Archive for 2011 June

Off on the Ridgeway

Will be leaving some posts for you fine people, and perhaps with luck will post from the trail, but need to get away for some ancient English history and beauty and who knows, maybe wildness, on the Ridgeway Trail with friends and family. Back July 10th:


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Jack Warner meets Tennessee Williams (or thinks he does)

From Dotson Rader's spectacularly colorful memoir of Tennessee Williams, Cry of the Heart, about his much older friend and lover, here's a note about Williams and Los Angeles: 

"Los Angeles [was] a city Tennessee hated more than any other in the world. 

"I always feel like a whore there," [he said]. "I don't appreciate works of art being referred to as a "property," like a play of mine was a piece of undeveloped land in the Hollywood Hills. It is a city where everyone and everything is assumed to be up for sale. Everyone is thought to have a price. Well, some things cannot be priced!" 

"Tennessee used to moan every time he had to go to Los Angeles on business. Like William Faulkner, he viewed it as a place where one held's one nose and got as much money as one could in as short a time as possible, and then grabbed the next red-eye out."

"The only culture in L.A. is in a carton of yogurt!" 

Then Rader, whose wonderful book was published in l985, throws in a scene from the 1950's that deserves to be seen on stage someday this year, this 100th year of Williams' birth:

Tenncry "Warner Brothers had bought the rights to "The Glass Menagerie." Tennessee and Frank [Merlo, his long-time companion] went to the studio to have lunch with Jack Warner in the commissary. When they arrived, Warner stood up, and said, "Well, well! At last, here you are! Welcome to Warner Brothers!" And shook hands with Frank Merlo, thinking he was Tennessee. 

Tennessee started to laugh, and Warner, now utterly confused, said to Frank, "And what do you do, young man?" 

Frank looked him straight in the eye, and replied, "I sleep with Tennessee Williams.'"





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Saving the climate by stopping the tar sands pipeline

Many of this country's most illustrious poets, writers, scientists, and preservationists  are calling for volunteers to come to Washington D.C. this summer to risk arrest to stop construction of a massive tar sands pipeline from Alberta to Texas.

This pipeline, the Keystone XL, could destroy any chance we have of preventing runaway global warming. 

How much carbon lies in the recoverable tar sands of Alberta? A recent calculation from some of our foremost scientists puts the figure at about 200 parts per million.  Even with the new pipeline they won’t be able to burn that much overnight—but each development like this makes it easier to get more oil out.  As the climatologist Jim Hansen (one of the signatories to this letter) explained, if we have any chance of getting back to a stable climate “the principal requirement is that coal emissions must be phased out by 2030 and unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground.”

In other words, he added, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over."

The decision is up to the Department of State and the Obama administration, not Congress, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already gone on the record saying she's inclined to approve the project. 

The organizers are asking people "to consider doing something hard—coming to Washington in the hottest and stickiest weeks of the summer and engaging in civil disobedience that will likely get you arrested."

I'm contemplating going, as an embedded reporter (if I can find a publication to sponsor me). For now, here's a picture from National Geographic of tar sands country right now: 


Is this what our future is going to look like? Only hotter? 

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A Republican compares climatologists to doctors

A nice piece in the Columbia Journalism Review's science writing blog — The Observatory — looks at the reluctance of the Republican field to utter the word "climate" in their most recent debate. 

If none of the presidential candidates mentioned climate, it is likely because they have already made it abundantly clear that they are unconcerned with the issue. 

True, though it's a strange issue. On the one hand, GOP operatives and voters profess disinterest; on the other hand, so-called conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh have made climate denialism a litmus test. Limbaugh recently said on air that Mitt Romney could say "bye bye" to the nomination, for saying that yes, climate change is happening, and our emissions are the cause. 

But the campaign comes with a spotlight. Though former ambassador Jon Huntsman may be on the road to oblivion, still his widely-reported remark on climate is easily the most interesting thing said by a politician on the subject this year, Republican or Democrat. 

He said: 

All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring. If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer we’d listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science so I tend to think it’s better left to the science community – though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors.

In fact, Huntsman actually understated the consensus. 97% of climate researcherfs fully believe in climate change, according to leading researcher Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale. 

This is the usefulness of political debate: It exposes us to the views of others. 

Potential usefulness, perhaps I should say. You have to listen to hear. 

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A new American class: the involuntarily retired

Our local daily newspaper has an excellent story on a new class of unhappy Americans: the involutarily retired.

Kim Lamb Gregory introduces the idea with a study, and then grounds it in Ventura County reality:

"We are witnessing the birth of a new class — the involuntarily retired," said a report called "The Shattered American Dream."

