Thursday, January 31, 2008

Queen for a Day

Even in our technologically advanced time, we make a practice of lighting great bonfires to mark auspicious occasions.

Auspicious it was (her 21st), and a splendid time was had by all.

I’ll leave it for others to post all the official group shots. [2/2/2008 update: Yup, they’re up.] All branches of the family were represented, as well as many friends and neighbors.

Mime Funny Valentine

There’s a poem I want to find. If I knew where it was, I could hurl a few boxes of old papers off the balcony and never worry about what I was losing. It’s not the greatest poem ever written by far, but it’s given me pleasure over the years. I believe the last time I had a lock on its position was when I was living in New York. In one of many moves, it found its way into a box somewhere. When I find time one day, I’ll sift through boxes and find it, and then I can get rid of some other things I’m ready to quit dragging around.

Who knows what other great treasures are in these cartons stuffed with old memories? Every piece of it was something I once hesitated to throw away; maybe I’ll stay my hand again if I see it anew. But this poem is the one thing my mind keeps going back to.

I have searched for it again and again on the Internet, using all kinds of arcane screens to unearth even someone who might have a recollection of it, or who might have a printed copy. Such is the staying power of a fragment of language.

If I could find it, I might just toss some of these boxes of old effects without having to sift through them. So far, no luck.

It is in that spirit that I offer this little piece. Let’s just say I noticed it the other night. It’s a minor rethinking of Thoreau (“What are you doing in jail, Harry?” “What are you doing out of jail, Ralph?”), but it doesn’t pretend to be any great shakes. I’m not claiming it’s outstanding.

Still, I bet someone out there will go hunting for it one of these days. If it were famous or great, it would already be on the Web in a half-dozen places. It’s just obscure enough for someone to be able to remember it and not find it.

And so I’ll post it here, and with the power of Google, it will magically become accessible to all the connected peoples of the Interverse.

Until, that is, the paradigm changes again, and it and all these other posts become technologically obsolete. They’ll go unvisited, like dusty stations on an abandoned railroad.

I’m giving it about five months.

Anyhow, I won’t go into the story of the song or any of the other remarks one might make. I’m just here to post the lyrics, not to comment or promote or detract. (I will note that the guy who wrote it apparently did spend time in prison for refusing to cooperate with the draft—it’s not a purely academic piece of rhetoric. But I don’t really know much about it beyond that.)

by W.S. “Sonny” Tongue
performed by the Hello People

They say I was born in the land of the free
But the home of the briefcase is all I can see
With fine houses and highways we cover the land
But freedom’s a fable if the conscience is banned

So I’m going to prison
For what I believe
I’m going to prison
So I can be free
I’ve got something I’ll die for
What else can they do?
I’ve got something to live for
What about you?

From official sources directives have come:
Send out the marshals, round up everyone
Who’s worshiping God instead of the state
Who’s teaching that love is better than hate

So I’m going to prison
For what I believe
I’m going to prison
So I can be free
I’ve got something I’ll die for
What else can they do?
I’ve got something to live for
What about you?

As broadcast on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, February 14, 1969

For more on the Hello People, see

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Up Around the Bend

I moved to where the weather’s supposed to be good, and I got blowing rain and sand.

My sister moved to where it’s supposed to snow and got cold and snow.

My cousin drove to where it was snowing and apparently spent so much time skiing that he forgot to take any pictures.

But we all know that where the weather really matters these days is in Albuquerque, where Team Astana has set up its winter training camp. Levi and Alberto and Andreas and the boys are riding over the mountains down there in sometimes sub-freezing temperatures, getting their legs in shape for the Tour of California next month and a long race season after that, including the Tour de France in July. Johan Bruyneel has arrived now for the first real team training sessions since last season, when the new echelon was formed from the remnants of Team Discovery. Jani Brajkovic has announced that this year, in addition to defending his title as winner of last year’s Tour de Georgia, he intends to try for a win in the Giro d’Italia.

A few team members headed Down Under earlier this month to test themselves in the Tour Down Under (the first race in this year’s Pro Tour, and the first time the Pro Tour has started outside of Europe), but it looks as if the headliners are all limbering up in New Mexico.

It’ll be fun next month in California to see how well they’ve prepared.

Me and Cinderella


Après la réparation

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mad Dogs, Englishmen, and Cyclists

Maybe these pictures will ease some of the jealousy.

When I closed my front door behind me this morning and hit the bike trail, the sky was blue, with some clouds. Good stiff breeze blowing in the wrong direction, but you get to where you just grumble at the usual and go on.

It was a good stiff breeze, though. I mean a sturdy, steady wind. Flags blowing sideways, trees bending over, gusts knocking gulls into unexpected cartwheels, all that. I had been planning on a shorter ride than I did yesterday, maybe 20 miles, but I got to where I was having so much fun cranking into the teeth of it that I decided what the heck, I was good for 30. What’s the point riding if you’re going to quit when the real fun begins?

These pictures are from the point in the ride where the rain began.

