Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Living to fight another Tag

Okay, so I know Space Bar tagged me to do the 5 post thing, but frankly the whole thing strikes me as being too dull, so I'm not going to bother.

What I will do instead is respond to a challenge SB posted over a month ago that, sadly, no one took her up on (at least as far as I know). Here goes:

A spine-chilling thriller that will have you biting your nails right from the first page! From the moment Lydia Montgomery discovers the toilet seat left up in her country-estate bathroom, the action never flags. Join Detective Inspector Littlelles on a mansion-wide manhunt through corridors of dimly-lit intrigue. Experience the horror as one gruesome discovery follows another - napkins are found badly folded, coffee-rings appear on the side table, a mysterious tap is left dripping all night. Who is behind these ghastly deeds? Could it be Hosmer, the recalcitrant butler who refuses to dust behind the bookshelves? Or Angus, the gardener Lydia fired two years ago for trailing compost over her front door mat? Why does John, Lydia's husband, keep squeezing their tube of toothpaste from the middle? And who is the mysterious Chambermaid M? Prepare to be shocked as the truth about these and other thrilling questions is revealed in The Vanityville Horror, the latest novel from the author of such masterpieces as The Mystery of the Mangled Antimacassar and Who Trimmed the Rose Bushes? Will Littleless get to the bottom of the mystery in time, or will the criminal manage to disarrange Lydia's linen closet before he or she is caught? To find out, buy a copy of The Vanityville Horror today!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Another day, another 'relationship' piece in the NY Times - this one talking about researchers who are using sophisticated algorithms to help people find their soulmates [1], and making millions of dollars without having to deal with peer review. The thing that disturbed me, reading the article, was that I wasn't thinking "maybe that's what I should do to find a partner" as you'd expect from someone with a love-life as non-existent as mine; I was thinking "maybe that's what I should have done my dissertation on". Clearly the claims of Love are no match for the trials of the Proposal Defense [2].

I can't help thinking, by the way, that these personality match things are pretty scary. Never mind how much they increase the probability of your finding a mate. Just think of the self-revelation involved. There you are thinking you're this amazingly suave, charming person, and then suddenly you're on this boring date and you realize that this dull, opinionated, thoroughly unattractive person sitting across the table from you is the closest match to your own personality type, selected from among millions of potential candidates by a scientific, time-tested process. It's like the dating service of Dorian Gray.

I'd try it myself, except that if these algorithms are even slightly accurate I'd end up going out with some short-sighted frumpette who'd speak exclusively in haikus, refuse my suggestion to catch a movie because there were no Swedish films playing, guzzle six cups of espresso, get hysterical because the coffee shop was playing music composed in (horrors!) the twentieth century and because (gasp!) there were other people around, throw pepper in the face of the three year old at the next table and commit suicide in the ladies room halfway through the date, leaving behind a note that said that she was secretly lesbian. All of which would be pretty romantic, actually, except that I'm not into necrophilia (certain short stories notwithstanding).

Oh, and did you hear about the PhD student who came up with the absolutely infallible algorithm to identify potential couples? Apparently he could have made it really big, but he picked the wrong adviser.

[1] Actually, I toyed with the idea of developing an instrument that would help identify compatible couples myself at some point (it was first year, I'd been taking classes on designing and validating questionnaires, constructing scales, etc.) then decided I'd rather start a blog. Somehow I knew that the temptation to prevent Dan Brown fans from getting together and mating would be too much for me. With great power, etc.

[2] On the importance of capitalizing key terms to achieve the proper poetic effect, see Lewis Carroll, as quoted by A.E. Stallings here (scroll down to the bottom of the post)

[3] And for those of you who think I use too many endnotes, check out this short story over at the Guardian. So there.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Hey Judith

Sunday. Time for a little poetry. Today's poem comes to your courtesy of Poetry Daily, and is as fine an example of Ekphrasis as you're likely to come across. It doesn't hurt that it describes one of my favorite subjects in painting - the slaying of Holofernes by Judith. And since I'm informed by Sarah Boxer over at the NYRB that "Blog writing is id writing—grandiose, dreamy, private, free-associative, infantile, sexy, petty, dirty" and that bloggers are like "impresarios, curators, or editors, picking and choosing things they find on line, occasionally slapping on a funny headline or adding a snarky (read: snotty and catty) comment" [1] I figure I should get with it and provide value by reproducing the poem with links to the paintings Rosser is describing, so you can really see what she's talking about:

Judith Bearing the Head of Holofernes

In her place I wouldn't be quite so casual:
I'd probably put it down pretty quickly,
somewhere level so it wouldn't roll,
as they always say heads are going to do
when there's trouble. You wouldn't want
actual rolling, which might add that touch
of the comic we're so terrified
we might perceive in the dreadful.
Almost every Judith holds him by the hair,
risking the least contact with blood-slime.
Though in Ghirlandaio's case
the maidservant carries the sword
while Judith balances Holofernes' head
in a basket on her own, like a demented
Carmen Miranda, the two of them strolling
casually along, chatty in flowing robes.
Botticelli, whose gods look like women
and whose women look like angels,
but who knew something about real life,
has the maidservant bearing the basket.
Giorgione's Judith places her foot on his hair
presumably in triumph, but clearly also
to keep the head from rolling;
in fact she gazes down too fondly at him,
as if she were footstroking her cat.

A few artists show the shadowy servant
stuffing him into a sack like a head of iceberg.
Apparently in those portraits where she's still
holding the sword, she never let go of his hair
in the first place, after hacking.
But wouldn't a sufficiently heavy weapon
require two hands? In other contexts,
the brawniest executioners are always pictured
holding the sword aloft with both hands.
It's not easy cutting through bones,
as any woman knows who's quartered a chicken
(or cooked it whole to avoid having to).
She only had to smite him twice.
But Judith had the adrenaline of the righteous,
having prayed for strength. Still, you have to wonder.
To look at Caravaggio's pale-cheeked Judith
you'd think she was watching her lab partner
slicing a frog. She doesn't seem at all sure
she should be doing this, judging by her expression
of utter disgust and the way she holds herself
away from the act as if to pretend
those ruddy arms and hands aren't hers,
or to avoid splattering her lovely white blouse,
though the blouse was added later to cover her nudity.
Important to remember Judith came to the tent
of General Holofernes expressly to seduce him,
a fact some centuries felt they should suppress.
The Assyrian king had sent him to sack Israel,
and the ultimate expression of any territory's invasion,
as we never tire of demonstrating,
is the physical invasion of its women.
So Judith knew he'd relax about the whole thing
once she offered to take him in. In every version
she also got him drunk—though she appears
pretty enough not to have needed the wine
as encouragement; a woman that insecure
would surely need two hands to follow through.
Even Artemisia Gentileschi had so little faith
in her Judith that she supplied four hands—
the maidservant is holding Holofernes down
with her full weight while Judith gingerly
saws at his neck with a cello-bow-angled wrist.
Oh I suppose you could defend it as a show
of heroism in sisterhood. But what about
the divine individual and her sole sister self?
That's the Judith that makes the story sell.

In fact, the only Judith I've ever seen who could
single-handedly have hacked through a man's neck
is that of Jacopo Palma the Elder
now there's a woman with some heft!—
whereas Cranach the Elder's willowy gentlewoman
(I'd kill for a jacket like that) in her gloves
and velvet hat might be returning a mask
too lifelike for her costume ball.
Allori's dreamy-lidded Judith seems to tell us
over her shoulder that math was never
her best subject—true, she's the image
of Allori's most recent ex-mistress
and it's his own head she's toting—
and Saraceni's Judith, holding the head
as if it were a teapot with a hair handle,
wants to know how many lumps.
Unlikeliest of all, however lovely her lines,
Veronese's Judith lifts his head by the temples
with aristocratically delicate hands,
the way you'd treat a head you liked,
one that was still attached to a nice person.

