The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles faces a financial crisis that threatens its survival as an independent institution.
By EDWARD WYATT and JORI FINKEL
NY Times Published: December 4, 2008
LOS ANGELES — When this city’s Museum of Contemporary Art appointed a classically trained curator from the Art Institute of Chicago as its director in 1999, many viewed it as a welcome sign that art rather than business would be kept at the forefront of one of the most dynamic museums in the country.
They did not know how right they were. Nearly 10 years later, the museum remains internationally renowned for its collection of postwar art and for organizing some of the most serious and ambitious contemporary art exhibitions anywhere.
Yet by putting art ahead of the bottom line, the Museum of Contemporary Art has nearly killed itself. The museum has operated at a deficit in six of the last eight years, and its endowment has shrunk to about $6 million from nearly $50 million in 1999, according to people who have been briefed on the finances.
Now the California attorney general has begun an audit to determine if the museum broke laws governing the use of restricted money by nonprofit organizations. And local artists, curators and collectors, including current and former board members, are lobbying to remove the museum’s director, Jeremy Strick, its board, or both.
The museum’s tailspin has brought an outpouring of grief and disbelief in a city that has recently cast itself as a rival to New York as the nation’s art capital. The closing of such a respected museum, or even its merger into another institution, would leave a formidable hole not only in the city’s psyche but in the national cultural landscape as well.
“The museum has a very significant role beyond the culture of Los Angeles,” said Connie Butler, a former curator there who is now chief drawings curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “People in the art world feel they are going to wake up one morning and one of the greatest resources in terms of contemporary art in the Western world is going to be permanently altered.”
Museum officials say they expect a solution to the crisis by the end of the year, if not by the next board meeting, on Dec. 16. A possible merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has been discussed and is supported by some trustees, although the museum’s official position is that it wants to remain independent.
Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist who frequently plays the role of Medici here, offered $30 million last month in support of the Museum of Contemporary Art, on the condition that half of it be matched by contributions from other donors. So far, no other donors have stepped forward.
Museum officials would not agree to be interviewed for this article or to discuss the scope of the state’s audit. In written responses to questions, the museum said it was “pursuing and assessing all of its options,” including talks with Mr. Broad and with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about possible partnerships. “Central to all these discussions is MOCA’s commitment to its core mission,” the museum said.
Part of its challenge may be that the very people who are considering the museum’s options include those who oversaw its decline. One of the board’s two co-chairmen, Tom Unterman, for example, has served on the board’s finance committee for the last eight years and was finance chairman the last three. David G. Johnson, the other co-chairman of the board, was previously head of its governance committee.
“It’s obvious that there needs to be new management,” said Jane Nathanson, a member of the boards of both the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “MOCA needs to look deeply into the way it has functioned and move forward to rebuild the reputation of the museum.”
Some trustees have departed in recent years, frustrated with what they called the museum’s financial recklessness and lack of leadership. “I saw the train wreck coming,” said Susan Nimoy, a collector who left the board in 2006 after pushing hard, she said, to bring the budget in line with available money.
“My main complaint to the board was that none of you would run your household budget the way this institution is run,” Mrs. Nimoy said. “I think every one of those trustees should resign and Jeremy should resign.”
The museum was founded in 1979 by a corps of collectors after the demise of the Pasadena Art Museum left Los Angeles without a major museum dedicated to modern or contemporary art. The city agreed that if the founders could raise $10 million for operating costs, it would help pay for construction of a new museum downtown.
While the building was in development downtown, a nearby city warehouse was renovated for use as a temporary home. It opened in 1983, three years before the main building was completed on Grand Avenue. (The warehouse, known as the Geffen Contemporary, remains in use, and the museum also maintains a small gallery at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.)
Dean Valentine, a media entrepreneur and former museum trustee, described the museum as central to the city’s becoming a major cultural center. “For many artists in Los Angeles, it was the first institution that expressed interest in their work,” Mr. Valentine said, comparing its importance for West Coast artists to that of MoMA in New York for the Abstract Expressionists some 50 years ago.
Historically, one problem dogging the museum has been the lack of a proper home for its permanent collection, which features early work by John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. The Grand Avenue building is considered too small by today’s standards while the larger Geffen Contemporary lacks necessary climate controls to preserve art.
“It’s a source of frustration for many of us,” Mr. Valentine said. Like Mrs. Nimoy, he left the museum board in 2006, unhappy with the leadership; both have since joined the board of the Hammer Museum here.
Given its financial crisis, the Museum of Contemporary Art has announced plans to close the Geffen for six months next year and is promoting the location online for rental to film crews.
According to its financial statements, the only time in the last seven years that the museum has managed to finish with a surplus was in the 2007 fiscal year, when its revenues topped expenses by $3 million. But much of that surplus came from a gain on the sale of investments; admissions and membership revenues had declined, and the budget surpassed $21 million, the highest ever.
The museum said it expected its audited financial statements, once completed, to show that it generated a surplus in the 2008 fiscal year as well, although it declined to provide details.
Yet in nearly every year since 2000, the museum has drawn down on the principal of its endowment to pay for operations, a practice frowned upon as risky in the museum world.
And at times the museum has secured financing for exhibitions in ways that many other museums would shun. To help pay for last year’s Takashi Murakami exhibition, the museum solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from art galleries that represented the artist and therefore stood to gain from any related career boost.
The museum said in a statement that it recently bolstered its ability to raise money, hiring a new director of development and nearly doubling its donations in the last two years. It noted that in the last seven years, 20 of the board’s 40 members, including life trustees, have given more than $1 million in addition to their required annual gifts.
But others say the reluctance of potential donors to respond publicly to Mr. Broad’s offer of matching money stems from a lack of confidence in the museum’s stewardship.
Meanwhile, his rescue plan has stirred concern that Mr. Broad will try to call the shots at the Museum of Contemporary Art, as he did while a trustee there in the 1980s, before a rift led to his departure. Some potential donors have said privately that his role as a major benefactor of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art would give him too much power if he were to lead the rescue of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
In an interview this week, Mr. Broad offered details of his plan, saying he would give the museum $15 million in installments equal to however much the museum raised, plus $3 million a year for five years to pay for operations and exhibitions.
Mr. Broad has also said privately that he favors a management change, according to people who have been part of the discussions. Although the museum does not receive direct city financing, its main buildings were financed by or leased from the city. Eric Garcetti, who as president of the Los Angeles City Council is a nonvoting member of the museum’s board, said, “There does seem to be a consensus forming that new leadership should be brought in to run the museum, that the board should be reinvigorated and there should be a paring down of the budget.”
“I believe,” Mr. Garcetti said, “that the public deserves more reassurance that an institution that the public helped fund will be held to a higher standard.”December 5th, 2008
December 4th, 2008
Rudolph’s Twitchell House, destroyed in 2007.
NY magazine By David Hay
Published Nov 23, 2008
Since the architect Paul Rudolph’s death, in 1997, his reputation has undergone one of the most dramatic rehabilitations imaginable, and his brutalist, sometimes off-putting buildings—once criticized as the worst of high modernism’s excesses—are now recognized as some of the most expressive American architecture of the twentieth century. They are also some of the most threatened. In 2002, in an effort to honor Rudolph’s legacy and advocate for preserving his work, friends of the architect, including Ernst Wagner, established the Paul Rudolph Foundation. But since then, seven of his buildings have been demolished, and earlier this month, in the face of mounting criticism that the foundation has not helped halt the destruction, Wagner, in poor health, announced he would resign as president. “I felt like Don Quixote,” he says, sitting in his apartment in the Rudolph-designed townhouse on East 58th Street. “But what the hell can you do? You need someone like Jackie O. to raise a huge hurrah.”
This past year has been particularly heart-wrenching for Rudolph fans: While his most famous building, the A&A building at Yale University, was rededicated this month as Paul Rudolph Hall after a $126 million restoration, both the elegantly cantilevered Micheels House in Westport, Connecticut, and his Cerrito House in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, were torn down. And next year could be even worse, as at least ten more Rudolph buildings are under threat, including the Concourse Building in Singapore, the Blue Cross Blue Shield skyscraper in Boston, and his Orange County Government Center in Goshen. In Sarasota, Florida, the campaign to save Rudolph’s Riverview High School has stalled, and the Cohen House in nearby Siesta Key is now likely headed into foreclosure.
Architectural preservationists across the country recognize that saving the aging canon of mid-century modernism can be expensive, especially in the case of Rudolph, a modernist with a proclivity for experimentation. But in California, groups like the John Lautner Foundation have found success at matching modernist houses with architecturally sophisticated new owners, listing houses for sale on their Website and inviting a prominent Realtor to their advisory board. Wagner, who has been the primary source of funding for the Rudolph Foundation, does not employ a full-time director, relying instead on a constant turnover of volunteers, and the foundation’s board has not met for two years. (The architectural historian Michael Sorkin was surprised to find himself listed as a board member, and the advisory committee includes the architectural critic Peter Blake, who died two years ago.)
To Donald Luckenbill, one of the original directors, the foundation has devolved into nothing more than “a little club that Ernst had in the building.” Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, says that it is “well intentioned but not powerful enough nor sufficiently endowed to have any clout.”
Until a new director is chosen in January, Kelvin Dickinson and two other volunteer architects are at the helm. But their efforts are mainly academic—expanding Rudolph’s fan base on the Web and preparing an exhibition of his demolished buildings, scheduled to show at Cooper Union in 2010. “We need to hire someone full time,” Dickinson says. “If something like the Micheels House comes along again, we’re way unprepared for it.”December 4th, 2008
Can restoring Paul Rudolph’s signature building rescue the architect’s reputation as well?
By Witold Rybczynski for The Slate
Posted Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008, at 7:02 AM ET
The newly refurbished and expanded Art and Architecture Building at Yale is a reminder of the important role that fashion plays in the fortunes of architects. When the A&A Building was built in 1963, its architect, Paul Rudolph, was the profession’s golden boy. His meteoric rise had begun in Florida in the 1950s with a string of delicate Modernist houses, ingeniously adapted to the subtropical climate. These had led to larger commissions, notably a high school in Sarasota and an art center at Wellesley College. At only 40, Rudolph was made chairman of Yale’s architecture department, and then, five years later, came the widely acclaimed A&A, which propelled him into the front rank of the postwar generation’s emerging architectural stars.
Rudolph acknowledged that the A&A was influenced by Le Corbusier, who had pioneered an expressive architectural style using bare concrete, generally referred to as brutalism. But the building also had American roots, namely Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Larkin Building in Buffalo, N.Y. An odd mixture, but Rudolph pulled it off and gave it his own spin, with walls of rough striated concrete that resembled corduroy. The resulting composition of vast, pinwheeling forms produced a lyrical monumentalism unmatched by any of his contemporaries.
Yet by the time of his death in 1997, Rudolph was all but forgotten. What happened? In a word, taste—changing taste. By the 1970s, Postmodernism had introduced wit and irony to architecture, neither of which interested the serious Rudolph, whose brand of heroic monumentalism now struck many people—and many potential clients—as bombastic. (It is also true that his inventive buildings often had functional problems—the proverbial leaky roofs.) Commissions eventually dried up, at least in the United States, although he continued to build in Asia. He was regularly passed over for the Pritzker Prize, which went instead to contemporaries such as I.M. Pei and Kevin Roche. Although by then Rudolph had moved away from concrete and brutalism, he was ever tied to that style by the A&A, which also suffered from neglect. Disliked by students and faculty, badly damaged in a mysterious fire in 1969, insensitively altered, and poorly maintained, it remained an ill-kempt, embarrassing reminder of a stalled talent.December 4th, 2008
December 4th, 2008
December 3rd, 2008
What David Foster Wallace taught us about television and fiction.
The Weekly Standard by Michael Weiss
11/20/2008 12:00:00 AM
“What’s it about?” a no-nonsense undergraduate once inquired of the author of The Adventures of Augie March. “It’s about 200 pages too long,” Saul Bellow replied. This anecdote came rushing back to me as I scanned the numerous obituaries and literary remembrances of David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself this fall at the age of 46. His most celebrated work was Infinite Jest and, like Augie, it was a depth charge that went off to either ecstatic or uneasy reviews. James Wood’s career-making essay on “hysterical realism” may have been primarily addressed to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, but there was no question as to who occupied the largest padded cell of the genre. It was all in Jest: the punning allusiveness of character names (Hal O. Incandenza), the fetish for the superfluous detail (never such fugue states over the clipping of toenails), the unregulated style of narration (try Danubes of consciousness). Broadly, the novel was about addiction–be it to sports, drugs, or lethal entertainment–and at 1,079 pages, with a hundred or so given over to footnotes and footnotes within footnotes, it demanded the addict’s devotion. Also two bookmarks: something Joyce never asked of his readers, and Nabokov did only once (Pale Fire), well after his stature had been secured. Infinite Jest was Wallace’s second novel. Just who the hell did he think he was?
A genius, as it turns out–and he was right. That he never quite fulfilled his potential is the guilty subtext of much of the current eulogizing, though that non-fulfillment can now be blamed on the unbearable lifelong depression he seems to have battled. A trained mathematician and philosopher, Wallace seemed to assimilate all branches of knowledge into his stories, which often read like abstract logic equations, or experiments in behavioral science. I discovered after his death that he very nearly came to write a book on Godel’s incompleteness theorem (he was assigned Cantor’s infinity instead), an uncanny near-miss for the publishing industry because, like the mad Austrian who was Einstein’s favorite walking partner at Princeton, Wallace incarnated laughter of the mind, that Alice-in-Wonderland-like exuberance for where self-collapsing thoughts and paradoxes and involutions (a favorite term of his) can take you. DFW, as his fans were wont to call him, frequently had his cake and popped out of it, too.
He also made one lasting contribution to cultural studies, though it wasn’t emphasized enough in the obituaries. If you read no other essay by Wallace, read “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” originally published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction and later anthologized in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, the more celebrated ornaments of this collection being a chronicle of life aboard a cruise ship and a dispatch from the Illinois state fair. Written in 1993, still early in the effulgence of his career, “E Unibus” established the nexus between two naturally voyeuristic media, but also showed how they were in competition with each other, and television was winning. Wallace wasn’t the first to take television and commercials seriously (“I Do Have a Thesis” should have been one of Marshall McLuhan’s interruptive subheadings), but he was the first to explain why they’d led to a dead-end for irony and self-consciousness in literature–a bold conclusion for a litterateur who depended heavily on both.
The early postmodernists, Wallace argued, had an easy task of puncturing a postwar culture in which fantasy was being portrayed straight-faced as reality. The “Leave It To Beaver” mentality, in his somewhat banal phrasing, was chock-full of contradictions and hypocrisies waiting to be exposed. So here came the black humor of Lolita to lend a sybaritic and predatory aspect to the manicured lawns of American suburbia and the so-called “innocence” of childhood; Catch-22, with its screwball sophistries, to remove both the dulce and the decorum from the laying down of one’s own life for country; Gravity’s Rainbow to parody the high anxiety of the atomic age. Television extended the satiric scope of these early labors by creating a kind of Alexandrian library of universally intelligible references: pop culture as lingua franca.
By the 80s, we were assimilating those references at an alarming pace of six hours a day. “Six hours a day is more time than most people (consciously) do any one thing,” noted Wallace. “How people who absorb such doses understand themselves changes, becomes spectatorial, self-conscious. Because the practice of watching is expansive. Exponential. We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching.” The epoch-defining question, “Where were you when J.F.K. was shot?” carried with it the assumption that one had heard about the president’s death almost simultaneous with its occurrence–because it was announced on television. (And that the president’s assassin was then killed live on television surely augured profound changes in how we interpreted news and events.) The act of watching became a transfixing experience, no matter what originally impelled the viewer to watch in the first place. Wallace mentions protesters of the Vietnam War who “may have hated the war, but . . . also wanted to be seen protesting on television. TV was where they’d seen this war, after all. Why wouldn’t they go about hating it on the very medium that made their hate possible?”
