Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Noodles and Oodles of Food from Everywhere

  • My new desk lamp from Taotronics is a wonderful LED lamp with adjustable color, brightness, and position. It has a sleep timer and a built-in night light. There's a USB plug in the side of the base that will charge my phone at that fast rate.

The question of the day is what do I write about when I have no idea what to write about. I am by nature garrulous, and sometimes I'm able to channel my babble into writing. Professionals who peer into my eyes and ears and who analyse the strange chemistry of my blood dread my appointments because I incessantly rattle their ears with my jawbone. It's fair to say I've brightened the day of a few bored store clerks with my round-the-world gonzo-babble, so I'm not equally off-putting to everyone.

Noodles, cooked and drained,
receive extreme unction.
There is nobody around right now except for my mother, who is watching television in the back of the house, so the solution seems to lie in cooking some pasta, on which I plan to drizzle a little olive oil, which, they tell me, is more likely a fraud made from grape seed oil and rapeseed oil:

Journalist Tom Mueller has investigated crime and adulteration in the olive oil business, publishing the article "Slippery Business" in New Yorker magazine, followed by the 2011 book Extra Virginity. On 3 January 2016 Bill Whitaker presented a program on CBS News including interviews with Mueller and with Italian authorities. It was reported that in the previous month 5,000 tons of adulterated olive oil had been sold in Italy, and that organised crime was heavily involved—the term "Agrimafia" was used. The point was made by Mueller that the profit margin on adulterated olive oil was three times that on the illegal narcotic drug cocaine. He said that over 50% of olive oil sold in Italy was adulterated, as was 75-80% of that sold in the US. Whitaker reported that 3 samples of "extra virgin olive oil" had been bought in a US supermarket and tested; two of the three samples did not meet the required standard, and one of them—with a top-selling US brand—was exceptionally poor (Wikipedia).

I'll lightly season my fraudulently annointed noodles with some oregano, maybe some dill, pepper, and salt. I've been wanting to do this for a long time because pouring on the marinara out of a jar makes such a heavy concoction, and I want to eat something light. I never have the seasoning, but tonight I do.

I tell my mother I'm going to cook some pasta, and she looks at me as though I'm speaking Greek again. I try the word noodles, but that doesn't help, so I go get the bag to show it to her. She's moved the noodles, so I have to look for a while. It hasn't occurred to her that I buy food too. I don't mind her eating the watermelon chunks that I buy, but she eats the food that I buy for myself and leaves untouched the food that she buys for herself, so I'm going to start making her shopping list look more like mine than hers. At least I know what she likes now—not pasta though. I stood there five minutes waiting for her to answer my question: do you want some pasta? Some noodles? Am I cooking for one or two people? I finally get it loud enough that she can hear me, which upsets her because it seems like I'm shouting at her. She says, "No," and heads off to her room for bed. Sometimes she makes me feel like Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Noodles seasoned with garlic powder, oregano, and a little bit
of dill. I didn't use any salt or any chili sauce, which they needed,
but I tried doing without.
So when I went to the store Friday, I picked up a handful of seasoning that I thought would be appropriate. I like to use fresh seasoning when I can—fresh basil leaves among the produce are the freshest, best tasting thing in all the grocery store—but I didn't know when I would be doing this simple drizzle-and-season pasta, so I bought little jars of dried seasoning that would keep.

So is there a logical loop between writing about noodles that I cooked and eating those noodles while I write? I cooked noodles that I ate while I wrote about cooking the noodles that I ate while I wrote about cooking the noodles that I ate while I wrote about...

They were a little bland because I decided to get by with the seasoning and without the salt. Perhaps a splash of lemon juice would have helped. Some Cholula would have helped, but I have reached that age when even conservative and flavorful sauces like Cholula set my panties on fire, so I not only eat less hot sauce, but I envy people who eat spicy things like chilis with joyous abandon.

Mark Wiens is one such indiscriminate gobbler of spicy curries and chilis, which he eats as nonchalantly as apples. He gobbles them down like Shaggy in Scooby-Doo. I'm a fan of Wiens, as anyone who has been reading my blog surely knows by now. He is based out of Bangkok, Thailand, and his beat has traditionally ranged all over eastern Asia, but lately his horizons have widened to cover the whole planet.

The official tourist bureau of Jordan invited him to come over and eat, so with an official guide and translator, he spent several days traveling all over the country eating in fancy Jordanian restaurants as well as in Bedouin tents. That was an adventure I could only envy—there are restaurants in Austin that serve Mideastern cuisine, but I feel they would be so far from what I saw Wiens and his wife eating in Amman that I can't muster the spirit to go try it.

Not long after the Jordan trip, I noticed that Wiens's videos and his Twitter- and Instagram-trail diverged—on YouTube he was taking a wonderful culinary tour of South Korea, to which I could relate because I lived in Korea, though in only a short time he knew more about the cuisine and tried more things than I did in the two years I was there. Meanwhile his tweets and Instagram photos were reporting amazing dishes from European capitals as well as a massive Reuben from a Katz's Deli in New York.

(Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem called "C’mon Pigs of Western Civilization," which mentions Katz's Deli in an unappetizing light. I'm a Ginsberg fan of such proportion that I have to read everything, even if ... Well, even if, but if you're stomach is delicate, you might want to refrain. There was for a while in Austin a Katz's Deli, which got away with its name because its owner was named Mark Katz, but those big-name New York restaurants do have a vague awareness of what's happening beyond the Hudson River: a place on Larimer Street in Denver calling itself The Little Russian Tea Room got a cease-and-desist letter from their namesake back East: they ceased and desisted by mutating into a linguistically droll but still enticing Little Russian Cafe. I understand they're gone altogether now.) 

Here's a cross-section from Wiens's delicious-looking Reuben at Katz's (his Web page and enterprise is called Migrationology, by the way):

A photo posted by Mark Wiens (@migrationology) on

So finally the other day Wiens posted a short video that left me drooling for good food and trembling with wanderlust. He told everyone to sign up for his channel to get ready for The Food Trip of a Lifetime. The reason his fans were getting videos from Korea but photos from literally around the world became suddenly clear. "39 days, 9 countries, 11 flights, 131 meals," the video crows at the end. Wiens's trip was sponsored by Star Alliance, which, without a lot of research, seems to be a global consortium of airlines. Star Alliance sponsored seven travel bloggers and blogging couples, each with his or her own interest. The topics they covered are a romantic journey; diving; architecture; wine; the cultural arts of design, technology, style, travel, art; the wonders of the world; and of course Wiens's world food. These are all going to be great to watch, and I'm going to subscribe—with notifications—to their respective YouTube channels.

You should sign up to Wiens's channel if you like to eat. I realize there are people who live on gruel because they consider fueling the body as a necessary evil, but I advise everyone—you, my neighbors, and the joyless stoics living empty and painful lives—that they should celebrate life in its most fundamental essences, and the most rudimentary way of doing that lies in reverently eating good food and in celebrating that food with the fellowship of friends.

You see, there are two blogs in one here: my bland noodles and Mark Wiens's culinary adventures. That's what's happens when I sit down before the great tabula rasa, roll a blank piece of paper around my typewriter's platen, and open a vein. At first I get just the lymph fluid before the blood really starts to flow. When I was in graduate school I'd throw  those first several pages away, but now I'll publish anything.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Other Half of the Night

The Summit, c. 1994. Photograph by Gemini7. Released to Public Domain.

Since publishing the story about the Who concert in November 1975, I've felt remiss in not telling the other half of the story, which is not about rock but about people and the scary world in which we live. So here is the other darker side of that night.
In 1975 I shared an apartment in Austin with a girl named Skyla. In the early fall I found out that The Who would be playing at the Summit, a basketball arena in Houston that sometimes held concerts. Several weeks before the concert, the tickets went on sale. I went to Houston where I bought as many tickets as I could afford with the certainty that I could scalp them. It was for The Who, after all.
Skyla went with me to meet one guy who bought tickets for himself and his roommate. After that, she talked endlessly about this guy, how cute he was, and how she couldn't wait to sit with him during the concert. Every mention of this guy put a nail in my heart. Even if Skyla was as enamored of this guy as she appeared to be, why she didn't keep this to herself is a mystery to me. She and I were not just roommates but a cohabiting couple with full and supposedly enduring intentions. Yes, it could have been just to make me jealous, but there was something off about her—as a friend once told me, it's as if she is from another planet—that better explains Skyla's utter lack of discretion in this and other matters.
Skyla's overt crush on my ticket buyer echoed in her missing a few mental faculties that should have composed discretion and common sense, among other things. The problem rested with her mother, Henrika. Nobody knew about Asperger's back then, and in retrospect I don't think it was Asperger's now, but perhaps something related to it. It's more like the movie Shine in which Peter Helfgott, who was a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, exacts perfect virtuosity at the piano from his son David. David eventually wins a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, where the pressures finally dissolved him into a trembling, drooling ball of protoplasm during a performance of "Rach 3," as they called it—Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto. Don't let that put you off an excellent film, though: the father's tyranny (denied by the real-life family, by the way) and the pressures of the College are back story. The movie is about David Helfgott's amazing recovery that made him into his own autonomous being rather than the puppet and property of his father. And yes, it is a true story to the extent that Hollywood can tell a story truly.

Henrika was a victim of the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War II. She wasn't in a concentration camp, so her bitter obsession wasn't as strong as Peter Helfgott's, but it was bad enough. Her favorite story is about how the German's took all the food for themselves and left the Dutch to eat tulip bulbs. There lies some of that famous and cruel Nazi irony because the Dutch empire had in part been built out of tulips—complete with the tulip bubble, when the price of tulip bulbs swelled to well beyond their worth, and when their value collapsed, many people lost their fortunes. Instead of Marie-Antoinette's "Let them eat cake!" we have a Germanic "Let them eat bulbs!" I also wondered if one inherits irony from one's oppressors: Henrika gave Skyla the middle name, Antoinette.

Henrika worked her kids hard with chores, which are not damaging in themselves, though it must have felt like they were being punished every waking moment. Many overworked kids come of age knowing the value of work and money and do well for themselves, but their parents also let their children taste of the world in small, carefully supervised, graduated doses until the kids earn the trust to fly solo. License for solo flight involves not only knowing how to fly but knowing where to fly, what situations to avoid, and what should be done if I nevertheless find myself in peril or with folks I should avoid. This is why children's stories often feature characters like Fagin in Oliver Twist or the Fox and the Cat in Pinocchio—the fear associated with fictional con men is the tuition for learning to avoid them later when they are real.