No, the only one I can believe is Jacopo Palma's:
his Judith firmly, efficiently grips both the hilt
of the sword and a hank of hair in one hand,
a fistful of beard in the other. These are chunky,
Gauguin-size hands. Her shoulders are massive.
Not much of a neck on her, which helps
to make her appear invulnerable.
She looks like she'd do it again
if the head somehow reattached itself.
She looks like she's only a tiny bit surprised
that she managed it. She looks like she knows
her story will be told by painters who will mostly be men
who are going to have trouble seeing this scene
as anything but apocryphal, and she's fine with that.
That is, after all, what we need them to think.

- J. Allyn Rosser

Lovely. I particularly love the description of the Caravaggio, as well as the Cranach the Elder. And I have Rosser to thank for introducing me to the Artemisia Gentileschi painting, which is one of the finest on the subject I've seen. Interestingly, though perhaps awkwardly for Rosser's poem, Google also throws up this beauty when you search for Gentileschi's Judith. A glorious painting - not only for the visual splendor of that candle or the way the interplay of dark and light perfectly echoes the scene's juxtaposition of evil and virtue, but because of the way Gentileschi enhances the story, picturing not the actual killing, nor some silly triumph afterwards, but the more realistic problem of getting away with it afterwards, the possibility of being discovered, the need for stealth and caution. It's a tense yet trembling painting, its Judith believable precisely because she looks so businesslike, so aware, so much more tough-minded sergeant than alluring maid, that you cannot bring yourself to doubt her competence (my only quibble being the lack of bloodstains)

Interestingly, Rosser ignores the two paintings that first come to my mind when Judith is mentioned. The first is Klimt's Judith (see above), the second (see below) is Jan Sanders van Hemessen's Judith, which can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago, and which, aside from being a stunning painting, meets, at least to my satisfaction, Rosser's criterion of believability.

A few other paintings I found, seaching for these ones, that I thought were interesting: Mantegna's version, where Judith looks like she's plucking fruit of a tree, and Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath, which isn't about Judith obviously, but it might as well be, and it's certainly interesting (and plausible) to think that 'Judith' was a boy.

[1] Is it just me, or do other people find these media stories about 'bloggers' faintly ridiculous? They remind me a little of this long ago Doonesbury comic where Mark's dad tries to 'talk the new generation's language' by watching the Mod Squad. As though all bloggers were similar enough to allow for such quasi-anthropological study. As though anecdotal evidence from a few prominent blogs was sufficient to make generalizations about a population of 100 million, a large proportion of which doesn't even blog in English. Will someone please explain to these people that blogger is just a tool, not a religion. I thought Boxer's article was a bit of a fluff-piece, at least by NYRB standards, though I'd forgive her anything for tossing in that Plato comparison, even if it doesn't make too much sense.

Friday, January 25, 2008


[Piece from a while back that I never got around to posting.]

Of all the great inventions of the 21st Century, the Defarge Inter-universal Calibrating Engine (DICE) was arguably the most important. Just as the 20th Century was the century of the Bomb and the dawn of the Nuclear Age, so the 21st was the century of DICE.

Developed by the Pentagon, DICE was named after French theorist Louis Defarge, whose seminal hypothesis about the possibility of Inter-universe transfer was the principle underlying DICE. Defarge started from a perspective that saw the Universe as being an accumulation of an infinite series of random events that added up to one coherent whole – a cyclone of Reality created by the flutter of a whole flock of quantum butterflies –bounded in space time by probabilistic forces. In theory, changing any one of those events, or suppressing them from happening, would fundamentally alter the development of the Universe, giving rise to an alternate reality. Probabilistically speaking, the world we lived in was, in fact, surrounded by an infinite number of such parallel worlds, divided from ours by walls of nothing more than chance.

Thus far many others had gone before him. Defarge’s contribution was to argue (and mathematically prove) that it was possible to tamper retrospectively with the sequence of events that led to this present reality – in other words, to switch to a different Universe, rather like a train jumping tracks. The key, according to Defarge, lay in the fact that most events that made up this reality were so insignificant that they may as well not have happened, that they had, in fact, ceased to exist in the subjective sense since no one had any apprehension of them. Reality, though virtually indestructible, was thus also porous, and manipulations in the present could, in theory, allow us to influence a minute event in the past. Not any particular event, mind, and not at any particular time – the possibility existed only because the change to be accomplished remained undefined.

This was not, as Defarge was quick to point out, time travel – that was still impossible. Indeed, his point was that it was precisely because we humans had always conceived of the problem of time travel as the problem of moving an object from the present to a specified time and place in the past, that we had failed to recognize this opportunity – of exerting an influence on the past in order to change the present. “You cannot break the skin of reality with a hammer”, Defarge wrote, “but you can pierce it with a needle”.

When these theories of Defarge were first published, in his book Chance and Stasis: The Possibility of Inter-Universal Transfer, no one took them seriously. Defarge was described as being a “dreamer” and a “writer of science fiction” and his ideas were dismissed as having “no basis in fact, however rich they may be in imagination”. Yet a small team of researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory paid close attention to Defarge’s calculations, and the result, five years later, was the unveiling of DICE, a device that was designed to do precisely what Defarge had claimed was possible – to reach back in time to alter some undefined event, thus retrospectively recalibrating the Universe and switching the whole world to an alternate reality. Housed in an unknown location somewhere in the Nevada desert, and controlled directly from the White House, DICE was, essentially, a giant Restart button, one that allowed humankind to wipe out the immediate past and permanently switch to a different world.

There was a catch, though. Actually, two catches. First, because of the improbabilities involved, DICE could only be used once. Second, and more important, because it was impossible to control exactly what event in the past got changed (or, more strictly speaking, it was impossible to change any event in the past that was known and identifiable – the act of focusing on an event in the past making it ineligible for change), there was no way to predict what the new reality would look like. The practical implication of this was spelled out in his introductory lecture by Dr. Tnetrop Dakkar, the leader of the team that designed DICE:

“DICE is, and must be considered, an instrument of absolute last resort. It must be used only in the most extreme eventuality – when the destruction of the human race seems imminent, and it becomes impossible to imagine a world worse than the one we inhabit. DICE is, in every sense, the last, most desperate gamble of a species that has nothing left to lose. I hope and pray that we never need to use it.”
These peculiar features of DICE made it a subject of immediate controversy. Those who believed in Defarge’s hypothesis (or at least trusted the Pentagon) saw DICE as a boon granted to mankind, a final way out from the threat of annihilation. Others, more cynical, argued that since DICE was, by design, conveniently indemonstrable, it amounted to little more than a hoax. How do we know that this machine actually does what it claims to, they asked, perhaps the US is just bluffing? And even if they believe that it can reset the world how do we know it will work? It wouldn’t be the first time that a piece of experimental technology has failed. How do we know it won’t simply blow all of us up? Yet a third group saw DICE as a moral aberration, arguing that if the day of destruction came it would be because we had deserved it. Mankind, they said, had no right to interfere with the workings of a Higher Power. The Universe should not play DICE with God. A fourth group argued against this view – pointing out that since DICE could not control what Universe we ended up in, it would, in fact, be God who made that choice. Besides, they said, pointing to Pascal, God was not inconsistent with rational calculation: given a choice between certain destruction and infinitely unlikely survival, choosing the latter was the only moral choice.

