Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bruegelian Doings

A new Bruegel. Odd to write that some five hundred years after the painter's death. But last week we received notice of the re-emergence of  "The Wine of Saint Martin's Day," a painting that becomes the forty-first authenticated and signed work by the great 16h century Dutch genius. And at 5 ft by 9 ft, the largest.

Apparently, "unidentified Spanish collectors" brought the unattributed painting to the Prado for cleaning (how connected do you have to be to have the Prado clean your art?). Conservators at the venerable Madrid museum were astonished to discover that the painting was actually executed by the hand of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. His signature, buried beneath centuries of glue, resin, and dust, gradually came to light in the restoration process.

The Wine of St Martin's Day, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1560s

Friday, December 10, 2010

Harry Crosby Death Day 2010

Happy 81st death anniversary, Harry, hope that worked out for you. And the Fire Princess too. Fools. has a very interesting and encouraging interview with Erik Rodgers, founder of String and a Can Productions.

There's also a cool illustration by Alastair from Red Skeletons but you can skip the boilerplate bio of Crosby, we've read it before and elsewhere and with much more nuance and perception.

Erik Rodgers, however, offers some of the most intelligent commentary on both Harry and Caresse Crosby out there, including:

"I actually came upon Caresse first, while developing a project on Salvador Dalí.  [My business partner] was intrigued by the idea of such an accomplished and independent female from that era, and started researching her life.   Of course as soon as she began reading about Caresse, she discovered Harry as well.  Their story captured her imagination, and she began relating to me some of the details as she read them. We both felt there was something vital and overlooked in their story, something that had been obscured by all the scandal and negative criticism."

Check out Black Sun: The Life and Death of Harry Crosby, A Play  presented by the Black Sun Players.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Thoughts on Howl, the Film

Rob Epstein and Jeremy Friedman did the best they could, that much is evident. Howl, the film, shimmers with integrity. It resonates in deliberate homage, like a curator holding up a prized work of art undergoing restoration; as if to say "Look at this, it's EXQUISITE, it's an irreplaceable artifact of 20th century culture! it's a work of supreme art!"

Howl, the poem, certainly is that. Allen Ginsberg's debut reading of the work at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955 gave voice to much that was to come - gay liberation, youth disillusionment with corporate hegemony, Cold War fear and paranoia, the meaning of "madness," the cost of honest friendship, the landscape of a twisted, contradictory America.

The poem has become larger than the words typeset on the pages of the diminutive but iconic City Lights Pocket Poet paperback,  volume #4 in the series. Howl has entered the cliched "fabric" of culture which in this case transcends cliche to arrive at foundation. Howl sketches the immediate past (1940s post-war America) and the immediate future (1950s Bomb Fear McCarthy red-baiting closeted despair) and juxtaposes it all against the concepts of True friendship, artistic integrity, and the inherently-posed question of "what is sanity in a time of insanity?" Howl, the poem, gave permission to question the zeitgeist. And when Accepted Culture came calling with arrest warrants and trial dates, Howl wailed its "eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxaphone cry" into the greater Universe of Free Expression. And prevailed. So much so that now there's a film about the poem.


Chris Hedges, in numerous articles and in his recent book Death of the Liberal Class (2010), decries the supplanting of print culture with that of the image, the moving picture. It almost seems a fait accompli, in light of the growing primacy of the visual in our cultural expression and memory, that Allen Ginsberg would come to the Big Screen too, just like John Reed (Reds, 1981) and Henry Miller and Anais Nin (Henry and June, 1990) before him.

And that's the essential conundrum. John Reed has become Warren Beatty in my mind's eye, Louise Bryant forever appears as Diane Keaton. Henry Miller? It's Fred Ward speaking Brooklynese and conjuring the starving literary iconoclast himself. Instead of the image of the writer pieced together from scraps of biography, reviews, memoirs, the texts themselves, we have a cinematic rendition, an actor playing the writer. In an age of visual communication where image is everything and where literary text is rapidly becoming secondary, the actor becomes the writer. And that is the shame of it all.

Might James Franco's earnest performance as the younger Ginsberg (who was 29 the night of the Six Gallery reading) become the enduring image of the young poet? Should it? If so, at what point do we begin believing the conjured image to be the real person? At what point do the actor's studied mannerisms and purposeful tics and gestures come to be accepted as the writer's own?

Take as example the film's extended interview sequences that depict Ginsberg discussing the poem, its genesis, his own role as poet. The words are all Ginsberg's (taken from an actual interview) but what of Franco's casual arrogance, the self-consciously casual way he smokes his cigarettes? Are these Ginbserg's nuances or Franco's interpretations of what Ginsberg might have been like?

Some would say it doesn't matter, that an actor's performance is simply that, an actor's performance. But in a film reaching for authenticity and homage, these things do matter. This film intrinsically attempts to reconstruct what cannot be reconstructed and asks that we accept the reconstruction as faithful and true. Yet because of film's obvious constraints - limited time frame (Howl clocks in at approximately 90 minutes), the need for ever-present motion and visuals aka "action," the difficulty in contextualizing the story beyond its immediate storytelling - the result is inevitably attenuated and lacking in the very depth and richness that, in this case, the film's subject, a poem, possesses.

Allen Ginsberg & Erik Drooker E 12th St, NYC
Then there is the consideration of the Erik Drooker animation sequences. Drooker knew Ginsberg and they collaborated together on a selection of Ginbserg's poems (Illuminated Poems, 1996). Drooker's imagery is powerful, dynamic, vivid, realized both on the printed page and in this film. At once classic (think Lynn Ward and Rockwell Kent) and hallucinogenic (nod to Harry Smith), the animation sequences are extraordinary - and completely distracting.

In an ironic and certainly unintended consequence, Drooker's animation is so extraordinary that it subsumes Ginsberg's equally extraordinary verse. One simply cannot see and hear at the same time, not in equal measure anyway, and given the power of the imagery the literate is displaced by the visual. This, of course, given that the film is about a POEM, is utterly contradictory and, ultimately, a real problem. Given the poem's hallucinatory, incantatory, revolutionary language, there is no NEED to craft images to illustrate it. Even, I would argue, in a motion picture.

Finally, to the trial scenes and the Six Gallery reading. A word comes to mind: stiff. The trial spectators might as well be wax figures, the attorneys seem like stage actors, the trial witnesses caricatures. The occasional flashing of newspaper headlines referencing the trial do little to convey the era's prevailing cultural rectitude or the undercurrents of atomic fear, anti-communist hysteria, or Molochian-obsession with money and products.

The depiction of the Six Gallery reading is equally flat, excepting perhaps its atmospheric tobacco smoke and black & white cinematography. Glancing close-ups of enthralled onlookers, none of them appearing the least bedraggled, drunk, dirty, or subterranean in any sense, come across as mere props. There is no ENERGY in the crowd, no shouting, no rustling, no talking, no glasses clinking, nothing to suggest an actual sweaty, crowded, nervy, 1950s breakout poetry event. The film never sets the stage, so to speak, doesn't even hint at the other participants that night (Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, emceed by Kenneth Rexroth), and so misses a chance to orchestrate a little buzz and hum. Instead, the film just gives us Ginsberg already at the microphone, all introductions apparently made.


