Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Best Novel I Read in 2007: Bleak House

The best novel I read in 2007, the novel that spoke to the year 2007, is Dickens's Bleak House. I agree with Edmund Wilson that Bleak House is a masterpiece; the novel is the greatest written by a Englishperson.

Dickens in his novel was describing England in the 1840s as a Bleak House, a nation dominated by corruption as symbolized in his fictional world by the Court of Chancery, supposed to fairly settle wills and estates. Within the novel the lawsuit Jarndyce versus Jarndyce in the Court of Chancery has lasted for a generation, destroying the heirs who patiently wait forever for judgment as the lawyers' fees eat up the whole estate so at the end the heirs get nothing, the estate is bankrupt, and only the lawyers have profited. What's great about Dickens is he makes judgments: against lawyers corruption, against the corrupt Court of Chancery, against the brutalization of the poor and the homeless. Well, right now the United States is also a Bleak House dominated by corruption: the corruption of the Iraq War totals billions. What is missing in a lot contemporary fiction is Dickens' moral judgments.

I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a novel which won a recent Pulitzer Prize for fiction; the well-written novel has a father and son trying to survive in post-apocalypse America. In many ways I thought the Road was metaphorically saying this country is now so bad off all a decent person can do is suffer it--I find that a huge cop out. Give me Dickens any day of the week instead.

Bleak House is long--881 pages. Hurrah to great length of a wonderful novel! I loved to leave the presentday Bleak House U.S.A. go to into Dickens' world where he creates characters who care for the poor, the orphans, and reunite destroyed families. As his heroine Dickens has Esther Summerson, a poor orphan, raised by an aunt who rejects her until she is rescued by wealthy John Jarndyce who rescues seven orphans, giving them a home.

Like her guardian Mr. Jarndyce, Esther is the ethical heart of the corrupt inhumane society. One small example is when Esther finds Jo, a homeless boy suffering from smallpox, so she takes him home to give him shelter and care when her maid Charley (also an orphan rescued by Mr. Jarndyce), gets smallpox, so Esther nurses her night and day until Charley recovers. Then Esther gets smallpox, so Charley nurses her night and day until Esther recovers. What's amazing in the cold brutal Bush's America of 2007 is that these characters go out of their way to care for each other. Further, Dickens says that the wealthy can't wall themselves from the poor: the wealthy will get the same diseases as the poor. Mr. Dickens says there's so safe gated communities to run to. Dickens would say either we care for each other or we will die.

One character I love is the homeless boy Jo, born an orphan in the most destitute level of society. Someone is always telling Joy to "move on" just as people in the USA tell the homeless to "move on." In the first half of the novel only the penniless clerk Nemo was kind to Jo while the rest of the callous society turned their backs on the poor boy. Well, I loved Dickens' sentiment--his emotions--for Jo. The brutal society just hounds Jo until he is sick and near death, when the kind doctor Allan Woodcourt carries him to refuge in the soldier George's fencing studio where Jo can die not on the street. In the end a whole group of people help Jo in his dying--George; his roommate Phil; the doctor Allan Woodcourt; the stationer Mr. Snasby who writes Jo's will and confession. These people redeem society, give it a heart.

But Jo still a boy does die, and Dickens addressed the reader:

"Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my Lords and Gentleman. Dead! Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day. "

Well, I love Dickens' moral outbursts because homeless in USA are dying thus around us every day, and he is still right to address directly his readers, the men and women "with heavenly compassion in your hearts."

Dickens also thinks pride will kill you, and our society in 2007 and 2008 has been overrun with material pride and greed. One character with too much pride is Mr. George, a young man who ran off to become a solider; he never felt he did well enough as a soldier to face his family, so he cuts himself off from them for years. Also Lady Dedlock was killed by her excess pride. As a young woman Lady Dedlock had an out-of-wedlock baby whom she gave away and then she later got married. She was terrified to tell her husband about her past, terrified she will be rejected by all of society, and terrified she will bring shame to his family name. Terrible terrible pride dominates both of them. But George has befriended the Bagnet family, and when he's falsely accused of murder, his good friend Mrs. Bagnet goes gets George's mother, brings her back to London, and reunites mother and son.

In contrast, Lady Dedlock flees rather than confide in and trust her husband, and she winds up dead a few days later. Her husband, who loved her dearly, would have forgiven her anything, and is striken with a stroke right after she disappears. Overcoming his pride helped George regain his family, reuniting first with his mother, then with his brother and lastly with his brother's family, giving George a whole family life for the first time in decades, but pride leads to Lady Dedlock's death.

Reading Dickens I totally fall in love with his moral voice: he is a moral, ethical England, a caring England. Dickens' novels led out of the wretched callous brutal society he described starting with the reform of the corrupt Court of Chancery --Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!Iin the 20th century. I'm sick and tired of 20th century modernist novels which give into cynicism, telling us how bad things are in 2007 and 2008. We all know how bad things are in 2008. Cormac McCarthy isn't news. Give me Dickens any day of the week. Give me novels of 881 pages! YES!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Visit to north north California: Code Blue

My brother who lives in Burney, California, in the far northeast part of California
got pneumonia so was taken to Mayers Hospital, a small hospital in Fall River Mills.
There they diagnosed him with something else and we about to operate on his non-
existent condition but he asked to be flown by helicopter to Mercy Medical Center in Redding, which they did. At Mercy he was correctly diagnosed with pneumonia.

The weekend this happened I was going into finals week where I had to give and
grade three finals. Also, I had jury duty on Monday, and my mom's home had
two furnaces not working, so on Sunday I arranged for a furnace repair company
to replace her two furnaces. I kept on calling my brother who was in Intensive Care
Unit (ICU) at Mercy. Luckily my jury duty was only one day on Monday the same
day the furnaces were successfully put in. I gave and grade my three finals, and flew to my
brother in Redding on Saturday.

Redding is in the Central Valley of California, the biggest city between the Sacramento
and the Oregon border, but it has a small airport. After I got a car, I drove to the
hospital where my brother at last was out of ICU and in the intermediate ward. Driving
I had to cross the Sacramento River and Interstate 5, but it wasn't far.

My brother who has had parkinson's for many years was on oxygen and making a slow
recovery from the pneumonia. That evening he sat up for the first time to have dinner
with me in his hospital room--we both ate from the trays. That was a good sign. My brother
had a roommate who seemed very ill.

Monday my third day there I was walking to my brother's room to again eat dinner with
my brother when I was all these nurses rushing to my brother's room yelling "Code Blue."
I stuck my head into the room to see my brother quietly sitting up in front of his food
tray, so the Code Blue was for his roommate. I said, "I'll see you later" and left as more
medical people were running into the room.

My brother had been eating and talking to his roommate who must have had a seizure,
choked on some food, and went quiet, so my brother hit the emergency button and yelled
out for the nurse who came running into the room to start the Code Blue. I stayed out a
half hour, and when I returned the staff had gotten the roommate breathing, had taken
his X-ray, and were wheeling him out to ICU. The nursing supervisor was talking to my
brother and said to me, "Thanks to your brother for hitting the alarm. If I were in the
hospital, I'd want your brother for a roommate." Other nurses that evening thanked my
brother for being so alert as to call an emergency.

I sat down across from my brother and ate my dinner.

The roommate did recover in ICU.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Traveling Over Holidays--Ethical Traveling

Now that Thanksgiving is over, most people are looking forward to the holidays. I already
took the pledge for ethical traveling to support hotelworkers at hotels.

According to Salon,"the Jewish Funds for Justice, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, and the Jewish Labor Committee [has] collaborated to launch the Travel Justly campaign. The effort is designed to call attention to -- and perhaps even improve -- the relatively crappy working conditions of many hotel housekeepers. Ninety percent of these workers are women. "

According to UNITE/HERE what are the working conditions of housekeepers:

"- Hotel housekeepers are facing increasing injuries due to heavy workloads. In most hotels, housekeepers must clean 15 or more rooms per day.

- Hotel housekeepers must rush to meet a daily quota of cleaned rooms. They frequently skip rest periods and meals in order to finish, and even work off the clock to meet their quotas.

- In recent years, corporate hotel chains such as Hilton, Hyatt and Sheraton have increased both the pace and the amount of work performed by housekeepers.

