1904

The Year Everything Important Happened

Tough Guys

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WALTER BAUMHOFER (1904-1987) American illustrator, known for his pulp fiction cover paintings

There are more manly pursuits than writing.  Being a fireman, for instance, or racecar driver, or lumberjack, or violent drunk.  Even if women have had to pretend to be men in order to do it (women have had to pretend to be men to do lots of things), writing has not always been the most masculine activity.  Not exactly up there with bullfighter, as Hemingway might have told you.

James T. Farrell (February 27, 1904 – August 22, 1979) was one of those writers who helped make writing a tough guy thing.   Or, he made tough guys feel okay about writing.  His Studs Lonigan books inspired Norman Mailer to pursue a career as a writer.   The radio broadcaster and writer Louis Terkel changed his name to Studs after Farrell’s famous character.  The name alone.  What a writer.  What a stud.

Farrell, like his fictional creation Studs Lonigan, grew up among the poor Irish of Chicago’s South Side.  Being Irish certainly helps make a man a  good writer and clever with language, just look at Oscar Wilde.   Growing up poor is useful too.  “The problem with you,” a teacher told me once, “you’re not poor enough.  Or rich enough either.  If you were poor you’d have nothing to lose, and you’d starve and bust balls and take risks and write.  Or if you were rich you could do the same thing because you’d be able to afford to.”  He shook his head sadly and not without a touch of contempt in his voice he added, “but you’re middle class.  So you don’t have much but you have just enough you’re afraid of losing, and that will keep you back.”

I wasn’t Irish either, I might have added, so really it’s a wonder I’ve learned to string words together at all.   As for masculine, let’s just say my taste in literature has always leaned toward English lady novelists.  Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Bowen, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark.  Tough, yes, but not quite in the way that will win you fights on the playground.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  I like tough guy writers too.  “What literature does,” Farrell once said (Here) “is make life meaningful.”  And I would agree,  whether it’s meaningful in a masculine way or any other way.  Farrell also says that “the writer works out what comes and goes in the minds of other people.”  Not just what’s in  his own mind, you see; the writer projects: he (or she) looks at you and inside and beyond you, and beyond himself, and if it doesn’t kill him he tries to write what he finds.  And that’s tough, I think.  That takes guts.

In the Garden

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The Chateau had a view but no where to put any plants; Juliet balconies from which to admire the distant hills but no terrace, no proper patio, no place and space for growing things.  Here in the Valley I’ve got A Room with No View so I’ve decided to make my own and go native to boot.  What I know about gardening, however, I’ve learned from books by Beverley Nichols, who might have been an expert on myrtle and cyclamen and the English Garden (and guardsmen) but was clearly not going to be much help to me in this strange new land of relentless scorching sun.  A rose by any name would die out here, unless kept alive by artifical and extraordinary measures for which I have neither the resources nor the patience.  It’s pots of succulents for me and anything likely to survive a drought.  Or neglect.  I need roses that look like they’re carved from pink marble.

I grew up in the Midwest, where potted plants were dusty African violets on old lady windowsills or geraniums in tubs on front porches on the Fourth of July, and exotic was that fuzzy cucumber with thorns and lightbulb appendages we made such fun of,  sitting up there on the science teacher’s desk.    Now, thanks to the guidance and advice of the Head Gardener at an Important Museum my patio sports alien fauna like Donkey’s Tail (sedum morganiarum), Sticks on Fire (euphorbia tirucalli), Elephant’s Food (portulacaria afra) and Schwartzkopf (aeonium arboreum).  Oh my.

Sticksonfire

I think this is going to be fun and I am very very grateful to my friend R.H. for his guidance and expertise.  I see stories here, don’t you?  Not the kind Beverley told, about being seduced by Noel Coward’s boyfriend (or was it Somerset Maugham’s?), and shocking Cecil Beaton (1904 – 1980), but when you’ve got sticks on fire competing with donkey’s tail, something interesting is bound to happen.

We are all the Diaspora

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Great Baltimore Fire, February 7 – 8, 1904

It’s what everyone says these days, “Where will you go now?”  As if there’s just been a disaster or one is pending – old age, retirement, a lay off, a rent increase all falling under the category of Things Disastrous.   And no, I don’t think it’s just because we’re in California and there’s always the chance of an earthquake because I hear it from other people too, other places.  California is the country’s coal mine canary.

Lately it’s the astonishing rents and home prices: a friend has just sublet his three bedroom three bath condo here because he’s taken a job in San Francisco and still won’t quite break even because of what he’s paying for rent on a studio in the Mission.   “How do ordinary people manage on these salaries?” he asks.  “I mean the ones who don’t already own property, have 401Ks or wealthy parents?”