In literature, the unraveling of these tangles of perception became known as metafiction, a signature example of which is Don DeLillo’s hilariously caved-in-on-itself discussion of the “Most Photographed Barn in America” in White Noise. Wallace quotes from this set piece at length, but he might as well have delved into his own bibliography, which he no doubt had in mind. His Vietnam example had a metafictional precedent: an early short story, “Lyndon,” collected in Girl with Curious Hair, features the character L.B.J. staring out of a window in the Oval Office, contemplating an antiwar rally on the Washington Mall. He turns to his aide-de-camp, the story’s protagonist, and says, “Boy, I get a smell of happiness off their upset. . . . I think they enjoy getting outraged and vilified and unjustly ignored. That’s what your leader of this here free world thinks, boy.” This here leader of the free world, who will not seek re-election because of the war, is watching protestors that he describes as indignant because they feel unjustly ignored . . .
Metafiction was quite the rabbit hole for a literary avant-garde to throw itself down, and it should come as no surprise that its advent in the 60′s coincided with that of pop art. Andy Warhol’s obsession with celebrities and historical figures was rooted not just in the shock of recognition; it was rooted in the shared appreciation of that recognition. When he “directed” an eight-hour film consisting entirely of a mise-en-scène of the Empire State Building, his audience–drug-addled as it may have been–was being coaxed to observe itself more than it was the stultifying content onscreen: “Can you believe we’re sitting here watching this?”
Wallace is especially good on this point:
Americans seemed no longer united so much by common feelings as by common images: what binds us became what we stood witness to. No one did or does see this as a good change. In fact, pop-cultural references have become such potent metaphors in U.S. fiction not only because of how united Americans are in our exposure to mass images but also because of our guilty indulgent psychology with respect to that exposure. Put simply, the pop reference works so well in contemporary fiction because (1) we all recognize such a reference, and (2) we’re all a little uneasy about how we all recognize such a reference.
Pop references weren’t simply allusions in literature, they were subjects of it. A new genre had hardened: “hyperrealism” or “image fiction.” A.M. Holmes writes a short story in which a character falls in love with a Barbie doll. DeLillo dedicates an entire novel to the paranoid existence of Lee Harvey Oswald with Libra, a warm-up for the star-studded revue of the mid-20th century that was Underworld. Mickey Rooney makes an appearance in Gravity’s Rainbow. Even inanimate objects are fair game. William Vollmann’s The Rainbow Stories used Sony electronics as characters in “Heideggerian parables” (whatever those are). Wallace sounds a wary note about the purpose of this new genre because of its “socio-artistic agenda,” which sought to parody the supposed inanity and low-culture nonsense of TV:
The fiction of image is not just a use or mention of televisual culture but a response to it, an effort to impose some sort of accountability on a state of affairs in which more Americans get their news from television than from newspapers and in which more Americans every evening watch ‘Wheel of Fortune’ than all three network news programs combined.
The problem with this conceit, and the reason why image-fiction fails on its own terms, was that television had already made wised-up image recognition a fine art. Network programmers at some point realized that their audiences were fluent in, among other things, network programming. Winking self-reference was the inevitable result; TV had learned to parody itself, and this made it a nimbler expositor of postmodernism than any theory-drunk MFA student could ever hope to be.
In one exquisite example Wallace cites, a syndicated episode of St. Elsewhere revolves around the clever allusions made throughout to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Not only is this the soap opera equivalent of an Escher painting, it also carries further layers of irony: Both series were produced by the same parent company–owned, as it happens, by Mary Tyler Moore herself–and actors who had been on Mary appeared in the Elsewhere episode as new characters, only to then be “recognized” as the characters they had played on Mary. “Passive” entertainment, this decidedly was not.
Image-fiction, then, had reached a satiric impasse because television, or those responsible for what was on, had grown smarter. What was a show like Entertainment Tonight but a playground for blow-dried deconstructionists? One may have to be under 40 to revere a series like The Simpsons, but not to cotton to its level of sophistication, or how it openly mocks the very network–Fox–that has profited from its double-decade run.
Wallace’s way of signaling his high regard for television’s ingenuity was to write about television without the arch condescension of his coevals. Another early story from Girl with Curious Hair, “Strange Expressionless Animals,” features a young Jeopardy! prodigy, Julie, who is eventually unhorsed from her record-breaking championship run by her estranged autistic brother. True, Wallace has his good fun with preening game show hosts Pat Sajak and Alex Trebeck, but the careful reader notes that he isn’t just mocking in his portrait of Merv Griffin, whose idea it was to pit the two siblings against each other, and who intuits what Julie’s fundamental draw is for the national audience that keeps tuning in night after night to witness her improbable mastery of trivia answers stated in the form of a question. Griffin’s yes-man, the dragoman of his Zen-like programming philosophy, puts it like this:
Merv posits that this force, ladies and gentlemen, is the capacity of facts to transcend the internal factual limitations and become, in and of themselves, meaning, feeling. This girl not only kicks facts in the ass. This girl informs trivia with import. She makes it human, something with the power to emote, evoke, induce, cathart. She gives the game the simultaneous transparency and mystery all of us in the industry have groped for, for decades. A sort of union of contestatorial head, heart, gut, buzz finger. She is, or can become, the game show incarnate. She is mystery.
If such pretentious speechifying is merely intended as a lampoon of the Burbank elite, then Wallace is his own mug. No, he’s earnestly trying to approximate what it is about game shows that he, and millions of other nightly viewers, find so damn fascinating. Why is it that overnight celebrities are made out of awkward, camera-shy savants of useless factoids? Don’t network executives talk like Griffin at pitch meetings? Aren’t we all at some level the willing dupes of their seemingly absurd pop psychologizing? How else do all those despicable reality series get green-lit?
Wallace respected television enough to fashion a creation myth about syndication. “Tristan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, was the myth of Narcissus filtered through E! True Hollywood Story. Ovid in this rendering is a meta-narrating Muppet, “Sissee Nar” a surgically enhanced ingénue playing a beach-bound coma patient in a soap opera consisting of just the still shot of her asleep, which is enough to bewitch an entire country of obsessives and shut-ins, including Reggie Ecko, a disgruntled former employee of Tristan Entertainment, the studio that produces Sissee’s round-the-clock series of infinite rest. Meanwhile, her father, Agon M. Nar, is a Tristan network executive, into whose dreaming head the vengeful goddess Codependae orders her secretarial sirens to whisper the idea for what will become the Satyr-Nymph Network, a channel for retro-marketed “myths”–Nick-at-Nite, essentially:
[N]ot only did S-NN feed at the syndicated trough of viewers’ hunger for familiarity, but the familiarity fed the mythopoeia that fed the market: double-blind polls revealed that in a nation whose great informing myth is that it has no great informing myth, familiarity equaled timelessness, omniscience, immortality, a spark of the vicarious Divine.
And how postmodern was S-NN going to be as a conduit for repackaged classical tales? Wallace is at his most playful here:
“Soon myths about myths” was the sirens’ prophecy & long-range proposal. TV shows about TV shows about TV shows. Polls about the reliability of surveys. Soon, perhaps, respected & glossy high-art organs might even start inviting smartass little ironists to contemporize & miscegenate BC [Before Cable] mythos; & all this pop translation, genuine information, would be allowed to lie, hidden & nourishing, inside the wooden belly of parodic camp.
This is literary parody at its most expansive and exponential. Wallace’s answer to image-fiction was to rush right on through the back-door and ransack the abode of “smartass little ironists.”
Even Madison Avenue had it all over the Duke English department. Television’s most shameless commodity, the stand-out commercial, had learned to immunize itself against the know-it-all derision of the “idiot box” commentariat. Where Geritol or Pall Malls used to be hawked with literal-minded appeals to the individual to join a herd of undifferentiated consumers, by the 80′s, televised ads were much more subtle and self-mocking. One of Wallace’s later stories, “Mr. Squishy,” collected in Oblivion, hinted at vast reserves of marketing theory that one usually needs an M.B.A. to acquire. Those 30-second spots that cost a fortune to run during the Super Bowl, he understood, had evolved into pop monuments unto themselves; they still enlisted consumers in brand “identities,” but the tongue-in-cheek manner in which they did it, even the most wary buyer couldn’t help but admire:
Except for being sillier–products billed as distinguishing individuals from crowds sell to huge crowds of individuals–these ads aren’t really any more complicated or subtle than the old join-the-fulfilling-crowd ads that now seem so quaint. But the new stand-out ads’ relation to their chiaroscuro mass of lone viewers is both complex and ingenious. Today’s best ads are still about the group, but they now present the group as something fearsome, something that can swallow you up, erase you, keep you from “being noticed.” But noticed by whom? Crowds are still vitally important in the stand-apart ads’ thesis on identity, but now a given ad’s crowd, far from being more appealing, secure, and alive than the individual, functions as a mass of identical featureless eyes. The crowd is now, paradoxically, both the “herd” in contrast to which the viewer’s distinctive identity is to be defined, and the impassive witnesses whose sight alone can confer distinctive identity.
Pepsi could thus market itself as the “choice of a New Generation” while demonstrating, with the revenue-rocketing effectiveness of its spots, that there was hardly any “choice” at all in the matter of which soft drink one purchased. Mass appeal meant paying lip service to fearless individualism. This irony was itself acknowledged in some Pepsi commercials–one of which went on to win a Clio award for its creativity–and so a Fortune 500 company managed to preempt the high-minded critic by doing his job for him. (It should not be overlooked that both Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, two of the most inventive postmodern novelists of the fin de siècle, started off in advertising.) Purveyors of everything from cosmetics to automobiles to snack cakes had learned to coerce their consumers by drawing attention to the coercion. It was an industrial innovation that Marx never anticipated–the ability of the capitalist to peddle cynicism about his own authority while at the same time turning a pretty profit. The emperor declares himself to have no clothes, which spectacle ensures the continuity of his reign. Wallace quotes essayist Lewis Hyde’s apt description for this extraordinary phenomenon in psycho-economics: “Sincerity with a motive.”
And no Marxist critic could fail to marvel at the self-serving jujitsu of it, or at the dire consequences sincerity with a motive (and a quarterly sales index) spelled for American fiction. Wallace is not generally regarded for the innate conservatism of his literary and aesthetic judgments, but it should not escape notice that in the swim of the smirking, disaffected 90′s, he found irony, of all things, to be tyrannizing:
All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I say.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How very banal to ask what I mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.
David Foster Wallace was a moralist at heart. His proffered solution for literature was sincerity robbed of motive, but free of gullibility or ingenuousness:
The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels.
found on arts and letters daily
By TIM WEINER
NY Times Published: December 3, 2008
Odetta, the singer whose deep voice wove together the strongest songs of American folk music and the civil rights movement, died on Tuesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. She was 77.
The cause was heart disease, said her manager, Doug Yeager. He added that she had been hoping to sing at Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Odetta sang at coffeehouses and at Carnegie Hall, made highly influential recordings of blues and ballads, and became one of the most widely known folk-music artists of the 1950s and ’60s. She was a formative influence on dozens of artists, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin.
Her voice was an accompaniment to the black-and-white images of the freedom marchers who walked the roads of Alabama and Mississippi and the boulevards of Washington in the quest to end racial discrimination.
Rosa Parks, the woman who started the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., was once asked which songs meant the most to her. She replied, “All of the songs Odetta sings.”
Odetta sang at the march on Washington, a pivotal event in the civil rights movement, in August 1963. Her song that day was “O Freedom,” dating to slavery days: “O freedom, O freedom, O freedom over me, And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, And go home to my Lord and be free.”
Odetta Holmes was born in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 31, 1930, in the depths of the Depression. The music of that time and place — particularly prison songs and work songs recorded in the fields of the Deep South — shaped her life.
“They were liberation songs,” she said in a videotaped interview with The New York Times in 2007 for its online feature “The Last Word.” “You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your life.”
Her father, Reuben Holmes, died when she was young, and in 1937 she and her mother, Flora Sanders, moved to Los Angeles. Three years later, Odetta discovered that she could sing.
“A teacher told my mother that I had a voice, that maybe I should study,” she recalled. “But I myself didn’t have anything to measure it by.”
She found her own voice by listening to blues, jazz and folk music from the African-American and Anglo-American traditions. She earned a music degree from Los Angeles City College. Her training in classical music and musical theater was “a nice exercise, but it had nothing to do with my life,” she said.
“The folk songs were — the anger,” she emphasized.
In a 2005 National Public Radio interview, she said: “School taught me how to count and taught me how to put a sentence together. But as far as the human spirit goes, I learned through folk music.”
In 1950, Odetta began singing professionally in a West Coast production of the musical “Finian’s Rainbow,” but she found a stronger calling in the bohemian coffeehouses of San Francisco. “We would finish our play, we’d go to the joint, and people would sit around playing guitars and singing songs and it felt like home,” she said.
She began singing in nightclubs, cutting a striking figure with her guitar and her close-cropped hair.
Her voice plunged deep and soared high, and her songs blended the personal and the political, the theatrical and the spiritual. Her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” resonated with an audience hearing old songs made new.
Bob Dylan, referring to that recording, said in a 1978 interview, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.” He said he heard something “vital and personal,” and added, “I learned all the songs on that record.” It was her first, and the songs were “Mule Skinner,” “Jack of Diamonds,” “Water Boy,” “ ’Buked and Scorned.”
Her blues and spirituals led directly to her work for the civil rights movement. They were two rivers running together, she said in her interview with The Times. The words and music captured “the fury and frustration that I had growing up.”
Her fame hit a peak in 1963, when she marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and performed for President John F. Kennedy. But after King was assassinated in 1968, the wind went out of the sails of the civil rights movement and the songs of protest and resistance that had been the movement’s soundtrack. Odetta’s fame flagged for years thereafter.
In 1999 President Bill Clinton awarded Odetta the National Endowment for the Arts Medal of the Arts and Humanities.
Odetta was married three times: to Don Gordon, to Gary Shead, and, in 1977, to the blues musician Iverson Minter, known professionally as Louisiana Red. The first two marriages ended in divorce; Mr. Minter moved to Germany in 1983 to pursue his performing career.
She was singing and performing well into the 21st century, and her influence stayed strong.
In April 2007, half a century after Bob Dylan first heard her, she was on stage at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Bruce Springsteen. She turned one of his songs, “57 Channels,” into a chanted poem, and Mr. Springsteen came out from the wings to call it “the greatest version” of the song he had ever heard.
Reviewing a December 2006 performance, James Reed of The Boston Globe wrote: “Odetta’s voice is still a force of nature — something commented upon endlessly as folks exited the auditorium — and her phrasing and sensibility for a song have grown more complex and shaded.”
The critic called her “a majestic figure in American music, a direct gateway to bygone generations that feel so foreign today.”December 3rd, 2008
Bob Baker, whose marionette theater has entertained children for almost 50 years, has fallen $30,000 behind on his mortgage.
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
NY Times Published: December 1, 2008
LOS ANGELES — There are many ways to measure California’s tanking economy: an 8.2 percent unemployment rate; a multibillion-dollar state budget gap; threatened endowments of the city’s museums, causing some cultural institutions to nearly default on mortgages; and the continued weakening of the Hollywood studio system. But the meltdown of the marionettes may say it all.
Near a freeway overpass on a decidedly scrappy edge of downtown Los Angeles is a marionette puppet theater that has enchanted children over nearly five decades, several recessions, two riots, at least four failed urban renewal plans and an earthquake or two.
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater’s shows, employing an eclectic selection of Mr. Baker’s 3,000 handmade puppets prancing about a shoebox-size theater perpetually decked out in gold garlands, are a staple of a Los Angeleno childhood. It is the cultural equivalent of the annual march by the nation’s third graders to the neighborhood firehouse.
But the struggling California economy and some bad business decisions by Mr. Baker have left the Bob Baker marionettes in a deep financial ditch, and Mr. Baker, a rather unheralded Hollywood legend, with an uncertain future. “We have all kinds of problems that have come up recently,” Mr. Baker said. “But we’re not going to close. We’re going to fight this out to the very bitter end.”
Over the last few months Mr. Baker, 84, has fallen $30,000 behind on his mortgage and lost a rent-paying tenant, while his two major sources of revenue have dried up. First, the public schools have reduced financing for field trips. And second, some of his lower-income parents, he said, unemployed and swimming in debt, are unable to come up with the $15-per-ticket admission.
“We’ve had quite a few people call who are losing their houses and have to cancel birthday parties,” he said.