- Most hotels have recently introduced new room amenities without reducing the number of rooms assigned to housekeepers each day. Luxury beds with heavier mattresses and linens, triple-sheeting, duvets, and extra pillows ... make room cleaning more difficult and time-consuming.

- According to a recent study of company records covering thousands of employee injuries, hotel housekeepers face an injury rate of 10.4%, almost double the injury rate for non-housekeepers (5.6%).

- Sprains and strains are the most common housekeeper injuries (44% of all injuries in one study) often resulting from demanding tasks like bed making_lifting mattresses, adding extra sheets, and stuffing multiple pillows and duvets_and pushing heavy carts full of linens and amenities.

- In a recent survey of more than 600 hotel housekeepers in the U.S. and Canada, 91% said that they have suffered work-related pain. 77% said their workplace pain interfered with routine activities. Two out of every three workers visited their doctor to deal with workplace pain. 66% took pain medication just to get through their daily quota.

- Hotel housekeeper injuries are debilitating. Back injuries, housemaids' knee (bursitis), and shoulder pain can lead to permanent disability.

- When injured workers try to return to work, most hotels do not offer them lighter tasks to do, forcing them to choose between getting hurt again or not working at all. "

The pledge I signed says that over the holidays as well as in the future I will

"- avoid hotels where workers are on strike;

- support union hotels (the site, unfortunately, requires you to enter the name of a specific hotel in a specific town; it would be a lot nicer if you could just search by city, assuming a full list would be too long to effectively navigate).

- TIP YOUR MAID $2-$5/day*

- be considerate by putting trash in trash cans, leaving dirty towels on the counter or racks so the housekeeper doesn't have to bend over to pick them up; and stripping your own bedsheets;

- leave complimentary comment cards if you are happy with your maid service;

- keep a copy of the pledge in your suicase to remind you of it when you travel.

After you sign the pledge, you can buy a luggage tag to remind you of the pledge, plus make your luggage identifiable. 75% of the cost of the tag is tax-deductible. And maybe, if you're lucky, occasionally give you an opportunity to talk to other travelers about the campaign.

So far now on I can tip $2-5/day whenever I'm in an hotel.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner

Last two days I cooked a Thanksgiving dinner for eight. I got most (not all) of my fruits and vegetables--organic, of course-- at the Hollywood Farmer's market. I try to buy my fruits and vegetables in the farmer's market all year to support Southern California farms and to reduce energy used to grow my food. The market was spilling over with great looking fall produce I got--corn, grapes, pears, sweet potatoes, red leaf lettuce. The day before Thanksgiving I got a free range 10-lb. turkey at Whole Foods market, and I'm glad I got a smaller free range turkey rather than a monster bird raised in lock-up.

All year long I've been reading on blogs about buying food from within 100 miles of where I lived. Yes, I buy my fruits and vegetables all year from local farmers at Farmer's Market, but I do make exceptions for spices such as cloves, allspice, and cinnamon from Trader Joe's and Ralph's. I've just discovered a new fair trade organic coffee called Peruvian Cafe Femenino at Trader Joe's which smells just wonderful. Another exception is tea, which I'll buy fair trade. Thinking of my spices I was reminded of the spice trade from India for thousands of years imported spices like cloves and cinnamon.

Besides the spices, I wanted to dedicate my menu to native American foods--corn, squash, sweet potato, turkey, cranberries, and, of course, pumpkin--and wanted to connect with these indigenous foods by cooking them. One way to give thanks on Thanksgiving is to honor the Native farmers and cooks who created the great American foods. I planned the menu to be as American as possible:

California green salad with corn and red wine vinegar/olive oil dressing
cheese bread
California white wine

turkey with herbs de provence
Spicy roast sweet potato butter- from Pueblo Indians
Oaklohoma Corn and Squash Pawnee
Cranberry orange sauce
fruit nut stuffing with cranberry, apricots, and walnuts
green beens with almonds

pumpkin pie
pears and grapes
Peruvian coffee and tea
chocolate mints (a gift from my guests)

Ok, the herbs de provence --thyme, summer savory, lavender, basil, fennel seeds--is a herb mix from the south of France, but I said earlier I let myself use spices and herbs from across the seas as well as Peruvian fair trade coffee.

I learned that green beans also originated in the Americas. Green beans along with kidney, navy and black beans belong to the plant species known as Phaseolus vulgaris. Peruvian indigenous peoples first cultivated all these beans which originated from a common bean, and then other Native peoples brought the green and other beans to other parts of South, Central, and North America. The Spanish explorers brought green beans first back to Europe. Of course, Native American farmers first cultivated corn, squash, sweet potato, and chocolate as well as pick wild grapes and cranberries. Some Native Americans mourn Thanksgiving because it led to such deaths for Native people, but I think the holiday can be redefined to honor the greatness of Native American farmers and cooks whose discoveries benefited us all.

As I cooked I really got into the smells and feel of fall foods--cranberry, sweet potato, pears, grapes, apples, turkey. People kept on saying that it was a lot of work to cook for eight, and it is, but shopping and cooking with these wonderful American foods is a way to experience the fall as well as to give praise to American food traditions and local farmers.

Friday, November 16, 2007

On the Picket Line With the Writers Guild

Friday morning in the 2nd week of the Writers Guild strike against the multi-media corporations I joined them to picket at the Bronson Gate of Paramount. To me the strike is very simple. The huge multi-media corporations are putting TV shows online and making money from this but not giving the writers any money at all as if writers should work for free. In an online video "Sara Silverman Strikes" she said if the producers give the writers money for TV shows repeated online the multi-media corporations still will be fabulously wealthy. All the writers want is to be paid for their work.

Many years ago I was interviewing novelists in Los Angeles, and I interviewed novelist -screenwriter Daniel Fuchs who wrote the wonderful novel triology of novels about poor Jews during the Depression in the Williamsburg neighbrohood of Brooklyn and was also a Hollywood screenwriter for decades starting in the mid-1930s. Fuchs told me that in the late 1930s he wrote a screenplay but the producer took Fuchs name off it and put his family member's name on it; the screenplay won the academy award. Fuchs said the screenwriters were trying to organize a union but it was too weak to protect the writers making sure they got credit for their work.

Later in the early 1950s Fuchs wrote the screenplay for Love Me or Leave, a big Hollywood film starring Doris Day. He said the Writers Guild was much stronger then and protected writers, making sure they got credits for their work. His screenplay for Love Me or Leave Me did win the academy award, so finally he got the award that his brilliant writing deserved. So Fuchs taught me how necessary the Writers Guild is for the protection of writers. Every artists and writer should, I think, walk the picket line with the Writers Guild.

I had been watching youtube videos made by the striking screenwriters all week, and for some good videos see

I live six blocks from Paramount, so I walked over down Melrose to the Bronson Gate where about eight writers were picketing, said, "I'm a writer who lives in the neighborhood, and I've come to support you. "They said, "Get a picket sign at the Windsor Gate," so I walked 1/2 block more to the Windsor Gate where 30 pickets were, got my sign, and walked back to the Bronson Gate. So round and round we went. Lots of cars honked in support. Workers on a waste disposal truck honked in support. Some cars crossed are picket line driving onto the studio.

The screenwriters said they had pickets there from 6:00 am to 10:00 and from 10:00 - 2:00, will be picketing Monday and will have a march/rally on Tuesday on Hollywood Boulevard. My small platoon was high spirited and had shakers and clappers to make noise as we picketed. Sometimes the writers danced, sometimes made jokes, or discussed restaurants in the neighborhood. I said the general public is supporting the writers, not the producers, and one writer agreed, but said the producers haven't made any new offers by the second week of the strike. Somebody brought donuts for our group. All in all it was fun, and I'm going to join them again next Monday on the picket line.

Monday, November 05, 2007

J.M. Coetzee's novel Foe

I just read J. M. Coetzee's novel Foe where he creates a heroine Susan Barton who is a castaway cast ashore on an island where an Englishman Cruso and black slave Friday in this retelling of Daniel Dafoe's Robinson Crusoe. I liked the original novel, and, of course, it lacked females. I was intrigued by having a female castaway but didn't like what I thought the flat telling of Barton's story about her year on the island, meeting first Friday who can't talk because slavers ripped his tongue out, and then Cruso who give the heroine shelter. When the novel was written circa 1700, there were Englishwomen writers, poets mostly, in this era, but no women novelists like Daniel Dafoe.

