Friday, February 5, 2016

My C Slippers from London

When spouse and I traveled to Scotland in 2005, we stayed briefly in London, so that I could scout the London booksellers, and we could eat at a few choice restaurants there. I'd always wanted to stay at one of London's posh hotels, and we stayed at a few, including the Savoy, the Stafford, and Claridge's. At Claridge's--where we were greeted at the front desk by a veritable team of servants and staff, by name--we chose what the clerk described to us, as the Noel Coward room. (Searching this unit online produces no hits, so I presume it's either something the establishment doesn't/or doesn't any longer advertise. Coward was known to have stayed at Claridge's on occasion, since it was close to some theaters where his plays or musicals were performed, back in the day.)     

The room we were given had a deco feel, with cute green little metal sconces, and a butterscotch and green color scheme. The bathroom was most impressive, with jade green tile everywhere, and a sink with faucets that looked custom 1930's luxury. 

In the closet were matching sets of men's and women's slippers [photo above]--free swag offered to guests. I liked to imagine that the large green "C" on each slipper was in honor of Noel Coward, since we were, after all, sleeping in the "Noel Coward" room (not just at Claridge's). 

While there, we decided to have a dinner at what was then the Gordon Ramsey restaurant inside the hotel. Gordon Ramsey, you will note, is the same Gordon Ramsey we've all seen on Fox Television, in his British productions Hell's Kitchen, MasterChef, and other spin-offs, in which the famous tousle-headed ex-footballer turned dictator-chef judges and rages over restaurateurs and apprentice chefs with scornful disdain, in contests and makeovers. It's less a cooking show than a new kind of reality TV, in which the haughty host gets off hurting people's feelings and generally acting out his short-tempered imperiousness. The meal we had there was really a so-so experience. Neither the food nor the service was top-notch. Ramsey terminated his relationship with Claridge's in 2013, and the restaurant closed. 

Claridge's belongs to a brand of London hotel that flourished during the heydays of the British Empire, when the city was the de-facto center of the world, and anyone who was anyone was expected to stay in posh digs, to parade their cred and bask in the prosperity of decadence. Since the decline of the empire, such establishments are no longer the province of the upper classes, though it will cost you an arm and an ear to stay even a single night at any of them. 

Some people abhor elegance in any form, feeling that it represents some kind of continuing offense against common sense, moderation and fairness. Promiscuous consumption however has always been a component of civilization. To sample the style of life it represents is one small brand of indulgence I'd always dreamed about, which is why we stayed there. I still have those slippers, by the way, which I've kept as souvenirs. I never wore them. If I'd left them at the hotel, I assume they'd have been tossed into the recycle bin. Someday, after I'm gone, someone will probably think they belonged to someone whose name began with "C"--which would be fitting, since I'm Curtis.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Alphabet - A New Classic Children's Book

Reviewing a juvenile title affords me the opportunity to hold forth on a variety of subjects which I don't often discuss here, though I have written at length about three other classic texts, Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, and Calico, The Wonder Horse, or The Saga of Stewy Stinker by Virginia Lee Burton. 

I discovered The Alphabet [by Monique Felix, Makanto, Minnesota: Creative Editions, 1993], rummaging around in a dumpster at the local county recycling center, and saved it from pulping. This is often how much of our very disposable cultural detritus ends up, dismantled or crunched into consistent fragments or material for landfills, or repurposed into new product. There's a certain delight in salvaging items that have been thoughtlessly discarded by others. 

Normally, I'm not much interested in books for children. They're produced at an incredible rate, and most of them quickly fall off the retail inventory lists and are relegated to oblivion, ripped and torn and scribbled in and damp stained and generally abused by children, who often seem more interested in abusing them than in reading them, though a well-used book is often proof that it was appreciated instead of being neglected. 

Children's books are often the first reading experience that people have of literature in their lives. It's unusual for a child to learn how to read well enough at an early age to be able to read real books, without first transitioning from picture-books, letter blocks, or pop-up books. Learning to read often occurs via elementary texts, designed both to usher the child-mind into grammar and spelling while inculcating moral lessons through crude juxtapositions and simple narratives. 

Children's books, like all books, are a reflection of the culture of their time. When I was a boy, children's books had lately entered a new phase. After World War II, the elaborately illustrated books of the early 20th Century had begun to give way to a more visually oriented style, one less dependent upon poetry and plot, and more focused on the power of visual variation. This was partly the influence of cartoons and billboards, but also a response to the more modern notions of how children first learn and orient themselves to experience. Winnie-the-Pooh or Peter Rabbit gave way to Dr. Seuss. 

