Monday, December 12, 2005

Grazing and Eating

THIS IS THE COUNTER of The Cheese Course, the local cheese store, a block and a half off the plaza defining the center of the tourist destination that has become Healdsburg, California. I put it here as a decoy; I don’t think there’ll be much here today about cheese, though it’s on my mind as we tune our mentalities back to Holland, anticipating a week there at Christmastime.

What I’m thinking about now is the difference between Grazing and Eating. Each has its place. Last night, for example, we were at a wonderful party at Foreign Cinema, a favorite restaurant of ours in San Francisco, and since a couple of hundred people were jammed into the dining room, the courtyard, and the adjacent art gallery, refreshments were necessarily Small Plates: chiles relleños, little strips of grilled beefsteak, fried manchego (ah there, the cheese!), various tacos, prawns...

But Grazing is not Dining, and this came home to me a couple of weeks ago, in two consecutive dinners at really quite good restaurants in Portland. We ate first at Vindalho, a Goan-inspired restaurant striving to find a Portuguese presence in an Indian table, and I would never complain about the results, especially the date chutney, and the naan, and my lamb in yoghurt. (It’s amazing how a bit of lamb improves the innate sour curdled unpleasantness of yoghurt.)

But the six of us shared plates, a technique I famously (in my small circle) loathe, and the flavors piled up, shouldered one another aside, crowded forward, shouted all at once and in general behaved quite uncivilly. And the next night, and Nuestra Cocina, I refused to share in either direction, and tended to my duck-confit tamal with its raisins and mole, and lamb shank, of all things, cooked in rich tomato broth.

Now you might think duck confit and lamb shank add up to rather too rich a combination, and you would be right. But it was wintry that night, and Christmas is coming, and this goose is getting fat. In point of fact this was a beautifully balanced combination of courses, and I skipped dessert. (Though now that I look at the menu, and find two dessert tequilas on the list — one of them flavored with almond! — I have my regrets.)

HAVING GIVEN SOME THOUGHT to the hardly revolutionary idea of an orchestrated meal I decided to cook dinner the other night — not that my usual home-cooked dinners lack intelligence and artistry! And this is what we had:

cockaleeky soup
porkchops ma facon
steamed broccoli flowerets
green salad

And this is how I made it:

SOUP: Clean the leeks, lose much of the green part of the vegetable, and slice the remainder really thin. Sauté these slices in a little oil and salt. Peel as many potatoes as you’ve sliced leeks, cut them into smallish chunks, and dump them with the leeks into a pot of chicken stock. When the potatoes have cooked, smash them with a potato smasher, check for flavor, serve.

BROCCOLI: rinse the head, cut off flowerets, steam them in the water still clinging to them from the rinse, put in a shallow pan with a little salt and a pinch or two of red pepper flakes; steam under a lid until done.

CHOPS: Rub the white fat on the edges of two nice thick pork chops onto the surface of a black iron frying pan just big enough for them. Grind a tablespoon of fennel seeds, a teaspoon of black peppercorns, and a pinch of sea salt with a mortar and pestle. Drizzle a few drops of olive oil onto one side of each chop; then smear quite softly crushed garlic (see instruction for salad, below) onto it, and dust liberally with the fennelseed mixture. Put the chops, doctored side up, into the pan which you have let get quite hot, searing the untreated sides of the chops. Pry them up with a spatula and flip them, giving the now nicely browned sides the same treatment with oil, garlic, and dust. The chops will likely be done before you know it, after the second side is seared: press the surface with a forefinger to test. Remove the chops to the warmed dinner plates and deglaze the pan — this is where the inspiration came in — with dry Vermouth, reducing the result to a nice sauce.

SALAD: Our usual salad happens thus: I mash a clove of garlic in the garlic-press, then forcefully blend it , in the bowl we’ll use for salad, with a pinch or two of sea salt, using the tines of a dinner fork. I work this until the resulting paste is quite smooth and creamy, adding a teaspoonful of olive oil. When it’s all quite smooth I add the amount of oil we’ll need for the salad and let it stand through dinner, having washed and torn the lettuce (or, more likely, Lindsey having done the washing chore). After the main course (and, in this case, the soup, which naturally came first), I add enough vinegar — say one part to four of oil — and blend it briskly with the fork; then add the lettuces and toss.

THE POINT OF ALL THIS, of course, is the fascinating focus of the flavors. Chicken, leeks, potato. Broccoli, red pepper. Pork, fennel, garlic, vermouth. (I can’t overemphasize the beauty of that combination!) Salt, garlic, olive oil.

Years ago I knew a wonderful man named Anthony Boucher — well, he wasn’t named Anthony Boucher, but his name was so named, it was a nom de plume — an intellectual, a liberal, a humanist, a gourmet; a man who managed to combine several specialities in one rewarding though too brief life: a specialist in canon law, in liqueurs, in pornography; an author of mytery and science fiction; a historian of opera. The kind of man of whom it is said all to truly the sort no longer is in fashion.

In one of his stories, I wish I could remember which, he wrote about the first human travel to the planet Venus. As I recall the story was really about the technology involved, with perhaps a romantic plot carrying those details. But what I do recall, the only detail I recall, is a parenthetical aside in which his narrator refers to a plant discovered on the planet Venus, that plant without which, as is now well known, the combination of lamb, garlic, salt, and rosemary is utterly incomplete.

That’s a masterstroke of imagination, to think that combination needs yet another ingredient to render it perfect. Of course it does not: but then we can’t know. How could Tony have done this to us? How I wish I could introduce him to my vermouth, fennel, and pork!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

A new oratorio

A QUICK NOTE ON BITTER HARVEST, which we heard performed by the Berkeley Symphony Saturday night. This is a new dramatic oratorio: a poetic libretto by Amanda Moody, set for soprano, tenor, baritone, chorus and orchestra by Kurt Rohde.

The subject is the tragedy of a midwestern American farmer, a Vietnam veteran, recently a widower, still mourning the further death of his only son, and now losing his farm to an unspecified Corporation that sounds a lot like Monsanto, the gene-modified seed-patenter that recently sued the Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser for harboring patented plants he hadn't paid for. (They sprang from seed apparently drifting in on the wind, or spilled by passing vehicles.)

Bitter Harvest has so many qualities that a list of them inevitably sounds contradictory. It is intelligent, passionate, lyrical, poetic, serene, biting, ironic; above all it is beautiful. It is not fresh: the music often shows its own roots in both the 1960s avant-garde and the more recent new consonance. But the consonances, themselves often recalling Alban Berg's velvety sudden major triads, emerge as acoustical facts rather than a musical grammar forcing the melodic and harmonic issues.

The production was visually arresting as well as acoustically: the fifteen-voice chorus, changing from farm flannel shirts to corporate white shirts and neckties, sat stage center, the three vocal soloists in front (farmer John Duykers on the left, corporate villain Troy Cook and social worker Henrietta Davis on the right). On either side of the stage stood a percussion section, and the large chamber orchestra was in the pit. Everything sounded amplified, and this threw the sound off to my ears at first: but ears are amazingly adaptive, and after a few minutes all fell into place.

The soloists were at the top of their form, and Kent Nagano managed the detailed complexity of the score skilfully, easing its precision into a lyrically dramatic long line.

At a little over an hour long, and divided clearly into 17 chapter-like sections, Rohde's score moved easily. Moody's libretto doesn't proceed chronologically, but loops and doubles, repeating not words, as in a Handel oratorio, but entire phrases and references, often after extensive developments taking the story into a parallel context -- the farmer's family life, Vienam, legal confrontations, and that narrative that strikes dread into anyone familiar with it: the tragic farm auction, where an entire working life is dismissed as so much worn-out machinery.

Bitter Harvest won't easily find a place in any standard repertory: the music is dense and often angular; the plot is poetic rather than straightforward; the subject is less than gripping, alas, to most Americans these days. (Even here in Sonoma county a moratorium on genetically-modified crops failed miserably at the polls last month.)

But Bitter Harvest is powerful, important, and best of all beautiful. The performance was splendid, completely persuasive. I'm glad I heard it, even at the end of a long day's drive from Ashland to Berkeley. And I'd like to hear it again.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Home again...

left: our ridge, twilight

BUT NOT WITHOUT FIRST seeing three more plays, eating one more fabulous meal, getting lost once or twice. All that in two days!