After a year on the island, a ship comes by, rescue the three castaways, but Cruso dies abroad ship while Susan and Friday make it to England. In London, Susan meets author Foe (original name of Danie DeFoe) and convinces him to write up the story which she hopes will make herself well-to-do. Foe begins, but unfortunately he has debts, so he flees from the baliffs who come after him. Destitute Susan and Friday then take up residence in Foe's house, where Susan writes the missing Foe letters. I thought that amusing: the novel's leading character, a woman, takes over the writing, arguing with the author how the novel should go and also asking and begging and pleading the author to return.

The problem is Susan throughout the novel tries to get Friday to speak but never succeeds. Friday dons Foe's wig and black robes and dances for hours and plays on the flute one tune endlessly but he'll never communicate to Susan. At time Susan seems sympathetic to Friday, trying to get him to Bristol to put him on a ship to return to Africa, but at times she seems like she's acting like a slave master herself. At the end Susan and Friday rejoin Foe, who tells Susan to teach Friday how to write English, which she does but Friday still won't speak.

Rethinking the novel, it's about stories and who tells them. Some critics now think of Robinson Crusoe as an allegory for European colonialism, so Coetzee, a liberal white male author from South Africa, writes about one of the characters left-out of the original, the white woman. But Coetzee can't tell Friday's story: Friday always refuses the domination by the white author/colonialist. Maybe that's Coetzee's point. Friday will tell his story in his own novel, not one written by any whites.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

October 25 Anti-War March Los Angeles

Last Saturday October 25 I went to the anti-war march downtown Los Angeles. I took the subway and as the subway car was approaching 7th and Metro, I noticed who else in the car was going to the march by the signs they were carrying: a middle aged woman holding a sign and a couple youths about college age. I'm a citizen so I always go to the anti-war marches, even if five people were marching. Actually, right have the Iraq War started I went to a poet's vigil against the war in North Beach in S.F. which had six people! Six poets! That was my all-time favorite anti-war act, as we six poets tried to light candles when the big wind blew through the North Beach park trying to blow out our candles just as the big winds of war from Washington D.C. were trying to blow out our anti-war voices, so we six poets relit and relit and relit our candles. We talked Quaker style how we were against the war.

As a poet and a citizen I always have to go. I got out the subway, went up to the corner of 7th & Hope to wait for my friend Anna and get a cup of coffee. Soon Anna arrived, and we walked east on 7th to Broadway seeing more anti-war people with signs and banners--always encouraging. Then we walked down Broadway through the crowds of Saturday Latino shoppers to Olympic where there was about 20 bike police and then the anti-war crowd of thousands on Broadway just south of Olympic. On the lead truck a rapper was rapping to a crowd, but Anna and I were too far away to hear.

I think of the anti-war people as what is called in the Bible the "shomer," or guardians of democracy who never rest. Doris Lessing once said that a writer has that still, individual voice of conscience in her writing, and oftentimes she in her writing was the small voice condemning all of segragation and colonialism in Africa. Yes, it would be great if we had 100,000 rather than 5,000 here in Los Angeles today, but what's important is each of us being our own voice of conscience.

The march goes north on Broadway, with many banners demanding that the Bush regime leave Iran alone. To me even the thought of bombing Iran is horrifying. There is no proof and I mean no proof they are developing nuclear weapons. The Bush people give estimates that maybe Iran will have weapons in 10 years? maybe in 8 years? maybe in 5 years? It's all war propaganda based on speculation without facts without evidence. The most ugly kind of war propaganda to justify bombing a country that has done nothing to the U.S.

We all walked north down the middle of the street through the heart of downtown through the heart of the city between two walls of tall brick buildings. At the end of the march was a group of young Koreans banging their drums and dancing, then a group of Koreans carrying a large altar, then a group of Korean men in long yellow robes. Lastly was a group of Aztec mostly male dancers dancing against the war all the way up Broadway. Seeing the Aztec dancers dancing up Broadway for peace I felt I must love Los Angeles I mean really really love this city when the Azetc warriors do all that exhuasting dance to bring us peace up broad way!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"Berkeley" the film

Last Saturday I saw the feature film Berkeley, which is playing for a week at the Sunset 5 movie theater on Sunset strip. Berkeley was a look back at a the years1968-1970 through the eyes of Ben Sweet, a college freshman at UC Berkeley. Though working on a tiny budget as an independent film, the movie did capture it's hero Ben Sweet's transformation from a conservative golf-playing accounting major who plans on entering his father's carpet business to a radicalized rock musician young protester. Most independent films are focused on tiny apolitical themes, but this film is audacious, aiming at showing epic personal and social transformations.

Henry Winkler did a fine job as the hero's father who is appalled at his son's actions while Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave is good as the hero's housemate Vietnam veteran. Bonnie Bedalia also does a fine piece as Ben Sweet's professor/mentor. In one of the funnier scene's Sweet tells his professor that he doesn't want to go to work for Ronald Reagan, while she tells him she does work for Reagan as he signs all her paychecks! The film makes good use of music from the period, including County Joe McDonald's music. County Joe composed a special song which ends the film and also Morello plays in the band that Sweet and his friends form.

Afterwards, as a surprise out came the filmmakers to talk to us: Bobby Roth, the writer/director; Jefferey White, the producer; Nick Roth, the lead actor who is the son of Bobby Roth; and Steve Burns, the Director of Photography. The filmmakers said they didn't pay for any locations but basically snuck onto the UC Berkeley campus to shoot. When someone from Berkeley noticed this, s/he notified Roth who then did pay for a small fee. Both Roth, the writer/director, and White, the producer, went to Berkeley in the late 1960s while Nick Roth graduated from Berkeley in 2006.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hurrah for Doris Lessing!

It's terrific that Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature. She's been the leading novelist in English since her 1962 book The Golden Notebook, which I read in the 1970s and thought was the best novel by a woman I'd ever read until then.. The Golden Notebook was the novel that affected me the most as a young writer. Then I read her multi-volume series of novels Children of Violence, which I always thought splendid.

Doris Lessing taught a whole generation about honesty and courage. She taught us a woman writer can write honestly about anything. The author is scrupulously honest about her heroines' lives: marrying the wrong man; falling in love with the wrong lovers. The heroines like Lessing herself join the Communist Party and then leave it. Also her heroine in The Golden Notebook can be a devoted mother as well as go mad for a while.

Her heroines in both the one volume The Golden Notebook and the multi-volume Children of Violence have serious political lives--they live in Southern Rhodesia and fight to end segregation. They befriend refugees from the World War II. They have complicated love lives. They are at times very foolish and at other times very brave. In the Children of Violence series the first novel Martha Quest is a fine tale of a passive, directionless adolescent who floats her way into marriage with a man she doesn't care for; A Proper Marriage, the second volume, is a comic assault on the bourgeois marriage with its compromises and petty infidelties. But my favorite is A Ripple from the Storm, where the heroine leaves her bourgeois marriage for a unsuitable 2nd husband and the Communist Party but both leave her unfulfilled. Her flawed heroines do show great courage in growing up in provincial, conformist white Southern Rhodesia to totally break with their bourgeois lives when young to be political against British colonialism.

Yes, I loved Jane Austin and Emily Bronte but but they were 19th century women whose heroines lived in a domestic sphere but not in the wider world. I loved Virginia Woolf but she writes early 20th century heroines who clearly are struggling with the angels in the house--the angel of sacrifice as well as the angel of purity. Lessing wrote complicated mid-20th century women in their books. Her women don't follow the Angel of Sacrifice who sacrifices her life for husband or children. Yes, her heroines have children but they also insist on having political, erotic, and work lives. A women in her novels even describe menstruating--they have bodies. They describe their sexual experiences. Her women and also her men don't avoid the politics of their times but face it full on--segregation, colonialism, Holocaust, world wars, etc. etc. They may make flawed choices, but always face up to it.

If you point to one author who created heroines who were mothers to 21st century women, it is Lessing. Doris lessing is the mother of us all!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Name of the Rose as Great Novel

I've just finished rereading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, which I think is one of the best novel of the last three decades. If a wonderful novel should transport the reader to another time and place, Eco's novel did transport me to late middle ages to a Benedictine abbey in 1327 in Northern Italy. The abbey has the greatest library in all of Europe which attracts monk scholars, but strangely makes it difficult for those scholars to get books since only the librarian is allowed into the library. Characters debate the question who is knowledge for? Should there be an ethics for new knowledge? And should certain ideas be censored? These questions are also relevant to us today.

