Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Erlkonig

During the day, California’s capital was an exercise, like California itself, in ersatz eclecticism.  There was something unreal, but not entirely unpleasant, the way Abyssinian domes, Ionic Greek facades ,  Chauteauesque mansards and Franco-Italian Gotho-Renaissance  Revival spires peeked out from behind an assortment of palm trees, oaks and firs all intermingled with middling vernacular renditions of Deco, International, Post Modern and Deco Revival constructs.  Everything — like California itself — tried to be something.  It was entertaining if not inspiring and, the near perfect balmy weather made up for whatever the failures in human endeavor.

But  at  night  the place turned dark, forlorn and foreboding  --  a dimly lit urban abandonment frequented only by the shadow of the homeless, the deranged, the drugged and prostituted.  

To be sure, under and across the freeway, “Old Town” was hoppin.  But “Old Town” is an ersatz conjerie of curio shops, pseudo saloons, and corporate eateries in old buildings gussied up as a Gold Rush main street without the mud and horseshit.  It could just as easily been done up as an Alpine Village and people would have flocked there for the “atmosphere.” 

The truth is, the United States has no civilisation — if by civilization one means the kind of heart beat that takes place at the centre of a social organism.  In large cities, like Paris or Buenos Aires, the whole is made up of arrondissements each with its own centre, functioning as cities within a city.  In the U.S. such sub urbs are called “neighborhoods” and these exist in the more successful U.S. cities like San Francisco and New York.  But even in these latter cases, civic coherence is swamped and lost within a vast sprawl of repetitive exurban nothingness. 

As we flew into Portland, we were impressed and appalled at what Americans had done to the majestic banks of the Columbia River.  Instead of promenades, inns, eateries and docks, the river was lined with blacktop parking lots and one commodity box after the other distinguished only by their bright corporate logos:  ROSS, TJMAX, HOME DEPOT, WALMART, PENNYS, TARGET, K-MART, Starbucks, Domino’s Pizza, TacoBell, Wendy’s Jiffy Lube, BIG FIVE, MACY’s, Olive Garden.....  What a wasteland.

And the wasteland connected Sacramento’s desolate non-centre with the non centers of Redding, Eugene, Salem, Portland, Olympia, Tacoma-Seattle.  Within this thousand mile stretch there were pockets of rural beauty — mostly in Southern Oregon.  But even here, behind the lush and lovely trees  one spotted little more than trailers and trash.  Even these fleeting “pastoral interludes” quickly gave way to gas stations, fast food stops, car lots and malls.   Every now and then, the monotony was interrupted by the bright and blinding 100,000 watt billboard of an Indian Nation Gambling Casino.

One would think that in such a motorized society, the highways would at least be serviceable but they were not.   The lanes were far too narrow for the type of traffic they are bearing, sixty percent of which is comprised of 57 foot commodity trailers, cannonading down the road at 15 miles over speed limit.  The lanes were dimly marked — at times no more than a grey smudge — and more often than not there was no shoulder to the road. 

(Painting the lane lines white was an incredibly stupid idea, given that they become invisible during day-time rain when light reflects off watery surfaces.)

Just as “invisible” are the so-called road-side services which invariably are nowhere near the road side, leaving one to get lost in a jumble of unfamiliar intersections this or that side of the freeway.

Last but not least, the roadway surface might as well be cobblestoned.  The impression I took away from Seattle was thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka-KACHUNKA CLUNK- thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka-thanka- BRRRRRRRRRRUMPA BRRRRRRRRUMPA -thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka KACHUNKA CLUNK thunka thunka thunk.....  One might think that a “world class city” could afford a world class road.

This is not to say that the United States is the only place where such desolation has taken hold.  The U.S. may have been the place where the end began, but it has taken hold  — and continues to take hold — everywhere.

What kind of human being does such an environment produce?  A “motorized unit” is only the half of it.  The isolated monadism of the auto-mobile is only a metaphor for the artificial wrap-around on human consciousness.  Just as one’s physical horizon is literally a jumble of corporate lights, so too the horizons of the mind are infused and banded with commodified thoughts and ideas.  

The whole expanse was Plato’s cave in the open air and, in place of ill-formed and  shadowy opinions, bright and blinking idea-slogans passing for thought.  

