Friday Poem

Bow City

First abandoned was the telegraph.
(The railway had found a straighter course).
The silos emptied. The bank foreclosed itself.
The last live bullet soothed the last lame horse.
When the saloon snuck out, so did its drunk,
followed by his shadow constable
who faded like a red serge into fable.
Even the cemetery, somehow, shrunk.
No one noticed the cartographer
paint over them a gloss of sand. One day
the silence spooked the magpies from their perch.
Time, in geese’s arrows, flew away,
and the town’s two founders disappeared together,
as they’d come: the whorehouse and the church.

by Michael Lavers
from 32 Poems, Fall/Winter 2013

This Is Not a Vermeer™

Can anyone own a masterpiece? In part one in this series about artistic authenticity, five very dissimilar people share a common desire: To own a Vermeer.

Rex Sorgatz in Medium:

ScreenHunter_929 Dec. 26 11.42I wanted a Vermeer.

I knew this would not be easy. Johannes Vermeer, that seventeenth-century Dutch “master of light,” produced only 35 known paintings, which today are among the most valuable objects in the world. Art historians reserve a certain adjective for precisely these types of cultish obsessions, which are not beyond value, but rather are, as they say, priceless — that is, without price, simply because the marketplace has not publicly accessed numerative value.

For most of the last century, no one really had any idea what a Vermeer was worth. Most of what we call modern art — Dali’s droopy clocks, Warhol’s soupy cans, Pollock’s drippy drips, Rothko’s blurry blobs — didn’t even existthe last time a Vermeer met an auction gavel.

Nonetheless, if you decided to buy all 35 Vermeers in the world, you would need billions of dollars.

More here.


Stephen Smith in Esquire:

ScreenHunter_928 Dec. 26 11.31“Who’s behind me?” hisses Martin Scorsese with a voice like bologna hitting a hot skillet. “I’m Sicilian. We don’t sit with our backs to the door. We never sit with our backs to the door. Who’s behind me? Who’s got my back?”

This is the way you dreamed it would go down, of course. The sit-down: the milk-fed veal, the carmine carafes, the rubber of post-prandial card games abruptly abandoned. The diminutive figure of the maestro bristles across the table from you. As he reacts to the sound of voices from the darkened doorway, a tremor of unease transmits itself through Scorsese’s people, his crew.

The director himself reaches for his piece. You watch in astonishment as the garlanded Hollywood insider fingers the barrel of his… inhaler.

It’s nighttime in New York City, and Scorsese has called a meeting at a favorite low-key joint a block or two from his home. But instead of the spaghetti house straight out of the old country, this is a chintzy suite in a boutique hotel, with its surprising lacunae: the pelmets concealing foxed wainscoting, the MDF boxing and panelling that shuts away eyesore cables.

The filmmaker, 72, is briefly between pictures, the gab and hustle for his most recent outing The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is behind him, and he is generously putting aside some time after standing me up on a previous date.

More here.

George Clooney’s Downton Abbey Skit Is Better Than Anything on TV This Week

June Thomas in Slate:

ClooneyThe holiday season may be a TV wasteland here in the United States, but in Britain it’s always a veritable fiesta of Christmas specials and Boxing Day bonus episodes. This year, though, the Brits have outdone themselves: A Downton Abbey comedy sketch created for a charity fundraising campaign is better than anything we’ll see on U.S. television until 2015 rolls around—and George Clooney, who makes a cameo, is the least interesting part of the skit.

It’s lovely to see the familiar Downton characters once again, but it’s especially fun to learn that everyone is aware of the show’s tendency toward repetition. In the first part of the sketch, a declaration of family happiness is followed—as it always seems to be on the show—by bad news. A telegram arrives with word that Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has managed to lose the family fortune. “Not again!” says his wife, Cora—and everyone who has ever watched Downton Abbey. The sketch then morphs into a version of It’s a Wonderful Life, with Joanna Lumley (Patsy Stone on Absolutely Fabulous) as an angel, showing Lord G. how terrible life would’ve been if he had never been born. (If you’re wondering why Jeremy Piven shows up as retail pioneer Harry Selfridge, it’s because, like Downton, Mr. Selfridge airs on ITV in Britain.