Typically, books designed for children at the pre-school level contain almost no language at all--just pictures arranged in a sequence. These mostly wordless texts are simply designed to orient the child's mind, to regarding a book as an amusement, an object of curiosity. Since children lack a sense of duty and self-improvement, it makes sense to present reading (or the pre-literate pantomime of narrative) as a game or recreation, instead of something that must be done as a command. The strategy of camouflaging pedagogy through seductive persiflage is the classical pathway into the child-mind; and most children quickly pick this up, often becoming suspicious and reluctant to be condescended to and manipulated in this way.           

The best children's books, it seems to me, are those which manage to create a connection between the intriguing aspects of language and direct experience without seeming to do so. There are different kinds of language. There's the language of images, the language of symbols, the language of alphabets, the languages of science, of codes, oral languages. Acquiring an interest in how languages work, and learning to manipulate them, is the first step in pursuing systematic scholarship.   


There isn't much information I could find on the web about Monique Felix. According to one site, she's a Swiss artist who studied graphic arts at l'Ecole des Arts Appliqués in Lausanne, who has illustrated more than 40 children's books, including several "Mouse Books" in the series, and won honors such as the Octagon Prize from the International Center of Children's Literature in France. Making a child's book based purely on pictures is not a new idea. But making a children's book in which the plot involves the discovery and investigation of the alphabet is somewhat unusual. 

This one is based on the idea that a mouse (or two mice) literally find letters of the alphabet by chewing into the paper of a book, rummaging around and pulling out torn fragments with separate letters printed on them, then innocently playing with these torn letter fragments, trying to make sense of them as pure symbolic abstractions.  


We see immediately that the front cover has been chewed. The book itself has been in a sense "consumed" deliberately, perhaps mischievously, by a hairy mouse who peeks back at us from the eaten portion of the board. At the outset, we see the physical book as both the ground of action and the raw matter out of which the sequence of events will occur. The book suffers to be the physical world in which mice live, play and behave. The book isn't just a medium upon which the panels or frames are laid out; it is a physical object, inside the narrative. 

The mouse doesn't say anything, and nothing is said about it. It simply scratches its head as we discover on the second page. What's going to happen? We don't know yet.

Then, on the next page, we see the mouse tunneling or chewing its way into the very paper layers, disappearing-- 

--into the cellulose, and throwing out fragments of chewed paper, each with a letter printed on it. It is as if the letters exist in the paper, in the stuff of the pulp, and the mouse is discovering these mysterious templates simply through a kind of mad investigation, the way a dog will instinctively dig for things in the dirt. (Rodents do in fact behave just this way, digging or scratching their way into places, in search of food, or shelter. It's completely in character.) 

As this rummaging continues, we discover that another mouse is conducting the same curious search, and has tunneled its way out through the same entry hole the first mouse has opened. 

The two mice begin to collect the letter fragments, and to associate them according to various schemes. 

The smaller mouse seems to have figured out that vowel sounds belong together, though how it could have done this remains mysterious. At this point, the mice seem only delighted with the letters, as if they were some kind of original toy(s). 

They begin to throw the fragments in the air, jumping with uninhibited joy and abandon. 

By this time, we would probably have noticed that beneath the first layer of pages there appears to be an actual printed text, though the specific words can't be deduced. This layering of perceived matter, just beneath the surface, makes us wonder how the random letters which the mice have torn out of the stuff of the pages relate to the information contained inside.   

The letters function as both playthings which the innocent mice have discovered by accident, as well as keys to the tantalizing message which exists under the surface of the paper. Metaphorically, the paper (the book) has become a kind of raw material inside of which language exists, to be mined and repurposed as needed. 

As the game proceeds, the mice begin to see congruences and relationships, joining capital and lower-case letters together, all in the spirit of casual play. 

Though we have no idea how they do it, the mice begin to put the letters in their traditional order, beginning with A. Apparently, these mice know more than we thought they did at the beginning.  

We may have believed initially that the mice couldn't have known about the meaning of the letters of the alphabet, but the unfolding of their game indicates that they either invented the relationships they are constructing, or had to have known about it before-hand. 

Having arranged the letters in their proper order, they now decide to take a nap, snuggling up together inside the cavity of torn paper they created by their digging. The book concludes with three blank torn fragments placed on the last leaf.  

What would an immature mind think about this sequence? What is the underlying message? What does the book seek to accomplish? Does it work? 