The hero, William of Baskerville, is a Franciscan who comes along with his novice/pupil Adso to the monastery to prepare a meeting at the abbey trying to make peace between two warring factions: a legation of leading Franciscans, his side, and a legation from Pope John XXII at Avignon. When he arrives, four monks are found dead, so the abbot asks William to find out who killed the monks.

William is a fascinating. Once an inquisitor investigating heretics for the church, he gave that up and now believes in the scientific method, following his two great Franciscan proponents of science, Roger Bacon and William of Occam. After the rediscovery of Aristotle's scientific discovery, Bacon and William of Occam reopened up scientific investigation in the late 13th-early 14th centuries. At one point William explains to Adso that his master Roger Bacon did not have lust for knowledge for his own aggrandizement but "he wanted to employ his learning to make God's people happier, and so he did not seek knowledge for its own sake." The debate over what should be the end of new knowledge is both medieval and contemporary.

William applies the scientific method he learned from Bacon and William of Occam to the solving of the murders at the abbey, and at the same time tries to teach his method to his pupil Adso. At another point William tells Adso, "Books are not made to be believe, but to be subjected to inquiry." William is both medieval man at his best, and the predecessor of what is to come in both the Renaissance and the scientific revolutions exemplified in Galileo.

Other forces within the church such as the inquisitor Bernard Gui, the leader of the Pope's legation, disagree with William about searching for new knowledge. The inquisitor's archers find Salvatore, a monk who worked in the abbey's kitchen, with a poor young peasant woman, a cat, and two broken eggs. Salvatore procured the peasant woman to sleep with his superior monk Remigio, head of the kitchen, but Salvatore wants the woman himself and was in the midst of a doing a love potion.

The inquisitor ignores the simple explanation of two monks sinning by breaking their vows of celibacy. In a riveting chapter he threatens the two men, getting Salvatore to confess that he and Remigio years ago was part of the heretical rebellious movement the Fraticelli. The inquisitor threatens Remigio, who also confesses to be part of the Fraticellis decades earlier. When the inquisitor threatens Remigio with torture, he then confesses to murdering all the monks at abbey to avoid the torture. Then Bernard Gui spins out a tale of two monk heretics, one of whom is a murderer, and the poor starving peasant girl a witch--all in the service of the devil. Gui has successfully painted the abbey as a sinful place, using his theories and knowledge to solidify his side in the debate, so knowledge is used to gain power for his side. Of course, none of Bernard's victims had anything to do with the murders. For Bernard facts are irrelevant and torture is the quickest way to get what you want from people.

Throughout the novel the novice Adso struggles to understand the monks' debate over heresies, and learns from William and other older monks how the church through these debates struggles to deal with rapid changes in society. Adso finds out that Salvatore, who came from an extremely poor family, was once a Fraticelli, a rebellious movement of poor peasants and outcasts who wanted to abolish all class hierarchies and were against all priests. William tells Adso that the Franciscans also spoke to outcasts, but instead of encouraging them in rebellion encouraged them to be part of the church; at the same time the Franciscans wanted a reduction of the "privileges of the powerful," or the idea that the church would not be dedicated to riches. Thus the Franciscans leaders like Michael of Cessna argued that Christ and his apostles had no property in common, thus setting an example of poverty for the whole church. These ideas lead to the Franciscans' great conflict with Pope John XXII, who has great riches, argues that the Franciscans ideas are heretical. Again, the monks debate should society be reformed to include the outcasts?

William also explains to Adso that Roger Bacon believed that simple people--workers, peasants. had great spiritual inventions. As learning was spreading outside the monasteries, Roger Bacon,
William of Occam, and William of Baskerville in the novel begin to argue that the simple people are gaining wisdom to decide their own affairs in an assembly of the people. Thus William along with his master Franciscans are arguing for an earlier form of constitutional government. Later in the big debate with Bernard Gui, William develops his arguments for separation of church and state. In the United States we are still having today arguments about separation of church and state as well as what form of constitutional government, particularly how much powers the President should have?

Thus within the novel the many debates over theology and heresy are all relevant to today as they argue how much church and state should be separated? Can simple people make laws in assembly of the people or should their be One Decider? If many are outcasts, should society reform to include them? How should we use knowledge in our actions? Once the reader discovers that all these debates are deeply connected with who should have power and how power is be used, the debates are fascinating.

One more great debate occurs throughout the novel, between William who argues that laughter is beneficial, while the elderly Benedictine monk, Jorge of Burgos, argues against laughter-- and this debate is the climax of the novel. Jorge has worked for decades to keep the abbey's library off-limits to all but a select few, and particularly to keep hidden the one surviving manuscript of Aristole's 2nd book of Poetics, which is about comedy and laughter. Why would Jorge work so hard to keep this book secret while other monks gave their lives to read this book? William through his great deductive powers have figured out the Aristotle's lost book argues that comedy shows us the ridiculous, helping people to see untruths since they are foolish and ridiculous. Thus Aristotle argues that comedy is a good, instructive force since leading people to separate truths from falsity.

Jorge hates laughter and also Aristotle's book on comedy because he sees Aristotle has elevated comedy to an art, and Jorge thinks that laughter can free common people from fear. Jorge believes that fear is necessary to keep people following the law and to keep believing in God. He believes that if scholars read Aristotle on comedy they will use it to dismantle all belief in holy things. Since he believes that no knowledge is needed after the Bible and Church Fathers, Jorge thinks that the reading of Aristotle has sparked a devilish interest in new knowledge. Jorge believes William by advocating new knowledge is joining the Devil's side, while William says that Jorge is the Devil since the "Devil is not Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt."

So who is the Devil's man? The novel leaves us only with questions, as in the end William of Baskerville doubts his own abilities as a detective/scientist because in looking for who committed the murders of the monks he found many true facts that he linked together in a theory that was wrong but did lead him in the end to the murderer. His pupil Adso says, "But in imagining an erroneous error you still find something ...." or William did find the murderer. Adso, the narrator who at the end of his life at eighty writes about his experiences when eighteen with William, also when he approaches death has doubts: he doubts if he the events in the story he has just told (the novel) has any larger meaning. But since William has argued that real holiness is those whose truth is never arrogant and have doubts, the doubts of the two main characters at the end are fitting.

Name of the Rose is a great novel--read it. Eco has brilliantly recreated the late medieval world in a novel with alive, rich characters who are dealing with great debates; these debates are thoroughly medieval but also totally relevant to us today.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Jack Hirschman: Poet Laureate of San Francisco

Below is article from tenants rights activist in S.F. about Jack
Hirschman, the poet laureate for S.F. I've known Jack for years
Jack in his poetry and their activism was tireless in working
for working people to better their lives in S.F. He put put his
body on the line illegally feeding the homeless for years. He supported Matt
Gonzalez, the Green Party candidate for Mayor who nearly won in
the last mayoral election.

Jack was head of a group of political pro-labor poets headquartered
at Cafe Trieste in North Beach, and an inspiration for many in California
--not just poets, but many young activists like the writer below.
As internationalist, he translated poems from many other languages
and was celebrated in Italy.

It was a surprise that a mainstream mayor Newsome appointed
Jack poet laureate, but his appointment was a victory for the
S.F. labor movement.

As poet laureate as he promised Jack brought
poetry to the people with readings in libraries across the cities
and supported labor poets with poetry competitions in each city council
districts. Two fine labor poets won in their council districts--David
Joseph and Alice Rugoff. Jack also kept his promise being an
internationalist by holding late July an International Poetry Festival
bringing in poets from around the world


\\Who is Jack Hirschman, Poet Laureate of San Francisco?
by Ken Werner, Trinity Plaza Tenants Association (TPTA)‚ Jan. 18‚ 2006

Last Thursday, 72-year-old San Franciscan Jack Hirschman was inaugurated as the fourth Poet Laureate of San Francisco, and several stories have already been written about Jack, but all have presented only a two-dimensional image of the real person. That Jack supported Matt Gonzalez for mayor, that he's lived an alternative lifestyle (the Chronicle story used "bohemian," a word that went out of style in the 1960s), that he's published numerous books -- all have been mentioned in the various accounts.