Marx said more than he knew when he described the appearance of capitalism as a vast warehouse of commodities.   The warehouse is in fact a commodity-system in which consumption is just as regularized and produced as production.   It is not simply that “capitalists” control the means of production but rather that capitalism also controls the demands of consumption (i.e. “us”) and the whole systole and diastole is its own self-sustaining, self-perpetuating system in which everything is commodified.

The Erlkonig has devoured all.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Fomes of Equality

We recently came across a photograph that gave us a soupier pour temps perdus.   A time when travel was a festive occasion rather than a demeaning experience in prison security.

Whether by boat, train or plain family or friends accompanied the travelers to the terminal and, in the case of boats and trains, to their cabins where they partied, chatted or went over last details before waving farewell from the dock or platform after the last call.

It seems incredible now.

The photograph by Fred Lyons, probably dates from the early half of the 1950’s, a time when there was an actual middle class of entrepreneurs and professionals who dressed up when they went out, and would not think of going out without dressing properly which for ladies meant gloves.

One of Paul Newman’s last films, Mr and Mrs. Bridge, was about this class its virtues and limitations.

Mr. & Mrs. Bridge discover Paris
This was not all of America — and not necessarily its better part — but it was the surviving vestige of burgertum before everything got swamped in a spurious and vulgar egalitarianism.

The Ancients equated egalitarianism with tyranny and, as Edward Gibbon later noted, the despotism of the Caesars was complete when Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of the Empire.

There is perhaps some truth to that perspective. When everyone is deemed equal then everyone is equally fungible and, of necessity, not warranting any particular respect.  The interchangeability of one unit-human with another seems to have debasing effect.

This debasement arises, in the first instance, from the fact that equality of itself a fortiori increases the numbers involved in anything. When travelers are few they can be accommodated, when they are many their travel becomes a question of crowd control.  In days of prop planes, stewardesses walked the aisle with trays of rock candy or chewing gum offered to passengers to help relieve stuffy ears as the plane ascended in altitude.  Once jets arrived they marched down the aisle all but throwing bags of peanuts at the anonymous crowd; and now they simply patrol the prison cabin.

When as a boy traveling alone my father’s flight was delayed for some mechanical reason, Air France insured that he was taken to dinner by the chief steward.  It went without question that the airline would provide dinner to its passengers and, in the case of a boy, that he would be properly accompanied by an adult.  And father was not flying first class, either.

But the debasement also arises inversely from the fact that oligarchy — that is, inequality — just as a fortiori gives rise to privilege and respect.  Legal equality is an abstraction which is given content by social conditions.  There is no doubt that while 1950’s boat voyagers may have been treated politely at the docks, San Francisco police and union busters were meting out a different treatment to the striking longshoremen on those docks.  Equality Under Law has always been applied unequally under the sun.

But is not “some” better than “none”?   Even when only “decent” people could avail themselves of legally protected privacies, the abstraction of the Fourth Amendment still derived living force from that availability. Albeit applied unevenly there was meat on the bones.  But when equality of circumstances makes it impossible for anyone and everyone to assert a claim to legal privacy then the Fourth Amendment simply withers away even in legal contemplation.

I’m sure it was considerations like these on the interplay between form and function that led Aristotle to conclude that middling-mixed “constitutions” which combined elements of oligarchy and democracy were the most desirable.

In the 1960’s the urban and provincial middle class of white gloves and fedoras was in fact being destroyed by relentless economic forces.  The destruction was masked by the illusion that we were making progress toward “social equality” and “inclusiveness.”  But being included in an anonymous mass is simply prison.

In the early 70’s a friend of my father’s got arrested for smoking pot on a Santa Monica beach.  His father, a Navy captain from Boston, rather disdainfully remarked, “If he’s going to act like a hippie he can expect to be treated like a hippy.”  Rejoice!  We are all hippies now.

Such thoughts rumbled through my mind as i tried to pack my bags in compliance with Homeland Security requirements.  Think about that: “my bags” + “compliance” + national security imperatives.  This equals freedom?  No it does not. 

Nor was it a matter of being “restricted” from carrying a can of gasoline or a gun into the airplane cabin.  The Transport Security Administration web site had screenfuls of “information” on how I was required to pack my bags, down to an including putting all toiletry liquids into clear, transparent containers in a clear 1 quart sized ziplock baggie.   This was no more free than recruits being told how to arrange their gear in foot lockers.

Although I spread the ordeal over several days, it took at least a solid eight hours for me to pack 1 shoulder bag and one small 24” x 10” x 17” bag (including wheels and handles) not to exceed 40 lbs.

