiyoko Lerner, are interviewed in Jessica Yu’s film. Most of the film, though, is an unseen narration, largely drawn from Darger’s journals and that amazing novel, illustrated by scans across his watercolors, frequently set in motion by a team of resourceful and respectful animators.

The film is about Darger, but also a cinematic version of the novel, which is a Surrealist masterpiece. It reminded me immediately of the work of Raymond Roussel, whose own dramatization of his novel Impressions d’Afrique inspired Marcel Duchamp — except that Roussel clearly wanted his work known by the public, he wanted to be an Important Author, and Darger, as far as I know, made no effort to publish his own work.

But what most seized my attention, watching this entrancing documentary, was its relevance to my own mood, very much turned inward as I approach my seventieth birthday; and to the last play we saw in Glendale, not yet written about here; and to the historical moment. To begin with the last: The Story of the Vivian Girls... is a war novel and more specifically a novel of insurrection. I’ve been reading Spanish history, at the moment Mar’a Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain . I’ve been reading this to prepare for our next trip: we leave in less than three weeks for another month in Spain, starting with a week in Madrid and then a further exploration of Andalusia. Menocal’s book is deceptively subtitled: that “culture of tolerance” was a brief moment in a long history of civil war — to use a phrase that’s always seemed to me an ironic oxymoron.

The peninsula we now call Spain and Portugal has been settled and sometimes actually administered, in turn, by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, “Moors,” Christians, and Fascists. The “culture of tolerance” lasted a few hundred years and was largely enabled, as I understand it, by a practical adjustment to theology: on the part of the intellectuals, by preferring literature and philosophy to religious doctrine as the fundamental organizing principle of one’s esthetic and intellectual life. (The part of the rest of the citizenry is not really addressed by Menocal, or by many other commentators come to think of it; but I imagine they put religious zeal second to the necessities and pleasures of daily life, as demanded or provided by the authorities of the moment.)

For about four hundred years Islam “governed” Spain’s cultural and intellectual life, and what was interesting was its accommodation of the religion of Islam, still quite new at the beginning of this history, and the inheritance of Hellenism. The branch of Islam that went to Spain was apparently exiled by the more zealous and “fundamentalist” Mohammedans who kept the Arab world for themselves. Who can doubt cultural and political similarities between that historical moment, twelve hundred years ago, and our own? And who of us doesn’t yearn for the peaceful accommodation of theological doctrine, economic stability, relative peace, and cultural refinement that characterized al-Andalus, whose capital, C—rdoba, was the largest city in Europe, and boasted the finest libraries of the age?

Menocal’s book is repetitious and badly edited, unfortunately, but suggestive and insinuating, like its subject. And one of its most interesting qualities is its insistence on Language as the motor of Culture and, especially, cultural tolerance and drift. She reveals this Andalusian civilization as the indispensable link between the ancient Greek poets and philosophers and historians and the soon-to-awaken European vernacular cultures of Chaucer, the troubadours, and Petrarch, Boccaccio and Dante.

But such a moment seems a historical accident. It was largely the result of one tenacious and inspired man, Abd al-Rahman, who fled Damascus when his family, the Umayyads, were massacred by the rival Abbasids, who wanted to reduce the then-new religion of Islam to a blind fundamentalist repetition of what they chose as its pure heart: not God, as He revealed himself, but Mohammed, the prophet who recorded those revelations. (And, of course, more particularly, the surviving family of Mohammed, who the Abbasids counted as their own source of authority.)

*      *      *

I HAVE BEEN thinking about this “culture of tolerance” that al-Rahman spawned in Andalusia, where his exile finally took him in 755; and about the psychological dislocations Henry Darger suffered as a child and adolescent; and about the confusions and crosscurrents of the moment of Modernism in Europe and in this country a little over a century ago; and about the present crisis caused by our unjust and illegal attack on a defenseless country near the heart of Islam, itself a response to an insane but understandable attack on defenseless civilians by Islamist fundamentalists; and about the cross-cultural and -political encounters in Zurich during World War I (for we recently saw Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties , in the amazingly cluttered mise-en-scene of Berkeley’s Shotgun Players; and Harold Pinter’s troubling play The Homecoming, which ended our theatergoing six weeks ago in Glendale; and, to bring the point as close to my own home as possible, my own evolution out of a confused and confusing childhood situated between war and peace, town and country, gentility and deprivation, at the very center of the troubled Twentieth Century.

The power, yesterday morning in that new, cheap, Postmodern version of the grandly decorated movie theaters of eighty years ago (often called, now that I think of it, by names like Alcazar or Alhambra or Palace, but effectively the cathedrals of early 20th-century urban life), the power and fascination of In the Realms of the Unreal was its uncanny way of integrating all these unarticulated contemplations. Art’s purpose, like theology’s, is to attempt an integrated understanding of the world around us; and art’s technique, like that of language, is to articulate that contemplation. Henry Darger was a great artist of his time, and this documentary is a respectful, attentive, detailed, balanced, and beautiful articulation of his work.

Glendale, December 3, 2004—

Just fun for a while

WE’RE DOWN IN AN Econo Lodge on E. Colorado Street for one of our semi-annual theater fixes at A Noise Within, a theater company consistently good enough to drag us down to LaLaLand.

This week it’s two comedies and an unknown: Georges Feydau’s A Flea in Her Ear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. The Feydau was fabulous. I’ve seen it before a couple of times, I don’t recall where, never better than this. I think “A Noise Within” is at its best with crackpot comedy — it was with a production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives that they first seduced us, four or five years ago — and A Flea in Her Ear is nothing if not screwball. A Parisienne suspects her husband of philandering, and gets a friend to write a letter inviting an assignation in a dubious hotel. She herself goes, of course, to catch him. Before the resolution, a hilarious evening later, the stage is littered with a Spaniard, a drunk Englishman, a youth with a speech defect (hee heeheh is how he pronounces it, and virtually every speech he gives is so pronounced), an absurd ex-soldier turned innkeeper, a toady flunky who is the twin to the innocent husband, and so on and so on.

These people run in and out of doorways, disappear into secret rooms, turn up at inopportune times, and constantly get into one another’s hair. Hardly any of them speaks normally. Costumes, make-up, attitudes, and vocal delivery are full of tics and absurdities, all of them consistent. Nothing is sacred, and political correctness is a foreign concept. The large cast was remarkably consistent; the direction was keen and attentive; the sets were evocative and detailed. It couldn’t have been better.

Feydau photo

A Flea in Her Ear: second-act scrimmage

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on the other hand, came up short — precisely because it was directed in the same mode, by the same team. Lines were rushed; the distinctions of tone among the levels of the cast were not observed; Shakespeare’s poetry was largely ignored. The play within the play — the “rude mechanicals’” prodution of Pyramus and Thisbe — was by far the best thing in the production, and very good indeed. But A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a hell of a lot more than Pyramus and Thisbe.

No big disappointment; it was worth its admission. I don’t know how many times we’ve seen this play, in productions ranging from a fabulous Edwardian production at Berkeley Rep, probably twenty-five years ago by now, to an enchanting production in someone’s back yard in Oakland, with the audience moving to change perspective on the garden, gradually growing darker as the summer evening advanced, and the final apology spoken from an upstairs window looking out over the audience and the garden.

