Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Fernet Branca

photo: Rome, January 2004

AH, FERNET BRANCA. The first time we traveled in Europe, in 1974, we traveled with another couple, who we met in Chiomonte, whence we went on by train to Torino, where we rented a tiny car.

We drove to Milan, where we had a long long lunch—I must write about that one day—and then George (who drove very quickly) drove us all up to Bellagio, where we planned to stay a day or two. As the road climbed I began to suffer from that long long lunch. I rolled from one side of the back seat to the other as he careened around curves on the climb toward Como.

I was beginning to feel sick. Finally I insisted that he stop in the next village, at the next cafe. I staggered into the bar and bought a bottle of Fernet Branca. Back in the car, I took a swallow or two and felt better immediately.

When we got to Bellagio I was ready for dinner.

Since then I have never traveled without a small flask. Years ago Eric even made a wallet card for me, which I still carry always. It has a drawing of a pig on it, and nicely lettered across the drawing the legend
nel caso d'emergenzia,
Prego di Somministrare

There's a good article on Fernet Branca on Wikipedia, with a surprising revelation about San Francisco. I can vouch for the fact that the American and Italian versions of Fernet Branca are different, and I much prefer the Italian version. (Fernet is much cheaper in Italy, by the way; I used often to buy a bottle there at the duty-free shop when coming home, but current restrictions have made this impossible.)

The combination of Fernet Branca and a very popular American cola beverage sounds unpleasant to me. On the other hand, a Fernetini—three parts gin, one part Fernet Branca, lemon-peel garnish—can be a pleasant thing on certain occasions.

And a shot-glass of Fernet Branca can make a good nightcap. I think I'll have one right now.
But first I opened W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, and there near the very beginning was a description of an old man in the Antwerp train station drinking Fernet...

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Anxiety of Influence; the reward of contentment

YES, IT'S ONE of the couple hundred books in the case of Books Waiting To Be Read: Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence. Lou Harrison gave me a copy, years ago, one day when I was visiting him, back when I was thinking of writing a life-and-works book about him.

(Count the abandoned projects.)

I haven't read it, partly because the project was abandoned, mostly because I've developed a distaste for Mr. Bloom, a distaste caused by my lack of enthusiasm for John Milton, and by my disagreement with much of what Bloom has to say about Shakespeare. Both of these are poor reasons, and much countervailed by Lou's enthusiasm; I'll have to move the book closer to the top.

It comes to mind today because of today's post on Ron Silliman's blog. He takes up the familiar device of the Top-Ten List. This surfaced a few weeks back on another blog I find interesting, George (it is George, isn't it?) Hunka's Superfluities, where the question was put: what is the most influential play of the last hundred years? (Most of the response seemed to hesitate between Waiting for Godot and The Cherry Orchard.)

Taken as prescriptive, these projects are never much more than Fool's Errands. Taken as descriptive, though, they can be very interesting. Curtis Faville objects, in a comment on Ron's blog, that one's own list of one's own influences can't be trusted; that "The great danger of autobiography is in re-writing your own history to suit your current preferred version of yourself." Well, no written sentence is good for much more than what it makes you add to it; autobiography, like biography, or history, or even recipe-books, is always "suspect," if you have a suspicious turn of mind.

All that said, since I'm back in an autobiographical state of mind, here are the influences that come to mind—influences on my own mind-formation, I mean. If you're not interested in my mind, that's okay, I can understand that, but it may be interesting to see what one person found stimulating in the middle of the last century:
  • jazz
  • Stein
  • Finnegans Wake
  • Four Saints in Three Acts (the opera)
  • Picasso
  • Ives
  • Mahler

  • Cage
  • Webern
  • Duchamp
  • Wallace Stevens
  • Henry James
  • Mozart

  • cuisine
  • Ponge
  • (Raymond) Roussel
  • By the 1980s, having nudged well past forty, most of the raw influences—I mean those that one discovers in their informative power for the first time—are in place; they continue to work their mischief but subliminally, and few new enthusiasms come along.