At any rate, argument and debate was rife everywhere. In some cities, riots broke out over the question of DICE, with demonstrators for one group coming to blows with demonstrators for the other. Soon the world was divided into the believers, who saw DICE as mankind’s only hope of being saved, and the skeptics, who saw DICE as a false invention and relied on no such redemption.

Years passed. Whatever else DICE was or was not capable of, the boost it gave to the power and prestige of the United States was undeniable. Already the world’s greatest superpower, the US became even more preeminent, and, as a result, even more arrogant, than it had been before. Partly it was sheer awe at the power that the US now commanded - its ability to restart history - that caused nations to want to stay on its good side. But mostly it was just the knowledge that there’s no point in trying to wipe out an enemy who would simply reset the world if pushed to the brink.

Every decade or so, some catastrophe would lead some people to demand that DICE be used. Every earthquake, tsunami, cyclone, terrorist strike, war or genocide brought its own cries for the use of DICE, with the friends and relatives of the victims pledging their willingness to live with the consequences of whatever reality they may end up in.

To all these requests, however, the Keepers of DICE offered little more than a polite refusal. These Keepers themselves had changed considerably since the time when DICE was first developed. Originally in the hands of senior functionaries in the Pentagon, the supervision of DICE had been spun off into a separate service when it was realized that the monitoring of DICE required a perspective far broader, far more removed, than that involved in military strategy. From here on, the Keepers soon evolved into something very like a sect, with a handful of new recruits being chosen every year from the world’s leading universities to join the service. The Keepers were withdrawn, solitary men who lived in a haze of alternate realities joined to a constant awareness of the ephemeral nature of the present world. They seldom married, seldom had friends outside of work. Instead, like acolytes praying to an aloof God, they spent long hours trying to model and imagine the various possibilities of what the world would look like if DICE were used. This was, by definition, an impossible task - the possibilities were infinite to begin with, and working through the full implications of a single change on the structure of the Universe would require a computer as big as the Universe itself – all the Keepers’ simulations amounted to was an elaborate ritual of video games. Still, because of their proximity to this ineluctable power, and because of the influence they themselves might bear on the future of mankind, these Keepers were held in high esteem.

And the Keepers did have power – or rather the Head Keeper did. While in theory, the decision to activate DICE lay with the President of the United States and with him / her alone, it was understood that the real authority rested with the Head Keeper. After all, he / she was the one who understood (or at least understood as well as anyone else) the ramifications of activating DICE. It would take a real madman to use DICE against the advice of the Head Keeper. Not even Presidents of the United States were that crazy.

When nuclear war finally came, no one was quite sure what triggered it. Some claimed it was human folly – a hotheaded young pilot flying a plane armed with nuclear missiles who overreacted and started the whole thing – others that it was the logical consequence of centuries of neo-imperialist economic oppression by the Western World, still others that it was the work of religious fanatics (Jews or Muslims, depending on where you lived) who had formed a conspiracy to destroy the world.

At any rate, it wasn’t long before the chain of nuclear response and counter-response had played itself out, leaving the world at the brink of extinction. 98% of the human race was estimated to be dead already, and those who remained were unlikely to survive the radiation damage they had suffered. Even if they did survive, moreover, the complete decimation of all life systems, the blocking off of sunlight and the ruin of both land and sea, meant that life on earth was now impossible in any meaningful sense. It was time, therefore, to turn to DICE.

The Keepers, after weeks of collecting data and running simulations to see whether the world might in fact, survive on its own, approved. The President, horrified by the destruction he had seen, saw no other way. On what would have been a bright spring morning in April if the clouds from the nuclear fall-out hadn’t wiped out the sky, the leaders of the free world gathered in a small, secret location to reset the world forever. The security codes were punched in, the starting sequence initiated. Finally, at a nod from the President, the Head Keeper pressed the red button.

The Universe changed.

The new world was different from the old one, even though this wouldn’t have been immediately obvious to an outside observer (not that outside observers were possible). Not much had changed. Earth was still a nuclear wasteland, mankind was still dying out. Beyond this tiny planet, the order of the galaxies was the same as it had always been, though perhaps a star or two had shifted position slightly. The difference was that in this new Universe there was no DICE, no possibility of turning the world back and starting again – it had never been invented, never been conceived. Here, in this universe, destruction was inevitable, and there was no hope.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Quantum of Solace

So apparently, the title of the new Bond film is out, and it's (hold your breath) Quantum of Solace. Xan Brooks has dismissive things to say about it over at the Guardian Blog (he says it sounds like blancmange[1]) and I have to agree. I mean I don't really give a hang what the damn thing is called as long as it has significant portions of time devoted to the sight of Daniel Craig in tight-fitting swimwear (now there's a man whose quantum I'd be happy to solace any time), but still it's hard to think of any pairing or random words from the dictionary in the _________ of __________ format less evocative of thrilling, action-packed adventure. Even Schopenhauer could come up with racier titles than this. Frankly, it sounds like something out of a Psmith story - Lord Quantum of Solace, meet Lady Pale-Parabola of Joy.

[Actually, if you think about it, the whole James Bond franchise would be rather fun if it were written by Wodehouse. "What ho! old chap. The name is Bond. Pjames Bond." No really. Jeeves could be Q. and Aunt Agatha would make a totally outstanding M. And Gussie Fink-Nottle could be the evil mastermind who secretly (and perhaps inadvertently - this is Gussie we're talking about) plans the destruction of the world while drinking orange juice and tending his newts. And Bertie could be the dashing secret agent who goes off on missions of deadly espionage armed only with a purple cummerbund and comes back engaged to yet another loopy femme fatale. And wouldn't it be fun if you could stop Jaws in his tracks by saying the words 'Eulalie Soeurs'?]

Brooks, in his piece, laments the lack of easy rhymes for the title song. One rhyme for solace he misses [warning: extremely forced transition coming up] is Persepolis [see, I TOLD you], which I watched yesterday and which is a delightful film, surprisingly true to the graphic novel it's based on (I was worried that they may have jazzed it up too much - but no, they've kept the hand-drawn feel of the original) and like that book a heady mix of politics, humor and heartbreak. Satrapi's quasi-autobiographical Marjane may not be the most winning character you'll see on screen this year (that spot, I think, belongs to the title character in Juno) but she comes close.

[1] Not that blancmange's are anywhere near as harmless as they seem.

Getting there

Poetry. The words like a gun in my mouth. The cold from the window a kiss, a blow-off, and the sun a hammer beating the river flat.

The sign on the bridge says 'Trenton Makes The World Takes' in squat, ugly letters. I shut my eyes and the blood in my head is staging its own personal sunset. Open them and the woman two rows down is teaching her daughter to play chinese checkers on one of those pocket-size magnetic game boards, telling her how she needs to think beyond the next move if she wants to win. Good advice, sister. Amazing the way one things leads to another, the way life leaps over you, knocks you off the board.

Like this connection I'm never going to make.

I could always kill time but I don't have the nerve for it. I imagine what it would feel like, the ticking growing faint under my hands, the throttled body of the clock they would find later, when I was far away. Maybe I should get a bite to eat instead. At the thought of food the hunger runs around inside me like a madman in a train station, shouting out destinations. I would kill for a drink.

The newspaper says the last speaker of the indigenous Alaskan language Eyak has died. Or maybe the newspaper doesn't say that and I just made it up. In any case I think - he must have spent a lot of time talking to himself, there at the end. Did I just say that aloud? God, I hope not.

Why is that man in the corner looking at me like that? Is he really speaking with someone, or just talking into his cellphone to pretend that he's not alone? Maybe he's on to me, knows I'm in the business too - you know, the spying on the self business. Maybe what he's really talking into is the secret receiver in his cuffs. The cellphone is just for camouflage. Idea for a joke about a secret agent who has a microphone stitched into the brim of his bowler, so that he's always talking through his hat. Hmm.

