Showing posts with label Seattle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Seattle. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Robert Ferrigno's "The Girl Who Cried Wolf": Kindle Book Review

Skilled thrillers with a moral undertone, Robert Ferrigno's "Assassin Trilogy" entertained me and kept me intrigued by an alternate future history of an America split between Islamic sharia rule and Bible-Belt fanatics. Reviewing the three titles back in 2009, I noted Ferrigno's ability, even when plots bristled with betrayals and duplicity, to keep the ethical dilemmas of his vengeful villains and conniving heroes vivid among the mayhem caused by ideologies grown rigid, cruel, and hypocritical.

No surprise that his new novel features Glenn, an unhinged eco-activist with a penchant for murder in the cause of a "PMS" Mother Nature. I confess as a native Californian a sneaking sympathy for environmentalists, pitted against McMansions and despoilers of the coast, so I approached this e-book (provided for review) curiously. The bias from the start is quite tipped against Glenn, Tree, and Eli: the Monkey Boyz (a jaundiced nod to Edward Abbey's early-1970s Monkey Wrench Gang?) come off sounding like Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli. Ferrigno's conveyance of their inner monologues and spoken dialogues doesn't spark much confidence in the state of current education of Western American youth. Their contact, Cleo, contrasts as a bit more savvy, for her own reasons we learn.

In Seattle, the Boyz kidnap Remy, who as her name hints is from a more luxurious social status.  Her father, Brandt, as a magnate, is judged guilty by Glenn for crimes against old growth. Glenn's using Tree and Eli as dupes for his own scheme hatched with Cleo to profit off of Remy's abduction. Of course, with Remy a Stanford-educated entertainment lawyer, and the aspiring ex-cop "tough guy" Mack Armitage (great name) teaming with Seattle detective Marcus Hobbs, complications ensue.

True to form as in the Assassin books, Ferrigno delves into a radicalized mindset to reveal some nuance. The Birkenstocks and granola anarchist milieu of Seattle, where he lives, is ripe for parody, but the author does not take too many potshots. While the book is tilted, it does show the other side. The difficulty is that most of the rumpled and marginal ecologists aren't very compelling in their articulation of their cause, and while this may be accurate in terms of their diction, it doesn't generate much reader enthusiasm for what is "naturally" a dramatic campaign. He alludes to one character's taking on a "deep woods glide" that shows a welcome eye for what immersion in nature can offer, and toxic waste, poaching, and logging receive pointed observation.

People come alive best with brief scenes of the first meetings of Hobbs and Mack, and with Sky as an inmate who warms a bit to Mack: supporting characters are not many, but Ferrigno at his best can flesh them out. I cannot reveal the ultimate antagonist although this figure appears early on: suffice to say as with previous villains Ferrigno creates I found this character the most intriguing by far. I wanted much more of this character. Others--including the main antagonist--move the plot along but I found them less likable and at times even dull. Maybe they heightened the impact of others. Yet, some key figures often lacked a flair and over-the-top boastfulness that made their counterparts in the Assassin books so enjoyable if also in the service of a thriller that might leap the limits of the plausible. Mack to me seemed more drab and functional, but some of the others drew me in as the plot spun about, the usual body count rising as the climax approached.

Any thriller relies on happenstance paired with smarts, chance with luck, and random encounters with set-ups. Ferrigno's in his element as he delivers a rousing tale. I'm between three and four stars as this relies too much on stereotypes, but these move action efficiently. This author knows his genre and delivers at a rapid pace, in nearly a hundred short chapters.

True, it's not very subtle in its satire or bad guys. His choreographed violence remains (as in Darwin in the Assassin books) his most vivid skill, delivered here again in cinematic scope if with far less of a total casualty list than that trilogy. Ferrigno puts in enough twists; this kept me reading it all in one sitting, ending two hours after midnight. (Amazon US 3-30-13)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"The Gary Snyder Reader": Book Review

Over six hundred pages, two-thirds of these essays, articles, journals, and interviews, the rest original poetry and Asian translations, this anthology 1999 offers a deep introduction and thorough investigation of a writer I regard as a thinker but also as a worker. As a poem about Japanese loggers ends: "the pain/ of the work/ of wrecking the world" infuses his perspective. He's freer of the usual academic traps, even though he lectures at UC Davis, and his residence in the Sierras and his forestry, logging, and Zen monk training provide richer material for him to excavate, sift, ponder, and return to for half a century.

Early on, he stayed wary of temptation: "(Beware of anything that promises freedom or enlightenment-- traps for eager and clever fools-- a dog has a keener nose-- every creature in a cave can justify itself. Three-fourths of philosophy and literature is the talk of people trying to convince themselves that they really like the cage they were tricked into entering.)" [24:X (1956, Kyoto) p. 29]

This may let off of a whiff of an air that many well-schooled and meditatively "cool" Beats to me possessed, a dash at least of reverse snobbery by a 1951 graduate of Reed, as in a revealing 1977 East-West Journal interview. "I can pride myself on the fact I've worked nine months on a tanker at sea and nobody once ever guessed I had been to college." (105) Still, on the hundred acres he and Allen Ginsberg bought around 1969 and he named Kitkitdizze after the Nisenan word for an aromatic shrub, Snyder reified his back-to-nature convictions. He never explains why he chose to build on open space (if logged generations before) rather than, say, settle on already occupied land in his native Northwest, but he surely provides better care for his Shasta Nation Yuba River watershed than those who, attracted as he and then early-1970s hippies to the same terrain nearby, have torn it up for golf courses, tract homes, and retirement communities. The tension between development and sustainability underlies many essays here, as Snyder labors to improve the quality of his residence and to educate his neighbors on this small ridge of Turtle Island.

In it for the long haul, as a native Californian I understand Snyder's appeal to all of us who live here. No matter where we've come from, or our ancestors, he encourages us to recognize this fragile series of bioregions as a wonderful and lovely new home. The price paid for this settling (no matter how ecologically educated or real-estate flipping?) is very apparent. He cites a "friend who still gets emotional when he recalls how the avocado orchards of his southern Californian youth landscape were transformed into hillside after hillside of suburbs." (184) He avers that between the ages of about six and ten, a childhood place enters us. For me, it was between eight and eleven, and lemons instead of avocados, but I suffer the same enduring impact as a local witness to what replaced my memories.

These excerpts from 1990's The Practice of the Wild alert one to the sensitivity needed to hear our locale's presence. Rocks as well as trees can speak if the imprint of humans is not too heavy, even for those of us who live in the city. Bioregionalism, for those in the "flat crowded lowlands" as well as the fewer lucky enough to make a living in the less hectic highlands or on the cooler, pricier coasts, can recognize how our political and social structures fight against the place we wish to settle down in. Digging in, for Snyder in the Sierra Nevada foothills, represents a stand. True republicanism, he reminds us, means not distancing squabbles to be arbitrated by monied or judicial entities. It means working out differences with adversaries.

This ties to the "Buddhism and the Possibilities of a Planetary Culture" principles, the 1969 version reprinted here of his 1961 manifesto for a principled anarcho-pacifism. Utopian as it may sound then or now, it remains a prescient call for resisting, anticipating what the Occupy Movement tried to replace forty/fifty years later. As he expands his stance in The Practice of the Wild: "People fear the small society and the critique of the State. It is difficult to see, when one has been raised under it, that it is the State itself which is inherently greedy, destabilizing, entropic, disorderly, and illegitimate." (195) Critics throw back "parochialism, regional strife, 'unacceptable' expressions of cultural diversity," but Snyder ripostes: "Our philosophies, world religions, and histories are biased towards uniformity, universality, and centralization-- in a word, the ideology of monotheism." (195) As a Buddhist, Snyder counters with small-scale economics of a householder, eco-activist, and cultivator.

