R A L P HVolume Twenty-Four
The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities
Early Fall 2005
The Singing Life of Birds
The Art and Science
Of Listening to Birdsong
(Houghton Mifflin)I can only remember three things about my dear old grandmother, who died in 1939, when I was but six years old. The first was that she always wore black, even though her husband, my grandfather --- generally thought to be a rotter (he was addicted to morphine) --- had died fifteen years before. Second was that she left her teeth in the bathroom, in a water-glass that magnified the pale pink false gums, the white and obviously made-up dentures.
The third was that when she sat down at the old Baldwin up-right, she pounded the hell out of it. She sang, belting out the tunes, and she whistled! Who'd ever think this shy courtly old lady could make such looney tunes.
Last night I dreamed of my Halley
Of my Halley, my sweet Halley
Last night I dreamed of my Halley
For the thought of her is one that never dies
she sang. And well do I recall wondering, "Halley. Is there someone here named 'Halley?'" Someone I've never met, named after a comet?
She's sleeping now in the valley
In the valley, my sweet Halley
She's sleeping now in the valley
And the Mockingbird is singing where she lies...
"Sleeping in the valley," I thought. "We don't have valleys here, on the southern coast. In the Carolinas, yes ... but not here."
Listen to the Mockingbird, listen to the Mockingbird
Oh the Mockingbird is singing oe'er her grave
Listen to the Mockingbird, listen to the Mockingbird
Still singing where the yellow roses grow
"Listen to the mockingbird," she would sing, so cheerfully. "Listen to the mockingbird," she would sing. And then she would whistle, not those weak breathings that the most of us come up with, but a window-rattling fire-chief trill.
§ § §
I have tried again and again to write down to my satisfaction what our local mockingbird is saying to us. It comes out like this:
Comes now Donald Kroodsma to tell us that you can record them, the mockingbirds, and all the others, if you must, but you are better off not to start. He says it will take you over, you will find yourself in some strange neighbor's strange backyard at dawn trying to capture the sound of the black-capped chickadee, the eastern winter wren, the red-eyed vireo, the towhee, the tufted titmouse --- a godwit god knows.
In this 500 page gorgon of a book, complete with CD, you'll find out everything you ever want to know about those songs that drift about us, "the begging calls of a young mockingbird, the calls of a swallow-tailed kite, the flica-flica-flica call of the flickers, and many more that sound familiar yet not quite identifiable."
I've often wondered if my friendly local mockingbird is really, as they say, stealing songs, if not brooding over Halley ... but Kroodsma assures me it is so, even goes to the trouble of following one young Eastern Mockingbird about, recorder in hand, as he does, noting good imitations of the kestrel, nuthatch, cardinal, Carolina wren, belted kingfisher, and then, "the sound of "machine-gun fire, a burst of six or seven shots followed by a brief whistle, then another burst of fire" --- none of which he can find in his extensive list of birdcalls.
Why, the author asks himself, does a mockingbird mock? "What does he gain by his theft, by singing the songs of other birds?" He's not quite sure, even though a friend suggests it is merely to build a repertoire.
This may be true, but the mockingbird's close relatives seem to counter that idea --- a gray catbird can have up to 400 different songs, a brown thrasher 2,000, but few of these are mimicked, and most are simply made up, or improvised.
Maybe it is to chase away birds that will try to take food, move into its territory, but "Why a washing machine or car siren, as other mockingbirds have been heard to sing."
The author tells us that the noisy mockingbird you are hearing is probably the odd bird out, one that's young, new to the turf. Those with mates are not about to be up all night crying. He does make note of one lovely call I have heard: in the dark of the night, in the miasma of my insomnia, when I wake at three or so to hear the mockingbird mocking, the songs are slowed down, as if he is all too tired of courting, weary of letting the world know of his hunger for love, for food, for territory. A sweet, sad, desultory song.
There's a house finch around, too ... also known as a linnet. One of those that hangs around with the slovenly, common sparrow. Cese claims that this finch carries on not unlike people having a conversation. Up and down, up and down, chitter-chatter, it goes. She's right. You might as well be at lunch at the North Lakes Country club listening to the biddies singing their song of martial woe as being on my porch listening to the house finch, which, we are told, originated in Brooklyn, in 1890, illegally sprung from the jail on the porch.
Each place I have lived has its proper songs. Near the equator, it's the boat-tailed grackle chattering like a computer gone mad. Where I grew up, it was the blue jay who, thanks to Kroodsma's CD --- 97 birdsongs in all --- I get to rehear. (Another friend tells me the jays are the Hell's Angels of birds).
There are few birds who don't make conversation with you or me or each other or the world, Kroodsma tells us. The buzzard simply hisses, the Moa simply disappears. The most persistent singers he tells us are the red-eyed vireos, and the nightjar "represented here by the whip-poor-will." Those who sing the least: the jay, crow or raven. He calls the jay "a songbird without a song."
§ § §
How well do I yet remember
I remember, I remember
How well do I yet remember
For the thought of her is one that never dies...
It was in that sweet September
In September, I remember
It was in that sweet September
That the Mockingbird was singing far and wide.
Listen to the Mockingbird," said my beloved, old, stooped, black-dressed grandma:
Listen to the Mockingbird
Oh the Mocking bird still singing oe'er her grave.
Listen to the Mockingbird, listen to the Mockingbird
Oh the Mockingbird still singing in the spring.
I did I did. Exactly as she told me ... Listening to the mockingbird, there on the sun-washed hot summer house; there, too, beside the stream of night; here, seventy years later, in the encroaching darkness, next to the arroyo, there where the poor whippoorwill moans and is soon to die.
--- Gerry TrimbleTalking Big
for Harry and ClaudiaWe are sitting here at dinner talking big.
I am between the two dullest men in the world
Across from the fattest woman I ever met.
We are talking big. Someone has just remarked
That energy equals the speed of light squared.
We nod, feeling that that is "pretty nearly correct."
I remark that the square on the hypotenuse can more
Than equal the squares on the two sides. The squares
On the two sides object. The hypotenuse over the way
Is gobbling the grits. We are talking big. The door
Opens suddenly revealing a vista that stretches
To infinity. Parenthetically, someone remarks
That a body always displaces its own weight.