In addition, Mr. Baker said, a few years ago he refinanced the theater’s mortgage to help pay for rising operating costs, and the mortgage payments have shot up. A business deal he made to improve his space went bad. He said he was negotiating with his lenders, and added ruefully, “I am more of an artist than a businessman.”
In a city where children’s movies are often screened in a Hollywood theater with white-glove popcorn service and the organic certifications of birthday cakes are debated at length on Web sites aimed at parents, Mr. Baker’s theater is a charming throwback.
As they have for generations, children gather in a circle on the floor of the 200-person capacity auditorium as Mr. Baker’s elaborately appointed marionettes scamper about to the sounds of old phonograph records, scratches and all. The theater is one of the few places in Los Angeles that routinely attracts racially and economically diverse groups of children.
A typical show requires about 15 workers, including 8 puppeteers, a lighting designer, a costume maker and ticket takers. There are usually two productions a year, one with a Christmas theme. The second show might be “Something to Crow About,” a barnyard spectacular; the Latin-flavored “Fiesta”; or a revue like “Bob Baker’s Musical World,” which might evolve over the season and employ a rotation of 100 or more puppets. Mr. Baker also performs puppet shows around Southern California for birthday parties and other events. The annual budget, Mr. Baker said, is about $360,000.
Victoria Hurley, 42, grew up in Los Angeles going to the shows, and now takes her children, who are 5 and 3. “They still serve the exact kind of ice cream with the exact same wooden spoon I got 30 years ago,” Mrs. Hurley said. “The quality of the entertainment has certainly held up fantastically, but I think the building could use some sprucing. It is almost like they haven’t even repainted. I personally think it is charming, but if I came from New York and brought my children I might feel otherwise.”
At a recent performance of “The Nutcracker,” an eclectic mix of Mr. Baker’s handmade puppets appeared, ranging from a Mouse King, resplendent in velvet, to what is perhaps best described as selections from the “Soul Train” collection, white leisure suits and gold trim included.
The marionettes are handled by Mr. Baker’s students, who spend a good year under his tutelage before they are allowed to don black clothing and work before an audience. As they moved through the room they occasionally dropped a puppet into the lap of a delighted toddler. As usual, the whole affair ended with a cup of vanilla ice cream handed to each child.
The shows are not exactly linear. The “Soul Train” marionettes, for example, are wedged into “The Nutcracker,” and the story seems oddly lacking in the middle section. But the focus is really on the puppets, in their glorious velvet and gossamer.
“There is a magic thing about a live puppet show,” Mr. Baker said recently. “I was watching the children just today and they were hugging the puppets, and then they always come up after me and ask me how they work. A lot of children who come here have never been to a live show and may never go to a live show again.”
The number of people whose careers as puppeteers Mr. Baker started is “amazing, at least a dozen professionally,” said Greg Williams, 51, a professional puppeteer who helps Mr. Baker with his road shows. “I started with him when I was 15, and was cleaning the party room. I went from there to doing the sets to the lights. One day a puppeteer wasn’t available, and I got shoved on the floor,” Mr. Williams said.
Mr. Baker “gets a lot of the neighborhood kids, and some of these kids who look like they would have no future are here entertaining and enjoying it,” Mr. Williams said. Mr. Baker still does many private birthday parties personally. “You get those Beverly Hills parents and you need to keep those people happy,” he added.
Mr. Baker, whose puppet passion began at an early age, has had an authentic Hollywood career — something not immediately evident given his modest site downtown.
He grew up in what is now Koreatown, in a house often full of actors and others from the “theatrical world,” Mr. Baker said, and graduated from Hollywood High School. When he was a little boy, his father took him to a holiday show at an area department store, which featured, as many store entertainments did in the early 20th century, puppets.
When he turned 7 he bought two puppets and soon started working the birthday party circuit. He said his first party was for Mervyn LeRoy, a producer and director for both Warner Brothers and MGM, which set off a word-of-mouth campaign. Years later he would perform at Liza Minnelli’s fourth birthday party. (And, keeping it in the family, a few years after that, he appeared in the 1954 Judy Garland film, “A Star Is Born,” conducting a marionette show.)
In the 1940s Mr. Baker worked as a puppet maker for George Pal, creator of the Puppetoons, whose movies and television credits include cult films like Edgar G. Ulmer’s “Bluebeard” (1944), the original “Star Trek” series and “Bewitched.”
Mr. Baker started his production company in 1949 with his business partner, Alton Wood (who died in 2001). It has remained one of the more well-known training grounds for puppet makers who have gone on to work in fantasy films.
But it is the theater, opened in 1960 in a warehouselike building, for which Mr. Baker is best known around town. The elaborate facade meant to suggest “Alice in Wonderland” is long gone, as are the evening performances, which Mr. Baker said faded after the 1965 Watts riots made people afraid to venture downtown at night. Weekends and shows for school groups — along with sales of puppets and movie work — have sustained him, and he hopes the doors of his theater will stay open.
“My mother used to say, ‘We can fall into a mud puddle and come up smelling like roses,’ ” Mr. Baker said. “We have gone through some pretty hard times, and I just have to see the light of day. We’re just going to make it.”December 1st, 2008
34 Jim Shaw (American, b. 1952) Dream Drawing, 1993; Pencil on paper (framed); Signed and dated; 12″ x 9″ (sheet); Provenance: Feature, Inc., New York; Private Collection, New York 4,600December 1st, 2008
Concetto Spaziale sculpture (spatial construction)
#467 of 500
10 x 10diameter
Golden Eye table
Plychromed and turned wood with marble top
Exhibited: New York, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, November 1985-February 1986
Only two examples of this table were made.
Provenance: Private collection,Italy.(Aquired from the artist);Private collection, California (Christies New York, May 2000)
31h x 76l x 33.5d
Gertrud & Otto Natzler
Turquoise crater glaze
Signed Natzler MO42
$15000-20000December 1st, 2008
By RANDY KENNEDY
NY Times Published: November 30, 2008
When Ray Mortenson first started taking his cameras through the most wasted of the wastelands that made up parts of the South Bronx in the early 1980s, he devised a helpful subway mantra: Take the 5, stay alive. Take the 4, dead for sure.
This was only because the No. 5 line led through a handful of neighborhoods — East Tremont, Mott Haven, Morrisania — that had been so gutted and burned out during the 1970s that whole blocks were almost completely abandoned, meaning fewer chances of stumbling into a mugger or drug deal.
As a sculptor and photographer, Mr. Mortenson began making these Bronx trips because he was interested in the purely physical and visual characteristics of a once dense, elegant urban landscape that had come to look like excavated Pompeii or Dresden after the firebombs. Not that he would have ever wanted part of his city to endure the kind of devastation it did, but once the South Bronx reached that state he approached it aesthetically, as a “hard-art project.”
“I like being here,” he wrote. “I like the way it looks.”
Mr. Mortenson’s rarely exhibited black-and-white photographs, made between 1982 and 1984, are such powerful artifacts of their era that they have always struggled against being pulled into the documentary realm. And now, in a show of the pictures at the Museum of the City of New York called “Broken Glass” — the title is a line borrowed from the lyrics of the Grandmaster Flash classic “The Message” — the pictures have the added resonance of appearing as the nation confronts its most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, making them feel like a kind of augury.
“You hear about this happening now in suburban places hit by foreclosures — empty houses, windows going broken, swimming pools filling up with trash,” Mr. Mortenson said in a recent interview at the museum.
When he began taking the pictures, he was working as an electrician and engaged by the ideas of artists like Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark, whose explorations of urban decay and entropy had made America’s crumbling infrastructure into a new canvas for art.
In the late 1960s Smithson photographed the industrial ruins around his birthplace, Passaic, N.J., christening them as monuments. In the early 1970s Matta-Clark staged illegal “interventions” in some of the same Bronx neighborhoods that Mr. Mortenson was to visit, slicing whole sculpturelike sections from the floors and walls of abandoned tenements.
Mr. Mortenson’s first photographic explorations of this sort took him to the Meadowlands in New Jersey, where nature and industrial decay met in epic combat. Toward the end of the years he spent exploring the swamps he began taking the elevated subway lines through the Bronx and looking out at the rubble that many neighborhoods had been reduced to. As a child growing up in Delaware, he loved spending time alone walking through forests and fields, and he said he thought of the Meadowlands and then the Bronx in the same way.
“I could spend hours walking around some blocks without seeing anyone,” he said. He would wander around Charlotte Street, one of the South Bronx’s bleakest, which President Jimmy Carter had made infamous in a 1977 visit. (It is now in a suburblike neighborhood of neat single-family homes built not many years after Mr. Mortenson’s photographs were taken.)
He would walk through dozens of buildings that seemed to have been abandoned overnight, with coats still hanging on closet doors and furniture still in the living rooms. But the elements had begun to creep in through the broken windows, peeling the paint and causing ceiling plaster to rain down on the floors.
Mr. Mortenson, now 64, began shooting inconspicuously, wearing a beaten-up Army jacket, with a rolled-up New York Post under his arm and a 35-millimeter camera in his pocket. But as he began to learn the neighborhoods, spending sometimes 12 hours a day there during long summer days, he started to lug around a big, boxy view camera. He would set it up on the streets or inside abandoned apartments on a tripod to make exposures sometimes lasting as long as 10 minutes.
“I’d set up the shot and open the lens and then just walk around the building, exploring, until it was done,” he said.
Occasionally he ran into other human beings. Once he was surrounded by drug dealers, who demanded his film, and in the darkness of some buildings he would almost stumble over scavengers ripping out copper wiring and pipes. “You really had a heart attack when that happened,” he said, “and I’m sure those guys were having a heart attack too.”
In contrast to the work of photographers who have concentrated on urban decay from a more sociological perspective, like Camilo José Vergara, or even from an activist standpoint, like Mel Rosenthal, who was shooting the South Bronx at the same time, Mr. Mortenson’s pictures are devoid of people or even cars. Other than notations of the day they were shot, there is no information accompanying them. “I wasn’t carrying a notebook or even a map,” he said. “I was just going where my eye took me.”
Sean Corcoran, the curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, said he was drawn to the images in part because of the tension in them between art and history. “The act of framing and capturing an image from the world is inherently transformative,” he wrote in the catalog for the show, which runs through March 8. “Yet the pictures also provide an important record of a moment in time.”
Mr. Corcoran writes that they insistently ask the question: “How could things get to this point? What political, economic and cultural shifts could lead to such a collapse?”
Mr. Mortenson said he had not returned to those blocks since he stopped taking photographs in the Bronx in 1984. “I’m ambivalent about it,” he said. “There was something about being there alone, about that time, that I guess I want to keep.”
“It was kind of like being in a horror movie,” he added. “But that was all part of it.”December 1st, 2008
With the help of Rhode Island School of Design students, American expats and other volunteers are helping to house the poorest of the poor in San Miguel de Allende.
LA Times By Jeff Spurrier
November 29, 2008
Reporting from San Miguel De Allende, Mexico — Just a few miles from multimillion-dollar homes in this central Mexican resort town, the countryside yields to dirt-floor lean-tos made of sticks, rocks, cardboard, blankets or tarps. If residents are lucky, they have a panel of sheet metal as the roof. Out here in the campo, most have no running water, no electricity, no sewer system, no paved roads. These people — some of about 20 million Mexicans who live in extreme poverty — hold title to small plots that average about 650 square feet, thanks to land reform policies initiated in 1934, but they have little money to build.
This weekend, however, a few of these families can be thankful for this: new houses designed by American architecture students and built for less than $7,000 apiece using local materials and volunteer labor. The project is called Casita Linda, a small organization similar to Habitat for Humanity made up of foreign retirees, average age 60, few of whom have experience in construction. Their goal: to help the local poorest of the poor, mainly single mothers, by “building hope, one house at a time.”
When Casita Linda started seven years ago, the focus was on speed and cost. The first dozen homes were poured-in-place concrete slabs, walls that could be put up and joined like Legos in a few weeks for a 12-by-14-foot structure that cost slightly more than $2,000. The buildings were unpopular, though, because they were hot in summer, cold in winter and prone to mildew during the rainy season. Some families moved out, using the new structures as storage units.
The houses had limited indoor plumbing but no toilets or hot water. Residents used the showers as toilets, and they reverted to heating water over a wood fire outside and taking bucket baths.
Then earlier this year, Rhode Island School of Design professor Silvia Acosta and 14 students arrived in San Miguel for a monthlong collaboration with Casita Linda. Upon learning that the concrete homes weren’t working out, the Rhode Island group began brainstorming, talking with residents of future houses and taking note of the materials used in the town’s architectural treasures, including its baroque church, el Oratorio de San Felipe Neri. They spent a week tweaking their design, ultimately devising a new plan based on an ancient material: adobe. “We knew that adobe was used once, since the town is built from it,” Acosta says. “There is a stigma assigned to it. It’s considered material for the poor, and these families would not have gone back to using it. That’s what we heard often. Concrete showed signs of progress.”
But the group forged ahead. They had a hard time finding a supply of adobe until the professor met Pedro Urquiza, a local architect who specializes in adobe construction and uses what he calls “stabilized” bricks made of fine gravel, sand, clay and 10% asphalt oil.
Each brick costs 40 cents, tripling the total budget for a 500-square-foot house. Despite the higher cost and the stigma, adobe remained the material of choice because of its thermal qualities, flexibility in design and ease of use in construction.
“You can shape adobe and cut the units as you go,” Acosta says. “With concrete, you’re stuck with that shape.”
Instead of prohibitively expensive wooden beams for a flat roof, adobe bricks were used here as well, copying the vaulted bóveda ceilings in many San Miguel homes.
“If the masonry blocks were the only thing we’re going to be using, the only way to produce a roof is by doing a dome or by doing a vault,” Acosta says.
This high ceiling results in a cooler home and provides space for a small loft for sleeping. The height of the walls also meant structural support was needed on the sides, so buttresses were added, hollowed out for more interior space.
The RISD group’s prototype was built in Ejido de Tirado, a rural community just outside the road encircling San Miguel. Based on that model, Casita Linda began constructing more homes, hiring four local workers to supplement the labor of future homeowners and 20 or so expat volunteers.
“We’re now doing a house every 25 days or so,” says Jean Gerber, the head of Casita Linda and a retired commercial real estate agent. “It’s a simple model, not that complex. We don’t need high-end builders on this thing.”
On a Saturday in Ejido de Tirado, a dozen Casita Linda volunteers are finishing up house No. 19. They schlep 15-pound bricks, nail chicken wire to the wall in preparation for plastering and mix concrete.
Inside the house, Sergio Rio Mora is laying a brick floor over a bed of sand. This will be his house. Outside, under a blue tarp, his wife, Maria Dolores, makes tortillas — lunch for the crew. Up on the roof, Miguel Cazarez Mendoza is laying adobe over a steel form for the bóveda. Last winter, he and his family were living in a roofless shack. They were the recipients of the RISD prototype, and he’s now one of four employees on the Casita Linda team.
“It’s much better now,” he says, smiling, adding that the new homes do a better job of protecting against the elements. “It freezes out here.”
Charles Cunliffe, the head of construction (and a former banker), gathers all the volunteers and warns them to cover the adobe when they leave because it’s been raining. “And clean the cement off the tools,” he says. “Take five minutes today or two hours tomorrow.”
The volunteers — a former Texas administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, a computer specialist, an L.A. Superior Court commissioner and a Shakespearean scholar from the City University of New York — all nod meekly. Then the talk turns to water, power and sanitation.
The group’s plan is to go green in the design — adding $200 solar panels that are strong enough to power not only lights so kids can do homework in the evening, but also an adobe convection oven to lessen the demand for firewood. A composting outhouse will produce natural fertilizer. Perhaps glass bricks in the walls, the volunteers say, would bring in more natural light.
“We are altering the destiny of poverty,” Cunliffe says. “It’s changed the entire community. Kids are going to school now. They didn’t before. These are the forgotten people.”
A few volunteers walk over to check out the next project, house No. 20. It’s for a family of eight, all female. The mother is pregnant, and so is her 15-year-old daughter. She’s currently living in a doghouse-sized shed with soggy blankets for walls.
Spurrier is a freelance writer.December 1st, 2008
By SIMON ROMERO
NY Times Published: November 30, 2008
CAMP SZUTS, French Guiana — There was no other way to put it: Stiven Baird, an American in the French Foreign Legion, looked terrible.