He finds this "earth house hold" in the swoop from Big Sur up through his place of birth on a dairy farm north of Seattle that came up against second-growth woods, and then into British Columbia, and over Alaska down to Hokkaido across the Japanese islands where he studied as a monk, and over to China. This, his chosen Pacific Rim regional affiliation, draws him in many journals and essays excerpted here into its past (he evokes the largest city of medieval times, Hang-chou, marvelously as he shows us its archived chronicles down to where to find the tastiest pig roasted in coals) and its present traces of its ancient, indigenous mindset.

Alert to contradictions beneath the surface we see and tread, Snyder's earth never sleeps. "Life in the wild is not just eating berries in sunlight," he warns. (209) Depth ecology demands scrutiny of what's fermenting and digesting in the dark. This may require him to open up his Sierra home to bugs and deer, squirrels and ticks. In threat, decay, and migration, life's rhythms also pulse. Insights may emerge for those bold enough to look inside. "The other side of the 'sacred' is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots." (210) In this spirit world, he seeks communication. Poetry, myth, lore amassed to be critiqued not only in seminars but in the field: Snyder takes the reader out into the wilderness, and unlike all but a few scholars, he practices what he preaches as he leaves trails behind, and literally crawls where bears do to figure out what they do do.

In one such lair, where the rock art left thousands of years ago in caves of the Dordogne and the Pyrenees beckons, Snyder demonstrates the wonder of what our ancestors knew and left even as their language faded. He quotes T.S. Eliot on the Magdalenian discoveries of his own decade: "art never improves." (393) Instead of assuming progress, Snyder counters that primitive creators already had found their truths.  "The deep past confounds the future by suggesting how little we are agreed upon on what is good." The humans were not depicted; aurochs were. Men and women did not need to paint themselves into their environment, not long after they emerged to portray it 35,000 years ago.

Similarly, the verses Snyder follows his prose with, opening with seven strong selections from Riprap (1959), depict his self-assurance as he climbs mountains and looks down on his own traces there. The first one, "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout," returns to the first pages, with his 1952 journal as a Forestry Surface lookout for fires (before he fell foul of McCarthyism and had to take the side of the loggers to make his living). It scans the space he has chosen to explore ever since his teens: "I cannot remember things I once read/ A few friends, but they are in cities./ Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup/ Looking down for miles/ Through high still air." (399)

Two hundred-plus pages follow but already the path is clear in his poems. That first inclusion as lodestar or compass directs us. He aligns the precise suggestion of Asian approaches, which diverge from the symbolic weight of Western contemporary verse, while he lengthens the suggestive lines of simpler spoken predecessors such as Williams. (See more on this in the letters with Allen Ginsberg here reviewed by me.) Snyder edges past the natural settings of the Golden State familiar if made more looming and ominous to Jeffers, and skates over the gnomic density of Pound, Yet he shares Pound's knack for dangling the reader within a suddenly visual suspension. Analyzing natural (are any truly inorganic?) components within the environs he passes through, Snyder reveals by his long crunchy or mulchy march across the world's surface its gaps and its seams. He distances himself from his own footfall; he waits for us to join him--as he listens to the echoes. (Amazon US 4-24-13)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Kinski's "Cosy Moments": Music Review

Seattle-based, so the turns to '70s hard rock and gloomy grunge first diverging where we left off with the band six years ago on Down Below It's Chaos should not surprise. However, do we need a talented foursome, skilled in space-rock and trippier textures merging well psychedelic and propulsive post-punk, to show us how it can pull off sounds which forty years ago passed for progress, if not many hits? This sixth album left me, a faithful fan of their output, wondering.

Matthew Reid Schwartz sang on the previous album. For this instrumentally based foursome, this shift after a decade into its career signaled a wish to shift its approach. Welcome as such commitments can be, his sung style ambles between a workmanlike delivery and a slacker dismissal. Schwartz and co-guitarist Chris Martin display their talents best, for me, when playing.

"Long Term Exit Strategy" by its title may betray the band's restlessness at the duration between albums. Kinski had advanced, by Alpine Static in 2005, to pithy yet distorted freakouts that revealed the band's affinity for one-time partners on an e.p., Acid Mothers Temple. Its next record blurred  stoner rock with poppier ditties rather than obsessive epics; the more accessible song styles--fewer amps, pedals, effects--remain largely the same on this 2013 release.

That seven-minute-plus opening track shows Kinski in time-tested mode. The rippling, submerged feel of the guitar effect (yes, still there), and the lazy lyrics drift along, half-pushed, half-pulled, as the female backing voice woozily comes and goes.

"Last Day on Earth" compresses wah-wah pedals (still there) into a jittery, no-nonsense tune. This skips into "Skim MILF" with a similarly insistent pace. As if the Dandy Warhols met Oneida? Like those purveyors of ironic takes on rock conventions, Kinski hurries its take on them and dashes off.

This crunchy texture, eager to show off on "Riff DAD" a suitably boastful guitar pattern, encourages Barrett Wilke's drums to bash along. The song careens along, reminding me of the garage-rock ambitions I'd hear down the street from where I live, floating along up to me at twilight.

After three quick tracks, "Throw It Up" slows down to let Schwartz's vocals call and respond with Martin's backup. The structure remains simple, much more than earlier Kinski. Similar to Oneida, the progressive post-punk takes on hard rock have turned these contemporary interpreters into a direction that appears to imitate earnest pioneers of this genre but which--as song titles convey--keeps winking. The humor may remain in titles, but as for sounds, they could have been more gripping. As with Brooklyn peers in this niche these days, Kinski moves towards convention. There's less payoff here than six-and-a-half minutes earns. Acceptable, but like much of this album so far, it's content to slide.

It's therefore all the more heartening to hear the start of "A Little Ticker Tape Never Hurt Anybody": the interplay of guitars, a steady bass of Lucy Atkinson, and measured percussion promise the mathematical precision of this band at its best, played off against the swirls of keyboards and that spacier expansion. It churns away halfway in. The chugging drums, whooshing snares, and the clunky attempt of the guitars and synthesizers to take off make for more intriguing listening.

With a fine title like "Conflict Free Diamonds", what do you expect? Catchier, bolder. Finally, the vocals enrich its swagger and atmospheric dabblings. With its assertive approach, it drags you in.

This momentum with "Counterpointer" shows a well-chosen sequencing. Without vocals, it briefly allows you to hear Kinski as many of its best songs convey the band. It screeches to a halt, and the pause lets "We Think She's a Nurse" sneak forward, as if down a corridor. Wilke's beats and the return of guest keyboardist David Golightly enable Kinski to slow down and build suspense. This demonstrates the band's talent at surrounding guitars with layers of instruments, and letting space in around them to express ambiguity and curiosity.

Such emotions may explain the final song, a quick "Let Me Take You Through My Thought Processes" bashes along with sing-song but intoned back-and-forth aaah-aaah-aaah patterns and freaky guitar that prove it's been a fun, if rapid, ride down memory lane, or the dusky freeway.

Certainly, the clever titles common to Kinski's songs and albums indicate a smart ensemble. Matthew Porter's cover photo "Lower Canyon" fits the retro mood of this release perfectly. This first half of this may pale placed next to Alpine Static, but for those who may be put off by that album's sprawl and punch, Cosy Moments continues the slightly gentler, less fuzzy, nature of this restless sonic beast. Like its inspiration, Kinski can be fearsome (Klaus) but might surprise as lissome. (Nastassja). (PopMatters 5-29-13; 4-17-13 to Amazon US)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Captain Lavender

In threes, I find mentions of lavender lately. Closest I come to it's a laundry cachet from Trader Joe's. Even with my poor sense of smell, it reminds me of our one trip up past Tacoma to Port Angeles, far up the Strait of Juan de Fuca, across Puget Sound. Two years ago, in drizzle alternated with rainbows, my wife and I took her dad's ashes-- the half we hadn't slipped out of a baggie off Seattle's Space Needle-- to the hardscrabble town where he grew up with his relatives in the Depression. A failed hotel or boardinghouse nobody's left to point us to, found his family as desperate as he would be, eating blackberries that grew wild around Seattle then and scarfing whatever he could sneak from a fortuitous job as a grocery delivery boy. He'd regale me with the same anecdotes over and over-- as I already tell these now of where his ashes wound up, the only ending I can add to his own story.

