Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cosmopolis


1. The Cosmonaut

Outside his window, a yellow sliver of a moon hung upside down over the Gate. It was a dry winter, with patches of summer whenever the fog pulled back. When he was away, he longed for this room with its narrow bed. His life was simpler here and more complicated everywhere else.  

The house had been in his wife's family since the beginning of time, as she liked to remark. She was born into an old property-owning family, which had arranged their marriage. She was still beautiful, with the high cheekbones that marked its women. They had always lived apart, as was the custom once children arrived, but occasionally slept under one roof.

The area was dotted with her properties, a small part of what her family owned. The families ran everything. Like his father and grandfather before him, he served hers as an advisor, a member of the titled class that also included healers, writers, and diplomats. Their power was reflected like the moon, he thought, looking at it again. Members of his class grew up in one or another of these families, their lives arranged by mothers and aunts to thrive within the empire’s complicated networks of relation.

Because epidemics continued to disrupt life, borders were closed and travel was deliberately slowed. The families set up human and cultural exchanges to keep the gene pool from getting stagnant and maintain civilization. To facilitate this, the elite families dealt with each other in a lingua franca that rose above other languages and dialects.

This standard language was his mother tongue, although he spoke the demotic of his childhood and other tongues hed picked up along the way. Others, less obliged to mix with outsiders, learned it at school, if at all. The ambitious learned it well, angling to be absorbed into families that could elevate them and their offspring to a better class.

Like his forefathers, he had gone abroad. It was as a young student that he drew the attention of his wife and her sisters. So while their marriage was arranged, it was at her instigation. This was typical of this island of liberality, but other locales were more political, with greater formality and horse-trading involved. The property-owning classes elsewhere tended to marry their own kind, but her family dated back to the patriarchy, a descent that evoked culture and political power, and made them open to a wider-than-usual range of marriage partners.

The world may be a genetic mélange, but every titled family had its strand and the Vestals kept the rolls. The men lived for and labored at their pleasure. Real power was exercised through congeries of blood ties, a diffused matriarchy. His class moved through its layered world as “relations,” married or adopted into families. There were also serving classes, the untitled, and—beyond the frontier—the tribes and outlaws.

Now that he was back, servers came to stock his larder, make his meals, and clean the house. He wrote notes and left them for the messenger to fetch: one to his wife, one to his daughter, one to a friend, and one to the messenger himself, asking him to spread the word of his return.

The friend was part of a family of scientists and mathematicians. The women often married their collaborators, male and female, but sometimes also took up with the gifted, musicians especially. She was younger than him by half a generation. Life stretched out after the genetic basis of aging and disease was understood. The gender shift followed, with the women first resisting and then overthrowing what the men had run since agrarian days, mixing politics and religion to hold power and make a mess of things. The matriarchal families toppled these hierarchies and took over, their power both local and global—a “loose empire” formed from networks of aristocratic women and their men.

The gifted were the only free men. The titled classes were theoretically meritocratic, but background mattered; the gifted truly were. The untitled could become servers, but being gifted was the only route to a higher station for them and the dispossessed. Among the titled, to be counted as gifted was an ambition and a reward. It reflected talents cultivated by their families and honed by school and experience. Among the untitled and dispossessed, to count as gifted reflected raw talent. It was a shortcut and an apotheosis, but one could fall. The titled had their families, but the untitled only had their gifts. To preserve themselves, they had to make their mark, then find protectors or marry well. Some did neither, burning through their talent and squandering their chances. 

The gifted could direct their time toward their chosen activities. Titled men of working age had to have a profession or a trade. Titled women could have a profession or a vocation if they chose. The gifted alone were free from these impositions. Their only obligation was to perform. 

2. A Visitor 

He wrote the friend in the tongue that he had learned from her. Within elite families, sisters spoke to each other informally, and this was later shared affectionately with selected others. A shift to the standard language meant that the relationship was cooling or had ruptured.

