La grande bellezza

Finisce sempre così. Con la morte. Prima, però, c’è stata la vita, nascosta sotto il bla bla bla bla bla. È tutto sedimentato sotto il chiacchiericcio e il rumore. Il silenzio e il sentimento. L’emozione e la paura. Gli sparuti incostanti sprazzi di bellezza. E poi lo squallore disgraziato e l’uomo miserabile. Tutto sepolto dalla coperta dell’imbarazzo dello stare al mondo. Bla. Bla. Bla. Bla. Altrove, c’è l’altrove. Io non mi occupo dell’altrove. Dunque, che questo romanzo abbia inizio. In fondo, è solo un trucco. Sì, è solo un trucco.

 

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Dry Heat

Ali, accompanied by Jimmy Ellis, runs along Regent Street; London 1966

Ali, accompanied by Jimmy Ellis, runs along Regent Street; London 1966

When I heard Muhammad Ali, the Champ, died Friday, I thought I would go for a three mile run. I figured that it would be a small thing to do for someone who had done so many big things. There had recently been a shooting at my gym so I thought I would go outside.

***

The Champ made it ok to be from Louisville, Kentucky. When traveling, it is much better to be able to talk about the Champ rather than fried chicken chains or whiskey or the other things that people talk about if they think about Kentucky. 

The Champ helped my brother out in Serbia. We were at a music festival in Novi Sad in 2004, and although it was a festival designed to promote peace, Americans still had to be careful and respectful. Even though the NATO bombing was five years past — an eternity in cable news cycle damaged American minds — it was like yesterday in Serbia. In case anyone might’ve forgotten, the bridge connecting the island where the festival was to Novi Sad was a temporary pontoon bridge, the original having been struck by NATO bombs. My brother had crossed the bridge and was held up at security by Serbian police officers intent on searching all he had. But when they looked in his bag and found the The Fight by Norman Mailer, with Ali’s picture on the cover, one said in the manner of being let in on some tremendous and wonderful secret, “ah, the Champ,” and then they let him pass. 

The Champ helped me out in Italy, too. Wandering the industrial zone around Lodi TBB station which was the only place my magazine could afford an office, where I watched whores trick on the tracks and Gypsies shoot up in the thin tree lines along the track, I found a coffee place tended by a lone and gaunt Italian. The bar, like many things in Italy, seemed from a different era. He had a photo of the Champ on the wall.  I said, “è il mio paesano,” as I waited on my coffee and the gaunt barista came over and started talking to me. We talked for awhile. I went to that coffee place for the rest of the time we had our offices there.

And when some neighborhood bullies acted like they were going to steal my bike one day when I was 11 or 12, my father taught me a few moves in my room and then I overheard him saying to my mother that he was going to send me to his friend Joe Martin’s gym if this went on. My mother groaned. It didn’t go on, so I never went.

Of course all these things could have happened had the Champ not been alive, but here are some that couldn’t have.

In the mid-1990s, my father met the Champ in the lobby of the Starks Building in Louisville, where he had his office. He was working late, as he often did, but it was a Friday and his secretary made him leave before it got too late. As they went towards the catwalk that led to the parking garage, they saw a gaggle of people surrounding the Champ. My dad slid through them and stuck out his hand. “Hello, Champ,” he said. The Champ already had Parkinson’s but smiled and took my father’s hand in his and made a little time for him. When my father caught up with his secretary, who walked faster than he did, she said, “I can’t believe you did that. That was Muhammed Ali.” He said, “I know.”

But that wasn’t the first time he saw him. He saw him walking down Walnut Street by himself in the late summer of 1960, right after he’d won the gold medal in Rome, the one they say he threw in the Ohio River later. My father said he was walking down Walnut Street by himself like he owned the place. He didn’t then, but he would.