Henrika, like the mother in Pink Floyd's The Wall, would never let Skyla or her little brother and sister fly. Skyla learned to rely upon books to give her what she could not glean from experience, so she was a little like Data, who mastered subjects without the human dimension but with stashes of information on Star Trek: the New Generationhence my friend's saying Skyla was from another planet. Though Skyla felt that books gave her an equivalency to real-life experience, what she learned was no more equivalent to doing something than a GED is equivalent to a high school diploma. In both experience and education, a great part of the benefits come through acculturation that comes in the sweetness of being there over time. For example—and this isn't rocket science; I have no proof—but I'm certain that fully half of what one gains from a college education comes through osmosis, from physically being on a campus, from being around other educated people, from internalizing the mannerisms, from witnessing the external signs of internal thought processes. I do not get that sweetness during a year of cramming for a GED test, nor do I get it from reading a book about what it's like to know people professionally, socially, or sexually.
* * *
On Thursday, the 20th of November, we drive to Houston to see the concert. My idea for scalping tickets has gone totally astray—I haven't even broke even. In the broad plaza between the Summit and its parking garage, I trade my remaining tickets to another scalper for a couple of seats in the twelfth row, but Skyla doesn't want to sit there. Despite being with me, she wants to sit where our original tickets placed us so she can be with the cute guy. She has the old ticket in her pocket, and when I give her the new ticket—the twelfth-row ticket for a seat next to me—she tears it up. That pisses me off a bit, so the air between us is chilly.
I say, "Fine, meet me back at the car at the end of the show."
It was The Who's first show of the tour. They were fresh, but a little green. This is still in the days of electrical cords, and  Roger Daltry, whose voice is in top form, keeps dropping the microphone as he tries to do his showmanship trick of swinging the microphone through the air then yanking the cord so that it lands in his hand. Yet the performances are so excellent, so iconically The Who, that nobody minds the occasional thump of a missed mic. Pete Townsend explains that he has pre-programmed his synthesizer for the next number, and no one cares because the guitar is the thing, especially in Townsend's hands, and the next song is "We Won't Get Fooled Again," played out to its full fourteen minutes of glory with Townsend's hot riffs and Daltry's great rock-and-roll screams. My god, that song was worth the price of admission alone.
When the show ends, I go to the car and Skyla's not there. I look around for her. I check other levels of the parking garage, but she is nowhere to be found. I waited by the car. I walked some more. She is nowhere to be found.
Finally, at dawn, several hours beyond the end of the concert, I drive to Henrika's house. When I knock at the door, it swings open and out comes Skyla's sister, ready for school, backed by her mother who is seeing her off. Except, wait, I'm not the ride for school.
Henrika loathes me, so, at 20, I loathe her back (I wonder now how it would have been if I had just hugged her and called her mom and been nice to her: could I have ever thawed that wall of ice around her). She tolerates me in her house because I am, after all, looking for her missing daughter. She asks me to tell her the story several times, and I oblige her.
Then it occurs to me that I should call home.
"Hello," Skyla says.
"You're home."
"Yeah," she says listlessly.
"Well, I waited by the car for you until dawn. I walked around looking for you."
"I couldn't find the car. I thought you left."
"No, I wouldn't do that…."
"So I hitched a ride home."
"Let me talk to her," her mother says.
"I got raped."
"Oh…" I say, totally caught off guard. I have no idea what to say. "Really?"
"Your mother wants to talk to you."
"You're at my mother's?"
"I didn't know where else to look for you. Anyway do you want to talk to her?"
"No." Skyla wasn't much fonder of her mother than I was. It had been a hard childhood.
"She doesn't want to talk to you," I tell Skyla's mother. "I'll be there in a few hours."
"OK." We both hang up.
She didn't remember where the car was, and these are the days before cell phones. She assumed I had abandoned her, so she decides she will hitch back to Austin. The possibility of calling her mother and asking for a ride never occurred to her. So she's a nineteen-year-old girl with high cheekbones highlighting a pretty face, a fine, taut figure, and a pathological naïveté because of an overprotective upbringing, hitching a ride at an onramp to a Houston freeway. Her rapist was the first ride to come along.

* * *
She should have stayed with me. Houston is a tough town too. Imagine, a woman-child, with all the accouterments of womanhood and all the naivete of a child, standing on the entrance ramp of a freeway like Sissy Hankshaw with her thumb out. As if rape is not bad enough, I think she is lucky not to have been murdered and buried in the Piney Woods.
I remember one time how I remarked about the chances she took, and she was dismissive about the risk of being raped. She said, "Well, I haven't been raped yet," as if that were proof it wouldn't happen. In Greek tragedy it's hubris that the gods punish. Excessive pride or overconfidence.
One night several months later, Skyla, my cousin Jane, and I go to the Hole in the Wall. At some point in the evening, I need to go outside to the car to get something. I tell my cousin not to tell Skyla I went out there because she would think I had abandoned her and would leave. I am of course thinking of the Who concert and Skyla thinking I left her there, but my cousin somehow completely misunderstands me, thinks I have left them, gets Skyla and takes her to the Split Rail in South Austin. I hated the Split Rail because nothing good ever came of it—this is only yet another example. My cousin had a nymphomaniacal streak and a nasty reputation because she and her best friend often picked up pairs of guys and took them to the nearby golf course to fuck. On this night she and Skyla pick up a pair of men from Houston and go back to their hotel with them and fuck all night.
Eventually Skyla and I parted ways. Not because of the rape but because of her naivete and my own immaturity. We had not been ready for anything more than dating, but neither of us had any guidance in this area.
After that she has a thing for black guys as if she is recreating the rape under more controlled conditions. It becomes her rape fantasy to act out, and maybe by acting it out, she rewrites the past to erase the violence.
A few years later, my cousin is driving her and me somewhere, and we drive past Skyla, who is walking along North Loop, and she has this black guy following her about ten feet behind. Skyla knew he was there, but she wanted him to walk behind her in this servile position. She likes to do things like that because it fuels her jet set fantasies of having a servant from whom, like Lady Chatterley, she might derive pleasures.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Time Travel with Talking Heads & The Who