I note at the end of the gallery stands a man
In a bowler and a black coat with an apple where
His head should be, with his back to me, and it is me.
I clear my throat and re (parenthetically) mark
That a body always falls of its own weight.
"whoosh-WHOOM!" Sighs the hypotenuse across,
And (godknows) she means it with all her heart.--- From Words Burnished by Music
©2004 Johns Hopkins University Press
The Word-Consuming ThingGods made magic and gave a man, to aid his hay-eaters, a word-consuming thing. "Plant corn," he would say, add the feed-words "I love you," and the thing would suck the sounds in, smile, and carry corn seeds to the field. If he said "I thirst," plus the feed words, the thing would march right off to fetch water.
Directed properly, the thing cleaned house, chopped firewood, and cooked delicious meals. It was warm to sleep beside, and --- given the feed words --- offered joys of which the man had never dreamed. In a year's time, it even made a miniature of him, attending to its many needs, while the man bragged to his friends.
Only the feed words troubled him. They gave no command, conveyed no data, yet produced results. At first, he had only to say them and the thing would drape itself on him and, even at midday, lead him to bed and open up its mysteries.
Much later, though the feed-words still got results, the thing would stare at him on hearing them, tugging the long hair that screened the twin hills on its chest. "I love you too," it would sigh in its soft voice, then walk away to stare at a wildflower, sunset, bird, or other useless thing, and make vanishing jewels which it called "tears."--- From Hot Popsicles
Charles Harper Webb
©2005 The University of Wisconsin Press
[PARADOX-OF-THE-MONTH]My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry. I have also lost my taste for pictures or music. My mind seems to have become a machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts.
If I had to live my life again, I would make a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week. The loss of these is a loss of happiness.--- From The Life and Letters of Darwin
Quoted in Kinsey, by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy
America's Historic Stockyards
J'Nell L. Pate
(TCU Press)Ms. Pate may have even more to offer the average reader than this slim volume: she recently published a book on the first (and last) hundred years of the Fort Worth stockyards. The Fort Worth stockyards!
Still, if you have a beef, and are interested in steering, and the history of cows, and the history of cows in America, and whether they are transported to your table on foot, or in a train, or in a truck or in frozen locker, then Livestock Hotels is your meat. However, once you've made the first joke about the hotel's lousy room-service, you're pretty much done, though she does report,
Although the thousands of involuntary visitors mooed, squealed, bleated, or whinnied their discomfort, displeasure and sheer frustration at being herded and crowded into strange noisy pens...The whole thing is a bit of a hoot --- or a moo --- if you stop to think about it. No bull. Ms. Pate goes into great detail on the last years in the great cow hotels of Sioux Falls, Peoria, Lancaster, and Joplin. She also gives brief histories of Philip Danforth Armour, Edward F. Swift, and James B. Sherman, the usual robber-barons whose names are branded in our memories mostly because they consolidated the middle-west stockyards and sold us hot-dogs and bacon packaged with their monikers.
There are numerous pictures of the Livestock Exchange Building in Oklahoma City and the stockyards of Ogden, but after WWII, Pate tells us, the hotels went into decline as local auctions took business away from the big packing-houses and the neighbors finally, at last, started complaining about the nose-pollution.
On page 160, there's a table of the receipts of the leading cow and pig markets between 1904 and 1974, all of which reminds us that in the newest issue of Booklist, the editors have highlighted some of the weirdest reference books that have come out over the years, including Who's Who on the Postage Stamps of Ecuador  and Women Serial and Mass Murderers: 1580 - 1990 .
May we nominate America's Historic Stockyards  even though it ignores the first line of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ("Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down the road and this moocow that was coming down the road met a nicens little boy named baby cuckoo") and, most heinous of all, does not even mention our personal favorite stockyard song of all time, "The Cow-Cow Boogie," sung by Ella Mae Morse, a song that I used to sing to myself when I was a baby cuckoo. According to LyricsFreak.com, the words go
Now get along, get hip little doggies
Get along, better be on your way
Get along, get hip little doggies
He trucked 'em on down that old fairway
Singin' his cow cow boogie in the strangest way
Comma ti yi yi yeah
Comma ti yippity yi yeah.--- Mary W. Caseres[LETTER]RALPH:
I was searching Joe McCarthy to find out who the witness was who finally called his bluff and brought the whole ugly era crashing down.
I came across your piece about Mogan but still don't know who finally shot down McCarthy. Can you help?
(This query is the result of seeing British MP George Galloway beating Sen Norm Coleman to a pulp on May 17)--- Bob Bruce
§ § §As far as we can recall --- and we watched all of the Army McCarthy Hearings of 1954 --- Joe McCarthy was brought down not by the "liberals," nor their lawyer, Joseph Welch, but by Joe McCarthy ... with the assistance of a relatively new invention, live national network television.
Before that, from 1949 to 1954, Joe McCarthy was a mysterious presence on the front pages of the newspaper and in the magazines of the times, a man who seemed a magician, who could find subversives and deviants where no one else had been able to find them before.
When the Army-McCarthy hearings began in the summer of 1954, he was, thus, an unknown, or better, an invisible figure, preaching the gospel of unknown evil permeating our very halls of government and the military. What he did not know, what everyone else seemed to know, was that you do not tangle with the United States military ... ever.
So on American television there was a new face: a man with dark eyebrows and a menacing way and a fearful growling voice, one who accused all who opposed him as being disloyal, traitors to our security, to the country. A strange concept, no? If you oppose me, you are automatically a Benedict Arnold.
And, as he spoke to us, from that solemn Senate Chamber, there was, at every moment, a young man with dark moon eyes whispering in his ear. Even as he spoke, this man, Roy Cohn, was whispering in his ear. (What? We never found out.) Whispering, whispering for all the world to see, but not to hear.
After weeks of this, the angry Senator, with the never-smiling viperish man at his ear, started to stop being a force to be contended with in America. He had been brought down by his own spooks.--- EdThe review that Inspired this letter
can be found at:
Manet & MonetIn which all outstanding problems of art history
are settled to everyone's satisfaction.What mattered more for Manet and Monet,
That Manet had money or Monet had manners?
Mattered to what, pray? Mattered to whom?