Okay, dinner first: That was at Campanile, an old favorite unvisited too many years — unless you count an occasional breakfast. Mark Peel, who was an assistant of Lindsey’s years ago at Chez Panisse, opened this fine restaurant in Charlie Chaplin’s old house, half a block off Wilshire Blvd. on La Brea Avenue, more years ago than I like to think. At one time it was fabulous; for a while it seemed to me to have slipped a bit; now it’s right back where it began, with Mark at the helm and a menu that’s engaging, enterprising, excellent.

We began with squab on risotto, white truffles shaved over it, the rice cooked just so, the squab tender but meaty. A Bibb lettuce salad refocussed things, with the snap of lemon juice lifting the cool crisp leaves out of the ordinary. And then, for me, duck breast, grilled, served with a sort of compote of winter vegetables including chestnuts. With this a St. Amour 2003, direct and mature and fruity, and then a glass of Sean Thackeray’s Pleiades, to complement the duck’s complexity.

The drive from Glendale, where we stay on these semiannual theater outings south, to places like Campanile or the LA County Museum (where we’d been the day before), is easy and enjoyable. Down to Los Feliz, across on that avenue past the strangely dumpy Mulholland fountain to Western, down Western to Third or Fifth, down La Brea or whatever. The drive back, after that dinner, was less direct, for Hollywood likes to post two street-names on the same post. So we turned east a block too soon, discovered the mistake, and turned north to explore a narrow street, cluttered with unnecessarily large cars parked wherever they could find a place, and winding through what must have been a relatively upscale neighborhood, since all we could see were high board fences, automatic yard lights, and an occasional Beware the Dog. No matter: it took us right to Los Feliz.

That afternoon we had seen William Inge’s Picnic, beautifully detailed and lovingly portrayed by A Noise Within. I hadn’t seen it before, oddly enough, and was struck by its resonances — Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, as Gaye pointed out, but, more personally than that, my own childhood, or at least one year of it, spent in a small town in northeastern Oklahoma. I wasn’t old enough to share Madge’s problems, or even Millie’s — adolescence was still a few years away — but the yearning, the perplexities, the awareness of all kinds of isolation, even the apparent war between physicality and intelligence — all that was indeed resonant.

Yesterday, Sunday afternoon, we saw the third play currently in repertory at A Noise Within: Ibsen’s The Master Builder. What a play! You can read it in so many ways: the tragic birth of Modernism out of Romanticism; Ego as the enemy of Community; Ambition as the tragically flawed child of Success...

And the production, and the performance, completed a cycle of three plays very satisfactorily, for the problem with Thursday’s Othello — an overly detailed and therefore distracting Iago — was a great virtue in this Builder: a brittle, complex, riveting Halvard Solness: both roles were taken by Geoff Elliott, who was also, with his wife Julia Roderiguez-Elliott, co-director of both plays.

A footnote to the comments, below, on Dwight Baquie’s performance of the role of Othello: what we saw was in fact only his fourth performance in the role, and the first had been the previous day. He stepped into the part in a student matinee, played it again Wednesday night, and then repeated it Thursday in another matinee before the performance we saw. It’s odd he’d never played it before, because he was born for the role; when he has it in hand it will be memorable for only good reasons — and perhaps Elliott’s Iago will be in better balance.

Yesterday after the Master Builder matinee we drove down to Los Angeles for dinner with friends: Dan the painter, Tony the actor. Dan made a delicious bolognese to put on pasta, and we had a bottle of four-dollar Hungarian cabernet, and then we walked over to Evidence Room, a sort of storefront theater club, to see David Greenspan’s She Stoops to Comedy, postmodernly, neo-cubistly taking on Pirandello with half an eye trained also on Restoration comedy, cutting back and forth between narrative and commentary, and generally making great fun out of confusions of gender, role-playing, Art and Life, as they develop out of the six characters — one of them Tony — in search of a play. I’d see it again given half a chance.

And what else. Glendale’s cute little Spanish-Mission train station, where we left John and Gaye to Amtrak. Dan and Tony’s magnificent dining room, crafted, table, floor, walls, ceiling and all, out of an ash-tree that came down in their front yard. Urartu Coffee, as nice a little community coffeehouse as you could want, a block off Glendale’s troubled Brand Avenue, now in the throes of yet another redevelopment.

And a long walk, having lost my bearings in spite of Lindsey’s correct directional instinct, in the dark night, cluttered with rejected furniture and distressed cars on the lawns and boulevard strips, peopled with the unemployed and the dubiously employed, lit by the occasional sweeps of a hovering helicopter’s searchlight, warm with spent passions and delayed hopes — yet oddly intimate, friendly, and nostalgic: or perhaps I was still basking in William Inge’s Picnic.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Once More to L.A.

left: LACMA at twilight

Glendale, November 12—

A LITTLE ODD to say of Shakespeare’s Othello that all’s well that ends well, but that’s how it went Thursday night. Until the intermission we thought we were seeing something else, a play called Iago, interesting, abrupt, a little rough, thrown out of whack by an apparently minor character, a Moorish admiral, unfortunately played by an understudy who was still carrying his lines with him.

After intermission, though, things turned around. Othello stayed on the book, even consulting it while strangling his poor wife, but his voice and demeanor brought the role back to center where it belongs. Iago was more convincing when on the defensive than he’d been earlier in the play, and the ladies were fine: Desdemona small, vulnerable, wronged, uncomprehending; Emilia angry, violent, believable. I found myself wishing they’d all lived, so there could be another play, telling us what might come next. But of course by the end of the play nearly all the interesting folks were dead as a doornail, and we felt like Shakespeare had hit us in the stomach once again, and we shuffled back to our motel in a rather bleak mood.

The only hilarity of the day had been inadvertent, at dinner, in a restaurant we’ve tried before: Fresco, whose Venetian decor has housed a Sicilian-Neopolitan menu a couple of blocks from this theater company — A Noise Within — on Glendale’s Brand Street. The food was good enough: my canneloni were rich and tasty, and Lindsey liked her mushroom ravioli very much. But soon after we sat down we were surprised to see a small Italian-looking fellow walk in with a cello case. Before long he’d unpacked the thing, set up a pre-programmed synthesizer, and begun playing the most god-awful versions of soft rock, Strauss waltzes, and easy listening — though he made any kind of listening difficult in the extreme.

I’ve only once before heard such blatantly bad playing, from an amplified violinist on a street in Rome. Like that fiddler, our cellist was ultimately ushered away by a waiter, but not before he’d labored through the entire prelude of Bach’s C-major Suite. On his way out he bowed to Gaye, who was watching him astonishedly. Live amateur cellists might best be banned from restaurants.

Yesterday was better, a fine day: two restaurants, two museums, three engaging one-act plays; all shared with two friends. Lunch was at Tre Venezie, a real Veneto restaurant in Pasadena, where the cooking expresses the rich, earthy complexity of a culture that triangulates northern Italian, Austrian, and Slavic sources, and the result is served in a comfortable, quiet, intelligently furnished room (paintings, books, bottles) that has likely never heard an amateur at the cello. We had Savoy cabbage and house-prepared guanciale, pork jaw; and after that I had the best fegato Veneziano I’ve had outside Venice herself: calf’s liver, sliced consistently thin, sauteed in white wine, oil, and perhaps a little bit of butter, served with perfectly sweated sliced onion and beautifully grilled polenta, with an interesting Merlot from the Collio hills on the Slovenian border.

Afterward a tour through the Pasadena Museum of California Art to see landscapes, mostly, with a few portraits, by an American impressionist, Allston Something, whose early work, at about 1900, showed great promise, but whose later work, on extensive travels but chiefly in Southern California, seemed to me to settle into too-quickly executed illustration.

They weren’t improved by their contrast with the Pissarros and Cezannes we saw next, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — a fine show from New York’s MOMA, focussing on the work those two friends did, nearly side by side, in the significant years around 1870 when Modernism was emerging from landscape painting in the vicinity of Pontoise. Short conclusion: Pissarro was about light as it it is expressed by surfaces; Cezanne was after the substance and weight behind those surfaces, and the physical presence, almost the substance, of the light and air that makes them visible and distinct. This is quickly said, but it took these disciplined, gifted painters years to reveal the concept, which underlies everything the Impressionists and their followers achieved in the years following.