Pete Townsend at the apogee of a jump. He'll put the force of his landing into a strong chord on his guitar. Houston, 20 November 1975.
A few months ago I discovered that a Who concert in Houston that I attended on November 20, 1975, was available on DVD for only $9. I had attempted to make money off this concert by scalping tickets through an ad in the paper, but made back only slightly more than half of what I spent. When I reached the Summit—at the time, a basketball arena that also hosted concerts, now it's Joel Osteen's church—I found a guy who was scalping tickets on site. I traded him what I had to get some of his best tickets for twelfth-row seats. The twelfth row put me at an intimate range with the groups on stage.

When I came in, a black guy with clothes and cap in Rastafarian colors and big-lensed sunglasses was jumping to a reggae beat at the mic. The air was thick with marijuana smoke, and the man at the mic totally controlled his audience. I have always remembered him as Peter Tosh, but Tosh's touring history doesn't seem to exist prior to 1977, so now I'm not sure. The Houston show for The Who, perhaps because it was videotaped, is abundantly documented across the Internet, but from everything out there, I might think they were the only band to play that night. They definitely weren't. The Who might have been coming on later, but at the moment there was no doubt that someone else with a message and a music of his own was rocking the Summit. So strong was his control that I intuited that some part of this audience had come specifically to see him and got The Who as icing on the cake. But clearly, even those like me who had come to hear The Who, were enthusiastic about the reggae band. In that period, a couple of typical college roommates on a weekend night at home would listen to some mix of music that would likely include both The Who and various reggae artists as well as people like Eric Clapton who were recording gently rocked reggae music ("I Shot the Sheriff"), so the guy onstage was a tad exotic, but not a stranger.
The Who's play list from 20 November 1975.

Then came The Who, and their show was fantastic. They did most of their hits, which could fill up the two hours they had on stage. I was close enough to see the sweat on their brow, the nuances of expression in their faces, and the strains in their faces when they stressed a note or pled their love. This show was the first on the North American leg of their world tour, and they were fresh. This was back in the day when instruments and mics had cables that ran to amplifiers, and part of Roger Daltry's showmanship to balance Pete Townsend's flying leaps and windmill chords was to twirl the microphone in a vertical circle over his head, then yank it out of its orbit at its apogee. He was supposed to catch it, but he dropped it two or three times and beat our ears with an amplified thud, but everyone took it in stride because the Who took the rock genre to its peak. I'm not talking so much about the rock & roll that the Stones did—and which sometimes crossed the line into pure rock—but rock was a music by hook or by crook made entirely British. Whatever its origins, The Who made the genre completely their own—angry but with an energy that felt like flying a hundred feet off the ground. And it was loud, had to be loud, and if anyone questioned that, the natural response was "Why don't you all just f-f-f-fade away / And don't try to dig what we all s-s-say..." The stuttering always sound like drug use deliberately self-inflicted just to piss off the outsider, like a parent or even a girlfriend. Just fuck off.

Even if I could write perfectly and poetically about that night, you could not experience it through my words vicariously. That's why I've included a playlist. Better yet, though, buy the video and see and hear the thing for yourself.

When I watched the DVD for the first time, I wondered how much of the audience I would see, and I thought how strange it would be to see 1975 myself at 20 through my 60-year-old eyes. That wasn't why I bought the DVD: I got the disc because I wanted to experience the concert again, but the strangeness of seeing myself crossed my mind.

Armadillo World Headquarters front office. Beer garden
and concert hall entrance was around back.
Photo by Steve Hopson. Licensed by Creative
Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic License.
It crossed my mind again tonight because a friend of Facebook shared "Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads, and I remembered how I had seen them at the Armadillo World Headquarters, a venue that made up for its smallness with an über-hip cosmic coolness. As if we were on some secret tour guide for the rich & famous, celebrities dropped by with no other need than curiosity to see us. So it is that one of my claims to fame is that long ago in a galaxy far away I smoked marijuana with Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers, a.k.a. Wally and the Beave. It was the kind of place that everybody played when they were teetering on the edge of fame—Talking Heads, B-52's, Bruce Springsteen—and it was the kind of place that musicians who were maybe not superstars but venerable pillars of American music played—Ray Charles, José Feliciano, Count Basie, Taj Mahal. Van Morrison played there even though he could fill a much larger venue from, as far as anyone could tell, pure eccentricity, but it was the Wavelength tour and the best show I ever saw there, and I saw a lot of good shows in the Armadillo.