More here.

a christmas memory

From DelancyPlace:

CapoteSeven-year-old Truman Capote, abandoned by his divorced parents, is taken in by depression-poor cousins in the rural South. One of these cousins, a distant, elderly cousin, becomes his closest friend and only refuge — but she is only in his life for two more short years. As Christmas approaches, they make fruitcakes as presents for people they barely know: Imagine a morning in late November. A coming-of-winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar. “A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable — not unlike Lin­coln's, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. 'Oh my,' she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, 'it's fruitcake weather!' “The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very dis­tant ones, and we have lived together — well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, rela­tives; and though they have power over us, and fre­quently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other's best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was for­merly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880's, when she was still a child. She is still a child. …

“The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweet­ens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on window sills and shelves. “Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share are intended for persons we've met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who've struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt.

More here.

A Punch Line In The U.S., Christmas Fruitcake Is Big In Calcutta

Sandip Roy at NPR:

Kanchan-cakes_custom-dca9f6bda9192db1e7ae4571e79468a8cfefab5c-s800-c85The British are long gone from Calcutta, but they left behind the fruitcake. The West jokes about indestructible fruitcake as the gift that keeps on giving, but Calcutta — the old British capital — embraces it. Around Christmas, bakeries set up counters just to sell these treats, which also are known as plum cakes.

Flurys, a legendary European-style tearoom, stays open all night on Christmas Eve, says manager Rajeev Khanna. He says the big draws are the old favorites: “It's the plum cake which has been marinated just last week of November. Dundee. Rum and raisin. Mince pie.”

In Goa, the former Portuguese colony, where the Saldanhas are from, Christmas still has a strong Catholic feel to it. But here in Calcutta, a far more mixed city, Christmas is simply called Boro Din, or Big Day. And it's universal.

Cake knows no religion. At Nahoum and Sons, the city's only Jewish bakery, a lady who gave her name only as Mrs. Maxwell waits in a long line as her grandson plays with a toy pistol. She says that despite all the fancy new patisseries in malls, she comes here every year. “Nothing to beat Nahoum,” she says. “You buy the same plum cake from somewhere else at a much higher price, you immediately find the difference.”

At Sheik Nuruddin's storefront bakery, there's a photograph of Mecca on the wall. But in December, you can rent his oven and his bakers for your own Christmas cake. The wood-fired oven turns out seven cakes an hour, from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., says Nuruddin.

Read the rest here.

The Folly of Mars

Ken Kalfus in n + 1:

ScreenHunter_927 Dec. 25 14.49A half-century after the conclusion of the Apollo mission, we have entered a new age of space fantasy—one with Mars as its ruling hallucination. Once again stirring goals have been set, determined timetables have been laid down, and artist’s renderings of futuristic spacecraft have been issued. The latest NASA Authorization Act projects Mars as the destination for its human spaceflight program. Last month’s successful test flight of the Orion space vehicle was called by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden “another extraordinary milestone toward a human journey to Mars.” The space agency’s officials regularly justify the development of new rockets, like the Space Launch System, as crucial to an eventual Mars mission.

But human beings won’t be going to Mars anytime soon, if ever. In June, a congressionally commissioned report by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, punctured any hope that with its current and anticipated level of funding NASA will get human beings anywhere within the vicinity of the red planet. To continue on a course for Mars without a sustained increase in the budget, the report said, “is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best.”

The new report warns against making dates with Mars we cannot keep. It endorses a human mission to the red planet, but only mildly and without setting a firm timetable. Its “pathways” approach comprises intermediate missions, such as a return to the moon or a visit to an asteroid. No intermediate mission would be embarked upon without a budgetary commitment to complete it; each step would lead to the next. Each could conclude the human exploration of space if future Congresses and presidential administrations decide the technical and budgetary challenges for a flight to Mars are too steep.

The technical and budgetary challenges are very steep. A reader contemplating them may reasonably wonder if it’s worth sending people to Mars at all.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Old Man Leaves Party

It was clear when I left the party
That though I was over eighty I still had
A beautiful body. The moon shone down as it will
On moments of deep introspection. The wind held its breath.
And look, somebody left a mirror leaning against a tree.
Making sure that I was alone, I took off my shirt.
The flowers of bear grass nodded their moonwashed heads.
I took off my pants and the magpies circled the redwoods.
Down in the valley the creaking river was flowing once more.
How strange that I should stand in the wilds alone with my body.
I know what you are thinking. I was like you once. But now
With so much before me, so many emerald trees, and
Weed-whitened fields, mountains and lakes, how could I not
Be only myself, this dream of flesh, from moment to moment?