The Foreign Legion outpost is in an area full of exotic fauna, like the viper fer-de-lance or the piglike peccary.
A week into the legion’s jungle warfare course here in the equatorial rain forest, he was famished after eating nothing for three days but some agouti, a rodent that resembles a large, tailless rat.
An obstacle course with Tarzanesque leaps from ropes depleted his stamina. A predawn swim in caiman-inhabited waters tested his nerves. Drinking dirty river water disgusted him.
“I am just exhausted,” the gaunt Mr. Baird, 30, said, before faintly uttering in French, “Fatigué, fatigué.” But when asked why he joined the legion a year ago, his eyes lighted up a bit as he described an apparently dreary past life as a truck driver in Virginia.
“I wanted to see the world and learn some French,” he said, as the Russian overseer of the course, Sgt. Sergei Provpolski, barked at him to join other legionnaires on a trot through the jungle.
“There are easier ways to learn French,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Kopecky, an officer in the French Army who was observing Mr. Baird’s predicament.
Yet that evening, Colonel Kopecky and other officers raised glasses of Esprit de Corps, a red Côtes de Provence vintage made from the legion’s own vineyards near Marseille. At a dining hall overlooking the Approuague River, they boasted of taking recruits from 140 countries and turning them into mercenaries in the service of France.
“We don’t accept the hardened criminals anymore, the murderers or rapists, so this makes our job easier,” said Capt. Samir Benykrelef, the commander of Camp Szuts.
Formed in the 19th century as a way for France to enforce its colonial empire with foreign adventurers, the legion has survived countless challenges, including the French loss of the legion’s North African birthplace, Algeria.
But in this sparsely populated overseas French department, a former penal colony wedged between Suriname and Brazil, it has acquired a postcolonial mission protecting the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, some 110 miles to the northwest, which each year launches into orbit about half of the world’s commercial satellite payloads.
As temperatures soar to 90 degrees in the shade of transplanted baobab trees, legionnaires patrol Kourou, a quiet town of 20,000, their shaved heads shielded from the sun under white pillbox-style hats known as képis blancs.
They guard the four-decade-old space complex from terrorists who could emerge from the surrounding jungle. (There is always a first time.)
On launch days, legionnaires swap their képis for green berets and man artillery stations on roads down which rolls the odd Peugeot or Renault.
One of the most action-packed scenes in Kourou can be glimpsed nightly at the Bar des Sports on the Avenue des Frères Kennedy. Legionnaires with aiguillettes, or braids, dangling from their starched uniforms pack bar stools next to scantily clad women from Brazilian cities like Macapá and Belém.
At this locale on a recent Friday evening, the legion seemed to have kept its rough edges. Instead of the wine preferred by their officers, legionnaires downed whiskey mixed with an energy drink called Long Horn. A band belted out forró, music from northeastern Brazil. Couples swarmed the dance floor.
“This is where we come to forget why we’re stationed here,” said Andrey Korivitsky, 28, a legionnaire from Belarus who resembles Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.
The boredom legionnaires complain about in Kourou contrasts with the scene back at Camp Szuts, where the barracks are named for distant battles of decades past, like Vauxaillon and Stuttgart.
Instructors at the camp operate one of the most grueling courses in jungle warfare and survival, opening it to Special Forces from around the world, like the Navy Seals. But its main purpose is preparing legionnaires for hardships in places where France still uses them for military intervention, like Chad, Djibouti or Ivory Coast.
“We are the grunts who are supposed to suffer, like your marines, at the hands of sadists,” said Sgt. Ivan Grezdo, 33, a Slovakian forced to exit the course after cracking two ribs.
The course offers a window into the culture of the legion, long dominated by Germans who flooded its ranks after World War II. Now, enlistees from former Soviet bloc countries constitute most of the legion’s 7,700 men (no women can join), with the number of Latin Americans, particularly Colombians and Brazilians, rising fast. Officers say Interpol background checks weed out most undesirables. Americans account for only about 1 percent of legionnaires.
“Americans in the legion tend to be the Beau Geste types, the idealists, making them easy pickings for the bullies and malcontents,” said Jaime Salazar, 34, a man from Indiana who joined the legion, deserted, then recounted it all in a book, “Legion of the Lost.”
Indeed, the Americans in the legion seem a bit less hard-boiled than other enlistees. “Pick an area on the map where there’s been a recent crisis, and that area will be a good source of legionnaires,” said Cpl. Buys Francois, 43, a South African who joined 11 years ago.
At 11:45 a.m. on a recent Monday, Corporal Francois and a handful of other grisly legion elders from Hungary, Poland and China could be found on break at the camp’s dimly lighted canteen, sipping Kronenbourg beers. Most agreed it was worth sticking it out for 15 years, when they are eligible for French pensions.
“We call the new entrants Generation PlayStation because they’re so soft,” said Corporal Francois, who claimed he joined the legion after seeing action in South Africa’s army.
“Now we’re taking the ex-husbands running from alimony,” he chaffed, “and all these guys with university degrees.”
Turning men on the lam, and some learned ones, into legionnaires has never been easy. When the legion’s Third Infantry Regiment relocated here from Madagascar in the 1970s, officers ordered it to build an asphalt road by hacking its way through the jungle.
At a small zoo at Camp Szuts, new arrivals must get acquainted with a few captured animals, including an ocelot, a tarantula, a red caiman, an anaconda and a jaguar named Fred.
“Most of these beasts are no friend of humans, but I would especially not want to cross the fer-de-lance or a pack of peccaries,” said Captain Benykrelef, 33, the commander, as he petted an iguana. “At least the peccary is good to eat.”
What makes someone want to kill a wild boar with his own hands, or suffer degradation from Slavic drillmasters, or risk fracturing his rib cage on a leap down a rain forest gorge?
“The money,” said a Brazilian legionnaire who gave his full name as Roberto Luís.
As a fireman back in Recife in northeastern Brazil, Mr. Luís, 29, said he made the equivalent of 300 euros a month, about $384.
“Now I earn four times that amount and have the opportunity to become a French citizen,” he said.
Of course, everyone entering the legion must hew to some unusual rules, like marching at 88 steps a minute, slower than the 120 steps a minute of other French military units.
And new legionnaires like Mr. Baird of Virginia must adopt pseudonyms, which often evoke their national origins, a tradition that seems to let them break free of the past, murky as it can be.
“I guess the spelling of Stiven is French,” said Mr. Baird, mumbling, almost incoherently, that he had once studied engineering at Old Dominion University under the name Kevin Barnet.November 30th, 2008
In Germany, you can drive like a native in a Trabant
By TOWLE TOMPKINS
NY Times Published: November 26, 2008
OSTENSIBLY, there’s not a whole lot to love about a car that creaks like an out-of-warranty pirate ship and spews more smoke than a Winston Churchill-Fidel Castro summit could have produced. Yet, somehow, the Trabant I drove here recently has a primitive charm — along with an aroma of burning oil and smoldering brakes.
There are several ways to tour Germany’s capital city: by foot, tour bus, taxi, bicycle or the U-Bahn subway system. But, for those who want to steep themselves in cold war history, a Trabant transports you to the 1960s.
While Saabs were “born from jets” and Jaguars were “born to perform,” Trabants were born out of desperation. From 1957 to 1991, as West Germany made BMWs, Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes, East Germany took the road less traveled.
Because the economy was so bereft, the communist government decided to convert a plant that made motorcycles and tractors into a car factory. Thus was born the Trabant, a symbol for the failings of state-supervised industry. The body was made of plastic and the car plodded along with a 26-horsepower 500-cubic-centimeter 2-stroke 2-cylinder engine.
By East German standards of the time, the price, about $3,000, was not cheap. And although the car cost about a year’s salary, it still was not easy to obtain — after placing the order, an owner could wait 15 years for delivery.
Demand for the Trabant (and for the Wartburg, another woeful East German car) ended once the Berlin Wall came down and East and West were reunified. Easterners were then free to buy Western vehicles, and Trabant sales collapsed.
Today, there are collector rallies and Trabi clubs in Europe and North America, but I did not see any Trabants in the German cities I visited this fall. Which is what makes my driving one through Berlin so special.
The good news is that the Trabant is twice as powerful as a Sears Craftsman two-stage snow blower; the bad news is that it’s twice as loud. It is also not easy to shift.
In fact, not much is easy on a Trabant. The wheel wells could hide pregnant bulldogs. Two knobs the size of Captain Kangaroo’s buttons control the heat and the windshield wipers, which are slower than a stretching class on a senior citizens’ cruise. The tachometer is a series of green and yellow lights with no numbers. The needle on the speedometer (which optimistically goes to 75 m.p.h.) bounces as if it’s auditioning for the Richter scale.
The column-mounted manual shift is a puzzle. It is moved down for first and up for second, then a return to neutral to push in the lever and then down again for third and up for fourth. For reverse, it’s a return-to-neutral-and-push-all-the-way-in-and-down maneuver.
There is no fuel gauge.
The interior of my car had tan and rose-colored vinyl and cloth, and the exterior paint was what Trabant called Frog Green; an appropriate name would have been Gulag Green.
An Audi A8 it isn’t. Which was why the driver of the one behind me was impatient as I accelerated away when the traffic light near the Reichstag turned green and I found myself in third, not first. Not that I was going to burn much rubber when the shift points on this P601 S model were 15 m.p.h. for second and 28 m.p.h. for third. (I never made it to fourth.) The car accelerates from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in about 20 seconds, proving, perhaps, that the “S” in the model name stands not for socialist, but for sluggish.
Thanks to their Duroplast bodies (a weight- and money-saving composite of plastic and cotton-waste fiberglass), a Trabant weighs only 1,355 pounds. Trabants can hold four people and some luggage in a body about the size of a Fiat 124 sedan of the late 1960s.
But people notice this car when it explores Berlin, thanks to a company called Trabi Safari. It has several dozen Trabants and offers guided tours from its location at what sounds like a microfilm drop in a John le Carré novel — the BalloonGarten at the corner of Zimmerstrasse and Wilhelmstrasse.
In the passenger seat was a colleague, Logan Pingree, who appeared slightly amused riding in a vehicle that probably wouldn’t get a call back from the producers of the movie “Cars.” Behind us were two more colleagues, Jessica York and Brian Emerson, in a Trabant. Ahead of us was Simone Matern and Julie Robert of Trabi Safari. Ms. Robert was driving and Ms. Matern was narrating a tour of Berlin via a walkie-talkie — companion units of which were in holders on the dashboards of our vehicles.
An unintended safety feature of a Trabant: you would never even think about using a cellphone while driving. All of your brain’s bandwidth is occupied by shifting to keep the car in the flow of traffic, the concentration to maintain the engine revs high enough that you don’t stall and the concern about whether the brakes will actually work if a truck suddenly blocks your path.
On the tour, as the car passed some iconic structures of the once-divided city — the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and Gendarmenmarkt Square — I began to understand how this slow, cheaply made, quirky vehicle became so popular. It represented a glimmer of freedom in a rigidly controlling society. While that era has long passed, some of these diminutive cars still motor on, powered by nostalgia, and, no doubt, a loophole in Germany’s recently enacted smoking ban.November 30th, 2008
By MAUREEN DOWD
NY Times Published: November 29, 2008
I visited the future, and it was wearing a bow tie and calling itself “Thomas Edison.”
The newspaper business is not only crumpling up, James Macpherson informed me here, it is probably holding “a one-way ticket to Bangalore.”
Macpherson — bow-tied and white-haired but boyish-looking at 53 — should know. He pioneered “glocal” news — outsourcing Pasadena coverage to India at Pasadena Now, his daily online “newspaperless,” as he likes to call it. Indians are writing about everything from the Pasadena Christmas tree-lighting ceremony to kitchen remodeling to city debates about eliminating plastic shopping bags.
“Everyone has to get ready for what’s inevitable — like King Canute and the tide coming in — and that’s really my message to the industry,” the editor and publisher said. “Many newspapers are dead men walking. They’re going to be replaced by smaller, nimbler, multiple Internet-centric kinds of things such as what I’m pioneering.”
I wondered how long it would be before some guy in Bangalore was writing my column about President Obama.
“In brutal terms,” said Macpherson, whose father was a typesetter, printer and photographer, “it’s going to get to the point where saving the industry may require some people losing their jobs. The newspaper industry is coming to a General Motors moment — except there’s no one to bail them out.” He said it would be “irresponsible” for newspapers not to explore offshoring options.
He said he got the idea to outsource about a year ago, sitting in his Pasadena home, where he puts out Pasadena Now with his wife, Candice Merrill. Macpherson had worked in the ’90s for designers like Richard Tyler and Alan Flusser, and had outsourced some of his clothing manufacturing to Vietnam.
So, he thought, “Where can I get people who can write the word for less?” In a move that sounded so preposterous it became a Stephen Colbert skit, he put an ad on Craigslist for Indian reporters and got a flood of responses.
He fired his seven Pasadena staffers — including five reporters — who were making $600 to $800 a week, and now he and his wife direct six employees all over India on how to write news and features, using telephones, e-mail, press releases, Web harvesting and live video streaming from a cellphone at City Hall.
“I pay per piece, just the way it was in the garment business,” he says. “A thousand words pays $7.50.”
A penny for your thoughts? Now I knew my days were numbered.
I checked in with one of his workers in Mysore City in southern India, 40-year-old G. Sreejayanthi, who puts together Pasadena events listings. She said she had a full-time job in India and didn’t think of herself as a journalist. “I try to do my best, which need not necessarily be correct always,” she wrote back. “Regarding Rose Bowl, my first thought was it was related to some food event but then found that is related to Sports field.”
Macpherson admits you can lose something in the translation — the Pasadena City Council Webcast that the Indian reporters now watch once missed two African-American lawmakers walking out in protest — but says the question is, how significant is it?
At first the reaction to covering Pasadena from 8,000 miles away and 13.5 hours ahead was “absolutely brutal,” Macpherson recalled. Journalism professors keened and Larry Wilson, the public editor at The Pasadena Star-News, called it “nutty.”
But then in October, Dean Singleton, The Associated Press’s chairman and the head of the MediaNews Group — which counts The Pasadena Star-News, The Denver Post and The Detroit News in its stable of 54 daily newspapers — told the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association that his company was looking into outsourcing almost every aspect of publishing, including possibly having one news desk for all of his papers, “maybe even offshore.”
Noting that most preproduction work for MediaNews’s papers in California is already outsourced to India, cutting costs by 65 percent, Singleton advised, “If you need to offshore it, offshore it,” and said after the speech, “In today’s world, whether your desk is down the hall or around the world, from a computer standpoint, it doesn’t matter.”
Macpherson feels “vindicated,” but also “conflicted” about the idea of having an American newspaper industry fueled by Indian labor. “I mean, I am an American too,” he said. “I had two ancestors in the Revolutionary War. My mother was in the Daughters of the American Revolution.”
It’s not easy being a visionary, he said: “I have essentially been five years ahead of the world for a long time, and that’s a horrible address at which to live because people look at you, you know, like you’re nuts.”
Frank Rich is off today.November 30th, 2008
By JAMES GLEICK
NY Times Published: November 29, 2008
THE gloom that has fallen over the book publishing industry is different from the mood in, say, home building. At least people know we’ll always need houses.
And now comes the news, as book sales plummet amid the onslaught of digital media, that authors, publishers and Google have reached a historic agreement to allow the scanning and digitizing of something very much like All the World’s Books. So here is the long dreamed-of universal library, its contents available (more or less) to every computer screen anywhere. Are you happy now? Maybe not, if your business has been the marketing, distributing or archiving of books.
One could imagine the book, venerable as it is, just vanishing into the ether. It melts into all the other information species searchable through Google’s most democratic of engines: the Web pages, the blogs, the organs of printed and broadcast news, the general chatter. (Thanks for everything, Gutenberg, and now goodbye.)
But I don’t see it that way. I think, on the contrary, we’ve reached a shining moment for this ancient technology. Publishers may or may not figure out how to make money again (it was never a good way to get rich), but their product has a chance for new life: as a physical object, and as an idea, and as a set of literary forms.