There have been some interesting developments within the field of what is variously called "concrete poetry" or "visual poetry"--as sub-genres of modern experimental poetry--over the last half century. Over the last 20 years, "graphic" literature, as a bastard child of the comic strip, has morphed into a major new formal category, with a large new audience. Children's literature, and advertising art, have both progressed simultaneously, along with these other trends. A book such as The Alphabet (which happens to be the title of post-Modern poet Ron Silliman's epic poem), seems to me to owe something to all these divergent creative areas.

The unification of content (narrative) with material text (physical book, pages, letters etc.) here is very wittily explored through a metaphorical interaction between an animal figure, and the book as a mechanical means of transmission. There is nothing new about telling stories about animals, even through the eyes and imagined minds of animals, as stand-ins for human protagonists or characters. What is new, here, is the penetration of the medium (page) by a character, boring through the metaphysical page to discover the verbal content concealed beneath the paper. The mice perform this exploration on their own, as ambassadors between the world of our human attention and the hidden world of print (language, meaning, content). The sphere or universe of language exists inside books as a kind of parallel world, complete unto itself, entire, and endless. The world of print is accessed via printed letters or paper surfaces. 

Ordinarily accessing this world is usually regarded as a passive interaction--we simply read the words printed, and perceive their meaning and absorb their message through recognition and confirmation. But to the immature mind, unfamiliar with the universe of print, the idea that letters (and words) exist only (or most routinely) inside books is really a novel idea. A child will recognize a mouse, and understand the mouse as a creature which burrows, looking for something, or trying to hide. Carrying this identification further, the mice become children, or child-like, as they play with the objects they have dug up. This playful aspect is like a celebration of the discovery, or the invention, of language itself. Though no words are formed by the mice, they clearly understand that the letters mean something, and they discover (or make) an order, which happens to be the ordered Western alphabet we're familiar with. 

A child might wonder, naturally, what's on the other side of the page, where the mice have been burrowing. What's under there? There must be words there. Maybe the mice are tearing up the words into their constituent parts, and throwing the fragments around, just to see what will happen? Pieces, torn-up bits and segments and particles of words. 

Looking at language this way is a way of imagining the different methods by which letters, words, and writing surfaces may be conceived. If a child thinks of language as a realm on the other side of the surface of reality, a layer of something between him and sense or meaning, he may be moved to explore language, instead of merely inculcating it with rote obedience. It may be possible to see language itself (which is a wholly created artifact of human ingenuity), as a thing, to be studied and conjured and manipulated and heaped up into startlingly new structures and forms. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Vicissitudes of Pro Sports Management - The 49ers in Crisis

Levi Stadium

On the subtitle of this blog, it reads "rumination on literature, art, politics, music, photography, design (architecture and landscape), wine and spirits, &c." It doesn't mention sports, though I've devoted a fair number of posts here to the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers, the two local sports teams I grew up watching and following since boyhood. I'm old enough to have attended one of the first games the new San Francisco Giants played at Seals Stadium (before Candlestick was built), and I'm old enough to have seen a game between the 49ers and George Halas's Chicago Bears at old Kezar Stadium in the mid-1950's. 

Professional sports fandom is a kind of addiction that feeds off of boredom and little imagination, best suited to people who lack sensible diversions or hobbies. Professional sports franchises are money-making operations, designed to enlarge the fortunes (and reputations) of rich people. Over the last half-century, while mass video media has blossomed, these franchises have gone from barnstorming carnival attractions to big-time corporate management outfits. Pro sports is very big business these days. Player and coach contracts are at astronomical levels, and the cost of attending a handful of live home games has become so expensive that it will easily gobble up an ordinary middle-class family's whole annual entertainment budget in one gulp. 

All of which is to say, in a way, that I take no particular pride in capitulating to the lower common denominator of my taste, by admitting that I still, in my late '60's, follow both local teams with continued interest, and feel minor emotional crises with their periodic rise and fall. My stepfather, Harry Faville, was a devotee of these teams, and a faithful one. He listened to every Giants broadcast for 25 years, and watched every 49ers game on television for the same period. When he died in 1973, he still held end-zone season tickets at Candlestick for the Niners, a purchase he would not have been able to sustain today, in the world of luxury seat-boxes, seat "licenses" and the $12 hot dog. In some sense, my obsession is a continuation of his, though I think he'd be surprised to know that. 

Why care about the fortunes of a professional football team? Players come and players go, and outcomes are often decided by chance and accident. The NFL has expanded from the 12 teams I grew up knowing in the 1950's, to 32 today! There are so many teams now, and so many games, and so many players, you can hardly keep up with all of them. Understanding the odds on any given weekend you'd need a Ph.D. (or a very good computer app) for all the statistical data you'd have to process into the analysis. That makes any local franchise that much more unique for those who may be "supporting it" with their ticket sales and Sunday afternoon television game-parties. 