The Actors’ Gang, an engaging and very physical theater company whose artistic director is Tim Robbins, has moved into a fine, newly recycled historic building on the edge of Culver City, a former electrical plant facing a small, pleasant park on Venice Blvd. Here we had a quick meal of fish and chips and Martinis at Pacifico, a fast, simple marisco restaurant, and then continued our globetrotting with three one-act plays from Japan: a melodramatic portrait of smoldering small-town resentment; a commedia dell’arte-cum-Kabuki flavored account of a family’s despair at the apparent idiocy of a poetic son; an Albee-esque view of three ghosts, former actress-prompters eternally reviewing the competing small successes of their former lives.

It was an impressive evening of theater, stylish, exotic, constantly fascinating. I wish these guys would bring us a play of Michael McClure’s.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Groningen street, September 2005

FOR SOME TIME NOW, since the middle of September in fact, I’ve been meaning to show you this photo. Seems to me it says all you need to say about what routine automobile use has done to community life. This was taken on a fairly busy street in Groningen, a street leading from the market square at the heart of that provincial capital in The Netherlands out toward the edge of town where the university campus and its great medical center are situated.

We were there with a couple of friends, having transferred our intention to walk the shorline of the old Zuider Zee to the less rainy and windy route Lindsey and I already knew from a long walk taken five years ago. We had just arrived in Groningen, and were walking down the street toward our hotel, when I was struck by the sight of these two old guys having a palaver in the middle of the street.

This is by no means an uncommon sight, but our two friends, new to Holland, remarked delightedly on it, so I pulled out the camera for a quick shot.

I doubt that had these two guys would have stopped for conversation had they been driving cars. In Groningen, as in so many other Dutch villages, towns, and even cities, residence, shopping, and offices are frequently mixed. You can walk from one end of Groningen to the other in twenty minutes. We spent nearly a week there, using it as a base for walks in the countryside, and we never once even thought of using any means of transportation within the city but shank’s mare, our two good trusty feet. There’d be no point in it, not even when it gently rained.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Movies and community

AND WHAT DO I THINK about the closing of our town movie theater, the Raven Film Center? It’s a very sad event, another step in the erosion of a town in real danger of dissolving into a theme park. Well, that’s put a bit extremely, I suppose: but a real disconnect is developing between two Healdsburgs, one of them a nice cozy town of 10,000 or so, where residents rub elbows at the library, the shopping centers, the cafés, the bakeries; the other a destination for tourists who stop in at tasting rooms, boutiques, and white-tablecloth restaurants.

Healdsburgers used to manage this negotiation by ceding the town square to tourists on the weekends, but the weekends have stretched; tourism is now close to a seven-day-a-week activity. There’s still a feeling of community on certain warm evenings, or at least there was last summer; but the town’s in danger of losing the very facilities that give a physical context for community.

There are two Ravens in town, not to be confused with the dining Raven-spinoffs, Ravenous and Ravenette. It’s an interesting history, I think: a local movie theater was built in remote antiquity, the 1930s or ’40s I think, called the Aven. (No, not a misspelling of “Avon,” as in Bard Of: it was named for a member of the founding family.)

In the 1970s, I think it was, the languishing Aven, then a victim of television, was bought by a film buff and community idealist who turned it around, chiefly by booking interesting films. It became so successful that when the big retail space formerly housing the J.C. Penney Company became available — Penney’s having lost its customers to sexier retail rivals in Santa Rosa, our local metropolis, and to the cheaper big-box stores that becan to emerge fifteen or twenty years ago — the lease was taken over by the Raven folks, who installed a four-theater complex, hoping thereby to be able to bring more niche-market films to town.

Then, a few years ago, two huge new multi-screen movie theaters opened nearby, the Rio in Santa Rosa and the Airport Cinema a few miles south of Healdsburg. The Raven lost much of its audiences to these competitors. The film-booking business is arcane and baroque and I won’t go into it here, not that I really understand it: suffice it to say a small local exhibitor of commercial entertainment film can’t seem to prevail in this competitive context.

WHAT’S TO BE DONE about this state of affairs? A couple of Sundays ago the town turned out to discuss the question. The largest of the four theaters seats 243, and it was overflowing. A good many very knowledgeable people filled us in on the history of the Raven’s decline, and then there was a brainstorming session.

I suppose you could say there were two big kinds of ideas, structural ideas and programming ideas. It’s clear the community wants a movie theater, but it’s not clear a conventional movie theater can survive — the current owners say it takes about 2,500 customers a week to keep the place open, and they’ve only been drawing 1500 or so at best. Twenty-five hundred customers: that’s a quarter of the town population, every week! Even if you could get the films, programming the place to draw niche audiences would be real sleight-of-hand: youngsters want noise, and go to the Airport; aging intellectuals want foreign movies, and watch DVDs; liberals want documentaries, and find them at the Rio (or on PBS); and the sizable latino population — some say forty percent of Healdsburg’s population — don’t seem to have the habit of going out to the movies.

The structuralist ideas tended to group around establishing some kind of non-profit organization to subsidize the Raven. I myself said I’d give a hundred bucks a year over the next ten years if it would help; if all of us in that room did that it would amount to $25,000 a year, surely enough to begin to find some solution. That idea didn’t fly far, but others suggested an organizing committee to look into some kind of community management of the facilities — assuming, apparently, that the place will soon be up for sale.

I HAVE ANOTHER IDEA, perhaps too complex to work, but complex enough I think to float. One of the things a community needs is a place to sit, to stroll, to talk. This has to be a place big enough for really lots of people on some occasions, but cluttered enough with visual and architectural features, and comfortable places to sit and stroll, that it doesn’t seem bleak when less heavily populated.

The Raven Film Center is on the edge of the Mitchell Shopping Plaza, a typical small-town strip mall with a big parking lot, a big retail store anchoring one end (currently a Long’s Drugs). The other spaces are leased to quite a variety of operations, from a specialty cheese shop (and a very good one at that) to a money-order office for the latino laborer; from a former photography shop now converting to an art-supply and framing shop to a resale merchant with everything from electronics to clothing; from a doughnut shop to a Mexican restaurant.

All these shops are drive-ups; there’s very little pedestrian traffic from the heart of town, only a block away — the parking lot effectively walls these shops off, announcing who’s really wanted here: people who drive in hastily, grab whatever it is they’re after, and take off again.

Needless to say, this isn’t the kind of “Third Place” — the alternative to Work and Home — a community needs. If I were king, I’d convert the south end of the mall to another village square, with a café-bar-restaurant with outdoor seating, and convert one of the Raven screening rooms to an indoor café constantly projecting films onto at least two walls — travelogues, documentaries, art films, old features. Sound off, of course; and if possible DVDs for sale on the premises.

Another of the four screening rooms should be used more fully for live performance, sincee it’s fitted out with a stage, overhead lighting, and a green room. There’s a fledgeling chamber-music society a few storefronts away: why shouldn’t it have access to this room?

I’d use the remaining theaters, seating 54 and 167 apiece, for quickly changing film repertory, Spanish and English, in a mix of programming frequently punctuated by special thematic series: food movies, or dance movies, or movies catering to other special-interest niche audiences willing, perhaps, to drive to Healdsburg from San Francisco or the East Bay, willing to have dinner in a local restaurant and stay in a local motel. We’re only taling about fifty people in that small theater!

What would this require? A person or group to buy up the current lease. A willingness on the part of the owners of the shopping center to re-think the use and purpose of their real estate. A commitment by the townspeople to support their own community.

Is any of this likely to happen? Frankly, I’m quite pessimistic about that. There are complexities here — economic, legal, insurance-related — that I know nothing about. Clearly the town council needs to spend a week or two traveling to places where these things happen better, either because there’s more vision there, or social conventions friendlier to the evolution of Places for People (not necessarily Profit).

I’ve put here a photo of the market-place/parking lot in Barjols, a very ordinary bluecollar town in the Var, in southern France. It’s a special day: there’s a boules competition going on; it’s drawn people from far and wide — from communities as much as a dozen miles away. No one’s getting rich from this, but the three or four bar-cafés at the edge of the place are doing good business. No reason part of the Mitchell Shopping Center couldn’t look like this.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Dogs and Cats

NOT A DOG PERSON, no no no no, not in this country. We had a dog, of course, when I was a kid, sixty years ago and more; just about everyone did. A toy shepherd named Butch. But none since. I tend to agree with Emma, who doesn’t like dogs because, she says, they pee and they slobber.