Sand blowing across a parking lot. The blowing sand eased back a lot once the rain set in hard.

The rain is drumming steadily on the roof and windows. The biking togs are in the washing machine, and the bike frame is quietly dripping into a puddle on the floor downstairs. After a hot shower, I think I’m about ready for some soup and grilled cheese and hot chocolate.

Beats sitting on the couch watching TV all afternoon.


As you can see, the weather was fine yesterday for sculling—or cycling—even though the mountains in the distance have been whitened by the series of storms we’ve been watching march through.

Thursday night pelted serious rain, even flooding some streets in Los Angeles; Friday night rained hard again; and last night even more came down. Stretches of the beach road are covered in sand. But that sand was dry yesterday morning, not wet, and the temperature was in the high 50s, quite comfortable for being outdoors.

I have at least a couple of cousins up there where the mountains are white, inspecting the snowpack to make sure we’ll have plenty of drinking water later this year. The mountains that ring Los Angeles can be quite striking the first morning after a snowfall, while the snow is still pristine and white. This time around I’d also judge the snow line was lower than usual, making for an even more dramatic wall of white to eyeball as I ride my morning loop.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Through a Different Lenz*

Picture two people driving up a highway, talking about the clouds they see through the windshield. Soon they have to develop a careful terminology to make sure they’re talking about the same things: Is that the L-shaped hole next to a lobe or the one next to a bulge? Concave or convex bulge? What’s the scale of fuzziness? How gray is dark gray? Is the fringe around the top more like a lion’s mane or more like tongues of flame?

Any discussion of something as nebulous as aesthetics gets the same way pretty quickly.

My high school friend Andrew grew up and joined the dotty Swiss.

He proposed last year that we both read Georg Büchner’s “Lenz” on January 20. The first line of the short piece is (in English) “On 20th January Lenz crossed the mountains.”

I was too busy last year, but I did buy the book. This year, I sat down and read.

Every great work is in some way about someone crossing some mountains. In this case, one might say of Lenz that after crossing the mountains, he went around the bend. Put most simply, it’s a story of a man’s breakdown, or pieces of it, fictionalized from actual journal entries made by Johann Friedrich Oberlin. Lenz was a real man who really had a breakdown; Büchner retells the story a half-century later.

The story of the breakdown holds less fascination for me than it might. Paul Simon observed, “Breakdowns come and breakdowns go.” My favorite story of a breakdown is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” not because of the story itself but because it contains this line:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

When looking at American letters, that single line seduces me better as a razor than Henry Adams’s entire blunt-force trauma on the Virgin and the Dynamo.

Getting back to Lenz, and going past the breakdown, the piece has some interesting thoughts on an artist’s aesthetic preference. (I’ll skip the obvious question of how we want to weigh the judgment of an artist poised on the edge of a breakdown. Büchner chose what to write here, not Lenz.)

“Those writers, [Lenz] argued, of whom it was said that they reflected reality in fact knew nothing whatever about it, but even they were a good deal more bearable than those who sought to transfigure reality.”

Büchner’s Lenz expresses a taste for realism, which need not be everyone’s taste. (Büchner’s tribute to Lenz transfigures Oberlin’s account and presumes to gain insight.) He continues: “We . . . have no need to ask whether something is ugly or beautiful, both are overridden by the conviction that ‘Everything created possesses life,’ which is the sole criterion in matters of art.”

Having praised everything created, he goes on to say that only Shakespeare, folk songs, and here and there a shred of Goethe are good enough for him, and “Everything else can be thrown in the fire.”

Lenz proposes that the artist should “enter completely into the life of the meanest of men and then reproduce it with every twitch of an eyebrow, every wink and nod, the whole subtle, hardly perceptible play of facial expression.” Lenz was around in the late 1700s; Büchner wrote this in the early 1800s. I’m reminded very much of Van Gogh’s late 1800s sensitivity to the peasant, his enormous struggles to capture something almost inexpressible in the faces and straining bodies of ordinary workers.

Lenz goes on to describe a perfect tableau he saw lately—“two girls sitting on a stone, one putting up her hair, the other helping”—and he describes how he ached to capture the image, and then “They stood up, the beautiful tableau was gone for ever; but as they clambered down amongst the rocks there was yet another picture.” We’ve all been around on days when everything seemed beautiful. Sometimes it’s our own mood; sometimes it’s the light.

Without getting too deep into it (is that a lobe or a bulge?), I’d say the same questions come to my mind when I’m out trying to grab chunks of the great big world in my little camera, or occasionally when I’m writing, or when I’m looking at someone else’s representation of what they once saw, whether it’s a piece of writing, or a sculpture, or a flat image, or a piece of music.

I’m not as passionate about one particular aesthetic as Büchner’s Lenz. I can take great joy in gritty realism; I can find transcendence too in highly stylized idealism. I’m not much of a believer that one style is inherently better than any other, though I do think that some specific pieces can be ranked above others.