Would Ginsberg have approved of this film? Probably. Though a Buddhist in philosophy and practice, Ginsberg could never completely subdue his considerable ego and vanity. He thrived on attention of all kinds, from youthful adulation to critical acclaim. Even denunciations of his work proved to him that his work mattered, that it resonated, that it irritated the people who needed irritating. He might have quibbled over a detail here or there or taken exception to one or another character's portrayal, but ultimately a film this infused with gracious reverence would have delighted him. By the end of his life, the younger poet's uncertainty had been replaced by a man of absolute conviction. He passed into the Bardo convinced of the essential worth of his literary production. That a film celebrating the importance of his most famous poem would be made and shown in movie houses across America would have pleased him enormously.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Robert Kaplan at Harvard Bookstore

Robert D. Kaplan spoke about his new book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and The Future of American Power at Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA Monday night, October 25. A focus on the Indian Ocean, he informed, allowed him to escape the confines of the old Cold War world dichotomy, the paradigm that aggregated the world on the basis of two competing ideologies, and write instead from a perspective that views the world as an "organic continuum." In his analysis, the Indian Ocean promises to be the crucial sphere of competition between two emerging economic and military powers, India and China.

The US role in this region, he asserted, will be to establish cooperative ties to the region's existing stable democracies (India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea). In addition, Kaplan suggested that perhaps the most important ally in Southeast Asia will prove to be Vietnam. In fact, Kaplan predicted that in the near future the US will begin selling nuclear technology to Vietnam. Such a relationship might well resemble the nuclear partnership with India negotiated by the second Bush Administration.

He talked for about 20 minutes and used only a single note card which he barely referenced. Following his remarks, he answered questions for about 40 minutes, each question addressed with precise, informed, unhesitant replies.

Notes From the Talk

"Cold War area studies" no longer relevant.

Burma - vast mineral resources, water riches. A country coveted by both India and China.

The decades long Sri Lankan civil war that pitted the governing Sinhalese against the minority Tamils was essentially won for the Sinhalese by Chinese who came to their rescue with military and economic aid. In return? The Chinese are building a deep water port off Sri Lanka's coast.

Indeed, China is building deep water ports in several countries around the Indian Ocean basin, their longterm strategy being to establish important economic "zones of influence."

Islam is actually a considerable sea-faring civilization. The Indian Ocean edges numerous Islamic countries including the country with the highest Islamic population in the world, Indonesia. Sinbad the Sailor - an Omani. "Cosmopolitan seafaring"

Monsoon - not actually a storm, but a wind and weather system. For six months the winds blow in one direction and then they reverse and blow six months in the other direction. This dependable weather system facilitated vast seafaring contact between points as distant as East Africa and China. Long before Portugal's Vasco da Gama ventured around the Cape of Good Hope, vast networks of ocean trade already flourished throughout the Indian Ocean.

Kaplan: over time, China will peacefully incorporate Taiwan into China.

Of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - they have served to "fast forward" the rise in importance and power of China and India.

See Blake Hounshell's review of Kaplan's Monsoon in Foreign Policy.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Paris Review, New Editor, Interviews on line

The New York Times reports that the Paris Review, now under the editorship of Lorin Stein, has made all their  writers interviews available online. A fantastic resource.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The "Mad Heads" of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

It's always a good thing when, out of the blue, you become aware of an artist for the first time, and it's especially fun when the artist is some striking, truly original, bizarre character with a wild biography. Such is the case for me with Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783), a sculptor of "mad heads," an article about whom appears in the October 28, 2010 edition of the New York Review of Books and which I read with considerable interest.

The Yawner
Willibald Sauerlander, in the NYR article, notes of Messerschmidt that "There was always something unsettled about his biography, the life of an outsider." Apparently a talented sculptor, at some point his career veered off the path of acceptability and commercial success and he began to sculpt "head pieces" or, as th. schmid, a researcher with a quirky website devoted to the artist, calls them, "mad heads." Made of stone, pewter or lead, the heads are extraordinarily expressive busts, at once both comical and disturbing.

The NYR blog has a slide show of 10 of the heads.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Dennis McNally: Jack Kerouac and the American Bohemian Tradition

Dennis McNally gave a talk "Jack Kerouac and the American Bohemian Tradition" to a capacity gathering in the theater of the Lowell Visitor Center on Market St. This was the 25th anniversary of the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festivities.

Notes Sitting Listening

as an historian, McNally tries to "put phenomena in context"

~ artists as "antennas of of the human race"

~ in the 1950s "Communism" was just a code word for the modern world in general; in the 1950s there was "an overwhelming pressure to conform."

THE ALTERNATE VOICE - everyone that didn't fit into mainstream conceptions of normal American life.


  • anti-materialism
  • religious skepticism
  • individual value over the corporation/state
  • sexual freedom & sensuality
  • American Bohemian Tradition consistently demonstrates an attachment to African-American cultural breakthroughs (jazz in particular)

Bohemian life  = a "life protest" to counter the "soulless, flat corporate world."

(In the Q&A after the talk someone asked if there is a Bohemian culture today and McNally hesitated, shook his head, and basically said "it's hard to be a Bohemian in today's world.")

First mention of Buddhism in America? Thoreau in 1844 in the Transcendentalist magazine "The Dial," the translation of a Buddhist text at the request of Emerson. Kerouac very much into Thoreau.

Kerouac's great gift? His "naive defenselessness." Meaning, the beautiful wonder with which he saw the world. He investigated the soul and the idea of endless eternity, "the void," instead of distracting himself with the usual politics business stock market book review Literary Canon orthodoxy. He was already living in eternity while the culture around him grew sillier and more irrelevant.

Jack Kerouac's Grave, Edson Cemetery, Lowell, Ma
October 2, 2010 

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Myers and Tanenhaus on Franzen

B.R. Myers tears apart Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. "[T]he novel is a 576-page monument to insignificance." Ouch.

It's easy to take his point. I didn't much care about these damaged & damaging people, their squabbling and snapping. Reading it was like watching television. Mostly without the commercials.

Contrast Myers's review with the breathy enthusiasm of the Sam Tanenhaus review that graced the cover of the New York Times Book Review, August 19, 2010.

After what must certainly have been a careful reading, Tanenhaus concludes that Freedom " ... illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew."

Hmmm. What is the "world we thought we knew" anyhow? Thought who knew? And who knew what? etc.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Chomsky and Howl

Noam Chomsky interview with Tom Ashbrook of On Point Radio (the NPR show). Sept 28, 2010. Chomsky is 81 years old. Dry of speech, he speaks with the humorless cadences of a superior intellect. A true scholarly hero of our time. radio interview with the Howl filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Sept 24, 2010. The film opens Friday, October 1st.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Random Notes Written Shortly After Finishing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

It’s like how you close a plastic bread bag on the loaf, cinching the bread snug and giving the bag a twirl around to tighten its noose, then wedging on the annoying, sharp-edged plastic wrapper tag, the thing that inevitably breaks after a few re-sealings.

