Archive for March, 2010

Beat poet and literary critic Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82) of San Francisco back in the 1960s wrote a column called Classics Revisited for the now-defunct Saturday Review. In the spirit of Rexroth’s column, I myself would now like to revisit a modern classic.

In 1970, the poet W.H. Auden published A Certain World: a Commonplace Book. Auden (1907-73) was born and educated in England but in 1946 became a US citizen. Many people consider him one of the best poets of the last century.

Incredibly well read, Auden over the years collected telling quotations from numerous sources, and his commonplace book presents them arranged by topic in alphabetical order.

The poet said he compiled the book instead of writing his memoirs because “biographies of writers, whether written by others or themselves, are always superfluous and usually in bad taste…. [A writer’s] private life is, or should be, of no concern to anybody except himself, his family, and his friends.” Nonetheless, A Certain World is revealing as to what influenced, interested and amused Auden.

Some thoughts on money, for example:

• “You will never find people laboring to convince you that you may live very happily upon a plentiful fortune.” — Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84), English essayist and lexicographer

“Many priceless things can be bought.” — Baroness Marie Von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916), Austrian writer

• “Two evenings spent at La Scala, Milan, one of them standing up, the other sitting down. On the first evening, I was continually conscious of the existence of the spectators who were seated. On the second evening, I was completely unaware of the spectators who were standing up (and of those who were seated also).” — Simone Weil (1909-43), French philosopher and social activist, seen at right

• “I am not sure just what the unpardonable sin is, but I believe it is a disposition to evade the payment of small bills.” — Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915), American writer and publisher

• “If the rich could hire other people to die for them, the poor could make a wonderful living.” — Yiddish proverb

On forgiveness:

• “Many promising reconciliations have broken down because, while both parties came prepared to forgive, neither party came prepared to be forgiven.” — Charles Williams (1886-1945), British writer

• “No one ever forgets where he buried the hatchet.” — Kin Hubbard (1886-1930), American humorist and journalist

On the human face:

• “If the eyes are often the organ through which the intelligence shines, the nose is generally the organ which most readily publishes stupidity. ” — Marcel Proust (1871-1922), French novelist, seen at right

• “Our notion of symmetry is derived from the human face. Hence, we demand symmetry horizontally and in breadth only, not vertically nor in depth.” — Blaise Pascal (1623-62), French scientist and philosopher

• “When indifferent, the eye takes stills, when interested, movies.” — Malcolm de Chazal (1902-81), Mauritian writer and painter

• “The wink was not our best invention.” — Ralph Hodgson (1871-1962), English poet

On immaculate conception:

• “Behind this ingenious doctrine lies, I cannot help suspecting, a not very savory wish to make the Mother of God an Honorary Gentile. As if we didn’t all know perfectly well that the Holy Ghost and Our Lady both speak British English, He with an Oxford, She with a Yiddish, accent.” — Auden, seen below

A Certain World: a Commonplace Book is now 40 years old, but used copies are still available.

I’ve seen them listed for $5.65 hardbound, with copies in mint condition for $22.95. I paid more than that 30 years ago when I bought a paperback copy in a London bookstore.

Spring began Saturday, and what a relief it was. Many of us could not have withstood another week of winter. Where I live, the wind was the problem — not the downpours. The rainstorms were, of course, badly needed by Marin County’s ranchers and water districts.

For the horses in the pasture next to mine, it was a time to be relieved of the blankets they wore all winter to stay warm — but which made it hard for them to scratch itches.

With their blankets gone, it was also time for a spring bath. A couple Arabians lay down in the Giacomini family’s stockpond while others showered by splashing themselves with water. Once out of the pond, several horses happily rolled around on their backs in the green grass of spring.

The wild turkeys on this hill pretty much ignore the horses, and the horses don’t mind having turkeys hunting and pecking around them.

Two young bucks by my front steps Sunday afternoon.

Two does groom each other outside my kitchen window. Researchers say this  allogrooming, as it’s called, may be done for eliminating ticks or for establishing social relationships.

Four wary blackbirds waiting for a crow to leave before they can comfortably partake of birdseed I spread along the railing of my deck.

Possum in my kitchen leans outside to eat.

As pictured in a previous posting, a female possum that hangs around my cabin allows me to pet her like a dog and scratch her behind the ears whenever I put peanuts on my deck for her.

“Does the possum ever get in the house?” people frequently ask. The answer is yes, but it doesn’t happen quite the way one would expect. Twice I’ve opened the kitchen door to put out peanuts only to have the possum waddle into the kitchen and then lean back out the door to eat off my deck.

I suspect she does this to stay out of the way of passing raccoons.

It’s funny to watch, but at night the open door lets in cold air and bugs. The first time this happened I tried to gently push Ms. Possum’s tail out the door so I could shut it, but she instantly gave me a look that said she was offended. Now I’m not one to deliberately offend a possum, so I apologized instanter and proffered another handful of peanuts, which was accepted.

A Nov. 10 posting, “Progress in the backyard peace process,” described my getting an initially hostile raccoon and possum to peacefully coexist. I had brought them to the negotiating table by putting two piles of peanuts on it. Over the course of several nights, I moved the piles closer and closer together until they were eating side by side.