Even when the lines are rushed and bruised, as they were too often this time, Shakespeare’s poetry is so fragrant, and his observation so penetrating and accurate, that this play always affects me with a unique combination of power and insidiousness. And as magical and romantic as it is, it is also so intelligent, and so good-hearted. Nobles, the upper class, “mechanicals,” and fairies — representing the purely animal components so often directing us in spite of our reason and our discipline — all interact in a choreography at once balanced and dynamic. Here in Glendale this week the cast was enough to keep all this alive in spite of the direction, and I wasn’t sorry to have seen it.

WE HAVEN’T BEEN EATING this week with our customary discernment, by which I mean we’ve been minding the budget, at least a little. The one exception was yesterday’s dinner at Tre Venezie, about which I’ve written previously — it’s become a favorite of ours, an intimate, quiet, understated restaurant seating no more than forty or so on a quiet side street in Pasadena.

The name refers to the three regions making up Italy’s Veneto, the source and inspiration on which the chef draws: Friuli, the Alto Adige, and the Veneto itself. As a result this Italian restaurant does not always, or even often, seem “Italian.” Many of the dishes seem very Austrian; others veer off further east toward Slavic regimes. Eating here makes me want to explore northeastern Italy more than we have, and to spend a week or so in Trieste sometime soon.

We ate lightly, sharing a Russian salad, each going on to a pasta course, then having dessert. The salad reminded us of Piemonte, where Russian salad is still a standard. It’s an old-fashioned thing, I suppose: cooked vegetables — finely chopped carrot, peas, perhaps small bits of pepper, potatoes, all bound in a mayonnaise. Tre Venezie adds bits of pickled cucumber, adding crunch and piquancy; and nestles it in leaves of lettuce and sets it on a slice of fine prosciutto, and dresses it with a lovely green olive oil.

Lindsey had tagliarini (Piemonte again!) with porcini and shiitake, which seem disconcertingly unItalian to me but pleased her. My ravioli were more authentic, I thought; interesting for the texture of the pasta, made I believe with farro flour; and deeply flavored with porcini and scraps of lamb which I could swear had been braised with a tiny bit of orange zest. Both pastas were house-made, and cooked to exactly the right degree of tooth.

With this we had a half-liter of Valpolicella, a good hearty one but suave; and for dessert Lindsey had a thin slice of “Opera,” that deeply flavored chocolate tart, while I had a fabulous moscarpone with just a tiny bit of honey — and a small glass of house-made juniper-and-sugar digestivo. Tre Venezie is not inexpensive, but it is thoughtful, evocative, subtle, and immensely satisfying — which may have made A Midsummer Night’s Dream suffer by contrast.

Lindsey in Dan McCleary’s show at the Carl Berg Gallery

THIS AFTERNOON WE SAW a fine gallery exhibition of recent paintings by Dan McCleary, a painter we’ve known and loved for many years now. The Carl Berg Gallery, on Wilshire Blvd. near the L.A. County Museum of Art, is small, pristine without sterility, marvelously lit; and no paintings could have made it look better than these new ones of Dan’s. The first thing I thought of when stepping into the gallery was Gordon Cook, the masterful and rather neglected San Francisco painter: Dan’s work shares Cook’s rare combination of intensity and tranquility.

I see I need to explain that a bit. The paintings are intense because they require, and result from, an unflinching commitment to a searching kind of vision. They demand the viewer do more than glance: they require steady gaze, onto and into the surface, the subject, the mood, the moment. The intensity of this demand is an ethical statement: the painter and his subjects don’t slacken or stumble, and the viewer better not either.

But the paintings are tranquil — perhaps “serene” is a better word — because through this demanding exercise they arrive at a totally objective statement. The men and women in these paintings are seen at dramatic moments, but the drama is contained. There’s an equipoise in McCleary’s work, a dynamic balance — there’s that concept again — of motivation and intent, of action and repose, of being and expression. And of other things too, among them of representational accuracy and painterly freedom, for these are not photorealist paintings. They are equivalents, and I recognize the audacity of thinking this, of Vermeers, though perhaps more modest.

They were not injured by comparison with the impressive paintings from the Phillips Collection, which we saw next, at LACMA — chief among them the Renoir Boating party luncheon, the large Bonnard Palms, an impressive late Matisse interior, and some first-rate Manets, Degas, and van Goghs. These are all known quantities, of course, old friends, you might say. McCleary’s paintings (and I don’t mean to minimize his drawings and prints, also seen today) are also known, at least to us; but I find their continued evolution and the lasting impact of their subtle visual narratives more exciting. I’m tremendously glad to have seen them.

Eastside Road, Nov. 28—

Leaning in to December

A COLD MORNING, maybe a sixteenth of an inch of ice on the birdbath, and quiet.

We’ve been back from Rome for five full days, and full is what they’ve been: all the family here, centering on Thanksgiving in our son Paolo’s new house, one more thing to be thankful for. What else? Tazza d’Oro coffee for breakfast, still. Bagna cauda, again, for Franny’s birthday dinner, the day before Thanksgiving. No mail to speak of; we’re out of the habit.

Lindsey prepares our dining table
Lindsey ladles out bagna cauda for Franny’s birthday dinner

This incredibly beautiful country we live in. (I mean Sonoma county, not the politically defined nation.)

Friday night we drove in to Healdsburg, where one of the granddaughters was performing with her theater group — six or eight kids in their early teens (or younger, some of them), doing little Christmas mime-shows of their own devising. They began in a pedestrian mall between the new Hotel Healdsburg and the shops to its north. Knots of parents and grandparents observing; a brass quintet gently belaboring the standard carols nearby; crowds milling about. Then they moved to the bandstand in the Plaza — I always call it the Plotha Mayorrr. This was in full use, with people sitting on benches and on the fountain, and strolling its diagonal paths, so inviting as shortcuts from one shop or restaurant to the next.

I think they should respell the town’s name: Healdsbourg. There’s a new hotel — I don’t know if it’s open yet — which for some reason has been designed to look just like those mansard-roofed threestorey hotels in small cities in the French provinces; I hear you can spend four hundred dollars a night there. Don’t know who does, or will.

Healdsbourg is clearly part of what someone called the other day the Blue Archipelago, that urban agglomerate that stretches from Boston to Honolulu, hugging the coastline (except for the Gulf!). Sonoma county voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, which makes me feel right at home, and I am.

I read a little Cato yesterday morning, his book on Agriculture — apparently the only one of his many books to survive the last two millennia fairly intact. An early page describes the kind of character or temper needed to farm, and he praises it, and points out that farming should be encouraged by the state, as farmers make the best soldiers: they’re practical, they know how to live off the land, they fight in defense of something dear to them.

I think a little of this still obtains, or is thought to. It occurs to me that the real divide in this country is between people who have room to ignore their neighbors and people who don’t. An e-mailer castigated Oklahoma the other day for spending all its Federally provided transportation money on highways and not public transportation. But Oklahoma has, or has had, or thinks it has had, which all amounts to the same thing for the political thinking of the majority of Oklahomans, enough room for all these roads and cars and exhaust, and not enough destinations to really take advantage of public transportation.

