Sunday, March 9, 2014
In discourse, the weight of evidence may fall on one side or the other. Of course, it's up to the contestants to "interpret" what raw evidence may signify. Sometimes, in science, or philosophy, or politics, there is equal support for opposing positions. In those cases, a compromise may be in order, but sometimes there is no way to balance one viewpoint against another, without one side or the other feeling completely vanquished.
In matters of taste, sweetness and bitterness compete for attention, with sourness and saltiness and mouthfeel all complicating the mix. Sensibility, that complex mixture of feeling and cognition, is the quintessentially human trait which enables us to refine our appreciation of experience by combining the raw data of what we can measure and quantify, with the personal, idiosyncratic, emotional quality which we think unique to our species.
In taste, especially, we can combine different portions of taste influences to produce a happy coincidence of effects, though how each person senses things differs. Lemon, for instance, is noticeably less dry than lime, which seems to contain less sweetness, and may be more acidic.
Amaro, and Campari, are classic European dry liqueurs which Continentals may take straight, or with soda, or on the rocks, to cut the summer heat. Unlike Americans, Europeans seem less drawn to pure sweetness than to somewhat dry, spicy aperitifs. These highly spiced liqueurs make interesting components of cocktails, though they need to be handled with delicacy, lest they overwhelm a combination.
I've tried the ginger/amaro tandem before here, and I decided to go out on a limb, figuratively speaking, and add another dry European spice, with Campari.
Rum tends towards sweetness, being distilled from sugarcane. Taken straight, it is clearly reminiscent of the tropics, where sugar cane is harvested. But it can be coaxed into different kinds of effects through unusual combinations. Here, I've taken the Ginger Ale and Amaro duo, and built it onto a platform of Caribbean golden rum, and added Campari and lime. To balance this, I've kept the portion of Ginger Ale high, to avoid any rumor of dryness. What occurs, to my taste, is a kind of ultimate balancing act of tastes, the sweet, bitter, sour flavors all conspiring to create a flavor that is neither wholly ingratiating, nor dismissively dry.
Can opposing flavors, like irreconcilable differences, cancel each other out, producing a bland result? Or might they co-exist in a happy harmony, a diversity of flavors which all sing their specific pitch, without disturbing the lyrical line?
Mixed as always by proportion, this recipe would yield two cocktails, swirled and served up in frosted cocktail glasses (but be careful, the ginger ale will fizz up your shaker--better to let it breathe a bit so to top doesn't blow off and spill your creation!).
3 Parts Golden Rum
3 Parts fresh Ginger Ale
1 Part Amaro
1 Part Campari
1 Part fresh lime juice
Thursday, March 6, 2014
This is the season in California when the clover sprouts out. Clover is a weed, invasive and prolific, though not entirely unwelcome. Its leaves, rounded, in groups of three, make a pleasant ground-cover, at least as long as they're green, which usually isn't very long.
Honey made from bees who forage in clover is sometimes called Clover Blossom Honey, a popular kind on the market.
I used to think that so-called 4-leaf clover was a myth, but that's not the case. Four-leaf clover, though rare, occurs in nature. The odds of finding a four leaf clover are about 1 in 10,000, assuming you were patient enough to search for them. It's possible that you could pore over several thousands of plants before finding a single example. There must be a genetic disadvantage to four leaf clusters, since they occur in such a small ratio.
Four leaf clovers are said to be emblems of good luck, and finding one may presage good prospects in romance. In Ireland, where the clover (or shamrock) has most symbolic significance, wearing some in your coat lapel may be popular. I was only in Dublin briefly several years ago, and I don't remember seeing anyone wearing clover leaves, though the motif, being one of their national emblems (like the harp), is ubiquitous there.
Here's a concoction that's honey-based. The Barenjager is a German liqueur. The Germans are very big on sweet things. Their wines tend towards the syrupy, though they can be very delicate and sophisticated. They tend to go well with German food, which is no surprise. Along the borderlands between Germany and France, you'll find wonderful vintages, ranging between very sweet and crisply dry.
