Posts from — October 2010
Shiny New Apples for Fall
By Jeff Katz
The history of Apple Records is inextricably linked to the demise of The Beatles. Not a businessman among them, The Fab Four started Apple Corps Ltd after the 1967 death of long time manager Brian Epstein. The idea was that the groovy ‘60’s vibe of freedom could be translated into the board room. It couldn’t. Money troubles ensued and, with John, George and Ringo hiring Allen Klein as their manager, and Paul sticking to the Eastmans, his lawyerly in-laws, the Beatles went kaput.
Lost is the indisputable truth that Apple was a vibrant and innovative label, giving new artists a chance to show their wares. At a Lennon-McCartney press conference heralding the new enterprise, John sneeringly said Apple was created to make sure that artists “don’t have to go on their knees in somebody’s office” to, as Paul added, follow their dreams. Apple provided a different path.
With October 25 comes the release of newly remastered CDs from the remarkable roster of Apple artists: Billy Preston, Radha Krishna Temple, John Tavener, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Doris Troy, Jackie Lomax, Mary Hopkin, James Taylor and Badfinger. Beatles appear on many of these records; Stephen Stills, Peter Frampton, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards pop in as well.
I eagerly ripped open the press package. This was my first effort to obtain advance copies of new releases and I knew what I was getting: Badfinger’s No Dice, Straight Up and Ass, Mary Hopkin’s Postcard and MJQ’s Under the Jasmin Tree and Space. I admit I’d hoped for the Lomax and Troy discs, but I was thrilled to make EMI’s distribution list in any capacity. I don’t have much muscle to flex: I’m not Rolling Stone.
Ass is the final Apple release by a non-Beatle artist. With Badfinger ready to bolt their Beatle-y home for greener grazing at Warner Brothers, Ass was rush released by a ticked off Apple board, and has been often vilified as the weakest work in the power pop group’s canon. It is unjustly maligned. Pete Ham’s “Apple of My Eye,” the lead track that lays bare the bittersweet break between the band and their Beatle mentors is beautiful and sad, the aching harmonies unified, but distinct. The guitar interplay rings, showing the band’s strength at its aural best. “Get Away,” the following track (I detect a theme here), features the chewy horns that were a staple of many Beatle solo works. The slashing guitars of “Blind Owl” burst through the speakers. The final song, Ham’s grand, opulent “Timeless” ends the disc with an extended guitar coda crashing, like the band’s career, into a wash of feedback. The Ass remaster does what all great remasters do; it gives listeners the chance to reappraise a lost work. Kudos.
Can’t review any more Badfinger and here’s where it gets weird. My copy of No Dice has two songs on it, Straight Up is similarly incomplete. As to the translucent-skinned Ms. Hopkin, all I got was 4 versions of the international smash “Those Were the Days,” in Italian, Spanish, German and French. The Teutonic take was my favorite. I’d hoped to get a look at the packaging as well, but all my CDs came in a sterile white wrapper.
I certainly have no kick against modern jazz, to quote the famed musicologist Mr. Charles Berry, unless they try to play it too darn slow. The Modern Jazz Quartet’s antiseptic chamber music sound has never been a favorite of mine. What the Beatles saw in them is lost on me. It’s a strange pairing.
The twofer CD of Under the Jasmin Tree and Space sounds remarkable; Milt Jackson’s vibraphone shimmers. “Bags” has always been what makes MJQ work for me, when they do work for me. Connie Kay’s percussion showcases a pinging sound that, in its pristine remastery, had me constantly checking my iPhone for text messages. “The Jasmin Tree” closes album one with a nice prayer meeting groove, complete with hand claps, John Lewis boogie piano solo and Bags wailing away. Space is a terrible album, though still worth a listen in its new incarnation. That’s one of the issue with remasters: does the reviewer review the content, or the new presentation of old songs. I don’t know. Often Space veers to avant-garde, perhaps more suited to the Beatles experimental label Zapple. There are bits where Jackson moved me, but they were little bits. The one bonus track, a light, swinging take on McCartney’s “Yesterday” proved that maybe the match between The Modern Jazz Quartet and The Beatles was not so odd after all.
Is there an audience out there for magnificent sounding remasters of mostly forgotten artists? Surely James Taylor’s debut will pique some interest, as will MJQ’s hard to find Apple performances. But who out there is looking for Doris Troy and Jackie Lomax? Or early Billy Preston?
Hopefully many. Reclaiming the roster of the great Apple era is long overdue and a worthwhile endeavor. Look for them.
October 26, 2010 Comments Off on Music: New Releases
RHAPSODIES IN BLUE:
Miles Davis & Pablo Picasso
“Kind of Blue” is a studio album by American jazz musician Miles Davis, released August 17, 1959 on Columbia Records in the United States. Recording sessions for the album took place at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York City on March 2 and April 22, 1959. The sessions featured Davis’s ensemble sextet, which consisted of pianists bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers, and saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.
“Kind of Blue” is based entirely on modality in contrast to Davis’s earlier work with the hard bop style of jazz. The entire album was composed as a series of modal sketches, in which each performer was given a set of scales that defined the parameters of their improvisation and style. This style was in contrast to more typical means of composing, such as providing musicians with a complete score or, as was more common for improvisational jazz, providing the musicians with a chord progression or series of harmonies.
Davis elaborated on this form of composition in contrast to the simple chord progression predominant in bebop, once stating
“No chords gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things. When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes and you can do more with the melody line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically innovative you can be. When you’re based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there’s nothing to do but repeat what you’ve just done—with variations. I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords… there will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.” This modal form of composition represented, as Davis called it, “a return to melody.”
There are only five tracks on this album, “So What”, played at a very moderate pace on this album, but always played much faster on later live recordings, while “Freddie Freeloader” is a standard twelve bar blues. “Blue in Green”, written by the great lyrical pianist, Bill Evans, consists of a ten-measure cycle following a short introduction and “All Blues” is another twelve bar blues form in 6/8 time. The longer “Flamenco Sketches” consists of five scales, which are each played as long as the soloist wishes, until he has completed the series. All the melodies are gorgeous and each track has become a standard in the jazz repertoire.
The album’s influence has reached beyond jazz, as musicians of such genres as rock and classical have been influenced by it, while critics have acknowledged it as one of the most influential albums of all time. Many improvisatory rock musicians of the 1960s referred to “Kind of Blue” for inspiration. Guitarist Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band said his soloing on songs such as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” comes from Miles and John Coltrane, and particularly “Kind of Blue”. Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright has said that the chord progressions on the album influenced the structure of the introductory chords to the song “Breathe” on their landmark opus “The Dark Side of the Moon”. Producer Quincy Jones, one of Davis’ longtime friends, wrote: “That will always be my music, man. I play “Kind of Blue” every day — it’s my orange juice. It still sounds like it was made yesterday”
Why does “Kind of Blue” possess such a mystique? Perhaps because this music never flaunts its genius. It’s the pinnacle of modal jazz — tonality and solos build from the overall key, not chord changes, giving the music a subtly shifting quality. It’s very cool music! It might be a stretch to say that if you don’t like “Kind of Blue”, you don’t like jazz — but it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than a cornerstone of any jazz collection. Since I first heard this album as a youngster in the early sixties, I’ve never been without it, have run through at least six copies of it — and still play it regularly. If you have an Ipod and love good music — don’t leave home without “Kind of Blue”.
Sticking with the “Blue” theme, I’d like to talk a little about painting from an earlier period – Pablo Picasso’s “Blue” period. Actually, come to think of it, Miles and Pablo had quite a bit in common in their different spheres of art. Both were responsible for developing their art through several distinct stages, changing the face of art and music in the process. Miles went through improvisory be-bop, introduced modal modern jazz before moving into electronic jazz-rock and ending, in his decline, with a form of pop-jazz.
Spanish-born, Pablo Picasso (25th October 1881-8th April 1973) is probably the best known name in the art of the last century and started out as a realist before moving into periods labeled respectively, his ‘Blue”, “Rose”, his “African” period, “Cubist” for which he is best known, then “Surrealist”, “Classical” and later, ceramics. Each of his periods revolutionized art in the twentieth century, although there was a sense that as he got older, he became self-indulgent and began to cruise on his legacy. It happened to Miles and it happens to the best of us.