I Googled when the Talking Heads played the Armadillo, and that was November 15, 1979. I stood right at the edge of the stage through the whole show. Google told me something amazing: someone videotaped this concert as well, and it's on YouTube. The picture quality is poor, and the sound is fair. I braced myself for the possibility that I might see myself here too—tonight I wasn't in the mood for running into my youthful self: it would have been like bumping into a girlfriend from long ago. I watched carefully, but the camera focused exclusively on the musicians, and it was dark in front of the stage where I was standing. Yet it was great fun to run through that concert again.

Jerry Harrison & David Byrne; Talking Heads August 25 & 26, 1978, Jay's Longhorn Bar, Minneapolis, MN. Photo by Michael Markos. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Steal this movie!

Abbie Hoffman visiting the University of Oklahoma to protest the Vietnam War, c.1969. Photo by Richard O. Barry. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
In 1971 Abbie Hoffman published a guide, full of Hoffman's puckish wit and wickedly illustrated by R. Crumb, for people who wanted to live for free and to resist and subvert the cultural, educational, and military-industrial machinery in the US that was producing the war in Vietnam. "Steal This Book," as Hoffman wrote in the book's introduction, "is, in a way, a manual of survival in the prison that is Amerika." Those involved knew what to do because they were part of the organization leading the act-up style resistance movement. But not everyone could stand at the beating heart of the movement. For those who couldn't, Hoffman wrote a book, and his first piece of advice was embodied in its title: STEAL THIS BOOK.

Last night I watched a movie inspired by Hoffman's book. The movie successfully dodges the problem of how-to books made into films. In 1969 the book EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (but were afraid to ask) came out. The book was a candid FAQ on human sexuality in a time when American culture was just beginning to acknowledge openly that human sexuality existed.
The book contains hundreds of questions and answers on every conceivable aspect of human sexuality. Woody Allen bought the rights and made a movie containing not so much the book as the popular and provocative title. and he riffed off only a few questions in the comprehensive FAQ. The result frames a hilarious series of satirical sketches in a movie that was even more successful than the best-selling book.

The film STEAL THIS MOVIE! uses a similar technique to Allen's. Although the book captures Hoffman's puckish voice and humor, a movie centered on the how-to of the book would have had cut-and-dried didactic feeling of a high school indoctrination flick. Instead, the story focuses on Hoffman's gritty life as an organizer, trickster, and a mocker of the sanctimonious and pompous people who exploited his generation to fight a shameful war in Vietnam.

Hoffman is well known as a co-founder of the Yippies, who used creative guerrilla theater to encourage people to question the authoritarian grip that led the US into a war in Vietnam. (Hoffman and other anti-war protestors were intuitively right about the egregious nature of the Vietnam war, though it was not yet known that it was obscenely risking boys' lives to protect the American heroin supply, a fact that still needs to be discussed even more than Hillary Clinton's email.) In 1968 the Yippies went to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to hold a festival that would provide a kind of karmic counterbalance to "the Convention of Death" inside the International Ampitheater. Although the Yippies had planned a peaceful festival of theater and music, Mayor Richard Daley feared they would disrupt the war mongering in the hall, so he sent his police force in riot gear to gas and club the Yippies in their heads. Prominent participants in the ensuing riots, including Hoffman, were arrested for crossing state lines to incite rioting, and this group became known as the Chicago Eight then the Chicago Seven as Bobby Seale was separated to be tried separately. The Chicago Seven mocked the judicial farce in the courtroom, spawned excellent journalistic appeal. The trial received national coverage, often on the front pages of major newspapers. The defendants were found guilty, but the verdict was successfully appealed.

"Hoffman was arrested August 28, 1973 on drug charges for intent to sell and distribute cocaine. He always maintained that undercover police agents entrapped him into a drug deal and planted suitcases of cocaine in his office. In the spring of 1974, Hoffman skipped bail, underwent cosmetic surgery to alter his appearance, and hid from authorities for several years, abandoning his family in the process" (Wikipedia). Hoffman lived as Barry Freed in a private resort along the St Lawrence River, for which, despite his low profile, he campaigned to keep clean. After seven years on the lam, exhausted by paranoia and maintaining a cover, Hoffman turned himself in but received only a year's sentence, of which he had to serve only four months.

STEAL THIS BOOK was probably the only best seller not to make a profit because most people did indeed steal this book. Bookstores often refused to carry it, but it nevertheless became a cult classic. The movie is available on Amazon Prime for a few bucks, so last night I checked out the trailer. Sometimes Amazon's movies don't have proper trailers, so instead they show two or three minutes from the movie. The trailer started at the beginning of the movie with the production company logo, the actors' credits, crew credits, right down to the director. Then came the whole movie. This "preview" included the whole movie at no charge. Now I realize few people are so fastidiously honest that they would stop watching after three minutes and refuse to take advantage of the malfunctioning machinery of on-demand trailer watching. But oh gentle reader, I did not stop. I did not even hesitate. I stole this movie. (Hint: if you look carefully in a common way, you might find a way to steal this book even now.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Birth of Venus. Sandro Botticelli.