Shaken and served in chilled (frosted) cocktail glasses. Very good with honeyed salted almonds, by the way. Pure honey has a kind of "burnt" smell, which is always associated in my mind with bee-stings. I've only been stung about half a dozen times, but it always gives me a super-sized pain, like being stabbed with a glowing needle. Something of the vividness of that memory, I think, informs the intensity of my taste buds towards honey. Putting it into a drink concoction softens the "heat" of the honey, and makes it seem the very essence of alpine purity. The dry vermouth smooths it out and balances the excessive sweetness.
3 parts gin
1 part dry vermouth
1 part Barenjager honey liqueur
1 part fresh lemon juice
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
The classification and evaluation of rare books is one of the premier functions of our culture. Great sums of money, amid the rarified atmosphere of finely tuned bibliographical knowledge and the application of the tools of scientific research, are exchanged, relying on the professional appraisal of the values of the great books of the past, and present.
Books may be valued for their contents, or for their scarcity, or for something that attaches itself to them, like the provenance of ownership.
In the rare book trade, the appraisal of value is of the keenest interest, since the prospects for a decent or healthy return on investment depend upon the validity of an approximation of worth in the marketplace. Ultimately, the value of anything depends upon what it may actually have sold for in the past, or what it might be expected to sell for in the future. An established valuation may be higher, or lower, depending upon the reliability of such criteria. If an auction value for a certain book took place a long time ago, it may no longer be a reliable indicator. If there's been a sudden influx of copies of a book thought, until then, to be scarce, even a recent transaction may no longer be a valid measure. Books, like stock shares, may be stable, or volatile, depending on their trading beta.
Yale's Beinecke Rare Book Room
--photo courtesy Yale University
There are different theories about how to appraise the potential value of books, as with any kind of collectible object. Over the years, I've meditated about the process of determining value, and have come up with the following model of how to measure the value of any particular book. It's primarily theoretical, but I believe, given its admittedly relative nature (there is no absolute assignable dollar value to any specific item), it still has considerable weight in the practical application.
I divide the classification of value into three separate aspects: Desirability, Scarcity and Condition; and I've visualized this triad as a delta, in which the area contained within the three aspects intersect, comprises the total value of a book.
It's possible to imagine a book that may not even exist. In Roman Polanski's cinematic version [The Ninth Gate, 1999] of Perez-Reverte's novel The Club Dumas , the narrative is based on the proposition of the existence of a limited edition of a book that has been co-authored by the devil. We know that such a book does not exist, but we can imagine how valuable such a book might be, if it actually did. Desirability is a fluctuating quality within the marketplace. How badly someone, or some institution, may want something, may depend upon a number of things. Windows of time or opportunity may open, or close. Markets themselves may heat up, or cool down, reflecting trends in the general economy, or changes in fashion or taste.
A certain edition of a book may be very common, or scarce. If a book is scarce, its possible value may rise, but only if there are suiters for it. An ingenue's beauty may make her attractive, but her inheritance expectations may make her even more desirable. A common book may exist in countless pristine examples, but command no value at all, simply because no one wants it, at least at a premium. A book's desirability may be said to decrease in proportion to its lack of scarcity. If there were thousands of pristine copies of the Gutenberg Bible, then its value would be much less. Still, given its nearly universal interest, its value would still be very high, because of the demand.
Limited editions are, in effect, an attempt to speculate the market, using a premeditated scarcity to exploit the desire for collectible copies of a text that usually is, in its common trade iteration, many times less valuable. Purveyors of finely printed and bound books, using techniques once common to the making of nearly all printed matter, may exist only by plying their trade as a deliberate production of rarities, to subsidize the continued life of the moveable type craft.
In order for a book to rise to highest levels of value, all three aspects of quality must be high. High, that is, relative to the number of probable customers, and the intensity of their desire. It may be that there is only one customer for a book, but if there is only one copy of that book available, its value will certainly be influenced by its scarcity. On the other hand, if that copy is in tattered condition, it may not command anything like what it would were it to be in excellent, Fine condition.
We know for a fact that there are many priceless famous paintings that continue to be "missing" since the great Nazi art thefts of the early 1940's in Europe. The value of such an unique and coveted painting, held secretly by a private collector, might have a theoretical value on the open market, but since its existence cannot be made public without jeopardizing its ownership, its value is really much less, unless another private party, willing to risk disclosure, should agree to pay a figure that might approach its presumed "public" value.