Okay, this guy is definitely talking about me. Calling for back-up, no doubt. They'll probably grab me when I get off the train. Or maybe they'll keep me on it, wait dour-faced while everyone else gets off, then ride with me to the depot, the four of them with their suits and their badly concealed shoulder-holsters sitting there in silence, penning me in. Waiting for me to make my move. Not that I've got any moves to make. Not any more. Trenton Makes The World Takes. Well, I've been made all right. I wonder where they'll take me.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Last Massage

They say the masseuse found him. Pushed her way into his bedroom and discovered him naked on the floor. Dead.

And I imagine Death too, as a kind of masseuse. Her hands not cold, as he had feared, but warm, instinctive, almost sensual.

Practiced fingers untangle the pathways of his body; release him, at last from pain's invisible net. Unknotted, undone, he surrenders gratefully to her touch, feels his muscles loosen, slips, unknowingly, into a deep, deep sleep.

Monday, January 21, 2008

New York Weekend Part 1: Les Amants

I'm back.

Caught a screening of Louis Malle's Les Amants at the IFC Saturday morning, and came away fascinated. It's hard to put my finger on what, precisely, I liked about the film, in part because it's such a protean work, constantly shifting, constantly reinventing itself.

It starts off as social drama - the conflict between the dull virtues of provincial life and the sparkling but superficial charms of Paris society incarnated in the person of Jeanne Tournier (Jeanne Moreau) - a woman whose frustrations with passionless domesticity drive her to infidelity as a fashion statement. But just when you think the movie is headed for an emotional showdown, with Jeanne's husband inviting her lover to spend the weekend at their country house in Dijon (something roughly like the confrontation in Stanley Donen's The Grass Is Greener, only less funny and more French) in drives a deus ex machina and before you know it you're in the middle of a lyrical if slightly overdone pastiche of romantic desire, complete with moonlight and boats and a couple dressed in white wandering hand and hand through the open fields while Brahms' ravishing Streichsextett No. 1 plays in the background. And then, just when you're starting to tire of Malle's visual poetry, the movie turns again, and you find yourself caught in a finale of nail-biting suspense, that is tinged in its free-wheeling, convention defying exhilaration, with just a hint of La Nouvelle Vague. Watching Les Amants is like watching a heady combination of Bunuel, Rohmer and Hitchcock, all held together by the vividness of Malle's vision, and the magnetic screen presence of Jeanne Moreau.

And yes, I did say Hitchcock. Because in its own way Les Amants is every bit as tense and nerve-wracking as a well-made thriller - not Psycho perhaps, but Shadow of a Doubt. The brilliance of the film's denouement lies in the way Malle effortlessly plays with our expectations, leaving us permanently off-balance, the question will she / won't she penduluming about in our heads. Les Amants is a subversive film, in ways that Ibsen would have been proud of, but unlike Ibsen Malle does not set out to defy convention outright; instead, he flirts with it, pushes his film to the brink of the morality tale and leaves us with a sense not of triumph but of uneasiness. Love, like the glimpse of a spotless white horse grazing quietly by the road in the final shot, remains a vision, and convention is a killer still on the loose, so that Jeanne's escape from its clutches may yet prove temporary.

But the last half hour of Les Amants is also notable for the way in which Malle captures not the mechanics of sex, but the hysteresis of intimacy, the body's need to touch and hold. This is the film about which Justice Potter Stewart (in Jacobellis v. Ohio) famously said - rebutting the claim that it was pornographic - that "I know it [pornography] when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that." It's a fairly inane legal statement, but watching the film you can see exactly what he means. By the standards of its time Les Amants is undeniably explicit (though compared to say, Lust, Caution it seems almost genteel) but what Malle is documenting is not lust but the fascination of the flesh with its counterpart, the reluctance of lovers to be parted, even for a moment, the surrender to an appetite so voluptuous it can seem like sloth.

In the end, you fall in love with this movie the way Jeanne does - unexpectedly, impulsively and a little guiltily; knowing that other people will never understand it, that you barely understand it yourself; certain only, as Jeanne says in the film, that such happiness is not to be resisted.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Mengelberg and Manhattan

There's nothing quite like the sound of a trumpet player in full flow, is there? Just got back from a performance of the Misha Mengelberg Quartet, featuring an electrifying performance by trumpet player Dave Douglas. Also notable were Mengelberg's lovely melodies and the inimitable hi-jinx of Han Bennink, who is to percussion what Chico Marx is to the piano. But for me the highlight of the show was easily Douglas' performance. Glorious, glorious stuff.

Meanwhile, am off to NYC for the weekend - hoping to renew my long-standing love affair with the immortal Jeanne Moreau and catch the Klimt exhibition at the Neue Galerie (complete with pretentious French spelling). See you after the weekend.

I wasn't expecting all the hoop-la

Richard Knerr, the man behind the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee, is dead.

It's a sad day. You know...for kids.

And I can think of no better way to mark it than watching this. Cinematic genius from start to finish. As one of the commenters on YouTube says - it's so perfect it makes you want to cry.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Falstaff and the Banquet

I never did get around to blogging about my California trip, did I?

While we are on the topic of food, one of the more fun parts of the trip (and unusual - given that I'm NOT a foodie) was the unrelenting focus on food, with the Bay Area being converted into my own personal smorgasbord. So there were Fontainebleau scrambled eggs in Haight-Ashbury, vegan sushi on Berkeley campus, chocolate hazelnut tarts at Tartine, dimsum in Milpitas, sardines and seafood stew on Cannery Row, arepas at the Coupa Cafe in Palo Alto, hummus and pita sandwiches in Mountain View, and, for New Year's Eve, a rum and chocolate cake baked by yours truly that didn't turn out half bad. Quite the culinary voyage.


Worst Experience:

Saravana Bhavan, Sunnyvale CA.

7.00 pm.

Falstaff and Z arrive. Listlessly eye invading hordes at the door.

7.05 pm.

Z: Well, I've put our name down for a table.

F: Did he say how long it would take?

Z: Fifteen minutes.

F: Dude, no way. Look at that waiting area. There must be a thousand people ahead of us.

Z: Don't exaggerate, there are only 994.

F: Ya, but two of them are pregnant.

Z: Look, he said 15 minutes. Let's just wait and see and if we don't get a table then we can always go elsewhere.

F: Sigh. Okay.

7.25 pm

F: It's half past seven.

Z: Ya, I know. I guess he was wrong about the 15 minutes.

F: I told you so. Can we go now?

Z: What, after we've waited twenty minutes? Of course not.

F: But, said.

Z: Look, I'm sure we'll get a table any moment now.

F: How? That line in the waiting area hasn't moved.

Z: Well, don't look at me, you're the one who wanted to come here.

F: Me?

Z: Sure. You asked for this place.

F: I did not. You asked me if I was okay with South Indian and I said "Sure, why not"

Z: See - exactly.

7.40 pm

Z: Hmmm...this is getting ridiculous. It isn't normally this crowded you know.

F: *wounded silence*

Z: Maybe we should get it to go.

F: We can get it to go? Really? Why didn't we do that straight away?

Z: Because we were going to get a table.

F: Wha...Why?

Z: Well, I thought you might want to see what the place is like. You know, check out the ambiance.

F: What ambiance? The place is more crowded than Dadar station at rush hour.

Z: Well, you're the one who's always saying you miss Bombay.

F: Oh, never mind, let's just go order.

7.45 pm

[Bloody but unbowed, F & Z arrive at the counter, having hacked their way through a tropical rainforest of arms and legs]

Z: ...and we'll have one plate of X as well*

Uncle-ji at counter: X? You sure you want X? Why not have Y instead? Very tasty. Absolutely fresh.