His “Blue” period lasted from 1901 to 1904 and consisted of rather somber paintings rendered in essentially monochromatic shades of blue and blue-green, only occasionally warmed by other colors. This was an interim stage in Picasso’s work, a link between his earlier realism and the structured Cubism which was to change the face of art a few years later. These slightly “Mannerist” figures, a little elongated and distorted and inspired by Spanish culture but painted in Paris, are now some of his most popular works, although he had difficulty selling them at the time. Many paintings of gaunt mothers with children date from this period. In his austere use of color and sometimes doleful subject matter — prostitutes, beggars and drunks are frequent subjects —Picasso was influenced by a trip through Spain and by the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas. In fact, he later claimed that he started painting in blue when he learned of the death of his friend — Casagemas took his own life in public at L’Hippodrome Café in Paris, shooting himself in the head — but realistically the sequence of events doesn’t quite add up and Picasso was not present at his friend’s death.
It seems to me that Picasso went through a period of personal depression at this time. Perhaps his friend’s death triggered the issue of mortality, which affected him for the first time — or perhaps the intense introspection involved in the gestation of his new ideas and techniques brought on the gloom of the work of this period. Personally, I believe that the Spanish psyche, catholic and steeped in religious guilt, contributed to the heavy darkness of his subject matter and the tones used to realize them at this time. Starting in the fall of 1901, Picasso painted several posthumous portraits of Casagemas, culminating in the gloomy allegorical painting “La Vie” (1903), now in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The same mood pervades the well-known etching “The Frugal Repast” (1904), which depicts a blind man and a sighted woman, both emaciated, seated at a nearly bare table. Blindness is a recurrent theme in Picasso’s works of this period, also represented in “The Blindman’s Meal” (1903) and in the portrait of “Celestina” (1903). Other frequent subjects include female nudes and mothers with children. Possibly his most well known work from this period is the very beautiful “Old guitarist”, a bearded figure folded around his guitar and painted in deep blues. Other major works include “Portrait of Soler” (1903) and “Las Dos Hermanas” (1904).
Picasso was soon to move on to what is called his “Rose” period, which lasted for a couple of years and was characterized by a much cheerier style, lighter with pink and orange colors, featuring circus people, acrobats and harlequins. In 1904, Picasso had met and started a relationship with Fernande Olivier, a model for sculptors and painters, and this, combined with an increased exposure to French painting, seems to have done the trick, pulling him out of depression and the “Blue” period work associated with it.
It’s amazing what a bit of good loving can do for the soul! He never returned to this period in his work and moved onto new pastures and the brilliant Cubism and pure Abstraction of later paintings. But the stark, hopeless characters of his “Blue” period are now some of his most popular and highly acclaimed masterpieces, defining an era in his life that he was probably happy to put behind him.
The Blues ain’t nothing but a good man feelin’ bad….
October 25, 2010 1 Comment
View larger photos from the gallery please enter the FS button.
“What’s this place mean to you?”,”If fyou had to describe an image to me that embodies his place, what is it?” So I’m trying to gataher information in different ways, I’m reading myths from different countries …
October 25, 2010 Comments Off on Artist in Flux: Amy Swartelé
Their Album or Video,
by Mark Levy and Roman Zelichenko
As a still photographer or a videographer, freelance projects can be a great source of experience, exposure, and at the very least, some spare change. Let’s say a newly engaged couple approaches you and asks you to photograph or videotape their wedding. Some questions immediately come to mind. Who exactly wants to be photographed or taped? When and where will the photographing or taping be done? How much will you be paid? Will equipment be provided or do you need to provide it yourself? These questions are realistic and will likely determine whether you accept the project. You’re probably not thinking about long term legal ownership and copyrights, but should you be?
According to the Copyright Act of 1976, the creator of a work is the owner of the copyright to that work, unless other explicit, written legal arrangements have been made. This no longer means, as the 1909 version of the law originally stipulated, that protection is granted only to works of art that are “published.” Now, a work that is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression,” like a DVD or a memory stick, can be protected by law even if it is not actually “published.” There is, however, an exception to this: a “work made for hire,” which deals with a work created by one individual that was commissioned by another. The nature of freelance projects is exactly this, so let us explore this exception.
The “work made for hire” doctrine essentially states that although a work is created by one individual, the copyright to that work (i.e., the right to display and copy it), may be owned by another (i.e., your client). Thus, the couple that hires you to photograph or tape their wedding becomes the commissioning party while you, the photographer or videographer, are the creator. You will spend hours preparing the equipment, planning angles and lighting, transporting equipment, editing and burning DVDs, and ultimately creating a memorable album or video. What if, after all your effort, you find that you want to use the shots or the video to display your skills to potential clients? Conversely, what if the couple gets famous and the photos or video is broadcast thousands of times? Can the couple upload portions of your work online? It is important to know who, in the end, will have copyright rights to your work.
CASE LAW AND YOU
According to the Copyright Act, a work is “made for hire” when: (1) that work is “prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment”; or (2) when the work is commissioned to be used in one of nine specified categories and there is a written, signed agreement between the parties expressing that the work “shall be considered a work made for hire.”
Lawyers (bless them!) get paid to battle over works such as “employee” and “employer” and whether their client fits into either category. Luckily, however, since the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case, Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, these words have been given clear definitions.
In CCNV v. Reid, the Supreme Court declared that an “employee” relationship is mainly determined by the hiring party’s influence on the project. Some factors that weigh into this are the skills required, the source of the tools (did the hiring party or the artist provide them?), the duration of the relationship between the parties, the presence of employee benefits, and the hiring party’s tax treatment of the artist, among others. These factors, however, can be hard to predict when beginning a project. Accordingly, the Supreme Court made it difficult for a hiring party to prove that the work was made for hire. It could certainly be unfair if, at the end of the project, the couple who hired you decided they had sufficient influence, asserted an employee relationship, and claimed copyright ownership.
For a small, one time project, such as the wedding product, you might not enter into a contract expressly stating that the work is “made for hire.” If this is the case, even if your project falls within one of the nine categories specified in the statute, you – not your client – will own the copyright rights. In other words, your clients will own the DVDs you provide (after all, that is what they paid for), but they will not be permitted to display them publicly or make copies of them without your permission. This is the same as owning a CD or a commercial DVD but not being allowed to copy it.
Thus the law is on your side. It’s important to keep the “work made for hire” exception in mind when taking on a project, but it should not stop you from doing so and should, in fact, empower you. As the creator of a photo album or video, you will have the power of the court behind your copyright ownership and behind the subsequent use of your work as well. Still, it’s a good idea to have a written agreement with your clients, spelling out each party’s rights and obligations. This simple, professional step can help prevent litigation and having to share your profit with your friendly lawyer.
About the authors:
Mark Levy is creator of ragazine’s “Feeding the Starving Artist” column, a free legal resource for artists and others involved in creative pursuits. His bio is on the ragazine “About Us” page. Levy also writes ragazine’s “Casual Observer” column that appears monthly.
Roman Zelichenko is attending Brooklyn Law School.
October 25, 2010 Comments Off on Feeding the Starving Artist
Itsy Bitsy “Baker Street Journal”
by Mark Levy
I subscribe to an interesting publication that you may not have heard about. The number of readers of this publication is barely greater than the number of contributors. In fact, the motto of the Baker Street Journal — that’s the publication for Sherlock Holmes scholars — used to be: “Never has so much been written by so many for so few.”
You wouldn’t think there would be much to write about what some unenlightened people think is a fictional detective whose best cases were solved around 1895. But boy, would you be mistaken. There’s worldwide Sherlockian interest — an industry, really — that includes or produces novels, articles, cartoons, poems, songs, plays, stories, annotations, satires, horse races, trips to moors and graveyards, coffee table books, movies on DVDs, musicals, web sites, and assorted esoteric memorabilia like coffee cups, lapel pins, magnifying glasses, tobacco pipes, capes, and life-sized sculptures.
Contributors to the Baker Street Journal — or BSJ, as we Sherlockians call it — are often scholars who analyze Sherlock Holmes and Victorian society, customs, and motivations. Why did the dog do nothing in the night-time, for instance, when a stranger came into a stable and stole a horse? And how many times per day did London postmen deliver mail to businesses? (The answer is as many as 10 times per day.) And did it snow in London on February 23, 1886? And why were so many of Sherlock’s clients named Violet?
Over the years, writers have speculated that Dr. Watson, Sherlock’s faithful companion and roommate, was a woman, and that Sherlock himself was really a computer, and that occasionally Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft, was the British government. (Okay, that part’s not speculation.) And that the evil Professor Moriarty had one, or maybe two, brothers, all of them named James — sort of the George Foremans of the archenemy crowd.
Sherlock, some of us believe, actually met or crossed single sticks with Sigmund Freud, Jack the Ripper, Tarzan, Fu Manchu, Dracula, the Phantom, Dr. Who, James Bond, Arsène Lupin, Karl Marx, Gandhi, and the Phantom of the Opera.
