steam and fire

Goutte-nanostructure

She asked me what a cloud feels like.’It’s just steam’ I said without thinking, but eagerly, because of course the Wonder lives in the pragmatic complications of the machined parts. But she didn’t want steam. She wanted the solid stuff seen from the rounded square, the pressure-resisting porthole of a working 747. That is, the pink-tinted landscape of uneven cotton, some of it mountainous and so on, stretching away and away to a companionable sun beneath those immense idiot wings and engines in which only a dimwit places full faith. Which is to say, again, our common space is not filled with mere magic, but a strong and weak nuclear force and other such measurable gossamer. ‘Oh, my dear’, I will explain in a plummy and patronizing tone, a Gielgud reassurance,’the stars are only fire, self-important know-nothings in a large cold room. A cloud is a buoyant puff of steam, such as a teapot emits without ceremony. And God has no beard.’ To her dull stare I’ll respond with a nervous comic gesture.

Ta daaaa!

My Dutch In-Laws and the Wonder of Machined Things

Koos en Riek in an Italian Movie moment

Koos en Riek van Vliet, 1950s, Holland. I’ve always loved this picture – it looks like a Truffaut movie still.

My mother-in-law is visiting from Holland, an unlikely country spread across an undersea declivity from which the water, over the centuries, has been ingeniously pushed, rather than drained. The sea still muscles up to the country of 17 million like a churlish rejected suitor, harassing with all the weight of the vast ocean the defenses the Dutch have built to keep her at bay. On the night of January 1, 1953 an historic catastrophe which the Dutch call the Watersnoodramp (‘water tribulation disaster’, approximately) befell the dish-like Holland with long-lasting effects.  A mighty storm, combined with the kismet of high tides, swamped the Dutch system of seawalls and dykes and inundated the south of the country in the Zeeland – Noord Brabant region. Nearly 2000 people were drowned, along with tens of thousands of animals. Buildings and homes were swept away and in the course of the blow several ships were lost at sea and in the channel.

In one of many notable feats of spontaneous, powerfully practical Dutch “Now we will fix this” derring-do (a quality I’ve learned to both love and fear), the quick-thinking, detail-averse mayor of a town called Niewenkerk commandeered a largish grain barge and ordered the captain, named Arie Evegroen, to head with all speed to a widening breach in the Groenendijk on the river Ijssel near his town, a key dyke in the region whose loss would be catastrophic. That high sea dyke was beginning to weaken on the seaward side, threatening with explosive flash flooding about 3 million Dutch people in the province’s lowlands. Captain Evegroen was reportedly nervous about the more-than-a-little-crazy, seat-of-the-pants plan his wild-eyed mayor had cooked up, but he only paused long enough to haul a lifeboat onto his rust-eaten barge, de Twee Gebroeders (the Two Brothers), in case things didn’t work out and he was obliged to jump overboard.

Een Dubbeltje op Zijn Kant

Een Dubbeltje op Zijn Kant – a cool little statue in the Groenedijk commemorating a sea dog’s rescue of his countrymen in a moment of rural quickthink.

In the event, Captain Evegroen throttled up to the dyke and in the “I was raised on this river” manner that jut-jawed heroic sea dogs have, masterfully maneuvered his ship into the yawning hole such that the full force of the sea was diverted from the breach, and several million Dutch brothers and sisters downriver were saved.

A typically demure bit of Dutch statuary commemorates the event on the site of the patchwork rescue of a quarter of the country’s citizens that day in ’53. It’s called Een Dubbeltje op Zijn Kant – A Little Coin on its Side – a Dutch saying that connotes a narrow escape. For all the lives that were saved, and the scale of the added disaster that was averted, the commemorative sculpture simply shows a guy in a raincoat bending hurriedly over a dinghy. This is how the Dutch pat themselves on the back. Quietly. Their tensile strength is in the doing.

In the literal wake of the ruinous flood the Dutch hurriedly, almost angrily, came up with a massive machined response called the Delta Project; a huge, technologically complex series of sluices, walls and sea-gates down the channel coast of Holland whose intent is to effectively round off the complex inlets and waterways of the coast and reduce the number of miles and opportunities through which a storm-maddened sea may pour its wrath, so to speak. The Dutch had been planning a similarly large-scale if technologically less robust project to protect their vulnerable southern reaches when WWII broke out and more immediate concerns superseded the fear of drowning. Now they attacked the problem with all the ingenuity and will they are known for.