It’s like the difference between supermarket shoppers, who go to one mall and get everything at one place — Safeway, WalMart, Costco — and those of us who enjoy stopping at a bakery, a cheese shop, a greengrocer. In short, I suppose, the difference between suburban and urban.

Me, I’ll take Urbanity, especially since I can have in dressed in Rusticity.

Rome, Nov. 6—

WE SAT OUT THE ELECTION here in Rome, after spending a week in Torino at the Salone del Gusto and another week recuperating from all that food and drink at I Mandorli and Verona, visiting with friends.

Now we have two weeks to revisit this city, again with the emerging American empire at the back of our minds as we consider the monuments to the failed Roman one of two millenia ago.

I am sending my usual e-mail dispatches to friends, reporting on what we find and what we think about it. You can read them here.

Healdsburg, Oct. 3—

WHILE RUMORS of a universal draft simmer, and Frank Rich writes chillingly of President Bush’s Messianic tendencies in today’s New York Times (‘Now on DVD: The Passion of the Bush’: you really gotta read this one), we continue to dance on the decks. Thursday we drove up to Truckee for dinner and conversation with an aunt, and Friday we drove home, stopping in Sacramento for more conversation with my great-aunt, 103 years old and bright and attentive, with little good to say about the political situation. (Unlike my unreconstructed aunt, who’ll never understand liberals.)

Seaweed Cafe, Bodega Bay

Lunch today out at Bodega Bay at a place Gaye and John raved about, the Seaweed Cafe. Not the most auspicious building: a sort of smalltown shoppingplaza; you park right in front and saunter into what was apparently at one time a bakery. Inside, an open kitchen on the right, a few tables seating perhaps twenty-six at most.

Oyster on the halfshell

But, oh, the food! The menu made ordering difficult — clearly this is a place for regulars; you want to return over and over to try these dishes. We began by sharing two starters: a dish of sardines cooked on tomatoes and served au gratin, bracing and substantial; and a marvelous composed salad with sliced green and red tomatoes, cod rillette, a fig stuffed with tapenade, and an oyster on the half shell with salmon eggs, dressed with very good olive oil and a spray of dill.

salmon from the cedar box

Lindsey can’t resist salmon. This one was steamed in a cedar box, imparting a very delicate flavor, and accompanied by a carrot and broccoli in two colors. It reminded me of salmon eaten long ago at Mukamuk, a north coast Indian restaurant in Vancouver, where the salmon was probably cooked on a cedar plank — except that this was very delicate in both flavor and texture.

shell bean “cassoulet”

I had an absolutely fabulous thing, a variation of cassoulet, though not nearly as long-cooked: fresh shell beans, clams in their shells, and slices of duck sausage, in a redolent juice. I’d happily eat it twice a week for the rest of my life.


For dessert, a rich, deep, perfectly textured chocolate cake, with crystallized lemon zest, and bits of candied burdock and a squiggle of caramel.

Seaweed Cafe: interior

The chef is Jackie Martine, a strawberry-blonde Bretonne who knows the secrets of scents, textures, flavor, and subtlety; and her partner is Melinda Montanye, who runs the house with verve and style. Together they market locally, gathering salt upcoast, finding produce in neighboring market gardens, and stocking only wines coming from west of Highway 101.

They have a good This is currently my very favorite California restaurant north of San Francisco.

Healdsburg, Sept. 27—

STILL, POLITICAL EVENTS roll forward toward what looks right now like unmitigated disaster. Nothing could be more depressing to contemplate than what might have been perhaps the most inspiring example of a national community, committed to social equality, general education, optimism and fair play, rapidly recapitulating the worst, most stupid, most blatant failures and excesses of the Roman Empire.

Every day the e-mail box overflows. My Macintosh is (at least for the moment) almost completely immune to viruses and its mail program efficient at weeding out spam and junk, so we escape most sleazy ads and porn, most pleas for banking transfers to Nigeria. But the political e-mail is overwhelming, and I am not the only person in my address book to send along reprints of editorials and interviews.

Two recent ones pretty well define the problem. Janet H. sends Hal Crowther’s editorial “With Trembling Fingers,” published last May but still sadly accurate. In it, he writes
The irreducible truth is that the invasion of Iraq was the worst blunder, the most staggering miscarriage of judgment, the most fateful, egregious, deceitful abuse of power in the history of American foreign policy. If you don’t believe it yet, just keep watching. Apologists strain to dismiss parallels with Vietnam, but the similarities are stunning. In every action our soldiers kill innocent civilians, and in every other action apparent innocents kill our soldiers—and there’s never any way to sort them out.
This isn’t your conventional election, the usual dim-witted, media-managed Mister America contest where candidates vie for charm and style points and hire image coaches to help them act more confident and presidential. This is a referendum on what is arguably the most dismal performance by any incumbent president—and inarguably the biggest mistake. This is a referendum on George W. Bush, arguably the worst thing that has happened to the United States of America since the invention of the cathode ray tube.

and, finally,
All it takes to make a Bush conservative is a few slogans from talk radio and pickup truck bumpers, a sneer at "liberals" and maybe a name-dropping nod to Edmund Burke or John Locke, whom most of them have never read. Sheep and sheep only could be herded by a ludicrous but not harmless cretin like Rush Limbaugh,…

I don’t think it’s accurate to describe America as polarized between Democrats and Republicans, or between liberals and conservatives. It’s polarized between the people who believe George Bush and the people who do not. Thanks to some contested ballots in a state governed by the president’s brother, a once-proud country has been delivered into the hands of liars, thugs, bullies, fanatics and thieves. The world pities or despises us, even as it fears us. What this election will test is the power of money and media to fool us, to obscure the truth and alter the obvious, to hide a great crime against the public trust under a blood-soaked flag. The most lavishly funded, most cynical, most sophisticated political campaign in human history will be out trolling for fools. I pray to God it doesn’t catch you.

But that was last May. Since then the mass media have allowed the Bush re-election people (and do you remember Nixon’s “CREEP,” the committee to re-elect the president?) to play continually on fear, on the idea that anything other than the return of the Bush administration will virtually guarantee insidious terrorist attacks on American soil. Madrid and Beslan are warnings. It’s almost as if Al Qaeda and the Chechnyan insurgents were working for CREEP.

(We are reminded occasionally that the odds are in Kerry’s favor, because few incumbent presidents have been returned to office. Misleading comfort: return to office has been the norm for eighty years. Of the presidents I recall, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton all managed it. The exceptions? Kennedy was assassinated; Ford was defeated by revulsion against the man he inherited his job from. The elder Bush was the only other president not returned to office.)

THE OTHER REMARKABLE piece to arrive recently came via Whiting, who sends it from London: Bill Boyers’ valedictory address to the Society of Professional Journalists, “Journalism Under Fire.” No short piece this: Moyers meditates in his discursive manner on his own career, the profession of journalism, and the increasing corruption of American political and commercial institutions. The result is of great interest: I might almost call it imperative. But it is not easy to summarize, or even to lift quotes from, though i will give you one, in just a moment.

“Read this and tell me how much you’re prepared to bet on Kerry winning,” Whiting writes of Moyers’s talk. And, you know, I wouldn’t put a wooden nickel on Kerry just now — but then I wouldn’t bet on Bush, either. Why not? Partly because I wouldn’t be surprised to find the election thrown into complete confusion. I see three easily possible sources for this: hurricanes and power outages in Florida forcing a postponement (remember the last election?); a terrorist attack; legal (and perhaps extra-legal) complications having to do with voting apparatus.