Sandro Botticelli. The Birth of Venus, mid 1480s.
Today's blog comes from the chapter on Botticelli's The Birth of Venus in Hugh Starbuck's bookNaked and Beautiful. Starbuck's book is a Kindle Countdown Deal with low prices all week. But hurry because the price will gradually return in steps to normal as the week wears on. The sooner you get it, the more you save. Naked and Beautiful is not merely a book of naked pictures. It is a collection of essays on how and why nudity is suppressed in Western culture with the reluctant exception of art, where the paternal culture has accepted it as a sop for religious and philosophical allegories. Naked and Beautiful traces the history of Venus in art, beginning with Botticelli's Birth of Venus, where she stands naked and newborn on the half-shell, then the recurring reclining Venus nudes that span from the 16th century to the 19th. Starbuck takes a look at Europe and America's fascination with Orientalism, which often was an excuse for nude art—somewhat analogous to the schoolboy's pleasures with National Geographic. So Naked and Beautiful is not just a book of nudes, but a history of their suppression and, most of all, a celebration of beauty.

Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, informally called Venus on the Half-Shell, marks the first significant appearance of the nude in Renaissance painting. That period in history is called the Renaissance, or Re-Birth, because Europe was emerging from the chaotic and unproductive Dark Ages. During the Dark Ages the Church had preserved human knowledge in its scriptoria and libraries. With the Renaissance, mankind picked itself up, dusted itself off, and began learning and practicing all the arts and sciences that had been remembered only in pages of books for several centuries. In Europe, humanity rebooted itself with the Renaissance, and the starting point lay with the classical traditions of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Though the Romans were amazing conquerors, administrators, and legalists, they too owed their tradition of humanities to Greek classical culture.
Throughout history, authoritarians have used organized religion to assert control over culture and particularly over the arts. Artists, writers, sculptors, musicians and performers have traditionally and subversively served as conscience and canary in a coalmine when rulers led their subjects deep into repressive times and wars costly in gold and blood. Paradoxically, Sandro Botticelli was a follower of the authoritarian of his time and place: the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola, who was leading Florence in an extremist religious revival that led to the burning of thousands of objects such as cosmetics, art, and books. This fire was called the Bonfire of the Vanities, and Botticelli contributed many of his own works to the flames. So it is doubly paradoxical how a nude female should appear in a painting at such a prudish and puritanical time. This bonfire was but one episode in the eternal struggle between Philistines and Literati.
The short explanation of how nudity in art became accepted despite the strict and repressive atmosphere of 15th-century Florence is that nudity was Greek, and the Renaissance embraced Classical culture as a way back from Medieval terrors and chaos. Besides, the Greek tradition of nudity in art was anything but gratuitous. Unlike their neighbors—Egypt, Persia, Assyria—who equated nudity with shame, the Greeks found in it an expression of Olympian and Platonic ideals. The Greeks generally considered nudity as inappropriate as anyone else, but in an appropriate context like the perfection of human form as seen in a wrestling arena, or in the portrayal of the perfection of the bodies of the Gods, they considered nudity quite appropriate and not in the least obscene. Plato suggested that any given thing on earth is but an imperfect expression of the perfect model of that same thing in a kind of heaven for things. So, for example, each chair on earth was an imperfect attempt to express the perfect idea of a chair in the heaven of things. So too, the inevitably flawed bodies of human beings on earth are imperfect expressions of the bodies of the Olympian gods.  The nude in art gives vision of this perfection of beauty.
When the Greeks and Romans wanted to imply that some person was so great that he was divine—the Emperor Julius Caesar achieved this accolade—he would be depicted with the perfect physique of an athlete. This heroic nudity didn't mean he was a great wrestler: it meant that he was, after crossing the Rubicon, a demigod. Now, after crossing the chasm of the Dark Ages and seeking to resume where it left off, humankind would no longer be portrayed as gods because Christianity was now the dominant paradigm of Control, and divinity was limited to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Yet heroic nudity would survive as a way of indicating Classical pagan gods in paintings, and those gods continued to play roles in allegorical figurative art that illustrated otherwise abstract concepts like Venus as the ideal of love. Even as Botticelli painted Venus, philosophers were busy reconciling Christianity with Greek and Roman thought, which humanity was using to rebuild knowledge, and which was inextricably bound to the pagan ideas within them.
Much to the delight of viewers of paintings, the philosophers saved the day, and the Church put its imprimatur on the nude in art. Yet the common viewer of paintings could care less about how the Church saw the nude. The common viewer sees the nude female, whether goddess or human, as the erotically charged form of beauty that she is. All beauty has its origin in the feminine form. This is why the intricate geometric decorations of the great mosques amaze but ultimately fail to quench the thirst for beauty; this is why sidewalks ruled by sharia, where women walk, if at all, shrouded in burkas as corpses, leave one feeling dry as ancient parchment. The Church for the wrong reason did the right thing: it assented to allow the portrayal and glorification of beauty in art, without which life would be far less humane.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Naked & Beautiful Prologue

Today's blog comes from the prologue to Hugh Starbuck's book, Naked and BeautifulStarbuck's book is a Kindle Countdown Deal with low prices all week. But hurry because the price will gradually return in steps to normal as the week wears on. The sooner you get it, the more you save. Naked and Beautiful is not merely a book of naked pictures. It is a collection of essays on how and why nudity is suppressed in Western culture with the reluctant exception of art, where the paternal culture has accepted it as a sop for religious and philosophical allegories. Naked and Beautiful traces the history of Venus in art, beginning with Botticelli's Birth of Venus, where she stands naked and newborn on the half-shell, then the recurring reclining Venus nudes that span from the 16th century to the 19th. Starbuck takes a look at Europe and America's fascination with Orientalism, which often was an excuse for nude art—somewhat analogous to the schoolboy's pleasures with National Geographic. So Naked and Beautiful is not just a book of nudes, but a history of their suppression and, most of all, a celebration of beauty.