There was no coffeeshop or restaurant or bar in Louisville that would have served him then and in the next year’s mayoral race, Louisville’s Fourth Street Democratic organization would run segregationist candidate William S. Milburn, president of the Board of Aldermen, against republican William O. Cowger.  Milburn lost overwhelmingly. By 1978, the Board of Aldermen had changed the name of Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

***

Where I live, it was 117 degrees today. By the time the sun went down, it was only 107. I made it to four miles.  It’s a dry heat.

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Literary Lunches: Rebecca West

Today we’ll kick off what will hopefully be a literary lunch series, in which I’ll showcase a (usually) simple meal from a great book. 

Black Lamb & Grey FalconAll I had time for today was a quick lunch — a couple of slices of prosciutto di parma (Citterio, aged 420 days, Trader Joe’s; $6.49 for 4 oz.) on a leftover hunk of pain de campagne (Leonora’s; de-thawed free “sympathy loaf” given to me the day before Snowzilla). This spartan lunch reminded me of Dragutin, Rebecca West’s chauffeur in the Macedonia chapter of Black Lamb, Grey Falcon. All I’m missing is some good Hungarian, or better, Serbian paprika. 

 

On the step of the automobile Dragutin sat and ate his lunch between the two young soldiers, who had the dutiful and dedicated look I have noticed so often in Yugoslav conscripts. His lunch was, as always, ascetic and chosen in accordance with the principles of sympathetic magic: he liked lean meat and rough black bread and paprika, and he regarded as weakening all soft and slippery things like butter and kaymak and sardines.

Certainly no sardines on my sandwich. But if only one could get some decent njeguški pršut around here. 

Његушки пршут

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The Economics of Cover Charges

pettibon collage shirt

“Let’s raise the price at the door. How much tonight? Three thousand or four?”

Today’s post is inspired by a friend who got into an internet tussle over cover charges in his local music scene. I discovered that there wasn’t enough good writing on cover charge economics, so I give you the following:

Touring bands have contacts that they insist on and that agents push get clubs and promotors to sign because they need to finance the tour somehow. They need income and they need to avoid prospective costs; e.g., van breaks down and they have to crash in a hotel for three nights while it gets fixed. They’re certainly not getting rich either but they actually have to get paid to make it to the next city and eat etc. So naturally touring bands charge more for their shows.

Local bands are different because all their costs are sunk costs. The rent on the practice space, the gear, etc. — it’s all paid for by the time you get up on stage. So it’s your choice: you can charge $12, or $7, or $5 (if you really have nostalgia for 1983), or $0.

I think the fundamental assumption one must make is that most local rock musicians are hobbyists and thus irrational actors who are going to play no matter what. The price at that point is just a symbol that you put on something and for whatever nostalgic, and not economic, reason, many people in the independent music scene have seized on that magical $5 figure.

Anyone who is not on welfare or committed to going out 7 nights a week can afford $2 more. The idea that an average person with a job who can’t afford an extra $2 is a framing effect — a great example of cognitive bias. 

Someone who thinks that the extra $2 ($0.84 in 1983, by the way) is not affordable suffers from loss aversion — the commonly held perception that it’s worse to lose something than to gain something. (That is, that most people would rather get $2 discount than avoid a $2 charge.) In this case, the haters are averse to losing the extra $2 in their pocket and don’t realize that they gain more quality local rock.

The rational economic actor and hobbyist rocker in this case should then ask the bar to charge a $7 cover and then give everyone a drink ticket for a $2 beer.

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The Miss – Live in Louisville

Back in 2000, I was living in Baltimore and fronting a band called The Miss. We were invited to play in my hometown of Louisville at a birthday party for local musician and man about town, Chad Castetter. Being the Friday after Thanksgiving, it was a gala homecoming affair and, with about 300 in attendance, was without a doubt the biggest crowd we played to in our short two year career.

The show was at a space managed by a certain Mia, who also managed the Mercury Paw on Main Street (previously known as the Zodiac). The place was a former strip club — note the pole and mirrors onstage — and last time I checked, which was over Labor Day, had been burnt to the ground. The Paw, of course, is part of the historic Whiskey Row renovation effort.