When our newest Poet Laureate speaks, his thick East Coast accent gives him away to reveal his New York roots, where he was born in 1933. Jack moved to San Francisco in 1973 after a brief university teaching career he left in the 1960s.

But who is Jack Hirschman?

Jack Hirschman is a passionate social justice activist who shares with his friends his warmth and affection. He opens his heart in discussions to share his feelings about the injustices of the world, and offers a hug when you greet him and a hug when he leaves.

As an active member of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, he travels extensively for speaking engagements and to promote his plethora of published poetry, including several months a year which he spends in Europe. And wherever he goes, Jack is greeted as what one person describes "America's most important living poet."

Whenever I talk with Jack and the subject matter steers to poetry, Jack expresses his admiration for the three San Francisco Poet Laureates who preceded him, but he is most fond of 86-year-old Lawrence Ferlinghetti who he speaks of with reverence.

During last Thursday's press conference and inauguration, Jack described himself as follows in his acceptance speech:

"Philosophically, I am an internationalist who knows that neither homelessness and poverty globally and specifically here in San Francisco, which the Mayor is much concerned with, as well as war and street violence, will ever end until and unless the wealth of this world is re-distributed and/or appropriated for the benefit of all, according to our needs as human beings. All of my poetry and intellectual expression is in one way or another directed to that end. And since I believe that all human beings are poets in fact, and that the writing of a poem is the most powerful action given to humankind (because unbuyable and unsellable in essence, and because a child of 5 years and a man or woman of seventy years, in the act of writing a poem, evoke the equality that is love at the heart of the world), I write to unfold the future of that equality with all my brother and sister human beings."

Other accounts made note of Jack's insistence of and persistence in speaking out about the plight of the homeless, yet none of the accounts recalled Jack's reading of his 1987 poem simply called "Home," which he read at the inauguration. In case you missed the broadcast on SFGTV and you haven't read the piece, here it is in its entirety:

"Winter has come.

In doorways, in alleys, at the top

of churchsteps,

under cardboard, under rag-blankets

or, if lucky, in plastic sacks,

after another day of humiliation,



isolated, divided, penniless,

jobless, wheezing, dirty

skin wrapped around cold bones,

that's us, that's us in the USA,

hard concrete, cold pillow,

where fire? where drink?

damned stiffs in a drawer

soon if, and who cares?

shudders so intimate,

our hands finally closed in clench

after another day panhandling,

tongues hanging out;

dogs ate more today, are curled

at the feet of beds, can belch, fart,

have hospitals they can be taken to,

they'll come out of houses and sniff

us dead one day,

pieces of shit lying scattered here

in an American city

reknowned for its food and culture.

The concrete is our sweat hardened,

the bridge our vampirized blood;

the downtown, Tenderloin and Broadway lights --

our corpuscles transformed into ads;

our pulse-beat the sound tengtengendeng

of coins piling up on counters,

in phone booths, Bart machines, tengtengendeng

in parking meters, pinball contraptions,

public lavatories, toll booths;

our skin converted into dollar bills,

plastic cards, banknotes, lampshades

for executive offices, newspapers,

toilet paper;

our heart -- the bloody organ the State

gobbles like a geek in a sideshow

that's become a national circus of the damned.

O murderous system of munitions and inhuman rights

that has plundered our pockets and dignity,

O enterprise of crime that calls us criminals,

terrorism that cries we are fearful,

greed that evicts us from the places we ourselves have built,

miserable war-mongery that sentences us to misery

and public exposure as public nuisances

to keep a filthy republic clean --

this time we shall not be disappeared

in innercity ghetto barrio or morgue,

this time our numbers are growing into battalions

of united cries:

We want the empty offices collecting dust!

We want the movie houses from midnite til dawn!

We want the churches opened 24 gods a day!

We built them. They're ours. We want them!

No more doorways, garbage-pail alleys,

no more automobile graveyards,

underground sewer slums.

We want public housing!

No more rat-pit tubing, burnt-out rubble-caves,

no more rain-soaked dirt in the mouth,

empty dumpster nightmares of avalanches of trash

and broken bricks,

screams of women hallucinating at Muni entrance gates,

no more kids with death-rattling teeth

under discarded tarp.

We want public housing!

we the veterans of your insane wars,

workers battered into jobless oblivion,

the factory young: fingers crushed into handout

on Chumpchange St.,

the factory old: spat-out phlegm from the sick

corporate chest of Profits.

Instead of raped respect, jobs

with enough to live on!

Instead of exile and eviction in this,

our home, our land,

Homeland once and for all

for one and all

and not just this one-legged cry

on a crutch on a rainy sidewalk.

(Copyright 2006 by Jack Hirschman)

When I talked with Jack on Thursday night, he noted that while the mayor may have stated he commends those who disagree with him, Jack and I disagreed on our perceptions of how the mayor deals with criticism. Jack feels the mayor easily deals with critiques, but it has been my experience that Mayor Newsom has great difficulty dealing with criticism, indeed, is incapable of understanding contentiousness and is taken aback when so confronted. But one thing Jack and I agreed on is that Newsom probably knows very little about poetry and hence his reliance on the senior William Newsom for advice on picking Jack for the position of Poet Laureate of San Francisco.

While the position is symbolic, Jack feels it is a tremendous honor and was and still is excited about representing San Francisco and feels the honor is a victory for working-class people of The City. Additionally, Jack leaked inside information to me that there might just be a possibility of him receiving a small honorarium for his position. And as Poet Laureate of San Francisco, Jack Hirschman wants to organize an International Poetry Festival of San Francisco and invite other social justice activists worldwide to participate. Jack's first thought for a location was the Palace of Fine Arts.

To learn more about Jack Hirschman, visit, where you will also find an email link to request Jack's presence at an event you are planning. I know Jack would be thrilled to speak so don't feel hesitant about inviting him.

In April, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America will be presenting Speakers for a New America, and Jack will be among the scheduled speakers.

Finally, my thanks to Tony Robles of Manilatown Heritage Foundation for introducing me to Jack, and congratulations to Jack Hirschman, Poet Laureate of San Francisco -- his poetry and his deep, booming voice sound the call for social justice for all.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

In Praise of Mahmoud Darwish

I've been reading three books of poetry translated into English by the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish:

1. First I read "The Adam of Two Edens" edited and translated by Munir Akash and Daniel Moore which is a selected poems of the last two decades. The book has a wonderful introduction to Darwish's life and work. In this first book I read I was struck by how much Darwish is a poet of exile, or as he says an Adam expelled from the first Biblical Eden of long ago and then recently expelled from the Eden of Palestine during the 1948 war when he fled with his family as a young child. Since then his whole life has spent in exile, and he is great poet about being in exile. Darwish wrote poems of many exiles including a great sad lament about the Arabs leaving Spain long ago and another poem about Native American exile from the poem "Speech of the Red Man":

Don't kill the grass any more
It possess a soul in us that could
Shelter the soul of the earth

That image of Native Americans seeing the grass having a soul that shelters the earth is haunting.

2. Then I read "Why Have You Left the Horse Alone," a book Darwish published in 1996 in Arabic but recently translated into English by Jeffrey Sacks. Reading this book I was beginning to also see Darwish a poet of the Mediterranean speaking in his poems of what we all in North America, Europe and the Middle East have in common. Darwish is a world-class poet familiar with a huge range of poetries who gives us ancient Sumer, Babylon, the Greeks including their great tragic poet Aeschylus, and the Romans in this poem "I See My Ghost Coming From Afar:"

I gaze upon the Persians, the Romans, the Sumerians,
and the new refugees, ....

I gaze upon my language.
A little absence is enough for Aeschylus to open the door to peace,
for Antonio to make a brief speech at the outbreak of war
for me to hold a woman's hand in my hand,
to embrace my freedom,
and for my body to begin its ebb and tie anew.

3. Now I'm reading "Unfortunately, It Was Paradise" a selected poems translated and edited by Munir Akash, Carolyn Forche with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein which has selections of Darwish's poems with three poems from before 1986 to an long excerpt from his masterwork book "Mural" from 2000. In the introduction Akash and Forche tell us that after the young child Darwish and his family fled their village Birwe in 1948, the Israelis destroyed the village Birwe along with 416 Palestinian villages. Then Akash and Forche say that Darwish, without a country, made language his identity, a place where he makes meaning and recreates the lost homeland:

Who Am I? Thais is a question that others ask, but has no answer.
I am my language. I am an ode, two odes, ten. This is my language.
I am my language .... ("A Rhyme for the Odes" 91)

We travel like everyone else, but we return to nothing ...
Ours is a country of words. Talk. Talk. ("We Travel Like All People 11)

Reading these books enables me to bypass the stereotyped and cliched images of Palestinians in mass media and begin to touch at least one Palestinian who others consider their poet laureate.