The report, released in December by the Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, was a follow-up to an August 2009 survey of those who had been unemployed in the previous year. The follow-up showed that 62 percent of those respondents 55 or older were still unemployed in November 2010, compared with 57 percent of those 35 to 54 and 47 percent of those younger than 35.

According to a report released by the Urban Institute in January, fewer than a quarter of workers 50 and older who lost their jobs between mid-2008 and 2009 found work within 12 months — much lower than the rate for younger workers.

Of course, it's not just older folks that are suffering, and what's really notable about the study is the outright despair of the unemployed. The Rutgers team reported on 1200 unemployed people:

It is hard to overstate the dire shape of the unemployed. Over the space of the 15 months we have been tracking our panel’s progress, just one-quarter have found full-time jobs. And virtually all of those jobs were for less pay or benefits, with 40% having to change fields or their career path to find employment.
One of the casualties of the Great Recession has been a core American principle since the founding of the nation — that if people work hard and play by the rules, they can get ahead. Now, the majority of the unemployed do not believe that simple hard work will guarantee success. They feel powerless, and voice little confidence in the government’s ability to help them.

They lack that confidence for good reason. Washington really doesn't care. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank recently profiled the President's chief economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee, who has been counseling against any more stimulus, saying that would be "rash." Goolsbee's argument: 

The private sector has stabilized, profits have returned, productivity is high, American competitiveness has improved, and large sums of money have accumulated on corporate balance sheets.

Notice anything missing? Meanwhile, outside of D.C., even middle-of-the-road economists are troubled. 

Clive Crook warns in the Financial Times that "the recovery" looks like a chimera:  

One alarming possibility is that the traits the US has relied on to drive growth in the past – labour market flexibility, rapid productivity growth – might have become toxic. If the US is unlucky, traits seen as distinctive strengths are now weaknesses, and a “lost decade” of stagnation, like Japan’s in the 1990s, might lie ahead. 

Paul Krugman, quoted admiringly in Crook's piece, has a devastating graph to illustrate what a "lost decade" he's been warning us about for over two years now might look like. 

Today Felix Salmon points out that unemployment is much worse in the U.S. than in comparable nations: 
He adds:

It’s entirely intuitive to believe that structural unemployment rose significantly over the course of the recession, and that it’s now painfully high. And that the Obama Administration is, to a first approximation, doing absolutely nothing to address this crisis head-on.
In other words, the doubt and despair of the unemployed is totally justified. 

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The Grand Canyon of the Colorado: l901

From Our National Parks, published in 1901:

No matter how far you have wandered hitherto, or how many famous gorges and valleys you have seen, this one, the Grand Cañon of the Colorado, will seem as novel to you, as unearthly in the color and grandeur and quantity of its architecture, as if you had found it after death, on some other star; so incomparably lovely and grand and supreme is it above all the other cañons in our fire-moulded, earthquake-shaken, rain-washed, wave-washed, river and glacier sculptured world. It is about six thousand feet deep where you first see it, and from rim to rim ten to fifteen miles wide. Instead of being dependent for interest upon waterfalls, depth, wall sculpture, and beauty of parklike floor, like most other great cañons, it has not waterfalls in sight, and no appreciable floor spaces. The big river has just room enough to flow and roar obscurely, here and there groping its way as best it can, like a weary, murmuring, overladen traveler trying to escape from the tremendous, bewildering labyrinthic abyss, while its roar serves only to deepen the silence.

I wonder — and so, no doubt, would John Muir — if that silence remains. 


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Dawn Upshaw takes a bullet for Ojai Music Fest

That's what it looks like in this picture, from a preview last Friday from NPR:


The featured music at the Ojai Music festival this year, Winds of Destiny, came from American composer George Crumb, which NPR helpfully allows us to hear next to the preview.

It's stunning — in a festival sort of way. Mark Swed, of the LA Times, described it admiringly: 

Crumb summons up the deafening silence of the battlefield at night, conjures the ghosts of the dead and brandishes the nightmares of the living. In the process he also manages percussion writing of extravagant beauty, if arresting strangeness.

Yes. You can hear it yourself. It's festival music — harsh, austere, impressive. And not the sort of thing one wants or needs to hear often, despite the predictably great singing of Dawn Upshaw. Once is probably enough for nearly anyone for Winds of Destiny. Though with its serious themes and Peter Sellars stage antics — see above — it's as attractive to the press as honey to wasps.

