Wednesday, August 31, 2005

September dispatches 1: Again to Amsterdam

ONE OF US, I won’t specify which, determined that the bus to the airport left at 11:45, so we got to the bus stop at about 11:30. Two busses soon arrived, one with a few passengers, the other empty. Both drivers strolled away for a few minutes, for a smoke I suppose or a humanitarian mission to a facility inside the Sonoma County Airport, where we were catching our bus to SFO. When they re-emerged they informed us that they had no intention, neither of them, to go on to San Francisco.

So we drove, and Eric came with us, as he’d planned to take our car back home, and we pulled into SFO right behind the bus we should have taken — at 11:15, not 11:45. Then, on going through security, one of us, I won’t specify who, had to unpack one of our backpacks completely, because the x-ray machine insisted there was a pair of folding scissors in it, though we both knew we’d never owned a pair of folding scissors. But there ultimately they were, in a first-aid kit meant to cope with blisters, an issue never far from our minds as we embark on another walking trip.

Oh well. My report on the flight is nothing but favorable. The Dutch national airline KLM has kept its old-fashioned, comfy attitude toward service. The bar is open and free; the meals were tolerable; the in-flight entertainment can’t be beat — each seat has its own DVD player, with dozens of movies, documentaries, and features available — as well as scores of music recordings. I watched a British documentary on 5th- to 10th-century Islamic innovative mechanics, optics, and chemistry; and then I listened to the Mozart clarinet concerto, two Schumann string quartets, some bossa nova, and cuts by Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The plane left on time and arrived fifteen minutes early. There wasn’t much leg room, of course, but one expects that. Six or eight passengers in our crowded coach section were coddled a little bit extra: they turned out to be a sailing team returning in triumph, as they’d just taken a prize in San Francisco. The pilot congratulated them on the public address system, and we all applauded them.

The baggage took almost no time to arrive. (Of course we checked only one piece, since much of the trip this time will be on foot, and we’ll be carrying everything for that period on our backs.) We enjoyed re-acquainting ourselves with the big modern airport at Schiphol, whose crowds of travellers seem particularly cosmopolitan — though there are many Dutch, Dutch of all sizes and colors, businessmen with cigars in their pockets, nuns in their crisp grey suits, tattooed mothers tethered by green plastic leashes to two or three little kids pulling in various directions, pretty girls whose skin is peaches and cream, or cafe au lait, or nearly ebony, all chattering away in Dutch, whether to present friends or, as is increasingly the case, absent ones momentarily in touch thanks to Nokia and Motorola and Vodafone.

We’re in a cheap hotel, the Seasons, on the Stadhouderskade, not far from the broad Amstel river, the river whose dam lies at the heart of the old city. There are cheap hotels there, too, near the Dam: we didn’t take one, because I assumed they’d be noisy. And of course it turns out the Stadhouderskade is an arterial favored by braying emergency vehicles: it’s going to be a noisy night.

But the beds, though narrow, are soft and clean; the bathroom is acceptable though lacking a tub; and there is wi-fi — though it isn’t free, and I’ve yet to figure out how to send group e-mails on it. Perhaps that’s insoluble: if so, this blog will be the only way for me to entertain myself with my Dispatches, at least for the time being. We’ll see how it goes.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Curtis Fields

Originally uploaded by charlesshere.
A MAN I HARDLY KNOW sends a copy of his new book, Curtis Fields: a Lifetime in Art [ISBN 0-9766520-0-5]. I met Curtis at the birthday party of a mutual friend, as Dickens says, some years ago. He was a handsome, quiet, tall man; in his seventies, I thought. Conversation was guarded at this party, which took place in a small Napa Valley winery. Lindsey and I were, it seemed to us, among the few people present who had not voted for the current occupant of the White House, and neither politics nor even many cultural issues seemed suitable ground for table talk at what was after all meant to be a festive occasion.

As the party was breaking up Curtis mentioned that he was a painter,and that he had a show up at the moment, in a small art gallery in Tiburon, and would I like to stop by and see it and let him know what I thought.

Since we were driving down to San Francisco a few days later we stopped off. We liked much of what we saw. His paintings don’t break new ground. They’re easel paintings, never more than four feet in either direction, very colorful, quite representational, with enough internal life and motion to be interesting even though they shun any attempt at intellectual content.

I’ve always been a sucker for this kind of thing — a weakness that certainly hampered my credibility as an art critic, back in the days when such a thing mattered, if it did. Gradually I’ve come to understand the reason for this weakness: my growing up in the country, away from intellectual conversation, from trips to museums, but constantly within the beauty and the vitality of nature.

I dropped Curtis a postcard to tell him I liked much of what I’d seen, and a while after that he wrote asking if I’d mind writing a paragraph or two about his paintings, explaining that he’d use them in a book he was assembling .

I explained that this wasn’t the kind of thing I did, but he countered that I’d recently written a catalogue essay for a gallery (a retrospective of paintings by Jack Jefferson), and all he wanted was just a few sentences. So I obliged.

He asked what I’d charge, and I said forget it, and he insisted, and I said Oh just send me a little drawing, a very little drawing. And he did, a charming ink sketch of a farmhouse among pines and blossoming fruit trees somewhere in Tuscany.

And now the book has arrived. I like leafing through it. I like seeing the unpretentious depictions of places he’s enjoyed: Tuscany, Mexico, California, Provence. Who doesn’t enjoy such places?