It’s like the 4 oz lemon vodka martini drank while reading the last 75 pages, cold, potent on an all-afternoon empty stomach, the butter crunch-coated  peanuts inadequate in their role of absorbent agent.

It’s like the supper not yet eaten, not even cooked, the corn sliced from the freshly steamed ears and sautéed in butter with lime juice, salt, and little nuggets of feta cheese that ooze into melty crust when they stay too long in contact with the skillet face; and fried eggs and buttered toast; a yellow meal. And beer. Like the beer that Walter Berglund supposedly drank only three of by the age of 47 (one of many improbable details encountered over 562 pages).

Here comes Richard Katz, a character ill-suited to his pedestrian name, an unlikely rock star and lacking in conveyed charisma – but who nevertheless lives in this story like the dark circles under a tired person’s eyes. 

It’s the drizzle of an oddly humid late September night in New England, thick cloud skies bringing darkness even earlier to a strangely summer-like evening. 

There’s little Joey, perhaps the most unlikely of all the characters in this saga of our times, the 19 year old war profiteer, the cool one. "[T]hen he went back to Paraguay” and made the deal for the truck parts and sent them to Iraq. As simple as that. As if any 19 year old American boy could actually accomplish such a task in these times of perpetual adolescence when men are teenagers and teenagers are children and everyone has their face stuck in a gadget. How many Americans even know where Paraguay is? And is it landlocked or does it have a coastline? 

And yet. And yet Joey’s money-making scheme, his little University of Virginia young Republican money-making scheme actually brings home perfectly the reality of the contractor fraud and corruption swirling around the Iraq War. Without the polemics. 

The fighting, oh the fighting. But not in Iraq, in the home. All the homes. The bickering. The surfeit of snarky comebacks and gotcha’s. All adding up to capital D Dysfunction. Like television. Reading Freedom was like watching good television drama (is that an oxymoron?) – except better because of the words on the page. Page after page. Pages you don’t want to stop reading. Or watching.

Here’s one of the amazing things. The main characters are people you both dislike and have a great deal of sympathy for. You can understand them, dislike them, ache for them, revile them. Which means – you can connect with them. Notwithstanding the improbability: Connie never getting pregnant by Joey despite fucking, seemingly nonstop, from the age of 14 ‘til the tender age of 21 (when the novel leaves them by coming to the end); Patty’s entire relationship with Eliza, or her attraction to Richard Katz; Walter’s saintliness; Joey’s teenage disobedience. Etc. All possible. But all (to this reader) a little too contrived, a little too unlikely. Yet every character was within this reader’s grasp of understanding/seeing/knowing/relating to. 

Walter’s road rage. Franzen nailed that one. 

But do parents snark at their kids the way Patty snarks at Joey and Joey snarks back at Patty? 

My fridge is making noises, a god is barking in the drizzly neighborhood beyond the backyard fence, cars slash along rain-soaked rt. 12 a block over. It’s my rainy Tuesday night when I’d intended to go listen to James Howard Kunstler (one of the snarkiest of the snarks) reading from his new novel The Witches of Hebron at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge. Bagged Kunstler and the commuter rail for home-shaken cocktail and a few final hours alone reading Franzen. 

This is an American night after all. I could have ordered pizza. Watched TV. 

Funny how the back dust jacket of Freedom is resplendent with blurbs about Franzen’s other book, The Corrections. Was that really necessary? Does this one have to thrive or sink on the basis of a successful novel he wrote almost ten years ago? But that’s just publishing. 

This is no review, just some impressionistic comments in the soon aftermath of reading.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tony Judt Dispatches One Final Snarky Pedant

Tony Judt, the renown and respected historian and intellectual, died last month at the age of 62 from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He wrote many books and essays, and he was a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books right up until his death.

Never one to back down from an intellectual tussle, Judt took on one last snarky pedant before his death. Check out his withering riposte to a pissy letter sent in response to one of Judt's last essays (from the July 15th NYR). The exchange appears in the September 30th, 2010 edition of the NYR.

Friday, September 3, 2010

World's Oldest Beer Discovered

Shipwreck. Baltic Sea. Champagne and beer from the 1800s.

Fidel: "Great Injustice"

Allen Ginsberg would have welcomed Fidel Castro's recent admission of responsibility for the wave of homophobia and anti-gay persecution that quickly followed the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. After all, Ginsberg himself was thrown out of Cuba in 1965 for being, among other things, gay, and for having the audacity to suggest publicly that being gay was okay.

Castro denies being homophobic himself (a plausible enough assertion) and insists that he was absorbed, in the years following the revolution, in more serious issues like CIA assassination plots and the missile crisis, and that he simply did not do anything to stop or restrain the homophobia that, he insists, was an ingrained kernel of Cuban cultural life.

"Homosexual acts" were not decriminalized in Cuba until 1979, far to late to spare many, many individuals from persecution, harassment, arrest, internal exile, and incarceration. The whole thing, Castro admitted, as a "great injustice."

It sure the fuck was.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Provincetown: Thoughts, Snippets, Recollections

No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better. (Fail Bigger).

"Prepare to make the imaginative leap. But you must be prepared to work and in particular to research. It is all about desire, stamina, perseverance."

For Gogol,  the true, unwritten last line of every story is: "And nothing was ever the same again."

Argh! Novel Panic! Beware! Beware!

Find the most obscure detail and make it yours! Find the small detail that reveals the wider world.

No ideas but in things. For example, what is "joy?" Joy is an idea (or an emotion). But how to represent joy? What "thing" might convey joy? How about a table of writers singing Irish drinking songs and show tune classics around Norman Mailer's dining room table on a Friday night in summertime after a week of hard workshopping? Yes! Carouse and tumult, song and toasts.

"I came home on a Tuesday night, as drunk as drunk could be ..."

"Is that bottle nailed to the table down there?!"

"Art is a way of coping with the world by bringing it under the microscope of detail."

"The specific must reveal the grand canvas."

What is the moment of the story?

Reflections on Colum McCann

Imp grin, eye twinkle, mirth and high jinx (he pick-pocketed a stranger's wallet because he could ... and then gave it back). Broad smiles, shouts, the wisdom of enthusiasm, an enthusiasm for wisdom.

Surfeit of empathy. The result of creating such realized characters? Because he can put himself in the shoes of his characters, it follows that he's able to put himself in the shoes of those with whom he interacts - workshop attendees, university students, friends, other writers, reference librarians.

Always send a thank-you note! The power of expressed gratitude.

Vast reading! A deep knowledge of the work of others. All week referencing particular works to illustrate a given discussion. He was familiar with just about all the authors & novels we brought up in discussions. Astounding! A small list:

Michael Ontaatje Coming Through Slaughter
Ann Michaels
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Malantes
Peter Carey
DeLillo, in particular Underworld (he considers it the most important novel of the last 25 years)
Stoner by John Williams
Redemption Falls by Joseph O'Connor
Aleksander "Sasha" Hemon
Toni Morrison
Annie Dillard
Roddy Doyle for dialog

A force at the table! Songs songs songs. Fill the glass, raise your glass, give us a song! A poem! Give us a poem! Read the poets. When you're stuck, read the poets. As research for place/time/setting, read the poets.

