Archive for the ‘Arts & letters’ Category

12 Days of ’Toonsmas: Day 9

December 28, 2019

Susan Calvin was off when these two rolled off the line at U.S. Robots.
From the September 2019 issue of BRAIN.

E-bikes present both opportunity and challenge for the IBD.

One more bike to sell to the base — the old white guy who already has 15 two-wheelers in the garage but may be slowing down a bit due to age or infirmity, and wants a little assist.

One more bike to lure new customers, who may have found old-fashioned cycling too difficult, or who have decided to replace a car with something greener.

One more bike to service, because the future requires more maintenance than the past.

Our heroes at BRAIN’s bike shop acquired an e-assistant to work on e-bikes, which raises another issue, one familiar to anyone who ever read Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.”

Artificial intelligence will not come to us from U.S. Robots, complete with a full installation of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and overseen by Susan Calvin, Greg Powell and Mike Donovan. It will come from Allied Mastercomputer via Ellison Wonderland, it will have ideas all its own, and it will not be our friend.

“They’re a cleaner better breed than we are,” Calvin said in an interview with The Interplanetary Press. Maybe so. in Asimov’s novels, anyway. But in real life our e-assistants will be made by us, in our image. Frightening.

You’ll want to keep them locked up at night, and not for fear of thieves.

12 Days of ’Toonsmas: Day 4

December 23, 2019

Stoned again: From the April 2019 edition of BRAIN.

The bike business sometimes reminds me of Henri the painter in John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.”

Regularly he revolted against outworn techniques and materials. One season he threw out perspective. Another year he abandoned red, even as the mother of purple. Finally he gave up paint entirely. It is not known whether Henri was a good painter or not for he threw himself so violently into movements that he had very little time left for painting of any kind.

Think about it. Movements, and violently. The road bike. The mountain bike. The suspension fork. Full suspension. Steel, aluminum, carbon, bamboo. The cyclocross bike. The cruiser. The fixie. The townie. The fat bike. 1x drivetrains. 8-, 9-, 10-, 11- and 12-cog cassettes. STI, ErgoPower and DoubleTap. Internally geared hubs. Belt drive. Disc brakes. Hydraulic disc brakes. Electronic shifting. Tubeless tires. The e-bike. The cargo bike. The gravel bike.

We can argue about whether all (or any) of these movements improve upon the basic bicycle. But I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that I just want to ride the damn things. And if I have to be a quantum mechanic to work on it, I don’t need it.

Told I could have just one bicycle, I would choose a chromoly frame and fork with rack and fender mounts plus clearance for 42mm tires, a nine-speed, 11-34T cassette with a 46/30T crank, a short-reach, shallow-drop handlebar, bar-end shifters, aero levers, rim brakes, external cable routing, and 32-spoke clincher wheels (pre-tubeless “standards”).

Of course, that’s just me. One old white guy does not an industry make. But still.

In the meantime, I make fun of fads. Keep making those superhero movies, fellas. I’ll be over here, reading a fucking book.

R.I.P., Larry Heinemann

December 17, 2019

My old paperback copy of “Close Quarters” has taken a beating from reading and re-reading.

Goddamn, this is turning out to be an ugly day.

Larry Heinemann, who was the surprise winner of the National Book Award for fiction in 1987, died Dec. 11 in Texas. He was 75.

Heinemann won the award for “Paco’s Story,” but I read his 1977 novel “Close Quarters” first, and it is one of the best Vietnam War stories out there. Not a pretty story, but it was not a pretty war. None of them is. It was one of the books that made me glad I missed the party.

He did his year in an infantry battalion, then came home, went to school, and started writing.

“I was not one of those guys who got home and went to their room and shut up,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1988. “I know guys who the war’s been eating up for 20 years. Anybody who asked me about it, I told them. I shot my mouth off about everything — the whorehouses, the endless hatred, the ugliness, the real work of the war. It took two to three years of talking to get the story out.”

Heinemann got more of the story out later, in a memoir, “Black Virgin Mountain: A Return to Vietnam.” His hometown paper wrote about it, and him, even including an excerpt.

Upon his return from Vietnam, he wrote:

I felt joyless and old, physically and spiritually exhausted, mean and grateful and uncommonly sad; relieved as if a stone had been lifted from my heart and radicalized beyond my own severely thinned patience: pissed off and ground down by a bottomless grief that I could not right then begin to express.

So, still sore and raw from the war I began writing.

On the run

November 30, 2019

When I come in cold and tired, it’s good to warm my bones by the fire.

“Dark Side of the Moon” would’ve been an excellent soundtrack for yesterday. Cold, gray, damp, gloomy, madness lurking just around the corner. You lock the door, and throw away the key; there’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.

Happily, the sun returned today, though warmth remained AWOL. So I dragged Herself out for a short trail run and it was just the ticket. A bit squishy underfoot in spots, and windy, but loads better than hanging on in quiet desperation. It’s not the Irish way.