We drove past Sequim, the last stop before Port Angeles. We stopped for Layne to use the restroom I suppose and grab one of her diet sodas she craves so desperately. The place had the fake-Western facades in its humble downtown "historic" district but the big-box stores threatened in an under-construction sign in a lot across the street, and the other side of the highway a massive subdivision filled a meadow. Did the Microsoft-fueled boom echo this far? However, "The Lavender Capital of America" if not the world (not sure how the French felt about that boast) managed to convince us that, a season earlier than the late autumn when we travelled the Cascades together, some fields filled not with stucco but with that purplish barb.

This morning, I'll teach a story by a longtime fellow son of the Port, Raymond Carver, who may not have been born there but in Yakima, but who with his wife, a local, Tess Gallagher, managed despite his teaching creative writing at Syracuse to remain close to the Northwestern shore. Tess in her introduction to the 1990 tribute "Carver Country" speaks of the "sense of removal and wildness on the forested Olympic Peninsula with the snow-covered Olympic Mountains, bordered by the moody waters of the Strait between Canada and America" that encouraged Ray to find solitude in "the stories and poems that would enlarge his work."

The book she co-edited has b/w photos of the landscape and people inhabiting Ray's work: from Yakima down to Arcata, up from Sacramento to Port Angeles, you see the everyday folks that lived in his fiction and verse. "Cathedral" I first read under my wife's tutelage, for Carver's one of her favorite writers. Despite my long march through English Lit (and I admit American contemporary fiction's not my specialty), I'd never read Carver before-- she'd used his stories for her adult ESL classes.

My college students, many not much advanced beyond ESL, love "Cathedral"; luckily despite my lack of choice of the anthology I use for my one course remaining (when it's not cancelled for lack of enrollment) that's an intro to lit, that story keeps appearing in the new textbook. In two hours, after Joyce's "The Boarding House," we will enter Carver Country. Bob Adelman's photo of Jerry Carriveau I cannot reproduce here, but this blind man became the inspiration for "Robert" in this tale told by a resentful, insular man whose wife brings her old male blind friend home for dinner. Carver opens up the silences of the average Joe, as my students hear those they know.

In her introduction, Ray's wife Tess tells of Sequim, "fifteen minutes away from Port Angeles." She's in a fine shot, gracing a poem "In A Marine Light Near Sequim, Washington." I like her picture better than his verse, but Ray does evoke the setting well as it begins: "The green fields were beginning,. And the tall, white/ farmhouses after the tidal flats and those little sand crabs/ that were ready to run, or else turn and square off, if/ we moved the rock they lived under. The languor/ of that subdued afternoon. The beauty of driving/ that country road [. . .]

Tess crouches for Adelman's camera down in the middle of a field there that may be lavender. Behind her stretches fields and foliage that remind me of Ireland, a place where twenty years after this book appeared after her husband's death, she spends part of her time living into the old age Ray never found, with a spry seanachie. To me, monochrome, Sequim's flora looks like chaparral gone to thistle that tries to grow on my own native city's hills, unless shorn for mandated brush clearance to avoid the fires that nature demands-- as we saw two weeks ago with the blazes that consumed a quarter of the immense Angeles National Forest above Los Angeles-- but that man and stucco forbid.

An ex-urban refugee who fled concrete for up North told me of lavender's calming effect. We arrived in its "pacific" heartland too late: the signs told of the nurseries open from spring 'til midsummer. Earlier, it surrounds many places in the Cascades. I suppose it stretches far across the latitude of cooler climes nearer Arctic winds and maritime breezes. An air we never sniff down here in smoggy heat.

Paul Muldoon in a poem that I cannot forget despite my marked inability to keep lines of poetry in mind, penned the powerfully political poem "Meeting the British" (1987). I taught this in a different literature class, as a doctoral student at UCLA, to a different cadre of students:

We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender

and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,

the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)

and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French

across that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst

nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.

As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-

kerchief: C'est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.

They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.

"A mauve flower like the sky"-- a flower as heaven. Innocent beauty, natural doom. Hidden in nature, both wonder and threat always lurk. A foretaste of death, a harbinger of release.

While this claim that the British gave the Indians blankets intentionally larded with infection has been debated, for a Northern Irish poet, this claim does not surprise those of us, like Tess and myself I'd reckon, who with our mother's milk imbibe such race memories in our own combative, resentful DNA no matter how far away from Ireland we may have been born on the Left Coast of America the other side of French calls and British responses. Unlike Paul Muldoon and this next poet, we may not have grown up under the British, but ancestral patterns groove deep. So do the reveries in our primal olfactory-memory match as urged on by flowers, thankfully.

Another Northern (the adjective is necessary) Irish poet, Belfast-born Medbh McGuckian, in the title poem in her 1994 collection, published her short verse "Captain Lavender":

Night-hours. The edge of a fuller moon
waits among the interlocking patterns
of a flier's sky.

Sperm names, ovum names, push inside
each other. We are half-taught
our real names, from other lives.

Emphasise your eyes. Be my flare-
path, my uncold begetter,
my air-minded bird-sense.

Today lavender may revive not dim gloom but bright vigor. We lavish its scent into our laundry. No matter how chemical or manufactured, we want our blankets too freed of dangerous smells and nasty odors. For Muldoon, the captain's handkerchief must be scoured as soft as the sky above him and the Indians, who struggle in the speaker's voice to understand the invader Colonel Henry Bouquet--nice surname-- as they try to unlock the mystery of the fragrance that transcends language. But the lavender symbolizes and furthers their encounter, native against militia, fated to be fatal.

For McGuckian, Muldoon's contemporary, in this entry as part of a poem cycle after her father's death (and later the year that Tess posed in the field, her Ray would die of cancer and be buried in Port Angeles), the sperm name enters the woman to jostle along the ovum name, the Captain joining Lavender. Deep beyond what can be stained which demands a washing by hand or machine. Beyond Muldoon's gulled tribesman, fumbling phrases that cannot comprehend the truth of the skin trade, McGuckian reconciles the clash between peoples, the war between the sexes. By reclaiming "real names" we might claw back humanity from "an uncold begetter." We may free human bonds from snares and traps. Beyond the field of blooms, we may soar in sex and aesthetics into "air-bound bird-sense." In the "sound of two streams coming together," deep inside, invigorated by what surrounds us, we restore a purity simple as a Sequim field after soiling our garments in fire-ashen dust far south.

(P.S. I wrote more about Tess Gallagher and the Trip Up There in two 2007 posts, one "Samhain" November 1, the other October 10 "Space Needle" on this blog.) Photo by Tom Dempsey: "Purple Haze Farm, Sequim, WA."

Monday, September 7, 2009

Hard Labor, Labor Day, Labor's end

To "pay it forward," as I posted on yesterday, here's three recipients. I moan about my job, but with the 'actual' unemployment rate at 2:5, I'll aim for compassion today. I'm reading on my treadmill, where perversely I try to peruse uplifting if lighter (in content and heft) material, Perry Garfinkel's "Buddha or Bust." This book explores "engaged" socially activist Buddhism as it spreads worldwide.

His appendix lists many worthy sites. (That "" site via "Liberal Rapture" to my wife's entry "Brown Bag" to mine may inspire unmediated charity meanwhile. And/or satire given earnest do-gooders.) As I trod this morning, off from teaching, I used the time I'd have spent getting ready for work on this rare holiday to put my usual simmering discontent at my fate earning my keep by the sweat of my brow to better post-lapsarian use. I wondered about my wife's ESL class assignment, in which she'd assign her charges to write their own obituary. I came across a mention of a writer yesterday who after doing this same task, left her husband and children and career. Not advice I'd hope to spark usually.