    Until 1983, that magic year, when we found this place in the country, and began to build Last House (to borrow M.F.K. Fisher's marvelous name), and finally set aside most ambitions, and began to settle into this Eastside View. Travel and the fitful correspondence with friends provide the new stimuli; re-reading, theater, and contemplation provide context.

    Perhaps one's own life, like one's own time, moves into its own postmodernity. One danger continues: the threat of complacency.

    Sunday, July 22, 2007

    Dry Time

    THEY SAY OURS IS a "Mediterranean climate," meaning wet winter, dry summer. We had just under a tenth of an inch of rain on Tuesday, very unusual here; enough to sell a little sulfur to the grape growers no doubt, but hardly enough to do much for our poor ornamentals. The Italian cypresses look fine, except for the ragged edges the damn blackbirds and starlings make with their busy commutes; and Lindsey's garden is flourishing, thanks to her frugal driplines.

    I'm worried about our pine trees, though. Look at the one in the center of the picture, just beyond my workshop: it's dry and nearly transparent. It's an Italian stone pine; we planted it and three others not in the photo, partly for their wonderful sculpture, partly for their tasty pine nuts. This tree is clearly failing, and I don't know why. I notice another, four or five miles away at the entrance to Rodney Strong Vineyards, is beginning to show the same distress; and I'm not too happy about the appearance of the three pines we planted on the fenceline out of sight to the left of this photo.

    The dry weather is normal, and the heat is not really abnormal. It hit close to 100 degrees a few weeks ago, and the low to mid nineties last week; but as they say it's a dry heat and not really enervating. We open all the windows at night and close them first thing in the morning; our concrete floor keeps the house cool; we don't need air conditioning.

    Up at the top of the photo, beyond our fenceline, south of our house, that's the neighbor's vineyard. We don't see it from our house; this photo was taken from above, near the fenceline on the other side of our place. From our house we see almost nothing but our own place, and that's how we like it. But Gary's vineyard is only 150 feet from our front door, and what a difference! It's irrigated, of course, green and lush, unlike the sere hillside we call home.

    In fact we're surrounded on three sides by these vineyards. This has its advantage: they make a fine firebreak. I used to worry about fires blowing in from the north or east; no longer. But the vineyards bring prosperity, meaning inflated land-values; and the people who own and run these properties are constrained to keep the profits coming in. Rosenblum, our north neighbor, recently subdivided his acreage; a big winery-tasting facility is going up just the other side of our north fence.

    I've met the man who owns this winery, and he seems like a nice guy—quiet-spoken, aware of ecological considerations, modest rather than over-ambitious in his plans. But look at the size of this place, and think of the money involved! His backers are going to want to see returns, and however modest his current plans may be there's always the threat that continuing demand for investment return will lead to bigger and more profitable production.

    I mentioned Michael Kincaid the other day. Another of his aphorisms:
    Agriculture enabled overpopulation; Industrialism made it profitable.
    and my old friend John Whiting sums up the result of this "progress" in the working title (I hope he keeps it) of a paper he's polishing for this fall's Oxford Symposium: Eating the Earth.

    We do indeed eat the earth, and we must eat it slowly and respectfully enough to allow it to recuperate. We are not the first farmers: Earth is. Earth tends her gardens and her livestock, responding like any farmer to the changing influences of rains and droughts, gullies and deposits. Her time-scale is not ours, it goes without saying. Much of the time her scale is immense, with cause and effect separated by unimaginable (or at least unexperienceable) spans of time.

    On other occasions, though, her time-scale is impressively immediate. We had a noticeable earthquake on the Hayward Fault last week; things were broken in Berkeley. A day later there was a smaller quake up this way, near the Geysers, where clusters of small quakes have become commonplace since the city of Santa Rosa began pouring its treated wastewater down nature's steam vents.

    I try to keep the cosmic perspective in mind; it eases apprehension. Given enough time, Nature will prevail. There is no right configuration of ice caps, deserts, temperate and torrid zones; only our own desires can qualify one fleeting configuration as "better" than another.