As a technology, the book is like a hammer. That is to say, it is perfect: a tool ideally suited to its task. Hammers can be tweaked and varied but will never go obsolete. Even when builders pound nails by the thousand with pneumatic nail guns, every household needs a hammer. Likewise, the bicycle is alive and well. It was invented in a world without automobiles, and for speed and range it was quickly surpassed by motorcycles and all kinds of powered scooters. But there is nothing quaint about bicycles. They outsell cars.
Of course, plenty of other stuff is destined for obsolescence. For more than a century the phonograph record was almost the only practical means of reproducing sound — and thus the basis of a multibillion-dollar industry. Now it’s just an oddity. Hardly anyone in the music business is sanguine about the prospects for CDs, either.
Now, at this point one expects to hear a certain type of sentimental plea for the old-fashioned book — how you like the feel of the thing resting in your hand, the smell of the pages, the faint cracking of the spine when you open a new book — and one may envision an aesthete who bakes his own bread and also professes to prefer the sound of vinyl. That’s not my argument. I do love the heft of a book in my hand, but I spend most of my waking hours looking at — which mainly means reading from — a computer screen. I’m just saying that the book is technology that works.
Phonograph records and CDs and telegraphs and film cameras were all about storing and delivering bits — information, in its manifold variety — and if we’ve learned anything, we’ve learned that bits are fungible. Bit-storing technologies have been arbitrary, or constrained by available materials, and thus easy to replace when the next thing comes along. Words, too, can be converted into bits, but there’s something peculiar, something particularly direct, about the path from the page to the brain.
It is significant that one says book lover and music lover and art lover but not record lover or CD lover or, conversely, text lover.
There’s reading and then there’s reading. There is the gleaning or browsing or cherry-picking of information, and then there is the deep immersion in constructed textual worlds: novels and biographies and the various forms of narrative nonfiction — genres that could not be born until someone invented the codex, the book as we know it, pages inscribed on both sides and bound together. These are the books that possess one and the books one wants to possess.
For some kinds of books, the writing is on the wall. Encyclopedias are finished. All encyclopedias combined, including the redoubtable Britannica, have already been surpassed by the exercise in groupthink known as Wikipedia. Basic dictionaries no longer belong on paper; the greatest, the Oxford English Dictionary, has nimbly remade itself in cyberspace, where it has doubled in size and grown more timely and usable than ever. And those hefty objects called “telephone books”? As antiquated as typewriters. The book has had a long life as the world’s pre-eminent device for the storage and retrieval of knowledge, but that may be ending, where the physical object is concerned.
Which brings us to the settlement agreement, pending court approval, in the class action suit Authors Guild v. Google. The suit was filed in September 2005 when Google embarked on an audacious program of copying onto its servers every book it could get its hands on. This was a lot of books, because the Internet giant struck deals with the libraries of the University of Michigan, Harvard, Stanford and many others. On its face this looked like a brazen assault on copyright, but Google argued that it should be protected as a new kind of “fair use” and went on scanning during two and a half years of secret negotiations (I was involved on the authors’ side).
By now the company has digitized at least seven million titles. Many are old enough to be in the public domain — no issue there — and many are new enough to be available in bookstores, but the vast majority, four million to five million, are books that had fallen into a kind of limbo: protected by copyright but out of print. Their publishers had given up on them. They existed at libraries and used booksellers but otherwise had left the playing field.
As a way through the impasse, the authors persuaded Google to do more than just scan the books for purposes of searching, but go further, by bringing them back to commercial life. Under the agreement these millions of out-of-print books return from limbo. Any money made from advertising or licensing fees will go partly to Google and mostly to the rights-holders. The agreement is nonexclusive: If competitors to Google want to get into the business, they can.
This means a new beginning — a vast trove of books restored to the marketplace. It also means that much of the book world is being upended before our eyes: the business of publishing, selling and distributing books; the role of libraries and bookstores; all uses of books for research, consultation, information storage; everything, in fact, but the plain act of reading a book from start to finish.
In bookstores, the trend for a decade or more has been toward shorter shelf life. Books have had to sell fast or move aside. Now even modest titles have been granted a gift of unlimited longevity.
What should an old-fashioned book publisher do with this gift? Forget about cost-cutting and the mass market. Don’t aim for instant blockbuster successes. You won’t win on quick distribution, and you won’t win on price. Cyberspace has that covered.
Go back to an old-fashioned idea: that a book, printed in ink on durable paper, acid-free for longevity, is a thing of beauty. Make it as well as you can. People want to cherish it.
James Gleick, the author, most recently, of “Isaac Newton,” is on the board of the Authors Guild.November 30th, 2008
Studio Vases by Stig Lindberg
1940s through 1970s
Stig Lindberg (1916-1982) was a man of very many talents, and his restless creativity yielded an amazing variety of objects. Their wide range of form, surface detail, and color makes any grouping of these studio pieces a fascinating instant collection. Each is signed and dated by the artist.
19 in total. $17,500
BRINGING THE OCEAN INLAND Divers in and around one of the three saltwater pools at Bonneville Seabase that hold thousands of tropical fish.
By STEPHEN REGENOLD
NY Times Published: November 28, 2008
FROZEN squid was on the menu. Sardines, silver-skinned and dusted with frost, were already sliced up and on a plate. It was just after sunrise on a cool morning in late October, time to feed the fish at the Bonneville Seabase, an aquatic center in, of all places, the desert outside
“Hope the sharks are hungry,” said Lynn Findlay, an employee, his hand outstretched and clenching raw meat. In the water below, from the pit of a saltwater spring called Habitat Bay, dark shapes were emerging from the deep.
Thousands of fish — from flitting minnows to a pair of nine-foot-long nurse sharks — live in the murky waters at Bonneville Seabase, an independent experiment in marine biology started 20 years ago by George Sanders and Linda Nelson, husband-and-wife scuba divers from Salt Lake City. After years of development costing them about a million dollars, they have created a private tropical-fish preserve off an empty road at 4,293 feet in a valley about 10 miles south of the Great Salt Lake.
It’s open to snorkelers and scuba divers four days a week, year round, for $15 a day.
“We call it an interactive aquarium,” said Ms. Nelson, 62, a Utah native who, with her husband, 68, also runs a dive shop in Salt Lake City. “The sharks won’t bite unless you pull their tails.”
Seabase is little known in the diving world, but Patric Douglas, a shark expert, guide and commercial diver in San Francisco, sees it as a pioneer in a movement to create artificial environments where divers can swim with big fish that are increasingly rare in the wild. Resorts, casinos and public aquariums have begun investigating Seabase-like facilities, he said.
For now, divers like Todd Gardner, 38, of Riverhead, N.Y., travel to Bonneville Seabase to swim with tropical species from around the world in an environment that can be fully explored in a couple of hours. “You forget where you are,” said Mr. Gardner, who works at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead.
He described feeding tropical fish out of his hand at Seabase and then surfacing to winter weather. “It was snowing in the desert and I was scuba diving,” he said.
A former chemist, Ms. Nelson came up with the concept of stocking desert springs with ocean fish in the 1980s. After analyzing salinity levels, she and Mr. Sanders bought 60 acres from the town of Grantsville, including three warm-spring basins that receive water naturally from the ancient salt beds of prehistoric Lake Bonneville, which once covered the region.
“Our water doesn’t have enough magnesium or sulfate compared to the ocean, and the pH is too low, but the fish are doing fine,” Ms. Nelson said.
Living in the Seabase waters are snappers, several kinds of angelfish and butterflyfish, silver scats, mono argentus and more.
During the morning feeding, I watched aggressive Crevalle jacks swoop up to nab bits of chopped fish, whipping their tails and then disappearing back into the depths. But the sharks — two males adopted 10 years ago after outgrowing residential aquariums — never surfaced. “They don’t like the cold weather,” Mr. Findlay said.
To see the sharks, I’d have to jump in.
I suited up and popped a regulator in my mouth, waddling to the water’s edge in a seven-millimeter wet suit with weights around my ankles and waist.
“No squealing when you get in,” said Lori Fox, my instructor and guide. “You’ll feel a cold rush of water down your back.”
Coaxing aquatic life in an ersatz ocean didn’t come easy for Ms. Nelson and Mr. Sanders, world-traveling divers and self-taught ichthyologists. Coral couldn’t grow in the salty springs. Mussels died. Algae blooms, a constant problem, spread uncontrollably in the warm geothermic water, which is 90 degrees at the bottom but is cooled by the air at the surface.
Last winter, a stock of 10,000 shrimp were introduced to Habitat Bay, a half-acre pool that’s 24 feet deep. A flock of hundreds of ducks living in wetlands south of the Great Salt Lake soon discovered them. “They ate them all,” Ms. Nelson said.
But after years of experimentation, an equilibrium has been accomplished at Seabase, which keeps three pools open for diving, including the Abyss, a 62-foot-deep hole that required thousands of hours of work with industrial cranes to dredge out in the desert. Of the dozens of species introduced, a handful have adapted to this high-altitude home, growing, reproducing and living for years in an ocean ecosystem 600 miles from the Pacific Coast.
“It’s a vision from the future of diving,” said Mr. Douglas, the shark expert, alluding to environmental changes. “You used to be able to zip to the Florida Keys and see pristine reefs and stunning sea life, but it’s no longer that easy.”
Local residents make up most of Seabase’s 1,500 to 2,000 annual visitors, including regulars from area dive clubs and people seeking scuba certification before trips to Cozumel or the Caribbean. Masks, air tanks, fins and wet suits are for rent in the main building. Divers top off their tanks at a refilling station on a sidewalk next to the communal shower room.
Chris Westover, 37, a manager at a ski area near Ogden, Utah, snorkeled for an hour on the morning of my visit. He came with a friend to try something new. “It’s the last Sunday in October and I’m snorkeling in the desert,” he said. “This is a better idea than the breakfast buffet.”
Mr. Westover took a head of romaine lettuce with him underwater. He held it out and fed tropical fish. The water was murky and cold, but he said, “we saw an angelfish.”
Before suiting up for my dive, I walked out a few hundred feet into the desert for a wider perspective. Mountains rose up in the west. A pickup truck roared by a mile away on a country road.
Seabase — a mishmash of sheds, trailer homes, Quonset huts, construction equipment, camper trailers, ponds with polycarbonate covers, two telescope observatories and an airplane hangar — looked like a settlement on Mars. Wind kicked dust off the flat land. There was an end-of-the-earth feeling, with no noise and little life.
When I returned to Seabase, Mr. Sanders pointed to a hilltop and told me it was the home of a hermit who once loaded a truck with barrels of fuel in anticipation of the apocalypse. The hermit used dynamite to clear a road and now keeps large-caliber guns on the hill. “He’s an enterprising young fellow,” Mr. Sanders said.
Lew Ershler, who runs a powered-parachute flight program out of the airplane hangar on the site, mentioned a polygamist settlement in the hills across State Highway 138.
Underwater, things were even stranger. At 10 a.m. I climbed down a ladder, weighted with 50 pounds of scuba gear, following my guide into the murk. Bits of squid still floated on the surface, uneaten ringlets from the morning feed. “Swim with me out to the white pole,” Ms. Fox said, turning to glide away.
We paddled 50 feet, heads out of the water with dive masks on. The pool, called White Rocks Bay, was capped under a polycarbonate roof to retain warmth in the wintertime (the outside gets down to freezing temperatures), creating a claustrophobic cave.
“Keep close,” Ms. Fox said. “I’ll have a hand on you.”
She pressed a button on her buoyancy compensator, air wheezing out of the flotation lung. I did the same, and we sank down along the pole, my bare hand clutching white metal coated in slime.
At the bottom, 13 feet down, a rocky seabed stirred with dust. I kicked to swim and sediment mushroomed up, clouding the water to almost black. Small fish swam by, amorphous little blips. I saw dark shapes and shadows, but bubbles and dust confounded my view.
In two minutes, Ms. Fox tugged on my arm. She pointed skyward, and I followed her back to the surface by the white pole.
“You were right on top of the shark!” she said, spitting out her regulator to talk. “I had to almost pull you off of him.”
Unknowingly, I’d hovered a few inches over a shark’s back while scanning the bottom and following an angelfish. The shark was resting in the rocks, its blood sluggish in the 68-degree water.
Back in the depths, swimming gingerly to keep the dust storm down, I followed my guide to find our cartilaginous friend. Ms. Fox again tugged at my arm, signaling toward an underwater ledge.
I reached out to the black shape and touched a surface squishy and rough, like sandpaper waterlogged and coated in goo. I evened my breathing, the bubbles slowing down, and a spike appeared in focus, a triangle fin contrasting with the brown water. It was the dorsal fin of a nurse shark. The creature was dead still, seemingly asleep — a nine-foot-long fish fading away in algae and sediment, its head unseen.
Visibility is the Achilles’ heel at Seabase. Desert storms, wind, blooming algae and thousands of stirring fish make a mix that some days resembles pea soup. On my dive, visibility was about four and a half feet; the best days, according to Ms. Nelson, let sunlight cut 20 feet through the water.
I gave the shark a final touch and stroked away, kicking carefully.
I was carrying a stalk of romaine that Ms. Fox had given me to feed the fish. For the few minutes that I tried, nothing bit. The leafy head was deteriorating as I swam, and before we left the water, I dropped the lettuce into the depths.
“What do you think of this place?” Ms. Fox asked, smiling, as I stood dripping on concrete. The water stirred below me, a school of minnows pecking bits. I looked up and told Ms. Fox it was unlike any place I’d ever been before.
Outside, a group of Seabase regulars were grilling hot dogs. There was music and laughter as old friends talked scuba diving. Charcoal smoke seeped up to where I was standing, a smell of ash mixing with musty aquarium air.
A bit farther away, bubbles swirled in a pool, water upset with lines and ripples. The fish were stirring in their desert home. The sharks were quiet, still sleeping in the deep.
IF YOU GO
Bonneville Seabase (Highway 138, Grantsville, Utah; 435-884-3874; www.seabase.net) is about 45 minutes west of Salt Lake City. It is open Thursday through Sunday, and charges $15 a day to dive or snorkel.
Three warm spring-fed pools, from 13 to 62 feet deep, are open to divers and stocked with thousands of fish, including two nurse sharks. Equipment rentals, scuba lessons and certification are available. Children are allowed with adult supervision; the minimum age for scuba diving is 8.
Seabase has showers, changing rooms, a snack bar, indoor tables for dining and camper trailers ($18 a night for two).
At the same site, Bonneville Skybase (801-557-5657; www.bonnevilleskybase.com) offers powered-parachute flights starting at $75 for 20 minutes. A pilot and a passenger fly up to 1,000 feet for views of the dive ponds and the Great Salt Lake.November 28th, 2008
These are not turkeys per se, but they are some form of flightless birds. They are from the spring/summer 2008 collection of Walter Van Beirendonck entitled “sexclown” (Stephen Jones did the headgear). Its very rare to see unbridled creativity brought into full fruition, but here it is. Straight from Walter’s brain to your eyes. What I love about Walter is that he really nows how to go for it.November 28th, 2008
By A. O. SCOTT
NY Times Published: November 26, 2008
One of the first scenes in “Milk” is of a pick-up in a New York subway station. It’s 1970, and an insurance executive in a suit and tie catches sight of a beautiful, scruffy younger man — the phrase “angel-headed hipster” comes to mind — and banters with him on the stairs. The mood of the moment, which ends up with the two men eating birthday cake in bed, is casual and sexy, and its flirtatious playfulness is somewhat disarming, given our expectation of a serious and important movie grounded in historical events. “Milk,” directed by Gus Van Sant from a script by Dustin Lance Black, is certainly such a film, but it manages to evade many of the traps and compromises of the period biopic with a grace and tenacity worthy of its title character.
That would be Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn), a neighborhood activist elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and murdered, along with the city’s mayor, George Moscone (Victor Garber), by a former supervisor named Dan White (Josh Brolin) the next year. Notwithstanding the modesty of his office and the tragic foreshortening of his tenure, Milk, among the first openly gay elected officials in the country, had a profound impact on national politics, and his rich afterlife in American culture has affirmed his status as pioneer and martyr. His brief career has inspired an opera by Stewart Wallace, an excellent documentary film (“The Times of Harvey Milk,” by Rob Epstein, from 1984) and now “Milk,” which is the best live-action mainstream American movie that I have seen this year. This is not faint praise, by the way, even though 2008 has been a middling year for Hollywood. “Milk” is accessible and instructive, an astute chronicle of big-city politics and the portrait of a warrior whose passion was equaled by his generosity and good humor. Mr. Penn, an actor of unmatched emotional intensity and physical discipline, outdoes himself here, playing a character different from any he has portrayed before.