Nor was this a matter of simply ascertaining whether fishing poles and/or canes but not ski poles (pointed ergo weaponizable) were allowed on board, it was also a matter of figuring out “packing strategies”  For example, if I couldn’t pack the lap top into the small suitcase because it had to be in a special pouch and accessible for arbitrary inspection by TSA agents, then I had to carry it in my shoulder bag, which meant that camera and papers and other items had to be moved from the shoulder briefcase to the the suitcase which didn’t leave enough room for a second pair of slacks... and so on ad nauseam.

In the line the people come and go... Do I dare, Do I dare to pack a nail clipper?

But packing was not only a question of what where.  It was also a matter of being ready to prove one’s special — not “entitlement” — but “exemption” from default prohibitions.

My doctor had prescribed some sleeping pills (Ambien) which, as it turned out, are Class IV narcotics and which as a “restricted” substance are monitored by the Drug Enforecment Administration.  So, I wondered, what if, while inspecting my 1 quart clear ziplock baggies, an agent espies the little pill tube with 4 Ambiens in it? And what about that tube of prescription antibiotic ointment that could possibly be a suspect gelatinous substance?  Although the pill contained had the Rx label affixed the ointment did not, and so I decided in an abundance of caution to bring a list of my current medications (on clinic stationary to be sure).
This was obscene.  I had to be ready to stand  inspection on my private personal medications.  As they said of Nazi Germany: the question is not what is prohibited but what is allowed.

By the time I finished the Packing Drill, I was filled with deep and abiding loathing of “equality.”

“...To enhance safety & security, please immediately report any suspicious activity to air port police....”

Nothing in the actual event of my travel did anything to lessen my loathing.  As it was, I encountered no difficulties and, presenting no difficulties to anyone, everyone was very polite to me.  My travel had a longish lay-over but otherwise was completely uneventful, which in today’s world translates to “good.”

But there was no question that from beginning to end I was a “processable.”  At every turn what I encountered was a crowd control management system.

From the online reservations and confirmation emails, to the 24 hour pre-booking and printable boarding bar-code, to the special drop off/pick up carts for oversized on line baggage, to the in-flight saf-T instructions, to the airport-shuttle boarding area to the hotel clerk who asks for your zip code and birthdate... everything was pre-planned, event-processed and smooth.  What gets overlooked is that you yourself are simply an element within the smoothness. 

There is no place I know of where people are more ready with a smile than Mexico.  It is a genuine, laughter-filled smile that says: “Behold! Another human!” as if one has just met a fellow-creature during a trek through the jungle. 

This is not to say that Mexicans are better humans or that they can’t be the nastiest, meanest, cruelest sons of bitches of God’s earth.  That too.  And no one who truly knows Mexico would deny it.  But the smiles, when the come, are absolutely heartfelt and open.  When not being sons of bitches, Mexicans enjoy one another.  Either way, they are nothing if not human.

Throughout my transposition processing every smile i encountered was simply and no more than a lubricant. 

What has happened is not simply the commodification of everything  but the systematized automated commodification of everything. 

In fact, people are so robotized that they are programmed not to react in an angry and human way when you do get angry at them.  You are being “dealt with” and “managed”.  Don’t take anything personally, because absolutely none of it is including yourself, which is a travel unit, a fare-unit, a room unit... and so on,

“ the seat pocket in front of you. And we would like to take this moment to express our special gratitude to all servicemenanwomen and their families traveling with us today for their sacrifices on behalf of our country...”

Heil to you too.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I had to pick up my health card which had been mailed to my temporary post office box in the Kitsilano district of Vancouver. So I piled the pups into the truck and headed on up.

I've been trying to figure out the best way to get from here to there. So far, no way has cost less than hour or not involved getting struck in urban traffic at some point. Today's route, along the boundary line and then up highway 99 which turns into Oak Street is probably the best, although it still takes a long time.

Kitsilano is in the western end of Vancouver nestled between Granville Island to the immediate east and the University of B.C., on the city's jutting promonitory point to the west. It is an architecturally eclectic, demographically mixed neighbourhood of students, elderlies and upscale yuppies. The overall sense is: quiet and trendy.

Bowhow Box & Berkeley Bungalow

The main drag is West Fourth Street which is a non descript, fairly ugly commercial strip containing a mix of book-stores, health spas, bistros, cheapo import shops, home & futon stores, Lexis dealerships and second hand stores. In fact the Salvation Army store and the BMW show room stand face to face. The Mexican restaurant looked like it had passable norteño food with (they said) an entré or two from Oaxaca or Yucatan. Several doors down there was a French bistro, offering first and second "assietes" and a fixed price dinner for $26.00. I took note.