Speaking of the Irish, we finally finished watching Martin Scorsese’s  “The Irishman,” which was so bloody long that we had to make a three-part miniseries out of it. The digital de-aging is a little distracting, until you quit looking for it, but the performances are top shelf. Joe Pesci was superb, Robert De Niro was restrained, and even Al Pacino took a break from chewing on the scenery, mostly. I’d have liked more screen time for Harvey Keitel, but hey, whaddaya gonna do? It is what it is.

There’s a whole gang of familiar faces in this one: comics Ray Romano, Sebastian Maniscalco and Jim Norton; straight men Jesse Piemons, Stephen Graham, and Dominick Lombardozzi; even Little Steven Van Zandt as crooner Jerry Vale.

And you may notice a theater marquee advertising “The Shootist” in the background of one scene. It was about an aging gunman hoping for a quiet death, and John Wayne’s final film. Not long after, De Niro’s character is seen shopping for his own coffin.

New coat of paint

November 23, 2019

“Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits,”
is available at Dualtone Music Group.

Tom Waits is an acquired taste (just ask Pat O’B), but Allison Moorer finds him delicious.

Moorer and several other female artists, working with producer Warren Zanes, have released an album of Waits covers titled “Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits.”

They lay a sweet, smooth coat of Sherwin-Williams over that weatherbeaten Waits structure, which Zanes describes with all due respect as a “trash-can aesthetic,” and it works beautifully in the cuts I’ve heard.

Roseanne Cash performs a gently reimagined “Time,” one of the Waits songs I like to play badly on guitar. Iris Dement, a frequent John Prine collaborator, takes a deep, Dolly Parton country dive into “The House Where Nobody Lives.” And Patty Griffin’s take on “Ruby’s Arms” strips the original of its instrumental fat and gets right down to the bone.

In an interview on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” Scott Simon quotes Moorer describing Waits as “a fully integrated artist who seemingly sees the whole picture at once and knows how to present it so that we do too.”

“He does seem to draw up marginal characters a lot — people who are either stuck in life or we don’t consider them people that we see,” Moorer said. “He exposes the everyday.”

Zanes hopes the album will unearth the lyrical voice that for some may be inextricable from the “grit and the growl” that characterizes Waits’s delivery.

“I think over the years he went deeper into the back of the cave, and sometimes I think people fail to see the very classic nature of the songs because of that ‘trash can’ aesthetic,” he told Simon.

“We viewed it as, ‘His 70th birthday is coming, and it’s a feast day, and we’re gonna take these songs and we’re gonna give them all the sweetness that we can.’ There’s something about the female voice that’s associated with a kind of vulnerability and a kind of emotion that we really wanted to breathe in these songs.”

Meanwhile, here’s the original “Ruby’s Arms,” the closer to 1980’s “Heartattack and Vine.” I was alone and miserable in Tucson when I trudged down Orange Grove Road to some anonymous Oracle Road music shop to buy this one. Still have it, too.

R.I.P., Gahan Wilson

November 23, 2019

My lone Gahan Wilson collection.

Gahan Wilson, whose surreal cartoons regularly appeared in National Lampoon, Playboy, and other top-shelf mags, has stepped away from the drawing board.

He died Thursday in Scottsdale, Ariz. Complications of dementia, they say. He was 89.

This guy was funny. Bleak, weird, the owner and operator of left field, he kept you off balance like some psychotic judo master. There was nobody else like him working Back in the Day®, and if he has a successor, I’ve not seen him or her yet.

One of my faves? An overstuffed chair absorbing a reader. Eyeglasses and book lie on the floor. All you can see as the reader vanishes is a pair of hands, protruding from the seat.

Another depicts a gardener who has unearthed a skeleton. His employer, a stately, dessicated husk of a woman, says, “I think you would be advised to locate the new delphinium bed elsewhere, Hobbs.”

Yet another shows a soldier covered in gore, muck and God knows what all, knife in one hand and assault rifle in the other. He stands alone in a smoking hellscape that makes the “Terminator” future look like Disneyland. His eyes pop out of the murk like cue balls. And he smiles. “I think I won!” he says.

Dracula with a vampire hand puppet. Dracula with a salt shaker. (Dude liked Dracula, what can I tell you?) A woman who has stuffed her husband into the trash can outside her apartment door (“You don’t get rid of him that easy, Mrs. Jacowsky,” says a man who may be the building superintendent). A writer for “The National Confidential Weekly” who, stuck for a lively bit of the old Fake News®, finally leaves his typewriter for a while and returns to tap out, “It isn’t easy cutting the heart out of a woman with a dull knife. And it takes time. It takes a good fifteen minutes.”

Oh, Gahan Wilson was one of the greats. I hope he and Charles Addams are hoisting a tall cold one in the Beyond.

Hey, hey, my, my

November 22, 2019

Old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you were.

Neil Young is still rockin’ in the free world.

R.I.P., Russell Chatham

November 13, 2019

“Crazy Mountains in March” by Russell Chatham, 1991.