Read Read READ. There is no substitute, no alternative, no shortcuts.

Standing on the street in front of the Mailer House waiting for the Gay & Lesbian Carnival Parade to come down Commercial Street, we talked. He rode a bicycle around the United States in 1986, from Massachusetts to Florida to New Orleans and into Mexico. This was before he'd published any fiction. He kept journals of the ride but has no intentions of publishing from them. He threw away scads of early written work as worthless, embarrassing. He admitted to doing the Kerouac thing - he actually bought a huge role of paper that he fed into his typewriter a la "the Scroll." His view on Kerouac today? Relevance has diminished with time. His favorite Kerouac is "The Dharma Bums." He called it "kind."

"I came home on a Thursday night, as drunk as drunk could be ..."

Firm handshake. Eye contact. No guile there. The glow of the Wide Embrace.

From Let the Great World Spin: "Good days, they come around the oddest corners."

Provincetown: Friday

Personal lesson of the week - even the wild improvisational Blow of Plenty requires quiet consideration.

Singing Each Other's Praises

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Notes on Norman

Michael Lennon, Mailer biographer and close Provincetown friend, dropped by the workshop and gave an informal talk while leading us through the house. Following are some of the anecdotes and snippets of personal history he told.

Michael Lennon (r) and Peter Alson
Norman bought the house, one of the very few brick houses in Provincetown, in the early 80s. Lennon suggested that 3/4s of Mailer's books were written here.

Norman hated plastic and refused to drink wine from plastic cups.

Norman often ate dinner at Michael Shay's Rib and Seafood restaurant. He enjoyed oysters on the half shell and would generally order a dozen. The odd thing was that he saw the faces of ancient Greek warriors in the oyster shells. He would take the shells home with him. He gave serious consideration to making a book of the shells, perhaps a coffee table book.

He sometimes drank merlot and orange juice.

Front Door, 627 Commercial St.
He enjoyed pot in the 50s and 60s but gradually stopped using it.

He watched TV as a means of staying in touch with contemporary culture - but he hated commercials and always muted them. He liked to watch sports.

He habitually read an enormous amount of magazines and newspapers, all kinds, left & right.

The day for him generally started around 9:00 when he would come down to breakfast and read the New York Times and Boston Globe, work the crosswords, then play a few rounds of an invented solitaire game before heading up to the third floor writing studio. He generally worked in shifts, two shifts a day: 10:30 or so until lunch around 2:00; then again from 3:00 or 4:00 until 8:00, sometimes 8:30.

In his early writing years, he worked Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday but in the latter years he worked six and sometimes seven days a week.

He wrote longhand.

He was impetuous. According to Lennon, he believed in "spontaneity in all things."

The dinner parties, of which there were many, were not infrequently contentious affairs. Mailer liked to instigate, provoke, argue. It was often loud. Food or wine was occasionally thrown.

Mailer the Drinker was an early career incarnation. He drank less as he grew older. Lennon dismissed the idea of Mailer as an alcoholic. There were periods of his life when he drank heavily but on the whole he was a social drinker. At one point he had a serious passion for single malt scotch and, as with any subject that interested him enough, he researched the hell out of the topic. Which, in the case of single malt, meant having on hand a huge variety and learning the nuances of each.

He was relentless, he "tried to dominate Reality with his mind."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Provincetown: Carnival

The Carnival Parade started at 3:00 and came right down Commercial St, from the East End to the West End. We stood in front of the Mailer House radiating good vibes. And taking the good vibes in.

Five Writers Waiting for a Parade

Colum and Caitlin

Galt, Sasha, Hercules, Hades, Ignu, Crepe and an Elephant

Derrida, Zydeco and Francois
Electric Craniums of Paz

Witch Bollocks

Assignment: Manifesto

Colum wants us all to write a manifesto. That's our assignment. He insists upon it. It's vague. He's given us quotes. It's about writing. A manifesto. By Friday. Tomorrow.

Provincetown Manifesto

Don't just look; see. Don't just see; feel. Don't just feel; understand.

Embrace gorging but be prepared to fast.

Remember that you're alive! Run amok! Then calm down and consider why it feels so good to run amok.

Be amazed by something everyday. Every fucking day. Reject boredom as a failure of the imagination. Consider boredom.

Question culture.

Never lie.

Remain intact.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Provincetown: Days 3 and 4

Back Deck, Mailer House
Time gets away. There's so much to do, conversations to have, quirky Provincetown streets and galleries to stroll, writing to be done. SO much writing to be done! You're here, you're 100% here, you can go to the Mailer House and sit in chairs that Mailer sat in and BE in the space that housed the Uncontainable, the Mailer Life Force. You exchange work with fellow attendees, discuss phrases, words, sentences, you exult about favorite writers, favorite books, you jot down names and titles that others love, you listen to Colum McCann like you're listening to Miles Davis or Thelonius Monk or Frank McCourt, you cannot NOT listen, you're rapt, mesmerized, awed, you absorb every word, every Irish-brogued pronunciation, you suddenly (or maybe gradually, but eventually) realize embrace admit the most important thing, the thing you've been avoiding, the thing that has terrified you and paralyzed you and daunted you and taunted you - you declare yourself a Writer.
All the attendees live in different types of quarters; small rooms in guest houses, or B&Bs on Commercial St or, in my case, in a three floor condo across rt. 6 (a shared condo). Voila - my workspace.

Condo Bedroom Office, #1 Seashore Park

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Provincetown: Day 2

            From the Mailer Deck at Low Tide, August 18, 2010

Details! Details! Details! "The specific must reveal the grand canvas." And I think "No ideas but in things." 
Blakean minute particulars. "You are a guide in a foreign land."

And character. What did your character eat for breakfast? What did they want to eat for breakfast? And so on. The need to know each character. To really know them.

                Norman Mailer's Deck Chair, August, 2010

Monday, August 16, 2010

Provincetown: Day 1

Outstanding opening workshop, candor, Irish charisma, rules for writing, the Basics Who What When Where Why and How and what they Mean for the story the novel the Work. Perceptive reader commentary, individual insight proffered heard received. We sit around the large square table that is poorly lit. One whole wall of the room is glass and looks out onto Provincetown Bay. Colleagues sitting across the table are silhouetted against the window's light pour, become shadows, outlines. No lamps to fill the room's confines or suffuse the room from above. Though no matter finally. Everyone's engaged, no blather, bluster, blah. There is the Master, Colum McCann, and there are the nine of us, and we are all assembled in the home of the megalomaniac himself, Norman Mailer, the Colossus, the novel's Champion, our benefactor. We're walked upstairs to the third floor by Guy Wolf and shown Mailer's attic writing studio, a room in situ, an artifact placement, a preserved moment when Norman Mailer actually sat and wrote at this desk in this chair alone for the last time, that's what we see. The last throes of the Master's vibe in a room of his own. The papery shards of evidence, his handwriting. An animal skull of some kind. A toy soldier, Napoleon-like, standing defiantly, one leg on the ground and one propped on a miniature drum. A stone-carved rhinoceros figurine.