To Manet's manner or just Monet's mother?
And what do you mean by that bad-mannered 'just'?
What matters more to a man than his mother?
What matters more to a manner than money?
We know Monet's manner was dependent on Manet,
Maybe even his manners; and his manners meant marriage,
And money for Manets and many things more.
So did Manet matter more to Monet than mother?
(I mean Monet's mother, though Manet's might do.)
It depends, does it not, on the meaning of 'matter',
And what money meant to a man without means.
We know Madame Monet was once painted by Manet
(The Madame I mean was the first Monet married,
The one without money, the one that died young);
She was shown with her son on the grass in the garden,
The proud mother of Monets, as Monet looked on;
And the picture was done in a manner like Monet's,
Or a manner his mother would not have thought Manet's,
A manner, indeed, she might have thought mad
(I mean Manet's mother, though Monet's might do).
Maybe maternity always is manifold,
And manners are matters that mothers decree,
In which case this painting's not Manet's or Monet's,
But Madame's or mother's. (And what matters more
Than putting an end to that mad either/or?)
Better say simply he did it for Monet
(Though the market that moment had moved Monet's way).
Marx would have said these are all money matters,
Freud would have said it depends what that means.
There is never an end to the meanings of money,
The madness of matter, the meanness of mothers,
Otherwise why would man 'A' be a Manet,
And man 'B' be a Monet, manner and all?
Manet and Monet may be nothing but manners,
But what manners! What Monets! What need there be more?
What's money? What's Manet? It's Manets that matter:
The way that their matter is made to have meaning,
Manually, maddeningly, matter-of-factly.
What matters is manner. It's manner that means.--- ©2005 Timothy J. ClarkThe poem first appeared in
The London Review of Books
The Vanished Hands
(Harcourt)"He forced his foot not to falter at the first man he saw as he walked through the gate...""Some of the bungalows ... had been torn down and rebuilt from scratch into palatial mansions...""She was tall and slender with a full bust, an unstarved bottom and the innate ability to give dull men extravagant imaginations. Only Falcón and Calderón had sufficient testosterone control to be able to look her in the eye, and that required concentration...""For a fraction of a second the invisible plates in the lithosphere of her face seemed to spasm...""All eyes fastened on to her rump, which shivered slightly under the white linen of her flared trousers. A thin red belt like a line of blood encircled her waist. She disappeared behind the wall. Male noises, which had been suspended under the bell jar of her glamour, resumed...""The lawyer didn't look as if he was used to having a hand placed on his chest by anybody but his wife in bed...""On the mid section of the sofa was a cordless phone, a box of chocolates with a half a tray uneaten..."
"The lawyer appeared in the doorway, his dark brown eyes set hard in his head..."
"He thought about gripping the judge's shoulder in comradely fashion but the bitterness of his disappointment filled his mouth with the taint of a bad olive..."
"Over the last few months of his therapy thoughts of her had subsided, but whenever her name came up there was an unmistakable leap in his stomach..."
"Vázquez appeared on his shoulder in the reflection of the glass."Total number of pages in book: 360
Total number of pages read: 18
[GREAT REVIEWS OF THE PAST]Volcanoes
Mauro Rosi, et al, Editors
(Firefly)When you are looking at a volcano, you are not looking at a volcano. You are looking at a caldera, a shield volcano, a strato volcano, a somma volcano, or a lava dome. The latter is like one of those new sports stadiums, such as the Tacoma Dome, except that the games are played by teams of giants deep underneath the grounds. Sometimes, one of them slides into home plate, also called a Tectonic plate, and the result is a spray of lava, ash, steam, gravel, rocks, and Sunday newspapers.
The most damaging part of this is the Sunday papers, which coat everything with a fine layer of advertising supplements. The layers of this material pile up so thick that you can't even find the funnies. If you can, then the sliding plates can be counted as a mere Seismic Disturbance which is four points less.
All these events are scored on the Richler Scale, named after the author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. On this scale, true Eruptions are scored between 6.0 and 8.0 for noise, volume of gravel, and degree of lava flow. Seismic disturbances generally rate only 3.0, although sometimes they receive extra points for style.
Worst of all are the fires. Volcanoes enjoy what is called "effusive activity" --- shooting flames high in the sky. When you step out of the house to look they bonk you with rocks, stones, lava, gravel, and Classified Advertisements. On the other hand, volcanoes can also induce writers to write. This effect works particularly well when both the volcano and the writer are dormant.
For example, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania went into retirement 500,000 years ago, but that still didn't prevent it from inspiring Hemingway to write "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." In the end, as we all remember from the movie, a smirking pilot takes the writer up to the top so he can become a snowman. Hemingway himself followed this story with a long period of silence to everyone's relief. The mountain has done likewise, so far.
Sometimes volcanoes overflow with what geologists call "fantastic spastic pyroclastics" which cook up everything left in their path.
In Pompeii, Italy, pyroclastic Somma buried the whole city while the townspeople were sitting down for lunch. This happened in 79 AD, and the Pompeiians have yet to finish their fettucine con frutti di mare, and will probably never get to the pineapple upside down cake. The Napolitanos are said to take things easy, but if you ask me this is overdoing it.
You'd think with all this that volcanoes would be bad neighbors. Not so. Many towns in Central America, Iceland, and Europe are proud of their little volcanoes ("volcancitos") and use them as a tourist attraction. People in Heimaey, Iceland have set up a bar and grill where they offer fried penguin and a hot, alcoholic punch called "glögg" so people can eat and get glöggy and watch the fireworks at the same time.
Unfortunately, Heimaey experienced a sudden redevelopment project in 1973 when their volcano blew it and coated downtown with lava, ash, and fried Icelanders.
The town of Galeras in Columbia invited some volcanologists to visit its fumaroles --- the "Smoking Area" of the mountain --- in 1988. When the scientists went there to have a smoke, the little volcano of Galeras had a gas attack, and several geologists were blown to their heavenly reward.
There are some volcanoes that are not volcanoes. For example, Mr. Rainier in Washington is included in this book, but it hasn't had a blowoff since 1500, at which time there was what they called "The Electron Mudflow."