I can stand on the shoulders of another 200 years of Western critical thinking and point out that even the so-called realist is still picking and choosing what he’s going to put into his piece; his selection carves his identity into the work and keeps it from being necessarily more “real” than anyone else’s selection. With the benefit of modern neuroscience, I can point out that we each perceive the same world differently anyhow: For one person, red is associated with the cry of a bird at sunset; another ties red to the taste of tea. Which is real? (Neither.)

So as I cross the mountains, when I spot a red flower, I might stop and see if it smells good, and if the light’s right, I might try to capture what it is I see. I might frame that red flower against a rock, to highlight the texture, or against grass, to highlight the color, or against a cloud, because it reminds me of tongues of flame. Any of these would be “real,” as far as that goes, but each would still be a specific way of communicating what struck me about that flower on that day.

And when I’m standing in a museum, or thumbing through a magazine, or puzzling over a poem, I sometimes put myself in the artist’s shoes and try to imagine what that person saw, what flash of wings in a cornfield struck them so much that they tried to capture it, to seize it as Lenz wanted to freeze the image of two golden sisters setting their hair, and to pass it on to the next human—in the next room, or centuries away—and say, “See, this is what was so sublime about being here today.”

*The pun is unearned. Since the name is German, I’m fairly sure it’s pronounced “Lentz.”

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Field Trip

It rained not long ago in the high desert, so flowers were out.

The mission of the day was to see a lady who wanted to talk about solar electricity.

Pink and yellow flowers.

Field, pivot and moon.

Before the flood. (See also, and also.)

Absolutely sweet Marie.

(See also.)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Over the Ocean Blue

Two of my sisters are on their way down from Washington to visit California. They say they’ll be here by next month sometime.

(I apologize for Blogger, which converts pictures into its own format. To see my sisters correctly, you’ll have to click on the picture above. Some other day when I have less important things to do, I’ll go back and fix this so it shows up right even on this main page.)

Expose Yourself (II)

Last month I took pictures of a nearly full moon and found the best exposure (on my camera) was 1/800 second to keep the grays on the lunar surface from being overexposed.

I was curious whether the same would apply when taking pictures of a crescent moon. Same object, same light source: You’d figure the same settings would give you the same exposure, even if it’s for a smaller part of the same subject.

You’d be wrong.

The picture above was taken at 1/100 second, which turned out best. The ISO film speed equivalent was set to 200 instead of 100, which means not only was the exposure eight times as long, but the sensitivity to light was twice as high.

This is the picture I took using the same settings I had used for the full moon.

This is last month’s picture of the full moon, for comparison.

I don’t think most of us consciously adjust our eyes so we can see the moon properly in different phases. We look up on a clear night, and there’s the moon. We see craters; we see light and dark; some of us see faces.

Cameras aren’t quite so clever yet as our eyeballs, so there’s still some manual adjustment required when we want to use a camera to show other people what our eyes saw so easily.

Next project is to see whether I can tweak the camera so it’ll pick up the very slight—but visible—image of the part of the moon’s face that is in shadow when the moon is reduced to a crescent.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Monday, January 07, 2008

Cold Perfect Morning

Forgot to mention how the other morning when I was out, I ran across one of these people who really inspire me when I’m huffing and chuffing up the beach road.

Without putting too fine a calculation on it, I’m gonna guess she was 250 lbs. and 5'4", in running shorts and a T-shirt, obviously not jogging fast but giving it her all, smiling slightly as she chugged up the path. As I rode by, I could hear what sounded like heavy metal coming from her headphones—what she was using to keep herself going.

I’m no Slim Jim, but I know I have an easier time of it, getting up and exercising. I see plenty of folks narrower than me on the sand, and I say kudos to them all, for putting themselves out where they can enjoy the air fresh chilled by a morning rain. But the ones who really make my heart surge are the ones who come out against steeper odds—the ones who have more to lose and so much more to gain.

I can’t tell you she’ll ever go for a jog again. I can’t tell you whether it was a New Year’s resolution that she’ll abandon after a few days’ more sweat. But I can tell you that on that morning she was smiling and feeling the joy of it all.

That’s an inspiration as good as cranking the “Chariots of Fire” theme before I swig that last gulp of Ostfriesen Teefix and hit the ground rolling.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Little Fall of Rain

We had some storms scheduled here this weekend, but they spent most of their fury in the San Francisco Bay Area, so mostly in Long Beach we saw rain and some moderate wind.

The rains came by night, so both Saturday and Sunday mornings were dry enough to ride, depending what you consider dry. Some benevolent government agency had padlocked all the reasonable entrances to the paved path that runs along the Los Angeles River—no doubt to keep curious kids from being swept downstream—so I took a slightly different route to get to my usual course.

The beach had the usual collection of post-storm debris (or, as the British call them, bowlers).

Here and there the beach trail disappeared under a minor layer of sand. The city usually keeps this trail meticulously swept clean. I’m sure by Tuesday morning it’ll be as right as rain.

As of Saturday morning, the Los Angeles River hadn’t filled up enough for me to even slow down to snap a picture.