The 49ers were once a long-suffering organization. Between 1950 and 1980, the team didn't win a championship, and was routinely consigned to the mid-level ranks of the also-rans and might'a'beens. But beginning in 1981, when it won its first Super Bowl, through 1998--a span of some 18 years--it was class of the league, not winning fewer than 10 games in any one year. Beginning with head coach Bill Walsh's tenure and continuing through George Seifert and Steve Mariucci, a standard of excellence was steadily maintained. Dominance by certain franchises in sports is not unusual. In fact, it's more the rule. The Yankees, the Celtics, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Teams frequently have multi-year runs, a testimony to good management, or money, or both. 

In 1977, when little Eddie De Bartolo bought the 49ers, they were still in their 30 year drought of mediocrity. Eddie hired Joe Thomas, previous of the Baltimore Colts (which at that time was a successful franchise), to run the team. Thomas proved to be a disaster, going through three terrible coaches in two years. Then, in 1979, Eddie hired Bill Walsh as head coach/general manager, and things quickly turned around. Eddie spent lavishly on his players, and cared deeply about winning. Following his involvement in a casino bribery scandal in, the NFL stripped De Bartolo of his ownership of the team, which passed to his sister Denise York and her attorney husband, John. John York, knowing nothing about professional sports franchises, and nothing about football, attempted to run the organization, with little success. York tended to be somewhat arrogant, despite his failures. Then, in 2009, the Yorks appointed their son Jed to the position of leading the team. Young Jed knew nothing about sports, or operating a sports franchise. It was all in the family, with meat-head running the show.       

From a historical perspective, the Jed York installation feels a lot like the early days of Eddie's management. A young kid takes control of a large organization, with little prior experience, makes a lot of naive mistakes, blusters and struts his confidence and cheek, and generally makes himself the butt of bad-mouthing humor. The sons of rich men may be humble, or arrogant in their personal demeanor, but in the management of corporations or businesses, even family affairs, it takes more than peremptoriness and bullying to get results. Yes-men and sycophants may survive if they're no more than conduits of power, but a failure to perform, at any level, especially in the service of a tyrant, can be risky.    

Jed York

When John York hired Mike Nolan as head coach (son of former 49ers coach Dick Nolan), they thought they were looking for a tough, no-nonsense disciplinarian, who didn't make excuses and demanded excellence from his players. And that's just what they got. Nolan's take-no-prisoners style managed to alienate his star rookie quarterback, Alex Smith, his personal draft choice--over future and present star Aaron Rodgers--because of Smith's reported "willingness to take commands". When Nolan was fired, he was replaced by former star linebacker Mike Singletary, another "inspirational" disciplinarian, with little strategic managerial ability. Then, when Jed took over in 2009, he hired Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh was tough, but he brought a clear conception of how to succeed in the NFL. Like Bill Walsh--widely regarded as among the geniuses of the game, an offensive strategist, a judge of talent (in drafting), and an inspirational leader--Harbaugh had the capabilities to marshall resources and coordinate players, and his arrival brought an immediate overnight transformation. After nine losing seasons, Harbaugh brought the team to 13-3 in 2011, 11-4 with a Super Bowl appearance in 2012, and a 12-4 record in 2013. The glory days of the franchise had returned. With his big, fast, strong young quarterback Colin Kaepernick, he seemed destined to create another "dynasty" lasting perhaps a decade. Meanwhile, York had hired Trent Baalke, just after Singletary had been fired. Though he contributed little if anything to the team's success during Harbaugh's first year in 2011, Baalke was given official credit by being named PFWA Executive of the Year. Baalke is by reputation another one of those "iron-jawed" hard-liners, a man who doesn't like his authority challenged. Harbaugh, himself known to be jealous of his turf, soon came into conflict with Baalke. When the team failed to advance beyond the Conference Playoff game in 2013, and got off to a slow start the following year, Baalke sought to undermine Harbaugh's authority, surreptitiously spreading rumors about Harbaugh's unpopularity among his players, his rebellious, uncooperative behavior, his unwillingness to cooperate with management. It was entirely clear that Baalke and Harbaugh were locked in a macho stand-off. As Harbaugh's boss, Baalke was the beneficiary of Harbaugh's success, but if Harbaugh stumbled, Baalke didn't want that shortcoming to reflect on him. 