Later, after the afternoon session ends, cycle to Race Point and all around the dune roads and bicycle paths. The day started with rain but cleared as the day progressed. We're surrounded by the sea. This is the very tip of the peninsula, the last little lanes and mews on this eccentric spit of landscape. The dune wash. The shifting sands and light spill and vision games.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Arrival in Provincetown

Arrived in Provincetown this afternoon and checked in at the Norman Mail House at 4:00 to get my condo assignment and meet Jessica Zlotnicki, the liaison for the Norman Mailer Writers Colony workshops. Unfortunately for me, because I have a car, I've been slotted into a big condo on the other side of rt 6, at least a couple miles out of downtown. What's worse, I have a condo-mate, a guy named Paul from NJ. Not what I'd bargained for. I'd been imagining a quaint little writer's studio apartment where I'd cook delicious meals for myself, spread my stuff all over, keep odd hours, make mail art, and, most importantly, write. Instead, I'm in a summer condo rental, big yes but just more space to be shared. Being hyper-considerate, now I'm hesitant about making dishes, being too much in the kitchen, am self-conscious about drinking a beer (or more), about leaving my stuff around, etc.

BUT ... the workshop. That's the point of my being here at all. Tonight the nine attendees gathered at the Mailer House and met with Colum McCann. There are some very interesting people among us, accomplished ones as well, people who've published books, who work in publishing, who have literary resumes. I'm in the deep water now and need to remind myself that I can swim pretty well myself and not to worry. Among us is a UN international aid worker; a Black guy from Philadelphia who reminds me for all the world of Walter Mosely; a psychologist from Northampton; a gay Indian guy who works for HarperCollins. We all went around the table and talked a little about ourselves. At Colum's behest, we all noted who/what we like to read. When my turn came, I said I recently enjoyed reading Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, that I'm reading the Ginbserg/Kerouac letters (just released), and that I was considering having a go at Infinite Jest (a comment that brought sighs and expressions of recognition, as if others had either read it or tried to).

Then there's Colum. Instant good vibe from him. Strikes me as very intelligent but with a round, sort of quilt-like intelligence, soft, not like, say, a whip smart debater's honed intellect. Colum has depth, intensity, is well-spoken, confident, obviously skilled at what he does, comfortable in the workshop setting (he teaches at a college in NY too). Really looking forward to listening to him this week. When he looks at you, he really looks right at you and talks right to you; no whiff of posture or pretense; sleeves rolled up, he has strong forearms.

Sunday night's first session is about an hour, mostly we decided who gets workshopped when. I'm up on day two. The schedule is: 2 stories worked tomorrow, 4 on Tuesday (of which I'm one), and 3 on Wednesday.

Oh, and I'm not the only one who brought an excerpt from a novel, I think two others have as well.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Sands Shift Beneath the Empire of Armstrong

A friend of mine sent me the following links and expressed his disdain for doping in cycling, for what he sees as the fraud of Lance Armstrong, and for willing to believe for so long that Armstrong raced clean.

ESPN story recounting Tyler Hamilton's subpoena

Floyd Landis on ABC News nightline

Then today of course the New York Times ran a major front page story indicating that former friends and/or teammates of Armstrong are now testifying against him.

What's to be done about doping in cycling? I suggest a libertarian approach - forget banning, forget trying to find cyclists using performance-enhancing drugs, it's as futile as the endlessly futile "war on drugs" (meaning, the illicit kind). Forget them both. Legalize their use.

In cycling's case, I suggest requiring riders to register with racing authorities as users and provide lists of what they're using. Everyone using performance enhancing drugs would then be "docked" minutes so they would start a race in arrears. Clean riders get the legitimate time. Dopers have minutes added to their time.

Would this eliminate cheating? Probably not. But it might potentially end the charade we're now witnessing.

My friend wrote:

Never failing a drug test means very little when the testing itself has been corrupted by all those, inside cycling and inside the business cabal, who stood to profit by the industry that became LA.  I find the whole thing disgusting and shameful...including shame on me for being willing to suspend my disbelief.

I took off the yellow bracelet long ago when another cyclist quipped," Ah, I see you dope too."  Haven't we all taken enough 'junk?'

Did Armstrong dope? I don't really care anymore. "It's Not About the Spike." I just like to watch those maniacs ride all over France, I don't care what they're on in addition to two wheels.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Colossus of Maroussi

New Directions is re-issuing Henry Miller's The Colossus of Maroussi, one of his lesser known books, yet one of his finest. Richard Rayner of the Los Angeles Times writes a good piece on it. He plucks some terrific quotes from the book that illustrate well the enthusiasm and vigor that Miller brought to this work. Rayner also succinctly brings into focus the lineage that Miller established:

"The incantatory style, with its rolling sub-clauses, mixed Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence in a way that was fresh at the time; it seems familiar now because it predicts Kerouac, Ginsberg and Snyder. Like the Beats who would follow him, Miller looked out for the possibilities of human holiness. Like them, he embraced risk and never minded going over the top."

Well worth checking out.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Observations Live, Holland vs Spain, July 12, 2010

"The most massive shared human experience on the planet..." so we're informed in the moments before kick off.

"The silky Spanish"

"The Dutch are cuter than the Spanish" ND weighs in.

"He was taken out rather cynically ..."

Half Time 0-0, an uneventful 1st half. Time to check the ribs.

"It's all push and shove..."

2nd half.

Close calls! Ramos with long hair the header over the crossbar.

Holland's jerseys are like HAZMAT outfits, like jail inmates, like highway construction cones.

Extraordinary counterattack by Robben, shouts! To no avail ... nothing happening.

Oy! Regulation time runs out, the dread 0-0 game, damn.


Slow motion outrage.

Spain! Save! Holland counters, corner! No!

Gestapo ref, bald headed, belligerent.

"Van Persie surrounded by Spainards."

Why take out David Villa?

GOAL!!!!!!!!  "Looks like no Dutch Delights!" Spain classically scores way late in extra time, incredible.

"The Never Never lands for the Netherlands."

And it ends .... It's over. Spain finally wins ... and Holland loses for the 3rd time.

Lemonstar to the World

All over the planet people are gathering around television sets, gathering with friends and strangers, with plates of food and bottles of beer and billowy spliffs, they're gathering on beaches, in mountain valleys, in hot noisy city neighborhoods, in nowheresville, in somewheresville, in refugee tents, campgrounds, chateaus, dachas, grass shacks, and office park cafeterias and condominium villages.

In Lemonstar summer pours on unabated, uninterrupted by the responsibility of adulthood, unchallenged by the More Important, it is July, the backyard long grass is cool, damp from hosing down, bees tap nectar from clover blossoms, the finches ply the bird feeder in bunches, happy with their blunt beaks and sunflower seeds. Puffy cumulus float overhead and intermittently pass across the sun in its bright blue sky, the garden hums in photosynthesizing eagerness, butterflies jaunt about the sultry air.

Holland vs Spain, the great 4 year struggle culminates today in South Africa. Tonight, one nation will celebrate with shouts of triumph while the other will wrest lamentation from otherwise glory.

More even than the Tour de France, the World Cup unites disparate people, unifies a fractious and amorphous collection of humanity into one vortex and focal point - a football pitch, 22 men running around in funny outfits taking themselves too seriously, a stadium of 84,000 vuvuzela-blowing football fanatics, the cacophony of possibility and hope.