In the hierarchy of the antiquarian book trade, older books are almost universally considered the most desirable, though age, in and of itself, is no measure of value. Incunabula, published in the early 16th century, may have very little value, given the large number of surviving copies. Whereas a fine copy of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in a Fine original dustwrapper, may command as much as $100,000 or more on the retail market. Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, or To Kill a Mockingbird, may be much more sought after, but because those books are much more common in their desirable first edition states, they aren't worth nearly as much.
Special copies, signed for instance by their authors, or by other famous people, may elevate an otherwise ordinary copy or edition into the limelight. A copy of a Hemingway edition, inscribed by its author to a famous literary friend, like Fitzgerald, could turn a common book of no particular interest, into an object of great desirability.
Condition, in and of itself, is really of small significance. Scarcity, too, by itself, is not crucial. But as desirability rises, the importance of the other two rises with it. A truly impressive "condition copy" of a book may command many times the price of a pedestrian copy, all other factors being equal.
Often times, it's difficult to appraise the value of a unique copy, since there is no existing previous transaction by which to measure or compare it.
The appraisal of the value of books is not a science, though reasonable approximations can be made, based on previous records, and experience of the trade. My little theoretical model is useful only when used in conjunction with these other criteria. Every book presents a particular instance. I once found a book for $65 at a reputable dealer's shop, which I then sold to another antiquarian dealer for $1450. This copy then turned up in a third dealer's catalogue for $25,000!! There's no doubt that the $65 price was a bargain, but the neon nose-bleed price given it at the other end was unquestionably over the top of any sensible valuation. Still, if it had sold, for anything approaching its sky-high ask, the marketplace would certainly have influenced its "correct" value. In the trade, the market rules. We can argue until we're blue in the face about whether something is "really" worth such-and-such, but the proof is at the auctioneer's gavel.
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Su-Mee at 47 Months
As readers of this blog may recall, I did an exposé on our pet cat Su-Mee back in November 2012.
Su-Mee is one of two Siamese cats we own. We had three, but our oldest one, Coco Rose ("Sunshine") died in November last year. Su-Mee and Coco never quite bonded with each other. Coco was already almost 16 when Su-Mee entered the scene, her place as senior member unchallenged. We had gotten Su-Mee, who was born in February 2010 to replace Lottie, who had died of breast cancer the previous January. I think Su-Mee and Lottie would have gotten along famously, but they missed each other like ships passing in the night. From a purely visual standpoint, they looked more alike than any of the other Siamese cats we've owned, both with pointed faces and darkly browned fur.
Su-Mee has become the dominant figure in our household. He's grown into a substantially large animal, a little like Vanilla, the first Siamese we owned, who died at 19 some years ago. He's long, and would be lean but for his love of his "chocolate crunchies"which he consumes at an alarming rate. No appetite problems with this guy!
Su-Mee has a facial expression that's slightly "dangerous"-looking. If you didn't know him, you might suspect he's a "difficult" character, but you'd be wrong. He's just a big pussy-cat. He loves to sit on your lap--which is what he's doing in the picture above, on my knees in bed--and in the mornings when I'm at my home computer, he's up on my right shoulder, purring for attention and kisses. He looks almost like a panther, with those deep-set eyes and sharp black snout.
We had him fixed when he was just a few months old, so we've had none of the complications that arise from an hormonally mature male cat. No spraying, no skanky odors, no unpredictable moods. Su-Mee likes to joust with Mocha, our other male, but it's all innocent play. They never get really angry with each other, the way Mocha used to once in a while with Coco. I suppose it's partly the difference in their ages. They seem like very distinct personalities, Mocha stand-off-ish and private, Su-Mee gregarious and demanding.
We've deduced that cats raised in "normal households" where there's freedom of movement and lots of touching and human contact, are better as adults than animals raised in strict confinement, which is characteristic of professional breeders' compounds, or public animal shelters. A cat raised in a small cage or room, with little or no contact except with other cats, may be excessively shy or emotionally "isolated" in adult-hood. We hear routinely these days that it's best to adopt animals from shelters, rather than from breeders. From a casual point of view, that makes a lot of sense. Animals left for adoption may be euthanized if not adopted, and there are always plenty available. But if you want an animal suitable for a pet, an animal raised in a loving household will likely be healthier and better socialized than a rescued animal, which may have been abused or neglected, or be suffering from separation anxiety, disorientation, or grief (from an expired owner). It's important to be "wanted" as a pet owner, just as much as you may "want" to own a pet. In the Bay Area, there are a couple of professionally run boarding facilities, where the animals are given play time each day, and not ignored completely. We've used them before, and will certainly do so again. They aren't cheap, but for animals you love and consider a part of your family, it's an expense we bear cheerfully.