Once we all lived in small self-governing communities, and our culture was our own. In that time, we do not have to answer to state or federal governments or to alien kings. Customs, traditions, rituals, beliefs, and religion grow naturally among the people who practice them.
Since before we became the species that we are now, we have observed the Dance.
The Dance is not merely a pas de deux, though that's part of it. It more or less annually brings together everybody in the group of the nation in celebratory spirit. Crafts and livestock get sold in their largest market. People catch up on news. Stories get told and songs sung. Cooks share good food and exchange recipes. If people live in groups within which custom prevents them from marrying, the Dance presents the opportunity to meet people from outside the group. The Dance offers games in which young men demonstrate their prowess as warriors, hunters, or farmers. At the Dance, we affirm, renew, or reinvent most aspects of our cultural identity.
The Dance, stories and music, food, rituals, rites, timekeeping and celebration, and guides are all integral parts of our communal identity: we are proud of them; we work for them, and we die for them. Then come Kings.
A kingdom requires conquest: a King must subjugate neighboring communities to build a kingdom. Sometimes this process is peaceful; usually it isn't. Even when a King comes from our own city, by the time he is strong enough to conquer his realm, his lifestyle, wealth, and education so close him off from commoners, that, even in the capital, the King and the aristocracy are foreigners among their own subjects.
In turn, all people then are ruled by aliens or foreigners who do not have to live by the same rules and with the same problems they do. Nor does the King have precisely the same culture as those of the subjugated communities. Once a group cedes its rulership to a King, the time of terror and bloodshed passes, and the King finds more peaceful ways to control his subjects.
The conflict over culture is where the subject feels most continually the alienation of King. In Western culture, Kings have followed a process dating back at least as far as the Romans of usurping the Dance. The Romans present Circus to the people.
At Nuremberg Rallies, banks of spotlights create curtains of light hung from the heavens. Men line up in perfect rank and file and wear uniforms with razor creases. The Orator-King conveys much more energy than transmitted by oration alone. His demagoguery taps right into a core of mob energy, an anger that he channels into identification with the goals of the state.
American football games channel much of the same frenzied mob energy into regional forms of nationalism as a kind of rehearsal for when the same spirit is needed to support the whole country in war. Televised games are sponsored by the leading corporations and by the American military who capitalize upon the heightened mob spirit to recruit for combat opportunities abroad.
That the Dance can become Circus, Nazi rally, football game, or nationalist pep rally shows how the King's control debases organic culture. In subjugating culture, the King creates an atmosphere of dogmatism, anti-intellectualism, anti-free expression. Artists, who must express their intellect freely even though it might be outside the range of official state dogma. find themselves in a continuous conflict with state-dictated culture. Their whole lives become a defiant act of performance art. There are many names for that conflict, but I like to call it the Philistines vs the Literati.
Many kings are well educated and may even secretly appreciate art, but the official view of art does not necessarily represent the personal view of the king. The official view or party line is a pair of goggles handed out to the people so that art becomes "enforced" in the style of a police state. The cheap studios sought by struggling artists become not merely an affordable lifestyle but a kind of underground.
It's true that the Social Contract vs Individual Freedom is a broad conflict in any society. Freedom of speech and art are only some of those freedoms. The question of the nude in art has been only one of many battles fought in the war of the Philistines vs the Literati, but in a free society the nude in appropriate contexts should be admired for her beauty and not shamed because of the King's controlling set of faux morals or because the King's Church's control of both the daily cycles and the life cycles of men forbids nudity in art.
This book focuses on the nude, for which Western culture has had an ethos of appreciation across many millennia.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Celebrating Naked & Beautiful

Today's blog comes from the preface to Hugh Starbuck's book, Naked and BeautifulStarbuck's book is a Kindle Countdown Deal with low prices all week. But hurry because the price will gradually return in steps to normal as the week wears on. The sooner you get it, the more you save. Naked and Beautiful is not merely a book of naked pictures. It is a collection of essays on how and why nudity is suppressed in Western culture with the reluctant exception of art, where the paternal culture has accepted it as a sop for religious and philosophical allegories. Naked and Beautiful traces the history of Venus in art, beginning with Botticelli's Birth of Venus, where she stands naked and newborn on the half-shell, then the recurring reclining Venus nudes that span from the 16th century to the 19th. Starbuck takes a look at Europe and America's fascination with Orientalism, which often was an excuse for nude art—somewhat analogous to the schoolboy's pleasures with National Geographic. So Naked and Beautiful is not just a book of nudes, but a history of their suppression and, most of all, a celebration of beauty.