Ah Lorca, Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Cervantes ... art from the low country and the Spanish plateau.

Voortrekkers and Don Quixote

Die Groot Trek

Cold beer in the dusty veldt. Veld, prairie, outback, pampas. The hinterlands. The place where the world breathes hot breaths of wind and sun.

Spain or the Netherlands. The bulls run in Pamplona, Hemingway's rash bravura emanates yet. Wine squeeze the bota, hoist the porrón, sluice nectar of plenty for the planetary ball game. Holland canal meander on bikes, windmill stereotypes, herring galore.

But who will win the World Cup?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Observations Live, Holland vs Uruguay, 2nd Half

Darke, describing a Ducth player, declares he's "...a small little terrier of a mid fielder."

It's anybody's game early 2nd half. "Looking for the little flick-on ... but nothing comes of it."

The Ski Bum needs just one goal to be tied with Spain's David Villa in the Golden Boot competition. That's a hellluva prize, eh? "The Golden Boot" Let's see, if other occupations and pastimes gave out prizes, you could award the Golden Fork to a restaurant-goer, the Golden Skillet to a chef, the Golden Plunger to a plumber, the Golden Spliff to a reggae star. And so on.

Uruguay hasn't reached the quarter finals in 40 years, since 1970. "Forlan a flick-on!"

"I think they fancy they might pull off the shock here..." Darke, describing Uruguay's presumed mental state given the confidence with which they're playing.

John Harkes follows up. "bllahhhheeeeasshhhhhaaanbllahshhhhhhhhaaaaahsay."

Holland has a winger who looks like a young Billy Bragg. He hopes he ain't crying Levi Stubbs' Tears when the game ends.

GOAL!!!! The Netherlands, Wesley Sneijder! in the 70th minute. Sneijder now tied with David Villa for most goals during the tournament, five each so far.

"I have a feeling they're not going to lie down here." One more from Harkes' stock of sports cliches.

GOAL!!!!!! Again! In the 73rd minute! Diablo! Robben on a bald-headed header, brilliant strike!

Princess Maxima and Crown Prince William Alexander, Dutch royalty, the camera keeps cutting away from the pitch to show them cheering in the crowd. Thankfully, Bill Clinton is long gone, we're not subjected to his red-veined mug. Much rather see the Princess who, oddly enough, is wearing what appears to be a guernsey pelt, some odd cape-like garment, black & white like a milk advertisement cow.

The Dutch have really come into their own in this 2nd half. Wonderful control and possession.

Exit the Aspen Golden Boy, the Mighty Diego Forlan, golden locks and all, he's gone to the bench. If we were still back in the '80s, he'd pose nude in Playgirl.

"3-1 to Holland, sitting pretty, looking good."

GOAL!!!!!! Uruguay steals one LATE in the game, in extra time, incredible!

Referring to a last desparate throw-in, Darke shouts about "Uruguay's very last drink in the Last Chance Saloon!" while Harkes prattles that tired cliche about Uruguay's "never say die" attitude. What a godawful broadcast partner, oy. And come on, we all lament not hearing the energy and passion of Andres Cantor of Univision.

And then it ends ... "DUTCH DELIRIUM in Cape Town! They've held on!" Holland in the World Cup Final.

Observations Live, Holland vs Uruguay, 1st Half

To think that Uruguay has won the World Cup twice, both times way back in the early mid 20th century, while the Dutch, always good and sometime great, has never won, seems a bit of Magical Realism.

Diego Forlan looks like an Aspen ski bum.

"Orange Crush" they call the Dutch. Their hideous solid orange uniforms (including socks) do full justice and then some to that moniker. With the overhead camera view, even on a 36" flat screen TV in High Def the players look like so many orange crayons blipping around the pitch.

Are we sick of commentator John Harkes' nasally monotone yet? He's as exciting as an accountant.

Not so Ian Darke (Darke of the "volaitle cocktail" remark): "Van Bronckhorst with an absolute FIRECRACKER!" he shouts as Holland notches the first goal, it comes at the 17 minute mark. And what a goal! A cannon blast perfectly struck from ten yards or more outside the box by Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, zowie!

The Dutch are divers unfortunately -  "histrionics and amateur dramatics" intones Darke. Truly one of the more undignified aspects of the game.

"... rubbing horse placenta on the injured area..." What?? Missed that comment, it was Darke discussing some injured player's special treatment back in England.

By the way - it's 100 degrees in Lemonstar today, the banana I'm eating is hot, the air is thick, the house is without air conditioning, it's best that way, easier to conjure a sense of malarial backwater, tropical torpor, just lacking an avuncular Graham Greene character in white linen suit and Panama hat to give it the authentic touch.

Darke - "Diego FORLAN! He's done it again with his 4th goal in this World Cup!" The Ski Bum strikes! A wicked blast, also, like Van Bronckhorst's savage strike, from outside the box.

Harkes is clinically, numbingly uncolorful. How's that for irony? The ESPN color guy lacks all color, he's as colorful as over-milked tea, he should be named Wan Harkes, not John. We see an AMAZING goal, we get a blast of excitement with Darke's enthusiastic English boom, then we get Harkes following up with some monotone, banal analysis of the goalie's poor effort. Argh!

The first half ends, a 1-1 tie. Good viewing so far!

Monday, July 5, 2010

July 4th in the country

Ventured west of Lemonstar into the hills and towns beyond Mt. Wachusett for 4th of July with friends. One road we intended to take was closed for stage 3 of the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic, a time trial, so we improvised and navigated little country roads (Knower Rd, Old Westminster Rd) through New England woodland and old farm land.

Mojitos, grilled burgers and dogs, grilled pineapple with a quick-make peanut sauce courtesy of Mark Bittman of the Times, a sauce that never really 'sauced,' ('gooped' is a more apt descriptor), potato salad, cold beer after the mojitos, we dined on the open porch of C & A's arts & crafts-style house as the day cooled down and the sun slipped below the trees.

Afterwards? Ice cream seemed in order, so C fired up the Unimog, a truly bizarre vehicle of Shrek-like size and audacity, and away we roared. This particular Unimog hails from Germany where it once pulled aircraft around hangers and runways (when not, presumably, transporting maintenance men to beer halls). Grinding and roaring along the narrow unpaved wood roads just north of the little town center of Barre felt strange, like churning a tugboat across a cow pond. The beast roared, the cab shook, I imagined growling across a post-apocalyptic landscape like a gigantic green insect, the gargantuan wheels turning relentlessly,  devouring ditch, mud hole, and hillock.

At Carter & Stevens Ice Cream and Farm Stand, we chugged into the parking lot near closing time, C elegantly backed the Giant into a parking place, and we lowered ourself to terra fima. The sky doming the wide expanse of lush green farm fields was a collage of summer clouds infused with the deepening yellows, pinks, oranges, and reds of the setting sun. Chickens squawked and clucked in the chicken hutch getting ready to roost. We ate ice cream in waffle cones, watched with amusement two baby goats frolic in their pen, then re-ascended Mt. Unimog and ground our way back.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Brit Color

The British World Cup commentator for ABC offered the best quote of the tournament yet. Referring to the high strung Argentine forward Tevez, he said:

"He's a volatile cocktail, ready to spill over at the slightest shaking."