Cats, yes; we like cats just fine, and for twenty years or so we had at least one and usually two. The last two, Joe and Blanche, lived to be nearly twenty, and I miss them still.

And so when I walk into a hotel to check in and see a cat in the lobby I immediately feel things are breaking my way. The old Hotel Figueroa in Los Angeles; the Sylvia in Vancouver.

And when you duck into a bar or a café and find a cat sleeping in the window, or under a chair: you feel immediately there’s tranquility here, and after all that’s what you’re looking for.

Dogs are another matter, but not in Europe. Every time we go to Europe we begin again the list of disadvantageous differences, disadvantageous to our own country I mean — the never-to-be-written-or-published book Why Can’t We... — and one of the chapters will surely center on Man’s Best Friend.

Kees and Irma, for example, have a wonderful border collie called "Yella," spelled Jelle I think, a Frisian name having nothing to do with his colors which are the regimental black and white of his breed. Perhaps that’s "her" breed: sex never seemed to be an issue with this fine animal.

One night sleeping I developed a Charley horse, that excruciating sudden pain in the calf of your leg. I couldn’t cry out, as I generally do, because I’d have awakened everyone in the house. Instead I whimpered, and immediately there came Jelle full of sympathy and concern, nosing me to be sure I’d recover. There was something immensely reassuring about this and I’ve had to revisit my attitude toward Albert Payson Terhune.

We had breakfast a couple or three weeks ago in Groningen, that fine regional capital in the north of The Netherlands. Curiously every chain café in the town center was out of milk at seven in the morning — they only serve fresh milk, it seems, in their cappuccinos — and we ended up at an upscale Cafe´-Conditerei serving pastries and coffees to comfortable-looking people at small tables, nearly each with a newspaper, most of them conservative.

There were no fewer than three dogs in our part of the room, a smaller raised central room with perhaps eight tables. They were small fat shaggy dogs with short legs and tiny feet, and they moved rather sluggishly I thought if they moved at all. One did, ultimately, giving up its post under another table to come stand patiently at the feet of my own chair, foolishly thinking I was about to give up a piece of croissant.

(Or perhaps, given its shape, hoping for a sugar cube. I think this was one of the few places that hasn’t given up sugar cubes in favor of those ridiculous little paper tubes of sugar, no doubt forced on the restaurant industry by the Dutch Society of Friends of the Horse in an almost completely successful effort to interfere with my passing out sugar cubes to horses on our perambulations through the Dutch countryside.)

These dogs were no harm to anyone, not even the waiters who brought things here and there through a space whose navigation was made difficult by its forest of tables and chairs and seated readers of newspapers. (I wonder how the room looks to those dogs, who see it from a vantage much closer the floor.)

They were really small slow sculptures, clean as a whistle (this is the Netherlands, after all), quiet, friendly and patient, never demanding. They were, in short, almost cats.

We had lunch last week in a café in Amsterdam — a bar-restaurant, really — at about four in the afternoon, an hour when I never really expect to find anything. Only one other table was occupied, by two English girls looking over a fashion magazine and not really eating much of anything.

We ordered off the lunch menu: a salad of some kind for L., a merguez sandwich for me. That turned out to be a sort of hamburger bun, toasted, with four grilled lamb sausages (very good, by the way), sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and some onion. Delicious; and afterward I asked the waitress, now tending bar, the name of the fine sleeping cat perched on the ledge-overlook near the English girls.

Caspar, she said, and that’s Gaston in the window, pointing to Caspar’s match.

I know, I know, the health authorities in this country would shudder at the thought. I don’t know why they don’t in the Netherlands, whose health laws are sometimes even more insane than our own. But I retort that important studies have revealed that children who grow up with household pets are sixtyseven percent less likely to develop asthma. Don’t ask for the source of this information: I can’t provide it. But I know it’s true. It stands to reason.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Mark Morris at Zellerbach

HOW WAS THE MARK MORRIS, a friend e-mails, and another writes

I wasn't as convinced about the performance as you were, but am very glad to have seen it and it's fun to watch you swoon over the art you enjoy!

Well, "swoon" is perhaps an extravagant word, but I must say I was tremendously impressed with Cargo, the new piece Morris set to Darius Milhaud's La creation du monde. It began with a white pole lying diagonally on the otherwise bare floor of an empty set. The dancers crept in from the wings, tentatively approaching it and one another, and as Milhaud's magical score evolved so did they, balancing curiosity and timidity, discovering emotions and pleasures, playing with their stick and one another, inventing social hierarchies and disagreement. You felt you were watching the evolution of humanity from its animal source, and since that evolution stopped short of the discovery of conscious thought the spectacle was a delight.

All Fours, to the Bartok Fourth Quartet was the most abstract I've seen from him, still detailed and quite close to the musical argument, but intellectual, I thought, especially after the more primitive exploration of the Milhaud.

What had attracted us to the evening was the music, particularly the Stein-Thomson opera Four Saints in Three Acts -- I never miss a production of it if I can help it. Morris treated the opera as a pageant, with lyrical naive-art backdrops and costumes, and avoided overly detailed mime interpretation of the content of the opera (distinguishing this from, for example, his setting of L'Allegro ed il penseroso, which I delight in in spite of its fussiness).

The commere and compere were the soloists here, as they tend to be in the opera, with the two Saints Theresa collapsed into a third solo dancer, and it was a pleasure to find that the chorus represented not all those miscellaneous Saints brought into Stein's libretto, but Spanish villagers on a sunny plaza, perhaps in Avila, miming and worshipping and more than occasionally spoofing them.

What I like about Mark Morris is his combination of sentiment, energy, and intellect, all in the service of commentary (or, as Stein would say, "meditation") on his subject. And this program was so artful, beginning with the primal source of humanity, continuing through the human application of intelligence, ending with faith and humor.

The other thing I like about these Morris productions is: Live Music!

The Berkeley Symphony did a fine job of the Milhaud and the Thomson, and the Bartok Fourth was played as if it were the easiest thing in the world -- though one of the most beautiful and enlightening -- by four young musicians, I'm sorry I haven't the program at hand, seated audience right at the edge of the stage. Fabulous.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

How to Write Music

FOR A SUPPERCLUB CONCERT last night I'd been asked to provide about fifteen minutes of music. I put the assignment off too long, but a few hours before the concert I began to sketch the piece out.

Three or four sheets of paper, landscape mode, roughly pencilled horizontal lines dividing the instruments -- flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone, percussion, three or four strings.

Horizontal pencil lines dividing the time, five seconds or so at a time. I wrote in a few figures -- scale patterns here, the outline of a melody there, a few quickly repeated notes, a few sustained tones. No specific pitches.

Then I ran out of time, and had to go to the club with no music. The musicians were there, of course, and I watched them get out their tools and warm up. I knew several of them. The audience was sitting behind me, also facing the musicians.

I explained I hadn't finished anything, and began to describe the sketch I'd begun. I conduct it like this, I said, sweeping my right arm like a second-hand, punching out individual notes or curving lyrical phrases with my left hand.

It begins with kind of an oriental-sounding plaintive melody in the bassoon's second and third octaves, I said, singing it and looking at Greg Barber, who began playing along with me. I glanced over toward Larry London, who began counterpointing a similar tune on the clarinet.

I showed the brass players how they come in and drop out with sustained tones, higher if I point upward, lower if downward, quieter when my left hand drops.

The strings waited for me to curve some tunes toward them, and the winds tapped out repeated notes as I signalled them. This went on for a while, and then I said

But of course I never got around to writing the piece, or making you parts, so we won't be able to play anything tonight.

And that was the end of the piece, and the end of the dream. But I realize now that it's exactly how I notated the first movement of Tongues.

NOTHING ELSE to report, except that while making guacamole last night I sneaked slug of tequila and one of the almonds Lindsey had out on a pan on top of the stove. What a combination that is! Gotta capitalize on it somehow!

Monday, October 03, 2005

Go Solar!

There seem to be various proposals afloat to help homeowners add solar panels to their roofs. Good idea, no doubt about it.

