Monthly Archives: October 2015

BBQIn this week’s New Yorker, Calvin Trillin writes about North Carolina barbecue and the efforts by the only slightly facetious Campaign for Real Barbecue to maintain the traditional standards for the iconic pork product.

He makes allowances for the Great Divide — between Lexington-style and Halifax-style barbecue, that is, between western Carolina barbecue, made with pork shoulder and seasoned with a tomato-based sauce, and eastern ‘cue, made with the whole hog and doused with vinegar and hot pepper. hog snout 2005

At the outset, I should lay my cards on the table: As a Yankee moved to the South, I came late to the game, but because my first official wife came from Scotland Neck, way out east of Raleigh and Tarboro, I first came to love the stuff the eastern way. (Tarboro, by the way, was home to Ed Weeks, famous in the 1970s for growing record-size vegetables, including a 39 lb. canteloupe and a peanut 3 ½ inches long.) When I ate at Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro, I was put off by the sweetish tomato sauce. And without the whole pig roasting on the hickory ash and embers, you miss a good deal of the pleasures of barbecue. I should admit that for those adherents of Lexington-style, the product is more uniform. Only the best and most succulent parts of the animal are used. And for many, that is a plus. But for those of us going whole hog, we miss the bits of gristle we must occasionally spit out; we miss the odd globules of pigfat; and most importantly, the crispy burned bits that are the prize in the Cracker Jack box. “Please ma’am, more crispy bits.”

But I am not here to talk about barbecue, but about its sidekick, the hushpuppy.  We all lament the passing of those things we remember most fondly from our childhood, and I’m afraid that hushpuppies just aren’t what they used to be. cornbread 1

I the South, there are several kinds of cornbread. There is the traditional risen cornbread, made from white cornmeal — usually a self-rising mix, like Martha White’s — made with an egg, some oil and buttermilk and poured into a black-iron fry pan heated to 450 degrees and coated with a layer of scorching bacon grease. The batter sizzles in the grease and when it cooks up, in 20 minutes or so, there is a salty brown crust around the cornbread. You cut it into wedges and butter them up for eating.

My late father-in-law’s favorite meal was cornbread crumbled into buttermilk. cornbread cakes

There are also cornbread cakes, in which the batter is fried up on a griddle, like pancakes. Those of us who prize cornbread believe this is the ultimate — more exterior crust, less interior crumb. Butter them up and eat. Great with a mess of pintos.

More humbly, there is pone. This is cornbread without the fancy leavening and seasonings. My first official mother-in-law, from Scotland Neck in Halifax County, used to make the best version, which she called “dog bread.” You have white corn meal, some salt and water to make a thick, doughy batter, dump it into a pan of hot bacon grease and bake it in the oven. I comes out with a great bacon-y crust and an interior texture that can only be compared with a fudge brownie, only savory. You cut it into squares and the luckiest person gets the corner pieces, with extra crispies. You cannot imagine the perfection of dog bread with cooked greens.

Yet, it is the hushpuppy that wins pride of place. You cannot really be said to have eaten barbecue if it isn’t accompanied by hushpuppies. These are deep-fried cornbread tubules, brown and crunchy on the outside, hot and steamy on the inside.

The problem is that tastes change with time and the humble hushpuppy I first knew when I moved to North Carolina in the late 1960s has morphed into some sort of fast food that I hardly recognize.

The original was cornmeal and salt, like dogbread, deep fried. Nowadays, you are hard pressed to find a hushpuppy not sweetened up with sugar and with diced onion added. The old flavor is now closer to a kid’s breakfast cereal.

But this is only part of the problem. Hushpuppies used to be made by gathering up some of the dough on a large cooking spoon and flicking off bits into the boiling fat with the back of a tablespoon. The result was not uniform, but each tapered puppy had ridges along its length that fried up extra crispy. Now, almost every barbecue restaurant has an “extruder” that squeezes out uniform, round-sided football shaped hushpuppies, or worse, has one of those “squirters” like a showerhead that eject a rather loose batter into the fat. You wind up with something more akin to an unformed funnel cake. hushpuppies now

One has to recognize that foods — even so-called traditional foods — evolve, just as language or shoe styles evolve. And it is the Southern taste, defined by customer preference, that has given us the sweetened, oniony, turd-shaped hushpuppy. It seems to be what the people want. But one can nevertheless lament what is lost. And I miss the old, unsweetened, humble, crusty hushpuppy that I first came to love.

It is this way with many of our foods: The barbecue we get in North Carolina — even in eastern North Carolina — is now often made from pork shoulder instead of the whole pig and often it is cooked in an electric or gass oven and not on ashes (although they might throw some soaked hickory chips in for “added flavor.”)

