Sunday, December 24, 2006


IT’S NOT QUITE THE WORD I want, of course. Devotion, etymologically, has to do with vows: it’s the attitude accompanying the carrying-out of one of those vows. I’m thinking about it because it’s Christmas, and I always feel somehow more spiritually aware at Christmas, though I’m not what you could call a Christian, because I don’t accept him as a saviour, because I don’t feel I need salvation, because I don’t agree with the concept of inherent sin.

I went to a religious college during my freshman year, and the first course — a required course — was in the psychology of religion. We had two textbooks: William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and James Bissett Pratt’s The Psychology of Religion (first published in 1907). Looking back, I’m surprised; these are enlightened texts; I hope they’re still used today.

I’ll never forget Pratt’s definition of religion; it’s etched into my brain. Religion is the serious and social attitude toward that which is conceived as having control over one’s destiny.

Even at Christmastime I’m a confirmed anti-monotheist; I think much of what’s wrong with the world, speaking of social and political matters, is the fault of the near total dedication of the West (and the Western East — all of Asia Minor) to monotheistic concepts. If you want a good read next month, during the rainy days of January, get a copy of Gore Vidal’s novel Julian, a historical novel first published in 1964. It’s about the Roman emperor now unfortunately best known as “Julian the Apostate.”

His uncle, the emperor Constantine, famously established Christianity as the sole religion of the Roman empire; Julian, who had a fascinating upbringing that left him well schooled in Hellenic science and philosophy, tried during his brief reign to return religious freedom to the empire — allowing the various “pagan” cults, as well as the more enlightened Neoplatonist philosophy that Julian himself seems to have favored.

Vidal’s novel argues persuasively for Julian’s point of view, and I wish it were better known these days: there are too many parallels between the fall of the Roman empire and the events of our own time. (Julian himself died of treachery during an ill-advised military campaign in Mesopotamia: at least he led his troops personally, unlike our own Commander in Chief.)

Last year, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times on the occasion of the death of Arthur Miller, Bob Herbert quoted the playwright as saying he felt, among other things, that most men and women knew “little or nothing” about the forces manipulating their lives. Like Vidal, Miller was one of the great mid-century (that is, post-World War II) American writer-thinkers, a man and an artist who knew that one good way to make an intelligent citizenry think about the big socio-political issues of their day was to wrap ideas in engaging narrative.

But what an interesting pair of citations: Religion the serious, social attitude toward the the forces of destiny; People in our time and place unaware of the forces manipulating their lives. If you can’t accept the realities controlling your life and death, well, best to make up some acceptable mythos. That’s what happened in the turmoil of the rise of the Roman empire, a few years before Jesus was born; it attended the turmoil at the fall of that empire, only four hundred years later. (Our own system of government has already run half that term.)

Well, as I say, I can’t be a monotheist. Yet part of the complexity and contradictions of Christmas, even for me, is that matter of Devotion. When I drive past a crèche, no matter how crudely executed, something responds. I suppose even I am, in some way, devotional; perhaps even devout. I just have to figure out what it is I’m devoted to.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Chocolate gelato

AMBLED, YESTERDAY, with a friend, in search of chocolate gelato in our little town, and found it in four shops on the sides of our central plaza. I won’t identify the sources of the shops, because friend and I disagreed slightly, proving that chocolate gelato is after all a matter of taste (itself born of the uneasy mating of intuition and experience).

So here are the results, comparing six samples:

  • First attempt: sold as “gelato,” but badly mixed — grainy and almost waxy and very inconsistent from top to bottom of the scoop. Cheap chocolate flavor. (What does this mean? Well, thin, tired, lacking in complexity). So wrong that I actually took it back to warn the proprietor of the poor quality, precipitating an uncomfortable confrontation with a very defensive man who wanted to discuss it aloud at some distance. Was given as consolation

  • chocolate-port “gelato,” masking the poor quality of the chocolate with the harsh alcohol of equally cheap “port.” Not a pleasant experience.