The largest and most dramatic stretch of the project, completed in 1986 and dedicated by Queen Beatrix of Holland, is the Oosterscheldekering; as difficult to say as it is awesome to see. The Oosterscheldekering is a 9 kilometer long (~5 mile) wall of sluices and gears and gates, and looks like something from another planet. It is a world-renowned example of national pluck, as we Americans might once have put it, and amounts to an enormous Dutch middle finger raised to old King Neptune. That is, following the disaster, this attack by capricious nature, the level-headed, quietly indomitable Nederlanders had wrung out their clothes, sharpened their pencils, and returned to bitch-slap the elements. Or as the Dutch plainly understate on a plaque installed near the ostentatious sea wall – “Hier gaan over het tij, de wind, de maan en wij“.

“Here the tide is ruled by the wind, the moon and us.”

Yes. Point made. And stated, I can tell you, with the firm and mildly grinning Dutch clarity of purpose one learns very deeply to love.

My father-in-law, Koos (Jacobus – may he rest in peace) was in the military at the time of the disaster and was given a medal for his efforts in the rescue operation that followed the disaster. His stories are many and his everyday heroism and humor will find a home in this blog.

My mother in law, Riek (short for Hendrika) is also heroic. What she experienced, and what her family survived during wartime, are of another world and epoch, and with her permission I’ll get some of that down here, too. It defies easy comprehension, much of it. Riek is funny, loving, and unbreakable. And – now to the buried mini-anecdote that catalyzed the writing of this post – she has a great respect for water. All the Dutch do. Every man, woman and child in the country must pass a surprisingly arduous three-step swimming program and exam called the ABC Zwem Diploma, beginning around age 5 or 6, or they aren’t allowed out of the deep end of any public pool. Ever. The Dutch are citizens of a place that exists at the pleasure of the sea, and of the engineers whose ingenious contraptions hold the sea, year after year, in abeyance.

The prosaic result of all this water-conquering is that every year on her visit, Riek destroys our shower handles in a fit of water-arresting determination. It can be said that the 1953 seawall catastrophe in Holland has been a gift to Santa Barbara’s plumbers. Ours is an older shower which, when turned off, looses a few fitful drips of water before closing off the flow completely. If you are able to bide your time for 4 seconds the dripping ceases. To Dutch folk of a certain generation, 4 seconds may as well be 4 days. On seeing the drips Riek’s impulse until recently has been to crank the shower handles to ground with such muscle-trembling strength that by the time her 3 – 4 week visit is ended, the measly American shower gaskets have been crushed to diaphanous doilies by her strength of will and bionic wrists. A plummeting droplet of water is something to be forcefully addressed. The shower handle gaskets are invariably shot to pieces during her visits and need to be replaced, in a yearly ritual that signals dear Riek’s return to Holland, within a day or two of her leaving. This year she got the memo, and is treating the fixtures more gently. Surely Riek’s new exercise of patience is allowing her the astonished revelation that sometimes running water will stop moving of its own accord.

I’ve long understood, though, that she has earned her contempt for uncontrolled running water. She’s earned her ways. Most of her habits and ideals and sayings were formed in a crucible. Everything she and Koos feel and felt were hard-won. Allow me to explain. It’s the very least I can do.