But I have another proposal for our dear Governor Schwarzenegger. How about requiring panels on all new big-box stores, shopping malls, franchise-food joints, gas stations, and auto dealerships?

This would have the immediate effect of slowing the construction of such impositions on the landscape, I suppose, and that wouldn't be an entirely bad thing.

But it might have two positive effects as well. First, such immense consumers of electricity might begin to produce a sizable percentage of their own energy. Second, the great quantity of solar panels and other hardware suddenly needed should help bring down the cost of the technology -- a more direct help to the eventual residential user than short-term government subsidy.

While we're at it, why not require government buildings to go solar?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Trash Talk

We're back from a September in the Netherlands and the Var -- a week visiting extended family in The Hague and Friesland, two weeks walking the country dikes, forest paths, and magnificent heather of Friesland and the northeast Netherlands, and a week car-touring the best and least-toured corner of Provence.

Last night we drove with friends to Berkeley, there to see the Mark Morris Dance Group in a bill I'd even come home early from Europe to see: intelligent and entertaining dances to Milhaud's La creation du monde, the fourth Bartok quartet, and my candidate for the signal work of musical theater of the 20th Century, the Stein-Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts.

But it's not the sheep pastures and mixed forest of the Netherlands, the pines and vines of the Var, or the stunning humanity of Morris's choreography that I contemplate this morning. It's the amazingly trashy thing my native city has become.

Driving the length of University Avenue, from freeway to campus, is a revelation of the triumph of litter, neglect, exploitation, and utter unconcern for human comfort and civility that has become the accepted background -- foreground, actually -- of contemporary urban American life.

This results, of course, from the prevailing American view that private gain trumps public responsibility, that one can do what one wants with one's own property regardless of the resulting deterioration of the setting in which it participates -- whether the ecology of the physical environment or the temper of the public mood.

I heard earlier yesterday of the pending legislation to "compensate" property-owners for potential profits hypothetically lost because of ecological priorities such as the preservation of endangered species. The arguments referred to the property-owners "rights," but never once contemplated the civic and social responsibility that comes with the ownership of property -, the extent to which such ownership entails stewardship.

Cities are pre-eminently for people, for the people who live in them, work or study in them, visit them. Context affects content, and to condemn the citizenry to live in physical squalor and confusion inevitably condemns them to anxiety and stress, to their own confusion and disorder.

I don't think it's too far-fetched to suggest the unconcern for order and tranquillity is related to the prevalent American unconcern for maintenance and prevention. The urban American eye is on details and the dollar, not the long term and stability.

It's time to find a way to persuade planning and zoning commissions of this, but also to demand greater collective responsibility from developers, architects, landlords, and shopkeepers.

Monday, September 05, 2005

September dispatches, 5: Elfring days

Rien, Sept. 6--

WE TRIED TO PUT politics and the news behind us and have fun and be sociable for three days, visiting the Dutch sector of our extended family, the Elfrings, who were host to our daughter Thérèse for a year nearly thirty years ago.

We've remained in touch ever since, and grown closer over the years. It's a wonderful family. Saturday and Sunday we were in den Haag, first with Tom and Judith, who spend a few weeks in our house five years ago. (Can it really be that long?)

Sunday we visited Joost and Tanja, who were in our house for a week in July. You don't spend time with Elfrings without bicycling, and Sunday we biked maybe eight or ten kilometers out into the country around den Haag.

Sunday night there was a party, where we met Judith's father, a fascinating man who has published significant books on cerebral neurology -- it was fun to defend Mozart against his champion Bach, and to explore ideas of scientific materialism and the irrational.

We then went up to Friesland to visit Kees and Irma, who have settled in a marvelous 18th-century house there, and who took us on a leisurely cruise through nearby canals.

I've posted a number of photos from the trip so far on Shutterfly: you can see them here


And I hope to have more things to say about all this in forthcoming dispatches.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

September dispatches, 4: some words on Katrina

UP THIS MORNING LATE, to log on to Tom's marvelous high speed connection wirelessly, and read the news, oh boy.

In Le Figaro two or three things quickly catch my eye. An account of Les Américains consternés par la fragilité de leur puissance, America in consternation at the fragility of her power.

Another account, L'administration Bush aurait ignoré les prédictions des experts, discusses the Bush administration's having ignored expert predictions of the New Orleans disaster.

Somewhere, I've already lost track of the URL, there was a fine round-up of the world press response to the crisis.

And in Corriere della Sera an editorial, Il mercato non ci salverà, suggests that optimism won't "correct" the market's disruption following this disaster, and a market recovery won't resolve the real crisis, because it extends far beyond the state of the dollar.

The financial fallout will be bad enough, as L'économie américaine déstabilisée points out. According to this article the grain market, for example, is collapsing, at least for the moment, because the barge traffic between wheat storage in the midwest and freighters in the Gulf of Mexico is interrupted.

And warehouses are affected. Do you drink coffee? According to Le Figaro, a quarter of the stock of coffee in the United States is rotting in a Procter & Gamble warehouse in New Orleans.

But this is only to discuss the economic fallout from Katrina. The real meaning of the disaster goes farther, much farther. I think the Katrina disaster will quickly prove to be much more influential on the course of social and political American history than was even 9/11. For one thing, it will be very hard indeed on the incumbent Administration. The President, poor man, is never terribly expressive of his emotions, and this was clearly not a moment to hide them. He was elected for two reasons: He's a the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with, and he's the kind of guy you want to keep the steady course. What we needed in New Orleans was another kind of man, someone closer to Mister Rogers. No one has ever confused George W. Bush with Mister Rogers.

Second, the American penchant for gambling. We've been betting badly lately. In Iraq we bet on hidden WMDs, on quick military victory, on easy democratization of the Iraquis: we lost each bet in turn. And like so many compulsive gamblers when confronted by a loss we redoubled our investment, throwing good money — not to mention less replaceable capital in the form of friendships and credibility — after bad.

Similarly, we bet the levees wouldn't fail. Preventive maintenance is boring and expensive and frequently its payoff is a long time coming: we're an impatient nation. We bet the levees would hold, and we bet wrong.

Finally, worst of all it seems to me, a very ugly side of the American mentality has been revealed, the side that is callous, even contemptuous, of losers, of victims, of the poor and downtrodden. I know: it's axiomatic that Americans stick up for the little guy. But they stick up for him when he's still got some spunk: nobody loves you when you're down and out.

A few months ago a taxi-driver in Madrid asked me about the American health system. Is it true, he wanted to know, that there are many people without any medical coverage?

When I explained the situation he shook his head sadly. "A nation that doesn't provide for its poor is like a father who refuses to care for his children," he said — a phrase that's stuck in my mind ever since.

The citizens of New Orleans were told they must evacuate. Those with cars drove away. Others got out in rental cars, or other transportation.

But thousands were left for a number of reasons. They didn't have transportation. They didn't have money for transportation. They were too sick or frail or old to leave. They simply didn't understand the gravity of the situation. Or they were simply to skeptical of a government announcement to heed.

The whole world is looking at the faces and the bodies of these people, listening to their outcry. They are almost invariably poor. And like all the poor in our country they are for the most part sick, frail, old, children, and/or illiterate. They get their information from pictures, not the printed word. Their dietary advice comes from advertisements for sodas, potato chips, and fast-food restaurants. Their health advice is little beyond pharmaceutical advertisements.

America has turned her back on a large percentage of her children, and they have grown resentful. New Orleans is perhaps only the beginning of their outrage. It is an outrage that transcends race. It is an outrage that just might have a profound influence on the future of American politics. At least I hope so.

September dispatches 3: Botanicals

Giant lily, Botanical Garden
Originally uploaded by charlesshere.
Amsterdam, Sept. 2 (and very early in the morning it is!)—

A leisurely morning waiting for breakfast, included in the price of this slightly louche hotel but not served until the ridiculous hour of nine a.m. — for reasons that became clear later in the day.

A motley group in the breakfast room — Lindsey and I quite the oldest; one couple looking to be in their forties or fifties but yearning for youth; the others in late twenties or thirties. Nearly all the men in casual cotton trousers and tee shirts, the latter often emblazoned with slogans. Nearly all the women either dressed in the latest slob manner, folds of skin emerging here and there, often pinned or clipped with oddly positioned jewelry; or in a retro flowerchild fashion, long gauzy skirts and translucent tops.