  • Chocolate ice cream: not gelato but ice cream, dense and fairly rich with a decent texture.

  • “Mexican chocolate” ice cream, overwhelmingly cinnamon-flavored as those hard discs of Ibarra chocolate tend to be, but refreshing and energizing; again, a good texture.

  • Chocolate “gelato” made, I hear, in San Francisco, and trucked up here seventy miles away. A good chocolate flavor, rich and substantial, marred by an overly dense, rubbery texture, almost like taffy.

  • Chocolate “gelato” made here in Healdsburg by a local restaurant kitchen. Surprisingly lightweight chocolate flavor; inconsistent mix; very tired, stale-refrigerator taste.

  • None of this is important; it was only ice cream, after all. But it raises the intersection of a number of complex subjects, Chocolate and Gelato and Ice Cream and, of course, Taste. (A businessman would be quick to add others: Marketing and Economy and Consistency among them.)

    We’ve tasted a lot of ice cream and gelato, Lindsey and me (she was not the friend joining me on yesterday’s search, though she went along with it good-humoredly). The best ice cream I’ve ever eaten has been that that Lindsey has made, in a hand-crank freezer; for years she made it that way (though with a machine-cranked freezer, otherwise identical) at Chez Panisse. I still think she wrote the standard recipe for ice cream, in her Chez Panisse Desserts (still in print, thank you).

    The best gelato has been found three times: once in a memorable little stand in Capalbio at the southwestern corner of Tuscany; once at Gelato di San Crispino in Rome; always — always — at the remarkably consistent and always pleasant and attractive Pampanin in Verona. Well, of course those are all in Italy; gelato is an Italian experience.

    I must add to this list, of course, Mary Canales’s remarkable work at Ici in Berkeley — but Berkeley is also seventy miles distant.

    We’ve tasted a lot of chocolate, too. Some day perhaps I’ll write seriously about Chocolate, which is almost enough to make me believe in Divine Providence — surely chocolate is, with wine, one of the great gifts of life. (I don’t mean they should be taken together, of course, though some quite specific pairings can be very pleasant.)

    We tend to the dark and bitter chocolates. I like white chocolate, but it’s another thing altogether. Chocolate should, in my opinion, be dark and bitter, should tend more to the oily-unctuous than the waxy-brittle, should be deep and complex. I don’t care about all those specific flavor-adjectives: jammy, fruity, blackberry, and so on. I know they’re there, but adjectives are even more a matter of taste than are flavors. But dark and bitter, unctuous, deep and complex, that’s what I want, something that hits me immediately when I smell or taste it, that builds in my mouth, that keeps on saying something afterward, something pleasant.

    Friday, December 22, 2006


    Jin: (Japanese kana) “benevolence.”

    The two strokes on the left are the combining form of the character that means “man”; the two strokes on the right, taken alone, form the character for the numeral “two.”

    Something is emanating from the midsection of the man, flowing out between the two parallel lines toward the right, or forward. Benevolence: from Latin, “good willing.”

    Thanks to Judy Hoyem for bringing this to my attention. I’m working on “devotion” next; it’s something that comes to mind as I drive past all these crèches that have sprung up around town. I like the idea of devotion, but I’m not sure what it is.

    Thursday, December 21, 2006

    Community: the intersection of private interests and public values

    Our town, Healdsburg, is discussing the adoption of a new General Plan, to be adopted next year.

    AN IMPORTANT PURPOSE of a General Plan is to balance the needs of the community and the rights of the individual. Individual rights, especially concerning the ownership of property and the pursuit of commerce, are well entrenched in the American climate. Community rights are less well understood.

    But they are important, partly because they enable the social context within which those individual rights develop their meaning. One chooses one’s house and property partly because of the value of their site, which depends these days nearly as much on community as on climate or terrain. And commerce depends greatly on clientele, which in turn depends on community.