It was our second show and we played a short set including “Vast Deference” which was a tune from the Brogues, my previous band with co-conspirator and drummer Damir.

Tyler Trotter, then of Strike City and now of Watter, set the show up. Strike City opened and featured a stripper as the closer of their act — that’s what the initial interview, which I included here, is about. (For a different take on the exotic dancer, see this piece in Never Nervous.) Also on the bill (but not in this clip) were good friends Front Porch Campaign and precursor band to Phantom Family Halo, Starkiller.

Technical note: BMX superstar Jimmy Levan filmed this on a digital video camera, so cutting edge at the time that we had to transfer it to VHS. The transfer then made it back onto DVDs at some more recent point, the digital originals having long been lost by the time digital became standard.

 

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Our Sea

I’m glad that the Washington Post has finally decided to do a decent piece on immigration to Italy — essentially, the reason that Premesso started back in 2010, and the issue that I decided to start writing about in Italy in 2008. Their piece focuses on the Mare Nostrum law in Italy, a complete liberalization of the past decade of immigration policy as promulgated by the Bossi-Fini law.

Mimmo Paladino (b 1948, Italy), Porta di Lampedusa - Porta d'Europa (2008).

Mimmo Paladino (b 1948, Italy), Porta di Lampedusa – Porta d’Europa (2008).

This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented do not represent the U.S. Department of State.

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Against Our Vanishing

I know this would happen soon. But I hoped it wouldn’t.

Allen Grossman, January 7, 1932 – June 27, 2014.

“Poetry is a principle of power invoked by all of us against our vanishing. The making of poems is a practice — a work human beings can do — in which civilization has invested some part of its love of itself and the world.  The poem is a trace of the will of all persons to be known and to make known and, therefore, to be at all.”

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You All Want a Pepsi-Coke?

I’ve always enjoyed dialects, and I’ve had the good fortune to live in a few places with strong dialect areas, from Torlak to Veneto to Cantonese. But what about American dialects? Are we too young of a nation to really have them, as our transatlantic cousins might assert? I don’t think so.

I had fun with this dialect quiz today. Here’s my result, which put me squarely as a southerner, even if I don’t have an accent.

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 12.59.43 PM

A Paducahan first told me that “you all” marks someone as a Kentuckian — here’s some statistical proof —  and the quiz reflects that. Each question seems to have a couple of very rare words or phrases that will mark you as being from a certain area. (This goes beyond the usual coke/pop/soda or sub/hoagie/grinder marker. Some of the words for tractor trailer or, as I said as a kid, 18-wheeler, truly baffled me.) For example, I always heard my North Carolinian grandmother call a rainstorm while the sun was shining “the devil beating his wife behind the door” — maybe not native to Kentucky, but a Southernism at any rate.

I got to the quiz via this write-up in the Washington Post about Joshua Katz’s map of where people say soda, coke and pop. I’m not exactly sure why the Post is running the feature now, when it seems like Katz’s maps came out a year ago, but they’re a lot of fun anyway.

Here’s a competing map and post. I think “dope” for a sweet carbonated beverage has likely died out, but I seem to remember hearing adults talk about it when I was a kid — “and over in Virginia, they call it dope.” One usage that gets omitted that I often heard in Eastern Kentucky is the combined “Pepsi-coke” — Pepsi being the brand name, “coke” being the marker for what kind of beverage it is. Then there is also the term “cocola”, which I could never get a read on — was the first syllable short for “Coke”? In the comments, the discussion about how to offer a stranger a non-alcoholic drink in abstemious Virginia is pretty fascinating.  Doubtlessly how we talk says a lot about who settled the area that we call home and what their — and our — values are. (Incidentally, why do so many southerners — including Louisvillians — get so revolted at the word ‘pop’? Quaint, yes, but nothing to get, uh, fizzed up about.)

Take the quiz yourself! There’s a longer form one here that looks like Dr Vaux’s original one that the NYT one was based on, but the maps have been disabled, so less fun. There are more questions, and more sample answers (including the aforementioned “cocola”), however, if you want to get an idea of what people all over the world who speak English call things like bank machines, water bugs, and sub sandwiches.