    On the other hand... I'm concerned about that pine.

    Friday, July 20, 2007

    Cenozoic Time; objective poetics

    I WROTE ABOUT Michael Kincaid's little book Solar Margins here a few months ago, and the other day a letter arrived from him, with a short poem and some additional — well, what are they, anyway? Aphorisms? Fragments?

    An example:
    The Ideal has limited rights of pronouncement. There are places its logic cannot go unless it agrees to be a student. (The Ideal is not known for such humility.)
    I set this here without Kincaid's permission, and I hope I don't abuse his confidence in a correspondent he's never seen.

    The poem he sent, three short couplets called "Down the Cañada," will not appear here; I don't think I should go quite that far. I will quote one line, the third:
    Rock mirrors mind.
    You can see how it would have made me recall Carl Rakosi's "Cenozoic Time," which appears here as I annotated it into a "song."

    (It was sung by soprano Hiroko Yoshinaga, with violinist Akiko Kojima, violin, on March 13, 2004, in Carl's living room.
    listen to it

    I don't know anything about poetry. That seems astonishing, given a bachelor's degree in English literature: but there it is. I don't know anything about it, and I very much resist learning anything about it in any formal sense. I've always felt you learn most by some kind of osmotic exposure (you can follow the dismal examples in my memoir, whose sales could certainly be better), and it seems to me the best way to learn anything about poetry is to read it.

    (I'd focus on Wallace Stevens.)

    Carl, who I knew slightly toward the end of his long life, was classified an "Objectivist" by those who know about this sort of thing. William Carlos Williams was apparently the model; Wikipedia will fill you in on the details. It's a sensibility that pleases me: forty years ago when I discovered Francis Ponge, through the Goliard edition of a translation of his Le savon, it was his phenomenology that excited me.

    "Cenozoic Time" seems to me about as objective as you can get, but "Down the Cañada" puts that into some question by, as it were, responding to it from a greater measure of detachment. Well, there's a lot to think about here, but it's time to go out to dinner.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007

    Mortal fallacies

    TWO INTERESTING CONVERSATIONS are going on within my user group (NCMUG, the North Coast Macintosh Users' Group). One concerns archival inks for inkjet printers. The other laments the possible demise of internet radio due to increased fees requested by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), which wants to raise significantly the royalties levied on the broadcast of copyright material.

    The latter discussion connects to another, about the fees demanded by licensing groups like BMI and ASCAP (Broadcast Music Incorporated; American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) of commercial entities (restaurants, cafés) that present performances or recordings of licensed music in a for-profit context.

    All three discussions seem to speak to a common delusion: that the preoccupations of any given Present merit Perpetuity. The worrier about archival ink is an artist, apparently concerned that her work outlast her own life. How many artists, I wonder, are producing graphic work using computers and printers these days? Thousands, I'm sure. Millions of prints, accumulating decade by decade, stacking up alongside all those CDs, DVDs, silver-nitrate negatives, Polaroid prints, shellac and vinyl discs, 35mm transparencies.

    Years ago we stood in front of the Maison Carré in Nîmes, marveling not so much at the classic grandeur of the building itself as at its location, nearly a meter below the present-day grade level. I don't think its own weight sank it into the earth: more likely the accumulating detritus of the centuries has raised the city around it. You see this everywhere you study ancient buildings in the Mediterranean countries.

    Then there's the concern about copyright, royalties, performance fees and the like. Virgil Thomson had it right: it's the contemporary stuff that should be free of such economic encumbrance, and the more-generally-desired Standard Repertory that should be taxed. If theater companies had to pay royalties to perform Shakespeare, if opera companies had to pay them to produce Verdi, if publishers (and, by extension, libraries, should they continue to exist) had to pay to reprint Austen and Dickens and such); and if fees thereby collected were distributed among living writers and composers, whose own work would be distributed free of royalty...

    Why then a current paradox would be resolved: the Past and its glories would be recompensed, the Present and its provisionalities would be supported and published.
    On this day, July 12, in 1911, my father was born. His life was difficult, his gifts unresolved and neglected. May he rest in peace.