But I did contemplate, at my funeral, who I'd ask any mourners (if they showed; by the time we all die I reckon like my father-in-law we'll have a memorial service but no graveside finale. Our spawn'll toss our ashes into a favorite realm. For Al, his daughter and I surreptitiously emptied half a baggie into the skies from Seattle's Space Needle; the other half from Port Angeles' tiny wharf across Puget Sound where he grew up in the Depression. For me, perhaps half for the redwoods above Santa Cruz and half to my ancestral farm in Co. Roscommon; my birth-mother asked me already for hers to be at midnight so as to avoid angry farmers relegated to the ancient dolmen burial site at Poulnabrone-- pool of sorrows-- on her beloved Burren shore of Co. Clare) to donate to my designated causes in lieu of flowers (which make me sneeze). Maybe I should take that Facebook Quiz that predicts how & when I'll die. But, I'm already riddled by pagan and papish superstition as it is; that familial farmhouse adjoins a Celtic Iron Age "fairy fort" or primitive fortification in which the fearsome and not fey Good People not so benevolent are said to lurk. If you scoff, finish Eddie Lenihan's "Meeting the Other Crowd" and then get back to me.

I chose three causes from Garfinkel's list. Catholics lapsed or not; Jews the same; it being California, mix-and-match or decline-to-states: for this small crowd as I contemplate them celebrating after my demise, an activist trio appealing to all.

1) Not only Catholics, whose predecessors' fated "Faith of Our Fathers" we sing about "cursed by dungeon, fire, and sword," might resign themselves, given my own purgatorial skeptical self's fate, to supporting "Prison Dharma Network." I appended this site to an entry, "Justice Denied," on Death Row San Quentin prisoner Jarvis Jay Masters. This Buddhist prison ministry explains its mission on its site:

Prison Dharma Network (PDN) was founded in 1989 by Fleet Maull, a federal prisoner then serving a 14-year sentence for drug trafficking. Since its founding, PDN's Books Behind Bars program has provided books on meditation and contemplative spirituality to over 25,000 prisoners in over 900 prisons around the world.

We have connected hundreds of prisoners with dharma mentors. Our network now includes over 75 member organizations and prison dharma groups of various faiths and over 2,500 individual members and supporters, many of whom are active prison dharma volunteers.

PDN also provides integral transformative justice trainings for prison dharma volunteers and prison staff. We are leading the way in criminal justice innovation with our new Path of FreedomTM program—a mindfulness-based, cognitive behavioral approach to rehabilitation and personal transformation for incarcerated youth and adults.
2) Jewish friends and family may find Bernie Glassman's "Zen Peacekeepers" particularly intriguing. Rodger Kamenetz' "The Jew in the Lotus" (reviewed by me on Amazon US and this blog not long ago) tells more about Roshi Bernie's work in down-and-out Yonkers. Their site informs us how:
Bernie created the Zen Peacemakers in 1980 to embody this commitment [to "engaged Buddhism"} in a global network that integrates Zen practice, social service, and interfaith work to bring the experience of wholeness and interdependence into the context of daily life. Zen Peacemakers practice socially engaged Buddhism to transform individuals and communities, and have responded to some of the most difficult problems of our time - poverty, AIDS, homelessness, and a lack of skills necessary for employment.

What characterizes the socially engaged practices of Zen Peacemakers is how they extend Dharma from the meditation hall to the worlds of business, social service, conflict resolution, and environmental stewardship. This work has engendered new models of practice, especially to address the needs of individuals and communities in disadvantaged areas. The Zen Peacemakers' way illuminates all life as a boundless meditation hall.
I add, as Garfinkel encounters in understated response in his travels, that the Peacemakers host "Bearing Witness" retreats-- at Auschwitz.

3) The International Campaign for Tibet at "Save" unfortunately may need less introduction given the decimation of over one-sixth of the native Tibetans in another genocide to which Buddhists and everybody else may respond to as pure moral imperative. Whatever your faith or its lack, this should be one committment a righteous person can make. I don't idealize the Tibetans, but I do lament their post-Shoah fate at the hands of a fawning international capitulation to anything Beijing demands, a destructive trade policy that favors Chinese trade above human rights, and a relentless campaign of persecution and death.
The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) works to promote human rights and democratic freedoms for the people of Tibet. ICT does the following:

Monitors and reports on human rights, environmental and socio economic conditions in Tibet;
Advocates for Tibetans imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs;
Works with governments to develop policies and programs to help Tibetans;
Secures humanitarian and development assistance for Tibetans;
Mobilizes individuals and the international community to take action on behalf of Tibetans; and
Promotes self-determination for the Tibetan people through negotiations between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.
Founded in 1988, ICT is a tax-exempt, non-profit organization with offices in Washington, Amsterdam, Berlin and Brussels and field offices in Dharamsala and Kathmandu.
Hard Labor? Well, as a diligent teacher-- twenty-five years on since I began around this week my English 3 Frosh Comp class at Haines Hall 148, UCLA-- however restive now with my fate this worker's holiday-- one that from my employer comes once in that blue moon, and I am working away on my half-online, half-onsite courses every day I assure them as they monitor me more often than do you-- I tried to tie together today's lesson. Labor camps: no holidays. Punished in prison, starved in lagers, driven as slaves: Irish, Jewish, and Tibetan, they all remind us of the fate of those for whom wages, ease, and freedom remain lost ideals, incarcerated and tortured and murdered for no other reason, for there can be no good reason. Locked up and left to die for who they are.

On a lighter note, random play on my computer as I end my thoughts on my end conjures up my favorite Pogues LP the eerily if aptly titled "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" with this celebration from "Rocky Road to Dublin":
There was half a million people there
Of all denominations
The Catholic, the Protestant, the Jew, the Presbyterian
Yet there was no animosity
No matter what persuasion
But fáilte hospitality
Inducing fresh acquaintance
P.S. I always liked this differentiation of "Protestant" from "Presbyterian," reminding me of my Latino evangelical students who separate "Christian" from "Catholic." Photo of a Zen Peacemakers' "Bearing Witness" retreatant by Peter Cunningham: "Auschwitz-Birkenau. Peacemaker Circle."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Gary Snyder, Tree Canopies & Suburbia.

Gary Snyder, Tree Canopies & Suburbia.

 Dana Goodyear's "Zen Master" profile of Gary Snyder (see link to abstract below) in the New Yorker cannot be found in full on-line, which makes me wonder I subscribe; you'd think that paying for the issues would allow you access, but this imperious publication sniffs at displaying all its wares, even for us paying for them in print. I've never read Snyder, but I happened to find out in my recent Buddhist reading an aside about a poem he'd done on the goddess Tara, about whom I'm interested in, even if my etymological forays detailed here last summer came to naught but a coincidence in linking Éire with Aryan with Himalaya, the Indo to the European.

Goodyear's piece dutifully tells us what I needed to know, even if it didn't inspire me much. She gives few examples of his verse; the one I liked best I've included. What connected this article with one in the New York Times (also see below) that I found the same morning, in its "Escapes" section, on tree canopy zip lines (an unfortunate combination of four words I wish had never been yoked)? That old paved paradise and put up a parking lot, Joni Mitchell's follow-up warbled to her own urging all those hippies to get back to the garden.

Nevada County's booming, as its southern section deepens Sacramento's concrete footprint. Meanwhile, lured by Snyder who, somehow on a self-proclaimed working-class poet's income, bought in his Beat days a hundred acres on San Juan Ridge in the northern section. Part Japanese farmhouse, part Indian lodge, Kitkitdizze pioneered what's now an extended community of like-minded seekers. Students from Berkeley and Antioch College helped him, and many, I reckon, never returned to the dorm.