I don’t think enough attention is brought to the likelihood that the same people who interfered with due electoral process in Florida in November 2000 worked hard in the attempted impeachment of Bill Clinton a few years earlier. You can’t be too paranoid these days. As Bill Moyers says, “One of the biggest changes in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal.”

(He goes on to suggest that perhaps fifteen percent of the electorate believe that they and other true believers
"will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts and frogs during the several years of tribulation which follow."

This wouldn’t be so bad, except that “most are likely to vote Republican; they are part of the core of George W. Bush’s base support.” And, for all I know, they include George W. Bush himself.

This is the kind of thing I will be trying to describe, or perhaps to defend my once promising country from, when discussing this election with friends and acquaintances in Italy, where once again we will be watching the election returns in a resigned and futile state of mind in spite of the splendid Italian system which dresses political futility and corruption in the reassuring clothing of a comfortable, nourishing, and pleasant daily life. For the moment.

I doubt that I’ll write another page like this before we leave, three weeks from today. Political contemplation is just too bleak, especially given the inordinate amount of time it consumes. This is an ironic admission for me to make, because the thing that will defeat Kerry, will re-elect Bush, is the American impatience with nuance and complexity; the American inability to attend to the discursive argument; the exclusion of contemplation from all American processes, whether political or educational or commercial or — especially — journalism.

Thank Minerva, though, for the Internet, and its opportunity for conversation and exchange. I hope it survives the years I firmly believe will inevitably follow if Bush is re-elected, for the result will be not only further descent into terrorism and war but also the likely collapse of the global economy. With those, needless to say, a calamitous change in the social organization of nearly all aspects of daily contemporary life: electricity, security, the distribution of food, water, and gasoline; education; medical attention.

To get an idea, look at Iraq.

Healdsburg, Sept. 13—

Party under the oaks

WE MAY BE DANCING on the decks of the Titanic, but it sure is a nice party. Yesterday we celebrated the retirement of Alan Tangren, who I wrote about here a few days back. We gathered at Bob Cannard’s farm, which supplies so much of the produce served at Chez Panisse (and reabsorbs so much of the kitchen cuttings in its compost) — a particularly appropriate place, since Alan was, among many other functions in the restaurant, the Defining Forager, the man who reduced to a methodology the complex job of shopping for a demanding set of chefs.

And Alan is not really retiring, simply moving on from his twenty-one-year restaurant career to an equally, perhaps more rewarding one as farmer. So it was appropriate Mas Masamoto was on hand, to give Alan a spade; and Dedar and his wife were there from their farm in the Capay valley, and Bill Fujimoto, whose Monterey Market is the nexus for so much produce.

And pastry chefs past and present: Lindsey, Charlene Sweet, Mary Jo, Mary Canales. And chefs: Charlene Savory who cooked the dinner (including, improbably, soufflés for the whole party, delicious, from Lindsey’s book), and Jean-Pierre, and Peg, and Curt Clingman, and Niloufer who cooked such a memorable dinner for Parsi New Year, and who knows how many more — including, of course, Alice.

A fabulous evening on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain on the cusp of autumn. Pictures here.

Healdsburg, Aug. 29—

A Third of a Century

WELL, NOT QUITE. That has to wait until Christmas. But yesterday was the thirty-third birthday of Chez Panisse, a time to pause, reflect a little, and celebrate.

It was also the retirement day of a dear friend, Alan Tangren, who has been many things at the restaurant — cook, garde-manger, forager (a position he perfected out of existence), writer, and, following Lindsey’s own retirement six years ago, co-pastry chef.

Last night’s menu was both festive and simple — in a way, a retrospective of the restaurant over the years. It began with a glass of Paul Bara nonvintage Champagne and, almost as if from that very first week thirty-three years ago, hors d’oeuvre de campagne: a coarse-textured country paté, black olives, and fresh radishes with butter and salt.

This was followed by a Grande friture Solliès-Toucas: fried onion rings and squash blossoms served with lettuces, tomatoes, green beans, and hyssop, with fresh anchovies and, because the weather hadn’t permitted squid-fishing, little shrimps.

With this, a surprising 2002 Patrimonio Blanc, the Careo from Antoine Arena, a verdicchio from Cap Corse with a presence in the mouth that managed to be both very soft and very strong and substantial.

We switched to a 2001 Nuits-Saint-Georges, Les Bousselots, Domaine Robert Chevillon, to go with the pigeon grilled over grapevine wood with summer chanterelles that came next, along with shell beans cooked with bacon and savory. This was again a perfect combination: I thought — I’ll explain why in a moment — how absurd it was to “taste” wines like these, how necessary it is for them to be taken along with the right food.

The Burgundy pushed nicely the three cheeses: an old-fashioned grainy assertive chevre from Laura Chenel, the now-famous Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery, and a firm, forthright, country cheese from José Bové — three cheeses whose makers have much to do with the spirit of this restaurant.

And then, since we were honoring a pastry chef along with a restaurant, a ’99 Roumieu-Lacoste, almondy and luscious, to accompany a tricolor Bavarian cream and a bowl of fruit — figs, pears, grapes.. And sugared pink-grapefruit peel to bring point and focus to sweet, cream, and fruit.

THE WINE AND THE CHEESE and the meal they threw into focus were a perfect comment on a book I have just read, Lawrence Osborne’s The Accidental Connoisseur (New York: North Point Press, 2004). Here, in 260 quickly read pages, Osborne presents the memoir of a few months spent investigating the concept of terroir in wines — I specify “wines” because terroir includes more than our daily grape. His investigation begins in the Napa Valley, touches my own county (Sonoma) and Santa Cruz and San Mateo, then hops the Atlantic to Bordeaux, Languedoc, Piemonte, Tuscany, and finally runs its course in Puglia.

The book has its irritations. It lacks an index, for one thing, and I find this especially upsetting, as it’s written so engagingly that I was well into it before I realized I hadn’t been taking notes, and would have no index to help me out later. (I’ll have to re-read it soon, pencil in hand.)

Too, there are frequent slips, some of them consistent — misspelling the white varietal “semillon,” for example; referring consistently to my favorite Italian region as“Piedmonte” ; misidentifying the road between Paul Masson and the Ridge winery as “the Skyliner highway” and, below it, El Camino Real as “the old Spanish silver route.” These annoyances make you wonder what errors he may be making when he describes (and specifies) geographies and personalities one doesn’t know, of course; and that’s too bad, as his descriptions of the personalities of the global wine trade, from Robert Mondavi and Randall Grahm to the counts and marquises of the super-Italians, are keen, sympathetic, but ultimately unflinching.

It’s a funny world we live in, Lindsey and I, the intersection of Slow Food and International Super-Taste. This does not happen on a dissecting-table, like Lautreamont’s “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella,” but right here in Sonoma County, where Healdsburg, where Lindsey went to high school when it was “the buckle of the prune belt,” has recently been described as becoming “the Aspen of California,” though I can’t think where anyone will go skiing in the neighborbood.