Discussion groups, sometimes called scions, meet in members’ homes from Antarctica to Zambia. By the way, the Antarctica scion is appropriately called the Penguins of Antarctica. These groups remind me of Bible study groups, but in this case our Bible is what we call the Canon — the 56 short stories and 4 short novels that bear the name, Arthur Conan Doyle.
Sherlockians are fond of saying things like, “I hear of you everywhere,” and “You see, but you do not observe,” and “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
But they never, ever say “Elementary, my dear Watson.” That’s because that phrase — perhaps the most famous one attributed to Sherlock — does not appear in the Canon. Sherlock never said it. You could look it up, which I suggest you do, since “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”
October 25, 2010 Comments Off on Casual Observer: Sherlock Holmes lives
There’s Life in the Old Girl Yet:
Jon Weiss and The Resurgent Oneonta Theatre
By Jeff Katz
Jon Weiss sits with his back to the corner of Main and Chestnut Sts. in Oneonta, New York, an upstate college town on the western edge of the Catskill Mountains. Skinny, unshaven and gaunt, looking like a guy who’s spent a lot of time in clubs at night, Weiss is dressed in gray and black, his glasses spread open on his left knee. He’s working his phone, making things happen.
“I just want to make sure you’re happy with the contract,” he says to the other end of the phone as he sits at the newly made wrought iron table at the Common Ground Cafe. The marquee of the Oneonta Theatre, a half-block up Chestnut St., looms over Weiss’ shoulder.
In partnership with new owner Tom Cormier, Weiss is quickly making the Oneonta Theatre the cultural hub of Otsego County, bringing live music and movies to the freshly renovated venue. Down the hill sits the Foothills Performing Arts Center, a testament to state financial waste. Since its inception in 2000, Foothills has received millions in government funding and still struggles to find its way. On a relative shoestring, The Oneonta Theatre has beaten them to the punch, and Jon Weiss is at the center of the action.
Already, the old vaudeville and movie palace has presented two successful shows, Steve Earle and Jerry Jeff Walker. Walker, an Oneonta native, packed the 675 seat house and put on a beautiful solo concert, dropping names that had the crowd of ex-classmates, friends and teachers giggling.
“I was very happy with the first shows,” said Weiss. It was important to him that the shows came off without a hitch and were comfortable for the audience. “There’s nothing worse than a disgruntled ticket holder and, in these Internet days, bad p.r. can spread quickly.”
Weiss, a native of Queens, realizes the importance of connecting to Oneonta. It will take a while to gauge what works and what doesn’t, especially when the audience ranges from older natives to seasonal college students.
“I’m not from here,” admits Weiss.
Here’s how far from “here” Jon Weiss is. Back in the 1980’s Weiss was a key cog in the burgeoning garage rock scene that exploded in New York City. Garage rock, that mid-’60s’ sub-genre of fuzzy guitars, pumping organs and shaggy hair. It’s a world where The Sonics and The Standells are the two ruling bands; garage rockers have a fondness for the Beatles but that ends with Sgt. Pepper and the arting up of rock and roll. It’s The Fab Four of The Cavern Club that resonates with garage rockers.
As a high schooler in Queens, Weiss was a typical teen listening to FM radio and taking the train to see Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden. When punk hit, Weiss found his way to Max’s Kansas City and CBGB to soak in the sounds of The New York Dolls, The Heartbreakers and Blondie. Weiss liked what he heard, but dug in deeper to find the inspiration for the new sound.
Seeing The Fleshtones the first time blew Jon’s mind. No band combined the frenzied sounds and quick wit of Weiss’ fellow Queensmen. At The Mudd Club, the twang of Keith Streng’s Fender Mustang and front man Peter Zaremba’s wild singing and dancing won Weiss over.
“I’ll tell you how accessible it was back then. I knew a friend who knew the bassist of The Fleshtones. I asked them if I could join up if I learned to play tenor sax, and they said yes. I bought a tenor around 1978 or 1979 and was in the band months later.” Jon was good enough to be enshrined in the group’s virtual Hall of Fame.
After The Fleshtones came The Vipers and their classic Outta the Nest!, with Jon on vocals. Nest moved 20,000 copies, a monumental hit in the garage scene, but the band went the way of many, drugs and recriminations ending in destruction. Though illegal substances were not a big part of the overall garage rock scene, certain bands had certain problems. The Vipers, sadly, were one of them.
So how did Jon Weiss go from the orthodoxy and rigidity of garage rock, a purists’ delight where a non-Vox brand fuzz box would get you drummed out of the inner circle, to promoting a wide range of musical styles?
“I got into promoting to see bands I liked, or bands that no longer existed,” he explains. Starting in 1997, Weiss created Cavestomp!, an annual festival celebrating his garage rock heroes. Contemporary rockers like The Crawdaddies and The Tell-Tale Hearts were matched with the legends of the genre, like ? & The Mysterians, Barry & The Remains (who opened for The Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1966) and, the greatest triumph of all, the reunited Sonics.
Weiss is understandably proud of Cavestomp! “All original members, original instrumentation. The hardest part was convincing the older bands to play exactly as they did when they were teenagers.”
Thinking that extended jams and 20-minute bass solos would appeal to “the kids,” the bands of the ‘60’s were resistant to look completely backward. Asking a 45 year old to play like he did when he was 14, though he has the chops to play a la Stevie Ray Vaughan, was daunting for the promoter, but when the groups found out what it entailed to garner a good payday, they understood. Major musical figures popped in: Lenny Kaye of The Patti Smith Group, included. Kaye created the 1972 double album compilation of classic psychedelic era tracks, Nuggets, the holy text of the garage rock religion. Little Steven, a passionate follower of the music, appeared in the audience for the 1999 shows.
Could Cavestomp! work in the middle of rural Otsego County? “I’m sure if I began to market a May 2011 Cavestomp! now, I could sell 1,000 weekend passes worldwide.” Garage rock fetishists are as devoted to their brand of sound as the most effete opera fan is to theirs.
But you can’t book a huge theater with what you like alone and Weiss knows it. His hope is to have a live show every week featuring acts of national renown. The challenge is getting the renovated hall on the map for agents and artists. Jon Weiss can make it happen.
For years, the front of the marquee at The Oneonta Theatre was missing a letter: “One nta.” The second “o” is back up, and people, that is “o”utstanding good news.
The Oneonta Theatre — http://www.oneontatheatre.com/
The Vipers — http://www.myspace.com/thevipersoutta39thenest
The Fleshtones — http://www.fleshtones.org/
October 25, 2010 Comments Off on Music: Katz in Oneonta
Flight of Bumblebees
Outside, C-130 cargo planes performed “touch and go” maneuvers. The massive planes would lumber in from the east, graze the runway long enough to leave small bits of landing gear behind, and then rise to the west as though weightless. I remember thinking that they looked remarkably slow, seeming to float lazily, cavernous, hollow machines almost hovering. Then a puff of smoke from the tires as they scrubbed the tarmac, then a sudden rumble of engine noise, and then their slow, smooth ascent. I couldn’t reconcile the physics of it. The sight of them airborne baffled me. I thought of bumblebees, how they have been said to defy their own aerodynamic imperfections and fly when flight should be impossible. And yet they do fly, some say because no one told them they couldn’t.
People in scrubs came and went, stopping only long enough for the elevator door to open and take them away.
While I waited in a cramped hallway outside the big doors to the delivery room, my parents stood off quietly. Their occasional muttering between themselves became lost behind the great rumble of the C-130s. I knew what they were saying, even though I could not hear. They did what they always do, what they still do to be the best for their children they know how to be: they wait, they offer their presence, they avoid intruding, and they let us find our way. Particularly my father, although I don’t know how he learned this.
Without the example of his own father, who left during the Great Depression when dad was an infant, my father always seemed to know exactly the right thing to do or to say. In fact he was his best when circumstances were worst. Growing up, we had some neighbors, the Harrisons, who lived across the street and who found the rest of us on the block to be beneath their station. If a ball landed in their yard, Mr. Harrison would pounce upon it, holler at the kids playing, and sequester the offending thing in his garage where it would remain forever. No amount of wheedling ever convinced him to relinquish his prize, and the more the kids pleaded, the more surly and intransigent he grew. This went on for years. Once, there was a knock at our front door, and when my mother answered, Mrs. Harrison stood on our porch and asked my mother what kind of a failed role model she and my father thought they were, questioned how she could look herself in the mirror when her children — nine of us, the worst specimens on the block—ran out of control and unsupervised, and suggested that our father, a Highway Patrolman too for God’s sake, should hang his head in shame for the pitiful example of decency and citizenship he set. Meanwhile, Mr. Harrison stood thirty feet back on the sidewalk, his arms crossed, nodding in agreement whenever the intensity of his wife’s invective seemed to peak. When Mrs. Harrison had expended herself, my mother, dumbstruck, said, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and closed the door. My mother cried.
