Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, August 22, 2008

After a day’s drive and ferry ride,
we hiked in the two miles to Shi Shi,
the northernmost ocean-facing beach
in the Lower 48,
just south of the Makah Reservation,
through which we had to hike.
The forecast predicted rain
but we were lucky our two days there,
never getting more than a few sprinkles.
We saw a gray whale in the surf
thirty feet from shore,
its fin and its tale splashing out,
and then later out in the bay,
its gray, white-flecked back
humping out of the water.
I thought of the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth,
his beautiful poems on nature’s immensity,
nature’s and time’s,
and our puniness, redeemed, if at all,
only by our consciousness
and more than that, our love.
The crashing surf lullabyed us
with its awesome song
of nature’s splendor and indifference.
Frank O’Hara’s epigram against nature
echoed in my head too,
though I could neither quote it
nor place it to look it up later
when I got home,
but something to the effect that,
only commercial culture gives a sign
that we don’t totally regret life.
Our stay on the beach needed
commercial culture -- our tents,
sleeping bags, cookware, food.
O’Hara’s urbane urban-centricity
putting him in the line of
Socrates and Oscar Wilde, not bad company.
I read The Hobbit aloud to my kid,
a suggestion of my beloved spouse’s,
who loves Tolkien more than I do,
and I love him.
We’re about halfway through it
and the kid is enjoying it,
and I love seeing his face shine
at passages he finds funny,
such as Bilbo’s tricking the dwarves
by wearing the ring and
invisibly entering their circle
as they wonder whether he’s alive,
and he slips off the ring and says,
“Here is the burglar!”
My 5-year-old son’s face shined at that,
he quoted it, “‘Here is the burglar!’
That’s so good!”
At first he had been skeptical
about a book with no pictures,
but only a few pages in he interrupted
to say that the book was putting pictures
into his brain.
My beloved spouse got the idea
to read The Hobbit aloud from a friend
who read it to his son when he was four.
I read it when I was about 10 and loved it,
and read it again 16 years ago
and loved it less but still enjoyed it
and am enjoying it again now
though now that we’re back from our trip
finding time to read it aloud
might be tough.
The kid is in bed and I should be.
We had planned to stay three nights
but after two the kid and I wanted to go
and a good thing too,
the rain came pouring
just after we reached our car.
1:25 AM, I need to sleep.
The waves crash on the Pacific shore,
electricity hums through our house,
and somewhere a gray whale
remains indifferent to its splendor.

-- Photo of Shi Shi lifted from the Visitors Bureau.

Update, 8/26:
From Mickle Maher in comments,
here's the original O'Hara line I butchered above;
it's from the prose poem "Meditations in an Emergency":

"One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes -- I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life."

Thanks Mickle! (And thanks for giving my beloved spouse the idea to read The Hobbit to our kid.)

Thanks Frank O'Hara!

(I feel bad for so wretchedly transforming O'Hara's epigram into a drab bit of quasi-dogma, which, as Mickle points out, is not what it is at all.)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Gretta and Sarah Are Golden

The one cover Seattle chamber-rock band We Are Golden played at their CD release show Thursday night was a bittersweet Joni Mitchell number, “For Free.” Charming, vivacious, golden-voiced front woman Sarah Rudinoff introduced the song by geeking out on how she and composer-pianist-guitarist-vocalist Gretta Harley bonded over their love for Joni Mitchell. So it makes sense that they got their band name from the Joni Mitchell song “Woodstock” (which I didn’t realize until I started googling for some Golden images). We are stardust. We are golden.

Gretta teaches composition at Cornish College for the Arts (where then-faculty-member John Cage debuted his first composition for prepared piano, 70 years ago), and the beautiful arrangements and sterling transitions of the material she wrote with Rudinoff show her skills. For example, “Just Every Fisher’s Folly” hit me hardest from their set Thursday night, and when I told Gretta afterwards she said that a lot of people had said the same thing. It starts in slow, spooky 5/4 meter, transitions to that classic rock beat that could be counted 6/8 or 4/4, and explodes into a passionate, super-catchy chorus, before returning to that 5/4 verse again. I’ve listened to that song a few times today, and for hours afterwards, the chorus sticks pleasingly in my head.

Besides Gretta, the band features clarinet, cello, lead guitar, bass guitar, and drums -- and they all rock. Cello and clarinet get the tastiest parts, which makes sense, since they’re the least standard rock instruments, and all the players sparkled. Drummer John Hollis can kick the dynamics from spooky and soft to loud happening rock, with a rainbow of nuance along every step of the way.