The "Electron Mudflow" was named for the then owner of the volcano and the mayor of Puyallup, Fred Electron. He not only owned the only volcano in town but he claimed he could turn it off or on at will. However, volcanoes are tricky and you don't want to be fooling with them: one day the big mudflow caught up with Fred, and to this day, there he sits in the mayor's chair with lava up to his ears.
Nothing this exciting has happened in western Washington since then, except for the great Seattle Fire of 1893 and the later invention of Microsoft Word. However, help may be on the way. Paul Allen's Vulcan Corporation, which currently owns Seattle, plans to buy Mount Rainier and drill holes in the mountain to induce another blow-off. A good pyroclastic flow would cover the vast, perpetual traffic jam on Interstate 5 discretely in ash. Then the whole region, from Seattle to Gravelly Lake/Ponders could serve as a tourist attraction, and could be renamed "Vulcania" or the Experience Paul Allen Project.--- L. W. Milam
Pigs Hunting TrufflesMrs. Casey, may the angels sing her praises, taught English. In the first weeks of school, to take our measure, she assigned an informal essay on a subject of our own choosing.Fully half the class elected to write a description of their bedrooms at home; I chose a picture in the French textbook that baffled me.A black-and-white photograph showed a stiff, solemn man in a suit standing beside a perfectly enormous and equally solemn pig, and the caption read simply Truffle-Hunting Pig in France.There was no explanation in the text and I'd never heard of truffles, so I forged ahead with an account of the truffle hunt, and the pigs, specially bred for their speed and spirit, galloping over the fields and leaping the fences in pursuit of the fleetfooted truffle which, when caught, would be stuffed and mounted and hung on the wall.
When Mrs. Casey returned our papers, she'd written in her neat teacherly hand in my margin, "It's never too soon to think of publishing, you know."--- From When All the World Was Young
©2005 Bloomsbury Press
(Shoemaker & Hoard)We hate to say this in public, and you didn't hear it here, but Wendell Berry is a supremely sappy writer. It's Norman --- we almost wrote "Noman" --- Rockwell for the sixties set.
They, these inchoate farm folk, have many a hard time there on the north forty, what with the depression and all, but butter wouldn't melt in their mouths, and Hannah's family name isn't Steadman for nothing.Hannah's step-mother can be a little harsh, but then there is Grandmam --- that's what we call her, "Grandmam" --- always there by her side, there in front of the stove, brewing strong coffee at 5:30 in the morning, when any sane person would still be abed.
These are all neo-Steinbeckian proletarian hero-types but where's the beef? Husband #1 is Virgil, as in Publius Vergilius Maro, author of bucolic literature during the age of the Holy Roman Empire. But Virgil Feltner --- Port William's Virgil --- gets cold-cocked in the Battle of the Bulge. Husband #2 ... Nathan ... comes on the scene soon after, and he is a good man, and a strong man, and a soft-spoken man,
He had no small talk and few of what are called social graces. He had a kind of courtesy that required few words, and with me a gentleness that was as deliberate and forceful as his bouquets of stolen flowers, so roughly broken off. He would say, "Ay, Lord, honey, you're all right!" Or: "Here's some flowers I brought you, pretty thing."After awhile things get so wooky there in Berryland that one finds oneself wanting to call up the ghost of Sherwood Anderson, or Sinclair Lewis, or Willa Cather, to help us out, put a tad of fire in these folk, for pity's sakes. They come along so full of inchoate humbleness that we think they are going to blow up and pop.
Maybe it's those King Jamesian repetitions: "My life with Nathan turned out to be a long life, an actual marriage, with trouble in it."
I am not complaining. Troubles came, as they were bound to do, as the promise we made had warned us that they would. I can remember the troubles and speak of them, but not to complain. I am beginning again to speak of my gratitude.Thus, Hannah, the star of this stew, is barely complaining about not complaining, with the gratitude, and all, for this simple, strong man, a man that makes one not want to complain.
No complaints at all ... except about a writer who can't seem to get enough of this Biblical rubbish. And some readers, of not-so-Biblical patience, who might get all too full up, all too quickly, with all this vomit-inducing sentiment.--- Leslie Winters, M.A.Total pages in book: 185
Total pages read: 78
Peter FinchThe orgasm is one of the more intense pleasures that can be tried
even if of short duration. He seems natural to try to have of the greater
possible number through the sexual relationships or with
the masturbazione. I even try to procurarsi the pleasure with
the masturbazione without to be involved with other persons.
I do not understand why one must limit when this is easy to obtain
and innocuous for the health. I do not eat manicaretti and leccornie
all days which in the long run can nuocere my health,
but I do try to have the greater number of orgasms
(also resorting to the masturbazione)
the pleasure that it gives to me is intense.
I am astonished that all are not behaved like me.
When then I feel the women that they consider the degrading
masturbazione and therefore to avoid, the arms fall off me.
Is there is something that does not go in this my way to think?--- From In the Criminal's Cabinet:
An Anthology of Poetry and Fiction
Edited by Val Stevenson and Todd Swift
©2004, nthposition press
38 Allcroft Road
London NW5 4NE
Pushing the Limits:
New Adventures in Engineering
(Knopf)Petroski is an engineer, one might say an engineer's engineer. In Pushing the Limits, we have thirteen chapters devoted to "Bridges," and eleven to "Other things."
Under the former, we find the "Benjamin Franklin Bridge" --- the Delaware River Bridge --- the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Straits in England, and the Confederation Bridge between the mainland of Canada and Nova Scotia.In "Other Things," we have the Dorton Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and Three Gorges Dam at Yichang, China.
§ § §
I said earlier that Petroski was an engineer's engineer. He seems to be a popular writer, as well. This is his twelfth book, and has been praised by the likes of Michael M. Sokal and the unredoubtable Alberto Manguel in the pages of Library Journal, Scientific American, the New York Times Book Review, and the Los Angeles Times.
Petroski doesn't seem to have met a building or bridge (or any other structure) that he doesn't like. Well, there is an exception here or there. He doesn't care for non-conforming structures, picking on the Texas A&M Bonfire stack --- the one that killed a dozen students in 1999 --- for not being built according to code. "The virtually unregulated evolution of the design of such a massive structure was a prescription for disaster."