When dad got home from work, mom was still in tears. “What happened here?” he said, his face purpling. When she told him, he went silent. Still in uniform, he bolted out the door and across the street, and from our kitchen we heard him pounding on the Harrison’s front door. Time may have embellished this part, but I swear dad didn’t wait for them to answer before stomping into their house. For the next forty minutes, those of us who were home to hear it and all the neighbor kids on our block listened as my father excoriated the Harrisons with combinations and variations of “If you ever…” and “How dare you…” and “There will be a day of reckoning if…” We rode our bicycles up and down the block to get a better listen. My brother, the one whose football had sparked this conflagration, alerted the kids three houses down so they would not miss the event of the year: Mr. Benton’s tearing into the Harrisons!
Within the month, the Harrisons sold their house and made preparations to move. At one point they had a garage sale, and the neighborhood kids were allowed, if they wanted, to buy back every baseball, football, Frisbee, or knot of kite string that ever found its way over the fence and into the Harrisons’ yard. Today, if you ask him about the Harrisons, my father will only say, “I shouldn’t have worn my uniform,” but to me, that was the day I learned how a man does a hard thing when it needs doing.
I noticed odd things while waiting in the hospital at Travis Air Force Base for word of our first child. The floor tiles were mismatched, creating by their random arrangement a kind of visual white noise. Some tiles were speckled with blue highlights, others were speckled with tan, some with green, and some had a multicolored marble pattern. I wondered if the installation crews had done this as a matter of conscious design, but finally decided that they were indifferent to the inconsistency of military aesthetics. Indifference explained the way the electric outlets seemed to pop out of the wall at random distances from the floor, or the way the baseboards were either three inches wide, or four inches, or five, depending on their color. Some of the baseboards peeled slightly from the wall, and I could see the smear of yellow adhesive flaking from the backing. Even the light fixtures, dissimilar in color and length, came from mixed batches.
When we were growing up, my brother and I raised pigeons. Not for racing, but just to do it. It started out with one ring-necked dove, which we soon traded for three ordinary pigeons. At first we kept them in a wire cage, but we knew right away that this was a temporary solution, and that we would need to build a coop of some kind. We got a book from the library, found a plan for a small six-foot by six-foot structure, and we scavenged nearby construction sites for the building materials we hammered together. In all, the finished product served us well for a summer as our stock of birds grew. Eventually, though, we needed a larger coop.
Dad decided to help. He was trying to lose weight that year, and his doctor, in a misguided fit, had him on some kind of amphetamine concoction that kept him up for days at a stretch. To fill his time, he drew up elaborate plans for our new enclosure, designing a gravity fed water system, an automatic seed feeder, a tongue-and-groove floor, raised foundation, and a plastic window that could be raised in good weather and lowered in bad. It had two doors, a wall of nesting boxes, perches of varying lengths and heights, and it was tall enough that an adult could stand inside with plenty of headroom. It was four times as large as our first version, and took a couple weeks to construct. Once we got the site leveled and measured out, we set out the foundation and built the floor, framed the walls and the roof, attached the plywood sides, built and mounted doors, wired up the window openings, and hooked up the water lines. Sometimes dad forgot himself and it took the neighbors’ pleading to get him to stop hammering and sawing past 11:00 p.m. He was more proud of the coop than we were, even after he went off the diet pills. That summer I think my brother and I grew about as close and involved with our dad as we ever were.
Why hadn’t anyone thought to put chairs out for family? For all the machinery, accommodations, piping and wiring, the furnaces and laundry systems in the basement, the elevators and their maintenance schedules filed in a cabinet in an office on the fourth floor somewhere behind a locked door barred to any but one civilian crew member unknown to anyone else in the building, or the piles of memos, their edges curling beneath a phone parked on a steel desk with one drawer that hasn’t worked since the before the Korean War, infrastructure, rooms of patient records lined up in neat rows of color-coded file folders shelf after shelf, each one the minutely detailed record of men and women in scrubs annotating in code and scrawl for purposes knowable and unknowable the sound of bowels awakening, the heat of the body fighting itself, the time of day, food consumed, quantities of saline and soap, records of visits, names and opinions in blue and black ink, in service to some mother’s son or daughter and their collective waiting to be healed while the miracle of levitating a C-130 cargo plane goes on outside as if it were no more surprising than the hum and swoop of a bee accidentally spreading pollen among the streak of orange poppies blooming along the fence line, how was it that a chair to relieve the choked impatience of it all failed to make the list?
I regretted not bringing something to read.
Disconnected phrases repeated themselves dumbly while I listened to huge planes performing their “touch and go” exercises: “premature,” “distress,” “emergency surgery.” These words, as they drifted in my head, sounded flat, lacking connective tissue. They blended into the planes’ swirl of noise, the fluorescent lights’ hum, elevators rising and falling, my parents’ compassionate muttering, the swish of scrubs passing, until the patternless hubbub absorbed the passage of time. This is how one waits.
The broad doors to my left swung open. Four or five people in scrubs and facemasks rushed past without speaking and disappeared into an elevator that closed with the ringing of a soft bell. The trailing nurse turned to me from behind her mask and said, “He’s pink,” and then she too disappeared.
In one end of the hospital our new son lay in a plastic bin, taped and stuck, strangers washing his frail frame and monitoring his heartbeat with machines. In another end of the hospital, while his mother slept, surgeons stitched up a long gash in her hollow belly, strangers monitoring her pulse and respiration. This cruel symmetry blended with the thump of dissociated phrases, the hiss of air conditioning fans, aircraft engines straining to lift their impossible payloads, all blending to white noise so that I could wait some more.
As a rookie CHP officer, my father rode motorcycles in East Los Angeles in the late 1950s. He also had other duties as a rookie. Over the years we have tended to live separate lives, crossing paths occasionally, crossing political swords frequently, though we have always understood a deep affection between us. Several years ago, my father and I took a drive from Sacramento to San Francisco to watch a football game. For some reason, we took an unnecessarily long route on this trip, but during the extra time together, I came to know my father and his history as if for the first time. Perhaps he came away from that day with renewed understanding and respect for me too, but if he did he has never said so outright.
We talked of many things: football, Christian Brothers, family history, the Harrisons…. I drove. We crossed the Altamont Pass between Tracy and Livermore where the hills south of the highway remain as green and unspoiled as they did a century ago, at least if you discount the stand of windmills spinning lazily into the distance. Traffic along this stretch of highway is maniacal, so I had to concentrate on the road rather than uphold my end of the conversation. I listened while he talked.
“I got assigned to the Coroner’s office one week,” he explained of his other rookie duties in East Los Angeles. “My job was to take pictures of the bodies.” He turned his head to watch a pair of bikers in leathers pass on our right, the big V-twin engines snarling. He took a heavy breath and continued: “They had this ladder on wheels, about six-feet high, and I stood up there with this big camera. The coroner would wheel out the gurney with the body covered with a sheet, and he would arrange a lettering board with the person’s name and ID number. I would focus the camera on the name, he’d say, ‘ready?’ and then pull back the sheet. Snap.” He let the silence hang for a moment, as I balanced the spacing of our car within the swarm of those whizzing around us.
“It was routine after a while,” he said flatly. “I’d stand up there and wait for the gurney, focus the camera on the board while the coroner arranged the letters. He would pull back the sheet real quick, just long enough to snap the picture, then cover them right back up. There wasn’t much time to think about the person under the sheet.” I was doing my best to maintain roughly equal spacing between our car and the riot of machinery swirling along, but I started to imagine each driver’s face as it would look through the lens of a big camera.
“So here comes the next gurney,” he said, “and the coroner says, ‘ready?’ and he pulls back the sheet, and I damn near fell off the ladder. It’s a boy —maybe six or seven years old, car versus bike—and if I hadn’t read the name on the board first, I would have sworn it was you.”
Someone came into the hall and asked for “Mr. Benton,” and when my father did not answer, it came to me only as a delayed afterthought that the man with papers in his hand was looking for me. I signed the document; I have no idea what I signed. I was aware of the pitiful quality of this vending machine coffee I held in my hand, but while I waited, I drank three of them and made a careful study of the various shades of white paint that patched the irregular wall surfaces.