Friday, July 2, 2010

Ghana Gone, Dunga Dunga Done

In the end, the defensive game failed the traditionally offense-minded Brazilians. I remember Dunga, their rugged fullback from the '90s, the World Cup held in the US in 1994. No wonder he employs a defensive strategy, that's what he played, that's what he knows. Pity Felipe Melo who scored an own goal and then got himself red-carded so his colleagues ended up a man down. Or perhaps no pity. Soccer is a cruel master.

I didn't see any of the game itself but the Costa Rican food service guys in the corporate cafeteria watched it in the back kitchen. Two mistakes, they told me, that's all it took for Brazil to fall.

I did see much of the second half of the Uruguay/Ghana match, an ugly affair. The Ghanans seemed to have heart but little else - their effort was a clunky one, mistake-prone, inelegant, and ultimately futile. Uruguay showed little more flare, their chiseled featured striker Forlon the exception. He wouldn't appear out of place in an ad shoot for Big Sky country - or International Male, for that matter, give him some leather chaps and a soccer thong and you'd have an eye-popper. But over all both squads displayed nothing remotely resembling finesse and though I didn't see the penalty shots it didn't surprise me to hear that Ghana had failed to convert two kicks. They were a lumbering, raw, wild team and now they're done. And Uruguay, inexplicably, is on to the semi finals.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

David Foster Wallace, Book Reviews, and the Need to Believe in One's Work

The review by Wyatt Mason of David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace in the July 5, 2010 (vol LVII, num. 12) issue of the New York Review of Books is interesting on many levels. What struck me, however, is Mason's discussion of some of the earlier reviews of Wallaces's books, reviews that disparaged Wallaces work as "not edited," "excessive," "self-indulgent," "gibberish," "nonsense," etc.

Though Mason generously accounts for how some of those reviewers might have come by their opinions (deadlines that required hurried reading, for example), what stands out, in light of how we're beginning to understand Wallace today, is how un-generous and shortsighted those reviews were. Could it have been otherwise? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps only in time do we come to fully appreciate, or re-evaluate, a writer's work. Perhaps something truly new, truly innovative, must inevitably endure ridicule and misunderstanding before the prevailing culture catches up with its genius. The Beats, Kerouac in particular, come to mind.

Of course, the object lesson here for aspiring writers, writers willing to chart new territory, to experiment with form, to break with tradition, is to believe in oneself and to disregard the tenor and substance of negative reviews. It's a daunting task to be sure, one that, in Kerouac's case, could not be achieved. It seems clear that, despite Wallace's suicide, his belief in his work never wavered. Though in interviews Wallace admitted to  doubts he had about his fiction, the work itself belies those admissions. The force of certainty pervades his novels, stories, and essays and while every writer is to be afforded his or her apprehension about their work, ultimately the work stands on its own.

In the case of the reviews that Mason cites, what comes through clearly are the peevish, harried, pedestrian minds of the reviewers. Genius comes to light slowly while banality is always plain to see.

Maradona and Guillermoprieto

Alma Guillermoprieto, writing for the New York Review of Books blog, has a fun piece on her experience as a young reporter given the task of writing about Diego Maradona. This was in the 1980s, the "hand of God" era, the days when the stocky Maradona was the most dynamic, enigmatic, and heralded soccer player in the world. Guillermoprieto knew little to nothing about soccer and that's part of the self-deprecating good humor of the piece. Read her blog entry here: Maradona and Me

Sunday, June 27, 2010

USA/Ghana Aftermath

All is right in the football world, it seems. Ghana, upon which a whole continent's hope rests, continues on while the pedestrian squad from the United 50 dissolves back into irrelevancy. And the 'fans' of the Team USA? Well, NASCAR and vampire TV and early summer Major League Baseball are on so adios, Team Amigos.

I'm not sure why but the sight of Bill Clinton partying with Mick Jagger in the VIP Booth struck me the wrong way. Politricks and entertainment, two great deceits.

Friday, June 25, 2010

USA vs Ghana

The karmic collision. An intrinsic sense of solidarity with the American lads, their upbringing on suburban soccer pitches or grade school gravel stone playgrounds similar to my own. Yet the raw cultural baggage of this nation's intercontinental aggression weighs heavily. How root for the Monster?

Ghana. Africa's last hope this 2010 World Cup, this billion strong pageant of sport. The first African World Cup, a competition dominated for decades by Europeans - except for Brazil's periodically puncturing the balloon of plenty.

Landon Donovan might have played soccer with my nephew on Jersey Shore town fields. Youth leagues. Babysitting leagues. The embarrassment of riches. The Corporation - entertainment a-plenty. Where do we go from here? What if the USA wins? How celebrate? How revel in the vanquishing of the last African nation in the first World Cup in Africa?

But this IS sport, and to engage in sport is to compete. So compete we must. Football will never replace warfare  in deciding the globe's conflicts, but such ritualistic engagement does break down cultural barriers. Stadiums of cheering, chanting, singing spectators engaged in the ritual of Sport. Along those lines we pretty much all measure out. It's in the grim minutiae of the Haves and the Have Nots where the poison percolates.

So from the nation of Have, the Monster oil slick nation, the Toxic Nation Apocalypse, I deliberate my allegiance, shrug my red, white, and blue shoulders, muse my black, red, yellow, green solidarity Ital oneness, and decide to embrace whatever outcome emerges from tomorrow's epic clash of Africa and North America on a football pitch at Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg, South Africa.

Biking Martha's Vineyard, Part II

Menemsha feels like some small Portuguese village, or some seaside town in Normandy, a quiet, out-of-the-way place where the fish is fresh and the people guarded, even vaguely suspicious, until you spend a few minutes chatting with them, asking about the daily catch, the nearby sandy cliffs, or commiserating over the Celtics' disappointing loss on the far coast. Then you realize their guardedness is just that understated Yankee reserve and before you know it, you're friends.

But as much as the idea of lingering here appeals, we don't. With the bike ferry behind us, up we ride on North Road, back into the Massif Central, my odometer edging toward 50 miles. The sun still burns hot and bright in the cloudless blue sky and we're feeling the good and honest fatigue that comes from hours in the saddle and the constant absorption of salt air, sun, and island wind. Despite the allure of the relatively shaded Chilmark roads with their massive oaks and maples and scant number of autos, thoughts of a huge fish dinner begin to overtake our enthusiasm for the pedal stroke and in silent mutual agreement we know we're now riding with a destination in mind - the Edgartown Seafood Market.

We ride with purpose along the aforementioned Edgartown-West Tisbury Rd's bike path. It's shady, the surface endearingly toned in places by patches of faded orangey pine needles, and basically bereft of other users. It's always a good thing, too, after a long day of riding when you're tired and perhaps allowing the mind to wander a bit, not to have to worry about car traffic. You're able to find a comfortable pedal pace and lapse, without danger, into meditative calm. So we do and in no time we're back on the outskirts of Edgartown and parking our bikes on the wooden porch of the fish market just before the tony village center.