Z: Okay, one plate of Y then. How long will it take?

Uncle-ji: Oh, ten minutes.

7.50 pm

[F & Z reduced to mere flotsam in sea of humanity, trying desperately to get the last molecules of remaining oxygen in the place into their lungs. F makes a break for it and goes stands in the parking lot. It's good to be back in the First World.]

8.15 pm

Z: How long is that order going to take?

Uncle-ji: It's almost done.

Z: You said ten minutes. It's been half an hour.

Uncle-ji: Yes, I know. It's that Y you ordered. We'd run out so we're having to make a new batch.

Z: But you told me to take Y. You said it was absolutely fresh.

Uncle-ji: And it will be. When it's ready.

Z: *grits teeth. tries not to swear* What about the rest of our order?

Uncle-ji: Oh, that's right here. It's been ready for twenty minutes.

Z: Right, forget the Y then. We're going.

8:20 pm

F: So, did the guy ever call our table?

Z: No. I asked him about that on the way out.

F: What did he say?

Z: He said it would be just fifteen minutes.


Best Experience

Foreign Cinema

Delicious skate fillet followed by braised peaches with icecream and chocolate mousse, with De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis playing on a giant screen in the background. Ah, the good life.

*Sorry, I don't actually remember what we ordered. The food was that unmemorable.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

There Was

Okay, so I did it. I went and watched There Will Be Blood. And I have to say I'm underwhelmed.

Oh, it's not a bad movie. Daniel Day-Lewis is every bit as good as I expected him to be (which is very, very good indeed) the rest of the cast does a sterling job, the cinematography is lovely, the direction unexceptionable. It's a little long - some two hours and forty minutes - and feels a bit like a mini-series rather than a film, but for all that it's a fairly gripping watch.

The trouble, I think, was that all the time I was watching it I had this strong sense of deja vu. As though I'd seen this film, or something very like it, a dozen times before. You know the story. Man starts from nothing, makes it big through a combination of hard work and conniving slyness. Ends up alienated and bitter, suspicious of everybody, with no meaningful connection to anyone (Hell, just in case you didn't get it they actually have a dialog in there where he talks about how he sees the worst in everyone). Under the slick, greasy surface of Paul Thomas Anderson's movie is a mish-mash of Citizen Kane, the Godfather and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. That There Will Be Blood bears comparison to these masterpieces (and it does) does it great credit, of course, but it also leaves you feeling 'ah, that again'. It may be that the genre of the 'one man's rise to power' epic needs resurrecting, in which case Anderson has done as good a job of it as anyone could, but personally I can't say I felt it was something we were missing out on, and as a consequence the film left me largely unmoved.

None of this is to say that it's a film I regret watching. Day-Lewis's performance alone would make it worth the price of entry, and the movie certainly has its moments. The church scenes with Paul Dano are sparkling and hilarious, the interplay between Plainview (the character Day-Lewis plays) and his son is superbly done, and the ending is glorious. I just can't help feeling that all that energy and talent could have gone into making something a little more, well, new.

Monday, January 14, 2008


You may have missed it if you happened to blink while reading / watching the news this morning, but the Golden Globes were announced last night.

Reading through the list of winners and nominees, I was struck by how I'd seen virtually every film in the Musical / Comedy category (with the exception of Hairspray) but almost nothing in the Drama category (except for No Country for Old Men). Talk about flashes of self-insight.

As a consequence, I have no opinion on the results in the Drama category. I am, however, amused and somewhat bewildered that Sweeney Todd won. Personally, I thought it was an extremely ordinary film, standard issue Hollywood entertainer complete with phony special effects and fake atmosphere, made bearable only by the sheer joy of Sondheim's lyrics. As for Johnny Depp's performance - look, no one loves Depp more than I do, but this is far from his best work. For half the film he seems to be channeling Christopher Walken, and the best thing you can say about his singing is that it's, well, courageous. All three of the other nominees that I've seen (Juno, Charlie Wilson's War and Across the Universe) deserve the award more.

I also think it's a shame that Diablo Cody didn't win for her screenplay of Juno. I suppose that's what happens when you mix original screenplays and adaptations of novels in the same category. I dare say No Country for Old Men is a better script, but it's a better script because it's 90% Cormac McCarthy.

I'm happy about Ratatouille winning best animation feature, and Diving Bell and Butterfly winning foreign language film (though I haven't seen 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days yet); and Bardem for best supporting actor and Blanchett for best supporting actress just seemed inevitable.

Sigh. I suppose I should get around to reviewing all the films I watched over the holidays. And watching There Will Be Blood. So much to do, so little time.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Canteen

Handful by slow handful, the ghosts of the water are carried into the desert, to dance among the dunes.

He drowns the canteen. Holds its head under water till he is sure it is dead. Then slings its bloated corpse to his saddle and rides out into the sand.

For three days he drinks from its death. Afterwards death drinks from him.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Notre Musique

What if there is a heaven, but it's reserved for suicides?

What if the real test is not a life of renunciation, but a renunciation of life?

What if Eternity is not fragments of existence free-falling outside the gravity of time, but an infinite nothingness, an embrace of the impossible?

Wouldn't that be better than either the tedium of pain without hope - which we call damnation - or the meaninglessness of pleasure without even the possibility of pain - which we call being saved?

What if the fires we have imagined are not the meteorites of falling angels but the inspired trajectories of minds escaping the self's atmosphere?

What keeps us alive

It's the weekend, so time for more poetry:

First, via Poetry Daily, this lovely poem by Li-Young Lee.

Next, from the latest issue of Poetry, John Brehm imagines New Yorkers in Heaven, though forgets to mention the complaints about how slow the angels are.

Then, from X.J. Kennedy, whose humorous talents I discover I've blogged about before, and then forgotten ( n!: you may just have a point about the senility thing) this hilarious ode to one of my favorite painters of all time:

Hello, Dali,
Well hello, Dali,
It's so nice to see your Mona Lisa smile
Through her moustache, Dali,
At the cash, Dali,
You keep stashin'
From Christ's passion
Painted Dali style.

So drape them tree crotches
With them limp watches!
Other fellas may wax jealous -
They're just flops, pops!
Holy gee, Dali
Obvious to me, Dali,
At rakin' in the bacon you're the tops.
(see also, Kennedy's take on Sigmund Freud as Santa Claus. For other such delights, BOA editions has a new collection of Kennedy's Comic Verse - Peeping Tom's Cabin)

And finally, always saving the best for last, a selection of poems from the inimitable David Kirby, who is officially poet of the month for me. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Take 29

You know how sometimes you're watching a movie and the people on the screen seem so alive, so real - more real than anyone you know, more real than you yourself have ever managed to be? As though the entire gist of their lives were contained in a handful of scenes, and yet behind it, stretching away in every direction, were a whole life time of other scenes, of moments you'll never see but can imagine anyway, imagine as clearly as if you'd known them all their lives. And you envy them their certainty, envy them knowing, so precisely, who they are.

Because you've known yourself all your life and you don't know who you are. And you sit there wishing that just once, just for a moment, just for an hour or the space of a feature, you could be that exact, that vivid.

Perhaps Sartre is right. Perhaps all existence is the search for an authenticity that doesn't exist.

I don't mind pretending. I just don't know who I'm supposed to be.