After running out of odd things to notice about the architecture, I turned to the doctors and nurses and cultivated a kind of sympathy for them, knowing that, like my father, they managed human crisis for a living. I imagined them facing an endless parade of the worried, the pale and gaunt, people perspiring because they hold back crying, people who plead silently with involuntary facial twitches. I imagined women and men in scrubs, driving away from this place at the end of their shifts, exhausted and eager to get to that Salisbury steak they had stashed in the freezer, or the date they had planned with that dreamy guy from the lab, or the beer waiting to help them mute the memory of having to tell a woman bad news about her husband’s kidney failure. Perhaps the people in scrubs had husbands or children of their own, on whom they relied to suture their hollow wounds and to raise their heavy humanity against its own gravity so they could suit up and return the next day. Contemplating the banal lives of these critically important, ordinary people gave me blunt comfort for a time.
From 1976 until the end of 1980 we lived in San Francisco, mostly on Haight Street across from Buena Vista Park, a few blocks from Ashbury Street. Those years stand out in my mind as among the happiest of my life. We were newly married, beginning to create a family. I was in the last two years of my enlistment in the Navy and everything about our lives was potential. I would soon leave the military full to bursting with brash confidence in my ability to succeed at any job I chose to accept. I was studying music and poetry, spending time at City Lights bookstore in North Beach, hoping for a glimpse of the local literati. We listened to stand-up comics at The Other Café, on Sundays and sometimes saw them performing the same routines on The Tonight Show by Wednesday. We could spend the afternoon listening to Jefferson Starship play in Golden Gate Park one day and Andre Watts and the San Francisco Symphony at the Opera House the next. We saw plays by Jules Pfeifer, and attended album release parties for Patricia Hardin and Tom Russell, whose first two recordings, signed by the artists, remain today tucked in a safe place. I once watched Jackie Gleason exit a pink limousine outside the Orpheum Theater, and a few weeks later I stepped on James Coburn’s foot as we waited in a doorway on Market Street for the rain to clear. Our extended families lived more than a hundred miles distant, and everyone we knew at work or in the neighborhood occupied a potential life, just like us. As I said, I remember those years as among the happiest of my life.
I don’t know why.
During those years, we had car trouble almost constantly. My mother-in-law had divorced her husband, who was sinking into bitter alcoholism, and my wife and I took in her seventeen-year old sister who sought refuge from the chaos of their fractured home. My first job after leaving the Navy was a brief disaster as a shipyard electrician where my co-workers made at least three attempts to kill me through their carelessness, and my second job was as a bill collector where I was routinely threatened, once by a mad woman brandishing a knife, and another by a man who informed me he had a gun and an anger problem. My wife endured three Cesarean deliveries, an ectopic pregnancy, and a partial hysterectomy. Four days after our first daughter, Jennifer, was born, the apartment directly above ours caught fire, displacing us for a week while the building underwent restoration. Once, my brother came to The City for a visit and had five-thousand dollars worth of camera gear stolen from the trunk of his car. Six weeks after our second daughter, Michelle, was born, I found Jennifer, who was then only a year old, blue and convulsing in her crib. I could not revive her. Had it not been for our neighbors who came on the run and snatched her from me after hearing my wife’s screaming, she would have died in my arms.
And still, when I think about those years, I first think of the cool air, the shafts of rose-colored light through the curtains warming our living room, the music and literature, and the indomitable sense of potential that informed every day of our lives together. We — my wife and I — might have been a few years late for the infamous Summer of Love by which our old neighborhood still enjoys defining itself, but somehow its legacy persisted through a strange osmosis into the lives of those who, even for a transient moment, chose to call that odd, corrupt and wonderful place home. Somehow we have allowed the romance of the time and setting, along with our youthful ignorance, to absorb those awful difficulties and setbacks.
The mind displaces its great fears with trivia.
Soon enough, a man in scrubs came to the cramped hallway where I waited without a chair and asked for “Mr. Benton.” This time I did not hesitate. We walked into a small, dimly lit room where we sat down across from one another, knee to knee. He told me that our son had died and that while he had tried to breathe, his tiny lungs were underdeveloped, more like raisins than grapes. He explained that while some premature infants of this age can survive, their lives are often — usually — marked by severe mental and physical impairment. Their limitations — his limitations would have been impossible to overcome in the long term. Our son had lived three hours. We named him Michael.
The man was sorry of course, but he had some questions. Did I want to be present when he told the child’s mother after she emerged from anesthesia? What were my wishes with regard to the body? This question staggered me only for a moment, because the man in scrubs continued talking, blandly offering me several possible options. I could take the body and make private arrangements for its disposal. I could leave the body in the care of the hospital and they would either bury it or cremate it as I instructed, though there would be no information about the whereabouts of his interment. In the alternative, he explained, I could donate the body for scientific research, which required only my signature on a form.
I became acutely aware of my wife asleep in another room, unaware and unable to help with this irrevocable decision-making. Much was a matter of logistics, the moral consequences of which we could bear over time and reconcile if need be, so I chose with what I hoped was the same dispassionate practicality I had observed in the man in scrubs, my choices guided by a need to avoid prolonging the pain of saying goodbye. The risk of choosing poorly haunted me.
Then he asked, “Do you want to see him?”
What species of question is this to ask a twenty-two year old? Of course I wanted to see my son. I wanted to hold him. I wanted to take him home and watch him grow into a man. I wanted to burn the image of his face into my memory to remember it for his mother, who would never see it for herself. I wanted to breathe for him and ask his forgiveness for having brought him to these fitful hours of suffering and fear. I listened to the sound of C-130s performing their “touch and go” exercises and thought of bumblebees lifting off against their impossible flaws, wondering whose forgiveness — my son’s or his mother’s — would be harder to endure. I thought of the Harrisons, and our old pigeon coop and told the man, “No.”
About the author:
James Benton lives in Sacramento with his wife of thirty-four years. he received his MA in creative writing from California State University, Sacramento, where he studied poetry with Joshua McKinney, and prose with Peter Grandbois and Doug Rice. He recently has published poetry, fiction, and reviews in “Oregon East,” “Convergence,” “Raintown Review,” “RATTLE,” and “Word Riot,” with work forthcoming in “New York Quarterly.”
October 25, 2010 1 Comment
Napoleon on the ‘N’ Page
Sprawled on a Salvation Army Thrift Store couch dusty enough to hide advancing troops, Vina turned to the ‘A’ page of her address book, Anne Adams, a late-in-life dyke with a cleavage like heavy gears rolling, four children and conservative relatives frowning down both aisles of forsaken vows. Her ex-husband avoided his children who reminded him he’d been left for a woman — although every so often he complained about his children being raised by a lesbian.
Vina looked at her legal pad with an uncertain eye. Her plan was to profit from her friends’ problems, her thought being she had the advantage of distance. So.
So. There was Anne, once-unclaimed daughter of Bilitis’ overflowing womb. Anne’s current lover was pouty and possessive. Anne said she strayed.
“Honey, I want to watch The L-Word, I don’t want to live it.”
“I hear ya.” Vina sighed.
The medium-tip Bic left splotches as she wrote:
Anne: job, relationship (former), relationship (present), in-laws, kids, money. Bad people picker.
The husband: Anti-woman? Too proud. Luck of the draw.
Vina smiled. Was she writing student evaluations? Her attention wandered from the pad to a dust bunny under the coffee table, and it hit her, not the dust bunny, tenacious and fragile enough to have its own set of problems — a memory of fellow teacher Joan Czery who was always borrowing money.
She skipped over the ‘Bs’ to the ‘C’ page of her address book. Vina and Joan’d had dinner after school at Taix on Sunset. Vina taught History, which was nothing but problems, and Joan taught Science, which boasted it could solve the problems. They’d eaten early— poulet in a wine sauce and a basket of sourdough rolls served with sweet butter squares so cold, they alone could have defeated Napoleon’s army on its famous retreat from a numbing Russian winter. As usual, Joan borrowed fifteen bucks. Vina fought her irritation and, as usual, paid the bill.
In the tiny parking lot they ran into Ramona Martinez.
Vina thumbed over to the ‘M-s.’ Ramona and her boyfriend had fought; Vina was creeped out when the boyfriend snarled, ‘Now, Madam,’ and Joan’s hand almost clamped his shoulder when the couple locked eyes and stormed into Taix.
That night the President delivered his state of the union address. Joan phoned Vina and the two watched with the sound turned off. “That was funky,” Joan said, “with Ramona.” She dropped the phone when her cat jumped on her head but rescued the receiver. “You know what I mean?”
“Like fighting was an appetizer?”
Ramona quit her job a week later; the principal had to hustle to find a replacement Social Studies teacher, social studies being a discipline striving to understand the problem.