    Saturday, July 07, 2007

    “That’s one...”

    NOTHING MORE INTERESTING than the intersection of ethical quandary with practical quandary. Case in point:

    Eating in a restaurant (whose name I will not here divulge) the other night with another couple we find our enjoyment of an excellent wine list and mostly quite good food utterly set to naught by unprofessional service. It all began with our first wine: an unfamiliar white wine from Monferrato (for this Italian restaurant boasts a number of Piemontese wines and dishes).

    The waiter brought it, did not really display the label, pulled the cork, poured a small amount into a glass, and offered it to our friend—a man who worked a few years for a well-known wine importer, then waited tables very professionally for many years at one of my favorite restaurants.

    Half-jokingly I suggested Lindsey test the wine, as she’s excellent at detecting corked wines. On lifting it to her nose a troubled expression clouded her face, one I’ve seen before. Corked, she said; David, I think you should check this. He lifted the glass to his nose: Corked, he said, No doubt about it. Here, Charles, see what you think.

    Why should I try it, I asked; you’ve both already settled it; if you think it’s corked, why wouldn’t I? Still, I held it to my nose. Corked, corked, and corked, no question about it.

    The waiter was worried. Are you saying you don’t want this wine, he asked. Yes, David said, we don’t want this wine; it’s corked.

    Do you want some other wine, the waiter asked.

    Yes, David said, bring another bottle, but of this same wine.

    I don’t think I want to do that, the waiter said; You don’t like this wine. But he went disconsolately, carrying the corked wine with him.

    After a considerable wait he reappeared with another bottle, displayed its label quickly, and began to uncork it.

    Wait a moment, David said, May I see this wine, please? The waiter handed it to him and David held it out in front of him, carefully reading the entire front label, then methodically turning the bottle round to read the entire back label. Very interesting, he said, Thank you; but this is not the wine we ordered; we want another bottle of the wine we first ordered.

    I know you do, the waiter said, But I don’t want to bring it; you won’t like it. I tasted that first bottle, it wasn’t corked, you simply don’t like that wine.

    David was quite marvelous. I think I’d like to speak to your sommelier, he said slowly and pleasantly; do you have someone here who’s in charge of the wines? The poor waiter trudged away with this new bottle. In time he reappeared, not with a sommelier, but with a second bottle of the wine we’d ordered in the first place. It was fine: not corked at all.

    From here on, though, everything related to service went wrong. The first courses took forever to arrive, and when they did arrive one was a wrong dish. The second courses were mispronouncedf—“tajarin,” for example, was pronounced as if it were a Spanish word, not Piemontese—and took even longer, absurdly long. The desserts were served well enough, but for the first time the dishes themselves were not very good.

    What was meant to be a rather special evening, our first dinner out with a couple we’ve known and liked for years, was spoiled.

    BUT WHERE, you ask, is the ethical/practical problem here? Well, what should I do about this? I feel of course I should address this complaint to the restaurant’s management. Do I do this without specifying date or table, lest the poor service was unusual and should be overlooked? I remember a dinner in Italy, years ago, when our service was even worse than this, and a friend roundly berated the waitress, reducing her to tears; and we found out a week later that the poor woman had just lost a child to some lingering illness.

    I’m associated with a restaurant myself, a well-known one: do I complain anonymously, lest the management think I’m simply spiteful? If I reveal myself, will he think I’m concerned about the profession—which I am—or will he think I’m spiteful, or simply looking for some kind of compensation?

    How to deal with complaints? I think of the old story about the farmer bringing home a bride on a warm romantic evening. His horse stumbles: That’s one, the farmer says. A couple of silent miles later the horse stumbles again: That’s two, warns the farmer.

    The third time the horse stumbles the farmer climbs down from the buggy, gets a rifle out of the trunk behind, steps in front of the buggy and shoots the poor beast.

    Zeke, the bride screams, What have you done? He looks at her as he puts the rifle back. That’s one, he says.