On the other hand he reserves one whole hagiographic chapter to Fazlur Khan, the man who helped destroy Chicago's skyline with the Hancock Center and the Sears Tower. In 1972 Khan was named "Construction's Man of the Year" by the Engineering News-Record, which doesn't sound too far from being named Shock-Jock of the year by the National Association of Broadcasters.
Of the minimalist Dorton Arena, Petroski says that shortly after it was built forty years ago, it was "recognized among professional architects and engineers as 'the most important building in America today,'" although it still looks like a couple of oversized shoe-horns to me.
This "greatest building" trope gets thrown around a lot in Pushing the Limits. Petroski musters up fulsome praise for that abandoned garbage can that now sprawls at the river edge in Bilbao, and the fifteenth chapter of the book ends with a quote from Philip Johnson --- who built a few garbage cans himself --- calling the Bilbao Guggenheim "the greatest building of this generation."
The late World Trade Center? Petroski says the towers had "great aesthetic synergy." Hello?
The view of the towers from the walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge was especially striking, with the stark twin monoliths echoing the twin Gothic arches of the bridge's masonry tower.
Get that? One of the gorgeous artifacts of 19th Century engineering is being compared to one of the most impertinent abortions of the 20th.
What Petroski and his compeers have not yet figured out is that architecture (and engineering) can be --- no, should be --- a loving art. And it's not just a matter of scale. All structures should open the soul. Stop laughing. The engineering mentality that built the WTC, the Pan-Am Building, the Sears Building, hell --- most of American late 20th Century downtowns --- is the same mental set that designed and built the Pruitt-Igoe public-housing towers in St. Louis.
Few people recall that this project, built with public funds, created what is now known as "building psychosis." Only a few years after it was constructed in 1956, "disrepair, vandalism, and crime plagued Pruitt-Igoe," reports architectural critic Alexander von Hoffman.
The project's recreational galleries and skip-stop elevators, once heralded as architectural innovations, had become nuisances and danger zones. Large numbers of vacancies indicated that even poor people preferred to live anywhere but Pruitt-Igoe.
"In 1972," he concludes, "after spending more than $5 million in vain to cure the problems at Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis Housing Authority, in a highly publicized event, demolished three of the high-rise buildings." The WTC was destroyed by terror from without. Pruitt-Igoe by terror from within. What scarcely anyone has ever pointed out is that the two monsters were designed by the same architect/engineer: Minoru Yamasaki.
§ § §Not long ago, Petroski visited China with some other American engineers --- what a fun flight that must have been --- to view the second stage of the Three Gorges Dam at Yichang. He gushes over "the bright stainless-steel ambiance of the new airport at Hong Kong" and, once in China proper, tells us that when at the dam site itself, "the freedom with which we visitors were allowed to move among the piles of construction material and debris" ... as if a gathering of American civil engineers could be a threat to anyone, anytime. Except the environment.
His main complaint about Three Gorges is at the nearby exhibitions building. "The case for the dam is made in which might be seen as a western-style public relations effort, were it not for the exclusive use of Chinese in the display captions." Those Chinese: don't they know no English? J. Walter Thompson, where are you now that we need you?
He ignores the ecological and social disaster of Three Gorges, although he does concede that "the filling of the reservoir was expected to displace on the order of one million people, inundate almost fifty thousand hectares of prime farmland, submerge archaeological treasures, and forever alter the appearance of Three Gorges."
Despite this, Petroski speaks warmly of "the inherent interdisciplinary nature of large engineering projects." He is visibly impressed by the locks, the batch plant --- whatever that might be --- and government reports that the economy will boom. He knows this is true, because he and the other visitors come "from a country that is what it is today in part because its engineers also tamed great and scenic rivers like the Colorado and the Snake." Which is a clear warning: whenever you hear a civil engineer mouthing the not-so-civil word "tame," know that it's time to batten the hatches and head for the hills.--- Lolita Lark[ANOTHER PARADOX-OF-THE-MONTH]Today, at the end of the neolithic age, we have the Bomb as environment. The Bomb is not a gimmick or a gadget. It is not something that has been inserted in the military establishment more than automation is something that is now being inserted into the industrial establishment. The Bomb, like automation, is a new environment consisting of a network of information and feedback loops.
The Bomb, as pure information, consists of higher learning. It is, as it were, the extension division of the modern university in its highest research areas, creating a very tight environment indeed.--- From Understanding Me:
Lectures and Interviews
©2005, MIT Press
Sex the Measure of All Things
(Indiana University Press)This Kinsey was a weird one, indeed. His first study was the gall-wasp. Why? It's a creature that infests oak trees, never moves very far. Thus its evolution --- and Kinsey was a dyed-in-the-wool Darwinian --- was slow-moving, easy to observe. "If we could see the whole evolutionary spread, if every link survived," he said, "we would have a totally different world picture ... this was the world of the gall wasp." Kinsey ended up with 34,000 specimens, collected over 32,000 miles of travel. The good professor, the author claims, in this as in all things, went overboard. Gathorne-Hardy claims he became a gall-wasp.In 1940 Kinsey began his work on sexuality, creating a complex questionnaire, traveling to prisons, to Chicago with the "Rush Street Boys" ... in what are now known as gay bars. His success in his second chosen profession was created by four factors: establishing immediate rapport with the people that he and his associates were interviewing; his elaborate questionnaires which reflected the enormous variety of sexual types in the world; his all-encompassing guarantee of confidentiality; and, finally, his daring at undertaking elaborate research on a dynamite subject which heretofore, despite its universality, had been inadequately studied.Kinsey ended up collecting over 10,000 sexual histories from anyone who came into his orbit --- friends, students, fellow-teachers, prisoners, those who dropped into his office, even, we suspect, the janitors and cleaning ladies and groundsmen there at the University of Indiana, where he did most of his research.
Kinsey is fine reading, even though some of the facts come under the "I don't think I really want to know" department (don't even bring up Kinsey and his toothbrush). And some of the quotes are more than a little revealing. For instance, C. A Tripp who once said that Kinsey saw sex "as a factory of affection." Or this, on one of Kinsey's key, early grants --- $120,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1946 ---
What is astonishing is that all this really rested on and resulted from two intangible factors --- the power of Kinsey's personality and the gripping nature of his subject. Kinsey hadn't published anything of consequence on [sexuality] yet. There had been nothing in the nature of "peer review." Gregg [Director of the Foundation] despite his Board's frequent and intense anxiety that the whole thing was "decent," or that Kinsey was pursuing ridiculously large numbers (which he was), had, he told Kinsey, simply presented most of his extraordinary findings to the Rockefeller Board and they, like everyone else, had been completely fascinated. It was almost as if they paid to find out --- what will he discover next?
