Friday, May 30, 2008

no accounting for taste

Does George W. Bush wear a hemp suit? Does he insist on organic vegetables? I want to know.

More to the point, how is it possible to be served bland iceberg lettuce in the heart of the Salinas Valley, "salad bowl" of the nation? Shouldn't there "be a law" against that?

In a similar way, people are getting away with drinking bad beer out of aluminum cans in Portland, OR. Portland boasts an abundance of quality, reasonably priced micro-breweries.

And even in the middle of wilderness areas with exceptionally good air, people are lighting up Camels and Marlboros.

To their credit, Starbucks did launch a successful assault on decades of abrasive industrial coffee. Regardless of what you think of that company, they did raise the national standard of what we call coffee.

But in general, who can explain America's love affair with Bad Things? You present them with quality (organic farms, public libraries, Al Gore) and they still go for the Styrofoam, Diet Coke, and Chevy Suburbans.

Monday, May 26, 2008

the kingdom of the crystal skull?

In exchange for subjecting L to Cluster, I agreed to go see the new Indiana Jones movie, not something I would otherwise do. It was OK -- when I wasn't offended I was entertained. I'm not surprised that the Russian Communist Party was offended by this film -- I don't recall seeing so many faceless cardboard cutouts of Soviet soldiers, although the Cate Blanchett character sort of worked for me. But at a time when the world is finally warming up to the virtues of socialism, how is it productive to dredge up all this Cold War nonsense? I guess the film is indulging in nostalgia, and in a similar way it dredges up aliens -- which I do miss. After eight years of Bush, who doesn't miss aliens? It seems that in better times, such as the Clinton years, aliens are more in the forefront. The whole Inca-alien connection is beautifully illustrated in the second half of the movie, breathing life into the strange theories we've all heard about -- Chariots of the Gods, etc. But if you do happen to see Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, forget realism. In an appalling trivialization of the effects of nuclear weapons, we see the hero shut himself into a refrigerator at a test site's ground zero. After the fridge flies through the air and bounces on the desert floor a few times, the hero emerges with a few scratches, dusting himself off.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Cluster & co. at the Henry Miller Library

The Henry Miller Library at Big Sur is a unique environment and a wonderful place to hear music. It's a little piece of the San Francisco hippie culture that landed in the woods -- one of those great intermarriages of culture and nature. The opening act, Arp, may have been the highpoint for me -- wonderfully derivative of Kraftwerk and Robert Fripp, but derivative in the best way, full of "meat", while on the huge screen looped film footage the complemented the music: winding mountain roads, railroads, ships, what appeared to be the Mid-town tunnel in black and white, blurry Las Vegas signs, a man running down a desert slope, a rabbit running on a beach until it gets hit by a wave. The next act, Wooden Shjips, was very different -- loud psychedelic garage rock, lots of drums and base that L said "unblocked some chi", but it was so loud I thought she said "unblocked some cheese". Artful lighting effects were projected onto the redwood bowl that forms the HML performance space. By the time Cluster, the feature presentation, came on it was completely dark and more than a little bit cold. An archetypal blast from the past, certain Cluster albums shaped my youth, and, along with the Roedelius album I received for Xmas some 25 years ago from my aunt and uncle, were to my ears no less than the Soul of Europe in electronic form. The strange series of noises that Roedelius and Moebius produced at HML did not strike me as the Soul of Europe, but given how much time has passed, and the fact that they are my parents' age, it's simply a miracle that this event occurred at all.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

those elusive yet ubiquitous Laurels...

A few words on the Cinnamomum genus:

Camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora) are pretty common in my area as ornamental, shade and street trees. They can remind me of Dogwoods, except that their leaves are glossier. They are not related -- Dogwoods belong to their own family (the Dogwood or Cornaceae) whereas Camphors belong to the Laurel (Lauraceae), a family known for such aromatic success stories as cinnamon and sassafras -- and avocados! What a portfolio...

Cinnamomum camphora is native to China and other parts of east Asia, and has a long history of commercial and medicinal uses. Camphor the substance, which is derived from from the tree, has been used in perfumes, soaps, insect repellents, explosives, and plastics. The bark of its Sri Lankan relative, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, is the true source of the spice cinnamon. Much of what is sold commercially as cinnamon, however, is actually Cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum), another relative found in and around Myanmar (formerly Burma).

Saturday, May 17, 2008

lost sons of New York

Daniel D. Tompkins was the governor of New York state from 1807 to 1817. Thereafter he was US Vice President to James Monroe until 1825. Given all this prominence, I feel this Tompkins character has been overlooked -- at least in my life. Although I spent plenty of time in Tompkins Square Park in New York City, I hadn't a clue who it was named after, and no one, not one person from any walk of life pulled me aside and filled me in on these most basic facts.

It also turns out that Tompkins County, home of Ithaca and thereby Cornell University, is also named for him.

A little less obscure is Millard Fillmore, US President from 1850 to 1853. Millard hailed from Cayuga County but was never actually elected; he was VP to Zachary Taylor when the latter died from gastroenteritis. Millard was the last Whig to serve as US President, and spent most of his career representing other strange, forgotten parties such as the Anti-Masonic and Know Nothing (which could alternately have been called the Anti-Catholic party). It would be funny to collect some of these 19th century conservatives, and then some of our present day Neo-Cons, lock them in an elevator for seven hours and see if they got along.

Friday, May 09, 2008

other people's vacations

A recent visit to the discount bin of one of my "record stores" (an archaic term that shows my age, but what am I supposed to call it? A "music store"? A "cd store"? No one seems to know) led to the adventurous purchase of The Rough Guide to the Asian Underground. With over 77 minutes of music, I believe got my money's worth, but what a long, strange collection of noises. My first reaction was somewhere in between liking it and not knowing what to think; then L said she liked it, which is a considerable hoop to pass through. Now that I've spun the disc half a dozen times, its peculiar sound has entered my bloodstream, and is strangely familiar. The only cut that was familiar to me before hearing this collection is Fun-Da-Mental's Ja Sha Teen; the rest of the fifteen tracks have a similar feel, and remind me a little bit of Eno's Nerve Net, an album I always liked, an album that made me feel like I was on vacation, or better yet on Brian Eno's vacation. Now there's a commodity worth buying and selling: other people's vacations.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

song of Haiti and its opposite

I had the idea of going to Haiti to help the poor. It turns out it's been done. In the 1950's Larry and Gwen Mellon were inspired by Albert Schweitzer's example to go to Haiti and build the Hopital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles. The enormous wealth of the Mellon family was helpful in actually accomplishing something in a place that is notorious for resisting improvement. Their story is chronicled in the book Song of Haiti by Barry Paris, and the hospital carries on its good work today.

Of course Schweitzer himself and many like-minded missionaries did not have those kinds of resources, but were motivated by sheer conscience and conviction. The powers of conscience and conviction should not be underestimated, since they can motivate people who otherwisw have theoption to do absolutely nothing.

What haunts me are some terrible contradictions: Haiti's rise and fall from tropical tiger to neglected stray cat; the polar opposition between the US and Haiti, the former being an insult to the latter, and the latter manifesting the former's bad conscience; both nations being out of balance in a most complementary way. The US shares a similar fall from greatness. The Mellons of the 1950's represent some ideal of America that no longer really exists, an ideal that, for all its global reach and power, was apparently somewhat wobbly since the greatness it represented didn't last very long. In other words, the Mellons could go save Haiti on the assumption that their own nation was a fully functional beacon of light, when in reality it was closer to third world conditions than they imagined.