Tattoos more often than not.

Juice, coffee, corn flakes, three cheeses, four sausages, hardboiled egg, three kinds of bread, two kinds of roll.

And then a walk to the Botanical Garden, said to be the oldest in the world (though I find it hard to believe China didn’t plant one before 1680). It was a short walk, over the broad Amstel River, then northwest a few blocks, crossing two or three canals.

We walked round the Garden before entering it — by mistake, of course, not design — and stopped to watch a huge drawbridge lift, stopping cars and bikes and trams and pedestrians, to let a barge go by. This happens several times a day, but it always seems like an event; and I’m sure it contributes to the resigned equanimity of the Dutch.

The Garden is worth much more comment than I’ll give it here. It began as a collection of medicinal plants, carefully studied, propagated, and tended for scientific value. What a near-loss it was to human knowledge when synthetic medication was invented — late in the 19th century, one of the many helpful signboards told us.

There’s still a prominent section devoted to medicinals, and it was arresting to notice a cannabis plant, taller than I am — the first I’ve seen in the out-of-doors, I think, certainly the first of anything like that size.

There’sa prominent half-circle of beds, say half a hundred-foot circle divided into three wedges, each with a number of concentric beds. Here hundreds of plants are set out to demonstrate a new “molecular” classification system the botanists are erecting in place of the familiar old Linnaean system, taking DNA proximity, not the similarity of physical structures, as the basis of organization.

Along one side of the vast gardens there’s a series of beds tracing the evolution — pardon me, revelation— of plant life, from the time of the trilobites — they can’t quite get back to the primordial soup, apparently — through such landmarks as the carboniferous era down to fairly recent divergences into flowering plants, gymnosperms, cots and dicots, and so on.

Any of these could have occupied us an entire day, but we gave it only the morning, ending up with the two enormous greenhouses, each quite tall enough to house the tallest of palms, and big enough to make them seem not tall at all.

There are some old plants here. A fascinating huge-leafed Gunnera was planted in the 1880s and is thriving, and two southern hemisphere trees of some weird kind are three times that old.

There is also a very nice cafe, and there we took our cappuccino and the requisite appeltaart, Dutch Apple Pie to you, sweet and buttery and crunchy and flaky, its complex texture offering apples, raisins, currants, streusel, and flaky pastry, the whole thing a continually developing revelation of vanilla, apple, wheat, grape. What a celebration of botanicals!

Since I’m on a culinary note, let me tell you about dinner at Le Hollandais, around the corner from us along the Amstel. Ten years old, neither horribly expensive nor cheap, with an extremely interesting wine list and a fairly extensive menu —

But we chose the daily special: a salad of mizuma and mache and sauteed cantarels and slices of house-made Toulouse-style sausage; then braised goose with potatoes Dutchess (ah there, humor on the meu) and onions; then chocolate ice cream in a chocolate shell — to which we added a second dessert because it sounded so special: something between a Bavarian cream and a pudding, with almonds and spices, very Dutch, completely new to us.

With all this (well, not with the desserts) glasses of a fine red Pyrenees wine whose name I have here somewhere. Price, 32 Euros each, another twelve for the wine.

Our friend Kees suggested the place, and we found it with no help from our desk clerk, partly because the whole damn hotel lacks a phone book of any kind, partly because she was busy helping another guest find the best hash and weed in town. And then I realized this hotel, and indeed a good many in its economic class, caters to soft-drug tourists, and that indeed that is a significant part of the Amsterdam tourist industry.

Certain parts of town look like the Haight Ashbury of the 1970s, in quite a studied manner. The only difference, really, is that there’s nothing coy or play-hidden about it; it’s all quite open. You smell marijuana smoke often on the street, and I smell it occasionally in the hall outside our room, though it’s never penetrated into the room itself, which is thankfully clean and well ventilated.

Again this evening we watched a little CNN, sad and unbelieving at the events unwinding in New Orleans. I don’t have to tell you how it looks from here. Our friend Tom said the Dutch just don’t understand why the pumps, and the generators powering them, were housed below sea level in manycases.The Dutch learned better than that centuries ago.

Your country doesn’t like to pay taxes, he pointed out, and it’s been obvious for years that the infrastructure isn’t maintained, that people don’t spend money to guard against future disasters. It’s very sad.

But tomorrow we’ll drive with Petra up toward Hoorn and Enkhuizen, which we hardly know, to do a little research toward our walk; and then we’ll spend the night, and Saturday night too, in Voorburg, on the edge of The Hague, among our extended but very close Dutch family. And we will be counting our blessings, and grateful for them!

September dispatches 2: Parliamo italiano

Elms near Leidseplein
Originally uploaded by charlesshere.
Amsterdam, September 1

A long rest and a short wrestle with technology in our little hotel room, and we were ready for a walk and maybe some dinner. I recalled a pleasant
place we'd found last time we were here, een eind, as the Dutch say — an
unspecified but not terribly great distance — down the canal.

(Or would it be up? Somehow the half-ring of five concentric canals in this city seem to go neither up nor down, but sideways,because if you walk along
any of them long enough you'll find you've been led imperceptibly to have reversed your direction...)

That wonderful Amsterdam light! It's been a rainy summer, though yesterday was clear and bright, and the warm still air had brought out dozens of lazy boaters, relaxing in sculls and rowbaots, or lazing about on the decks and flat rooftops of their houseboats.

The surface of this particular canal, the Singelgracht, was dark in the late afternoon, dark green or sometimes almost brown but sparkling with those sudden flashing reflections of the sky in the vivacious wakes of the boats.

Above, the dark greens of the lacy leaves of the elms, whose black rough-textured trunks and surprising green foliage do so much to soften the
urbanity of this city.

And away from the Singel, as we walked narrow streets toward Leidseplein, the light raked in low and luminous against the brick facades, the
sparkling white enamels of woodwork, the impeccable glass windows. People were out sitting on stoops with a bottle of Pinot gris or a pitcher of
lemonade. These neighborhoods always remind me of the best of New York, the friendly blocks in Greenwich Village; perhaps there's still a touch of
Dutch in what was once Nieuw Amsterdam.

We happened on an Italian delicatessen and asked for a restaurant recommendation. Do you speak English, I asked the fellow who was sweeping
the doorway, Not really, he answered. His Dutch was heavily accented, too, so we tried Italian, which relaxed us both considerably.

I've only been in this country six months, he explained, so I haven't really learned Dutch yet.

The Casa del Gusto had good selections of dry
pasta, cans of Italian specialities, a promising case of sausages, hams, and cheeses. The woman behind that case said they'd been open only a month, specializing in small-farm products from Tuscany and Umbria.

They recommended an Italian restaurant, Biscia, in a nearby hotel — one of the best restaurants in Amstedam, they said. It turned out to be Bice: we'd been misled by their soft Tuscan dialect. Bice is a chain of upscale restaurants, with many outlets in Italy and elsewhere — white linen, good
crystal, upscale menu and wine list.

Parliamo italiano, I suggested to the waiter, let's speak Italian, my Dutch is pretty bad, and he happily agreed, and we had salads and pasta and a half bottle of Pinot grigio, the first of which was corked.

I recalled a previous evening in Amsterdam when we were offered two consecutive corked bottles. Maybe it's particularly a problem in this climate: whatever the reason, you want to be on guard. In any case the replacement came quickly and good-naturedly.

Back home we watched the news. Distant disaster always has a surreal component, and yesterday's news was no exception. A thousand pilgrims dead
of their own fear and religious fervor. Another thousand or more, no doubt, drowned in a city insufficiently guarded against a constant threat.

Holland had its own tragedy fifty years ago when a freak North Sea storm breached sea-wall dikes and drowned, as I recall, well over a hundred thousand.
There's much sympathy here for the victims of Katrina, but some concern, I feel, as to whether Americans give sufficient attention to preparedness.

In the meantime we try to justify having a good time. Quando si mangia bene la vita ha un altro sapore, the card from Casa del Gusto advises us: When you eat well life has another savor. We try to keep that in mind.

Today the weather is cooler: perhap we won't need thunderstorms to break yesterday's still heat. We'll loaf our way through the day, maybe with some
familiar Rembrandts, maybe with some familiar pancakes. I'll let you know how it turns out.