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Sorry, Charlie: Deep Parables of Consumer Capitalism

charlie tunaThere’s no age quite as awkward as the semi-pubescent 11-14 age range which corresponds to what we now know as the middle school years. My own awkwardness at that age can probably best be encapsulated by a rundown of my lunchtime eating habits: every day, a can of StarKist albacore tuna, some saltines, and a can of V-8. (The excess of sodium was probably what caused terrible cankers, I managed to figure out later.) My schoolmates called me “Charlie Tuna,” and I carried in my first grown-up leather wallet a picture not of family, cat or some braces-ridden, underdeveloped girl I had a crush on but rather a magazine cutout of the hipster fish. I dropped the diet after awhile — good taste, indeed, prevailed — but the habit persisted: in post-college years of impecuniousness, I loved a tuna melt under the broiler at home, or a tuna on rye with lettuce and tomato from one of Baltimore’s many fine delis. And in Italy, my British friends, also used to subpar canned fish, and I were awed at what we called “supertuna” — excellent Italian tuna, canned in olive oil — perfect for adding some protein to a fresh salad or plate of pasta pomodoro.

So it was with a mixture of delight and fear when I came across the following passage in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, which I just finished this week, deconstructing the meaning of the cartoon fish and his desire to sacrifice himself. Doc Sportello, the book’s stoned out-private investigator, is hearing an earful from his conspiratorial, and no-less-stoned-out, lawyer, Sauncho Smilax (p. 119 of the Penguin paperback):

“It’s all supposed to be so innocent, upwardly mobile snob, designer shades, beret, desperate to show he’s got good taste, except he’s also dyslexic so he gets ‘good taste’ mixed up with ‘taste good,’ but it’s worse than that! Far, far worse! Charlie really has this, like, obsessive death wish! Yes! he, he wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumer capitalism, they won’t be happy with anything less than drift-netting us all, chopping us up and stacking us on the shelves of Supermarket Amerika, and subconsciously the horrible thing is, is we want them to do it. . . .”

“Saunch, wow, that’s . . .”

“It’s been on my mind. And another thing. Why is there Chicken of the Sea but no Tuna of the Farm?”

“Um . . . ” Doc actually beginning to think about this.

“And don’t forget,” Sauncho went on to remind him darkly, “that Charles Manson and the Vietcong are also named Charlie.”

Dark reminders, indeed, and one of the book’s few mentions of the Vietcong, which, has caused some Pynchonites, who’ve very accurately tracked the chronology of the novel to the spring of 1970, to raise an eyebrow or two. The Cambodian Campaign would have been getting underway about a month after the book’s start date of March 24, 1970.

Back to the topic at hand, the idea of the animal who wants to be consumed is a familiar trope in advertising: at least 15 years ago, friends and I chuckled at the image outside Señor Chicken’s in Northern Virginia — a cartoon bird serving up a plate of, guess what, Peruvian-style chicken. Billboards near the old Fischer’s pork-processing plant in my hometown used to feature pigs serving up bacon from “the bacon makin’ people,” and ads of cows serving burgers seem ambiguously ubiquitous somehow — now cleverly riffed on by Chick-Fil-A. And what about the Kool-Aid man, who invites us to drink him with his basso profondo “oh yeah!”?

What Saunch’s rant adds to the adman’s trope is the notion of “suicidal branch loyalty” and intense paranoia. We must like, even desire, late capital’s endless conquest and consumption; everyone is to be chopped up and stacked up for ease of consumption: “not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist!” I vividly recall in the mid-nineties hearing about college students from MacLean voluntarily getting A&W and other brand logo tattoos. (At least this company is offering their bod-mod-willing employees a raise for it.) And as always for Pynchon, there’s a nefarious They, and the flesh that They intend to extract from their unlucky creditors will be far more than a pound. Everyone will be caught, thrown aboard, dredged out of safety and fed into an all-consuming mouth — to what ends, we humble prey are not to know.

