Sunday, June 25, 2017

New book from Rome: Where to Dig, and How Far Down

Portland, June 25, 2017—
PUBLISHED, HERE AT peripatetic Ear Press: Where to Dig, and How Far Down, an 80-page paperbound book containing the writing posted here last April while I was in Rome.

Well, the title. You have to give a book a title, and something like Rome, April 2017 seems pretty lame. (Although it would probably get more clicks: Rome is a popular subject. I followed my usual process when titles don't come readily to mind: open the proof copy half-way and look for a random phrase. No luck. All right, open another half way to the end. Still no luck.

Hmmm. Zeno warns against proceeding further toward the end of the book; let's go halfway back to the last halfway point. Ah, there it is:

Poor Italy! Preserving, interpreting, ignoring these ruins, these and many others — Italic, Etruscan, Greek, Roman, even medieval — must be a constant headache. The archaeologists have to decide where to dig, and how far down. The government, I suppose, has to decide when to protect, when to recognize the futility of any thought of perfect control. And of course these historical records are an important tourist attraction; Christian or not, one goes to Rome to savor and contemplate all this history.
I've been working on another writing project, whose results may or may not appear here. It's a study of the ruins of my life — something of intermittent interest to me, but probably to few others. The first question, then, is how to make it interesting: but short of that process there's the mining, the digging down through such ruins as journals, clippings, pocket calendars, photographs.

And, always, memory. I relied on virtually nothing but memory in my first venture in memoir, Getting There, published ten years ago: two hundred pages covering my first thirty years. That book, I thought, might have some value as a cautionary, and I gave copies to various grandchildren as they left high school: Don't commit to a career too soon, be ready to profit from luck, embrace the liberal arts, that sort of thing.

This next venture, though, has to be written differently. For one thing there's a lot of public record: my own career, which took me into journalism of sorts, was not only public but also documented through clippings and the like. Better check those memories out in case you have entirely the wrong date — or, worse, the wrong source, or the wrong guy!

But it's always a question of where to dig, and how far down. It's easy to get distracted. There's also the danger that the act of digging will destroy the stuff you're digging through — in this case, wrecking a story by getting it straight.

In any case, this Rome book turned out, I think, to be a series of meditations — on history and the present, Christianity and not, faith and belief, thinking and walking. That delicious conversation between inner contemplation and outer observation so facilitated by travel, especially this kind, anchored to an unfamiliar residence for a month, but within a setting familiar from previous visits over the years, rich with its own history Thucydides knows, but made richer by conversations with a granddaughter who lives there, and shared with other members of the family.

Anyhow, I'm rambling. Where to Dig, and How Far Down. Healdsburg: Ear Press (self-published through my favored online publisher Lulu), 2017. 80 pages, paper, b&w photos. $7.95 plus postage. Click on title to order.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Más poesía

Portland, Oregon, June 22, 2017—
A FRIEND WROTE of this photo, which I don't particularly like, that it made me look like a Latin-American revolutionary poet, so here's the beginning of a new career:


se necesita tiempo morir
el corazón se detiene,
el cerebro jadea por el oxígeno
   o no

los tejidos blandos se disuelven
   o se comen

dientes y huesos duran
quizás muchos años

líneas de ferrocarril oxidadas, rotas
viaductos de hormigón

el bosque crece lentamente
sobre los restos

las lunas sin número puntúan la vida
pequeñas lesiones
que se extienden a través de los huesos

que emigran a través de las catástrofes

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


Eastside Road, June 10, 2017—
which fell in fact on the seventh

Great day!

Though the days grow short: busy suns
      rise, set
as the hours used to do, and now
      years gone,

most of them with you, and better
      for that.
(Of course I can only hope you

Never more beautiful or more
whether patient or not, gentle
      friend and
sharp critic sharing this long life
      of ours.

Let the whole world know how much I
      love you.

Friday, June 09, 2017


Eastside Road, June 9, 2017—
Thomas McNamee:
The Inner Life of Cats
New York: Hachette, 2017
pp. 278     read 6/5/17

Carl Van Vechten:
The Tiger in the House
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924
pp. 367     read 6/9/17

ANOTHER BOOK by another friend, and read with pleasure. McNamee's writing is always well researched and informative in detail, and this latest title is, I think, even more gracefully written than previous books. And the subject-matter is close to my heart: not the wolves and grizzly bears of his previous books on animals, but Felis silvestris catus, the house-cat.

There are probably almost as many books about cats as there are about Abraham Lincoln, of course, and I haven't read that many of them. Some purport to be owner's manuals. Some are technical, and McNamee cites more than one of these. Some are basically literary, like my favorite, The Tiger in the House, about which more later.