The IRS can’t get Russell Chatham now. He’s skedaddled with his paints and brushes, vamoosed to a secret place where his creditors will never find him.

His flight west hasn’t interested the big boys yet. The New York Times, once Johnny-on-the-spot when it came to obits, hasn’t uttered a peep.

But his old hometown newspaper finally got around to writing a little something, days after the San Francisco Chronicle noted his passing.

It was apparently the dementia that got him, among other things. Once a Montanan and rounder, an artist and writer whose running mates included the likes of Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, and Rick Bass, Chatham died Nov. 10 in a memory-care facility in Marin County, Calif. He was 80.

Chatham’s landscapes adorn many a book cover, when they aren’t busy elsewhere, selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Indeed, it’s hard to find a Harrison book without one, and he dedicated “Sundog” to Chatham.

The artist also makes frequent guest appearances in Harrison’s essays. While fly-fishing for billfish off Costa Rica both men contracted bad cases of turista, but Chatham’s was by far the champeen, if you believe Harrison. In “The Tugboats of Costa Rica,” he wrote:

“I shall never forget his pathetic yelp in the night as he pooped his bed during a feverish dream about trying to eat a giant Mindanao clam that wouldn’t stop moving,” Harrison wrote. “This artist is a walking field day for a psychotherapists’ convention.”

In his essay “Seasons Through the Net” McGuane described Chatham as “a man who has ruined his life with sport,” a relentless angler and shootist “who “skulks from his home at all hours with gun or rod.”

“Russ never thought of painting as a career. It was just something he did,” said McGuane.

Bass called him “the greatest living landscape painter in America, famous for his outlandish appetites for food, wine, travel, art, music, literature, and the sporting life.”

And Chatham? He was busy doing the somethings he did, sport and art. Working without a net. Everything else would have to take care of itself.

“I’m not a businessman,” he told Charles Schultz for the Point Reyes Light. “If any money crosses my path, it is gone faster than butter in an oven. I have no savings, no retirement. I have whatever’s in my wallet. To a lot of people that would be frightening.”

He added: “The artist has absolutely no safety net.”

This didn’t mean that he was unaware of the ground down there waiting for him. In a chat with Todd Wilkinson for the Mountain Journal, Chatham said:

“Early on, I was never concerned about having a career, so I didn’t have one. And now nothing could interest me less. But I think we all have a programmed tape running inside us, and most of mine is now stored on the right hand side of the cassette. I finally feel I know enough to paint what I could only dream about in my twenties. People say it’s time to slow down, relax, go fishing. Well, I took the first forty years of my life off and went fishing, and now my tape is telling me to finish what I was put on earth to do. Before, time didn’t matter. Now it does.”

It’s fish-thirty, Russell. Time to wet a line.

The Terminator is a wordsmith

October 13, 2019

Sweetheart, give me rewrite … and an oil change.

Ho boy. There goes the neighborhood. The Poindexters are building the next Billy Shakespeare out of 1s and 0s.

In this piece for The New Yorker, John Seabrook wonders:

Could the machine learn to write well enough for The New Yorker? Could it write this article for me? The fate of civilization may not hang on the answer to that question, but mine might.

Sigh. Remember the good old days, when automatic writing was limited to the spirits or subconscious? I have a feeling this new breed of writer will rely on a different solvent than did its human predecessors.

“Gimme a benzene. Make it a double. I’m stalled on this goddamn novel.”

Sports Eviscerated

October 5, 2019

That’s right, pal, bend over and fondle that ball.

Sports Illustrated has gotten the VeloNews-CGI treatment: Pharaoh bids them make bricks without straw.

I’m not and never have been a sports fan, though I appreciate certain subsets of sportswriting (see Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, et al.). Thus I can’t speak to the quality of today’s Sports Illustrated, though the new management’s strategy certainly sounds familiar.

“Bricks, bitches. Chop chop. No, you don’t get straw. Who do you think you are, Frank Deford?”

But boy howdy, have some big hitters ever swung through SI’s pages over the years.

I’m talking Deford, Roy Blount Jr., Dan Jenkins, George Plimpton, Rick Reilly, Kurt Vonnegut … that’s right, Kurt fuckin’ Vonnegut. Not your basic dime-store jargon-jockeys, is what.

Over at Deadspin, Ray Ratto posits that the gutting, as has become traditional, “was pointless, needlessly cruel, stupid and thoroughly corporate.”

And Ratto expects more of the same:

I want to be more depressed and affected by what seems to have happened to Sports Illustrated, but it is the fate that awaits everything. Some corporate lamprey is coming for every generation’s best and brightest, dimmest and thickest, because you can count money and clicks but not curiosity and discovery. Others will have to provide those last two things now, and will have to do so while knowing that it’s a finite world out there. We will lament its passing too late because we have come to accept the mortality of things we thought would never die, and watch with a shrug as the monuments of our formative years are demolished and turned into Stalin’s Finest coffee stands, and eventually into parking lots.

I’d say that about sums it up. Back to you, Jamie “Mr. Awesome” Salter.