by Mark Strand
from Blizzard of One: Poems
Alfred A. Knopf Publishing 1998

The Power of Bad Ideas


Michael McCarthy review Fred Block and Margaret Somers's The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique by in Boston Review:

Karl Polanyi is far less well known than the big three of economics: Marx, Keynes, and Hayek. But Polanyi’s ideas are distinct. Like Marx, he viewed capitalist markets as harmful and a source of social catastrophe. But unlike Marx, he thought they were necessary. Like Keynes, he rejected a zero-sum approach to politics, arguing instead that working-class gains could be achieved alongside business gains. Unlike Keynes, he rejected technocratic politics in which well-trained bureaucrats manage an economy. Instead, Polanyi favored a politics of direct democracy that emphasizes the active political contention and mobilization of all the different segments of society. Finally, he stands in starkest contrast to Hayek. Polanyi challenges the choice between free markets and regulated markets as a false one. Not only are efforts to impose free markets destructive, the assumption that markets can, in principle, be free has never been true, nor could it be.

Yet the free market axiom is now widespread, notwithstanding glaring and recurrent market failures. Once the ideological stomping grounds of the Republican and Tory right, it now forms the rhetorical bedrock of policy paradigms across the Western world. And the neoliberal project to realize this political utopia seems to have advanced since the 2008 crash. In The Power of Market Fundamentalism (hereafter TPMF) Fred Block and Margaret Somers revive Polanyi to analyze the free market’s origins and staying power.

Polanyi’s key work, The Great Transformation(1944), demonstrates that markets and states are not separate entities, each with its unique and endogenous dynamics. Instead they are inescapably intertwined and mutually constitutive. Markets, in neoclassical economics, are theoretical abstractions that barely reflect reality. From a Polanyian view, what the price mechanism captures so elegantly is not how the market actually works, but rather the belief that markets can be autonomous and, if left alone, will obey natural laws of supply and demand that generate positive equilibria, a belief that Block and Somers call social naturalism. This approach to economic activity is not unlike the way the biological sciences explain how living organisms know when to heal a wound or the way the laws of physics account for orbiting planets.

Block and Somers’s unique contribution is to argue that these public narratives about the economy are key drivers of regulatory policy. Why, for instance, did free market ideals, revived under Reagan and Clinton, weather the storm of the Great Recession, while policies adopted after World War II—policies rooted in people’s connectedness and the public good—are long lost? Free market narratives have immense cultural power; the popular rhetoric about the economy plays into centuries-old ways of thinking about the economy and indeed into people’s very sense of identity. And this power explains why the free-market policy paradigm is so persistent.

More here.

The Foreign Spell


Pico Iyer in Lapham's Quarterly (Image: Spring Time, from The Lost Paintings Series, by Taner Ceylan, 2013. Oil on canvas, 55 ½ x 82 ¾ inches.):

The foreign has long been my stomping ground, my sanctuary, as one who grew up a foreigner wherever I happened to be. Born to Indian parents in Oxford, England, I was seven when my parents moved to California; by the third grade, I was a foreigner on all three of the continents that might have claimed me—a little Indian boy with an English accent and an American green card. Foreignness became not just my second home, but my theme, my fascination, a way of looking at every place as many locals could not. As some are born with the blessing of beauty or a musical gift, as some can run very fast without seeming to try, so I was given from birth, I felt, the benefit of being on intimate terms with outsiderdom.

It’s fashionable in some circles to talk of Otherness as a burden to be borne, and there will always be some who feel threatened by—and correspondingly hostile to—anyone who looks and sounds different from themselves. But in my experience, foreignness can as often be an asset. The outsider enjoys a kind of diplomatic immunity in many places, and if he seems witless or alien to some, he will seem glamorous and exotic to as many others. In open societies like California, someone with Indian features such as mine is a target of positive discrimination, as strangers ascribe to me yogic powers or Vedic wisdom that couldn’t be further from my background (or my interest).

Besides, the very notion of the foreign has been shifting in our age of constant movement, with more than fifty million refugees; every other Torontonian you meet today is what used to be called a foreigner, and the number of people living in lands they were not born to will surpass 300 million in the next generation. Soon there’ll be more foreigners on earth than there are Americans. Foreignness is a planetary condition, and even when you walk through your hometown—whether that’s New York or London or Sydney—half the people around you are speaking in languages and dealing in traditions different from your own.

Yet for all the global culture and busy crossroads we might share, it’s treacherous to assume these imply common values or assumptions.

More here.