Whenever any of the board members visited with him in New York or Bloomington, Kinsey asked for, and almost always got, their intimate, personal sexual histories.
§ § §
Part of the wonder of the book is Gathorne-Hardy's writing style. Here he is on Kinsey's agonized view of the Anglo-Saxon view of homosexuality:
It is here, above all, sharpened obviously by autobiography, that there is passion in the Report. Kinsey had seen how these men had been harmed by society for their sexuality --- he had seen them in prison, blackmailed, made to feel guilt and anxiety, even made outcasts, and it had made him very angry. This never led him to falsify his figures; it did dictate his presentation.
It is not, ultimately, a happy story. Kinsey's investigation into and publication of a second study --- of female sexuality --- was far more controversial than the first report on males. This, plus the workings of the usual American Morality Police, and financial agonies --- his foundation support melted away in the early to mid-1950s --- made Kinsey somewhat paranoid, and more and more haunted in the months before he died in August of 1957.
But, even now, so many years after the fact, so many of us will never forget the power of the first Report. The summer it came out I --- all of fifteen --- read it at a sitting. Such excitement ... and I ain't talking about that excitement.
What came to be called The Kinsey Report read easily. A subject heretofore written about icily (or vulgarly) was here discussed clearly, even poetically. Despite the charts and the footnotes, Kinsey, in his way, was probably as fine a stylist as Freud. And I do fondly remember, almost sixty years later, me, then, in the sweet summer, lying in bed, reading it: not thumbing through it, but reading it in toto; and, thinking, as I did so, "Ah." And "So." And, "Yes, yes, yes ... of course ... yes!"American Naval Protocol
Reportedly the transcript of a radio conversation between a U. S. Naval ship and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland, released October 1995Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.
Canadians: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.
Americans: This is a captain of a U. S. Naval ship. I say again, divert your course.
Canadians: No, I say again, you divert your course.
Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Missouri. We are a large warship of the U. S. Navy. Divert your course now.
Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.--- As reported in Snowstruck
A Human History
(Tantor Unabridged Audiobook).The Romans didn't bring coal to Newcastle, but they thought that one could make it grow by adding fertilizer. They liked it for jewelry, smoothing it and shaping it, and sending it back home: Thus, it was the only jewelry in existence that you could throw in the fireplace if your honey didn't like it.
In 1900, coal provided 90% of the energy needs of the United States. It also turned the skies, buildings, streets, clothes, trees, birds, and your lungs black. In London at the time, 30% of deaths were ascribed to pulmonary conditions --- asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia --- caused by breathing coal smoke.
In England and the United States, up to a century ago, children worked the mines twelve hours a day. Why? They could fit into tiny spaces, didn't cost much, and best of all for the mine-owners, never went on strike. Can you imagine a bevy of these little guys, with blackened faces and miner's lamps on their heads, picketing the offices of Peabody Coal?
The later chapters tell of the one billion ton of coal used each year by utilities in the United States. The coal industry says it generates 85% of our electricity and 200,000 jobs. But these plants also generate nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, acid rain, global warming, ruined farmland, dead fish and the wheezles that many of us will carry to the grave. I listened faithfully, but it got so disheartening there half-way through #5 that I shut off the CD player (there are seven disks in all).
Shelly Frasier is the reader on this from Tantor. For some reason she reads as if she were a 21st Century Mae West; that is, in sing-song. However this ceases to be irritating by disk #2 since the material is more than a little interesting. What doesn't go away is me wincing every time she says the word "often." My Webster's Ninth tells us the only acceptable pronunciation is "of(t)en" --- with a little dot above the "o" and one of those funny looking upside down "e's." That means it should be pronounced "AW-fen," because the "t" is silent, like the "p" in swimming. That's a joke.
In any event, it is not pronounced "AWF-tin." Never.--- Ignacio Schwartz
Christine HammJoan of Arc works at the Gap.
Her armor, nearly invisible under
the florescent light, catches on the sweaters
she folds, so that cashmere threads
follow her everywhere, a crimson cape.
She can't remember how she got here:
most days, can't remember her name when she gets up,
but knows where her keys are,
and what bus to take to work.
God speaks to her sideways,
flickering reflections in the
napkin dispenser at the diner,
upside down when she licks
the ice cream clean from her spoon.
Joan sees pinions behind her when she uses the ATM.
There's angels, sometimes angry and frightening,
often white, and always in her dreams.
They smell like straw and milk...
Joan is sixteen. She's always sixteen.
She's so blond her eyebrows disappear.
She has freckles and is serious.
chews off her lipstick.
She'll heal you if you ask nice,
and go back behind the 501s with her.
Her name means "God is gracious."
Sometimes when she's stacking the perfume
she remembers this is true.--- From In the Criminal's Cabinet:
An Anthology of Poetry and Fiction
Edited by Val Stevenson and Todd Swift
©2004, nthposition press
38 Allcroft Road
London NW5 4NE[MORE GREAT REVIEWS OF THE PAST]My 'Dam Life
Three Years in Holland
(Lonely Planet)My 'Dam Life is the story of an ex-pat trying to make it in what turns out to be a very alien culture. The lead characters in the book are not Condon and his wife, Sally, but Amsterdam and Sean Condon's strange imagination.When most of us think of Amsterdam, we think of white bicycles and canals and Anne Frank and cafes where you can get stoned on legal hash. Condon's Amsterdam is different. It's a place of a language that is impossible to learn, a government that is impossible to deal with (especially for visitors holding forbidden jobs) and of housing that is impossible to find. Condon reveals that Anne Frank's family was fingered not by a German nor a Nazi but by a Dutch neighbor. It was someone, he suspects, who coveted their rather large if hidden apartment.As far as quaint items of Dutch life, we learn that the white bicycle idea never worked because the bikes got stolen, that the hash-cafes aren't very interesting unless you are a full-time stoner, and rather than being scenic waterways for the passage of scenic boats, canals are used as dumps for people or cars (or bicycles), vast waterways that spawn astonishing mosquitoes who "shoot you full of some sort of insect caffeine."Just such a mosquito wakes him from a dream where he is kissing Katharine Hepburn:
Other celebrities whom I have kissed in dreams include, but are not limited to, Jodie Foster, Reese Witherspoon, Kylie Minogue, Renée Zellweger, Parker Posey and Burt Reynolds.