This is less a matter of sexuality — there is no longer much novelty in a straight actor’s “playing gay” — than of temperament. Unlike, say, Jimmy Markum, Mr. Penn’s brooding ex-convict in Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” Harvey Milk is an extrovert and an ironist, a man whose expansive, sometimes sloppy self-presentation camouflages an incisive mind and a ferociously stubborn will. All of this Mr. Penn captures effortlessly through voice and gesture, but what is most arresting is the sense he conveys of Milk’s fundamental kindness, a personal virtue that also functions as a political principle.
Which is not to say that “Milk” is an easy, sunny, feel-good movie, or that its hero is a shiny liberal saint. There is righteous anger in this movie, and also an arresting, moody lyricism. Mr. Van Sant has frequently practiced a kind of detached romanticism, letting his stories unfold matter-of-factly while infusing them with touches of melancholy beauty. (He is helped here by Danny Elfman’s elegant score and by the expressive cinematography of Harris Savides, whose touch when it comes to framing and focus could more aptly be called a caress.)
In the years since the earnest and commercial “Finding Forrester” (2000), Mr. Van Sant has devoted himself to smaller-scale projects, some of them (like the Palme d’Or-winning provocation “Elephant”) employing nonprofessional actors, and none of them much concerned with soliciting the approval of the mass audience. “Gerry,” “Elephant,” “Last Days” and “Paranoid Park” are linked by a spirit of formal exploration — elements of Mr. Van Sant’s experimental style include long tracking shots; oblique, fractured narratives; and a way of composing scenes that emphasizes visual and aural texture over conventional dramatic exposition — and also by a preoccupation with death.
Like “Elephant” (suggested by the Columbine High shootings) and “Last Days” (by the suicide of Kurt Cobain), “Milk” is the chronicle of a death foretold. Before that subway station encounter, we have already seen real-life news video of the aftermath of Milk’s assassination, as well as grainy photographs of gay men being rounded up by the police. These images don’t spoil the intimacy between Harvey the buttoned-up businessman and Scott Smith (James Franco), the hippie who becomes his live-in lover and first campaign manager. Rather, the constant risk of harassment, humiliation and violence is the defining context of that intimacy.
And his refusal to accept this as a fact of life, his insistence on being who he is without secrecy or shame, is what turns Milk from a bohemian camera store owner (after his flight from New York and the insurance business) into a political leader.
“My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you.” That was an opening line that the real Milk often used in his speeches to break the tension with straight audiences, but the film shows him deploying it with mostly gay crowds as well, with a slightly different inflection. He wants to recruit them into the politics of democracy, to persuade them that the stigma and discrimination they are used to enduring quietly and even guiltily can be addressed by voting, by demonstrating, by claiming the share of power that is every citizen’s birthright and responsibility.
The strength of Mr. Black’s script is that it grasps both the radicalism of Milk’s political ambition and the pragmatism of his methods. “Milk” understands that modern politics thrive at the messy, sometimes glorious intersection of grubby interests and noble ideals. Shortly after moving with Scott from New York to the Castro section of San Francisco, Milk begins organizing the gay residents of that neighborhood, seeking out allies among businessmen, labor unions and other groups.
The city’s gay elite, discomfited by his confrontational tactics, keeps Milk at a distance, leaving him to build a movement from the ground up with the help of a young rabble-rouser and ex-hustler named Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch).
For more than two lively, eventful hours, “Milk” conforms to many of the conventions of biographical filmmaking, if not always to the precise details of the hero’s biography. Milk’s inexhaustible political commitment takes its toll on his relationships, first with Scott and then with Jack Lira, an impulsive, unstable young man played by Diego Luna with an operatic verve that stops just short of camp.
Meanwhile, local San Francisco issues are overshadowed by a statewide anti-gay-rights referendum and the national crusade, led by the orange-juice spokesmodel Anita Bryant, to repeal municipal antidiscrimination laws. The culture war is unfolding, and Milk is in the middle of it. (And so, 30 years later, in the wake of Proposition 8, is “Milk.”)
“Milk” is a fascinating, multi-layered history lesson. In its scale and visual variety it feels almost like a calmed-down Oliver Stone movie, stripped of hyperbole and Oedipal melodrama. But it is also a film that like Mr. Van Sant’s other recent work — and also, curiously, like David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” another San Francisco-based tale of the 1970s — respects the limits of psychological and sociological explanation.
Dan White, Milk’s erstwhile colleague and eventual assassin, haunts the edges of the movie, representing both the banality and the enigma of evil. Mr. Brolin makes him seem at once pitiable and scary without making him look like a monster or a clown. Motives for White’s crime are suggested in the film, but too neat an accounting of them would distort the awful truth of the story and undermine the power of the movie.
That power lies in its uncanny balancing of nuance and scale, its ability to be about nearly everything — love, death, politics, sex, modernity — without losing sight of the intimate particulars of its story. Harvey Milk was an intriguing, inspiring figure. “Milk” is a marvel.
“Milk” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has some profanity, brief violence and a few discreet sex scenes.
Opens on Wednesday in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Directed by Gus Van Sant; written by Dustin Lance Black; director of photography, Harris Savides; edited by Elliot Graham; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Bill Groom; produced by Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen; released by Focus Features. Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes.
WITH: Sean Penn (Harvey Milk), Emile Hirsch (Cleve Jones), Josh Brolin (Dan White), Diego Luna (Jack Lira), Alison Pill (Anne Kronenberg), Victor Garber (Mayor George Moscone), Denis O’Hare (John Briggs), Joseph Cross (Dick Pabich), Stephen Spinella (Rick Stokes), Lucas Grabeel (Danny Nicoletta), Brandon Boyce (Jim Rivaldo), Zvi Howard Rosenman (David Goodstein), Kelvin Yu (Michael Wong) and James Franco (Scott Smith).November 28th, 2008
At the Museum of Drugs, a farmworker mannequin was propped up under a tree with a rifle in his hands, guarding a field of poppies and marijuana.
Samples of drugs are displayed at the museum, on the top floor of the Defense Ministry.
By MARC LACEY
NY Times Published: November 26, 2008
MEXICO CITY — At their best, museums are glorious cultural repositories, reflecting the highest flowering of human creativity, ingenuity and art. But not everything in every culture is glorious, and there are museums for those aspects, too, which is why, hidden from the public, there is an institution here devoted to Mexico’s dark side, the Museum of Drugs.
It is a place that leaves those who manage to get inside shaking their heads and lamenting the long, spirited but largely unsuccessful war this country has waged to control illegal narcotics.
Run by the Mexican military and open only to graduating cadets and select guests, the Museo de los Enervantes presents the drug war in all its ugliness and complexity. There is a room devoted to the ancient roots of drug use in Mesoamerica, like the use of hallucinogenic peyote and mushrooms by the Maya and Aztecs, and displays that show all the military does to try to stem the tide, uprooting marijuana plants and uncovering hidden caches of cocaine and heroin.
“You eradicate in one place and you continue on, and when you go back they’re growing it again,” said Maj. Mario Ayala López, who insisted that his face not be shown in any photographs, an atypical request for a museum curator but a reality in present-day Mexico, where the drug violence knows no bounds.
To give young cadets a sense of what they will be hunting for once deployed into the field, drugs themselves are on display, real-life samples under glass of everything from methamphetamines, which are manufactured in huge quantities in Mexican laboratories, to heroin, to marijuana, which is grown in fields hidden away in the countryside. The museum itself could not be more secure, located on the top floor of the Defense Ministry.
Along the halls, there is a farmworker mannequin propped up under a tree with a rifle in his hands, guarding a field of poppies and marijuana. Around his neck is a pendant of Jesús Malverde, considered the patron saint of outlaws. Nearby is a board with nails sticking into it, a makeshift trap set to injure anyone, but especially soldiers, who might creep near.
In a display case are actual notes that soldiers have recovered in raids on fields growing the precursors for the drugs that will be smoked, snorted or injected. The handwritten messages are pleas from the farmers to the soldiers to leave their fields alone in exchange for a little cash.
Getting the drugs to the biggest market on Earth, the United States, requires ingenuity, and there is an entire room devoted to that. Drug-filled shoes, beer crates and even a drug-filled surfboard are on display. There is a doughnut sprinkled with poppy seeds that were to be used to make heroin, and a doll that was stuffed with drugs and then handed to a child to carry.
A model of a woman who was apprehended in Tijuana shows her with a protruding stomach, which was caused not by pregnancy but by a package containing several pounds of tightly wrapped cocaine. A photograph features another female trafficker, this one with cocaine surgically implanted in her buttocks. She died after one of the packages burst upon her arrival at Mexico City’s airport.
Toward the end of the tour the museum, which opened in 1985, introduces the people who have turned Mexico into the prime trafficking country in the hemisphere. There is a model of a stereotypical trafficker wearing fancy cowboy boots, a big belt buckle imprinted with a marijuana plant and plenty of jewelry.
On the wall is a photograph of a trafficker’s child, a baby dressed in camouflage surrounded by dozens of shotguns. “There are generations that grow up in this culture,” Major Ayala said. “For them it’s normal.”
Farther on are some of the vestments recovered during drug raids, like a bulletproof trench coat and a protective polo shirt, both designed by Miguel Caballero, a Colombian clothing designer who runs a pricey boutique not far away.
Traffickers have plenty of money to spend, and this museum gives a taste of some of their buying habits. There is a gold-encrusted cellphone recovered from Daniel Pérez Rojas, a founder of the Zetas, a paramilitary group, and plenty of weaponry decorated with precious metals and stones. A Colt pistol recovered from Alfredo Beltra Leyva, a leader of the feared Sinaloa cartel who was arrested in January, bears the oft-repeated revolutionary quotation, “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”
There is another Colt pistol encrusted with emeralds that once belonged to Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel and probably the most wanted trafficker of all. It was marked with the initials ACF, for Armado Carrillo Fuentes, who once led the Juárez Cartel but died while undergoing plastic surgery in 1997. The gun was probably a gift from Mr. Carrillo to Mr. Guzmán, the curator speculated, and thus a sign of an alliance between their rival cartels.
Nowhere is the word “guerra,” or war, featured in the museum, because the Mexican military considers its counternarcotics mission to be something different from that. “We don’t use that term,” said Major Ayala, who was wearing his dress uniform as he strode formally through the museum.
At the museum entrance, though, is a shrine that features the names of 570 Mexican soldiers who have died fighting illegal drugs as far back as 1976. In the last two years, since President Felipe Calderón has sent soldiers on more antidrug missions than any of his predecessors, 67 names have been added to the list.
And, sadly, there is plenty of room on the wall for more.November 27th, 2008
From ancient Egypt to Lender’s.
By Joan Nathan
The Slate Posted Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008, at 7:00 AM ET
When my family first moved to Larchmont, N.Y., in 1946, my father had a feeling that the neighbors living behind us were Jewish. In those days, you didn’t broadcast your religion, so he devised a plan that would reveal their cultural background. We would go to the Bronx and bring back some bagels. If our neighbors knew what the rolls were, they were Jewish. If they stared at them in bewilderment, we would know they were not. To my father’s delight, as soon as our neighbors saw the bagels, they recognized them. Nowadays, dad’s devious plan to determine a neighbor’s religion wouldn’t work. After all, who doesn’t know what a bagel is? But what are the origins of this once-mysterious bread, and what happened between 1946 and today that turned the bagel into a trans-cultural and all-American breakfast bun?
After years of research on Jewish food in America, I thought I had discovered all there was to know about the bagel and its journey. But then I read Maria Balinska’s lively and well-researched book, The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread. Her book has filled in many of the questions I had about the bagel and raised new ones, too.
The basic roll-with-a-hole concept is centuries old. No surprise, really, as there’s a practical advantage to this design—it’s possible to thread such a roll on a stick or a string, facilitating transport. Balinska identifies several possible candidates for the ur-bagel from around the world, including the taralli—hard, round crackers flavored with fennel that have been the local snack for centuries in Puglia, Italy. She also mentions the Roman buccellatum and the Chinese girde but neglects to note that even the ancient Egyptians had a bagellike treat. Just a few weeks ago, I came across Egyptian hieroglyphics at the Louvre in Paris, and among the depictions of daily life were rolls with a hole.
The evidence suggests that the first rolls with a hole, those of ancient Egypt and of the greater Mediterranean, came in two types: the soft, sesame-studded variety, called bagele in Israel today, eaten plain or dipped in za’atar (a spice combination of wild oregano, sesame seeds, and salt); and a pretzellike crispy Syrian ka’ak flavored much like taralli. Neither is boiled, a distinguishing characteristic of American bagels.
Polish-born and half-Jewish, Balinska, who works at the BBC in London, tells us that the boiled and baked bagel as we know it comes from her homeland. She tells the story of the Krakow bagel, which was a product of the 1683 Battle of Vienna. Although the story is completely speculative and perhaps even fictitious, it is a piece of gastronomic lore that has endured throughout the ages. As the story goes, 17th-century Poland was the breadbasket of Europe, and King Jan Sobieski was the first king not to confirm the decree of 1496 limiting the production of white bread and obwarzanek (bagellike rolls whose name derives from a word meaning “to parboil”) to the Krakow bakers guild. This meant that Jews could finally bake bread within the confines of the city walls. Furthermore, when Sobieski saved Austria from the Turkish invaders, a baker made a roll in the shape of the king’s stirrup and called it a beugel (the Austrian word for stirrup). As Balinska says, “Whatever its origin, the story of the bagel being created in honor of Jan Sobieski and his victory in Vienna has endured.”
But the bagel has endured through the centuries not only because of its heroic legend. It also had the advantage of lasting longer than freshly baked bread because the boiling gave the roll an outer sheen and a crunchy, protective crust. As Balinska points out, if it got slightly stale, it was dunked in hot liquid to soften it. Once bagels became popular in Krakow, the Jewish bakers began making them in their own bakeries due to the strictness of Jewish dietary laws.
It is unclear when the first bagels made their way to the United States, but 70 bakeries existed on the Lower East side by 1900. In 1907 the International Beigel Bakers’ Union was created and from then on monopolized bagel production in New York City. What is also certain is that immigrants from Eastern Europe, with their cravings for the foods of the old country, sparked the New York bagel craze. Balinska explains that the Jews of the Lower East Side created a demand for the breads of their homeland—rye, challah, and bagels.
The ’50s were a turning point. It was after World War II, and Americans were trying to get back to normalcy and reconcile the atrocities of the war. They were, for the first time, somewhat philo-Semitic. In addition, Jews were rapidly assimilating, moving to other parts of the city, expanding their culinary horizons, and sharing their own culinary traditions with the rest of New York.
In the early 1950s, Family Circle included a recipe for bageles (their spelling). The copy read: “Stumped for the Hors d’oeuvres Ideas? Here’s a grand one from Fannie Engle. ‘Split these tender little triumphs in halves and then quarters. Spread with sweet butter and place a small slice of smoked salmon on each. For variations, spread with cream cheese, anchovies or red caviar. (They’re also delicious served as breakfast rolls.)’ ” Engle, who later wrote The Jewish Festival Cookbook, did not mention the Jewish Sunday morning ritual of lox, bagel, and cream cheese—an American concoction that was just taking off, spurred on most probably by Joseph Kraft’s advertising blitz for Philadelphia Cream Cheese. It soon became an American alternative to the other Sunday trilogy of bacon, eggs, and toast. In 1951, the bagel made a big appearance in the Broadway comedy Bagel and Yox, introducing the word bagel into such mainstream magazines as Time. Balinska says that “one of the attractions of Bagel and Yox was the fact that freshly baked bagels and cream cheese were handed out to the audience during intermission.”