Since Snyder raised his place in 1969, thousands left and leave smog and smoke to build geodesic domes, kerosene-lit cabins, and haul perhaps a VW bus or two amidst pines and ponderosa. I remember noting the preponderance of signs for yoga teachers when I drove through there a while ago. I speculated on the ratio in the local economy of "off-the-grid" enterprises to legitimately licensed businesses. Ananda-- an offshoot of the Self-Realization Fellowship (predating even the Beats back to 1925) that crowns its own eminence a mile from where I write this, long since absorbed into northeast L.A.'s roofs and Range Rovers-- set up its yurts, so to speak, there. The mountains teem with pot growers, countercultural dynasties, and earnest types that for fifty years now, starting with the Beats, learned about this region's charms.

Yet, even as I recognize how we need nature, and how five decades worth of Beats and hippies have beckoned so many to enter it, the treatment of Snyder ignores an irony inherent in this native of the Northwest's lament. He preaches getting away from it all, but around him, in his exile, he will gain disciples no less than the medieval hermits turned their reclusive huts into monasteries, or Jesus himself when John and Peter, on Mount Tabor, told Him it'd be a cool idea to set up tents there and camp out. We cannot help but bring with us our own axes when we seek to live under the branches.

Snyder had joined Ginsberg and Kerouac at the Six Gallery reading in the city where he was born, San Francisco (he was raised on the outskirts of Seattle, grandson of a Wobblie, son of a dairy union organizer) fifty-three years ago this month, in 1955. There, "Howl" first proclaimed itself in public; "A Berry Feast" by Snyder may not have become as iconic, yet its message became such, repeated in hundreds of songs, stanzas, and stories about ticky-tacky little boxes that all look the same. Goodyear:
"The poem, which traces the destruction of forests to the building of the suburban house-- 'a box to catch the biped in'-- is infused with the Buddhist idea of impermanence. It forecasts a time of 'People gone, death no disaster,' and ends with Coyote surveying a depopulated city where resilient nature still thrives-- 'Dead city in dry summer,/ Where berries grow.'"

My father-in-law, dead now just over a year (and a dozen years older than Snyder), in the Depression fed himself with blackberries in the fields around Puget Sound himself, much as Snyder might have when he "had grown up poor in Stumpland," a logged-out district. Visiting Seattle last year, I contrasted its confident, brisk feel with the far more remote terminus where Al'd been a child, Port Angeles. He'd lived both places. I wondered where he'd wandered there, in fields and along its ferry building, far across the Straits of Juan de Fuca.

His daughter's grand-niece and her family moved, post-Rodney King riots, from Layne's childhood San Fernando Valley, "the Valley," to Grass Valley in the splendid Gold Rush country. Where Lola Montez once kept a bear down the street from her protegee Lotta Crabtree (guess who had the better name, the former Eliza Gilbert born in Co. Cork; see Bruce Seymour's excellent biography that I reviewed on Amazon), and where a gal at least in post-49er times could walk about town without fear of assault. Yet, she's moved back to the city, to pursue her own dreams in the realm of comedy-- such is the lure of fame in Hollywood.

I wonder if for every restless resident who leaves the forest for the gridlock, there's another who makes the reverse journey? Layne found, when holding a "New Leaf" reusable bag at Trader Joe's for the checkout clerk to fill, that the employee was a recent grad of Felton High, now in Silverlake to follow her own media-fueled storyline. It'd be a neat exchange if city mice could change places with our country cousins, so no more trees would have to topple. That'd keep our sprawl under control-- if not by polyandrous marriage as the thrice-wed Snyder once advocated-- with fewer parking lots, but as the ads in the NYT remind us, with nearly all of our net demographic growth driven by immigration. 400 million by 2039. 60 million, perhaps by then, in California. The Highway 49 corridor now intersects with the exurbia east of Sacramento, and subdivisions invade the Sierras.

So goes the West, others scoff. All of us plead guilty who live here, from Edward Abbey on. My house may have been the first one on this street, about fifty-five years ago, so does this make its builder equal to Snyder? After all, there was nobody else here before. So, why should I complain?

I ponder these issues while the bulldozers keep whining and the saws keep whirring. I have had to go down to my study for a respite from the fracas, day after day, years on end. Hearing birdsong (even if as Alexander Theroux puts it in his endlessly quotable, endless novel "Laura Warholic": "Birdsong is squabble.") out my kitchen window today as I did the dishes startled me, so close was it and so little of it I've listened to lately.

The Lebanese man's moved his extended family into the triple-lot house still under construction (I've lost count if it's going on four or five years now), even as the for sale sign now perches outside its dirt, graded from what once was the end of a declivity where my boys romped, if under my careful eye. Barren ground in every direction. A few yards away the other side of my home, a Filipino family sold their fresh structure, no yard, hacked out of the sandstone cliff, to what so far seem absentee African American neighbors. Mexican investors next door to that still-raw edifice have not finished their cookie-cutter triple-story framed carbon copy. Across from it, on the side stretch next to our immediate neighbors also from Mexico, a couple of Latinos have parked an old Winnebago. They're living there. I can hear their generator humming when I step outside.

Quod erat demonstrandum. People from everywhere else keep coming into our megapolis. The appeal of a brand new home, or even a site to watch across from three such structures, entices many still. So too, the past silence our household enjoyed gradually fades, as mornings dawn with a engine's roar, while newly installed garage and security lamps outshine every hazy night.

Yet, the Ukrainian immigrant who came here from the Soviets as a child lives happily with her Modesto-born partner next door, and having bought the land between our houses, they've freed that patch-- as vegans, former citizens of both Santa Cruz and San Francisco, and therefore kindred spirits to Kitkitdizze. Destruction loomed when yet another pair of families, recent arrivals, were starting to erect their own two-story tribute to the American dream. Only the collapse of the real estate bubble rescued the trees, birds, and those damned squirrels. I suppose, with the Zen impermanence of all, amidst articles on extreme sports high in groves meant for avians and not bipeds, we must be grateful for small mercies. The Wright Brothers newfangled idea can only go so far.

We're all complicit. We all crowd no longer open space. None of us asked to be born. So, how do we soften our primal stomp? I agree with my recent Hello Quizzy results; in 1400 A.D. I surely spent a previous life as a monk, likely a cranky, bookish, myopic Irish anchorite! I long to end up in Northern California far away from this encroaching din. Probably in a wooden box for bipeds. Right next to where, idealistically, a century-old legacy of earlier, spiritually connected Christian campers sought a dignified retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Unfortunately, since this past summer, the zip lines hoisted by their less-respectful great-grandsons now imperil the watershed. Mammon changes everything.

As Snyder valiantly argues in Goodyear's essay: "The watershed is the first and last nation whose boundaries, though subtly shifting, are inarguable." He also warns, presciently: "If public lands come under greater pressure to be opened for exploitation and use in the twenty-first century, it will be the local people, the watershed people, who will prove to be the last and possibly most effective line of defense." Rightly, Snyder's been credited by Bill McKibben as a leading voice in bio-regionalism, living off the land and as close to it as possible.

Still, I cannot tally his glee with saving up his twenty-five-year-old vintage cabernet to go with the venison he looks forward to hunting. I'm confused about how his promotion of "'ahimsa,' or non-harming," works with such a lifestyle, but then, the Dalai Lama craves Bacon Bits. (He, like other Tibetans, long ago gained a reprieve from vegetarianism due to the rigors of survival on the plateau; he tried to go meat-free but his health suffered.)

The bullfrogs he cultivates before brining, I admit, earned slightly less sympathy from me, but I do lament my own childhood when in the foothills I tried to stone to death mating toads, as if some warped manifestation of a one-man biblical Sanhedrin itching to make an end of a magdalene caught in flagrante delicto. Karma comes around, and I have contemplated what demerits I unknowingly racked up in Thompson Canyon. That frenzy to couple no matter what peril lurks-- our samsaric imprint. That the deities are shown in blissful yab-yum without the onerous difficulties of spawning may be one of the most appealing delights of the Buddhist nirvana.