    So the rights of the community, the public sector, should be maintained and defended. And this in turn requires constant balance between historical, even traditional rights, and the requirements of individuals (and individual businesses) as they continually change in response to changing social conditions and technologies.

    One clear example of this is the problem of traffic patterns. These have changed, in a short century, from primarily pedestrian or animal-drawn conveyances to cars, trucks, and buses; and there’s no really good reason to assume that that change won’t itself change yet again as energy use, petroleum dependency, and climate change over the next forty years.

    Healdsburg’s traffic accommodation is virtually unchanged since the days of the horse and buggy, though more attention is probably paid now to parking availability and to safety considerations, particularly at intersections. But where buggy use was relatively infrequent, automobile use is virtually universal. At the same time, for various reasons (not all of them good, in my opinion), walking has fallen out of favor; people would rather drive and search a parking place than walk another two blocks from one spot to the next.

    Communities need to take these changes into account and plan either to accommodate their demands or encourage their adjustment. They should do this in the present, and their plans should envision continued consideration from time to time in the future, responding in real time to changed demands.

    But traffic is only one example, a fairly visible one. There are other examples of the need for a community to assess and safeguard its public rights.

    I am particularly concerned with three areas of concern: Pollution; Class balance; and Preservation.

    POLLUTION of the air and water is generally understood and provided against in the proposed General Plan, but two other forms are less well considered: light pollution, and visual pollution. Both are analogous to the problem of noise, which is well established as a matter of municipal attention. Light pollution carries with the problem of energy waste, as well. Visual pollution is rarely considered, but it contributes greatly to stress, distraction, and a general sense of civic unease, as well as reflecting badly on the community’s unspoken concerns for order, cleanliness, and propriety.

    I’ve heard such concerns dismissed as “chi-chi,” as a “Santa Barbara” sort of yearning for gentility. That would be true of an extremist consideration, but does not refute a simple civil attitude toward proper maintenance of privately owned property whose appearance impacts the public.

    CLASS BALANCE is almost completely neglected except for provisions for “low-income housing.” Americans are uncomfortable with the concept of class, which fits uneasily within an essentially democratic society. But class is a real component of any American community, involving income level, skin color, ethnic descent, and cultural preferences among other things.

    It seems obvious that, class differences being real and in place in our communities, it is better to celebrate and accommodate them than to ignore and restrict them. Communities should allow these differences to develop naturally, finding their own places within the public structure; but they should also be encouraged to mix in the public arena. This is done in many ways: encouraging ethnically-oriented small businesses, for example, in areas where they can be found serendipitously by new clienteles.

    One way of achieving this kind of accommodation is the further encouragement of small business, even of marginal business, within the downtown. (By “marginal” I mean simply businesses whose nature is to appeal to a less profitable clientele.) To take one example: Spanish-speaking clientele should not be subordinate to English-speaking simply because of fewer spendable dollars. The answer may lie in low-income business assistance, along the lines of low-income housing.

    PRESERVATION is a value clearly honored in existing civic plans chiefly with respect to architecture, though even there it is a value too readily sold out to commercial demands. Any community should maintain an up-to-date inventory of its architecture, partly with a view to maintaining historically valuable buildings, sites, and monuments.

    Preservation extends however beyond physical considerations to social, commercial, and possibly other public concerns. One obvious example is the downtown Plaza, whose traditional value is well honored — though even there “improvements” over the last twenty years or so have tended to narrow its appeal to one class of user at the expense of more general use. (I refer especially to the recent intent to remove its traditional function as a meeting-place of employers and day labor.)

    Another example, quite pressing at the moment, is the Farmers Market. A Public Market has a traditional and historical position, an important one, in virtually every community in the world — but has been edged out of American communities over the last century, probably in response to pressures, visible or hidden, from private commercial interests. Yet the tradition is so strong that the Farm Market movement has taken real hold across the nation.