Lawrence Osborne suggests that connoisseurship can be “accidental”: that is, that it develops, in a reasonably intelligent and aware and open-minded person, pretty much of its own accord. In his case, simply through imbibing a hell of a lot of wine in the pursuit of his book. He deprecates his “wine memory” — that is, the extent to which he is able to recall the scent and taste of wines themselves, apart from the other impressions that accompany the tastings — personalities, the weather, the surroundings, that sort of thing. But I am not sure, and I’m not sure he would be sure, that specific taste memory is a necessary (or at any rate a terribly significant) component of the gathering accidental connoisseurship that is, perhaps, “the one consolation of growing old.” (Page 247: we begin our own index!)

“Terroir” is the local specificity that contributes to (and results in part from) products which, like wine, remain close to the earth. In the case of wine it is part climate, of course, but also (and perhaps more so) part soil. There is no question that minerals are taken up by plants, and that mineral content affects flavor.

But the awareness of terroir is both intuitive, I think, and learned. The intuitive awareness is fundamental: without it, learned connoisseurship is merely taste. But the learned component is significant: without it, the other is nothing but isolationism.

Osborne seems to doubt terroir exists in California, and I know I could never persuade him otherwise. Born in England, long resident in France, competent in Italy, he is a skeptical visitor to the United States. But my grandfather’s grandfather farmed not twenty miles from my house; my grandfather was born in the next town north; my parents began farming, after a manner of speaking, almost sixty years ago, twenty miles south. I think I know Sonoma County terroir. It is in the Dry Creek Zinfandel, in the prunes now nearly extinct around Healdsburg, in the Gravenstein apples of Sebastopol. And, more recently, the lamb of west county, the goat cheese, the excellent Pinot noir from across the river; and it thrives in the farmers’ markets: Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Windsor. And it begins to accumulate in the best of the many new restaurants that have blossomed in just the last few years.

Thinking about these things, the day after that remarkable birthday dinner at Chez Panisse, I can’t help wondering if in fact it doesn’t require nearly seventy years’ experience, lots of it in the country, to awaken that sensitivity to terroir, admittedly that possibly illusory awareness of the spirit of place underlying the sophistication of elsewhere-acquired knowledge. Taste may well be the product of cities, but terroir is by definition an expression of soil. What alarms Osborne, and alarms me to, is the extent to which the “value” expressed by terroir is, at the present moment, threatened with extinction — it’s not too strong a word — by the exigencies of Taste at its most extreme, which Osborne encodes, reasonably enough, as Brand. Over and again he records conversations with aging connoisseurs who grow resigned to the idea that they may not be survived by the values to which they have dedicated their lives.

And yet. I can’t help thinking the global wine business is an immense bubble, like the tulip craze of the Dutch Golden Age, like the cotton industry in the American south. It rests on the dubious certainty that there are wines worth hundreds of dollars a bottle, in a world of wines increasingly similar. It depends, as do so many things, on the excesses of wealth and leisure and travel enjoyed by an unsustainably large minority of the earth’s population at the expense of an even faster-growing number of people ever more resentful that they are deprived of these dubious pleasures.

The one thing most likely to prevail, I think, is the soil itself: terroir, then, will prevail as well. Terroir and whatever peasants remain to gather their forces, examine their surroundings, and resume the ancient engagement. Osborne is wise to abandon his investigation in Puglia, where the battered shores of the Italian heel look across the wine-dark sea toward Greece, which once again these last two weeks has taught the world the virtues of trust and generosity. I won’t tell you how he ends his book, but I promise you it ends gracefully, with a reminder that there is something simple and affectingly sympathetic in the human heart.

By the way: speaking of food: if you click here, or on the heading “Cuisine” at the top of this page, you’ll come to some recipes I’ve decided to put here for those who’d like to try them.

Healdsburg, Aug. 9—

Picking Blackberries

They come hot and heavy, literally, the wild blackberries, in these Sonoma county summers. They won’t hold much longer: the days are heating up. Maybe one more pass at them is all we’re likely to have.

Picking blackberries is an exercise in critical thinking: it involves choosing. Some are ripe. A few are overripe. Most are underripe and will have to wait for the next pass.

Of course by then hot weather may have fried them on the vine and it will be too late. Already the best berries are those inside the foliage, shaded from the sun and protected from the drying winds. And, of course, I’ve forgotten to bring my secateurs, and my gloves.

It’s an exercise in critical thinking, but it’s mindless work; the critical decisions are mostly intuitive. If I think of anything I think of Blank Road, 1950 or so, when the whole family would go to the blackberry patch halfway down our dirt road, nearly a mile long, with milk buckets and tobacco cans and boxes and such, to pick berries until the light began to fail.

I think of that, and then I think of the Democratic convention that we watched a week or so ago.

Two attitudes are contending for supremacy, not only in the November election, but in the consequent prevailing attitude of the American experience.

They are, put most simply, maturity and immaturity.

This is the only way I can understand the prevailing meanness, arrogance, and opportunism of so much of the extreme right wing. No matter where you look — the environment, business practice, international relations, tax policy, even the arts and entertainment — the prevailing attitude seems designed to appeal to the instincts and values of a fourteen-year-old boy. (I apologize to my grandson, who just turned fifteen.)

This comes to mind while picking blackberries, perhaps because I am reading — though not while I pick — a book by Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle (Washington: Counterpoint, 2000). The book jumped off the shelf at the Sebastopol Library, but I will have to buy a copy, and maybe another for lending, it’s that good. The title’s from King Lear: Gloucester, blinded, thinks he has jumped off a cliff and killed himself, and is chagrined to have survived, and begs the stranger who has helped him (in fact his long-exiled son Edgar)

Away, and let me die.
Edgar compliments the old man on his survival, assuring him he’d fallen the length of ten ship’s masts.
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

We saw quite a fine production of Lear last month, in Ashland, and I was particularly ready to see this episode enacted, having just begun Berry’s book — later set aside for a couple of others, but now once more taken up. Shakespeare combines comedy and depth in the passage, of course. When I studied Shakespeare in college this was presented as “comic relief,” and I took the expression to mean a respite from the otherwise serious tone of the play, or any Shakespeare tragedy. I now see I misunderstood the word: Shakespeare is simply casting the underlying gravity of the situation in further relief, and enjoying himself doing so.

Berry’s book is subtitled “an essay against modern superstition,” and the superstition he addresses is what a friend of mine once called “scientistic thinking” — specifically, reductionism; the belief that everything can finally be reduced to physical properties related by causal principles.

The event that pushed Berry over the edge into writing this book is, I think, the development of gene-manipulative biophysics, and the fact that that development has been fostered (and, no doubt, inspired) by attention to commercial use of the science. Berry, a farmer as well as a writer, has a neat argument against the entire proposition:
Cloning… is not a way to improve sheep. On the contrary, it is a way to stall the sheep’s lineage and make it unimprovable. No true breeder could consent to it, for true breeders have their farm and their market in mind, and always are trying to breed a better sheep. Cloning, besides being a new method of sheep-stealing, is only a pathetic attempt to make sheep predictable. But this is an affront to reality. As any shepherd would know, the scientist who thinks he has made sheep predictable has only made himself eligible to be outsmarted. [Berry, Life is a Miracle, p. 7]

Berry has taken up cloning as an example of the reductionist imperative “to treat life as mechanical or predictable or understandable.” The greater point is that in so doing the reductionist experimenter treats life as manipulatable, and Berry has fun tracing the origins of this way of seeing life — this scientific “value,” if you like — back through the Industrial Revolution to the Age of Reason.