Bee Geezus II

BeeJeezus

Mention the Bee Gees and time stops. Your suddenly chagrined companion will pause to reflect. The reverie is typically an unpleasant one; gold chains nestled in Barry Gibbs’ chest hair, three unsmiling grown men with their arms crossed, standing back to back in satin like Charlie’s Angels, lapels that could lift a fighter jet, and John Travolta strutting cockily down a Brooklyn street in white, jewel-crushing bellbottoms, aiming his dumb dimple and triumphalist double-wide yap at passerby. This is upsetting. The Bee Gees are not “Stayin’ Alive”. The Bee Gees are not “If I Can’t Have You”. These three doomed faux-Aussies are emphatically not “You Should Be Dancin’ (yet another bullet from the Bee Gees Nadir Period whose suffix-apostrophe illustrates how far they had fallen by the mid-seventies). Song titles that drop their final ‘g’ in a gambit for insouciance have always inspired contempt in me, as they should in you. Just sayin’. What the Bee Gees ARE is ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?’, ‘Massachussetts’, and the jarringly unhip “I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You’, wherein a man on death row both pays penance and says goodbye to his love in a weirdly heartbreaking paean to loss and earthly regret. The brothers’ wordless start-and-stop harmonizing on that one should be enshrined in the Louvre. “Message” was a global radio hit; this in 1968, the year after the Youth Revolution’s high watermark had been codified by the tie-dyed nihilism and public screwing of the Summer of Love. The Brothers Gibb were the nerds at that party, eschewing shiny marching band regalia and the Billy Shears Mystery Tour at a time when psychedelia and stoned self-importance ruled.

They were often accused of riding on the coat tails of the Beatles, but their life-informed balladry was always of an entirely different species both in approach, and in the glorious femininity of its floral compositional style (he blathered unwisely). If there is a Beatles song like “Run To Me” I haven’t heard it, and it’s unlikely it would have occurred to the Fab Four (whom I adore) to pen a tune about a mine cave-in, as did the Bee Gees in the very un-sixties, starkly beautiful “New York Mining disaster, 1941″. The last gasp of the Old Bee Gees Order can be heard in the evanescent (and nowadays reflexively derided) “How Deep is Your Love”, also from the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, but a gorgeous filigreed ghost of what was.

The brothers stumbled tragically into disco at the mercantile behest of producer Robert Stigwood, who was bankrolling a movie based on what turned out to be a largely invented New Yorker article about Brooklyn’s very real 70s underground dance culture. For that film, fellow Aussie and longtime producing partner Stigwood asked his boys for more of the ‘R & B’ the guys had featured haltingly on their recent “Main Course” album (listen to “Edge of the Universe” from that record. I beg thee, listen to “Baby As You Turn Away” as Barry tastefully explores, in a melodic swoon, his newfound falsetto. If you’ve a lick of sense, skip the risible “Jive Talkin'”, whose street-cred-seeking apostrophe foreshadows the coming sorrow). The boys obliged Stigwood, and were themselves as freaked as the rest of the world when the shoestring-budgeted little movie took off like a ballistic mirror ball.

The accompanying mayhem and largesse rang down a curtain, as often happens. Inevitably, disco fell out; lavishly and with much ado. The torch-carrying mob rose up to murder its emissaries and the Bee Gees were first in line to the gallows. They are hanging there still. Later, impish little brother Andy would come over to the states and make pop waves and grace the cover of Tiger Beat Magazine before sampling a little powdered sugar and taking it to heart, in fairly short order passing away in hospital at the age of 30, almost before his broken mother’s eyes. Bee Gee Maurice would die suddenly of a knotted intestine some years later and the grief would stun the surviving brothers into what would turn out to be an unbroken silence.

In a documentary made just before the very end, Barry and Robin, looking weathered and defeated, vow before the camera that they really want to get back into the studio, come in from the wilderness. The unintentionally elegiac documentary ends with Barry and a gaunt, bewigged Robin obliging the videographer with a couple roughly harmonized lines of old school, Pre Fall Bee Gees, looking at each other across the ages and smiling tiredly. Soon thereafter, dulcet-voiced twin Robin would slowly succumb to cancer, joining Maurice somewhere, it’s nice to think, though evidence is scant.

Now big brother Barry, 66 at this writing, is left to recollect. When the Brothers Gibb were wearing button-down shirts and blue jeans, singing songs like “To Love Somebody” and smiling unguardedly at the camera, Robin cupping his ear in performance to capture that inimitable harmony, they might not have guessed at the steamroller they would become, and how the later Disco Big Bang would poison their legacy. For some of us who know the boys by their gorgeous earlier efforts, the question still remains, and we can assume Barry asks it of himself every day on waking; how CAN you mend a broken heart?