I’ve known Gretta for years and it made me really happy to see her so happy, leading the excellent band, totally rocking the house, playing her splendid music.

* * *

Bumped into an acquaintance at the grocery.

“Where do I know you from?”

“I know I know you, but I can’t think of how.”

“Are you a friend of C-’s?”


“Well, nice to see you, whoever you are!”

* * *

-- photo from the Seattle P-I

Friday, August 15, 2008

Belated follow-up from last week’s post on Jody Rosen’s article in Slate on the small Texas alt-weekly that systematically plagiarized a host of writers:

Via Zoilus, the Houston Press reports that the Montgomery County Bulletin shut its doors a couple of days after Jody’s piece appeared.

If you haven’t seen the Houston Press report, and you’ve a taste for the psychology of “there’s no defense like a good offense,” you should check it out. In it, Bulletin publisher/editor Mike Ladyman and putative writer Mark Williams lash out at Jody in wacky ways.

I call Williams a “putative” writer for two reasons. First, there’s the plagiarism -- relentless, systematic, chronic, as detailed in Jody’s piece. Second, I would bet money -- five bucks, maybe -- that he doesn’t exist.

The evidence for Williams’s non-existence is entirely circumstantial, but here it is:

* Ladyman spoke to the press, but he didn’t know how to put the press in contact with Williams -- his only “writer” for the last six years.

* Ladyman claims that Williams “lives in Brenham now where he’s a morning news talk show host in radio,” but that Ladyman doesn’t know Williams’s on-air name.

* Ladyman doesn’t have a phone number for Williams?

* Williams wrote a statement, which Ladyman appears to have forwarded to the Houston Press. In the statement, Williams repeatedly refers to “our” paper. To me, it sounds like Ladyman talking, not a writer whose editor is so out-of-touch that he doesn’t even have his phone number.

* The Bulletin’s plagiarism extended beyond Williams’s signed pieces. The unsigned editorials, which typically are the province of the editor and/or publisher (in this case, Ladyman is both), and which, according to Ladyman's testimony, Williams had nothing to do with, were systematically plagiarized too.

* Via the Museum of Hoaxes, comes a link to an NPR story on the affair, in which Williams read from his prepared statement and made no other remarks. Strange behavior for a radio talk show host.

* Since Ladyman was already plagiarizing the op-eds, why would he pay someone else for plagiarized feature stories? Makes no sense.

At this point, the question is, how much money was Ladyman pulling down in ad revenue? In the Puget Sound region, local weekly rags, including niche neighborhood newspapers, are more profitable than the dailies. Might not be true elsewhere in the country, but it's true here.

If Ladyman had been pulling serious dough, which is possible, he was not ripping off the writers he was plagiarizing so much as he was ripping off the local writing market. A selling point of local journals is their local flavor; featuring national reprints dilutes their appeal. In other words, Ladyman -- or, rather, an honest publisher working the same turf -- would have been unlikely to have been paying Jody or the writers from USA Today for reprint rights. If the business were workable, he would have been paying local writers for local content.

The New Village Voice Times alt-weekly empire has diluted that arrangement, but their nationalized writers are under contract, and they don't have to reveal that the original appeared elsewhere, when, say, a Voice review shows up in the Seattle Weekly. The same chain owns both. Wouldn't be the case with the Bulletin.

Ladyman’s (and “Williams’s”) psychodrama is compelling, and the whole story intrigues. I am craving some more actual journalism at this point, some follow-up to Jody's, into Ladyman's business model and Williams's existence.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Driving Sunday afternoon, Sinatra singing "Fly Me to the Moon" comes on the radio. The kid asks me to start the song again. I can't, it's on the radio. He asks if I have a CD of it. I do, two versions, but not Sinatra -- Bennett and the Four Lads. The kid says that playing "among the stars" is impossible, and if someone could live on Jupiter or Mars, their bodies would have to be different so that they wouldn't be able to live on Earth too.

We listen to the song at home. The kid asks what it's about. "It's about love."

"I like this song, because I'm interested in love and I'm interested in astronomy."

* * *

Earlier that day, I heard a big hit of 1971, "Here Comes that Rainy Day Feeling Again." In 1971 I was 8. I don't know why, but probably no song conjures my childhood more than that song. The radio station my parents favored must have played it a lot.