Su-Mee has become a great and dear companion, whom I expect to spend most of my remaining years with, God willing. A famous British publisher, Michael Joseph [18978-1958] was a serious cat fancier, who wrote a couple of juvenile cat titles, as well as Cat's Company [Geoffrey Bles, 1930], and later, Charles: The Story of a Friendship [Michael Joseph, 1943], a non-fiction account of his Siamese cat. The latter book is scarce in its first edition, and now commands prices in the hundreds, if you can even locate one. I once owned a copy, but to my present regret, sold it.
The intimacy that may become established between a human and a cat is different than that between humans and dogs, or humans and horses. Cats are "domestic" creatures in a way dogs aren't. Dogs must be taken out and walked every day, and they require regular exercise. Cats can live comfortably in a household, and will thrive there, away from the terrors and risks of the outdoors, where they may be hurt or killed, become diseased or mistreated by strangers, or get into a number of difficult situations. Indoor cats are generally better off than outdoor ones, though I wouldn't necessarily insist that this applies uniformly to all individuals. Some indoor/outdoor cats live very peaceable lives, though on average they tend not to live as long. All cats are individuals, which is not always obvious to people who've never owned one.
All in all, Su-Mee has me well-trained. He's my master, and I'm his slave. He has the perfect arrangement for his comfort and convenience, one I wouldn't dare to violate. It's a mutual thing, with both parties satisfied.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Growing up as a teenager in America has meant, or at least used to mean, for lots of people, getting a car. The car was America's symbol of the freedom--the freedom of the road, the freedom to go where you wanted, and--in our youth--the freedom to interact, without supervision or oversight, with the opposite sex. In high school, a lot of the anticipation of growing up meant qualifying for your driver's license, and then either having the use of the family car, or somehow acquiring a vehicle of one's own. When I was growing up in 1950's, many boys dreamed of owning a car, and customizing it into a "jalopy."Jalopies were older cars that one rehabilitated into a "hotrod" or a cruiser. Owning and being seen driving one's own car were marks of distinction, particularly among lower class boys, whose interests tended toward the mechanical, rather than the intellectual. Auto shop class existed to prepare boys to become professional mechanics, but it wasn't just an "elective" shop--it was almost a way of life. America's romance with the automobile has been going on for the last century, though the decline of American automobile companies has dampened some of the excitement that it once enjoyed among American youth. And the computerization of automobile technics has made amateur tinkering with cars very retro.
Every small town in America has had something akin to a so-called Lover's Lane, a place where kids in cars could go to park, and "make out" (or neck, or . . . well, you know). The slightly illicit and forbidden aspect of teenage romance made growing up seem a little naughty. Smoking, dressing in a certain way, fighting, going steady--these were things that parents tended to frown on. One could be put on probation by parents for indulging in these kinds of behaviors. These were things associated with growing up, though acting truly mature, we always knew, wasn't simply about cigarettes and manly competition, or (heaven forbid) condoms. Growing up, becoming adult, meant taking responsibility and pursuing serious goals, accepting civic and family and perhaps religious duties.
Sexual dalliance is probably a "gateway" drug to getting into the really serious addiction of begetting children. And reading was probably my personal gateway drug into advanced education, and a life-long interest in literature, design, travel, etc. Drinking beer was another of those tacitly "forbidden" indulgences of the teenage years, so beer was probably the gateway to alcoholism, though I didn't grow to like beer until I was middle aged, and when, coincidentally, the boutique beer business really got going.
The notion of taking a leap--as with a leap of faith, or an intellectual leap--suggests a fatalistic risk, whereas the idea of going down a lane might seem less dangerous, though not necessarily altogether safe either. Wandering down a pathway could be simply a misdirection, whereas jumping from a precipice would suggest an ulterior gesture, like suicide, or a relinquishing of some commitment, perhaps of the despair of love spurned, or love lost. I'm not sure what to call this concoction, but if it has to have one, let it be Lover's Leap. But enough of this!