At this historical moment, Murray Lender hit upon a method for mass distribution of bagels. His father, Harry, had come from Poland to New Haven, Conn., and had opened a wholesale bagel bakery in 1927, one of the few outside of New York. In this small, diverse town, ethnic communities intermingled, sampling one another’s local specialties. After a while, Balinska explains, it became clear to the Lenders that the Jewish bagel was just as appetizing to the Irish and the Italians as it was to the Jews. The turning point came when Murray, having returned from the Korean War in 1956, bought a freezer. He and his father soon realized that they could deliver thawed bagels to retailers without marring their flavor. A subsequent innovation was the packaging of bagels in batches of six in polyethylene bags, making them even more durable. Soon, Lender’s Bagels shared shelf space in supermarkets with household names like Pepperidge Farm and Wonder Bread. Over the next decade, supermarket sales did nothing but grow. And with the advent of the frozen-food aisle, frozen bagels became an affordable, convenient food that could be shipped to grocery stores in far-flung parts of the country that had never before seen one.
Bagelmania hit the ground running in this country with chains opening up all over the place, replacing, to a certain extent, the doughnut shops of the earlier part of the 20th century. (Today, America’s most popular doughnut shop, Dunkin’ Donuts, also sells bagels.) It is my suspicion that bagels became so popular because, unlike Mexican burritos or Chinese egg rolls, they don’t taste ethnic. They weren’t marketed as Jewish and weren’t sold in kosher sections of grocery stores. To the bread- and sandwich-loving American population, the bagel was simply another bun with a bite—different enough to satisfy a craving for innovation, but not different enough to appear exotic.
So, it makes sense that today’s bagel bakeries are not necessarily Jewish-owned or run. A Puerto Rican family owns H&H Bagels in New York. John Marx, a Cincinnatian of German background, bakes 36 different bagel varieties, including Cincinnati Red bagels, tropical fruit, and taco bagels. And the best bagel bakery in New York, according to many, is one owned by a Thai couple on the Upper West Side.
Bagels are clearly no longer specifically a Jewish food. At some point in the middle of the 20th century, their position from the Jewish bun to the American breakfast bread shifted. The exact moment is unclear, but one moment stands out in my mind. In 1998, when I was first filming my PBS television series, Jewish Cooking in America, Lender’s, which by then had been bought and sold numerous times, was one of our sponsors. For this cooking show featuring kosher food, they sent us an underwriting spot depicting a perfectly toasted bagel with Swiss cheese and ham! Oy! I almost plotzed. To me, that moment was the ultimate assimilation of the bagel into American life.
By ANDREW BEAHRS
NY Times Published: November 26, 2008
IN 1879, a homesick Mark Twain sat in an Italian hotel room and wrote a long fantasy menu of all his favorite American foods. The menu began as a joke, with Twain describing the 80-dish spread as a “modest, private affair” that he wanted all to himself. But it reads today as a window into a great change in American life — the gradual, widespread disappearance of wild foods from the nation’s tables.
Twain listed cranberry sauce, “Thanksgiving style” roast turkey and the celery essential to poultry stuffing. But he surrounded these traditional holiday dishes with roast wild turkey, frogs and woodcock.
Along with hot biscuits, broiled chicken and stewed tomatoes, Twain wanted turtle soup, possum and canvasback ducks fattened by Chesapeake Bay wild celery. In Twain’s day, New York City markets still sold raccoon, a profusion of wild ducks and bear. From Delmonico’s restaurant to hunters’ homes, the nation’s tables held an easy blend of wild and cultivated foods.
So it was natural for Twain’s wonderful menu to include the best of America’s forests and waters, as well as its orchards and plowed fields. But for that very reason, it was as different from the first Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth in 1621 as from our own intensively domesticated holiday meals.
The first Thanksgiving was a wild affair. Though a version of traditional English “Harvest Home” festivals, and intended as a celebration of the Pilgrims’ first successful crop of corn, squash and beans, the meal was largely built around foods taken from the woods and waters around the struggling Plymouth Colony.
The two early accounts of the meal tell us that the Wampanoag guests (who outnumbered the English settlers two to one) brought several deer, and that a party of Pilgrims returned from “fowling” with a good take. The latter almost certainly referred to ducks and geese, which migrate in autumn and could be taken much more easily than wary wild turkeys.
Gooseberries, wild plums and lobsters, as well as eels “trod” from the nearby salt marsh, completed a meal intimately bound to the surrounding land and water. Though corn prompted the celebration, and was doubtless included in pottages and stews, the centerpieces were all products of the bountiful yet intensely threatening natural world.
Twain’s Thanksgiving meals were separated from the Plymouth settlers by more than two centuries and, perhaps more important, by Sarah Josepha Hale, the enormously influential editor of the magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. In her 1827 novel “Northwood,” Hale described the Thanksgiving feast she would help to establish as a national holiday tradition through decades of determined advocacy.
She began, of course, with turkey, set in a “lordly station” and flanked with a sirloin of beef, ducks, geese and a leg of pork. There was also an array of vegetables, and a chicken pie “wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste.”
This meal symbolized, rather than replicated, the first Plymouth celebration. Where Plymouth had feared starvation, Hale assumed easy abundance, replacing hunted and foraged foods with those from the nation’s bountiful farms. She insisted upon pumpkin pie and many other dishes unknown to the first celebrants, who rejoiced over what they’d been able to grow, rather than what they had chosen to eat.
Hale’s was the new domestic ideal. Still, Twain’s menu suggests that wild foods continued to give American cuisine its unmistakable character. On Thanksgiving, Twain wanted a domestic turkey, with cranberry sauce and stuffing. But every Christmas, he delighted in the gift of a brace of prairie hens a dear friend sent him by rail from the Illinois tall grass.
Even some farmed foods had recent wild roots, such as the cranberries first cultivated a mere half-century earlier. Though the majority of foods in Twain’s day were domestic, the wild ones were distinct and wonderful, rooting meals in the natural world as cultivated things never could.
His menu celebrated the amazingly varied landscapes of an entire nation. Shad from Connecticut, mussels from San Francisco, brook trout from the Sierras and partridges from Missouri all found their place alongside apple dumplings, Southern-style egg bread, “American toast,” and strawberries, which were “not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way.”
In a sense, Twain’s menu was a biographical sketch, for during a lifetime of travel he had eaten each and every one of the wild foods near its source. But it was also a portrait of what American food could be at its best: a cuisine with a deep sense of place, reflecting a splendid jumble of national landscapes and the people who lived in and off them.
The Pilgrims appreciated wild foods for their contribution to survival; Twain, for their taste and their hold on his memory. All saw the foods as fundamental to the America they knew. None would have imagined that many would one day be seen as curiosities.
But with the exception of fish, today it is vanishingly rare to find wild foods in our marketplaces. The 10 million prairie hens in the Illinois of Twain’s day have diminished to a mere 300 birds; his terrapin struggle to survive amid wounded Eastern wetlands; his titanic Lahontan cutthroat “lake trout, from Tahoe” were killed off by over-fishing and the introduction of invasive species. Tasting some of Twain’s wild things is impossible or illegal, with more limited to dedicated hunters and fishermen.
Preserving or restoring the wild foods that remain begins with appreciating what they have to offer — extraordinary taste and smell, certainly, but also the joy of experiencing the marshes and mountains and lakes these plants and birds and animals rely upon. We have a great deal to learn from Twain’s instinctive premise: that losing a wild food means losing part of the landscape of our lives.
Andrew Beahrs is the author of the novel “The Sin Eaters” and the forthcoming “Twain’s Feast.”November 26th, 2008
November 25th, 2008
By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
NY Times Published: November 24, 2008
BERKELEY, Calif. — I have no idea whether, in this dismal economic climate, the University of California will find the money to build its new art museum here. But if it fails, it will be a blow to those of us who champion provocative architecture in the United States.
Designed by the Japanese architect Toyo Ito, the three-story structure suggests an intoxicating architectural dance in which the push and pull between solitude and intimacy, stillness and motion, art and viewer never ends. Its contoured galleries, whose honeycomb pattern seems to be straining to contain an untamed world, would make it a magical place to view art.
Beyond its aesthetic appeal, however, Mr. Ito’s design underscores just what is at stake as so many building projects hang in the balance. On a local level, the museum could help break down the divide between the ivory tower at the top of the hill and the gritty neighborhood at the bottom. More broadly, it could introduce an American audience to one of the world’s greatest and most underrated talents, sending out creative ripples that can only be imagined.
The museum would replace the existing Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, a bunkerlike building completed in 1970 that was badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Standing on a rough commercial strip at the campus’s southern edge, the old building is still marred by the big steel columns that were installed after the quake to support its cantilevered floors. Its rough, angular concrete forms and oddly shaped galleries are awkward settings for art.
The new museum would rise several blocks away, at the seam between the main entrance to the university’s leafy hillside campus and Berkeley’s downtown area. Mr. Ito conceived the design as part of a drawn-out public promenade, and he has packed the bookstore, a cafe, a gallery, a 256-seat theater and a flexible “black box” onto the ground floor. The more contemplative galleries, which include spaces for temporary exhibitions and the museum’s permanent collections of Western and Asian art, are on the second and third floors.
In the renderings the building’s creamy white exterior vaguely resembles a stack of egg cartons that has been sliced off at one end to expose the matrix of contoured chambers inside. The forms peel away at various points to create doorways and open up tantalizing, carefully controlled views into the interiors, as if the building’s facade had been slowly eroding over the millenniums.
Teasingly voyeuristic, the effect brings to mind partly demolished buildings and the aura of intimate secrets about to be revealed. But Mr. Ito is not interested in simply obliterating boundaries, as you would with a conventional glass box. His aim is to create a relaxed relationship between private and public life: while acknowledging that contemporary museums are often hives of social activity, he understands that they can also be places where we want to hide from one another and lose ourselves in the art.
The ground floor is conceived as an intense, compressed version of the surrounding street grid. Once inside, visitors will have to pay to enter a formal temporary gallery just to the right of the main entry. Or they can slip around it and follow the procession through the more informal interstitial spaces, which will be used for video art and site-specific installations. The theater and black box space are tucked away in the back.
Mr. Ito once said that he would like to create spaces that are like “eddies in a current of water.” The interstitial spaces seem to swell open and close up to regulate the movement of people through the building; the self-contained, honeycomblike spaces, by contrast, produce a sense of suspension rather than enclosure, as if you were hovering momentarily before stepping back into the stream.
As you ascend through the museum, this effect intensifies, and the spaces become more contemplative. The main staircase is enclosed in one of the contoured volumes, giving you psychological distance from the activity below. Once you reach the main gallery floors, the experience becomes more focused: the rhythm through the rooms is broken only occasionally, when a wall peels back to allow glimpses of the city.
Mr. Ito has positioned most of the doorways in the galleries’ contoured corners, which allows for a maximum of uninterrupted wall space for the art while emphasizing the rooms’ sensual curves. Most of the galleries have a single opening; others are contained in interstitial spaces, part of the general flow through the building. The contrast, which creates unexpected perspectives, has more to do with Tiepolo’s heavens than with Mondrian’s grids.
As with all of Mr. Ito’s work, the building’s structural system is not an afterthought but a critical element of the ideas that drive the design. The honeycomb pattern gives the building a remarkable structural firmness, allowing for walls only a few inches thick. Made of steel plates sandwiched around concrete, they will have a smooth, unbroken surface that should underscore the museum’s fluid forms. The tautness of the bent steel should also heighten the sense of tension.
Of course, Mr. Ito is still fine-tuning his design, and critical decisions have yet to be made. Museum officials plan to eliminate two 30-foot-high galleries that were part of the original proposal to add wall space and cut costs. This is unfortunate: the soaring spaces would tie the building together vertically and create voids on the upper floors that would add to the sense of mystery.
The museum is also pushing to make the curved corners in the galleries more compact to add still more wall space, which could create an impression that the art is crammed in.
For decades now, Mr. Ito has ranked among the leading architects who have reshaped the field by infusing their designs with the psychological, emotional and social dimensions that late Modernists and Post-Modernists ignored. They have replaced an architecture of purity with one of emotional extremes. The underlying aim is less an aesthetic one than a mission to create a more elastic, and therefore tolerant, environment.
These ideas have found their firmest footing in Europe and Japan and are now filtering into the mainstream here. It would be a shame to leave Mr. Ito out of that cultural breakthrough. The museum would not only be an architectural tour de force but would also introduce him to a broad American audience, stirring an imaginative reawakening in a country that sorely needs itNovember 24th, 2008
November 24th, 2008
Steve Harvey for The Los Angeles Times
November 23, 2008
Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley is a place of many mysteries, but one story holds that it was created largely out of thousands of beer containers to remind the founder’s husband how much he drank.
Another story is that Tressa Prisbrey in 1956, then pushing 60, merely wanted a place for her collection of 17,000 writing implements, so she built the first two bottle-walled structures, Pencil House 1 and Pencil House 2. Johnny Carson donated a pencil.
Prisbrey went on to build 11 more bottle structures on the property in the 1960s. Perhaps it was true that she hoped her projects would block the stench from a nearby poultry farm.
The construction — she did the walls, others did the roofs and hung the doors — no doubt helped her deal with the death of her 39-year-old daughter.
Whatever her motivations, Prisbrey (1896-1988) constructed an eccentric folk-art wonderland out of the colorful castoffs from a local dump.
“Anyone can do something with a million dollars. Look at Disney,” Prisbrey once said. “But it takes more than money to make something out of nothing, and look at the fun I have doing it.”
She also made a few dollars giving tours, which she began conducting when curious passersby started showing up on her doorstep.
Prisbrey, a Minnesota native, didn’t consider herself an artist. “I can’t even draw a car,” she had said. But her Bottle Village has been designated a state landmark, listed in the National Register of Historic Places and featured in several books.
One can almost hear Prisbrey uttering one of her favorite lines: “Well, imagine that!”
Alas, for some in the community, Bottle Village is an example of one man’s treasure being another man’s junk.
It has never received much government or neighborhood support. The 1994 Northridge earthquake destroyed several of its structures, and others need repair. Preserve Bottle Village, a nonprofit group that now owns the property, gives private tours but is searching for grant money. There is little activity on the uninhabited site now.
“Crumbling Bottle Village is an ironic paradox — built from castoffs, now cast aside,” wrote artist Joanne Johnson, one of the tour guides.
Hoping to increase membership in Simi Valley’s most famous landmark, Preserve Bottle Village is holding an open house from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. today. Entrance to the property at 4595 Cochran St. is free, though the group asks for a donation of $20 per family.
Visitors may first notice the property’s mosaic walkway, which has such inlaid items as pink stove tops, variously colored tiles and marbles, a Mickey Mouse guitar, a 1939 California license plate, the inside of a pencil sharpener, a doll arm, some broken eyeglass frames and upside-down laundry irons.
Then there’s the wishing well made of blue milk of magnesia bottles, a planter consisting of burned-out headlights and a “spring garden” made of old bed and car springs.
“Never needs watering,” Prisbrey noted.
In the back are large, flat sculptures in the shape of a heart, a diamond, a spade and a club. “Grandma liked to go to Vegas,” explains Johnson, who knew Prisbrey in her final years. Standing near an assemblage of brown Arden milk bottles, Johnson says that one of the things she finds fascinating about Bottle Village is that it’s a walk back in time, “a sort of consumer waste archive. It’s the glass era preserved.”
While children delight in the sights, Johnson points out that Prisbrey had a sort of gothic, grown-up sense of humor too.
“Bottle Village,” for instance, is spelled out on the walkway in rifle shell casings. A doll in one room wears a dress adorned with beer-can pop tabs. A false fireplace in the Round House has a screen made of intravenous feeding tubes. “When the wind blows, they sound like glass chimes,” Johnson says.
The Meditation Room, one of the structures destroyed by the Northridge quake, isn’t quite what it seems.
“It had a golden feel to it because the walls were made of beer bottles,” Johnson says, recalling one visit. “Grandma sat down to play her piano and you expected hymns. But she sang some bawdy songs. Then she just turned and smiled.”
Steve Harvey is a frequent contributor to L.A. Then and Now.November 23rd, 2008
By LAWRENCE DOWNES
NY Times Published: November 23, 2008
WHEN Ry Cooder and I got to El Mirage Dry Lake, it was 110 degrees and heading to 117, hot enough to cook your head inside your hat. The Mojave Desert in daylight will cut the gizzard right out of you, Tom Joad once said, which is why the Okies crossed it at night.
I put away the map and Ry pulled the S.U.V. through the gate and stopped. The gravel road fell away below us and vanished into the bone-white lakebed. The mirage was working: a shoreline shimmered wetly in the distance, made of bent sunlight and sand.