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.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Well, of course it’s not that simple...

THE DISCUSSION CONTINUES re. food costs, quality, and quantity.

The issues raised Friday by Julie Powell (see below for web citation) were two: that organic food costs more than many can or want to pay; and that cuisine, both haute and peasant, evolved to make the best of available materials, even when less than ideal.

Let’s concentrate on the first issue, often floated these days in the press. Here too there are two things to consider: the relative cost, to both consumer and society as a whole, of the raw materials of food; and the relative amount we pay these days for our food.

It’s not news that a significantly greater amount of food consumed by today’s typical city-dweller is eaten in restaurants or as “take-out”: this enormously increases the cost of the food consumed. Unfortunately for the clarity of our discussion, much of this cost is hidden, subsidized, or simply ignored -- the direct costs of manufacturing, wrapping, shipping, and preparation; the indirect costs of advertising and marketing; the resultant costs (to society, primarily) relating to medical problems, many of these no doubt yet to be discovered — though the increase in obesity is clearly among them.

The same observations apply to the great increase in the consumption, at home, of food prepared from packaged mixes and the like. Beginning with the end of World War II these “convenience” items have quite changed the daily approach of most citizens of developed societies toward just what constitutes cooking and dining. It has finally resulted, of course, in the rise of a considerable backlash, and the return of cuisine — whether “traditional” or haute — to the household kitchen. But this backlash has yet to reach the mainstream, though its adherents have gained considerable attention — enough, in fact, to precipitate backlashes of their own: witness Powell’s piece in Friday’s New York Times.

Discussion of comparative costs of provender raised sustainably and not, and of conventional and pre-packaged food, generally ignores a larger question more directly important, I think. I have in mind the considerable shift of values represented by the rise of convenience as a factor of daily life. Food used to represent roughly a third of our household budget, shelter another third, everything else bundled into the remainder. This was the case in my parents’s household, and in my own in the 1950s.

In those days a good percentage of households employed one partner at home, preparing food, maintaining shelter and clothing, and supervising the education and well-being of the next generation. The other partner was employed outside the home, winning the money needed to maintain the entire system.

An interesting change in the social system developed in the generations before World War I, when the middle classes gained considerably in numbers. The labor of maintaining the wealthy or upper-class household involved a servant class. This was out of the question for the middle classes, for a number of reasons, and an entire industry evolved to solve the problem. You can follow it in advertisements in old issues of household magazines, not to mention ancient mail-order catalogues: electric lights, toasters, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, mangles all promised to replace expensive and intrusive and, finally, unavailable servants -- and in fact to rescue the middle-class housewife from being a servant herself, her own servant.

After World War II another significant step was taken in this evolution, when Industry promised the housewife she need never again be slave to her kitchen. Frozen food, cake mixes, and ultimately TV dinners were her liberation. At the same time, of course, women in increasing numbers went to work, and in our society the dual-income family has become the norm, necessary because of the increased cost of maintaining this kind of a life.

The costs, both direct and indirect, of this inherently inefficient and (to my way of thinking) over-industrialized urban lifestyle have changed our very perception of something as apparently simple as the cost of food. It's all very well to return to the argument that this discussion is irrelevant to the poor bloke faced with the cost of his radish or his artichoke: clearly the cause and correction of the social shift in food economy is beyond him.

But I think we must consider the injustice of continuing to promise cheap and wholesome life in an increasingly expensive and unwholesome economy, remembering the root meaning of the word “economy”: household management.

All of these problems, in my view, and a good many others (transportation, for instance, and education, and land use...) are interrelated, and have to do with the human animal’s proclivity toward irresponsibility, toward putting cost and labor off on someone else, inferior in social position, or not yet even born, or preferably both. In our present big democratic classless societies the average guy with his supermarket pushcart can’t or won’t think about these things.

It’s that much more important that others of us do, and that we continue this discussion.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The ethics of organic food

A FEW FRIENDS ASK what I think of an op-ed by Julie Powell in yesterday’s New York Times, “Don't Get Fresh With Me!”.

Not much, really. She makes two points in her column, both of them simplistic; straw men set up as subjects for a newspaper entertainment. One has to do with the economies involved: here her memorable line is “When you wed money to decency, you come perilously close to equating penury with immorality”.

But the organic (or, I would prefer, sustainable) food movement does not wed money to decency. It’s a specious argument that organically or sustainably produced food is more expensive than the product of what has presumptiously come to be called “conventional” agriculture, for at least two reasons.

First, much of the cost of modern chemical- and petroleum-dependent agriculture is simply ignored and deferred — not paid at all (yet), or posted to accounts conveniently kept elsewhere. Second, much of what is invented, produced, sold, and eaten as “food” in today’s society is and has been developed as deliberately expensive alternatives to real food. When by far the majority of the potato crop is bred (or gene-manipulated), raised, harvested, and tooled expressly for potato chips and french-fries, it’s essentially meaningless to compare the cost of organic potatoes in the farmer’s market with giant russets or boilers in the supermarket.

Her other point is more interesting, though less arresting: that cooking is not (and is more than) shopping. But this too is set up with specious reasoning and outlandish generalization:

“For the newer generation, a love for traditional fine cuisine is cast as fussy and snobbish, while spending lots of money is, curiously, considered egalitarian and wise”.

“I object to this equation,” she goes on, and well she might, and so do I — both because it is false, and because it is a rhetorical distraction in her column. Good cuisine will always be a matter of finding the best provender you can and doing the most appropriate thing with it, depending on the cultural context you’re operating in.

It’s an art, like any other: it represents the intersection of material, method, and mores. All else is simply entertainment, and often entertainment whose expense, finally, can no longer be justified.

Two more plays

Ashland, Oregon
TWO MORE PLAYS to report on here from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We saw Love’s Labour’s Lost night before last, in the outdoor Elizabethan Theater, not an ideal theater I’ve decided for the performance of Shakespearean comedy, with last year’s As You Like It and the previous year’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in mind: it’s too hard for these aging ears to follow Shakespeare’s delicious lines tumbling about this huge, imposing stagehouse; especially when seated at almost the exact center of the audience, with maximal reverberation from every angle.

Love’s Labour’s Lost was by no means all lost, though. For one thing, it was a visual delight, as every play here this season has been (so far: we have two yet to see, and a third will not open until after we leave). Kenneth Albers, a magnificent Malvolio a couple of nights earlier in Twelfth Night, directed this play, setting it in an unspecified 1920s location while keeping all the original references to Navarre and Brabant and all that; Marjorie Kellogg provided stylish stage furnishings; and Susan Mickey invented costumes so delightful and astonishing they almost upstaged the cast.

Added to this eye feast was the slightly larger than life posturing, prancing, and positioning. Ferdinand and his three lords Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine (Brent Harris, Jeff Cummings, Jose Luis Sanchez, and Christopher DuVal) were beautifully counterpoised by the French princess and her ladies (Catherine Lynn Davis, Tyler Layton, André Ferraz, Sarah Rutan): when Berowne asks Rosaline Did I not dance with you in Brabant once? he precipitates a verbal gavotte of a banter that typifies the entire play.

The production does perhaps go over the top with John Pribyl’s portrayal of the absurd Spaniard Don Adriano de Armado, assisted by the squeaking spritely Julie Oda as Moth; and by their counterpoise, the pedant Holofernes (played here by the hilarious Eileen DeSandre) and the curate Sir Nathaniel (James Edmondson). Armado is all but impossible to understand, but then he’s a Spaniard; Holorernes ditto, but then (s)he’s talking bad pedantic Latin much of the time.

Once again, Shakespeare represents we uncomprehending audients with clowns and dullards on the stage, Costard, Dull, and Jaquenetta (Ray Porter, Jeffrey King, Jaclyn Williams), and they represent us perfectly, following the action occasionally, understanding it infrequently, enjoying it always.

Then there’s the fascinating role of Boyet, the usher to the Princess — a role recalling Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte. Boyet’s a practical skeptic and a nearly neutral onlooker, the Audience as comprehending if you like, and Derrick Lee Weeden, who is always suave, intelligent, and stylish, was the perfect man for the role.

It’s a wonderful play, beautifully conceived, masterfully directed and produced, and often brilliantly acted, and I’d see it again in a minute. Next time, perhaps, with the infrared listening device.