“Seattle,” another friend says firmly when asked where she’ll retire.  “It rains there and you have to think water.  There won’t be water most places, soon.”  She has a point.  The Ogallala Aquifer, the largest in the world, which lies under eight western states and supplies fresh water to more than a quarter of the agriculture of this country, also lies under the route of the Keystone Pipeline.  Only a matter of time before a leak pollutes it, and since an aquifer isn’t the Gulf of Mexico you can’t put a plug in it.  With all the fracking that will forever contaminate the fresh water of most of the midwest, however, it may be a moot point; pretty much everywhere will be uninhabitable sooner than later.   No place to run, no place to hide.

With New York, London and Paris now theme parks for the super-rich, the new world model is Hong Kong or Dubai with its palm shaped islands, if you can afford one.  Otherwise you become part of that growing mass of the planet’s migrant labor force, moving where there’s work and hoping to make enough money to escape.  It used to be Hollywood was the only place people went to make a lot of money so they could afford to go somewhere else, but now… where?

Caravans of senior citizens are traveling the nation these days, settling near malls during the Christmas season, moving on to berry fields and orchards for the picking.  Putting a brave face on it, most of them.  Always wanted to travel, don’t want to just sit about and be idle though, Welcome Walmart Shoppers.  We’re building a wall along our southern border to keep out other people’s seniors, apparently.

This is the trickle down at work, my friends.  Trickle down desperation, trickle down fear, downwardly mobile, get out while the getting’s good, On the Road but not for the fun of it.  I’m told the Irish pronounce it like it was Italian or Polari, dee-uh-SPOR-uh.   The rest of us want to say it like it only applies to the Jews, or possibly the Armenians if we’re feeling generous.  There’s also the Chinese and the African Diasporas, of course, but those would necessarily involve discussing the slave trade which is just a little too close for comfort these days.  Meanwhile, the buck no longer stops with someone else.  And that bell ringing?  Don’t ask.

Alternate Reality

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Frame from the comic strip “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend,” 1904 – 1913 by Winsor McCay

Last night I helped with the kidnapping of an Important Person to an alternate reality.  It was someone fairly high up in the propganda department of the ruling elite, I’m not exactly sure who but it might have been Roger Ailes.  Of course you can’t keep anyone very long in a dream landscape; still, it’s the gesture that counts.

Creating group dreamscapes, or alternate probable realities, was very big in the 60s and 70s.  The one we traveled to last night was not in the best of shape; fairly rundown in fact.  If you or possibly a friend of yours was involved in the mapping and building of these places back in the day, let me know.  You could tell it had once been a thriving community which had seen better days.  Wonderful weather, though; quite balmy and lovely Mediterranean light with an extra dusty amber cast which was probably someone’s memory of Agent Orange but minus the side-effects.

Whenever I go I am always struck by how ambitious the scheme was, cities along the lines of Brasilia but with a lot of New York and Chicago and Pittsburgh and even a little Disneyland thrown in.   You could tell where the builders were from originally, in other words.  Lots of Midwesterners, and folks from upstate New York and those of us who hail from the shores of various Great Lakes.  You are nearly always somewhere with a view of water.

There also used to be Dream Banks you could contribute to, although this was long before Google so searching the files was a bit haphazard.  I suppose they would be helpful piecing the various communities and neighborhoods and maps together but I’ve never done much with that.  I know the parts of the towns I go to, I recognize them, although there are always vast sections I’ve yet to explore such as the area we visited last night (it was afternoon there) which looked a little like the spot I would have put Evanston, Illinois if I were in charge, but someone else had made it into a high rocky peninsula swinging out into the lake in a flourish of concrete and narrow switch-back streets, with houses along the way, crowding the steep cliffside.

We must all do our part.   There was more urgency, originally, I suppose.  People protesting the Vietnam War, the arms race, the Bomb.  We had then perhaps more deeply personal reasons for wanting to build an alternative to the current reality.   I remember thinking last night, however, how clever it was, to start taking people there by force.  Show them that we have other ideas about the way the world should be.  Show them another world.  An alternate to the one they are so fiercely focused on.

Let’s Get Physical

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Ed Pearce of BalletBoyz

Physical people occupy space physically.  It’s a truism but true nonetheless.  Spiritual people react to space spiritually; they tell you it is clear or cloudy and if you need to burn sage.  Aesthetic people behave aesthetically and admire your things.  A physical person lives in the world differently; he asks if he can do cartwheels in your living room (maybe later but not without moving the furniture), he asks if he can stand on the bed (yes but no jumping), in this and other physical ways he lets the neighbors know you have company.