In time, she arrived in her layered clothes, denying that anything but his note itself prompted her visit. Her speech, too, was formal. He breezed through this, talking of this or that until she warmed up, laughing and shifting the conversation bit by bit toward the language of her childhood.

"You are not the only traveler," she said. Her saying it made him realize how much time had passed. She recounted the voyage out and back, and the months with her family in its home city, arranging for her son to find a place there, to be taken in and brought along.

That part of the empire lay close to a dangerous frontier, a place of great lawlessness and patriarchy. If the son were raised there, he would likely have to deal with it. The outlaws coveted the women's wealth, so there were constant incursions. An odd place to land, he thought, but family connections trumped everything else. Without them, he would lead a stunted life in the provinces, thwarting his destiny as they saw it.

The visitor read his thoughts. "It wasn't easy for me, taking him there," she said. "He went willingly, but I worry. They value strangers, but they make them show their worth. It's not like here, insulated by geography."

"I had no choice,” she added. “Boys are hostages to fortune. He has no choice, either, if he wants to serve we intend and earn his place on the Vestals' list." She made a face. "I shouldn't care about it, but pride is my great fault. We share that trait, he and I. I pray it doesn't kill him."

She rose. " I must go. I'm sure you have many, many others to see. I was surprised to get your note, knowing your obligations. Thank you for it" He shook his head. "No, they're only just learning that I'm back, if the messenger has told them yet. If he hasn't, then I'll have a few more days of peace and quiet." She smiled. "I'm sure you're lying," she said.

What was that old Anne Carson poem? "The town of uneven love." He'd thought when he first read it that it was about the feelings between lovers, but perhaps it's about love itself. Her maxim, "We are objects in a wind that stopped," endeared her to the hard men. Would the friend's son become one? A frontier like that made you hard, he thought, no matter how you were when you started out.

 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Diary

22 December 2013. My sister fell ill earlier this week, undermined by a steroid. Her underlying illness, for which the steroid was prescribed, is worrisome. Illness of someone close inevitably reminds you of your own mortality, given our penchant for self-referencing. So much for empathy! Or, more charitably, perhaps this argues that empathy is ultimately imagining the other as oneself. 

Recently, I traveled west to Singapore and Shanghai, and then east to New York City. This happened in a three-week period, with an interval here (Berkeley and San Francisco) between the two trips. I wrote briefly about the two Asian cities elsewhere (j2parman.tumblr.com) and have thought to write more, but the experience hasn't quite jelled yet. I noted that all three cities are less visibly dense than Tokyo. I was surprised how big Singapore is, in fact, and how much open space it still contains. Manhattan and Hong Kong have a rough equivalency, although the skyscrapers of Hong Kong are a more impressive sight than almost anywhere else when viewed from the water - a skyline that won't quit. Shanghai may impress in this regard, too, but it was too smogged up while I was there to see. 

When I wrote up my year-end summations (here and on another blog, berk94708.blogspot.com), I realized how much traveling I did this year. The trips were generally fairly short, although I managed 18 days or so in Europe, practically a record. Nine or 10 days are more like it: enough to get my feet wet, but not enough to get homesick and/or strung out. I don't really like living out of a suitcase, although I've mastered the art. With my odd nature, I find that I desire company, but then have to hold them at bay in order to recover from the physical drain that social interaction causes me. As I get older and more aware of how my body and psyche work, I try to calibrate this (and explain it) more carefully. 

When I look back at the year, I see certain things done and other things not. What gets done is of course a result of consistently working at it, so there are weavings and sketches, for example, but the blogs - particularly TraceSF.com - have received less attention. One of my resolutions for 2014 is to master the WordPress posting process, which I still don't understand completely. I've also asked my daughter to join the party as managing editor, hoping this will improve its rate of flow. I started a sonnet series called "The Barn Partitas" that I want to finish. I've been thinking about other kinds of writing. If I could write the way I weave, I'd be more productive, I tell myself. Make a practice of it, in other words. 