However, as the posting noted, I was continuing my shuttle diplomacy, for I’d taken to heart Henry Kissinger’s warning: “The American temptation is to believe that foreign policy is a subdivision of psychiatry.”

Female possum out to dinner with a male raccoon.

A major breakthrough occurred Friday night when the two sides ended up so close together they occasionally rubbed noses as they dined on a single pile of peanuts. Both trod lightly around each other, but there was no snapping or growling.

In contrast, the same raccoon got into three fights with other raccoons the following evening, suffering a painful bite to a front paw during one brawl. I’m sure all this reveals something about the difference between inter-species and intra-species relations, but I don’t know what.

Turning to international diplomacy, a posting on Jan. 23, “Disconcerting standup reporting,” described al Jazeera correspondent Prerna Suri in New Delhi reporting on India and Bangladesh rekindling ties. The standup comes a short way into her report.

What makes her standup so disconcerting is that she appears to be in the middle of a New Delhi expressway with cars whizzing past her on both sides.

Commenting on the posting, professional cameraman Mark Allan of Inverness Park noted he had shot similar standups on a curb at Lombard Street and Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. By shooting with a long lens, he said, the traffic seemed closer than it really was.

This past weekend, Prerna herself submitted a comment in which she explains how her report was actually shot. “This stand up in question was, as Mark rightly pointed out, done on a curb (not in the middle of an expressway like you mentioned),” she wrote. “It was right outside the India Gate.”

The capital’s 140-foot-high India Gate is a monument to the more than 80,000 Indian troops who were killed in World War I, fighting for the Allies.

Meanwhile, the posting on Prerna’s standup has drawn interest from around the world. In the past month, far more readers have reached this blog by Googling Bangladesh India standup report than any other topic.

Now for followup reports on the undiplomatic front. The Point Reyes-Petaluma Road saw two more instances of vehicles running off the road last weekend. In one case, a vehicle ran off Highway 1 just a few feet north of the two roads’ intersection.

Neither mishap was as dramatic as the one reported here a week ago when a Porsche on March 5 sailed off an embankment at the first curve immediately east of Point Reyes Station. The sportscar flew 50 feet through tree branches and dropped 25 feet to the ground. Driver Joshua Moore, 38, of San Rafael miraculously escaped without injuries when the car landed on its wheels.

In far less dramatic fashion, a black Toyota Corolla ran off the roadway at Four Corners (the intersection of the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road and Nicasio Valley Road) shortly before 6 p.m. this past Saturday.

The car came to rest against some willows in a gully southeast of the intersection, and neither of the two occupants was injured. However, the Highway Patrol arrested the driver, Arthur V. Gomez, 36, of Fairfield, for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol.

The next day, another vehicle ran into a ditch on the north side of Highway 1 at the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road. A 25 mph sign was knocked down in the mishap, but no injuries were reported, and authorities were not notified. By Monday, the sign was back in place.

A sportscar went out of control on the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road immediately east of Highway 1 about 2:30 p.m. today, sailed off the roadway, and landed on its wheels 25 feet down an embankment.

The white Porsche GT-3, which landed facing back toward the road, was airborne for roughly 50 feet, as evidenced by bare spots where bark had been knocked off limbs high above the ground.

From skid marks on the pavement, it appears the driver lost control in rounding the first curve east of Point Reyes Station. He then over-corrected and ended up in the oncoming lane before spinning back across the road and off the embankment.

The driver, who declined to give me his name or hometown, was not injured in the wreck. (Monday morning update: the CHP has now identified the driver as Joshua Moore, 38, of San Rafael.)

Traveling with the Porsche when the wreck occurred was a red Ferrari, but its driver told me he didn’t know what caused the mishap. (The CHP on Monday said the accident was caused by an “unsafe turning movement” but that Moore had not been cited.)

The property on which the Porsche landed is used by Tomales Bay Oyster Company, and its workers managed to turn the car around by sliding it on the muddy ground.

The driver was able to start his car only to have its wheels spin in the mud. The oyster workers then pushed the car to open ground, from which it could be towed.

A highway patrolman checks the car while the driver stashes its broken spoiler behind the seats.

Because the driver declined to identify himself (and because it took three days to get the information from authorities), all I initially knew about him is what’s on his license plate frame: “Member 11-99 Foundation.”

The name “11-99” is taken from a radio-code message that means: “Officer needs assistance. Send location to all units.” The foundation, according to its charter, “provides emergency, death, and scholarship benefits to California Highway Patrol family members.”

To aid the families of retired officers and those killed in the line of duty, the foundation raises its money from individual donors, volunteers, and grant-making institutions.

However, the “member” license-plate frames have occasionally come under fire as potentially having a corrupting effect. Critics in past years claimed that people who liked to drive fast made large donations in order to get the frames, a membership certificate, and a special wallet with a 11-99 Foundation badge to show any CHP officer who pulled them over.

The 11-99 Foundation directors voted to phase out the frames last year and to more aggressively prevent people from selling them online. The directors also instructed staff to “develop a program to address the status of all ‘Member’ license-plate frames currently in circulation.”

The foundation on its website says it needs to maintain control over the frames because “we don’t want the 11-99 Foundation to continue to suffer because some misguided individual tried to take advantage of the license-plate frames, hoping they would inappropriately influence a law enforcement officer.”