And so, with such urges to reproduce, earth fend for itself, we all carry on in lower realms of humans, hungry ghosts, animals. With our country facing another hundred million people within a few decades, and half a billion soon after, the loss of trees, open space, and farmland pains me more deeply as I grow older. One of my formative experiences was both living by a lemon grove and playing in the chaparral that stretched to those frog-happy foothills north of Claremont.

And, one of my most heartbreaking sights has been seeing, when I returned a decade later for grad school, the one time I went past where I had once hiked, on my bike looking for a place to rent, and found that-- exactly in the same retail and architectural models as in Nevada County-- stucco and strip malls blanketed the horizon where orchards, scrub, and pocket goat or rabbit ranches once had nestled. I never went in that direction again during my year in Claremont. Nor have I since then. I can't reconcile today's sterile panorama with that cherished as an imaginative ten-year-old.

"The Bath": Gary Snyder.

Sweating and panting in the stove-steam hot-stone
cedar-planking wooden bucket water-splashing
kerosene lantern-flicker wind-in-the-pines-out
sierra forest ridges night—

Masa comes in, letting fresh cool air
sweep down from the door
a deep sweet breath

And she tips him over gripping neatly, one knee down
her hair falling hiding one whole side of shoulder, breast, and belly,

Washes deftly Kai’s head-hair
as he gets mad and yells—

The body of my lady, the winding valley spine,
the space between the thighs I reach through,
cup her curving vulva arch and hold it from behind,
a soapy tickle a hand of grail

The gates of Awe

That open back a turning double-mirror world of
wombs in wombs, in rings,
that start in music,
is this our body?

"A hand of grail/ The gates of Awe." After the recent closure of the book of Life, sealed for this next now new Jewish year, after the ten days of Awe, by its Author, who will die by fire, who by water, who by another's hand, who by one's own-- these phrases reverberated for me.

"Zipping Through the Treetops" by Roger Zummer, New York Times, October 17, 2008.

"Zen Master" [Abstract only.] Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker, October 20, 2008.

Photo Caption from the NY Times article: "COME FLY WITH ME. Zip lines have become popular at ski areas and other sites and get visitors close to fall foliage. At the Spring Mountain ski area in Pennsylvania, Rick Buchman Jr. zooms by."

At least Mount Hermon was not mentioned; one advantage of East Coast-centeredness. Visit for essential information on how this Santa Cruz Mountain site's redwoods and the watershed of Bean & Zayante creeks face assault by thrillseekers: Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Palin, Obama, Plate o' Shrimp.

For a plague on both your houses voter like me, disenchanted with both parties, at least the race has been shaken up by McCain for once acting as the maverick he's supposed to have been all along. I never saw "Slacker," but if Obama can be counted among GenX by its caffeinated technorati, I guess I can too. Too young for the smug boomers, too old for the raised-by-video millennium Generation "Why." Inspirational quote from film: "withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy."

By no means am I punching the chad for him and Sarah Palin, but at least it'll throw off the momentum Obama's picked up last week at the convention. Of course, God's pretty mad at New Orleans once again, and looks to be using Gustav to splash down on Crescent City again to rain on the parade of the GOP. I thought He liked the GOP better than their secular humanist nemeses. To think that the Republicans scheduled their shindig in the city of St. Paul. Rick Warren better get his game on and rally the faithful so Haiti's inudated instead.

From today's pretty dismal Los Angeles Times, a few tidbits of note in these dog days. As Layne and I predicted separately, vocal training as well as coiffure intervention's needed stat. Palin's PTA mien and whine may make listeners think of another Palin, Michael, and his Python routines. When I heard the news of her selection on the radio, a snippet of her blather accompanied as a soundbite, and she sounded like the schoolmarm she looks. She reminds me of the nailed-down, lacquered-up, and business-suited middle-aged middle-management drones at work who spout the platitudes of the higher-ups to us little guys. You wonder if she unpins her hair, if she tells cruel jokes, if she laughs at rather than with other people, and you wonder. [Update: three days into her campaign, already her tresses tumble to her shoulders in a redo.]

I think of me being the same age roughly as her and Obama, and I strain to place them among people I'd have hung out with, let alone befriended in the days of bigger hair. But, I've always been the aloof one. Palin would sweat as a jock and Obama would brood as a dweeb. They'd both have ignored me; doubtless I'd have returned the feeling.

Bob Drogin's "She Starts Making U.S. Rounds" observes at her ballpark debut in a Pittsburgh suburb:
But Palin's speech -- the same one she gave Friday -- was less well received. Because of either ballpark loudspeakers or just nerves, her voice cracked and at times rose to an uncomfortably high pitch. Midway through her talk, some families could be seen leaving the park.

So much for the hockey-mom vote.

Marjorie Miller's "Palin Fever Comes to Town" describes her hometown:
Wasilla, about an hour north of Anchorage, is in the Mat-Su Valley, a place of sweeping lakes and rivers where clouds of mist lie low in the fields and snow-striped mountain peaks jut from the clouds. It is a town of fewer than 10,000 in the middle of a region that is home to nearly 80,000. Charmless strip malls with big-box stores line the main highway; lakefront homes open onto dramatic views.

Sarah and Todd Palin, who have five children, have a home on Lake Lucille, according to former neighbor Ray Pursche. When he moved to Wasilla in the early 1980s, he said, the town had one blinking traffic light and a few stores. That began to change while Palin was on the City Council, starting in 1992, particularly during her two terms as mayor.

"She's been very helpful, always bringing business into the city," Pursche said.

When Palin's mother, Sally Heath, answered her door Saturday, she apologized for not being able to chat. "I'm just trying to follow protocol," she said. "I guess life really has changed." She said family members were to meet with the campaign in Anchorage later in the day to confer on what they might and might not say.

This reminds me of Bonner Lake, where I passed through last year about an hour out of Seattle, along another exurb belt where formerly rural weekend getaways were being drawn into the suburban maw. We drove on our way to the back entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park down a straight arrow road, no longer a two-lane that once had ambled through forests and meadows. Now, it had been widened for the same franchises you see in every middle-class thoroughfare. The parking lots had been hacked out of the groves, SUVs swarmed with stocky families waddling about, and the same ambiance had been lost that so many in the GOP-- and among their rivals-- hail as essential to our supposedly rootsy, local, friendly small-town mythologized way of life, if you can call such concrete expanses and commercial devastation organic.

You also see in this excerpt above the shift that will befall this charmless stretch of progress. That is, if as we're all told we must never stop building, spending, and getting in the ways of the world too much with us. We spread samsara and call it nirvana. Palin's utter opposition to preserving her own state's Last Frontier, her nearly total rejection of the safeguards some have tried to keep in place against relentless development of "resources" rather than "open space" can be seen in miniature in her hometown. The pressure to change under the winds not of Gustav but of media scrutiny in the service of capitalist juggernauts thunder down on the Northwest, Alaska, and New Orleans. Whatever's fresh succumbs to homogenization, and no cream rises to the top. Palin will be branded, or refurbished into a type as when she was Miss Congeniality. You also contemplate how her family and her neighbors will begin to warp and furl as the media descend, to probe every nook and cranny of Palin's past. Layne could not find any beauty contest pics last night on the Net.

Similarly, over in Obama's neck of the cyberwoods, we find spin control. You cannot log in to his website unless you register. You can not find, as I tried to tell my now-deaf father of 91 yesterday by scrawling with a Sharpie in a notebook, easily a snapshot of his mother, or details of his father's bigamy, procreative activity, drinking, or death in a car crash after he ruined his life by the bottle. His story, told at the fittingly named Pepsi Center last week, has been shaped and packaged as carefully as will Palin's. Still, for exoticism, ignoring the decidedly tract-home chic names of Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and baffingly Trig, her children's part Yup'ik heritage may make them as multicultural as their bi-racial opponent.