Mare's Nest

I've never been a huge admirer of Walter de la Mare's poetry, but I quite enjoyed Peter Bennet's Workshop over at the Guardian, with poems in the spirit of De la Mare. I like the poems by Byro and Meeuws (I'd agree with Bennet that the latter is the most authentically De la Mare-ish of the lot) and am pleased to see an entry by an old friend, though suspect they've left out a paragraph break in printing it, so that it should really read:

Thrown over her shoulder the light from the lamp
glows in her lap - a fabric of gold.
Her fingers dance in its silken folds
sewing a dress

for a girl she knows, a bride to be;
head lowered to her work until
something distracts her; she stills,
stops to listen:

Go read the whole thing.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A tear in time

[Warning: Wild, unsubstantiated speculation follows. May bear no resemblance to any persons living or dead.]

So Hillary won New Hampshire.

Watching the results come in yesterday, and reading about the Hillary turnaround, I couldn't help wondering how much of this had to do with her little 'breakdown' on Monday. And by extension, just how spontaneous that breakdown was.

I could be, and probably am, wrong. It's entirely possible that Hillary would have won NH even without the coffee-shop incident. And it's likely that her little outburst was genuine. It's just that the whole thing looks a little too neat to my twisted, cynical mind. Candidate has reputation for being heartless. Candidate's campaign is not going well. Candidate has much publicized emotional moment a day before an important primary. Candidate wins said primary by a narrow margin. Isn't it just possible that the Hillary campaign managers decided what she needed was to show a little emotion, and she did?

Don't get me wrong. This is not a criticism of Hillary. On the contrary, if she really did pull off a stunt that clever and calculating my respect for her just went up. What saddens me is the idea that people may have needed to see Hillary break down and cry in order to be able to relate to her. As though there were something wrong with a woman who wasn't vulnerable, or, more importantly, who wouldn't show that vulnerability in public. It doesn't really matter whether Hillary's breakdown was staged or not - the point is she shouldn't have needed it at all (which, of course, she may not have - but we'll never know now, will we?).

You could say this is not a gender thing - that men have been shedding tears on the campaign trail as well. True. But aside from the fact that men don't risk being labeled weak or hysterical as a consequence, I can't help feeling that showing emotion is a choice for male candidates, not a necessity. If a male candidate behaved the way Hillary does, I suspect he'd get labeled 'the strong and silent type', the assumption being that he felt deep emotion but just didn't want to put it on display. When Hillary refuses to show emotion she gets described as unfeeling and cold and unlikable, the assumption being that if she doesn't show it, she's not feeling it.

Look, I'll be honest. I'm not a huge supporter of Hillary per se. But when I see the sexist way the media reacts to her - when I read front page profiles in the New York Times that talk about how she may be "too hardened to inspire", or see / hear the endless stream of cartoons and jokes that riff off her being a woman, it makes me hope she'll win anyway, just to show them. And I can't help wondering how many other people, if any, feel that way.

In Fire With Fire, Naomi Wolf attributes the success of the first Clinton campaign (in 1992) in part to the Republican's bungling of the gender issue. She writes:

"the media tended to put the governor's wife [Hillary] in a harsh light....("For better or worse, an awful lot of Americans have taken a negative image away from their experiences with her. How you explain that?" Bryant Gumbel asked on the Today show, inadvertently providing the explanation himself.) ...misreading the press's warmth toward Barbara Bush and hostility to Hillary Rodham Clinton as a reflection of the feelings of the electorate as a whole, rather than a reflex on the part of the male-dominated press, the GOP cued its themes to that contrast, and did not understand that a significant portion of Republican women saw their own lives reflected more fully in the lives of the Arkansas governor's wife"

Wouldn't it be ironic if all the sexist commentary on Hillary were actually helping her? And if she ended up winning, inspite of herself, precisely because she is a woman (not that I'm saying it's going to happen, or that she needs it)? I'm still trying to decide how I'd feel about that. On the whole, I suspect I'd be happy.


Meanwhile, to commemorate the season of primaries, I've been watching State of the Union. It's not Hepburn and Tracy's greatest film (actually, it's not even average) but it makes for interesting viewing given what's happening in the presidential race. It's especially fun, in the context of the Obama campaign, to watch the character Tracy plays mouth off about how "we need to pull together or we'll end up pulling apart" and talk about how he'd like to break away from conventional politics. It makes you think how much of the Obama campaign could have been directed by Frank Capra (with, presumably, Angela Lansbury as Hillary).

P.S. Some of you may notice that this post marks the introduction of a new label on 2x3x7. I figured it was time I stopped being in denial. And what better day to inaugurate a 'Gender' label than the birth centenary of Simone de Beauvoir

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Made up

A made up mind is like a made up bed - just asking to be disarranged.


Transformation of thought and matter: waking in the morning to find your sheets in confusion, but your mind made up.


He has lied his way into bed, and he must make up for it.

Politics of Thought

Sometimes I feel as though the thoughts I call my own are all contained in books I haven't read yet.

Writing in his Notebooks [1], over a hundred years ago, Paul Valery says:
"When faced with something which greatly interests me - an accomplishment in any form - I react badly. I'm angry for not having discovered it - and for being given it gratis, when I would so much like to have discovered it with great effort myself. Thus I set infinitely more store on obtaining things for myself than on handed-down possession. I do not like to inherit. One never possesses as totally as when one has conquered or created - or when one thinks one has."

I know exactly what he means. And I HATE him for having said it.

The sting in the tail, of course, is in those last six words. What's worse than having an idea handed to you gratis is discovering that someone's already had the idea you think you had, only articulated and / or executed it infinitely better than you ever could [2].

[1] Am reading Valery's Cahiers. He is now officially my favorite blogger ever.

[2] Or, as Eliot puts it: "And what there is to conquer / By strength and submission, has already been discovered / Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope / To emulate". See what I mean?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Really? You don't say

The headline that says it all:

'Bush Admits Economy Faces Challenges'

Who would have thunk it?

Behaving irresponsibly

Just in case you haven't already seen this, I've been involved in a protracted and frustrating debate over a post by Sakshi linked to by Desi Pundit - a post where she argues that women should "behave sensible and make wise decisions" by "being careful when picking places to celebrate a night out" in order to avoid being victims of sexual harassment. You can see the discussion on DP here (a link to Sakshi's original post is also provided). The post is ostensibly about the molestation incident in Mumbai on New Year's Eve, though I've long given up on finding the slightest connection between the facts of that specific incident and Sakshi's claims.

It's been a frustrating discussion because, as you can see by clicking on the link above, the defenders of Sakshi's 'argument' consistently refuse to engage with any of the questions / issues that I and others are raising, choosing instead to play an entirely defensive role by explaining (read re-interpreting) Sakshi's original post and supporting it with a combination of shape-shifting definitions and logical sophistries (apparently, women can avoid being subjected to sexual harassment and violence by behaving sensibly and responsibly, but saying so is not judging those who don't do so in any way. Go figure).

It's an object lesson in the convoluted ways by which people rationalize their own biases to themselves and others. It's also an object lesson in how abstract platitudes and superstitious generalizations can come to seem like a point of view if you stick with them long enough.

So. If you're one of these people who think Sakshi has a point, here's my challenge to you. Give me one example, just one, of an incident of sexual violence that could, according to you, have been avoided if the victim had followed Sakshi's advice. That's not too much to ask, is it? After all, if what Sakshi's saying makes so much sense there must be hundreds, even thousands of such cases every year. It can't be that hard to find one.

To be clear: I'm not asking for some half-baked analogies, dime-novel fiction, fuzzy generalizations about women who "guzzle it down like a gutter", or superstitious nonsense about what might have happened to so-and-so if they hadn't been careful. I'm asking for a real incident - name of the victim, place, time, description of the event. Remember to explain why / how you think the victim could have foreseen that she would be in danger - why you think the probability of an incident at that time and in that location was greater than at other places and times, and how the victim could have known this ex-ante. And assuming you can make this argument (and I'd love to see you try) don't forget to explain why, given that the victim was acting in ways that you've just demonstrated to be irresponsible, she is not to be judged as being stupid and therefore not at least partly at fault for what happened to her.