El Mirage Dry Lake sounds like a place one step away from nonexistence, but it’s about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, out among the Joshua trees. It’s not far from Edwards Air Force Base, in the Mojave’s military-paranormal sector, where secretive government installations lie low among the jackrabbits — a land of spy planes, space aliens, off-road vehicles, sturdy reptiles and people with freaky desert habits, like racing vintage hot rods on dry lakebeds.
It is, in other words, a critical stop on Ry’s California trail.
Ry Cooder — the rock and blues guitarist, roots musician, record producer, songwriter and composer — is a son of Santa Monica who has spent nearly 40 years exploring all corners of the musical planet, like a sharp-eared extraterrestrial on a lifelong voyage of discovery. (His two-CD career anthology, released last month, has a perfect title: “The U.F.O. Has Landed.”) But even that barely covers it — it’s strictly from his solo albums and the haunting scores he wrote for films like “Alamo Bay” and “Paris, Texas.” If you add all the records he has made with other musicians, like Gabby Pahinui, Flaco Jiménez, Ali Farka Touré, Mavis Staples, the Chieftains and, most famously, the Cuban all-stars of the Buena Vista Social Club, you can only wonder where on earth he could go next.
The answer: his own backyard.
Ry’s latest project may be his strangest and most ambitious. It’s a trilogy of concept albums, plus a short novel, that resurrects a lost California of places and people that Ry, who is 61, remembers from growing up in the 1950s. It was a dryer and poorer place then, but rich in things he likes, like simplicity and ingenuity, good musicians, cool cats and hot cars. Time and neglect have bulldozed most of it into oblivion.
“I like beautiful things, and things that are tough and serious,” he told me, in a tone that suggested the national supply of such things was running out.
Ry is steeped in California lore (he’s as much a writer and historian as a master of the bottleneck blues) and full of wry scorn for the old Golden State traditions of fakery, greed and self-indulgence. Things that set him off include useless corporate entertainment (a song on his last album includes a character who sweats to death at Disneyland in his Mickey Mouse suit, working overtime), the theft of farmers’ water for the California Aqueduct, and Southern California’s endless rows of stucco subdivisions, the splatter from the housing bubble.
But he can be just as emphatic in savoring the near-perfection of an unsmoggy day, the ancient Joshua trees lining the Pearblossom Highway, the harsh loveliness rolling past the window. We were headed to El Mirage, the site where he posed by an Airstream trailer for his first solo album. From the ’20s to the ’50s it was a magnet for white, working-class hot rodders, the kind of people who form the core of his California trilogy, along with steel-guitar players, Okies, Arkies, Mexican-American dance-band leaders, zoot-suited Pachuco hipsters and the occasional space alien.
The kinds of people Ry celebrates, in songs like “Poor Man’s Shangri-La,” are the ones nobody remembers:
Tell you ’bout a friend of mine that you don’t know
He lives way up a road that’s lost in time.
Don’t know his name, or where he’s coming from.
Only thing you know, he’s a real gone cat,
This friend of mine.
Ry talks the way his song characters do, in quick, fluid bursts that smack the ear and linger there, all strange and memorable, both sardonic and sentimental. “We’re going to El Mirage, which is still El Mirage and will always be El Mirage,” he said. “You can’t do anything with it. You can’t exploit it. You can’t figure out any way to make money on it.”
Traffic was light, and Ry’s conversation rolled as freely as the S.U.V., over wide terrain. “It’s terribly dry but beautiful,” he said as we hit the high desert. “It sure is good for the eyes, it sure is good.” He wore bright yellow shades and a broad-brimmed hat, and had brought CDs for the road: country-western guitar pickers and late-’40s Chicano dance music. He’d hoisted an iced-up cooler into the back, full of ginger beer and bottled water and a zip-lock bag of orange wedges from his own tree.
One thing that fills his head, besides a longing for someplace better than now, is cars. “Every woman I know, crazy ’bout an automobile,” he sang years ago, and it’s a rare record of his that doesn’t have wheels in it somewhere.
That’s how he met Bobby Green, who is far too young to remember those days, but an inventive old soul all the same. Mr. Green, a Los Angeles bar owner, is a member of a hot rodding club that dates back to the 1930s, when lakes like El Mirage first became meccas for racers. Soon after we arrived at the western edge of El Mirage, we met up with Mr. Green, who was preparing his custom-built “belly tanker” to run at the Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah.
In a few minutes we were all rolling onto the lake bed.
The ride was bumpy and then less bumpy and then smooth and then real smooth: a pool table in all directions.
A Predator spy drone, out of Edwards Air Force Base, buzzed overhead, presumably checking our faces against terrorist databases.
Ry had brought me so I could witness a rare event, when the fabric of time and space splits and a piece of lost California sticks out. For the last several years, he’s been poring over archives and deciphering maps. He’s been hanging with young fellow enthusiasts like Mr. Green and writing songs and stories about the California they embody. The project has crisscrossed miles and decades, tossed fact with fiction, and led to three records — “Chávez Ravine,” “My Name Is Buddy” and “I, Flathead,” which comes with its own short novel, his first.
The book is populated by white, lunch-pail Los Angelenos who left Oklahoma and Arkansas for barebones suburbs like South Gate and Vernon. These were people who liked Merle Travis, the finger-picking country-western guitarist, and found California to be just the place to realize homely dreams of peace and quiet. They worked in factories, danced in honkytonks and built hot rods out of surplus parts to race at El Mirage.
“You had to be kind of hardcore to come out and do this,” Ry told me. “Get sand in your teeth. God knows what. It was a working class, blue-collar thing, you know what I mean.”
Mr. Green, a compact man in a porkpie hat, is a throwback to that era. He had brought his garage crew, Lucky, Logan and Tyrell, and his friend Mister Jalopy, an artist and blogger who is also an authority on vintage technology and old California and does not go by his real name. Soon we added George Calloway, who had seen our dust and driven over from the trailer homes on the lake’s edge. George is the honorary mayor of El Mirage, a chatty old man who started racing there in the 1950s, and in the ’90s moved to El Mirage for good with his wife and car collection. If you come out to race on the lake, he’ll come out to you, and tell you all about the old days. His wife calls him home with an air horn.
Mr. Green’s team set up a tarp, a flimsy oasis in the wicked heat. They rolled the car off the trailer, a polished tadpole with a roll bar custom-fit for Mr. Green’s head and shoulders. Its 1933 Ford flathead engine, a cherry-red block of steel, coughed to life and found its thunder-rumble — hot but smooth, as if running on lava.
Ry marveled. You couldn’t see his eyes, but the growl said: happy.
The belly tanker began giving Mr. Green a hard time. Short high-speed runs were followed by hours of tinkering and repairs. The rest of us drank Dr Pepper and Tecate beer and watched a towering dust devil do a slow hula out by the trailer homes.
Ry and I talked about writing.
There’s historical scholarship tucked into “I, Flathead,” from his study of postwar suburbia. But if you know “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Cry Danger,” the brutal 1950s L.A. noir films, or “Them!” the horror movie about atomic ants, you will know a lot about where he’s coming from.
In the book, a man named Kash Buk, as invented by Ry, is a mediocre musician and sometime hot rodder. At El Mirage, he meets Shakey Lavonne, a virtuous, dome-headed alien who races a space car with no tires or steering wheel. Shakey, on the run from Martian slave traders, settles for a while in Trona, a dead-end town far out in the Mojave, because its desolate rocky pinnacles remind him of his home planet. He marries a local girl, sees his share of murders and assaults, and even commits a few, but eventually finds a stable life, until the past catches up with him. Kash ends up in a trailer park closer to the city. Years later, when he is old and falling apart, he and his oxygen tank are bundled into his old Cadillac and driven out to El Mirage at night, so he can walk out on the cool sand one last time, and die.
Ry told me he had pretty much abandoned songwriting for fiction. Songs are hard, but stories keep pouring out of him. The night before we went to El Mirage, he said, he’d been up from 1 to 4, writing another.
We were both short on sleep, and left as Mr. Green and crew kept working through the rest of the blistering afternoon. Ry made the long drive home, and I left his house feeling weary and slightly scorched, not quite believing the day I’d just had. It was as though I’d been roaming the Delta with Robert Johnson, or gypsy France with Django Reinhardt.
There was more to see, but Ry had things to do, so he left me in the care of the lanky, affable Mister Jalopy — “a very interesting individual,” Ry said.
The next day Jalopy and I went to lunch at the Halfway House Cafe, a 1930s roadhouse on the old Sierra Highway, halfway between Los Angeles and Palmdale. It’s a Kash Buk kind of place, a hangout for old test pilots and desert rats, where you can get a good steak sandwich and a beer.
After lunch we walked in the desert to examine a bricked-up mine shaft and to collect sand for gold panning back at Mister Jalopy’s workshop. Watch out for snakes, he told me as he walked ahead through a gully. Turning over rocks for reptiles, I found an old, neatly torn and folded girlie picture, perfectly preserved after escaping some trucker’s wallet. I refolded it and put it back.
We headed to Chávez Ravine, once a poor Mexican-American neighborhood and now the hilltop fortress of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The view of downtown from the hillside, across to Chinatown and City Hall, was just like the one captured in 1949 by the photographer Don Normark, who stumbled across the neighborhood one day. It was a collection of shacks and vegetable plots, like a hidden farming village, and looked to him like a “poor man’s Shangri-la.” The nickname and his haunting book of photographs are all that remain — in the late ’50s Chávez Ravine was buried, literally, and the stadium built on top of it.
Ry wrote a song about how old-timers locate themselves, by a memory plumb line down through the playing field, “to the town underneath all that cement”:
Second base, right over there.
I see Grandma in her rocking chair…
And if you want to know where a local boy like me is comin’ from:
3rd base, Dodger Stadium.
3rd base, Dodger Stadium.
My last stop was Shakey’s stomping ground, the old borax mining town of Trona. It’s the worst place on earth, Mister Jalopy told me, semiseriously, citing its heat and remoteness on the edge of Death Valley, and the acrid smell from an old chemical plant. Recent newspaper coverage bore him out. The population has plunged from a steady 6,000 to 1,880 in the 2000 Census. Retirees and young people have been moving away; methamphetamine addicts, parolees and arsonists have been moving in.
If you do go to Trona, it probably won’t be for the atmosphere but for the pinnacles, otherworldly geological formations just out of town that are a magnet for movie directors. When we entered the town just before high noon, it seemed locked up, like a Western town afraid of bandits. A drive-in was open, though, and a friendly woman there called the local historical society and got us an appointment for a museum tour.
We arrived at 2, just as Marydith Haughton pulled up in her white Buick LeSabre. Mrs. Haughton is 72 and tiny. Born and raised in Trona, she had the finely furrowed skin of a desert creature, white permed curls and eyes as blue as the Mojave sky.
Walking with a cane, she inched from room to sweltering room, turning on lights. I fiddled with an air-conditioner. “Turn that sucker up,” she said. Sweat collected on her glasses. The museum was a time capsule of Trona’s good old days as a company town. Old photographs lined the walls, cases displayed mining equipment, mineral samples, glass telephone insulators. Near a chair from the old hospital hung a varsity jacket from Trona High that had belonged to Mrs. Haughton’s husband.
It was a good place, she said.
I drove out of town, past its all-dirt ball fields and all-dirt graveyard. I had a little chunk of hanksite in my pocket, a local mineral sample Mrs. Haughton had given me as a souvenir. My favorite song from “I, Flathead” was playing over and over in my head. It’s “5000 Country Music Songs,” the story of a failed country singer. He marries, leaves the city for the desert, buys an old Cadillac and a trailer home and dreams of being the next Hank Williams. He keeps mailing songs to Nashville, but they keep coming back. He has his wife’s love, but once she gets sick and dies, there’s pretty much nothing left.
“Take what you want after I’m gone,” sings Ry, to the man who has come to clear his belongings away.
It was only just a little place that we called home sweet home
It was one old house trailer
Two rusty Cadillacs
and five thousand country music songs.
A SOUNDTRACK FOR CRUISING THE DESERT FLATS
“There’s nothing to buy and no place to stay,” Ry Cooder told me when I said I wanted to explore the California of his last three albums and book.
His point was that this was a history and memory project, not a Disney attraction — that a lot had been paved over and the rest forgotten, except those bits that lived in his head and in old maps and pulp movies. I said: “Sounds like a good time. When do we leave?”
The road trip must start with music.
Ry Cooder is a musician without borders, crisscrossing the globe in dozens of albums over nearly four decades. A 34-song overview of his career has just come out on Rhino Records: “The Ry Cooder Anthology: The UFO Has Landed” and is available on iTunes ($16.99).
His last three records are a trilogy about Southern California, his home: “Chávez Ravine” (2005), “My Name Is Buddy” (2007 ) and “I, Flathead” (2008), all from Nonesuch Records (www.nonesuch.com) or iTunes. These are Cooder originals, but each contains big contributions from other artists of the day, like the bandleader Don Tosti, who wrote the 1948 hit “Pachuco Boogie” (www.arhoolie.com) and Little Willie G. of the ’60s East Los Angeles rock band Thee Midniters (www.littlewillieg.com). Lalo Guerrero, a giant of Chicano music, wrote a song, “Corrido de Boxeo,” for “Chávez Ravine” and recorded new versions of two of his classics, “Los Chucos Suaves” and “Barrio Viejo.” Ersi Arvizu, a former boxer and singer for the Sisters, an East L.A. girl group, was a FedEx driver in Arizona when Mr. Cooder tracked her down. (Go to www.myspace.com/ersiarvizu to hear clips from her new album, “Friend for Life,” produced by Mr. Cooder.) The sweetest, saddest song on “Chávez Ravine” is “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium,” sung by Bla Pahinui (www.pahinui.com), a son of the Hawaiian slack-key guitar master Gabby Pahinui.
“My Name Is Buddy” and “I, Flathead” celebrate the steel-guitar-rich, honky-tonk country-western music of the white working class. That scene begins and ends with Merle Travis, Mr. Cooder says, but also includes old names like Ray Price, Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. Mr. Cooder’s own collection includes “The Best of Merle Travis: Sweet Temptation (1946-1953),” “Stratosphere Boogie: The Flaming Guitars of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant (both at www.musicspace.com) and “Speedy West Featuring Jimmy Bryant: There’s Gonna Be a Party” (www.jasmine-records.co.uk).
When you’re in Los Angeles, head to Dodger Stadium with the book “Chávez Ravine, 1949” by the photographer Don Normark. Stop in at Coco’s Variety Store (2427 Riverside Drive; 323-664-7400; www.cocosvariety.com), an awesome knickknack and vintage bicycle shop run by Mister Jalopy (www.hooptyrides.blogspot.com).
The hot-rod racing season ended Nov. 16 at El Mirage, officially the El Mirage Dry Lake Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area (directions at www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/barstow/mirage.html). But the belly tankers, coupes and streamliners will return in May. To learn more, read “The Birth of Hot Rodding: The Story of the Dry Lakes Era,” by Robert Genat, and visit the Web site of the Southern California Timing Association (www.scta-bni.org), which has organized dry-lakes races since the 1930s. The hot rodder Bobby Green has a Web site, www.oldcrowspeedshop.com, and in his day job runs theme bars with names like Bigfoot Lodge (www.bigfootlodge.com) and Saints ‘n’ Sinners Lounge (www.saintsnsinnersbar.com).
Google “Trona Pinnacles” to find directions to these geological landmarks. They are more than bizarre enough to justify a long drive beyond El Mirage. In the sleepy little town of Trona, the Searles Valley Historical Society (760-372-5222) runs the Old Guest House Museum (www1.iwvisp.com/svhs), where kindly volunteers will take you back to the days of borax mines, the magnesium monorail and the American Potash and Chemical Corporation. Open Monday through Saturday mornings, and by appointment.
On your desert trip, eat at the Halfway House Cafe (661-251-0102; www.halfwayhousecafe.com), a 1930s roadhouse on the old Sierra Highway in Canyon Country, or Trails Drive-In (84520 Trona Road in Trona; 760-372-5803). For ideas on where to stay and eat in Mr. Cooder’s hometown, go to the Santa Monica guide.November 23rd, 2008