Trying to undermine your coach, as a way of shielding yourself from blame is one kind of stupid executive strategy. It's also a way of laying the ground-work for a future firing--which is exactly what Baalke had in mind. Undermine the coach, fire him, and start over with your own picks. Baalke's failure as a judge of personnel had led to a succession of draft choice flops. Except for Aldon Smith, who was eventually released due to legal and personal problems, Baalke's record of choices has been dismal.    

Trent Baalke

During this same period, the 49ers were attempting to build support for a new stadium--not in San Francisco, but in Santa Clara some 35 miles to the South of the city for which the team is named. In the public relations build-up which accompanied the team's proposal to build the stadium "elsewhere" the 49ers made much of the team's "proud legacy" of championships and suggested that the 2016 Super Bowl, which would take place at the newly completed Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, would probably be a contest between the home team and the visitor. In other words, Harbaugh's team would be expected to ramp up performance, in anticipation of the Yorks' celebration of its ill-considered new stadium.

Levi Stadium turned out to be as fraught with problems as Candlestick had been 50 years earlier. The parking and freeway access is a disaster, and the field itself has been plagued by problems. Fans complain that it's too hot, the turf is uneven and soft. A sensible option would have been to construct a state-of-the-art facility like the one in Seattle, or Texas, ideally within the SF city limits or just outside. But the Yorks had other ideas. 

You would think that with the need to highlight the success of the team, as an adjunct to the new stadium, the team's management would have done everything it could to promote and perpetuate the success it had had with Harbaugh. But the behavior of Jed and Baalke during the 2014 season, suggested that now that they'd gotten their new stadium built and occupied, they could "afford" to let their egos dictate policy.      

Jim Harbaugh

It's been widely reported that Harbaugh was abrasive in person, that he tended to be autocratic and didn't like to be questioned. In other words, he was not unlike his bosses. Setting up built-in conflicts of interest between management figures is a familiar way to create tension in an organization, and this seemed like a classic case.

Relations between head coaches and team managers can be difficult to manage. During the Bill Walsh era, the two jobs were combined into one, eliminating the possibility of disagreement. Some head coaches don't want administrative details to deal with, others see the control over team decisions this allows as crucial to successful planning. Though Harbaugh was clearly not interested in being a bureaucrat for the Yorks, he apparently resented Baalke's interference in personnel decisions, game plans, and drafting. As the two came to blows, the contest became filled with suspicion and resentment. This was not unlike what had occurred when Mike Nolan had openly belittled and criticized his personally hand-picked quarterback Alex Smith for not "playing through pain" (from a serious shoulder injury in his throwing arm), and not "being a man" for the team. As the disagreement between Harbaugh and Baalke blossomed, it became clear that Baalke had the upper hand (Jed's ear), and that he had decided to blow Harbaugh off, by inciting dissension among the players, tarnishing the head coach's image to the fans, and blaming him for the resulting declining performance by the team (which went 8-8 in 2014, a major disappointment for a team that had barely lost the Super Bowl two years earlier). A perfect example of self-fulfilling prophecy in action. 

The whole affair was an embarrassment, and at the end of the year Harbaugh and the Niners "parted ways" in what had obviously been a coup within the organization, "won" by Baalke and "lost" by Harbaugh. If Baalke had wanted to prove that his "win" was justified, you would have expected him to replace Harbaugh with an equal or superior quantity. In what must be among the most counter-intuitive moves in professional sports history, Baalke (and York) picked Jim Tomsula, their defensive line coach, to replace Harbaugh. 

In the history of the NFL, coaches have come in a few predictable flavors. There's the "guru" which would include Walsh, Bill Belichick, Don Coryell, Don Shula, Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi. Another familiar stereotype is the "grunt"--think Joe Bugel, Art Shell, Buddy Ryan. Tumsula was the classic dumb grunt line coach, uncomfortable in the limelight, mentally challenged by offensive X's and O's, clueless and stoned on the sidelines during games. What had Baalke and York been thinking? A return to old-fashioned pile-on football, pre-forward-pass style play? 

No sooner had Tomsula's hiring been announced, than there was a rush to the exits by many of the star players on the team. Patrick Willis retired. Anthony Davis retired. Borland retired. Frank Gore went to Indianapolis. Michael Crabtree, Parrish Cox, Mike Iupati and Chris Culliver left as free-agents. Aldon Smith was released. Mid-year, they traded away Vernon Davis. They traded Andy Lee, the best punter in franchise history, to the Browns. Hiring Tomsula also meant the team didn't have an offensive-minded attitude, which led to star QB Kaepernick's being benched in mid-season--a development that bodes ill not just for the team, but for the Colin's future as well.   