Go ahead, the comments section is open.

I'm not even going to go down the whole loss of freedom / giving in to the fear line of argument on this one. Before we even ask whether giving up on freedom to ensure our personal safety is worthwhile, we have to ask whether 'behaving sensibly' can actually be done and will actually make a difference to the problem. And I'm unconvinced it will. All these arguments achieve, as far as I can tell, is create an atmosphere of fear while allowing the people making them to feel smug about how sensible they themselves are. This would be silly in itself - what makes it harmful is that sooner or later victims of sexual violence start to believe this nonsense and start to wonder whether they could, in fact, have done something to avoid it and this makes them feel worse about themselves. Even if you don't take the obvious next step of saying "she deserved it / she was asking for it" (and you can be sure someone will - by making this argument you're playing straight into the hands of the patriarchy), you're still achieving nothing but giving victims a sense of guilt that they neither need nor deserve.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Caught Napa-ing

Those of you who've never been to California may not know this, but it's a non-bailable offense to visit the Bay Area and not visit Napa Valley, even if it's December and the vines are with winter sere. And since I've never much fancied the thought of being in prison (vertical stripes make me look fat) the first thing I did was get Z to take me to visit what shall (to avoid law suits) be called simply The Winery. Here's how that went:

1.45 pm: Arrive at Winery. Go up to woman at reception and ask when the next tour is. Listen to her tell us that we're in luck - she has just two slots left for the 2.00 pm tour. Feel very lucky, and a little proud.

1.55 pm: Hang around reception waiting for tour to start. Hear woman at reception telling family of five that they're very lucky, she has exactly five slots left for the 2.00 pm tour. Feel less lucky, and a little foolish.

2.00 pm: Tour starts. Guide looks like she has a long and passionate acquaintance with wine. Twelve other people going along. Keep eyes trained to the floor, avoid eye contact. Don't want to associate with tourists. Okay, okay, so technically I am one too. All the more reason to reinforce my amateur status.

2.05 pm: Enter the map room. Wonder why we've been brought here. Errr..excuse me, ma'am? We wanted to to see the vineyard, not invade it.

2.06 pm: Look, look, faux-quaint maps. The kind that are titled Ye Vale of Napa in florid writing. Wonder if they show hippogriffs?

2.07 pm: Guide describes history of vineyard. Dude 1 shows up in 1860-something. Place reminds him of the old country. Decides to start a vineyard. Slaves and slaves for years, till he starts producing quality wine. Dies. Half a century later Dude 2 shows up, buys up scattered land-holdings of Dude 1's descendants, consolidates, gets rich, becomes high-flying yacht-owning playboy. There's an Upton Sinclair novel in there somewhere. You know, honest, hard-working, son of the soil types outfoxed by conniving, greedy banker from the East. "It's over, Cynthia, we've lost it all!" "Oh, John!". Or maybe Ondaatje. Grandson of Dude 1 returns wounded from WWII, has passionate affair with nurse who is also his second cousin, gets beaten to pulp by her father, drifts off to Vegas where he joins a group of ex-servicemen who can't decide whether they want to drown their memories or pickle them, but figure they need the alcohol anyway; forgets all about vineyard, which gets snapped up by earnest young entrepreneur type, who also gets the girl. Or for that matter, why not Harold Robbins. Naked women in crushing vats, obligatory comparisons of nipples to grapes. Hmmm. Decisions, decisions.

Meanwhile the guide has moved on to explaining why Napa is the perfect place to grow wine grapes. Bad flashback to 9th grade geography. "The three reasons why wine grapes do well in Napa are a) the fog from the Pacific, which gets trapped between the [illegible scribble] and the [illegible scribble] mountains b) the winds from the [illegible scribble] bay c) the temperature range across the valley and d) the"...oh, dash it!..."The Four reasons why wine grapes do well in Napa are a) the fog from the Pacific b) the winds from the bay c) the temperature range across the valley d) the absence of rain in the crucial months and e) "...sigh..."The Five reasons why wine grapes do well in Napa are a) the fog, b) the winds, c) the temperature, d) no rain and e) the variation in soil types" There. But wait, weren't their six reasons? I'm sure there were six. Dammit! I've forgotten the last one. I should have taken notes. If she really does give us a quiz after this, I'm going to get a B. Again.

I hate Geography.

2.20 pm: Lecture over, out in the vineyard. The guide explains how they care for the vines. Something about pruning. Wasn't there a section in Virgil about this stuff [1]? Try to remember. No luck. Ah, Virgil. The good old days. Now that was grape-growing for you. You sowed your seeds, tended your vines, sacrificed an ox to Jove and a goat to Apollo and drank the odd libation or two to Bacchus, and there you were. None of this new-fangled 'we use genetics, we have pH lab' nonsense. That was the life.

Ok, tune in to guide again. She's explaining how they spare no expense to make sure everything that goes into the wine is just perfect. Sure. Which is why they can charge such high prices. Class, which of Porter's generic strategies would you call this? Oh, for crying out loud!

2.40 pm: Inside the factory. 56 massive barrels, each holding about a thousand bottles worth of wine. And with a nice oak finish too. I have got to get me one of these for my apartment. They'd be just perfect for parties.

2.45 pm: Watch video of manufacturing process. Lots of shabby-looking temp workers running about plucking grapes. That's it, of course. Not Sinclair, not Robbins. Steinbeck! In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath. Long live Tom Joad! Do you have any questions, the guide asks. Sure, I have questions. How much do you pay these people? Do they get health benefits? Do you hire the same people every year, or different ones? Do they have a union? How does it feel to be a cog in this oozing corporate machine, crushing the lives out of your grape-like workers? Start to raise hand. Notice clip of man-sized basket press being used to extract the juices from the dregs left over in the fermenter. Realize they never show you what's actually inside these things. Have vision of being placed inside one of those presses, being slowly crushed to death, blood flowing out like wine. "Welcome to Sweeney Todd Vineyards. We practice transubstantiation, only in reverse". Decide to keep pinko sympathies to oneself. Discretion being better part, etc.

2.55 pm: The wine cellar. Long rows of wine casks, piled one on top of the other. Wonder which one of them has the magic potion.

3.00 pm: At last, the tasting. Must not act like feckless alcoholic. Must try to be suave, sophisticated. Must try to channel Cary Grant. Hmmm...that is a stretch. Okay, okay, must at least try to channel Paul Giamatti. Now that can't be so hard.

3.05 pm: Tasting begins. First wine. Sauvignon Blanc. Nice. Wait till everyone's got their glass filled. Now reach for it. Say what? She wants us to smell it? Oh, all right. Swirl wine under nose. Pay no attention to scent but use movement to surreptitiously see if anyone else has started drinking. Desi software engineer types are guzzling it down. But they don't count. Ah, woman at the foot of the table is sipping at her wine now. And she speaks French. So it must be all right. Okay, taste wine. Aaah!

What's that? What does it taste like? Let's see now. Like rain through autumn woodsmoke, like the clean hands of the river, the soft caress of leafy shadows, like dew that collects in your lover's throat, like.... What did that woman say? Flowers? Flowers! And Berries! And please, please tell me that guy did not just say walnuts. And the guide is agreeing with them! Sigh. What's the use of being a poet? I need a drink.

3.10 pm: Second wine. A rich, full-bodied Cabernet. Ah, "the true, the blushful Hippocrene, / With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, / and purple-stained mouth". "Full of rich, loamy textures and a bouquet of subtle flavoring" the cheat-sheet says. Take sip. Hmmm...a little dry. Take another sip. Tastes vaguely like dark chocolate. Offer this opinion to the guide. She agrees. Well, then, that's good enough for me.