I love his poems including "The Everlasting Fig" that is a dialogue between father and son, with the father taking the son "wherever the wind blows" but away from the "plains where Bonaparte's soldiers/erected a hill to watch the shadows on ancient Acre's hills." As the father flees with his son from the French invaders and all other invaders, the son asks, "Why have you left the horse alone?" and the father answers,

To keep the house company, O my son,
for houses perish if their inhabitants go away. ("The Everlasting Fig," 65).

So this father loved his house so very much that he left his precious horse to keep it company and keep it alive in the title of the book of poetry "Why Have You Left the Horse Alone," as the horse was never alone.

Anybody who's interested in the world should read Mahmoud Darwish.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Zen Food

I've been enjoying reading Edward Espe Brown's cookbook Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings. I got interested in Brown when my friend Jerry said he started baking bread after reading Brown's The Tassajara Bread Book, which turned a lot of people onto baking bread.

Brown started cooking when he was studying Zen and started cooking at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California in the mid-1960s. So his book Tomato Blessings is about both learning to cook and learning Zen. He became head cook at Tassajara, published his book about bread baking in 1970, and then in 1971 was ordained a Zen priest.

In the introduction Brown has a section telling us "On the Importance of Having Fiascoes," and he thinks that having fiascoes is important both in learning how to cook and how to grow up. That sounded honest. He connects having fiascoes with the Dalai Lama's words that we learn most from difficulty. What endears me to this book is the story of his fiascoes that often introduce a recipe.

He tells us how he was a calm dishwasher but once he became a head cook he was stressed out and threw tantrums now and then. He was having so many problems with his fellow cooks that he says he talked to his Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi who told him, "If you want to see virtue, you have to have a calm mind." Roshi also said that cooking is not just about food but also about working on himself and working on other people. When Brown started to try to see the virtues in his fellow cooks, then he calmed down and got along much better with them. After this charming story, he has some recipes where he shows us how to see virtues in "the simple goodness of fruits and vegetables, black beans, and winter greens." Sure enough, the recipes teach us how to cook black beans, winter green salad with walnuts, roasted pepper, and chili crepes.

I love how Brown is so honest about how he struggles with his anger in the kitchen and then another section tells us when the other cooks rebelled against him as head cook. No other cookbook I've ever read has such a honest chef. How can one not love a cookbook that has a section "Finding Out that Food is Precious" leading into four beet recipes.

Another wonderful section is "Radish Smiles and All Beings Rejoice." Before I read this I always thought radish was a boring vegetables, but then I read Brown's story about going with two friends to a restaurant in San Francisco where the chef served as an appetizer just radishes which he describes as "brilliantly red and curvaceous, some elongated and white tipped, rootlets intact with topknots of green leaves sprouting from the opposite end. It was love at first sight." A little later he tells us the primary task of a cook is "to be able to see the virtue, to appreciate the goodness of simple unadorned ingredients." Because when we delight in a radish, then we have the basis for many many dishes, so radishes gives us many benefits. I think he gives a wonderful teaching on radishes. And also he shows us to accept the blessings of tomatoes. This is an utterly wonderful cookbook.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Albuquerque Cultural Conference

Labor Day I plan to attend The Albuquerque Cultural Conference which focuses

on "Dreaming Big: Cultural Activism, Writing, Education, and the Arts in the New Century."

The conference plans to have panels on "alternative education, writing for survival, cultural memory, investigative journalism, Southwest arts and culture, architecture and society, creating a people’s almanac, the work of poets and artists for peace and justice, and new creative forms for changing times. Workshops in writing for peace and justice, creative non-fiction, poetry, and recapturing memory in writing will be offered the last day of the conference." Readings
and get-to-gethers will happen in the evening.
For more information email John Crawford at  or to Leslie Fishburn Clark,
conference organizer, at e-mail Also, consult and tell others
about our website at
Communicate, give us your thoughts, and please-COME. (Send money ahead! It's a good idea.)

They'll hold all our events, including panels and workshops, at the Harwood Art Center, a community place. See website for information on transportation, lodging, and meals.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Californians without pre-natal care

Wednesday, July 27 I went to the National Coucil of Jewish Women's building on Fairfax to hear speakers from Planned Parenthood speak. What was the most astounding to learn was 100,000 Californians aren't getting medical care because state in California Medi-Cal reimbursement for Planned Parenthood's medical services haven't been raised in twenty years.

Planned Parenthood clinics provide pre-natal care, HIV screening, sexually transmitted disease screening, cervical cancer screening, breast cancer screening, and other preventive heath care. These services are being curtailed. With too little funding, Planned Parenthood affiliates are forced to lay-off clinic staff; close a clinic such as Six Rivers; or are unable to attract doctors and nurses in many clinics. The San Francisco affiliate has 16 positions open due to lack of funding.

One tragic result they say is "all pre-natal services at our affiliates have been either curtailed, suspended, or eliminated." That means thousands of women in California have lost pre-natal care, exposing them to increase risk in pregnancy for both themselves and their babies.

Without staff, the clinics are forced to turn away people: in San Diego and Riverside Counties, 4600 patients turned away every month; in Santa Barbara, 2,600 patients turned away monthly; 1,000 monthly in Orange County. Nearly all of their clinics are turning away patients because they don't have the money to hire staff. They estimate that huge populations are without this kind of preventive health care. They estimate the clinics turn away 10,000 people/month or over 120,000 people/year. In Los Angeles, the clinics can only see 100,000 out of 700,000 people who need the services.

The result is a public health crisis in California. For example, in Orange and San Bernardino Counties where few people have access to clinic services, the rate of sexually transmitted diseases and teen birth is 22% higher than the overall state rate. The lack of funds is seriously eroding California's ability to reduce teen pregnancy and the public receives less protection sexually transmitted diseases.

The Planned Parenthood spokeswoman urges us to call Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez as the budget is still being decided in Sacramento. The Assembly has passed the budget but it is stalled in the Senate, with 15 Senate Republicans refuses to sign the budget unless they get more cuts. The Senate Republicans want to cut family planning, birth control and abortion from Medi-Cal services for teenagers who don't have parental consent--twice in the last few years Californians have defeated these parental consent propositions at the ballot box.

I called Fabian Nunez's office this morning, and had a short chat with the polite receptionist asking for the Assemblyman to support increase in Medi-Cal reimpursement rates for these kinds of preventive services that Planned Parenthood provides. I said I knew that the assembly had already passed the budget, but if the Senate can't pass it, the assemblypeople might be recalled, and then I hoped Nunez might act on this matter.

I think it might be a utter tragedy if a woman without pre-natal care might lose her baby or she or her baby might suffer greatly. Pre-natal care is a must. Screenings for diseases are also a public health necessity. After I made the call, I felt a great deal better.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Berkeley Food: Chez Panisse and the Beggars

When I was up in north Berkeley, I would walk by Alice Water's restaurant Chez Panisse twice a day as well as other expensive cafes as well as the homeless regularly begging on north Shattuck Ave. I thought the homeless beggars in front of pricey cafes was an odd combination. When I stopped to look at the Chez Panisse menu, I noticed that the dinner downstairs would cost about $75 and the second floor cafe, which I thought was much less, would cost about over $30 for lunch. I just couldn't bring myself to go.

I just read Thomas McNamee's book Alice Waters Chez Panisse

Cooking for me at Berkeley when I was an undergraduate long ago was a way of exploring the world; I explored everything from chop sticks to soybeans to cooking West African stews a high school friend taught me. French cooking I knew a little about as a teenager by going with my family to Robaires, a French restaurant on LaBrea in Los Angeles, because my dad knew Mr. Robaire a little. French cooking--Julia Child which I had read and Robaire's restaurant which I also liked--was to me part of the grown-up world where one had to dress to go to dinner. Some of my friends when their parents came to Berkeley and wanted to take them out to an expensive restaurant in San Francisco wore jeans in protest--that was shocking at the time. But I also had a grandfather who stared as a child in Russia, and since he had childhood malnutrition was very short 5' tall as an adult. His -American born son and daughter daughter towered over him.