Starry, Starry Day

starlight in a growing womanI don’t understand by what relativisitc Einsteinian sorcery the years pass like months. Songs and books and laments have featured this phenomenon forever, I know. But our former saucer-eyed little bowling ball Stella is a willowy young woman today with the carriage and demeanor of a smartass gazelle. How I wish my mom were here to see this day; Stella is built with great exactitude from Aloha’s blueprint. Mischief-making, wild spontaneous laughter and radiant love are the salient features. Another fuzzy little Earthly soul who awakens every morning laughing and pirouetting. It’s madness. Any scanning electron micrograph of Stella’s DNA would show Aloha climbing the double helix, waving and laughing from the highest rung. Today is Stella’s day; not at all coincidentally it is the shortest day and longest, starriest night of the year.

 

Aloha Gist with PeeWee Lincoln NE 1938

a hideous sibilance

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So the guy in front of me orders his accompanying sandwich sauce, and it’s that sauce I absolutely love, but whose delightfully tangy flavor I have long since had to forgo. The sauce has a name that can’t, or shouldn’t, be spoken aloud without blushing, so potent and spiritually crushing are its delicate, sibilant particulars, its phonetic suggestion of fey, doomed humanity. We didn’t claw all this way up from the trilobite just to stand in a little line and delicately ask that Sweet Onion dressing be applied with a squirt bottle to our Black Forest ham sandwiches. Did we? Who wants to be illuminated so strikingly on the Sad Mortality Radar? So I order mayonnaise now. The word is comparatively robust and plain, despite its sounding, on repeat murmurings, like the name of a little French village with a water pump in the town square. ‘Sweet Onion’ is an inapproachable sauce name so alive with sibilance it collapses the Moment.

“Sauce?”

“…mayo.”

But this guy in the line ahead of me – he just says it without stammering or blanching, because he wants it on his sandwich. As if that’s reason enough. He just wants to taste the good-tasting sauce on his sandwich, never mind that he has to pronounce the sauce’s name aloud to our common shame. He would rather have a great tasting sandwich than his pride. If only it were that simple.

For him though, this knapsacked specimen with his neck beard and staring inspection of chilled lunch meats through curved glass, it is that simple. There may be a lesson here. He isn’t afflicted with the crippling self-awareness that hobbles the rest of us when we are ordering sauces or buying chewing gum or shirts. What a grinding mockery our sauce orders invite! Our little sandwich predilections, the watchbands we lean over and choose with such deliberation, our carefully sat-through new haircuts and the mirror our beauticians hold behind our new hair or behind the reflected image of our new hair, so we can make sure that, even where our eyes can’t go, the hairs are arranged correctly and cut and shaped correctly, these micro-trunks of cracked dead protein sprouting out of our fool heads, so that people whose eyes CAN go there see what we are paying to have them see. Who do we think we’re kidding?!

“Sauce?” asks the wall-eyed kid in his visor.

“Sweet Onion,” the guys says, seemingly without hesitation. My skin jumps once and begins to crawl in earnest. I grasp the vestigial little ledge that is offered, like succor, by the Subway set designer. Who in his right mind would say that? Move on to another sauce, you dumb brute! Hearing the sauce-appellation spoken aloud I feel the tingle, the icy straight-pin piercing my groin. I’m about to double over. Who are these people who can say ‘sweet onion’, just like that, without a helpless, grand mal shudder? Who are these freaks? I ask you.

Gigolo Bibs

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 11.00.49 PM

Dave and I meet at a restaurant, the Famous Fish Enterprise or whatever it’s called, a few blocks up from the beach. The restaurant is thronged with the twenty-something species to whom this restaurant/club milieu is a first home; the carefully unshaven young professionals and Players who lean with hunched and easy panache over long glass-littered bars, or tables full of drinks and wrecked snack plates. They have vivacious but normal-seeming girlfriends and wives. A lot of the guys wear backward baseball caps. Those that don’t wear backward baseball caps wear suits that seem carefully arranged to look like unbuttoned after-hours business dress, and a few of the guys are sporting the Squashed Insouciant Beanie, that ubiquitous Where’s Waldo beanie that crushes and droops a little at the apex, suggesting bohemian disarray. The look doesn’t really speak in this environment because everyone knows Bohemia doesn’t watch televised sports, and so the beanie crowd look like fakes, and they are. The backward-cap guys and after hours business dress guys are in their element, though. They make easy eye contact and chit chat with bartenders and waitresses, and they all look like some version or hue of Ryan Gosling or Ryan Reynolds.