But far from being the fantasy of a man whose greatest work contains a series of Proverbs for Paranoids, tuna harvesting in 2014 is deeply controversial and linked to all sorts of unsavory effects of late capitalism: floating canneries in Southeast Asia operate under heated controversy and allegations of slave labor, the Mediterranean’s tuna stocks are rapidly depleting, and Mitsubishi is apparently hoarding a vast amount of the world’s dwindling stock — a fact explained to me in hushed tones and over tuna sandwiches by a lawyer in an office in the City of London a few years ago. Not only is StarKist not American-owned anymore, its Korean parent company seems to be up to funny business.

Pynchon’s metaphor — Charlie as spokes-fish for an all-consuming, self-destructive life cycle — looks right, and so the tuna of my early adolescence is to be stuffed into an ever-fattening file labeled “is nothing sacred?”. Perhaps, as he put it, using another excellent culinary metaphor, “paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right, you can never have too much.”

As an antidote to the depressing reality of Charlie Tuna as the ultimate symbol of industrialized, exploitative, tastes-bad and in-bad-taste food I give you Anthony Bourdain and his Catalonian guide rhapsodizing over some excellent, locally-canned, and non-exploitative seafood in the home of Cervantes — who, incidentally, knew that there was such a thing as too much garlic.

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Amid What Bells Do You Appear Rovigo?

rovigo2April’s poetry discovery was that Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert has not only a poem, but an entire volume entitled Rovigo, with the eponymous poem being indeed about that small town in Veneto midway between mythical Venice and sumptuous Bologna where I lived in 2007 and 2008. (Sadly the book is available only in German at Amazon, and only at the exorbitant price of $66.)

I didn’t mean to live in Rovigo. I had bigger and better plans — I was going to work in Milan, or Rome, or teach in Bologna, or at least do a fellowship in Modena. My girlfriend lived in Rovigo, but she wasn’t really from there, either — her family was from closer to Verona, and she’d grown up out on the Po Delta, and gone to school in Bologna, where we’d met. I’d gone there once or twice, to meet her mom and have lunch, and hiked along what I remembered as a humid canal path smelling faintly, not unpleasantly, of vegetation, to get back to that train station with its two windows, with yellowed photos of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and la Chiesa di Santa Maria del Soccorso taped up, to go back to Bologna, which had trains going to Milan and Switzerland, not to the provincial destination of Chioggia and Adria.

I finished a master’s in 2007 and got to Rovigo in the infernal heat of Ferragosto, when no sane southern European works. But possibly I would not be working either: back home, financial TV personality Jim Cramer was bellowing at the Fed to “open the discount window.” The subprime crisis was happening. I wasn’t going to find a job in Milan, or Rome, or anywhere. Anywhere other than Oxford School, Rovigo branch. My temporary stopover ended up being slightly more permanent. And then, I got married. My train wasn’t going anywhere. Rovigo became my reality. I stayed a year. I go back indefinitely. I just got back, actually.

So I can agree quite well with Herbert that Rovigo is “a city of blood and stone like others/a city where a man died yesterday someone went mad someone coughed hopelessly all night.” It is, doubtlessly, a real city quite apart from the myths of nearby Venice and the feasts, architectural, gastronomic and otherwise, of Bologna. Professor Adam Zagajewski, himself no stranger to the Veneto, has more on this in an excellent essay.

There are a couple of translations going around the internet and I will post the one by Alissa Valles I found on Professor Zagajewski’s site here — I don’t read Polish, but the English-reader in me finds the unattributed translation on PoemHunter.com severely lacking. There’s a world of difference between the mechanistic “nth time” and the more intuitive, indubitably casual “umpteenth”, and “filled with love” is no comparison to “throes of passion.” And what about the gashed mountain nearby, “like an Easter Ham surrounded by kale” versus “like a holiday cut of meat draped in sprigs of parsley”? I’m less sure about that. Easter ham taps into that most sacred of Catholic holidays, celebrated with great vigor in both Poland and Italy. I’ll let the reader judge by linking to the anonymous translation above and pasting Valles’ below. As a side note, I wonder if Herbert’s gashed mountain is one of the nearby Colli Euganei?