Everything in the long glass display case looks appealing and fresh: local cod and marlin, thick red tuna steaks,  heaps of littlenecks, bone white haddock filets, a tray packed with olivey-green soft shell crabs, buckets of shrimp. We clomp in our riding shoes back and forth trying to decide what to get, trying to envision how we'd cook this or that and what would be good for starters and how many pounds of haddock and dare we get lobster too? We go with the haddock (to be pan-fried, breadcrumb-coated, in olive oil) and thick marlin steaks (for the grill), smoked mussels (for the salad made from greens growing in Kevin's garden), and, at my insistence, three soft shell crabs (only three as the Leonator balks, unfamiliar with eating these strange creatures - later on, after I've lightly fried them, cut them in half, and placed each half open-faced on toasted bread with mayo and arugula, he devours his share with considerable delight).

Not the best one-handed bike handler, nonetheless I happily take up the burden of carrying the bounty home (the Virginian's bike satchel already filled with produce purchased up the road at the Morning Glory farmstand). Carefully we wend our way back to the Chappy ferry, wait for the skipper to beckon us aboard, and chug across the cut to the other side. The last stretch, a couple miles on Chappaquiddick Rd, then the long dusty driveway to Camp.

But before setting in to cook, the lure of a plunge into the ocean is impossible to resist. A five minute drive in Kevin's pickup takes us to Dike Bridge and the Trustees of Reservations at East Beach where, unhesitating, we rush down the hot sand and plunge headlong into the chilly surf in diamondy sparkle splashes.

The denouement to an extraordinary day of cycling comes later, in the gathering evening, our plates laden with the sea's bounty, our spirits soaring, our thirst slaked, our bodies humming with fatigue and gratitude. We toast each other and offer thanks and praises to the Most High for the privilege of Being in this wholesome place, and for enduring friendships.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Biking Martha's Vineyard, Part I

Biking Martha’s Vineyard can be vexing at times - intersections clogged with cars and tourists, inexperienced and inattentive bike rental bikers, stiff headwinds – but the rewards of cycling here are many and varied. I had the good fortune of experiencing it firsthand this past weekend.
Two friends and I accepted a standing invitation to visit old friend and musician Kevin Keady who, in addition to writing and performing uniquely insightful folk songs, works on the Pimpney Mouse Farm, “The Last Farm on Chappaquiddick” (which it is and which is also the title of a recent book documenting the farm’s history in the 30s and 40s and written by the farm’s matriarch, Edo Potter).
Pimpney Mouse Farm is a working hay farm encompassing several hundred acres of some of the most beautiful and classic landscape to be found on the eastern seaboard. Kevin happened into employment here nearly two decades ago and in the interim time has become a fixture not only on the farm but on the Vineyard itself. Generous, motivated, a devotee of his art and a tireless promoter of the local music scene, Kevin hosted our three person cycling squad at his small cabin (known simply as “Camp”) on the far end of the farm, the most private area, the section beyond which is nothing but fields and vistas down to Poucha Pond and the Atlantic Ocean beyond East Beach.
Our cycling goal was simple – ride from one end of the Vineyard to the other and explore the back roads in between. Starting at the end of the farm’s long dusty sandy driveway and taking Chappy’s only paved road to the three car ferry across the cut to Edgartown, we set out for the far southwestern headland of Aquinnah (also known as Gay Head) with its cliffs and lighthouse and views across the water to the Elizabeth Islands and Cutty Hunk. It was Saturday, the sun was bright in a cloudless blue sky, and we had the whole day ahead for our cycling meander.
Three main roads head across the island from Edgartown, all with parallel bike paths so that it’s possible, for the most part, to stay clear of roadway traffic. Vineyard Haven Road skirts the seaside congestion of Oak Bluffs but as a result is also one of the island’s busiest thoroughfares, used extensively by the locals. The shore route through Oak Bluffs (Beach Road, New York Ave to Vineyard Haven) is also busy but in a more sightseeing manner with lines of tourist cars snaking through Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven or angling for a parking spots along the beach straightaway across from Sengekontacket Pond. The Edgartown-West Tisbury Road along the southern side of the Vineyard is generally less busy and though not exactly scenic it does have a fine shaded bike path that runs through pine forest (with the result that sections of the path are blanketed with burnished carroty/orange dried pine needles).
But limiting your cycling to the above-mentioned roads and sticking to the fatted center of the Vineyard is not recommended. Instead, head west, southwest actually, to the Massif Central (so I dubbed it in my mind) otherwise known as West Tisbury and Chilmark where we pedaled with enthusiasm along nearly empty rolling byways.Three island roads in particular stand out.

Lamberts Cove Rd is on the right off State Road coming out of Vineyard Haven. It’s a beautifully paved, winding country road in West Tisbury that takes you by old property and woodland idylls – hoary old dignified stone walls demarcating fields and wood edges, stalwart and massive oaks growing for a century and more, ancient fresh water ponds (Seth’s and Duarte’s), mown fields, road shoulder thickets. Very little traffic. 
The second must-ride street is Middle Road through Chilmark – the “Chilmark Alps” I joke with Leonator and the Virginian, my estimable riding companions. Even more up and down than Lamberts Cove, this longish (3 – 4 miles) road bypasses the far busier South Road, the preferred way for auto traffic to get to Aquinnah. Middle Road is flawlessly paved too and runs through some of the same gorgeous countryside as Lamberts Cove except in Chilmark there seems to be more open space, more farm fields and stone walls. Toward the far end it becomes visually apparent that Middle Road unfolds along the higher spine of the peninsula that marks the southern geography of the Vineyard. Off to the left we catch glimpses of the sea.

The third and final must-ride road is Moshup Trail, another little-traffic’d route that allows you to bypass the more congested State Rd in the run up to the Aquinnah headland. “Mash It Up Road!” we joke, doing our best Rasta imitations while cruising along one more finely surfaced roadway, this one going down to sea level and running through the dunes and sandy landscape hills that separate the road from the ocean to the south.
But those are specific roads. I offer a blanket endorsement of the Menemsha Pond basin, also on the Aquinnah peninsula. Take Lighthouse Rd down to Lobsterville Beach and then along West Basin Road to the Bike Ferry. Yes, a bike ferry that, for $5 per person, takes you across the cut that separates the traveler on West Basin Road from the small fishing village of Menemsha. Fantastic dune landscape, flat beachscape, faded fishing shack grays and washed out pinks and blues, scrub green sand soil hillocks, the ocean.
In Menemsha, we ride down the port road and pass several fish markets, behind which, on the salty-gray plank docks, hungry diners sit on creaky picnic benches eating something I can only assume is fresh, hot, and delicious. Mental note taken – return to this little hamlet for outstanding fresh seafood!

Take North Road out of Menemsha – it parallels aforementioned Middle Road and, while not quite as transcendent as Middle Road, still manages to conjure images of Languedoc in rural southern France. In fact, all along this extraordinary ride I think of France, of the upcoming Tour, of the simple joy and unadulterated sense of goodness that comes from riding a bicycle through new and remarkable places.