Unfortunately there are a lot of mediocre cat books out there. The best way to know a good one is to see how well it recognizes the essentially wild nature of the beast… There have been, recently, some books that purport to be grounded in science but make no attempt to understand the subjective experience of cats. Without that, you will never have the slightest sense of who your cat really is.
The Inner Life of Cats is, then, by its own standards, a good cat book. I suppose it's of more practical value to a cat owner (or prospective owner) than to one who is, like me, catless; but having shared my house and home with cats — "ownership" has always seemed a problematic word and concept, to me, when applied to pets in general, cats in particular — I read this book with great interest and increasing gratitude.

McNamee's story begins when he finds an abandoned kitten in the Montana snow, adopts it, and learns to share his life with her. He alternates between Augusta's biography as it intersects with his, on the one hand, and, on the other, considerations of more general catness. He writes about whether cats think or talk (they do); whether they're wild or domesticated (wild); how they grow from kittenhood into being a cat.

He writes about how a cat can attain a good life even shared with humans, even living indoors — neither of which, I think, is truly instinctive to the cat. He writes about the cat's maturity and health, its various disorders, aging, and death.

And in a final chapter he writes, this chronicler of animals-as-they-are, about Love, which is after all the highest and perhaps the instinctive reason we humans live with cats. McNamee could have got into trouble here, I think. I've read a few reviews of The Inner Life of Cats on the Internet site Goodreads — I really must write about this site one day, it and Librarything — and more than one take him to task for bringing up the unpleasant fact of the death of cats: ours is an evasive culture, often, preferring to pretend such unpleasantness is the exclusive domain of foreigners.

(But I will never forget the death of our own first cat, the superb Loplop, who died probably of feline leukemia (oddly, an unpleasantness McNamee touches too little for other reviewers), only ten years old or so. Loplop died at home, in his favorite sleeping place, patiently, and taught me much about stoicism, a useful lesson, as it's turned out.)

McNamee's delicacy of writing runs through his entire book, and his discretion is evident from his dedication: not to Augusta, the marvelous black stray whose life and death inspire The Inner Life of Cats, but to Isabel the living cat who succeeded her in the McNamee household. Cats remind us to celebrate those gone but to attend to those who are with us.

I was particularly interested in the chapter on feral cats, which describes in some detail the recent history of the cats of the Largo Argentina in Rome. In doing so it describes also some differences I've noted between Italians and Americans:

American wildlife scientists tend toward attire somewhere between safari and thrift shop, and usually need better haircuts. Eugenia Natoli [a biologist who has organized the mostly volunteer attention to the Argentina colony] dresses with elegant flair, tailored jackets, slim skirts, silk scarves, fine jewelry, high heels, just-so coiffure. Luigi Boitani, one of the world's most renowned wildlife scientists, is given to silky tweed, chic dark shirts, cashmere sweaters over the shoulder…
The entire Largo Argentina story cleared up a mystery for me: why there used to be so many cats there, and why now there are so comparatively few. And the work of these volunteer gattari, who see to the nutrition and medical attention these cats need (including, of course, sterilization), the way the operation is funded and insinuated into the municipal government, can be taken as a model for less enlightened communities, depending as much on intelligence and research as it does on enthusiasm.

McNamee writes about the dangers our cats face. One was quite familiar to me: the over-eager neighbor who feeds your cat junk. Another danger to cats when they're out of doors (which of course is where they really want to be): predators. Coyotes are increasingly common in American cities. Here on Eastside Road, there are also bobcats. Overhead their are hawks and owls. Our neighbors have lost cats to such dangers, and of course to the road in front of their house.

I think of our Sally, another Berkeley cat of ours, who our daughter-in-law's cat the aptly named Tarantula was jealous of, and used to chase into the street, particularly if traffic was present. Sally finally took the hint and went away altogether. McNamee offers helpful guidance for such a situation, but that was in the days before microchips…

McNamee proposes a fine way for society to take care of lost cats and feral population:

Let the states pass laws mandating the licensing of all cats, using implanted microchips. The licensing fee must be very small — perhaps free if you can't afford it. Every person who takes a cat to be neutered gets a cash payment of one hundred dollars (and a license if the cat doesn't have one). … The money comes from private groups and government grants. It will not be long before governments realize they are spending less on that program than they previously spent rounding up and sheltering stray cats.
It's a fine balance of logic, pragmatics, and sympathy, this book; thankfully there's a decent index and bibliography, and I'm grateful to McNamee for the care and research he brought to writing it. I'm grateful, too, that it sent me on to another book.
Carl Van Vechten is one of my 20th-century heroes, for his wit, his intelligence, his enthusiasm, and his creative productivity. He had three careers: ten or twelve years as a music critic in New York; another ten or twelve as a smart-alec but sympathetic novelist; finally a photographer of some note. Among his many books I decided to pick up The Tiger in the House, at first simply to investigate its overlap with The Inner Life of Cats, then very quickly to re-read the entire thing, as it had been a long time since I first read it.