Zagajewski’s essay in an excellent little study on how the foreigner — especially the educated and sensible one — experiences Italy:

[W]e’re only interested in those who died five hundred years ago. We’re not coming here to be reminded of the triviality of life, we’re not coming here to think of Berlusconi or Prodi, or of the reform of the health care system; we come here for the beauty alone.

But by the end of the poem,

the non-visitable city of Rovigo changes its color. […] He just mentions, nearing the poem’s closure, “arrivi—partenze,” keeping the Italian words in the text, and we understand what he means: arrivi—partenze, birth and death, beginning and end.

In the poem, Rovigo has become real, a real place in Italy where people come and go, are born and die. There’s a lot to unpack here in terms of the reality of life in small-town Europe in 2014: the Rovigo of today is, for many who work in more developed Padova or Ferrara, a bedroom community with cheaper rents and better eldercare for parents. For many recent immigrants, the neighborhoods around the train station are a cheap place to live while they go ply their trades in the bigger cities of Mestre, Padova or Venice. (Including, but not limited to, the world’s oldest profession.) As economic terms concentrate greater wealth and more features of a completely developed economy to internationalized mega-cities (of which Milan is the prime Italian, but not an especially good, example), Rodigini find themselves commuting more and more, going to work a competitive job in Milan and commuting home on the weekends. The arrivals and departures of Herbert’s poem, written over 20 years ago, back when Italy had more of an economy, are even more stark now.

One detail I will take exception to in Zagajewski’s essay is that Rovigo is a dull or boring town. Small or provincial, yes, quite likely. But it is not over-industrialized (for that the Venice-bound traveler need look no further than neighboring Mestre), and has three very finely preserved piazze — one of them Vittorio Emanuele, the others Piazza Garibaldi and Piazza Roma, known to natives as Piazza Merlin — that would be the envy of a metropolis like Milan, where a piazza is often merely a traffic circle. As my mother-in-law tells me, the Adigetto Canal until the early 1950’s used to run straight through the middle of town, down the Corso del Popolo that is today’s main pedestrian drag, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see Rovigo as a smaller, less-developed Venice.

On a clear day, when there is no winter fog or summer afa — that crushing, grayish humidity that sticks between the Po and Adige Rivers in the summer heat in the lower Veneto — from the right bank of the canal out towards Sant’Apollinare, one can see distant snow-covered peaks of the Monti Berici.

rovigo salmon map ROVIGO

Rovigo station. Vague associations. A Goethe play
or something from Byron. I passed through Rovigo
so many times and just now for the umpteenth time
I understood in my inner geography it is a singular
place though it is certainly no match for Florence.
I never put a living foot down there. Rovigo was
always coming closer or receding into distance.

I lived then in the throes of a passion for Altichiero
of the San Giorgio Oratorium in Padua and also
for Ferrara which I love because it reminded me
of the plundered city of my fathers. I lived torn
between the past and the present moment
crucified many times by time and by place
But nonetheless happy with a powerful faith
that the sacrifice would not be made in vain

Rovigo was not marked by anything in particular
it was a masterpiece of averageness straight roads
ugly houses—depending on the train’s direction
just before or just after the city a mountain suddenly
rose up from a plain cut across by a red stone quarry
like a holiday cut of meat draped in sprigs of parsley
apart from that nothing to please hurt catch the eye

But it was after all a city of blood and stone like others
a city where a man died yesterday someone went mad
someone coughed hopelessly all night

AMID WHAT BELLS DO YOU APPEAR ROVIGO

Reduced to its station to a comma a crossed-out letter
nothing just the station—arrivi—partenze

and that is why I think of you Rovigo Rovigo

Posted in italy, veneto | 2 Comments