OSF CONTINUES ITS INVESTIGATION of the important mid-20th century Italian playwright Eduardo De Filippo with his Napoli Milionaria!, a drama with comedy and poignancy set in Naples during World War II. In the first act, in 1942, an extended family gets by on dealings in the black market, in spite of the father's disapproval. After the intermission it is 1944; Naples has been liberated; the father has escaped from a German labor camp to find his wife apparently rich, their squalid apartment made magnificent.

This is a complex play easily approached. A big cast, a detailed set, authentic-looking props, costumes, and gestures propel a vehicle that quickly steers among madness, disease, high comedy, ordinary poignancy, and moral imperatives. Richard Elmore was memorable as the father Gennaro; Linda Alper (a co-translator of the play) as his wife Amalia; the rest of the cast just as solid, idiomatic, pointed, often moving in their keenly balanced roles.

We saw De Filippo’s hilarious Saturday, Sunday, Monday here three years ago (can it be that long?), and Napoli Milionaria! offered an enticing further glimpse of his wit and sympathy, so specific to his beloved Naples but so transferable to our own time and place. We need these plays; I’m grateful to OSF for producing them, and I hope they catch on elsewhere.

Friday, July 22, 2005


A LITTLE PROBLEM WITH THE EYE puts me in mind of mortality. (Excuse the exaggeration: I’ve been seeing Shakespeare plays.) And then I find, in the to-do pile, this poem, written a few years ago for Carl Rakosi:

SO, Carl, a friend,
another Charles, writes of your impending
birthday — a centennial!
                                        And I’ve dreamed
this morning of Symphony and Book,
thinking there must be something that relates them,
distinguishes them from casual collections,
leverages, as investors use the word,
their Meaning into greater Meaningfulness.

Well, life’s like that.
The life well lived, in interesting times —
no Chinese curse!
                                         Observing, mulling it over,
coming to no conclusions, just collecting.
You do one thing, and then you do another,
The words and lines pile up. Or else they don’t.
With any luck we’ll get it figured out,
or some of it, in time. Or else we won’t.

You say it well:
the larger, perhaps different meaning
these poems have (newly strewn), is to be found,
when it is there,
                                         in the arrangement.
“What will not be found is the coherence
of a composition.”
                                         We aren’t composed.
Like books and symphonies we take our shape
as other eyes and ears encounter us.
Meaning is basic.

I’ve learned from you.
Intention is my biggest enemy,
As you know well!
                                         And with him comes
Intention’s lapdog. Slam the doors on both!
That’s what I think I’ve heard you telling me;
Our Book evolves with us, thinking, feeling,
discarding when it must, or falling silent,
And none of us can tell where it will end.

                                                                                July 7 2003

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Hell you say!

Ashland, Oregon
EIGHT OF US STAY in this house for a week, seeing plays. We don’t always see eye to eye, and yesterday was one of those days. We saw two plays: a very new one called Gibraltar in the afternoon, a very old one — well, maybe not all that new — in the evening.

Thing is, many of the objections to the new play could have been lodged against the old one. Narrator kept getting between play and audience. Events seemed contrived. Characters spoke in language not entirely convincing. Playwright seemed concerned with abstractions, not real issues.

And of course it’s not entirely fair to blame Octavio Solis, born in El Paso say forty years ago, for not writing like Christopher Marlowe, born in London say four hundred years earlier. Languages, cultures, milieux, the states of their art — all are immeasurably different. Yet the similarities of their plays invite, nearly demand the comparison.

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is of course a cultural icon, precisely because its story centers on a character who stands as a metaphor for a central issue as alive today as it was in the first Elizabeth’s reign — the arrogance of the individual intelligence demanding to pursue knowledge however far it takes him from the ethical, even moral issue of human existence as it grows organically out of its natural context.

The issue is perhaps more meaningful, more dire today than even in Marlowe’s day, when Europe was poised to “discover,” subdue, and exploit a full half of Earth, made available only a lifetime earlier through unimaginable developments in human knowledge and technology.

Marlowe’s genius lay in his lucky opportunity to bring the new flourish of the modern English language — and the metropolitan conventions and resources of London’s theater — to this utterly new situation, at the same time close enough to the religious wars of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation — and the final flowering of medieval alchemy — to weave elements of those immense issues into his narrative.

Solis’s problem lies in the near-impossibility of bring the very similar ingredients of his own heritage — born in El Paso, witness to the culture clashes of Latino and mainstream white American “values,” not to mention the essential triviality of social-status and -class signifiers — to life in a play contrived, essentially, I think, in order to develop a concept: namely, that a significant evening of theater — one with relevance to similarly big cultural issues in a society undergoing similarly critical change and collisions — can be generated out of an ongoing interaction between playwright and actors, with the facilitation of what is arguably the most important repertory theater company in the country.

WE SAW GIBRALTAR in the small “New Theater,” which seats only a couple of hundred people in a very flexible house set, this time, in a very deep three-sided thrust configuration. The set was striking: a loft apartment in San Francisco, with only a double mattress and a couple of chairs to furnish it; at the back a huge window looking across the dark night San Francisco Bay toward the lights of the East Bay hills. On the floor, curving lines making a grid connecting with the mullions of that huge window, which opened like a garage door from time to time to facilitate the intrusion of the next scene.

For Gibraltar is an episodic play, held together by a framing story for two actors: a Latino man following his runaway bride up the sandy coast from Mexico; a Chicana woman mourns the apparently meaningless suicide of her husband. The central issue is rebellion against these meaningless deaths and departures: what might we have done to prevent them.

The narrative is fleshed out by three skits, I would call them, or one-act narratives, a drama prof might say: an aging sculptor and her handsome model (the son of a man she’d not had nerve to commit to years before); a normal-guy cop and his wife-turned-Lesbian; a wildlife journalist caring for a wife with Alzheimer’s irresistibly tempted by the artist he hires to help her through art therapy.

The result is a disappointment, another exercise in What-If. The play could conceivably be saved, be developed into an integrated, fully achieved study in parallel lives, something like that recent movie/book that brought Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway into early-21st-century American life, for those unable to accept and enjoy it on its own terms.

But it is terminally frustrated by two flaws. First, instead of showing us a theatrical series of events, it continually gives us someone telling us about them, then only apparently grudgingly illustrating the story with two-dimensional characters.

Second, and more fatally perhaps, the language is banal, overblown, and off-kilter. No one talks as anyone would. A friend said the whole thing sounded translated from the Romanian.

Worst of all, another friend said it was a play that hadn’t needed to be written.

BUT THEN, YESTERDAY EVENING, we took our seats in the Elizabethan Theater for The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. I admit that given the heat, the lack of sleep, the quantity of food and drink, I dozed off from time to time in the first act — in spite of the brilliant acting, the costumes, the poetry. In Act II, though, there was little chance for sleep. Try as I might I was distracted by the gathering weight of Marlowe’s theater, of James Edmondson’s directing, of Richard Hay’s scenic design, of Robert Peterson’s lighting, of Marie Chiment’s costumes — most of all, of the amazing power, pace, subtlety, and persuasion of Jonathan Haugen’s acting in the title role.

Some friends complained of repetitiousness. I don’t buy that. Marlowe’s pace is not that of the American 21st century, any more than is Bruckner’s. The nearest contemporary American equivalents I can think of, off the top of my head, to Marlowe’s theatrical genius, are Robert Wilson and, before him, Gertrude Stein. There was a moment toward the end of the play when all Hell was breaking loose on stage — quite literally — and Ray Porter, as Mephistophilis, was sitting motionless downstage right, in profile, the left side of his face picked out by a subtle spotlight. You could see one play beyond him, another epitomized by, centered on, that amazing meaningless fascinating inexpressive face.

All my own ego was drawn out of my body; I was beyond sympathy and terror. Marlowe was simply saying WHAT IT IS. When mankind reaches too far beyond his own position within the natural order of things, when he goes beyond what he knows organically and intuitively as you might say, when he dares to reach for things he can only know through artificial technology and the paranatural knowledge those tools reveal to him, he's in deep trouble. Marlowe wrote this, and the entire Oregon Shakespeare Festival had understood it, and relayed it on to us.

I wouldn’t mind seeing this a second time.