My young physical friend comes to visit last night.  I have invited him with some reluctance because my former residence seemed somehow  – how shall I say it?  – more impressive.  It had a better address and more curb appeal.  If you’re going to do an outcall it seems to me these would be important factors.  He does not seem to mind, however.  “Big,” he observes upon entering, and keeps moving.  “Very big,” he says, moving a large mirror I have placed at the end of the hall to create a kind of ‘enfilade’ effect which I try to explain.  He says I can put it back later.

In researching a 1904 connection to Turner, I came upon an article about Debussy who ran off in February 1904 with Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker and the mother of one of Debussy’s students.  They went to the Isle of Jersey, I can’t imagine why, and when Debussy’s wife found out she tried to kill herself.  I think Emma might have been the type of young physical friend who occupied space physically.  Just a hunch.

Later I ask my young physical friend if he wants a shower.  He does and takes a very long time.  I hear noises: the curious repetition of a ‘Djee‘ sound, rather but not quite like a voice exercise, something an acting or singing coach would have you do.   I wonder if he is pursuing another career.  It continues.  I begin to be alarmed.  I wonder if it’s some kind of therapeutic ritual he does to calm down after heavy exercise, or, oh dear god, (thinking of my spiritual friend) in order to either summon or exorcise some demon.  Could it be a precursor to something worse?  Should I be alarmed?  Yet the sound has a plaintive quality to it, not really murderous, I decide, so I retreat to another room to wait.  Eventually he emerges, pulling on his shirt contentedly.  “Sorry I am long,” he explains.  “The lighting is so good I am taking selfies.”

He presents his phone to show me the results.  “I must say cheese,” he adds, “or they do not work.”  He demonstrates.  Djee…z.  He smiles, pleased with himself.  I am relieved and impressed.  I realize that physical people also notice lighting, as well as the effect of certain sounds on facial expression.

And a house is not a home until selfies get shot in it.

Sandycombe

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Catherine Parry-Wingfield opening the shutters at Sandycombe Lodge, Twickenham, the house J M W Turner designed and lived in (Source: image copyright Oli Scarff/Getty Images Europe) which is to be saved.

Possibly because I’m a great admirer of Sir John Soane who was a friend of Turner’s, I was very pleased to hear Sandycombe Lodge will be restored.  Some houses are more personal than others, even idiosyncratic; Soane’s own house is a good example, and so is Jefferson’s Monticello.  And there’s Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, and William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey.  They are all homes of men who thought a lot about what a home is or ought to be, what architecture can do and should do, and what sort of effect a building in a landscape ought to have, Beckford possibly taking that last point as far as anyone’s ever tried.

There’s a 1904 connection here too but it’s eluding me at the moment.  Cecil Beaton, of course, had his Reddish House and Ashcombe, although he didn’t actually build either.  Oliver Messel had his place on Mustique.  Stephen Tennant’s parents built Wilsford in 1904 and he certainly made it his own in a marvelous way, though he didn’t exactly start from scratch.

Lots of people have their dream houses, of course; they remain dreams because it’s quite another matter to do what it takes to make them real: conquer your fears and corner the market, flaunt convention and offend your neighbors,  cross an ocean and be elected president, or befriend the natives and entertain the sister of the Queen.

I’m Fine Really

HF6A9168 copy GEORGE & LILY

BIANCA DORSO.  George & Lily in the Studio

Sometimes you just have to take a day off and deal with stuff.  The plumber, the bedroom door that sticks, the pictures on the floor that need to be hung, all those unpacked boxes.  So you decide to focus on what’s in front of you.  You make coffee, you post a poem, you answer the door.  It’s your neighbor.

“You’re home,” he says, stating the obvious with alarm and suspicion.  I explain about having to do things.  I don’t mention the poem, which I’ve sort of forgotten about.  I invite him in.  He asks if I am unhappy, sick, upset, disoriented, in pain.   I respond in the negative repeatedly.  I protest I am fine.

“It’s the commute, isn’t it,” he observes, still searching.  I decide to give him this and admit as how I did try taking Coldwater Canyon the day before.  He belts out an oath, like he’s Professor Plum in the Library, brandishing a Candlestick.  Mystery solved.

“NEVER TAKE COLDWATER,” he admonishes me.  “THAT’S INSANE.”

In retrospect I confess it was a bad idea, even more so once I saw the line of cars bumper to bumper attempting to navigate that impossible route, but I feel defensive.  “You didn’t tell me,” I point out.

“YOU DIDN’T ASK,” he replies, which is true enough.  I suggest there was something up with yesterday’s rush hour.  The fog, I offer.  My neighbor gives me a look.  We both know all it takes is a traffic light out in Malibu to shut down everything east of the 405.  The butterfly effect, but you only need one poor fool trying to make a left onto Outpost from Mulholland before 10 am.