Easy for me to idealize childhood and forget about my own social insecurities, and all of the constant intense change, and the long patches of scholastic dullness; but when I hear a song that pulls me back there, I'm in my parents' kitchen, and everything is good -- it's Edenic. My parents' kitchen was the garden of Eden, where the reigning deities loved me, and food was there for the taking, without any strife or toil that I was conscious of.

The Garden is in my heart.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

We had friends over to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. The show was spectacular -- poetic, grandiose, dreamy, gorgeous, moving. Afterwards I fell asleep before brushing my teeth and just woke up and brushed them. Walking the house at 2 in the morning, with everybody asleep I catch the lonesomeness of time blowing gently through, whispering its faint song, passing, passing, passing.

-- photo from the New York Times

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Apostles singing in Pike Place Market.

This is an old story. Six years ago a member of a Seattle street gospel singing group called The Apostles was murdered, and they finally put a suspect on trial last October. A reporter covering the story played part of the trial scene for droll comedy.

At one point, the testimony took a turn into the finer points of swear words, when [the prosecutor] Lee grilled [the suspect] Lyons on why he called [the murder victim] Brown an epithet invoking mothers.

"That's a term of endearment?" Lee asked.

"Explain to me, 'term of endearment,' " Lyons retorted. He added he wasn't "angry" at Brown, just "kinda pissed."

What word do you use when you're angry at someone, Lee asked.

"Bitches," Brown finally replied.
-- "Trial in Gospel singer's slaying nears end: Many twists in case of police informant killed five years ago," Seattle Post-Intelligencer

I have seen The Apostles, a fine group of rotating members, many times. I was acquainted with some of the members, from my work years ago in homeless shelters -- at least some of the singers had been homeless. The murder victim smoked crack. The murderer was a dealer, and the only witness against him was a crack addict.

Horrible story.

And there's the prosecutor trying to trip the accused with standard prosecutorial aggression -- which is, after all, part of the job.

The scene's apparent drollery depends on people being surprised about something that happens to be true: “motherfucker” can indeed be a term of endearment, at least sometimes, among black people.

I wrote the following 3 years ago but never posted, because I wanted to hold it until Christmas time, and then forgot about it.

August 2005.

“Move your bike, motherfucker,” said the adolescent black guy as I bicycled past a bus stop seconds ahead of his bus on the way to work this morning.

Punk kid, I thought at first.

Then I remembered: “Motherfucker” can be a term of endearment among African American men, at least older ones.

A friend who grew up in Detroit tells a story of Mayor Coleman Young going to Hawaii on vacation, getting off the plane, and greeting waiting reporters with a friendly, “Aloha, motherfuckers!”

In a long profile of George Clinton from back in the '90s, Robert Christgau quoted the funky Parliamentarian describing himself as a “lazy motherfucker.”

Five years ago or so, shortly before Christmas, I was sitting in a park in an African American neighborhood in Seattle, when I heard from behind me two 50 or 60-ish men greet each other with enormous warmth.

“Merry Christmas, motherfucker!”

“Merry Christmas, motherfucker!”

And they gave each other a hug and gabbed for several minutes.

The adolescent this morning didn't have a friendly tone, but I still hear that “Merry Christmas” echoing in my mind's ear.

Obviously, "motherfucker" isn't always a term of endearment.

* * *

I lost track of the trial and just looked up the outcome: Lyons was sentenced to 39 years in prison last November.

Pirates are so cute!

My friend Jody Rosen has a piece up on Slate on how someone told him that a small Texas alt-weekly had pirated his piece on Jimmy Buffett. Jody looked into it and found that for many years’ worth of archives, the entire paper may have been plagiarized from several sources. Made possible by internet trolling, the plagiarists did themselves in by leaving the evidence of their piracy online.

Will be curious to see the outcome of all this. Already the alt-weekly has taken its entire archive offline.