Joan: $ stuff
Ramona: unhealthy relationships, quitter, mystery element
Vina flipped to ‘H’ for Hubert, Latice Hubert who lived near the May Co. at Wilshire and Fairfax, where Vina shopped sales — her most recent Christmas coup being matching chartreuse-fluff bedroom slippers for her three nieces.
Vina squinted at Latice’s barely decipherable phone number, penciled in. She’d met Latice at an art gallery in Venice, with bad Ralph, who’d been a major problem..
She and Ralph went to Latice and Tanya’s — the lover — moldy apartment after a few rounds of Irish coffees at Mulveney’s. Conversation slogged along reasonably until Tanya received a phone call from her bar where the bartender had tussled with a drug dealer; things had gone from bad to fucked up.
Tanya’d ordered in a stiff, arched tone, “You’re coming with me, sugar,” and “Don’t you ditch me now.”
‘We have guests!” Latice yelled.
Ralph apologized because apologies were the best way to smooth take-off for a flight out of there which he and Vina, did, fly off, speedily, stopping off at Fatburger’s for two greasy bags of food which they slammed down at their apartment while they watched the old Cagney movie where he crams a grapefruit in Jean Harlow’s face.
Enough with Latice and Tanya. Of Ralph, more later, except, all right, Vina’d recently lay down the prosthetic arm of the law and ordered him to leave. And he did just that: Left. Ralph was gone, she’d asked for it. There it was. “Free to be me,” she said to a quivering dust bunny. “Whoever the fuck that is.”
On the K-page was Nancy Katona, a friend since high school. Nancy had created one problem to obscure another. She was divorced, with the perennially complicating factor of kids; kids were perennials. Nancy confided, “I got so tired of being the one who did wrong,” with her husband and later affairs, “the one accused,” so she drank and bloomed in girth. “I got sex out of the picture.”
Nancy: Food. Booze. No sex. Bad skin.
Vina didn’t think for a second it was Nancy’s size that mattered — she was pretty and a great cook. But in drinking and eating so much she’d developed food allergies and ezcema and was now physically uncomfortable.
Vina was nowhere near a solution to this being alone thing. If her former neighbor Al Zemo hadn’t moved, she’d unpack her feelings with him. She leafed over to the ‘T’ page because she once thought his name was spelled Tzemo and subsequently cross-referenced him by writing ‘Al, See T’ in the Z’s.
“Really, I think I’m a lesbian,” he had told her. “With all the constraints and ridiculous concepts everyone has of gay men, my God.”
A month ago he’d moved to northern Cal and rented a cottage in the back of a house owned by a woman named Meg. There were redwoods all around, the only companions Al thought he’d ever need, but he had to go to the house to shower. Meg’s boyfriend eyed him with suspicion and her handsome devil of a brother had a key. Get this, Al wrote.
The brother is a Freudian slip-in-motion. ‘I’m your landlady’s sister,’ he said to me. I waved it aside, you know good-old-me, while the guy backtracked in fear and blindness. Meanwhile, his woman, a strong girl, smiled bullets. Eeek.
Vina turned to the second page of mauve stationery, a real letter. Al was retro.
He’d written that Meg the landlady’s stereo was lifted. She was pissed the thief’s dog fouled her carpet, and she knew it wasn’t Pepsi’s shit because she locked Pepsi in the service porch when she was gone. She’d come home and smelled something, shook out the rug and there it was, wet and smeared. Her brother had two dogs.
I didn’t leave the bungalow womb of Echo Park for this, my friend.
Crazies were drawn to nice Al in some perverse cosmic balancing act. It had happened in L.A., too. Vina sighed. Oh, Al. She again consulted the aging address book with its cover of peeling black leather and saw she’d missed Polly — on the P page because Polly was Polly, and that was that. She lived in a Reseda mother-in-law in back of a three bedroom, had issues but wouldn’t admit them.
A month ago she stopped by on a Saturday afternoon to sip ground Colombian with half and half out of ceramic mugs from Pier 1, and after a rant about California’s karma regarding earth, wind, air, water — quakes, Santa Anas, smog, and the drought —commiserated with Vina about Ralph. “And don’t you let him back, sister! That no-good Ralph!”
Who was on the ‘B,’ for Boy with a ‘d’—‘Boyd,’ page. Why had Vina asked him to leave? His lies had become ridiculous; her susceptibility undiminished.
An in-town roadie to a rock band working clubs in Glendale and the Valley, bad Ralph told Vina the band had a gig in Puerto Rico. Who would invent Puerto Rico? It didn’t even occur to Vina, but when bad Ralph’s mother was hospitalized and his brother phoned, Vina discovered the group hadn’t left L.A. Ralph had gone to Mexico for R & R.
Before Puerto Rico there’d been Colorado. Ralph didn’t invent Colorado, but simply chanced on it when skiing in the Sierras, on the cheap, where he made friends and gone with them to Aspen so when Vina phoned to find him at a lodge in the Sierras on a Saturday night after her car caught on fire, no one in the expansive California mountain range knew where Ralph was. He’d slipped out to a new state as easily as a teenager slips out on a weekday night.
Me: Too vulnerable. Bad people picker.
Ralph: bad bad bad bad bad.
To avoid Polly, Vina slipped inside for Al’s latest letter. She could diss bad Ralph, but Polly shouldn’t. Guess what, she read, her voice so loud Polly winced..
The landlady’s thieving and devilishly handsome brother had moved in with Al.
I always forget to see that the process itself helps things unfold. You find out more about the situation as you go along, things keep changing and soon it’s a different set of problems. Someone said we don’t resolve problems, we outgrow them.
“Isn’t Al wise?”
Polly didn’t think so. “I don’t have any problems.”
“You know I sleep with women now.”
“Well it’s not a trivial admission.”
“But it’s not a problem.” She muttered something Vina didn’t catch. Vina was convinced Polly pushed away sensitivity. Her force field had blazes of her name: arrows, poison darts of autobiography whose trajectories said ME and I and POLLY. She used to rant about her husband Fred in the same way she presented herself. She was ME ME, I I, and Fred was HIM this and HIM that.
HIM HIM HIM. And when Vina finally met HIM he was just a guy, Fred, wearing jeans and a checkered shirt, coming to her apartment to hook up her stereo. Just a guy. Not HIM, not any more than she was SHE or I or ME. Fred’d left POLLY.
“You wanna go to a movie?”
Vina suggested another day. Polly left to catch the matinee rate.
“Ah, shit.” Vina threw her address book to the floor. A dust bunny skittered. She ripped pages from her yellow tablet, broke her pencil in two. She knew, even if she didn’t know in so many words, that she couldn’t know in any words.
Two months later, Polly stopped by with a pound of organic Kenyan coffee beans. Vina shared a new letter from Al. The old girlfriend snapped her fingers like a genie and Meg’s brother was gone, Al wrote.
Now I’m stuck in another stupid apartment and really alone but, hell, we’re all alone and that’s the human or inhuman or un-human condition.
“I’m not alone.” Polly bristled.
“Yes you are, Polly, and So am I.”
Polly clenched her fists.
“Though I like my new girlfriend.”
The women stared at one another. Somewhere pages ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ ‘H,’ ‘T’ and ‘Z see T’ and ubiquitous bad Ralph sighed, from somewhere on the island of Elba.
About the author:
Sarah Sarai’s poetry collection, The Future Is Happy, is published by BlazeVOX [books]. Her fiction has appeared in Storyglossia, Fairy Tale Review, Stone’s Throw, Tampa Review, South Dakota Review and others. She divides her time between NYC and http://my3000lovingarms.blogspot.com.
October 25, 2010 Comments Off on Sarah Sarai: Fiction
In Arizona, Politics, Business & a Society Ill At Ease
Several months ago, in the midst of the political hubbub regarding Mexican immigration concerns and Arizona’s move to create its particular approach to the problems at hand, Robert Murray Davis sent along his comments to me. Given that the issue remains in the public’s political and economic spotlight, and as I am in Mexico as we speak, it seemed an appropriate time to present Mr. Davis’s piece, along with some additional comment that may help better frame the topic in both political and economic measures. In the end, and consistent with our on-going purpose in this column to help further legitimate dialogue, we hope a better understanding of the variables tied to another complex problem facing our country can result.
* * * * *
Over the past week, I’ve had messages from friends wondering what is going on in Arizona. Unless you are living in a mine and have no access to any media, you don’t need to be told that they are referring to Governor Jan Brewer’s April 23 signing of Senate Bill 1070, sponsored by Republican state senator Russell Pearce of Mesa.