Finally, in a multiracial megapolis such as mine, far away from sylvan vistas of any kind let alone mooseburgers or salmon (unless you find the latter in a market), there's the "25 Best L.A. Films of the last 25 years." Nothing I had not heard of, although I have not bothered to see many, as I'm tired of the (#25 reluctantly) "Crash"-type of epiphanies undergone as did Paul Haggis-- inspired by the '91 carjacking of his Porsche (not Pursche) outside a Wilshire video store-- to tell us how, gasp, we live in our cars, and wow, can't we all get along in our improbably coincidental group-hugs to replace equally contrived rivalries choreographed by New Yorkers, Brits, and awestruck hicks who come into our city to tell us what we already know.

Scott Timberg selected as #8, however, one that I'd pick. (And I agree with "L.A. Confidential" as Numero Uno, featuring as part of its ambiance "around Elysian Park where pockets of period-perfect architecture still stand" a cinematic millisecond glimpse of our own "Owl House" where Layne lived when we met and fell in love.) Timberg comments about another slice of down-and-out, non-Porsche El Lay, 1984's "Repo Man":
This is the City of Angels in the wealthy '80s, but it's far from glitzy: L.A. is filled with guns and almost no vegetation, a huge swath of the population seems to be unemployed, racial tension is high, buildings and lots are abandoned, and every convenience store we visit is in the process of being knocked over. Instead of responsible adults we have homeless savants, televangelists and blissed-out ex-hippies. Years later, the film -- a kind of hinge between "Taxi Driver" and "Pulp Fiction" -- shows an L.A. that doesn't seem that far from where we're heading.

I agree with that. A preposterous movie, but more memorable than many of the homilies about the meaning of life as understood by moguls and/or Westsiders, ghetto yoof, or Ice-T, who's the missing link between these demographics with his 35,000 square foot mansion in Woodland Hills. The rest of us non-actors, or as Variety puts it, "non-pro," muddle along and occasionally, as momentarily as the shot with the "Owl House" in the background of the Echo Park basement house, recognize where we live.

Caught in traffic, bewilderingly diverse, millions of us and more never stop coming. 1 in 31 Americans live in L.A. County. We're in the "far from glitzy," long past the forest-to-minimall stage of evolution, and "almost free of vegetation," as the construction surrounding my home helps eradicate even the chaparral. And, in such a concrete perch, down the street a supporting actress on "Everybody Hates Chris" parks her Beamer. She's part of the business that surrounds the rest of us.

Earnest filmmakers keep coming to lecture us and perhaps inspire us local yokels. Even though director Alex Cox hails from outside Liverpool, and now lives in Oregon (I'm jealous; I guess he misses the rain), I do forgive an outsider's intrusion. His punk-addled heart was in the right place, and he preferred the quirky to the bombastic, less Obama and more Otto. His Pogues-sponsorship in the dreadful follow-up "Straight to Hell" and perhaps his misguided "Walker" (pity he botched a great story idea) merit mention if not as much as "Sid & Nancy."

That reminds me of fish, in tangential "Repo Man" style. Its in-house philosopher, Harry Dean Stanton, would understand; Sarah Palin labored one summer packing crabs, as do many Alaskans apparently. Probably more "working class" than her rival's extramural occupations at the height of Greed is Good decade. Did Obama ever work a job to pay for grad school expenses the year after he and I graduated college, still for minimum wage? I doubt if he did, at Harvard Law. But I did so when "Repo Man" came out. Had to go all the way to the Beverly Center-- maybe even down Wilshire in this era when the video store was barely beginning-- to see it in a tiny cubicle of their multiplex. And it wasn't in a Porsche. Only Westsiders, you see, were deemed the target for an arthouse angle on the low-lifes before gentrification changed "La Vida Loca" (didactically unwatchable, but filmed down the block from "Owl House") into the coffeehouse hipster mecca that even today defies the collapse in real estate, so eager are new arrivals to settle there and yammer on about what we natives again already know. Such jaw-flapping, in fact, suits the shaggy-dog narrative of the silly scenarios that permeate the city's underbelly in "Repo Man."

And I still remember "plate o' shrimp." In fact, as such a coincidence, in "Crash" fashion if less ideologically loaded, came yesterday as my dad had the Shrimp Trio Platter (an outrageous $12.79) at Coco's. Don't blame me. He likes it there. Strip malls. Exurbia. It was his choice.

Wikiquote by "Miller," the repo lot's "groundskeeper," played in "Repo Man" by Tracy Walter:
A lot o' people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch o' unconnected incidents 'n things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice o' coincidence that lays on top o' everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you're thinkin' about a plate o' shrimp. Suddenly someone'll say, like, "plate," or "shrimp," or "plate o' shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin' for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.

Photo: "Shot of Plate O' Shrimp." "In the City of Angels in the wealthy '80s," I saw this diner in the heart of Latinized downtown, perhaps around Broadway. However, I cannot pinpoint its location even on this site: Bob Cantor's Repo Man Links Page. As trivia notes: Later, the two Latinos who've stolen the "Asimov" car park outside a diner which features a huge sign in one of its windows reading: PLATE O' SHRIMP $2.95.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Jonathan Raban's "Surveillance" Book Review

Finally, a novel in which the protagonist checks Amazon reviews as part of her research. Lucy Bengstrom, a Seattle journalist interviewing a Holocaust survivor and wondering about the veracity of his best-selling memoir, thinks as she skims its nine hundred Amazon reviews: "It seemed to be part of the house rules that to praise a book you had to manifest an exaggerated response-- laughing until you cried, cracking up, or, as a woman from Akron, Ohio, claimed, wetting yourself, choking for breath, depriving yourself of sleep, as if readers were competing for some emotional dysfunction award." (204) I admit only to staying up late last night, and reading the book thus in two sittings. It flowed faster than I'd expected, and as I had only eighty pages to go at the point I had briefly separated my awareness from the page, I finished it summarily.

Emotionally speaking, happiness remains a will-o'the-wisp for Lucy and her daughter Alida, their neighbor Tad a bitter aging gay actor, August Venags the memoirist and his wife Minna, and Charles Lee-- an Asian immigrant, half-comic and half-sinister as his attempts to woo Lucy as he buys the apartment flat she, Alida and Tad occupy. Without giving away the climax of the novel, he puts notices in the tenant's mailboxes: "Notice of Demolition," and this phrase can stand for this story, set about five years from now. Lucy happens to be the same age I am, so reading this caused me a considerable amount of identification with her! Often, the travails of a writer make for thinly disguised agonies of the real writer of a novel. However, British-born transplant Raban, who I knew only for his early travelogue that I enjoyed twenty-odd years ago, "Arabia," integrates easily his adopted city's Seattle setting into a plot rich in character rather than description. That is, instead of focusing upon the natural beauties of the Northwest, he usually limits his omniscient, indirect first-person narrator to convey what each of the personae I listed above see of this city and the nearby islands.

What they notice tends towards the grim. Global warming leads to torrential rain and spring heat waves. In a clever detail, cars leave the engines on for the air conditioning as they wait for the ferry as a security check holds them up; on the ferry a short time later, Alida gives a thumbs-up to the boat's sign boasting its soybean-powered fuel!

The novel, in a scene that I admit weakens the novel's beginning and almost caused me to abandon it (until Charles Lee's entry made me pause and give it a second chance, overall earning more a low four stars or a high three as I think this incident weighs the book down in its early stages), begins with Lucy nearly involved in and eyewitness to a fatal car accident on the way to interview Augie the Latvian child grown U Dub professor and now retired political analyst. Now, most people would take the day off, beg off their engagement (even if it was hard to arrange that meeting with a famous reclusive author), and recoup. But, Lucy heads off with apparently less trauma than one'd expect, and while this may parallel her own brush with death to the many such close encounters attested to by Augie, it appears too contrived. The rest of the novel gathers momentum, as Lucy and Alida befriend Augie and Minna, and as Tad finds himself employed in dramatic enactments of staged emergencies indistinguishable from real attacks that the feds stage without warning in a near-future when neither side has won the war on/as terror.