I like the still lifes and especially the interiors, which remind me that the interiors of familiar rooms, bedrooms and living rooms and especially dining areas, have a life of their own, even when they’re not occupied, when they’re “empty,” partly because of the meaningfulness of the ratios of their heights and widths and volumes, of their colors, of their light and shadow, and partly because of their memories of the life we’ve left within their walls the many times we’ve occupied them.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

St. Helena Sunset

St. Helena Sunset
Originally uploaded by charlesshere.
I’d wanted to reach this peak since my tenth year, when I began watching the curious, elegant, sensuous profile of Mt. St. Helena from various sites in Sonoma County. Finally it was time to do it, with two friends — an old one, my brother Jim; a newer one, Mac Marshall. It took three hours to get there from the parking lot, almost that long to get back. Fabulous sunset; equally fabulous rise of the full moon.

They say you get a thousand moons. This was number 910 for me. I enjoy them all.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Sorry about that...

YES, I KNOW, the whole point of a blog is that it be frequent, preferably daily.

I plead age: ik ben jarig, as the Dutch say, I'm yearish -- it's my birthday. Seventy years old.

We threw a little party to celebrate, and it took a while to get ready. That's part of the excuse. The other part is, well, there are so many things to write about!

The daily news brings one unbelievable absurdity after another. I've thought about blogging on:

� Why Globalism Must End

� Hearing Mozart

� Language, Numbers, and evading reality

� Real Authenticity

� Gangs and Fundamentalism respond to postmodern Globalism

     ...and I may yet get there.

But first I have a small local mountain to climb. If I make it, and get back, I'll let you know about it in a couple of days... here.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Comment c’est ici a cette heure...

A  DEAR OLD FRIEND spent the afternoon yesterday. He’s French, a Parisian, and intelligent, somewhat reflective man though a very active one, formerly in law, now in film production.

We’d seen the film he brought the previous night, as part of the Napa Film Festival; I’ll write about it later. (It’s not yet in release in this country, so there’s no hurry — but it should be in distribution; it’s really quite wonderful.)

We had lunch — sliced tomatoes and basil, a green salad, good cheese, all from Healdsburg. And a bit of cheap Pinot Grigio from Trader Joe. Truly we do live well hereabouts!

We talked about our children, marriage, sex, politics, terrorism, the war. It was the kind of conversation you have with an old friend you haven’t seen in years. And it reminded me once again of the gulf between the American and the French mentality. And it revealed, when I heard myself telling him what has become of the United States since last he visited, perhaps nine years ago, how drastic the change has been.

To simplify things as much as possible, the current American mentality is both quantitative and linear; the French sensibility is qualitative and situational. I think one of the most fascinating aspects of current American politics, left and right, is the insistence on absolute values. Politics is, famously, the art of the possible: and the possible is never absolute. (This is what Susan Sontag meant when she wrote that “meaning is never monagamous”.)

Philippe and his brother are the first men in his lineage to survive into their fifties in a number of generations. World War II; World War I; the Franco-Prussian War; various revolutions; the Napoleonic Wars... the litany of sorrow goes back for generations. France and Germany agree now, and so I think does most of the rest of the European Union, that peace in Europe is worth paying for — paying money and sacrificing, where necessary, long-held ideas (“values” if you like) of narrow national interest.

I said, well, every war in Europe ended with negotiation; and one of the earmarks of the current international crisis is that the United States is irrationally indisposed to negotiate. We explained what was happening with the Bolton nomination — that it would be a recess appointment, unconfirmed by the Senate — and we asked what he thought, what people in Paris thought, of our Secretary of State; and his eyes widened and he was at a loss for English words, though “worse than Thatcher” and “dragon” came to mind.

Over and again, whether the subject was politics or sex, culture or environnment, I was struck with what I take to be a representative French intelligence taking an attitude of practicality, of negotiation, of compromise, of workability, opposed to what seems to me to be the prevailing American attitudes of principle, of dictation, of win-or-lose, of entrenched impracticality.

Most of all he was saddened and almost unbelieving when we described what seems the present state of our country: the impotence of the left in the face of the (probably jiggered) elections of 2000 and 2004, the poverty, the intellectual poverty of the middle class, the decline of the educational system, the collapse of health care, the default of pension systems. These are all areas in which the United States seemed to offer noble and practical models at one time, to a Europe left destitute and destroyed by its series of wars: how had it all collapsed to this extent in so short a time?

He turned for understanding to Germany, 1936: a democratically elected leader of great charisma, dedicated to a clearly stated ideal of national policy, patient enough for its implementation so gradually that the horrors of its working details could be either unnoticed or accepted by even the intelligent and educated classes, let alone the ignorant, fearful, and readily inflamed sectors.

He saw Stalinist parallels as well, in the manipulation of the industrial and banking cartels through their attachment to an increasingly militaristic society, and in the co-option of established press and educational institiutions.

It was fine to renew an old friendship, to have a pleasant lunch, then to go in to Healdsburg for supper at El Sombrero and walk the twilit streets, oddly bare on a cooling Sunday evening. But we look forward to spending next month in Holland again, beset though it is by Christian-Muslim disagreements, vulnerable though it may be to London- and Madrid-style terrorism, allied though it is to Bush’s — our — invasion and occupation of Iraq.

I have the feeling Europe is adjusting herself to all this, and will somehow come through. I count on her long tradition of addressing these things, of trying one way or another of accommodating them and getting on with a daily life in which a modicum of security from age, illness, and hunger is accounted a normal guarantee, a part of a social contract that is worth keeping, on every side of the agreement.