According to McNamee's book on Alice Waters, the lady and her friends were trying to make a different kind of French restaurant at Chez Panisse. Waters herself based her ideal on Marcel Pagnol's movie trilogy, particularly a bar shown in the movie called "Cesar's Bar de la Marine, where friends could laugh, argue, flirt and drink wine for hours on end." What McNamee neglects to stress is this is a working class bar with a clientele mostly of fisherman.

For its first two years Chez Panisse seems to be run like loose hippie alternative French restaurant trying to serve a French country cuisine, but in 1973 Waters hired Jeremiah Tower as chef who brought the elaborate French aristocratic cuisine to the restaurant. With Tower's cooking the kind of food only the French aristocracy ate, Chez Panisse got it's first national recognition. It seems that Waters and Panisse near the beginning wanted to be both populist and aristocratic in their cooking.

When the chef cooks extremely elaborate cooking creations as Jeremiah Tower did at Chez Panisse, the chef is making himself an artist. In some ways Chez Panisse is a collective artistic creation that's offered for sale at lunch and dinner. Well, people spend a lot of money art. But if I were to spend $100 on art, I would rather get a print than a dinner as I can look at the print on my wall. At this point I would not want to eat as an artistic endeavor. And I also think of my grandfather starving as a child. I guess my world is too different from that of Chez Panisse.

I've written already on this blog about Waters creating the Edible Classroom at a Berkeley middle school where students grow food and then learn how to cook it. I much admire her efforts to bring back gardens and cooking to the public school. I learned to cook from cooking class in middle school and my high school Fairfax had a garden where students gardened. Both programs were abandoned by the 1990s in most schools, and Waters has done good work reviving gardening and cooking in the schools. Also she has done well in support farmers markets and small organic farmers.

The trouble with Chez Panisse's high prices for lunch and dinner is that it automatically eliminates many. What was wonderful about my own teenager Berkeley food experiences was that we used food to break down barriers, to share different cultures, to discover new foods like soybeans, and to explore the world. So my Berkeley food experiences are quite the opposite from today's Chez Panisse which puts up barriers. And the beggars still remain on Shattuck Avenue. Children still starve like my grandfather did in many parts of the world.The 1960s foodies I loved the most were the Diggers who fed the homeless runaways and then I admired my friend Carol Tarlen who went to jail for working with Food not Bombs feeding the homeless in San Francisco.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I went up to Berkley, and here's some of the things I saw. I went to the farmer's market Saturday in downtown Berkeley, and then was walking up Addison, and saw inside a building a demonstration of the Brazilian martial art/dance capoeira. My cousin David in San Francisco has been studying capoeira for years, and at his wedding last August in San Francisco his capoeira friends towards the end of the wedding joined in a circle and chanted while one or two people got in the center of the circle to dance or spar.

This trip I was staying on the northside in the area called the gourmet ghetto because it has a lot of pricey restaurants, flower shops, and boutiques, but I was struck by the green business called the Elephant Pharmacy which had free yoga and pilates as well as a $6 tweezer--very overpriced. I went to the steering committee meeting of the California Studies Association, and also picked up the xerxoes of my writer friend Carol Tarlin's collected poems and collected short stories. Tarlen died three years ago, but I much enjoyed sitting in the coffeehouses on the northside and downtown Berkeley reading her wonderful writing and walking on the Berkeley campus where I was an undergraduate. Actually, downtown Berkeley is within blocks of the northside, and both have cafes and coffeehouses. The street above is downtown Berkeley between the BART (subway) station and the university. The city of Berkeley has made a a good effort to fix up downtown, putting in benches, many shade trees, and also encouraging sidewalk cafes.

When you go east from downtown, you run into the campus, and I was struck by both the wonderful trees and the sculptures just off Oxford Street on the side of the campus near the biology and botany buildings. When I went to Berkeley it was mostly a science school, but at least now it has some modern sculpture and a
the Berkeley Art museum/Pacific Film Archives. The visual arts have definitely improved at Berkeley in the last decades.
While I was there the Pacific Film Archives showed a film by the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiraostani which I missed, but I did get to see the two fine photo shows the museum had. David Goldblatt's "Intersections" show are superb. documentary photos of contemporary South Africa while Abbgas Kiarosani's "Imagemaker" was a wonderful photos of snow, trees, and roads
in rural Iran. These were two spectacularly good photo shows. And the museum cafe had good food.
The Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives is just off-campus on Hearst, but if as I walked onto the campus itself , I discovered this old brick building to the right with the wonderful mosaic murals on it. A campus policeman told me that the old building is used to store the bikes of the campus police so its called the bike building--and one with gorgeous murals!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Theater, Hollywood: post-moderism as radicalism

Last night I went to see Tom Stoppard's play "Travesties," at the Open Theater Company, one of my favorite theater companies in Los Angeles at their small space in Hollywood. Open Fist did a wonderful job on Stoppard's 1974 play about the meetings in 1917 Zurich between Dada poet Tristan Tzara, Communist leader Lenin, Irish novelist James Joyce, and bourgeois pro-war minor British consular employee named Henry Carr. Stoppard's play recreates a time when modern artists such as Tzara were passionately anti-war and even revolutionary. It's good to remember that when modernism in arts is often seen as part of some non-political museum.

The story is told by Henry Carr, a minor British consular figure, who was in Zurich in 1917. The play starts with Carr in 1974 writing his memoirs of the famous people he knew in Zurich in 1917, and as we find out Carr's memoirs are highly inaccurate. Throughout the play Carr portrays himself as head of the British consulate in Zurich with a servant named Bennett who is a radical, but we found out toward the end of the play Carr has been untruthful. In reality Bennett was the head of the consular service while Carr was a minor figure there. Stoppard's postmodernist play asks what is real? How truthful or how much of a liar is the elderly Carr's memoirs about 1917?

In history Carr did know Joyce in Zurich. The two were involved in Zurich with a production of Oscar Wild's play "The Importance of Being Earnest," where Carr played the lead Algernon and Joyce was theater manager. Historically after the play Joyce and Carr argued; then both men sued each other in the Zurich courts. Joyce made Carr into a stupid figure in his novel Ulysses he was writing at the time. In Stoppard's play Joyce and Carr start arguing and suing each other as this part of the play follows history. But Stoppard has taken huge hunks of Oscar Wild's comedy "The Importance of Being Earnest," and brilliantly adapted it to his play about 1917 Zurich, so Stoppard's play is a demented version of Wild's play. So Stoppard is using postmodernist appropriation in his play.

In the first section of the play Carr, who was proud of fighting in the trenches of the war until he was invalided, argues with Dada poet Tristan Tzara who is against the war. Here Carr is the bourgeois voice of rationality, patriotism, and belief in fighting for King and country. Carr defends his fighting for one's country while Tzara said that the causes of the war were all lies. So this play questions the reasons for fighting in a war. In the second part of the play Carr argues with Joyce over money from the play as well as arguing over the war. Carr still defends his fighitng in the war and asks Joyce what is he doing during the war. Joyce answers, "I wrote Ulysses." Also Joyce and Tzara argue over art. Joyce believes in the artist genius who revolutionizes art while Tzara attacks art as a category that is rationalist dealing with truth or beauty.

The final section deals with Lenin who hears about the Russian Revolution and plots his way to get back to Russia. It turns out that Carr never knew Lenin and Lenin left by train before Carr ever talked to him. In this section Lenin's wife talks about the art that Lenin liked which was mostly 19th century art like Beethoven. According to Lenin's wife Lenin was opposed to most modern art and even when going to see Gorky's The Lower Depths, a left-wing play about poor people in Russia, detested the new modern acting style. Carr argues that as a bourgeois who also detested the modern in art he had much in common with Lenin who also disliked the modern in art. Surprise surprise.

Stoppard uses the postmodern style to reclaim that period of 1917 when one could take sides: pro-war or anti-war. Artist or revolutionary or revolutionary artist. Again, when postmodernism is seen as some weird elitist art practice, it's good to look at Stoppard's brilliant thought-provoking play.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

WACK Feminist Art Show Disappoints

I just went to see the feminist art show WACK at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles, and returned really disappointed.