This book celebrates the female human body as the origin of all beauty. Even when we see beauty in, say, a flower, we celebrate a concept that began with the human female. The flower imbues the feminine quality of beauty among plants, but we appreciate it because of the inherent link back to the femininity within our own species. Many of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings celebrate the sensuousness of flowers as a parallel to human anatomy.
Unfortunately the natural impulses to enjoy beauty have been countered by authoritarian power structures that usurp control of our culture. The culture that is foisted upon us is not the culture that we ourselves invented. Even when leaders rise up among our own flesh and blood, as societies become more complicated, the distance between the common folk and leadership becomes so great that leaders are essentially foreign to us.
In the alienation and estrangement between the foreign official culture and the culture we would have liked to practice, one issue that most often gets changed is the attitude toward nudity and beauty. We can make a list to compare some of the properties of native culture to those of the foreign:

Native Culture
Alien Official Culture
Culture grows upward from the grassroots
Culture is imposed from the top
Culture comes from people
Culture comes from corporations
Invented it ourselves
Foreign and foisted upon us
Motivated by our own benefit (which is not necessarily monetary)
Motivated for the profit of others
Religion tends to be matriarchal, celebratory, and centered in the home
Religion tends to be patriarchal, controlling, and institutional
Female nudity is beautiful
Female nudity is shameful

The internal conflict between an adolescent's natural curiosity about nudity and the authoritarian view that nudity is shameful creates the puerile, Beavis-and-Butthead-like giggle, peek, and poke stage of sexuality. Fortunately, our modern culture contains sufficient freedom that people are able to dissociate themselves from the antiquated power structures that consider sexuality, at best, a necessary evil. People can appreciate and explore each other sexually.
When a young man enters a serious and enduring relationship with a woman, possibly with the intention of having children but certainly aware of the woman's mysterious, lunar, cyclical reproductive powers, and if they are as unfettered as possible of the shame ethos of the alien culture, then the young man enters into a fertility cult of one: he is enraptured with his Aphrodite, and she loves back the man who adores her. They are able to enjoy constantly experiencing beauty through the female form.
Likewise, when a culture is as free as this Aphrodite-centered coupling, Literature and Art can blossom unfettered by prudish censors. And books like this one can be written, published, and enjoyed.
A montage of images from Naked and Beautiful.
Conflicts exist between all Authoritarians and their subjects, and they are known by various names. But all conflicts boil down to a central conflict that I call the Philistines vs. the Literati. When a foreign power invades a country, as when the Nazis invaded France, Holland, and other countries, the conflict becomes hotter and more issues fall into active dispute.
The feud between Philistines and Literati exists in the traditional model of colonialism, as when a handful of European nations sliced Africa like a pie at a Sunday church reception. By 1900, Europe and the US had sliced the world up completely: everywhere was either Europe, the US, or was a colony that belonged to the Europe or the US, so the Philistines vs. Literati conflict was global. After World War II, most colonies were granted independence, which means that the local leadership was handed over to people of the local ethnicity—Hindu India to Hindus; Muslim India to Pakistan; Nigeria to Nigerians; and so on. It was a messy process: often the withdrawal of the overarching colonial authority allowed long-standing enmity among the locals to ignite into full war. Similar conflicts broke out when the Soviet Union broke up and left Yugoslavia to its own devices.
One colony of which the West did not want to let go was Vietnam: the French were there, beginning with their Catholic missionary forces (religion has traditionally been the colonizing agency: soldiers were needed only for dissidents), from 1862, but after the Vietnamese kicked the French out in 1954, the US filled the power vacuum. The reason for this persistence is that Vietnam is one of the major suppliers for opium, which, while it is a relatively popular drug in itself, is the essential raw ingredient for heroin, which has so much demand that countries go to war over it. At that time, the closest Vietnam came to producing serious art was the serious performance art when monks immolated themselves in protest of the war.
While the Philistines oppressed nudity and sensuality in Art, the Literati sometimes found loopholes that allowed them to deliver their work to their audience. Recently, works like James Joyce's Ulysses and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer waged legal battles ultimately won in the US Supreme Court. But the conflict existed in 16th-century Florence, when Renaissance Neoplatonism provided a loophole, and, later, the fashion of Orientalism made nudity acceptable under watchful authoritarian eyes.
During the Renaissance, the Church sparked interest in the classical Greek philosophers as a way to provide a logical framework for its theological system—a doctrine called Renaissance Neoplatonism—and this inevitably meant embracing the ancient gods not as gods, since that was explicitly forbidden by Jewish monotheism and Christian trinitarian doctrine, but as allegorical symbols for ideas. So, for example, Sandro Botticelli's painting of the Birth of Venus allegorically represents the awakening of love and sensuality in a young woman, and the painting necessarily includes a nude woman, which the Ecclesiastical authorities of Renaissance Florence accepted on philosophical grounds. Whether many people look at that painting with philosophical eyes as opposed to erotic vision is open to debate.
Then there was Orientalism, an 18th- and 19th-century European fashion for images and designs with a Mideastern or even Far Eastern ("Chinoiserie") origin. The occasional nudity in Orientalist paintings, even the scenes of white slavery in harems, were accepted technically as cultural study on the same grounds that elementary schoolboys go to the library to look at bare-breasted women in their native environment as a kind of elementary anthropology.
So this book provides a brief history of how nudity has sustained in art and photography despite the Philistines who would quash it. Most of all, though, this book celebrates beauty, which has its origins in the naked female body.