The bill makes it a crime to be in Arizona illegally, a crime to work or ask for work in Arizona, a crime to impede traffic while picking up a laborer or being picked up, and to have, in effect, any association with an illegal immigrant. It not only allows but pretty much commands all law enforcement officers to demand proof of legal status and to arrest, without warrant, anyone whom they suspect (“reasonably”) of being deportable. It also states Arizona’s intent not to comply with the Real ID act, which sets standards for identification card and is the only realistic way of beginning to deal with widespread forgery and fraud. The real kicker is the provision that allows anyone to sue any official
or agency suspected of not fully enforcing federal immigration laws. The obvious though not quite overt sentiment contradicts Big Bill Broonzy’s line, “If you’re brown, stick around,” and the intended consequence would be an exponential increase in DWM (Driving While Mexican) arrests.
Opponents of the law say that it will lead to racial profiling — unless everyone pulled over is asked for proof of citizenship, an irony both delicious and obvious. The legal community tends to agree that the law is unconstitutional; law officers tend to argue that it is: a) unenforceable, b) an inefficient use of their time. The state’s largest newspaper, The Arizona Republic, hardly a voice of the far left, maintains that the law won’t do anything to discourage drug and people smuggling, and not only will damage Arizona’s reputation nationally, but also hurt an economy already badly wounded. The lead editorial in the April 25 issue stops only a little short of a call for taking to the streets.
So why do 70% of people polled approve of the law? Why did the legislature pass it and the governor sign it? Why does Senator John McCain support it and threaten to filibuster against a national immigration bill very much like one he introduced a few years ago? Why does he tell Bill O’Reilly that illegal immigrants are deliberately causing car crashes on our highways?
The last two questions are easiest to answer. Brewer and McCain are desperate. This is an election year, and both the governor and the senator are in contested primaries, facing candidates far to their right — the kind that in recent years have won primaries. One almost has to feel sorry for Governor Brewer, a superb example of someone who has reached her level of incompetence. She was Secretary of State, a position that no one knows anything about. Then Governor Janet Napolitano, who had tried to bill the federal government for the cost of capturing and housing illegal immigrants, resigned to become head of the Department of Homeland Security and has since become the target of the criticisms she had leveled when still governor. [Arizona doesn’t have a lieutenant governor, a need felt only when the governor resigns or, more commonly, when the governor is impeached.]
Governor Brewer’s biggest challenge during her time in office has been dealing with the Republicans who control both houses of the legislature. Tax revenues at all levels of government are disastrously down. The state has closed most of the rest stops on the Interstate and some state parks, and the safety net for children and the elderly is so full of holes that it might as well not exist. Every large school district is sending out notices to hundreds of teachers that they will not be rehired for the coming school year.
To attempt to deal with shortfalls in the billion dollar range, Brewer proposed a temporary one-cent sales tax increase. Since many legislators have signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, they weren’t having any of that and only with great anguish brought themselves to allow voters to decide in a special election.
Somehow the sales tax issue gets conflated, in the minds of some, with the immigration issue, with posts complaining that new tax revenue will go to supporting illegal immigrants. Here, as elsewhere, we have passed the bounds of rational discussion. Indeed, demagoguery on both sides has led to the hardening of increasingly extreme positions. Almost no one seems to be interested in arriving at practical, let alone reasonable, solutions to the undeniable problem of illegal immigration.
Some of the more moderate posts responding to web articles are variations on “What part of illegal don’t you understand?”on the one hand, and “Have you no human compassion?” on the other. But many others pretty much boil down to charges that opponents are either Nazis (uncharitable from the Christian viewpoint) or traitors. Some people marching against the law and against earlier crime sweeps by “America’s toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio, have carried Mexican flags—hardly a way to sway the undecided. The easiest way to be hated by almost everyone is to suggest that illegal immigration raises real and serious issues and should be dealt with in ways that are both humane and effective.
And there are real issues, a fact that may help to account for the 70% approval rate of the law. The best figures available put up to half a million undocumented people in Arizona, and that’s a guess. Sociologists and economists have debated about whether this segment of the population benefits or hurts the economy, but since the housing bubble burst and bankruptcies, foreclosures, and layoffs have reached levels not seen since the 1930s, these arguments have become so irrelevant that they have disappeared from the media.
The real problem is that Arizona’s border with Mexico has become the most porous because Texas, New Mexico, and California’s borders have been much more effectively sealed. Moreover, the people crossing the border have become not only more numerous but more dangerous as the trade moves in drugs and people and moves out guns and stolen cars. As long as Arizonans thought that illegals were coming in to do landscaping and construction (now dormant if not dead) and other low-paying jobs, the business community and much of the population were willing to look the other way.
But a series of incidents, perhaps isolated but certainly high profile, has focused attention on the issue. Gangs of coyotes, as the people smugglers are called, have established drop houses in the Phoenix area, sometimes imprisoning their clients to extort more money. One gang trying to steal another’s human cargo engaged in a running gun battle on the interstate highway between Tucson and Phoenix. More recently, an Arizona rancher was found murdered near the border, with the only footprints leading back into Mexico.
Given these issues, it is perhaps surprising that only 70% of the population approves of the new law. Granted, in 2008 “Persons of Hispanic or Latino origin” made up just over 30% of Arizona’s population, but in the recent past some Hispanics, emphasizing their own legality, have spoken out against illegal immigration.
The new law does not take effect for ninety days, and the diverse groups opposing it hope for swift and successful court challenges before other legislatures copy it. Some hope that the fallout from its passage will force Congress to recognize that the law attempts to address an issue that affects not just Arizona but the whole country. (Assuming that the law was intended to force just this outcome wildly overestimates the strategic and intellectual powers of its proponents.) In an election year, when cries of “no amnesty” are sure to be raised, it is probably unrealistic to hope that Congress can work
seriously on a comprehensive immigration bill that is both humane and workable, though many would settle for workable. But in the foreseeable future it is the best hope we have.
Almost certainly there’s no relief in sight from the Arizona legislature. A representative from Skull Valley (I’m not smart enough to make this up, but trust me, it exists. I’ve been there) has introduced a “birther” bill requiring all presidential candidates to submit birth certificates in order to be listed on Arizona ballots. J. D. Hayworth, the ex-Congressman and ex-talk show host who opposes McCain’s renomination, ups the ante by wanting to require that candidates for any office do so. Meanwhile, any citizen over twenty-one can carry, just about any place where it’s not specifically forbidden, a concealed weapon without bothering to get a permit or any training.
This law, and to an undefinable extent the immigration law, stem from the belief or desire of many citizens that Arizona is still a frontier state and should be allowed to do, individually or collectively, anything they please. Although this attitude may have something to do with states’ rights, those have not been at the forefront of arguments for either law. Those and the birther bill are more likely the result of a distrust of a government felt to be both remote and controlling and from a familiar mix of social and economic uncertainty and a desire to find an easy explanation and if possible a scapegoat.
* * * * *
It is not hard to understand Mr. Davis’s position — that the attempts by Governor Brewer seem to fall short of what might be considered valid public policy. But obviously there is more to consider in this context, more not necessarily tied to support one side or the other, but on point with understanding elements connected to the issue of “illegal immigration.” In this sense, let’s see if we can elevate the nature of the discussion.
For example, what is the actual history of illegal immigration in America? Can it be said that only those who have come into the country illegally are to blame for their being here? What about the employers who have utilized their services to further their interests at home, as well as our interests at the market? Isn’t this part of larger, economic, systematic concerns? And what about a public which, seemingly always in the hardest of economic times, turns its frustration into blame on other people for their plight, rather than point that frustration at the system that is driving people on both sides of the border? I mean, aren’t both sides somewhat victims of the same system?
And what about this system itself — and I’m talking about the system of capitalism that we see staring us in the face everyday – what is it about this system that has over our history fostered divisions between races and genders related to economic/employment concerns, to the point of blaming each other, while it continues on in its way of maximizing profits almost with impunity? And on this point, how much do we as a public actually know about this system? And how did this lack of important knowledge happen by the way, in the freest, most powerful country in the world? How is it that the public knows so little about the system under which it lives, so much so that we are easily moved into turning on each other (illegals or not) out of a desperation of not knowing where else to turn? And what about our leadership (or lack thereof) on either side of the political spectrum, leadership that prefers to tweak the battle over state and federal power, or what is and isn’t racism, all while our collective ignorance over the economic system that is pushing us and these concerns all over the place continues to run, without a peep of notice from either political side? Shouldn’t we be angry over how little we understand the system, and what our leadership has and hasn’t done in this regard?
I heard recently at a conference that cheap labor is only a part of national and international trade – that in order to accommodate the latter we must have the former. This sounded overly crass to me, and in asking the proponent of this statement if cheap labor was related to ‘fair’ trade, I was told that when it comes to money, there really is no such thing as ‘fair.’ It was also suggested with a bit of a snicker that, as I am an American, I should already understand this.