"I think I have a thing about celebrities," he muses:
The thing I have about celebrities is this: I resent them. I am deeply jealous of them in all sorts of appropriately fantastic ways and yearn to be one, principally because I would be better at it than many of them: Elle MacPherson, Gwyneth Paltrow and Guy Ritchie to name just three.
This is typical Condon. He starts out on the subject of mosquitoes in Amsterdam and ends up on Guy Ritchie. He tells his wife that a friend hung himself and Sally corrects him, "You mean hanged." He goes to Der Ring des Nibelungen but "the singing is in German the subtitles in Dutch," and all the while he is covering his face with his hand because he has needles in his jaw from an acupuncturist who is trying to cure his cluster headaches.
He's a tall tale spinner, and when he is good, he is very very good --- the kind of writer to make you giggle even at 6:30 A.M. while you are on the Eighth Avenue Local and no one else around you is awake, much less laughing.
§ § §
Condon paints himself as a not-very intelligent, not very handsome, drop-out kind of a guy. He tells us that he "left high school" and "got into a lot of trouble in my working life," being fired from "my first thirty-six jobs,"
including a termination after just three days at the Department of Foreign Affairs, a truly miraculous achievement considering the fact that it is all but impossible to be fired ever from the public service, let alone after seventy-two hours.
But this supposedly not-too-
bright fellow is no dummy at all --- but, rather, a sly wit who can turn a visit to the dentist into a major trauma, a visit to the doctor a knee-slapper, who can invent a dialogue with himself about his booze consumption and turn it into a mini-drama right out of AA:
SC: Your father's an alcoholic, isn't he?
SC: (Long pause): Possibly.
SC: In fact, definitely.
SC: Whatever you say. Why do you always bring my father into it?
SC: Because I think it's important
SC: (no response)
SC: This conversation took place in your head, didn't it?
SC: Yes it did. It says so on the previous page.
Because of the wonderful way he paints his three years in a not very accommodating city, we know he's lying about his mentality: he's someone you and I would want to hang out with, a genuine gas who can turn buying stamps into a major adventure:
"Hello," I said, to the slumped grey figure before me. "I'd like two stamps and two envelopes, please. Alstublieft."
With the charm and alacrity of a corpse the guy slid the two stamps toward me then told me that they didn't sell envelopes.
"This is a post office, " I reminded him.
"Nevertheless, we do not sell envelopes," he reminded me. Then he pointed in the direction of Belgium and said, "Tabac."
I went to the tabac, queued up for seven minutes, bought three envelopes, went back to the post office, took a number, sat down and read mail-related pamphlets in Dutch for three-quarters of an hour until my number came up, went to the dead postal worker and handed over my spare envelope. "Next time somebody shows up and wants to buy an envelope --- and that time will come, my friend --- please give them this. It's on me."
My 'Dam Life is a travel book that's not a travel book (even though it is put out by a publisher that specializes in travel books). It's one that doesn't dwell on the wonders and delights and the pretty side of Amsterdam --- but, rather --- the horrors of losing an apartment overnight, what it's like to hide from the city's no-foreign-
workers bureaucrats, how to make do while not understanding a weird language, how to put up with weird neighbors --- like the guy across the way who has a painting, a very large painting, of his testicles hanging on the wall (the painting is hanging, not the testicles) --- all executed by his girl-friend.
It is this ability to take the boring or scary or strange and make it winningly funny that makes My 'Dam Life such a treat. Condon might as well have called it Down and Out in Amsterdam, Holland for, like Orwell, he can make the desperate side of a city come alive for us. It also convinces us that we will never go to Amsterdam to look for a job, buy a stamp, have our testicles painted, or commit suicide.--- Hans J. W. Werner
Britten and Barber
Their Lives and Their Music
(Amadeus Press)The musics composed by Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber were thought to be somewhat romantic, perhaps a return to the past. Rather than following the lead of such moderns as Stockhausen, Dallapiccola and Olivier Messien, they composed what was thought to be music of and for the people, not unlike the poetry of John Betjeman.Both lived within that tiny closed, somewhat gay culture of musicians of mid-century America and England. Barber's lifelong lover, Gian-Carlo Menotti, composed opera; Britten's love --- the dandy-ish Peter Pears --- was a noted tenor of the day.Anyone writing about composers and classical music of the 20th Century has to wrestle with a singular fact that when Barber and Britten were gadding about, Western musical culture was the playground of the rich and the fey, dancing about the once-great metropolitan centers --- London, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco --- with their opera houses, symphony halls, musicales, and such nearby venues as Tanglewood, Jubilee Hall and Aldeburgh.At the same time a wholly new music culture was erupting, an iceberg of music-love scarcely noted by the eminent critics of newspapers and magazines of the times. As he discusses these two, two of the most famous musicians of the day, Felsenfeld can quote from reviewers from the pages of The Saturday Review, The New York Times or The Times of London. He can and does cite the words of the movers and the shakers of the day: Leonard Bernstein, Serge Koussevitzky, Eugene Ormandy, Arturo Toscanni.
A radical change was taking place in the world of music just as Barber and Britten were muddling their way through the cultural dustbin. It was the coming of the LP (and, somewhat later, the CD). These created a new world for those of us who refused to put up with the indignities of Culture in the local Symphony Hall: the waiting in line, the expense, the experience of sitting next to someone with terminal apnea (or intractable pulmonary edema), the eternal waiting through that most-forced of pauses --- the pause that oppresses --- the intermission. In "live concert," you and I were forced to wait what seemed like hours to hear what we came to hear.
But there was a new alternative for those of us who loved music as it should be loved. It was to be found in a stereo (or 'hi-fi') system where we could listen to, at the pace we wanted, at the hour we wanted, exquisitely performed music.