"He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument." --Shakespeare (Love's Labor Lost)
Here's a love potion to twirl on your tongue. Swirled and served up in the usual very cold (freezer cold) cocktail glasses. By proportion, if you please.
3 parts Jack Daniels
1 part drambuie
1/2 part creme de noyaux
1/2 part amaro
1 part lemon juice
Sunday, February 23, 2014
I have been married to the same woman for almost 45 years. Perhaps this is not noteworthy, despite the epidemic of divorce, and the inclination of people of my "liberated generation" to engage in other sorts of "arrangements" (short of matrimony), but it's a tribute to something--perhaps my wife's stubbornness, or to my lack of imagination.
The notion of celebrating love by devoting a single day a year to it is a pretty silly gesture. Love--and lust--are powerful motivators of emotion and action, though in our puritanical culture, displays of emotion and feeling are somewhat muted. In true capitalist spirit, we've turned Valentine's Day into an extravaganza of gifting and spending, appropriating what once was considered a religiously based observance. If Saint Valentine actually ever sent a farewell "valentine" to the daughter of jailer, he'd be surprised to discover, were he conscious today, eighteen hundred years later, how flagrantly trivial and secular his official day has become.
But we don't need excuses to express positive sentiment, do we? I mean, you can kiss or hug people you love or admire anytime, and many people do. Personally, I was raised to do this only on occasions of intimacy or extremity. Young people do a lot of hugging these days, and it's become sort of obligatory. Between men, a good handshake should usually be sufficient. Women are expected to emote more openly. Kissing the air beside someone's cheek has always seemed ridiculous to me, but in other cultures, it's de rigueur. I've always thought kissing a woman's hand is a really cool thing, but try it today, and you're likely to be laughed at.
But enough excuse-making. Here's a concoction for the terminally jaded, or an innocently sweet way of saying I love you. I noticed today at the grocery that those really big strawberries they sell nowadays look rather like hearts.
Are strawberries a good valentine's symbol?
In any case, I recently discovered a new mixer--the so-called Cotton Candy liqueur. It works perfectly in some drinks, so I invented one application that really tastes like a valentine.
2 parts gin
1 part Cotton Candy Liqueur
1 Part Lemon juice
Dash of Parfait d'Amour
--shaken and served up in a well-chilled cocktail glass.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Photo courtesy of Americana Exchange Monthly@
On October 17, 1989, I was still employed at my government job in San Francisco, where I'd been working since April 1974. That day I left work early, as I did as often in those days, to avoid traffic on the Bay Bridge, taking the route home to Kensington in the East Bay. That day, too, I hadn't wanted to miss the third game of the World Series, which featured the Oakland A's versus the San Francisco Giants (the "Bay Bridge Series" as it came to be called), which would be televised at about 5:30 that evening.
When I got onto I-80, I decided to segue over to Serendipity Books at 1201 University Avenue in Berkeley. I was a regular customer of Serendipity in those days. I'd become a book collector, against my better instincts, and Serendipity was the finest antiquarian bookshop I knew, at least in the nine county Bay Area. The owner, Peter Howard, had the best stuff, and he knew how to cultivate customers. Anyway, that day I pulled into Peter's little parking-lot and made my way up to the second floor at the back, where the mysteries and some of the older stock was shelved. I can't remember exactly what I was looking at--perhaps a copy of Fielding Dawson's collected stories--but at exactly 5:04 PM the building began to shake. People who live in earthquake country have a kind of intuition about quakes: when one begins, there is a sudden feeling of inevitability--"is this the big one?" you ask yourself. In those few seconds, it became clear that this was indeed "a big one" though how big was not entirely clear. As I stood transfixed standing by the second floor window, I had the distinct feeling that things were on the verge of catastrophe. The books were falling off their shelves, and I could hear tall book-cases careening onto the floor on the ground floor below. "If this gets any more intense," I thought to myself, "this second floor might collapse." All this happened in the space of only about 15 seconds, yet it might have seemed to last a minute or more. I rushed downstairs, stepping over big piles of fallen books, and encountered Burton Weiss frantically taking an inventory of the customers and the damage. "Are you alright?" Burton blurted. "Yup, just fine," I replied. My first thought was for my own house, and I hightailed it up the hill. To my relief, it hadn't suffered any significant damage, though our two cats at the time, Vanilla and Java, were spooked.