Kitsilano Beach Park (Low Key & Very High Dollar)

Away from Fourth street, everything becomes rather sedate and relaxed. Even in leaf-bare winter the trees have an emollient effect. I walked the doggies around and they were quite happy to sniff the wealth of doggie news insensible to us but evident to them.

We walked on over to the "Beach" area, which feels like a promonitory into the bay even though it isn't. I stared out over the bay, past Vancouver Island and out onto the immensely far away see horizon of the Pacific.

click to zoom

One of the features that keeps on impressing me is how immense this area really is. On a map, Vancouver looks smallish - a decent sized city rather like San Francisco. But the sheer scale of things around here dwarfs the Bay Area. To my left lay a vast expanse of water... to my right a towering wall of mountainous rock that dwarfed the high rises at its feet.

click to zoom

Kitsilano is an enticing urban alternative to pastoral Aldergrove. I need to find a quicker route so I can explore some more.


Monday, December 7, 2009

A Certain Kind of Silence

Of late, I have sensed a certain emptiness of feeling. Was it the sense of a vast solitary expanse of geography just beyond the huddled confines of urbanism? I couldn't quite put my finger on it; and then, idling in a line of traffic it suddenly hit me : there are no bumper stickers in Canada!

What a strange place where everyone keeps his opinions to himself. It makes the place strangely silent


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mountains Jagged Majesty

click to enlarge for somewhat better sense

The most distinctive and impressive feature of the Fraser Valley is the arc of jagged mountains that enclose it to the north and east. I don't think I've ever seen a horizon quite so violent and primeval. It is as if some demiurge ripped the sky with a sharp, uneven stone or perhaps just tore it open leaving a nasty rocky scar. It is quite awesome in its stoney and snow capped majesty. And still, it is beautiful.

Sometimes, as dogs sniff earth, I just stand and sight this majestic beauty that is strangely consoling in the humbling sense of smallness it engenders. At other times I am left with the sense that just beyond those jagged ranges, there lurk strange monsters in the howling arctic wind, or maybe the vast drop off of the world's edge into infinite darkness. Of course I "know" --- on the basis of those rumours we call education -- that it is not so, but I can imagine what the first men to approach these ranges must have felt and feared.

click to enlarge for somewhat better sense

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Different Kind of Fondness

I needed a haircut for which I need cash; and so, I stopped off at the Alder Credit Union where I extracted some real money.

The problem with indigenous countries like Mexico and Canada, is that once they decided to acknowledge their native roots their currency got emblazoned with hideous primitive motifs, like dismembered goddesses and Chac Mols for fresh, palpitating hearts. And so, as I held a newly minted 20 dollar bill in my hand, it was unsurprising, albeit disappointing, to see some grotesque depiction of bird beaked monkey men -- or whatnot -- crammed into some sort of paddle-bark. Where the hell was Her Serene Majesty ... mother to us all?

Well... what was this damn Indian thing anyway....? I googled. It is actually a modern sculpture by a modern Canadian known as Bill Reid...; in other words, a post-apartheit multi-cultural synthesis of kumbaya... But why take my word for it? Reid's sculpture depicts

"The Raven, the traditional trickster of Haida mythology, holding the steering oar; the Mouse Woman, crouched under Raven's tail; the Grizzly Bear, sitting at the bow and staring toward Raven; the Bear mother, Grizzly's human wife; their cubs, Good Bear (ears pointed forward) and Bad Bear (ears pointed back); Beaver, Raven's uncle; Dogfish Woman; the Eagle; the Frog; the Wolf, claws imbedded in Beaver's back and teeth in Eagle's wing; a small human paddler in Haida garb known as the Ancient Reluctant Conscript; and, at the sculpture's focal point, the human Shaman..."
Now wait a minute! Cunning birds, dogfish women, mama bears and would be draft dodgers??? How can you not warm to dollar like that? The engraved sculpture suddenly lost its alien primitiveness and made some (I almost choke to say it) universal part of me smile.

Yes, I still appreciate Her Serenity on the other side. How could I not, since she reminds me of my boyhood? But Haida Gwai's animal boat doesn't seem so alien after all and evokes a different kind of fondness. I'm glad it's there.