Sunday, January 30, 2011

Turning Point 1975

When I was 15 I lived in Western Kansas. It was a fascinating place, and I think of it often. During the Paleolithic period, this region was covered by an ocean. Standing on the flat plain, I can imagine a mile of salt water overhead, only now the ocean is a soaring sky. 

That vast, uncluttered space awakened my mind. My little town had a fine library and good public schools. The town was bounded on every side by farms. Farming requires an enormous mental effort, to be successful. After working on a farm, I will always respect the abilities of farmers. 

During a hot, silent summer, I walked to a grocery store and gas station and bought a paper-back book, Klingsor's Last Summer, by Herman Hesse. The story is about a painter named Klingsor who spends his summer painting in Italy, then dies unexpectedly in the fall. In Italy, Klingsor goes on a picnic with friends:

My friends, let’s not start becoming sensible so late in life.

What it all meant is: this day will never come again and anyone who fails to eat and drink and taste and smell it will never have it offered to him again in all eternity. The sun will never shine as it does today; it is in a constellation in the sky, a conjunction with Jupiter, with me, with Agosto and Ersilia and all of us, a conjunction that will never come again, not in a thousand years. And therefore I want to walk on your left side for a while, because that brings luck, and carry your emerald parasol—under its light my head will look like an opal. But you must play your part and sing a song, one of your best.

They climbed the narrow mountain path in the sun-splashed shadows of the chestnuts. When Klingsor looked up he saw before his face the slender calves of Martha, the artist, showing pink through her transparent stockings. If he looked back, the green of the parasol arched above Ersilia curly black hair. Underneath she was silken violet, the only dark patch among all these figures. 

At a blue and orange farmhouse fallen summer apples lay in the meadow, cool and sour. They tasted them. Martha spoke enthusiastically about an outing on the Seine, in Paris, before the war. Ah yes, Paris, and the bliss of those days.

“That will never come again. Never again.”

“Nor ought it to,” the painter exclaimed vehemently, shaking his sparrow-hawk’s head fiercely. “Nothing ought to come again. Why should it? What childish wishes! The war has glossed over everything in the past, turning it all into a paradise, even the most idiotic things, the things we could well do without. Very well, it was lovely in Paris and lovely in Rome and lovely in Arles. But is it any less lovely today, right here? Paradise isn’t Paris and peacetime, Paradise is here. It lives up there on the mountain and in an hour we’ll be in the midst of it and will be he the thieves to whom it was said: This day you will be with me in Paradise.”

The idea that this present, temporary life was precious was a shock to me. I’d been brought up to think of this life as merely a prep school for the main event in Heaven. All human civilization would come crashing down. God would end the world in the giant, final Going Out of Business Sale. In the view of my people, this event and the supposed eternity following gave our lives meaning. 

Hesse's story pointed out a problem with this reasoning, which had been invisible to me. If this present life was meaningless without a Judgment and a future life in Heaven, what would we do in Heaven? If this life is meaningless without a future life, might not the future life suffer the same absence of meaning? Sooner or later, we'd be cornered. We might need to appreciate the life we had, the life we knew.

This love for the imperfect present got into me and grew. It didn’t overwhelm me, but it never stopped growing. Imperceptibly, I grew more grounded in this life on this earth.

The Non-Fiction Klingsor

Twenty-five years later, in December, 2000, I received a poster for an art show for my friend, artist Paul Stempen. I hadn't seen him in some time, so I phoned him at his house on Potrero Hill. Paul sounded giddy. He told me he'd gone to Italy the previous summer to paint with some art students from San Francisco. 

“It was the best time in my life,” he said. “We painted every day and drank every night. I didn’t have a care in the world. I met a girl there and fell in love with her. I just fell in love with her almost overnight.”

We exchanged friendly wishes for the new year and hung up. A few days later Paul died of a heart-attack. He was forty-three.

What it all meant is: this day will never come again and anyone who fails to eat and drink and taste and smell it will never have it offered to him again in all eternity.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Our Golden Age

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge had little attraction for the Athenians. They were realists. Knowledge was to be desired because it had value for living; it led men away from error to right action.
Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way

We tend to think of knowledge as good in itself, but knowledge is useful only when we can exploit it to help us reach our goals.
Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind

We are fortunate to live in these times. No matter where we live, each of us can read high-quality information about almost any subject. Not just internet searches, but substantial books. Through eBooks you can carry every book you ever read around with you, for instant reference or—more likely—just the good feeling that it's there if you want it.

Many of us have great affection for physical library spaces, their church-like atmosphere with its incense aroma of paper, ink and glue. They are so pleasant, it's hard to recognize their limitations. Physical books take up space, and that space has to be sheltered, heated, lit and cleaned. People need to organize the books and track the borrowers. Add to that the costs of typesetting, binding, transporting and storing all those books before they were sold. Even for one book this cost is quite substantial over time.

In 1997 I found a book I wanted at my local library. Turning to the checkout record on the back page, I noticed the last checkout was in 1976. Yes, I have weird tastes, but that's not the point. The book had absorbed its share of the library's operating costs for twenty-one years, and the only thing we could say for sure about the benefit it offered was that it was available. Up to now, there was no point in thinking about saving these costs because it wasn't possible. Libraries were the only game in town.


eBooks are changing all that. The Amazon Kindle Store offers 800,000 titles you can get in a few seconds, and keep on their reader or a personal computer. [My beloved library houses 165,000 titles.] Some Kindle eBooks are free, most you have to pay for. Recently Amazon began its own eBook lending program, details on their site. Pricing of eBooks is becoming more regular, and few books cost more than $10. There are exceptions, but I think it's likely that the average price will settle below $10, due to competition. 