The hiring of Tomsula was accurately perceived by the team as a betrayal of the commitment to winning and providing a quality product. It was as if Baalke were rubbing it in to the team, publicly pouting about his failure (and covering that failure by scapegoating), while at the same time punishing the team just to prove that he could. A pure public cry-baby tantrum in full view. 

In the culture of corporate or bureaucratic strife, tussles like this are very common. Egos compete for position and power in companies and agencies all the time. There's back-biting, finger-pointing, ass-kissing, betrayals and undermining and innuendo and rumors and behind-closed-door deals all the time. We expect that in business. And, after all, professional sports IS a business, no matter how much window-dressing can be put upon it. Public relations and media hype can't conceal the essential fact of commercial entertainments--they are capitalistic enterprises, designed to make money by providing entertainment. Win or lose, the point is selling tickets, and commercial television and radio time. Winning may be one way to facilitate interest and excitement, but it isn't always the ultimate goal. 

Some franchises are operated "on a shoe-string"--especially in the smaller markets where there isn't the big media money. Wealthy owners clearly have an advantage over poor ones, though it's hard to imagine anyone owning a professional sports franchise today without having enormous means. Some team owners will refuse to pursue good players as a money-saving strategy, leaving their fans hung out to dry. 

What was happening in the 49ers organization was plainly a power struggle, gotten completely out of hand, holding the team hostage to petty personal disagreements at the top of the chain of command. Businesses in turmoil may affect the stock price, and may impact the workers whose jobs are at stake, but sports franchises are selling an image and a performance, so failures of intention and strategy have an immediate and graphic consequence in the public eye. 

Why should, then, this be of any concern to you or me or anyone who lives within a 100 miles radius of San Francisco? Because fandom is a regional spirit mover, affecting hundreds of thousands of ordinary people (perhaps even millions). Pro teams are big employers, and they have a large economic impact. Stadia and parking and associated parasite businesses all depend upon them. A sports team can provide some of the social and economic cohesion to a city or area that has little appeal otherwise (think of Ohio or Pennsylvania). People care about these teams, and I think it would be fair to say that the owners have an obligation to present a "product" that bears some relation to the enthusiasm with which they expect "fans" to respond through their support. 

I think Trent Baalke is the villain here, and I'm not alone. Several sports columnists locally have suggested that, along with the recent, season-ending firing of Tomsula, Baalke should also be shown the door. He's shown himself to be a poor judge of draft talent, and he allowed his jealous insecurity to poison the organization, expelling a very talented coach (Harbaugh), leading to a wholesale exodus of star players, and the evident disillusionment of the fans (a half-filled stadium, even a movement by fans to hire a plane-banner dragging a message across the sky demanding that Jed York sell the team or step down as CEO). Having built their new stadium, and locked up the "seat-licenses" and luxury box leases for Levi Stadium, maybe the Yorks think their financial interest no longer dictates paying to have a competitive team. Eddie De Bartolo cared about this team, and worked to make it succeed. His sister, sister-in-law, and son-in-law don't seem to share that same fire-in-the-belly. There've been reports that young Jed is seeking advice and counsel from his uncle, but he may have been doing that all along. Whether his latest mis-steps indicate the petulance of youth, the insolence and effrontery of youthful naivité, is anyone's guess. Eddie learned that the best approach was to hire a qualified candidate, then step out of the way, and let the managers manage, the coach coach, and the players play. At this point, Jed needs to revamp his entire outfit, from top to bottom. The place to start is by dismissing Baalke, if he has the sense (or the courage) to do it. We've seen how bull-headed "iron-fisted" disciplinarians work in the NFL. It's time for a new approach. Pro teams aren't little armies,  in need of punishing drills and unyielding guidance to make them "obey" rules and limits. It takes brains, and savvy, and shrewd intuition to make groups strive and excel. 

Is there anyone out there who could do the job for the Yorks? Stay tuned.  

Friday, January 1, 2016

On a Painting by Rotari

A Young Woman in a Russian Hat Holding a Book by Pietro Antonio Rotari [1707-1762]
(oil on canvas 17.4" x 13.9")

Rotari was an 18th Century court painter in Italy, Austria and Russia. The painting above is undoubtedly a minor work in the contemporary scheme of things in that time, since its subject is not royal, probably not even an important person. But by any measure, our interest in it transcends any ephemeral social or political importance it may have had to those who gazed upon it over three centuries ago.