The emails and texts don’t start pouring in til later.  Are you okay?  I remember the poem that poured out of my pen in the middle of the night.  I realize I probably shouldn’t post everything that comes in that way.  Writing is therapy as Graham Greene (1904-1991) once observed and then wondered what people who didn’t write or compose or paint did to manage their feelings.   I can think of a few answers to that question, but none of them appeal to me at the moment.

The plumber finishes, the pictures get hung, a box gets unpacked.  All is well.  And I will never ever again try taking Coldwater Canyon to get to the other side of the hills.

Where in the Body Do You Hold Your Pain

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PAUL CADMUS (December 17, 1904 – December 12, 1999)

Even as a boy
I could see you were dangerous.
Carrier of cares and confusion,
A jack in the box of feelings
Ready to spring.
You never said where I was supposed to keep mine.

My brothers put theirs in their fists,
Pain in punches or words in tight jaws
Clenched against our Old Man
Who kept the world’s dead weight on his shoulders,
Bent over, making threats to his plate
Or his workbench in the basement.
I learned there what a vice grip does:
Spin handle with hand in metal mouth ‘til
Teeth meet in meat, then never let go.
I held my breath instead.

‘A blank page is what I know
About women,’ my father told me once
To be poetic.  But my mother was an open book to me,
Like the BookoftheMonthClub
Mystery in her lap,
She would turn the page and look away, look away
Out the screen muzzled window toward fuzzy trees
On the other side of a stubby untilled field and further still
To some past place where she had buried her heart,
Claiming that secret spot as hers and smiling
Almost apologetically, as if to say
‘This at least is mine,
You must find your own
Hiding place.’

Interpretation

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On January 15, 1904, the American classical pianist George Copeland gave the earliest-known performance of Claude Debussy’s piano works in the United States, playing the Deux Arabesques at Steinert Hall in Boston (source).  Copeland was a flamboyant performer, wearing makeup and jewelry before it was fashionable and long before anyone had heard of Liberace.  He was also very open about his homosexuality. In 1913 in an interview with the Cleveland Leader he said,  “I don’t care what people think of my morals. I never think anything about other people’s morals.  Morals have nothing to do with me.” (ibid.)

This weekend I am having some energy work done.  It is supposed to help release trauma.   I can’t imagine it will do any harm to try.  I had a Sikh energy worker, a lovely young woman, tell me once I had a great deal of father memory stored in my right thigh.  “Is that where everything about the father goes?” I asked, trying to work out the symbolism, but she said, no, it could be quite random where pain ends up.  For example, the liver isn’t able to process all the chemicals we consume so it uses body fat to store things like Aspartame, which is ironic when you think about it, a sugar substitute used to help you lose fat that’s so poisonous it forces the body to hold onto fat just to have a place to put it.

You might say the body is a vast, complicated storage facility of many rooms and a waste processing system at the same time.  Or, “An alimentary canal, open at both ends,” as my friend who was a poet liked to say.

Upon his arrival at one venue during a concert tour in South America, Aaron Copland was arrested on a morals charge and held until he was able to explain to the authorities that he was Copland the composer, not Copeland the pianist. Apparently George Copeland had preceded him on a concert tour of his own.   Ironic in a way when you think how gloriously gay a work like Appalachian Spring is.   But, matter of opinion, easy to confuse names, open to interpretation and so on.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to construct my own personal reality in haste, like rushing through grocery shopping when I’m hungry and after a long day at work.  Judgmental (“Outrageous price for eggs”), dismissive (“High fructose corn syrup the first ingredient, why am I not surprised”), forgetful (“What in the world did I come in here for?”), and then I wonder why my life has ended up the way it has.  Oh, please.  It’s all so open to interpretation, isn’t it?  George Copeland played Debussy like no one else.  Rings and eyeliner and all.

It’s all energy, though, isn’t it?  It’s all crap, it’s all beautiful.  It all means everything or nothing.  As my friend the poet liked to say, “The body is a shit factory.  That houses the priceless and eternal soul.”

January 13, 1904

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Oliver Messel (January 13, 1904 – July 13, 1978)

Also born today:

Horatio Alger (1832-1899)

Yannis Tsarouchis (1910-1989)

Charles Nelson Reilly (1931-2007)

Rip Taylor (1935 -)

Edmund White (1940 -)

Matthew Bourne (1960 -)

There are stories you are told, and there are stories you tell yourself when the ones you’re told don’t add up.

And sometimes you take the facts you know, a few you don’t (or not entirely), some names and dates, and you look for another story in the connections and the patterns and the details, invisible to those who don’t see what you see, or understand what you understand.  You find a narrative, a queer history.

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