Needless to say the issues here are huge. What I think about today, while picking blackberries, is the gulf between the world of the late 1940s, when I picked blackberries along our dirt road, nearly a mile long, when I was myself fourteen years old, the today’s world. The blackberries haven’t changed, thank Demeter. Everything else has.

In the late 1940s our government was rebuilding the Japanese and European economy, in shambles partly through our own excessive military response to foreign threats. Returned soldiers were going to college, improbably studying the arts and humanities along with the sciences and industry. Industry itself, which had been hostage to the war effort, was about to address the neglected national infrastructure — and the long-deprived American civilian, who would soon learn that he, and she, was a “consumer.”

Fifty years of domestic peace then followed, broken by the three great social upheavals — civil rights via racial integration; rebellion against oppressive cultural mores via the sexual and free-speech activists; violent exception to surrogate foreign war in the Vietnam protests. What held that half-century together, from the election of Dwight Eisenhower president in 1952 to the fall of the World Trade Center in 2001, was largely Business As Usual. From the introduction of frozen orange juice and the microwave oven to the development of cheap international travel and the Internet the economy boomed (though there were occasional burps). Daily life was made convenient; entertainment was made more exciting; troubling events, whether at home or abroad, were marginalized from the truly American Way of Life.

Even setting aside the greed factor, which has clearly driven so much of the corporate side of these developments, it seems to me that most of this trend has been due to one habit: the neglect of Consequence in the pursuit of the Present. In other words, we’ve been satisfying the desire of the moment by deferring the true cost. The most obvious example of this at the moment is the Bush deficit, which is the more dramatic contrasted with the great surplus his administration inherited.

OF THE UNDERLYING TENSIONS besetting contemporary American life none is greater than that between liberty and responsibility, and I think the tendency sketched in the preceding paragraph is an example of excess of liberty. Libertine values are unrestrained by convention or morality, Webster’s Ninth tells me.

So be it: if the extreme on the right use “liberal” as a pejorative, let us counterpose it to “libertine.” The same dictionary tells me that “liberalism” is “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of man, and the autonomy of the individual[,] and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.” Sounds good to me, particularly if you accept the notion, as I think we must, of resting the whole apparatus on a Social Contract of some kind.

What blinded Gloucester was greed and meanness driven to fury through frustration, and I worry that today’s Gonerils and Regans, not to mention their husbands, grow similarly truculent. They won’t resort to mayhem, I suppose, though Waco and Oklahoma City come to mind. (And in any case the present administration has thoughtfully provided work at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghareib for those who need their outlets.)

The greed and meanness I speak of are those that lie behind the familiar expressions “It’s a free country” and “A man’s home is his castle” and “Not in my back yard.” Wendell Berry speaks plain on the subject of freedom, which is so easily cited as allowing, justifying even, attitudes and activities clearly against the public good:
The hard and binding requirement that freedom must answer, if it is to last, or if in any meaningful sense it is to exist, is that of responsibility. For a long time the originators and innovators of the two cultures [science and the humanities] have made extravagant use of freedom, and in the process have built up a large debt to responsibility, little of which has been paid, and for most of which there is not even a promissory note.
The debt can be paid only by thought, work, deference, and affection given to the integrity of our ecological and cultural life. [Ibid., p. 73]

Integrity: what a quaint word. By far the largest part of Life is a Miracle is a response to Edward O. Wilson’s book Consilience, itself a response to C.P. Snow’s famous 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures,” which argues that “the literary and scientific cultures had become separated,” as Berry puts it, “by lack of common knowledge and a common language.” Wilson’s book proposes healing this breach through consilience, the leaping together of the two cultures, though his view is apparently that this is best done by submerging the literary culture altogether in the overriding progressive materialism, not to say reductionism, of the scientific.

But this this submersion of the humanities — and the humane and the liberal — into the methods and “values” of the sciences — and the material and the libertine — is like bringing all sheep to the same standard, robbing the future of the possibility of developing random improvements in the breed in order to fix the qualities of a presumed ideal of the present. “Your life’s a miracle,” Berry says; speak yet again. And he quotes Erwin Chargaff: “Life is the continual intervention of the inexplicable.” [Heraclitean Fire, The Rockefeller University Press, p. 20; quoted ibid., p. 45]

And, later:
It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines. [Ibid., p. 55]

Comments like that sparkle in Berry’s book, articulating its passionately developed argument against scientistics, as flashes of the inexplicable articulate with their mysteries the platitudes of daily life. (And if you don’t think that next great division is waiting in the wings, consider the masses of people strapped into exercising machines, their foreheads expressionless with Botox, their clothes, homes, and automobiles increasingly “smart” and determined.)

WELL: I MEANT SIMPLY TO WRITE about blackberries and Wendell Berry, and a little bit about our present Two Cultures, the Red and the Blue; and as usual the result is nonlinear, distracting and distracted, and inconclusive. Berry himself avoids these pitfalls, but then he undoubtedly meditated over his book for some time, and possibly even submitted it to rewrite. The blackberries are harvested and Lindsey’s put them to the freezer, and I’ll get back to Life is a Miracle, and maybe have more to say about it here in a few days.

Healdsburg, August 6—

Home again, and glad to be. But still thinking of…

Lunch chez Leedy

What is there to be said about a perfect lunch, prepared with intelligence and love by a dear friend? Here you have eggplant, zucchini, little white beans, home-made ricotta, and fried zucchini blossoms on a bed of romaine leaves — every bit of it from the garden. (Well, maybe not the beans. I’m not sure about them.)

It was all grown in a modest back yard in Corvallis, Oregon, and harvested with gratitude and enjoyment, and cooked with scholarship and acumen, and served with generosity and enthusiasm,

by one of the most thoughtful, reasoned, and fascinating men I know.

Portland, July 30—

I don’t read newspapers very carefully, or follow the political discussions as a general rule. I make exceptions to this at certain times, and the presidential election is one of those times. We’ve been watching the convention the last few nights, as best we can here, via CNN, whose instant analysis drives me nuts. I don’t know which is my major response to the event, my admiration for many of the speeches we’ve heard or my contempt for the caliber of the intelligence commenting on them.

I have to say that for the first time since September 11, 2001, I’m a little optimistic about the future of this country. The optimism set in after watching “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which I hadn’t expected to admire at all. It was clear, watching this, that if that movie is seen by enough “swing” voters — not to mention those who generally don’t vote — it might be possible to outvote the manipulations of the Bush backers.

And the speeches in Boston have continued this optimism. I thought Mrs. Kerry, Al Sharpton, and Barack Obama were eloquent, truthful, and sympathetic; and Senators Kennedy and Edwards did no real harm to their own cause. We just watched Kerry’s speech, and thought it was pretty good too, though of course I’m still waiting for a more specific discussion of the kinds of points I raised here a few weeks ago. (See below, July 9)

But there’s time for that; that’s what the next three months are for. I’m pleased that Kerry and the Democratic Party have been listening to opposition voices, from within the party as well as without — Dean and Sharpton, but Republican critics as well. Kerry is showing that “flip-flopping” is in fact hearing disagreement, examining his own stand to see if it needs adjustment. He corrects his course as he goes, as we all must.