The deciding game of the World Series is all over the 30 huge flat screens in the place, it looks like Mission Control in there with all the glowing panels. The buzzed young guys and their significant others are wearing the collective ‘fuckyeahtheWorldSeries!’ mask and high-fiving each other, the men jerking their heads around and hollering every time one of the doughy millionaires onscreen swings a bat or jogs a little across the televised grass. All the guys here tonight are sporting Establishment tattoos and heroic eyebrows and are laughing loudly. The ‘Im here straight from my important job in my unbuttoned suit’ guys laugh angrily, like Billy Baldwin or Tom Cruise overplaying drunk because some acting coach somewhere told them that a drunk Young Turk looks at his gathered posse and angrily whips his hilarity-contorted face from friend to friend while laughing. “Haw!haw!haw!haw!haw! haw!haw!haw!haw! oooh shit, man! Haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!” Their girlfriends or wives could be the nameless and merely competent actresses on endless and interchangeable Law and Shooting shows and faux-funny internet ads; lookalike, neutrally beautiful young ladies with  radiant curtain-hair like polished rayon and cackling, nose-wrinkling support laughter accessorized with a possessing paw fastened determinedly on the tattooed forearm of the backward cap.

During this last game of the World Series (all the games of the world series, really. All baseball games, that is), doughy muscular men, some tallish and paunchy with a mullet-mustache set, throw the little white baseball around and occasionally sprint in expensive panic with their big fannies jumping. When they aren’t called upon to move they can be seen dramatically standing stock still while waiting for the little white ball to drop like a speck of cotton from out of the arc lighting. Often the live feed will show a moth or gnat or other innocent fluttering around out there under the lights, unaware of the Moment, and sometimes the wealthy outfielder will drop an incoming ball after having waved away his colleagues, “I got this!”, and when he drops the thing which it is his massively overpaid job simply to catch and hold onto, he’ll chase after it with electric anger, like it’s the ball’s fault, and he’ll pluck it up and throw it towards home plate with all his strength and it’ll usually get about as far as the pitcher who will snag it out of the air and then strut around with angry eyes, clutching the little ball and looking all around. The whole affair is wrought with oddness and ceremony. All the while the ‘after hours business dress’ and now even the backward-cap gangs in the restaurant are yelling and slapping hands and drinking and laughing and cavorting “haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!” and jerking their angrily laughing faces around to aim and fire their humorless barking at each other. Their potent little drinks have tiny colored straws in them.

Despite my misgivings I find myself wishing I were one of them. As I get older the desire becomes incrementally stronger and, I would suggest, more perverse.  Why didn’t God make me a guy who understands the appeal of sport spectating and occasional boozing and loudness, a regular guy who can lose himself in this tumult and tribe-think and freeing conviviality, back-slapping with a group of like-minded men and dissolving like a drop in the placid Testosterone Sea? Down another quantum pathway I would’ve played sports in high school and pumped iron, had The Stones on my bedroom wall and not a stylized cartoon poster of big-hipped Elton John peering like an elf from underneath a top hat, I would’ve had one of those thick paperbacks of sports statistics on my bedside table next to my State Championship trophy, and would have followed my dad in his daily brow-furrowed examination of column after column of tiny numbers in the Sports Section, like two guys following the stock index. Instead I sat by my Tensor lamp and pored over the beautifully bound and illustrated shiny hardcover of the complete lyrics of Bernie Taupin (thanks, Diana), surrounded by my Revell spaceship models and sketch pads and other such you’ll-never-get-to-first-base folderol. So on nights like this, and they are few, I fall into brief fits of reverie. Looking around in wonder at the backward baseball caps, I almost say aloud “how did I miss this boat so completely?”

Three guys at the table next to Dave and I are ordering drinks and being handsome and successful with their shaded jawbones and parted hair and general enviability. Enviability is a state, if not a word.  I spy on them in my peripheral vision and occasionally with one of those bold direct glances which, if intercepted, can be quickly reframed as admiration of the exposed duct work overhead. They’re watching the game with interest but no particular fever while they wait for dinner, chatting and laughing normally, holding their hands in Rodin shapes before their mouths as they cant their heads and exchange confidences, as men do in parlors and mahogany-paneled private libraries.