    Communities should work hard to restore the Public Market to their proper places at their centers. Markets are places for all kinds of social and commercial activity, encourage mixing of the classes and subcultures, and energize communitarian values and undertakings.

    And markets should not be treated complacently, or thought of as mere entertainment or tourist appeal, or shifted from one place to another in response to emerging land-use desires by private interests. Any such attitude weakens the market by lessening confidence in the community’s support for its own necessary and valuable component.

    A COMMUNITY’S REGARD for its own identity, past, and future can not be in question, if the value and sustainability of the community itself are not to be doubted.

    Sunday, December 10, 2006


    Recent travels having reminded me once again of the obscene good luck I have, compared with the tragic bad luck of billions of other people on this planet, here is an


    I'm mulling over, but not very consciously, the problem of cuisine, agriculture, and poverty. It's a complex subject. You're right that most advances in cuisine -- I mean substantial and significant advances, not foolishness and frippery -- have been inspired by poverty. Contemporary "advances," in my opinion, aren't worth a moment's thought, let alone the energy of commentary or polemic.

    Let's see if I can lay out some areas of concern:

    1) too many people who have too little to eat. It's apparently a documented fact, though I don't know how you go about documenting this sort of fact, that the problem is not inability to produce. In most areas of the world the population is able to sustain itself locally. Still, this looks to me ultimately like a question of population outstripping production. The reasons:

    1A) overpopulation. Don't need to discuss this further.
    1B) concentration of population in areas that can't produce food (i.e. cities, poor climates, etc.) Local micro-agriculture is worth pursuing here, and a whole area of investigation is the lack of desire, or inability, of urban people to produce any of their own provender. (I do believe many huge problems, even global problems, should be addressed first at a local and even individual level).
    1C) desire for food not natively available. Here we branch into two subconcerns, at least: Distribution, and Enticement. Both need addressing.

    2) concentration of food production. It has been taken from individual farmers (and even individual consumers) and given to large corporations, which have their fingers also in Distribution and Enticement, and even Manufacturing and Banking. One result has been the regulation of demand and supply, which "should be" natural and organic processes growing out of intuitive transactions between individuals (or families, or tribes) and Nature, but are instead manipulated on a scale divorced from individual human attention. WTO-scaled economic forces and processes trump smaller ones.

    3) imbalance of Desire and The Possible. There can be only so many truffles, so many tuna, so much Burgundy. Here there are two directions of solution:
    3A) increse the Possible. Plant or discover, when possible, new truffle-fields; farm tuna; develop vineyards in hitherto marginal areas.
    3B) decrease Desire. Encourage the use of truffles only on special occasions, the eating of tuna only as a main course (not in fast-food sandwiches), and so on.

    4) perception of scales of importance. Charity, for example -- the extension of one's own excess toward those who are poor -- is both ultimately and immediately more honorable than Wealth. Allowance can and should be made for the ability of the ambitious and even the proud to stand "above" their neighbors, but limits should be set on just how *far* above; and the excess should go first to charity, then to the common good. Allied to this point is

    5) perception of value. Self-sustainability is of greater value, both personally and societally, than is robbery, which is what accumulations of wealth at the expense of others amounts to.

    Alas, John, the only way society has ever found of inculcating and even enforcing these perceptions has been through organized religion. We need a new religion of human decency and practical enabling. Care to contribute?


    Sunday, December 03, 2006

    Experience and enchantment: another weekend in L.A.

    Bandstand, Old plaza, Olvera Street

    ON THE ROAD again last weekend, this time a quick trip south to see two plays at A Noise Within in Glendale, staying at a cheap motel on Colorado Avenue. Eat dear, sleep cheap, is our way.

    Friday we ate dear in Ojai, taking a couple of friends to Auberge at Ojai, formerly L’Auberge — an interesting, local and seasonal menu and an enterprising winelist in a relaxed homey setting with rather elegant appointments, as I just told Zagat. I’m glad I went. A simple green salad, then beef cheeks, full of flavor, with a bottle of good Rhone red.