But I must say I am troubled by two constants in this political season. One, of course, is the shocking meanness of so many Republicans: their unconcern for the plight of “their own people,” to use the phrase that’s always thrown against Saddam Hussein. There was an article in the Sunday New York Times magazine about the calculated campaign launched by this wing of the Republican Party a few years ago. Fortunately a few intelligent people have noticed this, analyzed it, and begun the work to counter and overcome it.

The other is the constant trivializing by the press of this entire business, this public activity that is contemporary politics. The serious threats are minimized or ignored or even marginalized; such minor issues as physical appearance and pastime are given disproportionate attention; and style is nearly always set above substance. Worst of all, commentators — certainly on CNN — respond to everything in terms of adversary analysis, seeing the campaign as a game between two opposed teams, rather than the profound national discussion of public policy that it is.

This infects more than simply their “coverage,” I’m afraid: it reinforces the American tendency to simplify issues, to interpret complex issues in terms of good guys and bad guys. The recent history has shown that the manipulable majority prefers simplicity to complexity, and that does not bode well for intelligent policy. But how strange to see journalists and commentators falling into the same lazy way of thinking!

Portland, July 27 —

EVERY YEAR LATELY WE’VE SPENT A WEEK in Ashland with three other couples in a nice old house an easy walk from the theaters. Ashland is famous for its theater; its Shakespeare Festival is one of the most significant repertory companies in the world. We’re lucky to have the opportunity to see so much theater in so short a time, and to discuss it with so many good friends, and it’s worth the time, drive, and — let’s face it — expense.

There are a number of reasons the theater is so good. First, the repertory: centering on Shakespeare, but setting against him other plays, contemporary and not, American and not, with the inevitable result of making Shakespeare even bigger, even more profound and relevant.

Then there are the physical productions: either complex or stunning or both, some in the outdoors “Elizabethan” theater which suggests Shakespeare’s Globe, others indoors in the big but acoustically fine Bowmer Theater or the new black-box New Theater with its flexible audience seating — in the round, or deeply thrust, or “alley,” with the audience on both sides of the players.

The sets, costumes, and lighting are almost uniformly successful — enterprising, substantial, well-financed, technically quite up to the other standards. The directing is usually serious and thoughtful, whether conventional or (as is sometimes the case) quite “against the grain.” And the acting is quite marvelous: these actors are of the highest caliber, and the long rehearsal and longer season enables precision and depth in the ensemble.

This week we saw no fewer than five Shakespeare plays — six, in fact, though the second and third parts of Henry the Sixth were combined in a single evening. And, for me at least, Shakespeare quite dominated the week, with a gripping performance of King Lear, fine productions of the Henry VI plays, and a breathtakingly sparkling staging of A Comedy of Errors.

(At Ashland last week the term “bling bling” came into my consciousness, belatedly I suppose; I can’t think of a better application of the phrase than to this production.)

WHAT WAS IMPRESSIVE ABOUT ALL THESE PLAYS was the extent to which they were History. Ashland has a very sensible approach to Shakespeare’s History Plays, doing them in cycles chronological with respect to their subjects, with consistently cast actors where possible. Last year the cycle began with Richard II; this year it continues through the War of the Roses; next year we meet Richard III. But the tragedies, and even the comedies, enlarge the historicity of these histories, revealing endless layers of detail about the time and place of Shakespeare’s actions, and thereby the timelessness and universality of the human conditions they portray.

So A Comedy of Errors, though its director had set it in today’s Las Vegas, worked perfectly well. Ephesus (and Antioch and Smyrna and I suppose Constantinople) were the Las Vegases of their time, or at least the time that Shakespeare suggests — combining luxury and squalor with that peculiar tastelessness that inevitably results from wretched excess. Merchants and con artists, whores and gangsters, and the occasional sympathetic nice guy from every quarter, with every outlandish local accent and absurd detail of clothing — these were no doubt as common in Rome and Byzantium two thousand years ago as they are in Las Vegas and Miami Beach today.

And that insight enlarges one’s study, in these productions, of the dark ages of Lear’s legendary monarchy; and the brutal arrogance of medieval England. (Whose imperious occupation of its own island as well as France might serve as warning to contemporary globemasters.)

Around this Shakesperian center we saw arranged, last week, Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy, Lorraine Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun, and The Royal Family, a badly dated piece by Edna Ferber and Moss Hart. The first two continued the enlargement of Shakespeare’s points, with Humble Boy examining the distancing and ultimate reconciliation among family members unable at first to accommodate one another’s needs — surely a subject with universal political overtones as well as psychological relevance — and A Raisin in the Sun still full of vitality and poignancy in its insistence on dignity and humanity in the face of societal injustice.

Only The Royal Family and, for me at least, Much Ado About Nothing seemed to fall short of the highest theatrical values last week — the former because of its book, and in spite of its direction and acting; the latter because of its direction but perhaps also partly for its book, surely not Shakespeare’s most inspired writing.

WE HAD MADE AN EARLIER TRIP to Ashland, nearly two months ago, with our Dutch friends Hans and Anneke, with whom we’d seen the first part of Henry VI — fascinating to have the chance to see it twice, and see the difference six weeks had made in it. (It was neither “better” nor “worse,” merely a slight bit different, and that perhaps more owing to our greater familiarity than to the ripening of ensemble give-and-take.)

And a few weeks ago we drove up to Ashland just for a day, believe it or not, to see two plays which had dropped from the repertory by the time of last week’s visit. They were as fine as anything we saw last week, or nearly so: Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit, about the cynical and powerful punishment wrought on the small-minded and failed Swiss town of her abused childhood by a woman grown wealthy and manipulative by her own ethical compromises; and Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog, both hilarious and tragic in its view of hopelessness in today’s Harlem.

All these plays — their writing and their performances — examine the huge problems facing us today: political, societal, familial, personal. It’s a cliché, I know, but they prove the significance, the relevance, even perhaps the possible transcendance of Theater, to which humanity has always turned at critical moments when examination of the human condition seems most crucial. No one that I know of does it better, more consistently, more wide-rangingly, than Ashland.

Portland, July 26, 2004—

An intense week, last week: eight plays seen in six days; four restaurant dinners; a week living in one capacious house with six dear friends; a drive of six hundred miles.

The annual trek to Ashland. I’ll try to post a few notes on the plays and the dinners later this week. This update, such as it is, is just to announce two short new piano pieces, “Lullaby” and “Finale,” which you can see — and hear! — by clicking

here for “Lullaby”

here for “Finale”

You will need to download a “plug-in” to handle this, I think. Let me know if it works!


July 9, 2004
Now that Kerry has picked Edwards it's time to nail down a clear, concise, meaningful platform.

I propose it address the following points:

. Foreign affairs: We do everything possible to stop acting unilaterally and embrace the idea that a new world order must involve international co-operation. We increase our commitment to the United Nations. We pledge to invade no more countries. We ask what we can do to HELP such nations as North Korea, Iran, Cuba, rather than continue to isolate them. We confer automatic passports on our congressmen and senators and require them to travel internationally. We assist our universities in hosting exchange and foreign students. We insist such supranational organizations as the World Bank, NAFTA, the WTO and the IMF place the values and traditions of the countries they assist at the top of program priorities.