There is some overlap for sure, particularly I think as the subject turns to the language of cats, and their mystery, and their consequent significance as they share our own lives. But McNamee is a contemporary and, in the best sense, a journalist; he writes for today's readership and draws on today's knowledge. Van Vechten's book is a century old and belongs, I suppose, to another time.

But I think it's a time I prefer. Van Vechten is immensely erudite and has studied not only the cat — first-hand, of course, as well as through more distant examples — but also the literature of the cat. The bibliography in my edition of The Tiger in the House (third printing, 1936) runs to forty-eight pages. The many quotations and references are translated into English except those originally in French, which he mainly lets stand in that precise yet evocative language.

Like McNamee, Van Vechten introduces us to his "own" cat, Feathers, but not through a parallel structure for his book — more as a fondly observed reference point to the many other specific cats he introduces, real and occasionally fictional. He does touch on the science of felines as it was in his time, but he's skeptical:

It has long been a favourite contention of mine that nothing is more ephemeral than science; no books are sooner ready for the garret or the waste-basket than serious books. When a serious book has an artistic value, such as a book by Nietzsche, for instance, the case is altered, but the ordinary professor's or scientist's profound discoveries are absolutely worthless in a few years. They serve, indeed, only to indicate the quaint fluctuations, the ebb and flow, of human thought. The first to admit this is the scientist himself, who tells you that you must work only along the lines of the "latest discoveries."
One of the useful lessons Cat teaches is that we should attach as much importance to universal and timeless truths as to immediate and local ones. I think this is one of the subjects latent in the perennial question of Dog or Cat. I myself find ease in simple-minded dialectics, finding for Fitzgerald, not Hemingway; Vermeer, not Rembrandt; France, not England; Ravel, not Debussy; and so on: and in each of those cases I think the cat is associated with the first subject, the dog with the second. England for example is a doggy nation; France, certainly Paris, is feline, no matter how many fashionable little lapdogs are carried about the boulevards in little reticules. Van Vechten:
One is permitted to assume an attitude of placid indifference in the matter of elephants, cockatoos, H. G. Wells, Sweden, roast beef, Puccini, and even Mormonism, but in the matter of cats it seems necessary to take a firm stand. The cat himself insists upon this; he invariably inspires strong feelings.
This question of Dog or Cat can bring up amusing history. Van Vechten tells us about a minor midwest writer, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who
wrote a song called, " Mother, Bring my Little Kitten." "It was supposed," Mrs. Wilcox explains in her priceless book, The Worlds and I, "to be a dying child asking for her pet, which she feared she might not meet in heaven. It was mere sentimental stuff, of no value, of course. But the 'Funny Man' on the Waukesha Democrat (I think that was the paper) poked much fun at me, and said I ought to follow my song with another, 'Daddy, do not drown the puppies.'" Mrs. Wilcox took the suggestion as a cat laps milk and published the new poem in one of the Wisconsin papers. The refrain ran as follows:
Save, oh, save one puppy, daddy,
   From a fate so dark and grim —
Save the very smallest puppy —
   Make an editor of him.
I think most writers will enjoy that quatrain.

A recurring image in both the books I'm discussing here is the cat who sits at the dining table. Our black cat Joe did that, in our kitchen in Berkeley. Lindsey sat on her chair at one side of the table, I on mine at the other; and Joe sat patiently on a stool between us, on the third side of the table, which stood against the kitchen wall. Now and then — rarely — he put a tentative paw on the edge of the table, in which case I had only to tap it gently and say "foot-fault" and he'd withdraw it.

Joe was an outdoor-indoor cat, and lived to be fifteen or so, dying quietly in the back yard in Berkeley, just as we were preparing to sell that house and move to the country. We brought his sister Blanche with us: she was exclusively an outdoor cat, afraid of men including me, a fine hunter and quite independent though our neighbor Mrs. Revsen insisted on giving her junk food "because she is always crying!"