At the end of my 2013 best-of list, I thanked friends and family for making it a memorable year. I think I'm lucky in this respect, that I make friends easily and enjoy our conversations. My sense of time is such (as I've written here before) that I don't feel especially the distance of absence. On the contrary, I sort of pick up wherever we left off, the memories of those occasions regaining immediacy. It's a helpful aspect of my nature, at least to me. 

I don't think one can possess anything except momentarily. One often speaks of friends in the possessive, but friends are part of what makes life wondrous. Like everything else, ourselves included, they're part of an unfolding landscape, nothing to cling to, as the Buddhists say, but nothing is ever really lost, either, the Taoists add helpfully. When the curtain closes, it all vanishes, this world we view from our particular perspective. Or maybe not, who knows? At minimum, something else arises. 

Yet, within this, certain people stand out. It's like there's some prior tie that's still working itself out. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013: The List

Best hotel: The Hotel-Restaurant Arce in St. Etienne-de-Baigorry, a small town in the French Basque country. It faces a trout-stocked river, is located at the edge of a picturesque village, and is owned and run by a chef and his family, so the food is excellent.

Best building: For me, that would be Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao. I was skeptical, but it won me over immediately. It's well scaled and wonderfully located. The Serra gallery is remarkable (as is the work itself). Gehry saves the design moves for the public space and lets the galleries be galleries.

Best city: Bordeaux, much to my surprise. It's walkable, beautiful, and calmer than Paris (where I stayed in the Latin Quarter, possibly an error). I want to go back. One night, we ate at a restaurant called La Tupina that features old-style regional cuisine and was really good in all respects. 

Best museum (and/or exhibit): Not the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Serra wing notwithstanding. There was a Tapies show in the making, which might have swayed my opinion, but the show on offer wasn't very good. I loved the Drawing Center in Manhattan's Soho, a very good place to look at drawings closely. I went there last winter. But the highlight of the year was the Diebenkorn show at the de Young in SF. Not one bad painting and more than a few that were breathtaking. 

Best book(s): My reading is so slow and sporadic, but I've enjoyed two collections of literary reviews by J.M. Coetzee. I guess that "literary review" is the right term - he's writing about writers, and he does it very well. Last year, I read most of his autobiographical "Scenes from Provincial Life," also terrific. 

Best live music: The Musicians of Marlboro, a string quartet that played in Berkeley in September - a traveling circus of a group, organized to give young musicians opportunities to perform. They were amazing. If they tour near you, hear them! A perennial runner-up is Davitt Moroney, whose annotated concerts are not-to-be-missed occasions (although I sat one out last spring because I was in a bad mood).

Best recorded music: I've become a huge fan of Angela Hewitt. I listen to her "Well-Tempered Clavier" constantly, and have been slowly acquiring her other work, including Bach, Beethoven, Handel, and Haydn. 

Best magazine or journal: It's still "The London Review of Books." (I like "The Paris Review" less since the new editor took non-fiction off the table.) In (on?) design, I like "Arcade," "Architectural Review," "Architect's Journal," and "Architect's Newspaper." Special points to Christine Murray of "AJ" for her support of women in architecture. (Not great here, much worse in England.) Regarding the principal US design mags, "Architectural Record" and "Contract" are both better than they were, and "Architect" is less hobbled by its AIA connection than I expected. The English ones still have the edge (by a substantial margin) and "Architect's Newspaper," especially under Sam Lubell's West Coast editorship, is almost the only US design mag running real criticism. Much credit! (I also read "Abitare" and "Domus," both consistently very good. I'm glad to see "L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui" is still in print. Recently, I started reading "Axis" again. When I can find it, I like "A+U." There are many others that I admire but don't encounter very often.)

Best criticism: On the daily newspaper front, Michael Kimmelman is excellent and Christopher Hawthorne is often very good. There are a ton of good people writing mostly online (or that's where I read them): Alexandra Lange, Allison Arieff, Alissa Walker, Mimi Zeiger, and Fred Bernstein, for instance. On other fronts, I really miss Frank Rich's weekly political critiques. His "New York" pieces aren't as venomous and lack the excitment of the moment that makes political writing worth reading.