Perhaps this is the way it is, perhaps when it comes to money, we should take what we can get and so be it. In this context, issues like immigration, employment, crime, war, racism, poverty, education, housing, health, and principles like justice, fairness, freedom and equality can be talked about till the cows come home, but when it comes to money honey, well – we, particularly in the U.S., should know the drill by now.
As shameful and as hard to swallow as this seems, maybe it’s our own self-delusion that is getting in the way. This would suggest that we may prefer to talk one way, but behave in another. If this is not the case – if we really want to sort through issues in ways that can make our country better, let me suggest that when it comes to concerns like the immigration issue, we spend at least as much time and emotion and energy trying to figuring out our own self-identity and its relationship to capitalism as we do looking to the Mexicans coming across our borders. Maybe then (and maybe is used in its strongest sense) we can clear the air of more than just the dust around the Rio Grande.
After forty-five years in English departments of various American, Canadian, and Hungarian universities, Robert Murray Davis began a career as a writer and consultant. He has written or edited two dozen books, most recently Mid-Life Mojo: A Guide for the Newly Single Male and The Literature of Post-Communist Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania: A Study. He has lectured, given conference papers, and done poetry readings in England, France, Germany, Spain, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Romania.
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• The next article will be on an issue closely tied to immigration legislation, employment and money — the drug problem and legalization. This is a solution (a lesser of evils “fix”, if you will) that many, including former Mexican President Vicente Fox, believe is the most logical way to address a problem that is on all levels clearly out of hand.
— Jim Palombo, Politics Editor
October 25, 2010 Comments Off on Politics: Illegal Immigration
In the Minds of Guilty Porcupines
In the minds of guilty porcupines,
Dentist-chair torture lingers
Only those moments
When stolen music functions
To fracture cerebral processes.
Tart misses, no longer surprised,
To go steady with hard water adventurers,
Dare not reinforce
Rearview mirror laws, especially
When writing prenuptials.
Such women are wont
To adjust the better moments
Of life’s genius highways;
Their smiles are regularly drilled until
Perfection steps out for coffee.
Ladies like that accept horse patrols
Supersede motorcades, while
Function’s old-fashioned form
Drives the bypass ordinarily reserved
For mental illness’ sexual policies.
More singular rhetoric’ll never
Grace magazine covers, political summits,
But further temporary schisms, which
Diplomatically wave strictures on
Rather, spiny resistance
Must suffice if redefining systems
Convenient to exactitudes.
Political gibberish’s lexicon
Otherwise leaves little room;
Hostile, crepuscule species suffer.
Ms. Alfred, Buffaloberry’s cat,
Could be relied upon to be limp,
Joking all the while
About being “a Jewish Mother.”
Feline helpings of soup,
Chicken, vegetables, bread,
Plied upon unsuspecting guests
Otherwise sate most comers.
Heaping plates hold,
Steamed plus boiled delicacies,
Morph prey species into
Vapid volunteers, who fill bellies.
Jewels, travels, plus dead animals’ skins
Evoke an unwillingness to study law,
Practice medicine, or remain all but
Barren per competitive careers.
Provisional divisions evolve
Beyond familiar tails, pointy ears,
Sharp responses or soothed consciousness;
Prefabricated intellectual submission delights.
Hence, it’s familial feline stuff
That attends weddings, graduations, other
Celebrations decked in gender-bias’
Soft ego touch.
Courting men means bothering
Among electronic appliances,
Land grant universities,
And answering machines.
Better to flick wet tissues,
Their wadded hillocks covering carpets,
Than to clamor, a loud,
About social justice.
As a result, it’s small wonder
When domesticated fry distance
Themselves from norms, paw-sing,
All the while, to accommodate cultural nuance.
About the poet:
While tumbling around the Middle East with her hibernaculum of imaginary hedgehogs, KJ Hannah Greenberg has been collecting comfortable vessels into which to put her words. Along the way, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry and was found guilty of trying to make a match between “balderdash” and “xylophone.”
October 25, 2010 Comments Off on K. J. Hannah Greenberg: Poetry
Neville Leaves A Little Of Himself Behind
Neville leaves a little of himself behind: a paint can behind the stereo. Polyethelene in the basement. Wooden strips bound with twine in the loft. If the woman had any idea why, she wouldn’t be snapping carrots at the sink with such force that the deer outside mistake them for guncracks. They leap over the fence in five directions, even though they’ll be back, chewing the rhododendrons to sticks. They always come back — or at least that’s what they want you to think. Which is why the paint can gathers grime behind the stereo, and the fence he started stays just two boards short of finished, though he’s already working for the woman by the cemetery, who in her stupid excitement can’t yet see that this relationship’s going to last a lot longer than the wall going up by her pond.
About the author:
Paul Lisicky is the author of “Lawnboy”, “Famous Builder” and two upcoming books: “The Burning House”, a novel (2011), and “Unbuilt Projects”, short prose pieces (2012). He has been published widely in journals, chapbooks and magazines. He teaches at NYU and in the Fairfield University MFA Program. Lisicky live in New York City and Springs, New York.
You can read more of his work at: http://paullisicky.blogspot.com/
October 25, 2010 Comments Off on Paul Lisicky: Neville …
Arrangement in Green and Black:
Portrait of the Photographer’s Mother Series
This series had serendipitous beginnings. I found a small print of Whistler’s painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother, at a neighborhood garage sale. The same weekend, I found a leopard coat and hat, a 1950s’ cat painting, and what looked like the exact chair from Whistler’s painting. That started me thinking about the idea of portraiture, the strong compositional relationships going on within Whistler’s painting, and the evocative nature of unassuming details.
The series incorporates traditional photography techniques, yet becomes richer with the treatment of hand painting. It is my intent to have the viewer see the work in a historical context with the addition of color, and at the same time, experience Whistler’s simple, yet brilliant formula for the composition.
My patient 85-year-old mother posed in over 20 ensembles, but unfortunately passed away before seeing the finished series. I am grateful for her sense of humor and the time this series allowed us to be together.
The images were taken with a Hasselblad and printed on Ilford warm tone matt paper in two sizes, 11×14 and 16×20. It is an edition of 25 with 4 Artist’s Proofs.
— Aline Smithson
Aline Smithson[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/aline-smithson/thumbs/thumbs_arrangement-1.jpg]50
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Smithson on Smithson
I came to photography through the back door. My father and uncle were photographers and my career was centered around it, but it was not until I found my uncle’s twin lens Rolleiflex that I embraced photography fully as my own. Seeing the world with my own photographic vision has become a wonderful obsession.
I graduated from the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara with a BA in Art and moved to NYC to make my living as a painter, and although I continued to paint, my career moved into the fashion world. I worked as the Fashion Editor for Vogue Patterns and Vogue Knitting Magazines in New York City for a decade, and then continued on in Los Angeles as a freelance photo stylist. As a Fashion Editor, I had the privilege of working with many exceptional fashion photographers including Horst, Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchelier, Arthur Elgort and Burt Stern. I did not realize it at the time, but I was working with the most amazing teachers.
After standing next to the camera for many years, I have discovered that it is behind the camera that I find my joy and passion. My work has been featured in numerous publications including the PDN Photo Annual, Communication Arts Photo Annual, Eyemazing, Artworks, Lenswork Extended, Shots, Pozytyw, and Silvershotz magazines. I have exhibited widely including solo shows at the Griffin Museum of Photography, the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, Galerie Tagomago in Barcelona, and Wallspace Gallery in Seattle. In addition, my work has been included in many group exhibitions and has garnered numerous awards. I continue to shoot film and use cameras that are decades old.
Along with creating my own photographs, I work hard to promote the work of other photographers. I have been the Gallery Editor for Light Leaks Magazine; I founded and write daily for the well-read photography blog, Lenscratch, which has been noted as one of the 10 Best Photography blogs by Source Review. I am also a contributing writer for Diffusion, F Stop, Light Leaks, and Lucida magazines and write book reviews for photoeye. In addition I have curated exhibitions for a number of galleries and on-line magazines, including Fraction and Too Much Chocolate. For the past decade, I have been teaching workshops and hosting lecture series at the Julia Dean Photo Workshops in Los Angeles. I was nominated for The Excellence in Photographic Teaching Award in 2008 and 2009 and for The Santa Fe Prize in Photography in 2009 by Center. In 2009 and 2010, I was selected to be a juror for Critical Mass through Photolucida, and a reviewer at Review LA in 2010 and 2011.
See Simthson other portfolios at http://www.alinesmithson.com/
October 25, 2010 1 Comment