    Next morning we had an errand: make a delivery to a guitar shop in Playa del Rey, a funny village on the coast (of course) under the flght lanes from LAX. This is one of those towns where you think you’ve driven back forty years — calm, modest, funky. The shop was interesting: a triangular building whose top (second) floor is one large open room with first-rate acoustics. Any guitar aficionado in Los Angeles should surely be familiar with Trilogy Guitars: a recital in that room would be a real pleasure.

    While in town we had an okay lunch at Bistro de Soleil, 6805 Vista Del Mar Lane, on a corner of the main drag. Funky indeed, with outdoor seating on a scrappy patio, a full bar, a decent croque-monsieur and reasonable prices.

    Friday night Lisa had told us about a must-see museum in Culver City, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and it was just a few miles down Culver Blvd. in the direction of Glendale, so off we went. Emma sighted it, just as I was giving up on it — right across the street from the theater where The Actors’ Gang plays, so it’ll be on our regular beat from now on.

    There’s not a lot to say about the Museum. Lisa had described it to me accurately: dark, inscrutable, completely devoid of irony, attentive to museumship — a museum ofmuseology, you might say. The floor plan is disorienting, and the darkness encourages a total immersion of the visitor in the exhibits — you’re either totally involved, or totally repulsed: Emma and I found ourselves creeped out after a half-hour or so.

    Others have described the Museum well, especially Megan Edwards; I won’t even begin to describe the contents here. Instead I’ll tell you what I thought while hearing Lisa tell me about it, because exactly the same thought accompanied me all the way through the Museum:
    Benjamin’s idea of a social utopia hinged on his theory of “experience.” Like many thinkers of the time, he believed that experience was among the casualties of advanced industrial society, which had rendered everyday human interaction entirely functional, utilitarian and impersonal. He shared Max Weber’s belief that the modern world had undergone a process of “disenchantment.” The march of progress had cruelly denuded life of all mystery, solidarity and human warmth. Unlike Weber, however, Benjamin urgently advocated the re-enchantment of the world.

    That’s from a review, by Richard Wolin, of a number of Walter Benjamin books. It ran in the Oct. 16 issue of The Nation (it takes a while to catch up on things). Turned out Benjamin was a favorite of Lisa’s, too. I haven’t really read Benjamin, myself, though I’ve dipped into The Arcades Project from time to time; it’s the kind of book that doesn’t suffer from that kind of reading.

    The Museum of Jurassic Technology would clearly agree with Benjamin about re-enchantment; that’s what its exhibits documenting weird, marginal, haunted, obsessed investigation are all about. Many of these investigations are also about the tiny, what Duchamp called infra-mince, things — I can think of no better word at the moment — so small they almost leave thingness, substance, and become instead conceptual. But I give up: a blog is no place to pursue a subject like this further.

    Saturday night we saw As You Like It, one of the two Shakespeare comedies (the other being, of course, Twelfth Night that seem perfectly inevitable and, therefor, perfectly indispensable. I won’t bother to “review” the production, since it’s closed now: but I will say that it seemed to me the most successful Shakespeare play we’ve seen this company do, and we’ve seen a number of good ones, since they give two each season. And it was Michael Michetti’s debut as a director here, so that augurs well for future productions. I hope.

    Sunday night was even better, a tight, driving production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, with an amazing, memorable, fierce portrayal of the lead character by Geoff Elliott, and fine, sympathetic realizations of the difficult female roles by Brigetta Kelly (Sara) and Derborah Strang (Nora). O’Neill always seems a little creaky to me, a little dated; on the other hand, it’s important to consider this assessment of the underbelly of the United States as it was emerging in the early 19th century, as seen by a moodily brilliant victim of the early 20th.

    A Noise Within does six plays a year: two Shakespeares, one or two other classics, one or two newer vehicles. Earlier this fall we saw them do Racine’s Phaedre, beautifully; next spring we’ll finish the season with Romeo and Juliet and Joe Orton’s Loot. (We’re skipping Man of La Mancha.)