Monday, August 04, 2008

the dock near sunset, summer

Last month we -- my beloved spouse, our son, my sister's son, and I -- were swimming off our family's dock in Michigan when I saw a big bird dive into the water for fish and upswoop empty-taloned, flying north along the shore. We followed along the connected open lawns until my beloved spouse spotted it sitting in a tree several houses down. I hadn't been sure that it had been a bald eagle, but it was! Sitting in stately, well-lit profile. I ran back to our cottage to tell my mom -- nobody had ever seen a bald eagle at the lake -- and everybody came in a hurry -- Mom, my brother, my sister, her husband, and Mary, our next-door neighbor
who is also Mom's 2nd cousin. We watched it for several minutes until it flew off south, the length of the lake, soaring so high in the deep summer sunlight, a light like that of no other time or place. My sister's daughter missed it because she had been in a time out, but the next day while playing on a neighbor's raft with the kids, the eagle flew right over our heads, and my niece saw it after all. My sister and I had acutely missed our dad, who died two years ago, while looking at the eagle, because not only was he deeply patriotic, but nobody was more enthusiastic about the wonders of nature, of which a big bird never seen in those parts before would certainly qualify. I mentioned as much to my sister, who said that she felt as though Dad were saying Hello. Dad would have hated for his granddaughter to miss out, so it was nice of the eagle to come back for her the next day.

* * *

You grow up in a place, and it seems normal. Mom's grandparents built the cottage 90 or 91 years ago. For 60 years, a framed picture of Mom's grandfather has hung on the living room wall. Trim, 70 years old, wearing a nice suit, slightly grinning, and holding a prize trout he'd caught in the lake. It was only two years ago that it struck me how droll it was that he'd wear a suit to pose with his fish. Most pictures of him and Mom's grandmother, they're smiling and looking merry and robust, happy to be alive, happy to be together. There's a picture of Mom's grandmother smiling and holding two big fish in the living room too.

* * *

My friend Jay was visiting his parents the same week. He's written about our visit already, sweetly. Our families have been friends for generations, back to our great-grandparents at least. I always see his parents, whenever I go home.

He took this picture of the cottage living room. "The Temple of My Summer Youth," he said. I grew up in his house too. But this is the Place.

150-year-old books sit on those bookshelves. Earlier this year somebody found the newspaper clipping of my great-grandfather holding his prize trout, a tiny, faded newspaper version of the photo in the living room. I hadn't known it had been a newspaper photo. "Dr. Walter den Bleyker." Now the clipping is on the fridge. I had planned to steal it to bring home to my own fridge, but forgot.

Jay took this photo too, of the front-porch wall -- a map of the lake below the dinner bell, just visible at the top of the photo. That dinner bell probably 90 years old, maybe a lot older -- who knows? Hasn't been rung since my generation was a flock of kids, running around playing all day. In the next year or two we'll start ringing it again for our kids, as they start to run farther unsupervised.

Lots more happened during our week there, all of it echoing my 45 years there, my mom's 69 years there, our family's 91 years there . . .

It was Mom's family place, but nobody loved it more than my dad -- he took care of it more than anyone else for the 46 years he and Mom were married. Dad died two years ago today. Dismal day -- my mood has been grumpy and my thinking has been off-target.

My brother took this photo -- the cottage backyard last month. My son, my nephew, Jay's son, my niece, Jay's daughter.

One evening we all met at an ice cream shop after dinner, and the five kids rolled down the hill like logs, tipping each other over and getting all tangled up, laughing and laughing. I took one roll down too and they loved jumping on "the giant."

It was a good visit.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Saw 2 Dylan clips on PBS last night, live from Newport 1963, “Who Killed Davey Moore?” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

The appeal of Dylan’s topical songs from this era eludes me. Simple, didactic, banged unconvincingly, though with tremendous style. Smelling more of Pete Seeger’s abstractions (where have all the goddamn flowers gone, anyway?) than Woody Guthrie’s stoic, concrete narratives.

Reminded again: Guthrie’s stoicism, straight out of the Carter Family, is key. The stoicism that handles heavy emotion with calm urgency, a good quality to have in an emergency, whether spiritual or political. The danger of stoicism being its close relation to resignation, which says, this is the way it has been, and so it is fated to continue. Guthrie doesn’t go there.

The other successful approach to the topical song: The virtuoso mockery of Tom Lehrer.

Neither Guthrie nor Lehrer ever sound angry. Guthrie, stoic and resilient; Lehrer, amused and superior.

Both tones hard to master.

Angry topical songs have to have a musical rhetoric to match. “911 Is a Joke” or “Burn, Hollywood, Burn” by Public Enemy have it. “Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys.

Angry folkies don’t cut it -- they lack the music to match.

(Been to a lot of folk festivals. A constant aesthetic danger, the angry guy with an acoustic guitar.)

Interestingly, will.i.am’s setting of Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech conveys hope through a mix of ebullience and stoicism, some singers crooning swoonily and some talking low-key. And it works.

* * *

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