Augie and Tad although they never meet provide the two polarities about the rationality of this war, and Lucy, although clearly the NPR listening liberal that one would expect of a writer who contributes to "The New Yorker" and "GQ," has therefore a chance to channel both views for the reader. Tad haunts the Net and convinces himself of conspiracies hatched by the Pentagon; Augie passionately defends a neo-con perspective that demands the fight for democracy and thus NPR's own demographic's choices means that eternal vigilance must be the price of freedom. Raban allows Augie's view to be conveyed through Lucy, while Tad's paranoia comes directly from his own mind: a clever touch that keeps the ideas of this novel alive.

The novel does not end tidily, to its credit. Near the final episode, as Lucy continues to wrestle with the truth of Augie's account, she begins to compose the profile on the enigmatic man's tale. "There'd be no bottom to this piece, no key to the 'real' Augie, no problems solved, no pseudo-urbane assembly of Augie in legible, transparent form on the page. Rather, readers would find themselves in the same position as the writer-- perplexed, fascinated, engaged, and sometimes repelled by August Vanags-- just as aware of their own shortcomings as she was of hers, aware that features and surfaces unregister themselves, and that like the writer, they must not conclude." Many reviewers, outraged at the novel's sudden end, may have failed to notice this foreshadowing on pp. 242-3, only a few pages from the dramatic conclusion.

I, too, would welcome a sequel. All the characters will be missed by me. But I am not sure if this would violate the narrative "rules" that the interviewer Lucy and the autobiographer Augie have themselves set up, not to forget the episode of Finn's freaking-out, so to speak.

While this novel may tilt for some more to a novel of ideas, or an Augie and Tad as mouthpieces to express the conflict we share in fighting a war against an often undetectable enemy in a time of sudden disaster, Raban is to be commended for keeping us all off balance, just as his Seattleites find themselves at the climactic event.

How better to finish off a novel about unpredictable times, when despite all the surveillance done personally or governmentally we must remember with a deus ex machina or a quick sharp shock how frail a human body is against the whole wide world? All of these topics, even if imperfectly integrated, attest to human frailty. Raban intentionally or subtly has proven how fragile are the electronic networks as well as the human connections in this novel of a time nearly identical to our own, as Amazon readers and reviewers!

(Posted, of course, to Amazon US today.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Space Needle, Tess Gallagher & Al's Ashes

Seattle, Tacoma, Port Angeles, and the Puget Sound: all these were names on a map until my first visit. With my devoted spouse, we went north by northwest with her father's ashes in a plastic bag. The trip had been arranged months before, as I was to deliver a talk at the American Conference of Irish Studies regional meeting on J. F. Powers and his wife, Betty Wahl, exploring their Hibernian residencies, their peripatetic careers as struggling writers, and their curious decision to live, in the 50s and 60s, more cheaply in semi-derelict fallen Georgian gentility in So County Dublin than they could in college town Minnesota.

Layne wished Al could have heard about our trip. I wished I could have compared my recollections of a city utterly transformed from the Depression-era when he grew up on its slick streets, and I wondered what he remembered from the hotel his family ran and the clothing store his uncle had in the gritty, faraway port two hours drive down and then up the other side of the great sound. We passed a sign for Discovery Bay, where in 1792 George Vancouver glimpsed what until then had been known only by the tribe at Jamestown-- who now were expanding along that same harbor their casino and soon to be opened "longhouse" with Chevron station, the sign over the plowed lot promised. A double rainbow momentarily spread over the bridge as I accidently pressed the video setting and caught a whirling few seconds of my roaming about in search of the colorful arch over the span of steel and water.

I drank in not only fine microbrews and the smell of salmon, but the fresh air that rain brought; after our measly record low three inches of rain the past season, the novelty of damp clear breezes cleansed my soul. It reminded me of the past summer, and three months earlier in Donegal. This picture was taken at the end of the Carbon River road at the border of Mt. Rainier National Park. Not the entrance that reveals the vista, but a northern secondary route. Still, this expanse of snow and heathery pine amidst a tree-blanketed slope reminded me of the passage in Betty Wahl's novel about the tweed's humble colors on the hills, and the beauty of the common panorama.

The Space Needle, as with so many such unnatural attractions, for we postmoderns schooled in Baudrillard and Barthes, has a sense of prefabrication that steals away your own ability to see the sights fresh from its 540-foot perch. At least, unlike the time my wife and I went up the Eiffel Tower on a cloudy, hazy evening, the view was clear. They say that the NY World's Fair of 1939, or is it 1964, was the last expression of confidence in progress. Seattle's 1962 Fair, seen from above, has a miniature football field, empty carousel and carnival rides, and two odd pairings that join too much money spent on Frank Gehry's fallen guitar roofed Science Fiction Hall of Fame joined to a music experience showpiece. These apparently are twin passions of Microsoft honcho and native Paul Allen, but we passed on the $15 to hear theremins in the former (already whining as we passed the outside speakers) and the latter (I imagined hordes of eight-year-olds banging on synthdrums and bells as they were amplified into the cathedral-high space inside). So, we walked on to the earlier, and equally silly structure. The icon's endearing in that way that any Babel-onian tower that pierces the clouds makes our folly of our wish to exceed our bounds and our dream of heavenly ascent into an enormous gift shop, a revolving restaurant with $30 burgers (so the driver of our Duck amphibean tour assured us earlier that day), and a 40-second elevator ride complete with tour guide condensed spiel.

Hearing Tess Gallagher, native of Port Angeles, talk about "Ray" and she going to Belfast in 1976, he for the first time, and of her own stay in the flat belonging to and at the moment vacant by Paul Muldoon and his girlfriend, who was Mary Farl Powers (the artist whose work I have featured in my blog reviews of her father's novels and stories) made me realize again how, in the Irish world of intellectuals and creators, small the networks are woven. Tess told me that she could understand how Betty felt, married to a full-time writer who had garnered the greater share of the acclaim. I had in my talk suggested that if Betty had been able to write more-- and care less for her five children-- that she could have become a writer deserving of her own fame. The obscurity into which Jim Powers had or has fallen (at least now his books are in print and I was happy to see at Elliot Bay Books, an enormous shop on the old "Skid Row," both JFP's story anthology and "Morte" on the abundantly stocked shelves; I bought Layne a copy of Tess' gathered poems on kisses with a great cover photo.) remains far shallower than that of Betty, whose only novel I stumbled across only when quite deep into my investigation of the limited critiques afforded her spouse.

She read from the collection of stories, speaking of collaborations between writers, that she composed out of the seanachie lore of her 83-year-old companion, Josie Gray. Blackstaff Press in Belfast, a fine firm, published this as "Barnacle Tales." I found her poetry, as recited, difficult to grasp. She declaimed it in a rather matter-of-fact tone, and I found this surprising, expecting more drama. Underplaying it made me figure that I had better look it up on the page first. I did notice in David Pierce's anthology of everybody worth mentioning who's Irish the past century that (he also includes J.F. Powers' title story from "The Prince of Darkness") he grants Tess two poems, both based on her Irish sojourns around Sligo in the 1970s.

My favorite was "Surrounded by Weasels," and I admit along with her it'd have been a fine title for the collection! This shaggy-dog or black-cat-crossed send-up expanded and kept delaying its end, building one punchline into a further boost of even more egregious energy. Sort of like a long sexual bout, if humor and orgasm could be both delayed and heightened. As with the Space Needle and the Tower of Babel and the ashes that Al's daughter surreptitiously tossed into the sky from the steel spire, our laughter at Tess and Josie's exaggerated narrative of schoolboy terror magnifying the mundane into the unspeakable mirrors our own urge to build stories and structures. We too fear being high up, facing the void, looking down and wondering how we got so high. Sex, death, love, loss, adventure, invention: the human ways we confront the urge that got God so angry in Mesopotamian millennia past: we dare to laugh at the universe that we face, full of frustration, rebellion, and restless curiosity.