    SUNDAY MORNING WE BREAKFASTED with friends at a place they knew about: Auntie Em’s Kitchen, out in Eagle Rock (4616 Eagle Rock Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 255-0800). This turned out to be another retro exercise: the 1950s seem never to have left these pockets scattered across the second-biggest city in the country. Eagle Rock, like Playa del Rey, is gentrifying somewhat; property values are up; but the look and feel of these places is somehow still frozen in the 1950s — maybe because of the wide streets and low buildings, the consequent nostalgic imminence of the overhead electrical lines, the palms. (Or maybe it’s just me, nostalgic for my own first stay in L.A. back in the 1950s.)

    Auntie Em makes a nice bacon-and-scrambled-egg on buttered toast, the bread from the La Brea bakery, and the house scones are nice; they only lack an espresso machine for the perfect breakfast spot. We’ll be back, nonetheless.

    Then it was on to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) to see a truly absorbing show, Skin and Bones, filling the galleries with fashion and architecture, occasionally forcing the analogies a bit but still giving the visitor a lot to think about — in addition to room after room of truly fascinating and often truly beautiful fashion design.

    One result was to make me think that it doesn’t really matter how extreme fashion is; a dress or a suit of clothes is no bigger than the person wearing it (well, not much bigger anyway); but extreme architecture poses a serious problem in its visible interaction with its environment — the more so when the environment is natural or, if urban and therefor synthetic, architecturally orderly.

    Maybe that’s one reason I like those “retro neighborhoods”: they’re orderly, even in their disorder, because there’s very little dominating going on; the ensemble remains more significant than any one detail, though the grain of the detail is itself absorbing.

    Los Angeles offers continual examples of this alternation between architectural imposition, like Frank Gehry’s Disney Center (which I loathe, and Lindsey does not), and areas of unobjectionable architectural character. But I close this long long blog with one particularly interesting neighborhood: Olivera Street and Union Station, which face one another across a busy street a little off-center from the downtown center embracing Disney Center, the new Cathedral, and MOCA.

    The Spanish language was paramount, of course. Wealthy people rarely ride trains these days, at least here on the West Coast; AMTRAK is only a small cut above the Greyhound Bus. There’s a nice bar, Traxx, in Union Station, and its table seating was full, but the coffee outlet was busier, and there we went for a quick cappuccino, which we drank in one of the patio waiting rooms, nicely gardened, really looking quite a bit like the cloister gardens in the Missions running up and down the old Camino Real.

    Union Station has been spiffed up considerably, and the waiting rooms look great. Built in 1939 and considered the last of the great public rail stations in this country it too is nostalgic, and I thought a little bit about my feelings two weeks ago about the great railroad stations in Europe (see the Nov. 20 blog below, “The Companionship of Strangers”). Union Station, of course, no longer serves that public purpose; it does not comfortably mix the poor and the wealthy, it does not teem with life and fascination; its geometrical beauty (greatly enhanced by its fabulous natural lighting) is more mausoleum than meeting-point.

    This is certainly not the case across the street. The old Plaza, with its lacy bandstand (photo above) presently filled with a life-size Christmas crèche, is an outdoor living-room for families, tourists, and locals; and the market street, though crammed with kitsch often of dubious origin, is colorful and busy. Old men stand around playing guitars and singing; kids buy souvenirs; the same restaurants and candle shops line the street that I recall from fifty years ago.

    People seemed relaxed and happy: when I hesitated over buying a wallet, then decided not to, the proprietor of the stall smiled broadly and wished us well. The life-style of Olvera Street is Latin, pleasant, oriented more to the pleasantness of the moment than to climbing to the top of anything. That’s retro too, I suppose, and it’s analogous to the neighborhoods I prefer, those where ordinary daily transactions are more important than some kind of architectural or commercial Importance.

    There’s more to say about this, but you’ve read enough.