The picture is filled with emotion, but not of the blatant, forward kind. It is about--if any work of art can be truly about anything other than itself--the coyness and timidity of private pleasure, of a promise of pleasure withheld, or a promise filled with intent. The technology of printing in Europe was already three centuries old when this was painted, so the novelty of books as something ingenious and perhaps forbidden had worn off somewhat, though the novel of the billet-doux was just coming into vogue (evidence Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded [1740], or Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady [1748]. The vulnerability of the weaker sex was becoming a chief preoccupation of society in those times, and accounts of virtuous young ladies resisting or succumbing to the overtures of unscrupulous rakes and bounders was to become one of the major literary genres of literature--a tradition, indeed, which seems to be going as strong today as it ever did in the past. 

Whatever we may think of the character of the young woman (or girl) in the portrait, it is clear that she is using the book as a foil, either to conceal her expression, or as a prop to illustrate her attention on the viewer. Her coyness--the expression in the eyes, and in the modesty of the gaze--suggests something of the character of the person whom we imagine her gazing at. In the narrative of event which paintings like this inspire, we are encouraged to invent a relationship with an invisible, unnamed and silent other--presumably a man--though in our present politically correct climate, that might no longer be appropriate. 

Does her expression, and the attitude of her body, suggest surrender, or invitation, or timidity? Do timidity and invitation co-exist in the same look? If this picture is any measure, they certainly can! It's the ambiguity, of course, which animates our interest, allowing ourselves to read different versions of different situations according to our mood. 

The girl is well-dressed, but not extravagant. Her outfit is grey, but the hat and the earrings suggest a piquancy beyond the quotidian. Her skin is smooth, and she seems pampered. 

Since the major prop is the book, we're expected to wonder what it's about. Is it a book of verses, a book of proverbs (some Biblical, some not), or a novella for proper young ladies? Our tendency is to think dirty, given the mischievousness of the mouth. We could almost say, with justice, that the artist's intent was not unlike that usually attributed to Da Vinci in his Mona Lisa. This young lady's expression seems neither quite inviting, nor quite curious. She's guarded, protecting her vertue, but she may also be risking it. We can't quite know. The viewer's morality is animated upon its own currents, neither confirmed nor denied by the content of the scene. 

The joining together of reader and book creates a dialectic between what we may conjure of the story, and the open-mindedness of time. The further away from the execution of the work we are, the more remote our apprehension of its initial impression. She studies us with the same fascination and curiosity with which we study her, as if we were straining against the limits of time to communicate something that was hidden on purpose. 

The divine secret any woman may imply in her behavior or speech, is the unexplained possibility contained in her potential. The great mating game is reincarnated, generation after generation, in the grand cornucopia of fertility that discovers the future, while confirming ancient truths. That we can write them down, as well as making scenes and pictures of them, suggests too the astonishing magic of representation, of the tapestry of the imaginary. Art and behavior intertwining like lovers or disputatious theologians, to arrive at a resolution that sings.   

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Warm Rain from Louisiana

If you've ever been in Louisiana during a hot, humid tropical rainstorm, you know something of the richness and sticky sensuality of the deep south. The sweetness comes from the fruit, which thrives in the rich black marl of the delta country, and is expressed in the sugar of her bounty. 

Life slows in the wet heat.

Slowness, as Ezra Pound said, is beauty. And sweetness on the tongue is a languorous pleasure that makes most effort and striving seem superfluous. Were we put upon earth to labor and sweat, or to savor the luxury and sumptuous elegance of the good life? 

Sweetness seems it own justification, against the flintier attractions of denial and sacrifice. It may be simply a matter of mood, but even the most stubborn of ascetics cannot measure the extent of their own resignation without a taste of the nut. 

I recently purchased a bottle of a new dark rum, marketed as "Papa's Pilar". The Pilar, as Hemingway fans will recall, was the name the novelist gave to his fishing boat, harbored in the local port adjacent to his finca in Cuba. And, it was also the name given to the female Spanish heroine in his most ambitious novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Pilar. 

Imagine it as the inspiration for the spirit of the liquor, and you have some notion of the intention behind its flavor. It's a rich dark molasses taste, with notes of chocolate, coffee, cane, and any tropical fruit you could name (coconut, banana, pineapple, orange, etc.). 

The recipe below captures the essence of the rum's dominant quality, without distracting.  The banana and coconut enhance the rum's dark sugary heart. I guarantee it will knock your socks off. (I've always wondered how that saying came into use. According to an account I found on the internet, "kick your socks off" originated in the American South, where people liked to go barefoot, and the Coca-Cola company used the phrase to promote their soft-drink brand Mountain Dew, in ads which claimed the drink would "knock your socks off.") 