I had already gone to the panel associated with the Los Angeles women art show at the Municipal Art Gallery, and heard Cherie Gaulke say that at the Women's Building in Los Angeles they should have had childcare. My friend Helen Million-Ruby, who had two kids and attended the first Feminist Studio Workshop in 1975 at the Women's Building at Los Angeles, had at the time fought along with others for childcare at the building and lost. So it was encouraging to heard Gaulke finally agree that, yes, there should have been childcare. Helen Million-Ruby, who is working class, was the first one I remember to articulate that working class women weren't being heard. Helen criticized an art performance by Barbara Smith where Smith had a poor woman from McArthur Park go sit in the gallery while Smith sat in the park. Helen said she felt torn up inside because she thought the art piece objectified the poor woman.

In the late 1970s then many other women criticized the Women's Building for not encouraging a diversity of racial, ethnic and working class voices--these were women refusing any modernist masternarrative and instead asking for postmodernist diversity of voices. In one review of WACK Judy Chicago had been quoted say, yes, women's art should include a diversity of racial, class, and ethnic voices. So I came to WACK with high hopes that art exhibit would have racial and class diversity implicit in postmodernism.

It didn't. Before I spell out my disappointments, I must say there were some good pieces in the show. After hearing for years of Ana Mendieta, I got to see some of her haunting pieces of a female body raped or a female body's impression on the ground. I also was introduced to Spiderwoman Theater, a Native American Woman's Theater group. The videotape about them was excellent, mixing in footage of their riveting performance along with interviews of group members. I also got to know Lorraine O'Grady as Mademoiselle Bourgeoise Noire doing her stunning performances about art world racism. I also learned from the juxtaposition of European as well as U.S. artists that many themes such as the body art and practices such as working collectively were international.

The show did have some of my old favorites from the 1970s: Womenhouse, the brilliant original installation that Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, and their art students did in a old house on themes of domesticity in 1972; and Faith Wilding's wonderfully powerful performance poem "Waiting" about female passivity.

But as I left I realize there wasn't one working class voice in the whole art exhibit. Not one. . There was a section called "Labor" which had the Berwick Street Film Collective's videotape "Night Cleaners," supposedly about organizing of women janitors in a union in 1970s London. "Night Cleaners" had shots of silent cleaning women working without any narration for long periods--the tape silenced her and objectified her. The film never explained how the unionization efforts were going. At that time there were almost no films on working class women's strikes, but "Night Cleaners" did not inform but was dreadful and dreadfully dull. The film reminded me of a film by the African filmmaker Osmane Sembane's Black Girl about a African woman working in France as a maid who never spoke a word in the film but only had French voices in the film speaking about her, but Semane was making a film critiquing the oppression of the African woman. The Berwick Street Film Collective, three men and one woman, seemed to be collaborating in oppressing their subject. There was another piece by Mierle Laderman Ukeles where she seems to be washing down steps in a performance piece where she played at work. The other pieces in "Labor" seemed to be second rate pieces about mothering including Mary Kelly's Post-partum Document which was a very obsessive, tedious rendering of her baby's fecal smears, vocal utterences, and drawings.

I've spent years writing about American working class literature. In 1996 I wrote an article about literature of the textile trades in the United States in which I traced a history of four generations of writings about garment workers starting with Sarah Savage's 1815 novel The Factory Girl. If American working class women since 1815 have produced over a 170 year history of writing about garment trades, surely WACK's curator could have found some working class women artists in the 1970s instead of imposing a modernist masternarrative that silenced working class voices.

The curator could start by looking at the work of Helen-Million Ruby, who along with other mothers/artists--Jan Cook, Christie Kruse, Gloria Hadjuk, Suzanne Siegal, and Laura Silagi-- formed a women's art collective called Mother Art who did a monthly long series of art performances titled By Mother at the Women's Building in Los Angeles about mothers and art in 1977. Then Mother Art got a grant to do performances in laundromats since Million-Ruby wanted to bring art to where every day women were. I saw them perform in the Silverlake laundromat. They timed their piece to last a wash-dry cycle, strung up a clothes line, and hung up their art pieces including a wonderful poem on material by Valene Campbell. Mother Art's Laudromat art performances were brilliant.

WACK did include "Where We Were At" Black Women Artists, detailing how they took their art into the community but I wanted to see black women artists art work which wasn't in the show. At the same time Latinas such as Linda Vallejo at Self-Help Graphics had an Artmobile in which they brought their art to schools in East Los Angeles. Including more black women and Chicana artists including the women artists of Self-Help Graphics would have improved this show. Other than two large murals by Judy Baca, in the four hours at the exhibit I saw no other art pieces by Chicanas. In 1977 Sybil Venegas wrote an essay in ChisemArte, the Chicano/a literary art magazine in L.A. about Chicana arts Barbara Carrasco from Los Angeles, Etta Delgado from San Jose, and Las Mujeres Muralistas from San Francisco. Patssi Valdez and Diane Gamboa are two astoundingly original Chicana artist who participated in ASCO, the avant-garde group's performances and other work, in the 1970s and early 1980s.

During the 1970s in California Chicanas were in their painting exploring new imagery based on indigenous forms; making large history paintings in public murals; creating performance rituals for Day of the Dead which spread across the country, and reinterpreting iconographic women like Virgin of Guadalupe in their painting; participating in avant-garde group ASCO's performances and photos. Barbara Carrasco, Las Mujeres Muralistas, Diane Gamboa and Patssi Valdez, as well as Helen Million Ruby all came all were working class and developed intensly brilliant innovative work--including them in WACK would have improved the show.

Instead of capturing a brilliant post-modernist diversity, the curator at WACK included a lot of the work that was second rate and repetitive. Nobody I knew in the 1970s was particularly interested in the body as a medium, but the show's modernist masternarrative put body as medium as an important theme and WACK had a lot of this work. While Mendietta's and Wilke's use of the body as medium was innovative, a lot of work on this theme in WACK wasn't.

For example, one large wall had Eleanor Antin obsessively photographing her nude body front, side, and back for over a month and recording her weight as she dieted. This piece wasn't a critique of obsession with weight but a very tedious presentation of the obsession itself. Another dull videotape had a silent woman woman brushing her hair--that's it. The message is that much feminist art is about young white women obsessed with their bodies, their individuality, and their narcissism. Yes, in the 1970s, feminists thought picking up a videocamera as empowering, but when women began exploring this medium, they come up against problems: a video camera can be used to objectify others; it can be used to produce narcissism; it can be produce tapes which are derivative or trite or repetitive.

And what about painting. Though there was good painting in WACK, the paintings usually made a feminist point in the curator's modernist masternarrative. At Womanspace, the large collective women's gallery before the Women's Building, many painters were exploring a diverse grouping of ideas in both figurative work and abstractions, yet almost none of these paintings were in WACK. Many second generation women abstract-expressionist painters were finally reaching national audience in the 1970s after two decades of painting but Joan Snyder was only one of these painters represented. I would have liked to see the wonderful paintings of Grace Hartigen, Helen Lundeberg or Helen Frankenthaler.

Two painters who should have been included in WACK are Ruth Weisberg and Tomie Arai. Weisberg in her painting was pushing her art into marvelous explorations of Jewish themes from the Bible to the Holocaust to the 1970s--yet another innovative voice. Many women of color in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles made murals with working class perspectives such as Tomie Arai's "Wall of Respect for Women" in New York's Lower Eastside that spoke of sweatshop work, strikes, and need for better housing. But again middle class art critics ruled out muralism as not "feminist" as they ignored this art form usually made often by working class artists and for working class communities.

Also, the thematic groupings of the show were confusing. Ana Mendietta's work like much other work in the show was exhibited in the "Goddess" section but it could have been also fit in the "Body as Medium" section.

Too bad this show missed postmodernism, missed its chance to really record the great diversity of feminist art in the 1970s, missed the crisscrossing of many diverging arguing voices. Many feminists disagreed with Judy Chicago's ideas that feminist art should have central imagery based on female sex organs. Feminists argued over the need for childcare. Some women of color artists argued that feminism was not relevant to them. An historical show would have been better, showing both the "mainstream" of 1970s feminist arts and then it's feminists critics. We're still have to wait for that show. That show would have hot, angry, diverging, arguing beautifully different viewpoints--that would be the postmodern show we need.