The next eBook I want will cost $7. The cheapest used copy will cost $5.50 with shipping and I'll have to wait a week for delivery. I'm impatient and I hate accumulating objects, so the extra $1.50 is worth it to me. It doesn't take me long to earn $7, so I'm inclined to buy this eBook even if I could get it from the library, to save time. 

I won't buy a Kindle Reader because I don't want two machines when I could have just one. For me the most elegant life has the fewest possessions. I'm happy for now with my white MacBook, but I dream of a smaller, 11-inch MacBook Air. It's the size and weight of a magazine. The storage memory in the Air is a flash drive with no moving parts. This makes it less prone to failure when moved around. I probably won't buy one this year; I'm waiting for the capacity to get larger in the 11-inch model. 

I think it is in the interest of the publishers to bring prices of eBooks down, for two reasons. First, it'll make purchasing an easy decision for readers even slightly interested. Second, it'll nearly eliminate free copying of texts, which is a publisher's big nightmare. Amazon has gone to great lengths to lock out all copying ability in its software, but this is not ultimately possible. Hackers claimed to have broken through the copyright protection one year ago, and no matter what Amazon rights, someone somewhere will successfully hack it. The way to minimize illegal copying is to make the product inexpensive, so it's easier to buy it than to steal it. 

The model for this happy relationship is iTunes. I bought the long playing record album above in 1973. At the time, I made my money by mowing neighbor's lawns. I had to work about 35 minutes to pay for each song on the album, then get my mom to drive me 46 miles to the nearest record store. 

Flash forward to today, iTunes will sell me a song for a couple minutes' work. I'll have it in a few seconds, and I don't have to buy the whole album. Just a few years ago, the recording industry nearly committed suicide over their anxiety about copying music. It was a real concern, because it's much easier to make high-quality copies of digital music than it was to make copies of LPs. Sony put anti-copying code in its CDs. They didn't see the larger picture: CDs are going out of existence anyway. 

Apple recognized the best solution to the problem: Make the music so inexpensive, it's easier for the average customer to buy it than to steal it. Whatever hack or recording I would do to get around paying, it's going to cost me more—in time—than the $0.99 Apple charges, so why do it? 

The other incredible deal available today is digital audiobooks. I buy mine from The audiobooks range higher in price than the eBooks, but you can get around that if you plan ahead. I listen to several hours of reading each week, so I buy credits in bulk from Audible, at a serious discount. This is the book I'm listening to now:

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

It's a long book, but I liked the sample and decided to download it. As it turns out, I receive an excellent entertainment value in this transaction. My price per hour of reading: 21 cents. 

Audiobooks put thousands of pages in my head that I wouldn't have time to read. In this banquet of delights, its important to think hard about how I plan to use the information. Happy reading to you all.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Winter in San Francisco / Farewell to an Artist

We never get snow. In December the city government trucked-in snow and built an artificial slope in front of City Hall. This image includes scraps of our public objects: the electronic-looking Intercontinental Hotel, set between the Mansard-style roof of the Asian Museum and a monumental three-headed sculpture by Zhang Huan.

Max embraced this olympic challenge. His Mommy looks remarkably like Jacqueline Kennedy here, fit for battle with her sunglasses and ten-gallon purse.  

At the bottom, Max plots his next run.

We ran into old friends and watched little people explore their temporary, inflatable theme park.

The park in front of City Hall looks completely different now than it did in the late 1980s when I walked across it several times a week for my job. At that time, hundreds of homeless people lived in tents there, and the grass was beaten down to dirt. It was not a place you wanted to take small children. 

Our Mayor, Gavin Newsome strolled among us. He's a handsome young man. In this crowded shot, you don't have to guess who the mayor is, even without a tie. His presence is magnetic. I was reminded of Schuyler Chapin's comment about Pat Buckley, "She didn't enter a room; she took possession of it."

We ate a leisurely lunch, then rode the L streetcar home. San Francisco showed its best face that afternoon. 

Matthew McGoff 1961 - 2010

On New Year's Eve, I received news that my Pennsylvania Academy classmate Matthew McGoff died on December 26. I met Matthew in 1980 and we went through four years together at the Academy. We shared an apartment for two years, first on crazy 13th Street, then on quiet Pine Street in Center City.

Matthew races into mind whenever I see or hear the word "uncompromising." He knew exactly how he wanted to live and how he wanted to paint. He never hesitated or entertained divergent views. Socially this attitude could be problematic, but watching him paint was pure joy.  

He painted a huge picture of our shared bathroom, which had brown walls. At this time, Matthew put on paint with a big knife, and the effect was like frosting a cake. He piled on layer after layer. I don't remember if he asked my opinion—probably not—but I volunteered, "Looks like it's raining shit in this picture."

Matthew didn't look at me, he just kept on frosting the canvas with brown paint. He burst into exuberant song: "It's raining shit! Hallelujah, it's raining shit!" 

Matthew was a voracious reader. He introduced me to many great writers, and his favorite in those years was Charles Bukowski. For those unfamiliar with his writing, Bukowski's narrative character is something of a Bart Simpson for adults. He flees in terror from every challenge in life, and especially from other people. These funny stories provided a blessed relief from our artistic struggles. 

In his final years, Charles Bukowski compared life to his cherished sport of horse racing. I use this passage to say good-bye to Matthew, because it expresses an attitude I still share with him.  

I’m not in a contest with anybody, have no thoughts about immortality, don’t give a damn about it. It’s the ACTION while you’re alive. The gate springing open in the sunlight, the horses plunging through the light, all the jocks, brave little devils in their bright silks, going for it, doing it. The glory is in the motion and the dare. Death be damned. It’s today and today and today. Yes. 

—Charles Bukowski, The Captain is Out to Lunch