3 parts Papa's Pilar dark rum
1 part sweet French vermouth
1/2 part banana liqueur
1/2 part coconut syrup

1 part fresh lemon juice

Shaken and served up. 

I don't know whether Hemingway enjoyed going shoeless, but it was his habit to take a dip in his swimming pool each afternoon, before drinks and dinner (often with guests). 

Anyway, socks on or socks off, this drink should satisfy the most discriminating of tastes, unless of course you're the sort of person who likes their drinks very dry, and prefers to meditate on an entirely more sophisticated plane, where the pleasures of the body are regarded from a point above and beyond temptation and indulgence.   

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Still Point of the Turning World

As I was looking at the clock on the wall of my office this week a thought occurred to me.

I was never a whiz at math, so most of my meditations in the area of physics tend towards the metaphysical, rather than the scientific. 

As I watched the second hand sweep silently, inexorably clockwise around the circular face of the clock, it occurred to me that the second hand wasn't really moving at all. Why I thought this is unclear, but the more I thought about it, the more peculiar my sense of orientation became.

T.S. Eliot, in one of his Four Quartets--Burnt Norton [1935]--says this--

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

At the still point of the turning world.

Eliot goes on in the poem to discuss the human consciousness of time, and how our sense of an immersion in time defines our place in eternity. 

Supposing that the second hand is not moving at all. That would mean that rather than the second hand moving around, the clock itself was moving around the second-hand. If that were true, we'd expect the shelf the clock is sitting on, and the wall behind it, the building within which the clock sits, and the ground beneath, the earth, the solar system, and everything existing in the universe which we can detect would be moving precisely around the second hand. The second hand might be thus considered the "still point of the turning world".

The solar system, and the galaxy, are often portrayed visually as gyroscopes, as spinning circular or parabolic systems of rotation. Our consciousness of the complexity of movement which this involves is muted by the inertia of its constancy--which is to say we don't think of the earth as spinning, because gravity holds everything down securely enough that it isn't spun off into space. It's possible to be spinning inside one rotation, while inside another (contrary) rotation. It's possible to think of ourselves, each one of us, as being in the cradle of a succession of nested gyroscopic rotations, unaware of our complex travel through space and time.   

Our sense of the movement of any object can only occur in relation to another object. An object, say an asteroid, may be tumbling through space, but we can only say that it is moving at all by being able to see it in relation to our own movement, or the placement of another object in space, which is not moving in exactly the same trajectory. This is a riddle. 

In the mind, we can conceive of the notion of a still point without our actually being able to say with certainty that such a thing exists. To say that to think of a thing is to suggest its existence is the very essence of metaphysical thought. If I posit the stillness of the second-hand on the clock, the possibility that it is not moving may seem logically consistent with what I know about the simplest principles of the physics of phenomena. But I'm not so naive as to think it is actually true. I think that Eliot probably would agree here, that his use of the "still point of the turning world" was nothing more than a small device to demonstrate his sense of the mystery of the interaction between time and consciousness. 

There is no consciousness of time outside of time, so we lack the perspective and objectivity to describe it accurately. Accuracy implies an established increment, and all increments are by their nature relational, that is, scaled to the correspondence of segments, or duration. Without such increments, all duration is fluid. Ultimately, we can't measure time without reference to our experience of the universe, and the vaster that seems, the more limited our own experience of it seems. 

Is it possible that the second-hand is the still point of the turning world? Would anyone be able to prove to me that it isn't? It might take a theoretical physicist some fancy foot-work to do it, and in that event I doubt I'd be able to comprehend the language he'd employ to do so. Definitions and proofs in higher physics may require a consciousness of concepts that are beyond the quotidian apprehension. Oddly, I don't find this frustrating. All that's required of this meditation is that it occurred. Understanding is denied to those who are not standing on the frontier of comprehension. I envy those who can follow the argument, though. They're our true pioneers.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

My Letter to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle published this date December 1st 2015

Traditional San Francisco Victorian Row-Houses

We hear a great deal these days about the need for more "affordable"  housing in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area. Supposedly, increased high density zoning and new construction will relieve this pressure and moderate demand, bringing down prices. 

This is a fallacy. Lower prices always stimulate demand, which already far exceeds the potential capacity of the whole region, having reached a critical mass of population.   

Higher prices and shrinking supply are simply expressions of this fact. The market is behaving rationally. We can't "build" our way out of the crisis, except by creating a teeming beehive on the Chinese or Indian model. 

The period of unprecedented Bay Area growth is over.  We can choose quality of life, or keep inventing ways to bring in more people. Which is the best choice? 

New "Luxury Condos" in San Francisco