By 1989, Burton had been working at Serendipity for some years. I don't know a lot of details about Burton, but he grew up in New York, attended Cornell, majoring in English literature. As an undergraduate there, Burton became active in political causes, as many of us did during the 1960's. In Burton's case, this involved demonstrating and contending with the University itself, primarily about Gay rights. As a Gay man, Burton felt strongly about the Gay Rights movement, and he was among the first to take up the issue as a personal crusade, rather early in its history. I don't know the background details, but at some point Peter hired Burton to be his assistant. Working for Peter was difficult, but Burton persevered for many years until circumstances permitted him to resign and become a part-time bookseller on his own. Burton had a home high in the Berkeley Hills, and he would eventually also acquire a house south of Barcelona on the east coast of Spain, where he would spend part of each year.
Not long after Burton left Serendipity, Peter and I had a falling-out, and I stopped going there. In the meantime, Burton and I became acquaintances, and I bought books from him from time to time. Burton was a fastidious man. If you went to his house, there were certain rules you had to follow. First, you were not allowed to touch anything, because you might disturb the order, and there was also the issue of cleanliness. I was allowed into Burton's "closet"--a small room off the upper hallway--because I was shopping, but one was not allowed to touch the books in his own collection, which were impressive indeed. Burton's collection's theme was Gay literature, and he had pursued it single-mindedly for decades.
In any event, Burton became seriously ill with cancer in 2011. He refused to talk about it with me, but it was clear that his time had come. He had worked and planned to live the life he'd dreamed about--the house in Spain, the independence of being his own boss, and a stable relationship with his partner Elliot Schwartz--and now it was all to come to a too-early close. In an ironic twist of fate, Elliot died just a few months later, also from cancer. Peter Howard had died only three months earlier, in March of that year. The collection was broken up and scattered to the trade, confirming the adage that we mortals are all just custodians of the physical artifacts that we invest with so much meaning and covetousness; we won't take them with us, no matter how determined we are not to relinquish them in life.
In any case, Burton composed the following keepsake, Aphorisms of the Rare Book Trade, for distribution to members of the Roxburghe Club, a bibliophilic club, which I've copied below.
These aphorisms bear more than a little truth about serious book collecting. As anyone who knows, knows, a book you acquire to add to your collection, isn't a book you want to handle. You keep it safely on the shelf, or in a custom made box, and you may take it out occasionally just to admire it and contemplate its rarity and fine condition, but actually reading it is strictly out of the question. That one might actually do so, is a privilege of ownership, but resisting this impulse is the higher purpose to which collecting, for collecting's sake, aspires. Materialism has gotten a bad name, since the advent of socialism and the distaste for effete acquisitiveness. But things are the hallmark of all societies, the repositories of our culture--books perhaps most of all, beside great paintings, buildings, musical compositions and events.
Burton's little trifle is a gentle poke at our pretension, being both true and charming at once.
Early in our acquaintance, Burton regaled me with the melodramatic account of a torrid love affair he'd had with a man who lived up around Santa Rosa. Burton had felt blessed to be found attractive by a man whose beauty he worshipped, and he considered leaving Elliot. This caused much agony and grief and embarrassment. Why, I wondered, is Burton relating to me these very private emotional matters? As I later understood, this was typical of Burton--he held nothing back. I realized that this was just the same kind of "deep gossip" my mother had used to practice, revealing the rumors and secrets of one's love life in intimate detail. The fact that such details emanated from a late-middle-aged Jewish Gay man, was only a matter of slight difference.
I miss Burton. I don't know what else he might have become. Perhaps an academic. Perhaps a bureaucrat. Perhaps even a writer (?). But as a bookseller, he knew his stuff, and reveled in its complexity.
Sometimes, the things you don't know about people are as important as the things you do know--as Ernest Hemingway said about literary works, what makes them powerful is the two-thirds portion of the floating iceberg that is submerged beneath the surface of what we're told or shown--the unknown, only implied by the part we're allowed to see.