We were worried that a cat so white would be easy prey for owls, coyotes, foxes or bobcats, but Blanche did quite well in the country, staying close to the house but mainly supporting herself on mice and voles. (We almost never found telltale feathers along her accustomed routes.) When she died, at nineteen, it was under a rosebush. I think Van Vechten would have enjoyed this.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Book not written

Eastside Road, June 4, 2017—
IN MARCH, 1970, I thought about writing a book, whose chapters would be
1: 31 for Henry Flynt
2: Bottles at the Mud Flats
3: Repair art. Wiley. The (triumphant) return of Abstract Expressionism.
4: “Making charts to help you know how you know where you are when you get somewhere” (Word Rain, p. 4)
5: Your typical bicycle ride
the 4.9 mile drive
6: The Richmond Sculpture Annual, Ecology, and Respect for the Object
     to be followed by
7: Hand Tools and Man’s Proper Place
8: Lawyers & Priests: footnote on our culture
9: Landscapes. gardens. Mahler’s 7th.

Chapter 1 would have been on a performance I gave of LaMonte Young's Any Integer for Henry Flynt, a piece of conceptual minimalism which consists, as I believe — I don't remember actually seeing a score — of the instruction to strike something with something else any number of times. I used a gong borrowed from the Oakland Symphony. The performance was on the deck of a café or restaurant near Nepenthe, in the Big Sur, on the west side of Highway 1.

Chapter 2 would have been about the day Lindsey and I and our three kids, then about ten, seven, and four, spent on the Emeryville mud flats which at the time had for a number of months been the site of impromptu sculpture. Many of these were pretty ramshackle, but a number were quite striking, beautiful even. All were made, for the most part, of material found on the site, stuff that had either been jettisoned or had washed up.
What we did, under my direction but with willing enthusiasm and, I think, quasi-intuitive understanding, was pick up every bottle we could find — and there were a good many — and arrange them using plans I no longer remember. Lines, certainly; perhaps masses as well.

Chapter 3 would have been about an exhibition I had seen at the old Berkeley Gallery, then on Brannan Street — a group show of marvelous Bay Area artists of the time, artists whose work the press liked to call Bay Area Dada. These were paintings and sculpture which had been repaired, or had been made to be repaired subsequently. Especially memorable, even now, was William Allen's magnificent Shadow Repair for the Western Man, which depicts an unoccupied pair of Levis standing airborne over the Sierra Nevada.
William Wiley was at the time producing his first marvelous assemblages responding to Duchamp with sculpture, painting, written material, and the occupation (or, better, articulation) of the space in which it existed. Much of this work of the late 1960s seemed to me to be a logical response to — and continuation of — Abstract Expressionism, in a manner it would have taken that entire chapter to explain: this is no place to attempt it.

Chapter 4 is self-explanatory, I think, except to note that Word Rain was a book by Madeline Gins that had made a big impression on me.

Chapter 5: I was taking long bicycle rides in those days, and frequently traced (literally) their routes, usually after the fact, on paper laid over USCG topographical maps. I thought of those rides as drawings in time and space. The "4.9 Mile Drive" was a conceptual art work by I forget who, a guided tour of part of the San Francisco industrial area south of Potrero Hill, a spoof of tourguides but also a serious entry to the disclosure of visual beauty and meaning in neglected or unsuspected places. Land Art.

Chapter 6: I don't remember what the Sculpture Annual at the Richmond Art Center had involved. Tom Marioni was the curator, and I particularly recall an exhibition there of work by Paul Kos, Tom himself (under a pseudonym), and Terrey Fox: all went on to remarkable careers. In all three cases it seemed to me the meaning of the work lay in the transaction between the artist and his material. Not the technique, the transaction, which respected qualities inherent in the material, either substantially or stemming from its sociological meaning. Here again I would have needed many pages.

Chapter 7 would have considered one's state of mind when using and maintaining hand tools while, for example, repairing plumbing, or maintaining the car or the bicycle, or building a bookcase — all things that had frequently to be done. My reading in Zen had led me to believe things went better if one regarded the tool as an equal, not a thing to be exploited. This led, by extension, to the hope that Nature would adopt a similar attitude toward Man.

Chapter 8: Ancient Egypt had a surfeit of priests; Babylon a surfeit of accountants; the 20th century a surfeit of lawyers. What doe these conditions lead to?

Finally, Chapter 9: Landscape is the ultimate transcending arena in which Nature accommodates whatever it is we inflict on her. Gardens are an attempt to create little landscapes, whether for productive or ornamental purposes. (What's the difference?) The inner movements of Mahler's Seventh Symphony amount to a musical statement of Landscape.

That's what I was thinking about in those days, and I see now, reading the journal from that year, that's what I continue to think about. And, I guess, write about.