Instead of sitting through hours of The Rape of Lucretia, Peter Grimes, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Anthony and Cleopatria, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Sonata for Piano, we could hear, entire, without benefit of comments, coughs, sneezes, yawns or snores, the string quartets of Haydn, the trio sonatas of Telemann, the oratorios of Handel, the chamber music of Dvorák, any of the 211 cantatas of Bach.
We could hear, whole --- without the infernal spell-breaking intermission ---the greatest opera of all time, Verdi's Requiem (we call it opera because that's what it is; just because he was in mourning, the composer was not about to change his form).
We could spend an evening with some of the greatest religious works in western culture: Bach's B Minor Mass, or the St. Matthew's Passion. We could spend an hour or so (drink in hand) hearing that most charming of all set pieces, the vocal version of Stravinski's L'Histoire du Soldat.
At three in the morning, if we so chose, we could turn to the most moving meditation on death ever created, Schubert's 14th String Quartet, Death and the Maiden, named after the anonymous "maiden," the origin of his all-too-fatal disease.
Or, at any hour of the day or night, in any sequence, we could live inside the towering works of d'Aquin, Vivaldi (not the Four Seasons, lord knows), Handel's most obscure oratorios --- Xerxes, Julius Caesar, Theodora, Jephtha --- or any of the great chamber or vocal pieces of Lully, Monteverdi, Rameau, Soler, Purcell.
Thus instead of being dragged to the smart-set Palace of Culture to put up with the likes of Barber and Britten --- or those dead-weights hung on the necklace of western culture (Ferdé Grofe, Delius, Elgar, D'Indy --- or Ravel's blindingly circular "Bolero,") we could be up in the clouds with the masters, never having to hob-nob with the "guardians of culture," those snooty folks who haunted the Met, the Boston Pops, the Philadelphia Symphony, Avery Fisher, etc.
§ § §
Felsenfeld's essay is certainly clearly written, and for scholars who don't have any musical taste, it might even be considered important. For those of us crave worthy music, it will be just another scab off the corpse of Western High Culture. For it is, alas, an essay (with CD!) concerning two neurotic nannies in the masturbatory world of mid-twentieth century music, where audiences would go crazy over something as emotionally stunted as Commando March (for the Army Air Force!) Leonard Bernstein, who played this game for fun as well as for fame and profit, once remarked that Britten's music had "the sound of gears not quite meshing."
The ultimate occurred when we put the disk that came with Britten and Barber into our CD player. The disk spun and spun (and spun). And nothing at all came from the speakers. Not even a whimper. Much less a bang.--- A. W. AllworthySome More Thoughts
On Britten and BarberBenjamin Britten has always struck me as very clever, in fact too facile by half, and, basically, dead in spirit. He is considered a major composer nowhere except England, where they also admire Merchant-Ivory costume flicks and warm beer, and refer to chips as "crisps."
One can be more sympathetic to Sam Barber. He unquestionably belongs in the second tier, and nobody claims otherwise, but I've always found his work very appealing. I never stopped liking the Adagio for Strings, just as I never stopped liking Rachmaninoff. I also like the quartet --- from which the Adagio comes --- the violin concerto, the 'cello concerto, the "Essays for Orchestra," both symphonies, and especially Barber's one piece that, I think, makes it into the first tier: the "Capricorn Concerto," a venture into an astringent neo-Baroque idiom like Hindemith or later Stravinsky ... and as good as either one. Incidentally, Barber has enjoyed a mini-revival in the last decade or so, along with the revival of a neo-Romantic idiom by many American contemporaries like Kernis, Rouse, Adams, Danielpour, etc.My first tier list of "classic" moderns (meaning the 1920s through the 1950s) would include the usual suspects whose idioms were, while sometimes tonally free and dissonant, nonetheless rooted in the tonal system: Stravinsky, Bartok, Bloch, Hindemith, Honegger, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, and New York's own William Schuman. Maybe also Karl Hartmann, Sven Einar Englund, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Roy Harris (although he tended to write the same piece over and over) and just one more-or-less avant-garde composer, Gyorgy Ligeti.
The self-consciously avant-garde, from Schoenberg through Xenakis, Stockhausen, Carter, and Boulez, I write off as a bad trip. Some people suggest that their music of angst, disorientation, and ugliness was an aesthetic response to the dreadful massacres of the 20th century's first half.
§ § §
As it happens, not long ago, I went to a Seattle Symphony concert of all modern music. Afterward, Gerald Schwartz and a panel of talking heads stayed on to sing the praises of modern music and to assail one of the local public stations (KUOW) for no longer broadcasting any music --- whether modern or any other kind.
They also wrung their hands over the absence of modern music from concert programs, a little odd in that Schwartz had just conducted an all modern program.
The standout at the concert was William Schuman's Third Symphony, his best known work nowadays, sometimes paired on CD with Harris' Third. Schuman's is the better work ... sheer dynamite.
Thursday's program also included Carlos Chavez' Sinfonia India, which strikes me as gimmicky: Chavez was no more Indio than you or me, and the contrivance shows. They also did one of Howard Hanson's more boring symphonies, and one of Copeland's modernistic pieces, which are slightly (but only slightly) less soporofic than his vein of "accessible" Americana.
As far as true moderns of our own time, I would offer up the name of Peteris Vasks, who is Latvian. I characterize his music as the equivalent of Arvo Pärt ... for people who are still conscious. There are several CDs of Vasks' music out and he is also represented on a couple of collections of modern music from the Baltic.
Another Estonian who is tonal and mystical, like Pärt, but a little more lively is named Rene Eesperee (or something like that). And still another who is more modernistic than Part, and whose music I like very much, is Erkki-Sven Tüür. You will notice that the neatest thing about these Baltic composers is their weird names.--- Dr. Phage[HATING]If you must hate, hate the government or the people or the sea or men, but don't hate an individual person. Who's done you a real injury. Next thing you know he'll be getting into your beer like prussic acid; and blotting out your eyes like a cararact and screaming in your ears like a brain tumor and boiling round your heart like melted lead and ramping through your guts like cancer. And a nice fool you'd look if he knew. It would make him laugh till his teeth dropped out; from old age.--- From The Horse's Mouth
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