. Security: The federal government pledges to install meaningful security measures on all coastlines, land boundaries, and ports, with a clear aim to prevent any kind of criminal or terroristic act. These measures should involve the National Guard, whose members should not be replacing seasoned personnel in theaters of war. Further, the federal government will assist state and local emergency personnel with training, materiel, and supplementary personnel if needed.

. Health: The federal government adopts as its basic commitment the natural right of every resident to physical and mental health. A key aspect of this commitment is the development of a national HMO plan, perhaps in partnership with NGO HMOs, which emphasizes health and disease prevention; but disease therapy and hospice care also have their place in this commitment. All aspects of medical research, including the development of drugs and foods, will be closely watched to ensure their safety and accessibility.

. Education: The federal government extends a plan similar to the G.I. Bill to all citizens, recognizing that dedication to an informed and studious way of life, regardless of the subject area, is to the certain eventual advantage of the nation. A coherent approach to minimal curriculum will provide basic skills and subject knowledge through secondary school and specialized skills and knowledge for four years beyond. This shall extend to all schools, public and private, as long as skills and knowledge requirements are met.

. Sustainability: The federal government recognizes that the guarantee of security and basic rights to its citizens is meaningless if future security and rights are put in danger. Therefore federal management of natural resources, the regulation of transportation and energy, the oversight of banking and trade, and the national position on global treaties and programs will address Sustainability as a first priority.

. Jobs: The federal government will establish training and loan programs to develop employment in areas of prime national importance, including Security, Health, Education, and Sustainability.

. Transparency and responsibility: The federal government will regain the confidence of the citizens only when all its activities are discussed, planned, and carried forward with the full awareness of the public. There will be no closed doors in government. Congress will commit itself to a streamlining of legislation, reducing the size and clarifying the content of the legal code.

. Calendar: Recognizing that the nation is at a moment of extreme crisis, a plan will be developed for coherent federal planning over the next four years to find manageable solutions to the following specific points:

. Economic security for all citizens: retirement, welfare, and employment guarantees
. Health coverage
. Energy production and distribution
. Education
. Tolerant and sympathetic foreign policy

June 27 2004

Carl Rakosi 1903-2004

Carl Rakosi died Thursday. His Marilyn called Friday to tell us. He had turned one hundred last November, so it wasn’t entirely a surprise; but he’d been in fine health up until an accidental fall, near the beginning of June, left him with some little strokes the next day, and he gradually declined over the ensuing few weeks.

We last saw him, typically, at the San Francisco Ferry Building Market, where he was buying chocolates. He was with Marilyn, as he always was when we saw him. We had seen him otherwise twice in the cafe at Chez Panisse and three or four times in his home. He was an acquaintance, by no means a close friend; but he was a friend, and I miss him.

We came together in the fall of 1995, I think, just after my own sixtieth birthday. Someone had suggested I work with him on a musical setting for his long poem The Old Poet’s Tale . What Carl wanted was not a setting-to-music of the poem, but a musical introduction, interludes between the longish stanzas, and a postlude. I had been wanting to write a piece for solo bassoon with some kind of accompaniment, and felt the poem appropriate to that project. I had been “dry” for a few months but on a walk one day, shortly after a conversation with another poet, Ron Silliman, a chance remark of whose had reminded me of the old truth that one can do precisely what one determines to do, the opening of the piece, a long riff for unaccompanied bassoon, came into my mind.

Soon though came that diagnosis of prostate cancer, and that threw me into a sort of depression for quite a while, and then the decision that I did not want to put any more effort into writing music, or that music didn’t want to put any more effort into me, I wasn’t sure which. And I wrote Carl, apologetically, and that seemed to be that. He was very courteous and good-humored though perhaps a little disappointed, but he never tried to talk me out of my decision.

A year ago another composer, a good friend, Charles Boone, had decided it would be nice to serenade Carl on his centenary, and asked me to set a couple of poems for voice and violin. I didn’t think I’d be able to; I hadn’t composed for five or six years. (The last thing had been a Stein song: “You Can Only Say What You Know”; it seemed an appropriate farewell.) I looked through Carl’s Collected Poems, the National Poetry Foundation’s 1986 collection, and was struck by his preface, in which he apologizes that a collection isn’t really a book, a “composition,” but that although the result lacks the “coherence” of a composition, the poems gain meaning by their arrangement.

It seemed to me Carl was writing about the accumulated experiences of a life, as well as the accumulated poems, and I wrote a letter to him about this — a letter in the form of a poem, a longish one for me, writing it quickly and easily on the flyleaf of the book. The letter was an apology for not having composed his music, of course. I transcribed it and mailed it — to a wrong address. It came back. Twice more I sent it, but each time to the same erroneous address: I can’t think what was driving this incompetence.

Then, however, two of the short poems miraculously suggested music, and I sketched them out, also in the book; and sent fair copies to Charles. But the centenary came and went without the intended serenade, owing to problems of organization.

We visited Carl in the meantime, and had a long conversation, and after I’d apologized again about the delay on The Old Poet’s Tale, after his noting that I seemed quite healthy and active (as was he, though he was then nearly a hundred years old), he suggested that I was “malingering” — he memorably pronounced the word with a soft “g”. He made the accusation good-humoredly, but he was clear about it. He said I had no right to refuse the Muse; that no creative artist has moral permission to refuse to create.

Then a few months ago we gathered in Carl’s living room, Charles and another composer, Christopher Burns, and I, and our wives, and two Conservatory musicians Charles had found, the soprano Hiroku Yoshinaga and the violinist Akiko Kojima, and we heard them perform our four songs. Charles provided a fine song, “The January of a Gnat”; Christopher had a fascinating setting of “The Response to Hamlet”; I had set two very short epigrammatic poems, “Riddle” and “Cenozoic Time.”

We heard “Riddle” first, and at the end Carl exclaimed “Oh, Charles, it’s beau-ti-full!” — I mention this immodestly because his exclamation was so unfeigned and immediate and was I think the most rewarding comment I’ve ever heard on my music. We heard the songs once through by way of reheasal, then once again after some talk and slight revision; and then we had Champagne and pastries; and then, as the evening was drawing on, we ordered in a feast from an Indian caterer.

When we next saw them, that day at the Market, Marilyn told Lindsey that Carl had said, after that little musicale, that he thought that had been one of the happiest days of his life. I wondered, as Marilyn and I talked Friday on the phone, if perhaps the settings had somehow validated the poetry in his mind, as if seeing the poems enter another dimension — the musical one — had somehow enabled him finally to consider the poetic production finished, in a sense. Composed, as he said in the preface.

Marilyn said that Carl had said recently “Isn’t it nice, I don’t have to write poetry any more, I can devote all my time to you.” And she recounted some another recent remark of his — that he’d been to the park with her, and that he’d remarked that it was wonderful to sit close to birds. Birds are omens, and they usher us elsewhere.

I have attached the song “Cenozoic Time” to this website. You can hear the first performance, recorded in Carl’s living room.

You can see the score and play a synthesized realization of it at

You can read an online bio of Carl Rakosi at

There’s a good and interesting interview with Carl, written by Steve Dickison, at

2003 blog

URL:              rev.: February 2007            copyright © Charles Shere