Best bookstore: Three-way tie: City Lights (SF), and University Press Books and William Stout Solano (Berkeley). I appreciate Pegasus, Pendragon, and Moe's (Berkeley) for being here. Others have recommended Turtle Island (Berkeley), but I still haven't been there. (The remnant sale at Serendipity was the single most depressing event I attended this year. The bookseller Peter Miller remarked that digital books may finally separate the wheat from the chaff. I hope so.)

Best object: Probably the iPad Air, because picking it up made me want to buy it. I still haven't, but not for lack of thinking about it. I used my iPhone 5 to navigate through France (with my daughter's help) and was amused by Siri's consistently midwestern pronunciation of French street names. That's a sweet object, too, the iPhone, with a good camera. (And this from a company that plans to build The Ring, another object, gargantuan, and more of a Victorian folly than a good decision.)

Best software: Procreate, a photo-collage app for the iPad. Much like the camera on my iPhone, it has liberated my artistic sense, leading to a slew of photo-collages, most of which are on my tumblr site. Runner-up: Pages, another iPad app, which is like writing on my old Olivetti Lettera. 

Best pen: I'm addicted to Pilot Precise V5 extra fines. (Sounds like a Havana cigar.) When you write with them in a notebook, they don't smudge or run. For someone with my tiny, crablike handwriting, the fineness of the line is a necessity. 

Best flight: I took United from SFO to JFK in the summer and was amazed to find a new plane and good and pleasant service. I wrote United, because it was so different than it had been with them. Was it a fluke? I don't fly often enough to know for sure. The new JAL service between SFO and Haneda (Tokyo) , while not really wonderful, is well-timed, back-and-forth, and Haneda is much closer to the city than the dreaded Narita. Subsequent to my visit to Tokyo in April, the Japanese government gave ANA the bulk of the Haneda slots, so I'm not sure if the JAL service is still being offered.

Best newspaper: A perennial tie between the "Financial Times" and "The Guardian." This year, G gets the edge for its courageous handling of the Snowden affair in the face of UK government insolence.

Best hero: Edward Snowden. Even Putin acknowledged that he did the world a favor. Obama should get with the program. Departed: Nelson Mandela, farewell. On deck: Pope Francis. Say what you will, he's a big change. Late, late, late in the game, but you have to start somewhere. 

Best heroines: Pussy Riot. The Virgin will deal with Putin soon enough. He may even realize this.

Best meal: La Tupina in Bordeaux. I had the lamb. The sight of meat roasting on the fire when you walk in seals the deal. Plus (naturally enough, since it's Bordeaux) a great wine list.

Best dressed: Kenny Caldwell. He's become my role model. Not that I've actually followed through, but it will eventually happen. I like the clothes the men wear in publications like "Monocle" and "Port," but those men are either decades younger than me or, if closer to my age, evidently mountaineering or otherwise caught up in some strenuous activity that ain't gonna happen. Kenny is closer to my reality and he generally looks great. (I don't think that bow ties will work for me, however.)

Best world news: Pussy Riot and Khodorkovsky sprung. Sochi, The Virgin, whatever - glad to see it!

Best personal news: A PSA score of 0.4, after an all-time high of 8.8 or something like that - evidence that my "summer course" of radiation in 2010, designed by my friend Patrick Swift, M.D., worked as predicted. One never knows with cancer, so I think to myself that I've been treated, not cured, but - as he explained - the odds against a recurrence are as good as they can be. I'll take it. 

Best film: I don't think I saw any this year, but I may see "American Hustle," based on the reviews.

Best thing about 2013: Going back to Singapore after an absence of 60 years was a good thing, so a bow to Anthony S.C. Teo and Richard Bender. There are so many other "best things" - new people met and wonderful times spent with friends and family across the planet. Thank you!