By contrast a couple of days later, Dawn Upshaw sang another original piece for the festival, a setting of Ted Kooser's Winter Morning Walks by the new star Maria Schneider, that was adored by the crowd in Ojai. More than one person I spoke to wondered when a recorded version might become available. 

A couple of years ago Upshaw had a bout with breast cancer. She's fine now. A few years before, the former poet laureate Ted Kooser also had a bout with cancer. He survived, too, but to try and maintain his strength found himself taking walks just before dawn. A poet friend, Jim Harrison, convinced him to write down his morning walk in a haiku, and send it off on postcard. 

The result is all that Crumb's work strains to be, but without the laboring. Yet Swed admitted he didn't exactly like it, despite its undeniable emotionality, and the collaborative skill that went into it: 

The texts are flickering glimpses of nature on pre-dawn walks taken while the poet was undergoing chemotherapy. Upshaw’s depth of feeling and Schneider’s gift for lyricism helped chip away at one listener’s mawkish defense mechanisms. 

But that's an incorrect use of the word mawkish, isn't it? One might think the music was "sickly, sentimental" (even if it's not). But certainly its rejection – one's reaction to it — isn't mawkish. 

It's a confusion of an action with an adjective.

Strange that a critic as experienced as Swed should make such an elementary mistake.

No matter. For the local paper, Karen Lindell not only previewed the performance, and gathered some great quotes from composer Maria Schneider, she even included one of Kooser's achingly real poems. 

Perfectly still this solstice morning,
in bone-cracking cold. Nothing moving,
or so one might think, but as I walk the road,
the wind held in the heart of every tree 
flows to the end of each twig and forms a bud.

Good to see a newspaper writer dare to admire poetry so unabashedly. 

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Tennessee Williams: The literary factory

In l937, when Tennessee Williams was twenty-six and just beginning to write plays as well as poems and stories, he and a friend named Clark Mills, who grew up to be a professor of French and poetry, set up what they called a "literary factory" in the basement of Mills' parents' home in St Louis. They would retire to their sanctuary and pound away at their typewriters.

Mills later described Williams' unique method of writing: 

"I could never imagine anyone writing as he did. He would do, say, a half page or two pages, and it was fast — he was fast on the typewriter — he would be operating as if blindly. He was never sure if he knew where he was going, but when he got there — when he finished that passage and it might not be right — he'd toss it aside and start all over again. While he would do the whole business over, it would go in a different direction. It was if he was throwing dice — as if he was working toward a combination of some kind of result and he wouldn't have any idea what the result might be but he would recognize it when he got there. You know, usually one sits down to write and writes page one, two, three, four, and so on — but he would write and rewrite and even in the middle of a passage, he'd start over again and slant it in another way." 

Because Williams was at the time writing poetry as well as plays, Mills had a chance to compare them. 

I think he has more poetry in his plays than in his poetry. And, in fact, I would say there is a quality that I think is unique to him. It has to do with the flow of his language and dialogue: It has some kind of of a poetic quality to it. I don't know of any other American playwright, living or dead, who has it. That quality was present even in the early days when he would come to my house and write, banging out page after page and throwing them on the floor. I'd pick up and read what he'd discarded, and there still would be his magic quality to the dialogue — it wasn't the language or the words or the sentences or the way they were put together; it was the "sound" of the words that came through somehow. He seemed to "hear" the voice as much as he heard the words. And I think when you hear a voice like that, you're in the realm of poetry." 

[from Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, by Lyle Leverich, Crown Publishers, New York, N.Y. l995, 644 pages, pp206-207]


Williams did write some good poems — at an early age, one was accepted by America's best journal of verse, Poetry, an astonishing feat for a then unknown writer — but surely Mills had it right.  

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Gary Snyder: Still startling after all these years

Gary Snyder appeared last week at the Central Library in Los Angeles, as part of a tribute to his late friend Lew Welch. Snyder was in top form, about as focused and hard-hitting and charming as any man standing at a lectern could hope to be. We all should be so smart at eighty. Or fifty. Or twenty. 

Here's one little anecdote from his Q & A. Reminiscing about his youth, he said: 

Back in l947, when I was seventeen years old, [unclear] I got my seaman's papers to join the Merchant Marine, and on the wall of the Marine [something] and Steward's Union in l947 it said:

No Red Baiting — No Race Baiting — No Queer Baiting

And it said $100 for the first offense. Second offense, you're out of the union. 

How do you like that? 

Murmurs of amazement from the crowd. 


Freedom is just another word for not being verbally abused.  

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Climate change and politicians: the Weiner edition

Somebody found a way to put this week's news together with climate change. 

Not easy! Thanks, Jen Sorenson

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