I turn back to Dave and we continue our conversation and about half an hour later I glance over at the guys at the next table and I gasp and I feel my face getting hot. Their dinner has long since arrived, it is lobster, and these three recent exemplars of mellow male reason and coolness are wearing enormous bibs which fasten snugly around the neck and cascade down and over the knees like the drop cloth on a picnic table. In the center of each bib, right over the solar plexus, is a grinning stylized cartoon lobster. I can’t tear my eyes away from these nitwits, and if they’re stupid enough to don gigantic fucking bibs in a mixed gender restaurant, they’re too far gone to notice my staring anyway. Did I not get the memo about the bib thing? I glance around and no one is staring at these vibrant clods.

To my utter amazement the Three Baby Hueys, now tipsy and blinking slowly, their little freak arms reaching with difficulty out from behind their expansive plasticized bibs, begin making time with the black-haired, classily-pierced babe waitress when she comes to check on their inebriated lobster-destroying process. From what should be the genital-shriveling humility of their bib status, they blearily regard her with naked lust and start coming on to her! The guy nearest me actually leans out toward her and leers, and struggles to free his bib-ensnared ass-pinching arms. It’s just awful. This is not Robert Pattinson standing around at The Cape in an Alpaca sweater with a hip little bib like a necktie, hoisting a Heineken and laughing at the lobster held aloft in his left hand. This is three grown men made idiotic by their decision to put on enormous castrating bibs. And before my stupefied eyes the hot waitress receives the bib-guy’s advances and warms to him. She is flirting back. SHE IS FLIRTING WITH THE BIB GUY. This is the world I can never join, the world I can’t even comprehend. It moved on without me when they were handing out membership cards. While I was timidly romancing the trombone player in marching band, the hot girls who couldn’t even see me were just biding their time, waiting for these louche drunks to put on their huge fucking bibs and excite them.

“Dave, check this out,” I whisper urgently out of the corner of my mouth. “These guys are wearing bibs!” It’s less funny to me than fucked up, especially now that I see the waitress warming up. Dave is everything I am not and knows his way around, writes articles for Oracle, is built like a 23 year old and takes business trips. He haunts the cocktail lounges of Manhattan when he is called there by his urbane, yacht catalog-perusing corporate masters. He glances over at the drunken flirts in their man-bibs and turns back to me.

“Yeah,” he says. “They ordered lobster.”

Maddened Acolytes of Christ Nail Themselves to Merchandise

2nd Death of Christ

Anywhere, USA – Christ was scourged, beaten, nailed, mocked and speared again this morning, within easy earshot of a Christian nation’s murmured thanks over turkey and stovetop stuffing. On the heels of the traditional Thanksgiving banquet a Pavlovian bell was heard faintly to chime and the sea of believers poured into big box outlets like a filthy debris-strewn storm surge, swarming over police barricades, mashing humanoid dents into metal security doors and beating each other with Roman Centurion gusto, Praise Jesus. In a bid to outstrip the crazed Filipino Faithful, who during the holy month of December are known to ritually crucify themselves to honor Christ’s sacrifice, well-fed American Christians by the hundreds ran angrily amok and trampled one another in a pious attempt to imitate Christ’s passion.

“J-e!–e!-e!—e!-e-e!–e!-s-u-u!-u!-u!-u!-uh!uu!-u-uu!- s-s-ss!-s-s dad for our s-s-s-ss—s-s-sins-s-s-s-!” sang Mary Faversham in a jittery voice of praise while jogging at full speed in the direction of the flat screen t.v. bonanza in aisle 7.  Crossing herself very approximately with her free hand while straight-arming and clawing with the other, she hustled forward with the ardor of the Saved. The other faithful could be seen to surround the offered bargain merchandise, their Sacrament, climbing atop each other in His name, Glory be to God. The Lord took in this yearly repeat crucifixion from behind police tape, agonizing stigmata weeping with abandon.  When asked for comment He stroked His beard and spoke uneasily, His unexpectedly swarthy Middle-Eastern countenance furrowing.

“I died for this crowd, but grudgingly,” He said. ” AND I wasn’t told I’d be re-killed every December. It’s a tough game.”