3.15 pm: Begin to realize that guide will say yes to pretty much anything anyone says they taste in the wine. Suppose she has to be nice. What is she going to say - "You taste cinnamon? In this? What are you, some kind of moron?". Consider telling her it tastes like tiger's chaudron, or baboon's blood. Resist.

3.20 pm: Wine no. 3. A dessert wine this time. Ah, nice smell. Could almost be perfume. Sip. It IS perfume. This isn't wine! It tastes like Schnapps with extra sugar. Yuck! yuck! Why didn't I keep some of the Cabernet? I need to get this taste out of my mouth. Anything will do - another wine, coffee, even mouthwash. Anything but this. What's that? She's going to bring us cookies to taste with it? Oh, good. A little chocolate will really hit the spot.

3.22 pm: What the hell is this? Are these supposed to be cookies? But they're the size of quarters! And is that jam on top? Strawberry jam? Ewww. Oh well, at least they're something to nibble on. Cleanse the palate. That sort of thing. Here goes. Hmmm. Not bad. A dainty little snack after all. What's that? Oh, we weren't supposed to eat them all at once? We were supposed to nibble at them, alternating sips of the wine between the nibbles, like Alice trying to decide what size she wants to be? Oops.


Afterword (with photographs [2])

On the plus side, the drive into Napa really was beautiful. The vines themselves were bare, of course, the little bushes standing about like twiggy menorahs, but the December light pouring over the valley made it seem timeless - the stark dignity of the shrubs, the endless geometry of rows striping the fields, so at odds with the gentle parabolas of the land itself, and the sleepy beauty of the houses, burnished to gold by the sun. Plus on the way back we got to see sunset off the Golden Gate bridge (see obligatory photo below), so life was good.

[1] The relevant passage occurs in Georgics II, a translation of which can be found here and here (line 259 onward or thereabouts). As always, Virgil rocks.

[2] So there.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Stray thoughts on the Modi election

[I know, I know, this was weeks ago. But I've been away.]

Okay, so you can't fool all of the people all of the time. So what? You don't need to.

The real question is: can you fool enough of the people enough of the time?


It's always seemed to me that the chief virtue of democracy is that it does the least harm. I don't believe for a moment that the exercise of individual franchise will result in outcomes that are optimal for society, but I do believe, or would like to believe, that it will result in outcomes that are not morally heinous. The underlying assumption is that human beings are, well, human, and that a government that represents the will of the people, however approximately, will never have the same appetite for atrocity and suppression as one run by an individual or set of individuals, simply because the will of the people is too weak.

Watching Modi return to office, though, I have to wonder if that's really true. If we lived in a world of frustrated, self-hating, morally apathetic bigots, would democracy still make sense? What if the verdict of the people is something we cannot reconcile with our own conscience?

Not that I'm suggesting that this is the case in Gujarat. Yet. I'm going to continue to believe, like most people, that Modi's re-election is mere foolishness, a choice made by people who don't realize what they're doing. It's an ingenious hypothesis, and the only one I can bring myself to accept.

But what if (and again, I'm not saying this is true or likely to happen, I'm just speculating) this really were the will of the people? What if in the coming months the state government of Gujarat passed laws that were openly discriminatory to Muslims, and the people approved? What if a majority of the people of Gujarat knowingly and deliberately wanted religious minorities discriminated against, even killed? Would it be right for us to overrule the verdict of the people? Where, if anywhere, does democracy end and humanity begin?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Flying to California

An hour out of Dallas and the man in the seat in front of me looks out of the window and sees a great expanse of white opening below him. "Is that snow?" he asks the stewardess. She smiles and nods yes. Immediately he draws the attention of his wife and his daughter (who've been bickering ever since the flight took off) to the window. "Look", he says, "isn't it grand!". And they crouch there, all three of them, their vaguely consonant faces pressed to the tiny oval of the window, staring down at the whiteness of the plain below them, remembering suddenly that it's Christmas and that they're together, that they're family.

I consider telling them that what they're looking at is probably sand (this is Southern New Mexico we're flying over), but I don't.


Flying over Nevada the earth is the color of uncooked meat. Varicose highways thread the landscape, invisible corpuscles of cars carrying their tiny portions of air towards cities they will never reach. Here and there, snow-capped peaks lie exposed like cartilage and a distant lake spreads like a bruise, growing slowly rotten in the heat of day.


Closer to the Pacific, low golden hills run towards the ocean, wave after wave of them, as though the land had decided to meet the incoming surf with a tide of its own. And I imagine the surge of it, the inexorable movement of these hills towards the shoreline, or perhaps the retreat of the shoreline itself until it is overwhelmed, swept under. For it is only the near-sightedness of our perspective that makes the land seem stationary. The truth is that the earth moves as well, the mountain ranges are mere ripples, and all the contours of our geography are merely the trough and swell of an undulation that will take millennia to die down.

P.S. Okay, so here's the deal. Custom demands that having just returned from a vacation I write an extra-long post (complete with photographs) about it. But then, Custom doesn't have a paper deadline to meet in two weeks. So as a compromise, I figure I'll just blog about the trip in small doses - a little bit here, a little bit there. Maybe with some other stuff thrown in. Like today's post for instance. Which takes you all the way to, well, noon on the first day. Sigh. It's going to be a long month.

P.P.S. And while we're at it, would someone explain to me why the good people of Mineta San Jose International feel it necessary to thank me (repeatedly, over the loudspeaker) for using their airport. It's awfully nice of them and all, but really, what else was I supposed to do? Parachute in?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Parallel Praying / The State of Tourism

If I were called upon to construct a religion, I would use parking. I can think of few experiences more spiritual than the search for a vacant space in a crowded lot. Think about it - the timorous yet hopeful entry, the endless circling in search of something that increasingly comes to feel like the truth, the delicate balance between those coming in and those leaving, the almost unconscious movement from level to level, and then, just when you've almost given up hope, the unexpected salvation - a space that seems to be waiting just for you. And the Parked would welcome the newly blessed joyfully into their ranks. And the Damned would be condemned to circle for ever and ever, cursing that guy in the white convertible for having parked so poorly. And Limbo would be finding street parking but not having the quarters for the meter. And some would slip effortlessly into heaven while others would have to try again and again before they fit in. And all the while a voice over the loudspeaker would be reminding you to pay for the sins of your last life before you re-enter the world.

(see also: That scene in Bananas where four men in black try to parallel park a crucified Woody Allen)


Yes, I'm back. Expect lots of posts about California (chiefly the Bay Area) as well as movies (I watched four new ones last week - Juno, Charlie Wilson's War, The Savages and Sweeney Todd - not to mention my newly established tradition of watching The Hudsucker Proxy on New Year's Eve) .

For now, let me just say that I'm more convinced than ever that California should be relabeled the Tourist State. Seriously. Everywhere you go there are bound to be at least half a dozen people with cameras striking idiotic poses and generally getting in the way. This would be annoying, except that in most cases the tourists are actually the most interesting part of what you've gone to see. They should have a tourism campaign about this. California: Come See Tourists. After all, that's what all the sea lions and cormorants are there for. Hell, even the people who live there seem like tourists half the time. In fact, as far as I can tell, the whole state is one big vacation run amok.

On the plus side, at least the state did live up to its reputation for sunshine. I managed six whole days of glorious weather - the full splendor of which was brought rudely home to me when I arrived back in Philly last night (having spent half of Tuesday lazing about the Stanford lawns in a T-shirt) to find that the temperature, with wind chill, was 8 degrees F. I miss California already.