And this devolution isn’t only Carolina or the South. There are people in New Jersey who can countenance Pizza Hut pizza. I don’t know how or why, but they do. And even in Arizona, one can find a line at the Taco Bell. Some people choose that over the taqueria down the street where you can get a real taco de lengua.  You can find Mexican barbacoa, but most people just want chimichangas and ground beef tacos.  It is a certain uniformity and loss of regional preference that has crept into our cuisine and I lament it.

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?

MapI have lived in the four corners of the U.S. I was born in the Northeast, lived in the South, the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest. And yet it is somehow the vast middle of the nation that most draws me to it.

In the Northeast, there are cities and woods, the Hudson River slicing up New York State, the “bare and bended arm” of Massachusetts jutting out into the cod-waters of the cold Atlantic. There are the great curved ridges of the Alleghenies forcing highways into what look like Golgi bodies on the gas-station maps. This is the land of salt-rust on the undercarriage of family cars; Of hillside cemeteries bordered by brick apartment buildings. Warehouse districts and tract housing; turnpikes and wharves; glacial till and the stone walls the till makes both possible and necessary — and the fallen ruins of those walls making forgotten property boundaries in second- and third-growth forests. Swimming holes from abandoned quarries and the ever-present nose dust of bus fumes.New York 3

I look back on these things and a wave of nostalgia warms me. Manhattan in the winter, with the Con-Ed grates pouring steam into the air; the periodic burst of warm air blowing up from the sidewalk as the subway train rumbles in the Stygian underground. People in vast tides walking with purpose up Fifth Avenue. The smell of coffee and pie at the Horn and Hardart.

But I left the Northeast at just about the same time as the Horn and Hardart began fading away. I moved to the South, where I became accustomed to slower talking, slower walking and human interactions that were not based on efficiency and gain. It was a land of pine trees grown for paper pulp, a coastline of sea oats and dunes on barrier islands, cities of fewer restaurants, and what there were served meatloaf and fried chicken. When I moved there, the single Chinese restaurant in Greensboro, N.C. pretty much restricted its menu to chop suey and egg foo yung with pot roast maple

I have lived in the South now longer than I have lived anywhere else, although I have not been faithful, and have moved elsewhere, yet I seem always to return. There are pinxter flowers dripping with rain along the Appalachian Trail; there are bass-filled man-made lakes where small towns used to be; there are old lawyers in worn suits who meet every morning in the coffee shop to talk about the day’s events while sipping hot coffee cooled by pouring it out into its saucer slurp by slurp. When I moved to the South, the Klan was still common — in both senses of the word — and otherwise perfectly decent white folk made a sincere case for not changing things too precipitously. Every town had its black community, usually on the other side of the railroad tracks that had once provided the reason for the town’s existence and formed the terminator as clearly as if there were the lit and dark sides of the moon.

There were cotton warehouses and tobacco barns; men actually used spitoons — and if they didn’t have one, they might have an empty tin can into which to spit the brown excess saliva from their chaw. I know of one old reprobate who actually died when he passed out drunk and rolled off his couch, cutting his throat on the jagged edge of his spit can.

If, in the North, people had little time for each other, always in a rush to get somewhere and do something, in the South, everything revolved around relationships, around talking and with that talk establishing social rank and responsibility and anyone you knew, you also knew who their daddy was. People talked endlessly, about weather, business, politics, gossip, taxes, planting, hunting, dogs and church meetings. Even now, so many decades later, when I made my first visit to the local barber, one of the things he asked, making small talk, was what church did I go to. He wasn’t being nosy nor was he proselytizing, he was merely establishing a church jesus saves

A good deal has changed in the South since I first got there four decades ago. Accents that used to define hierarchy have begun flattening out: You can walk through whole blocks of Atlanta and hear the same language you might hear in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Fine dining is now possible if your city or town is now large enough. Your mayor has at least a 50-50 chance of being African-American. When I got there, every white Southerner was a Democrat; now, they are all Republicans.barista

I moved to Seattle in the late ’70s, before half of California swept north, and before every streetcorner had baristas pouring white swirls into the foam of a latte. The railroad switchers shunted cars from dock to dock along Alaskan Way where homeless men in dirty coats and black watchcaps clutched brown paper bags while sleeping in industrial doorways. The ferry moved out of its pier in the morning light to make its way to Winslow on Bainbridge Island or to Bremerton. Although it rained most days during the three non-summer seasons, it was mostly a drizzle and few people even thought it counted as rain and no one I saw ever carried an umbrella.

From my house on Phinney Ridge, across from the Woodland Park Zoo, you could see the snow-capped Olympic Mountains to the west and the snow-capped Cascade Mountains to the east. To the south was the biggest permanent, unmoving white cloud you ever saw — on those days you could actually see it for the weather — and it was called Mt. Rainier, which was pronounced, unlike the sovereign of Monaco, as if it described the precipitation in the Puget Sound: rainier. Certainly rainier than Arizona, where I moved later.Seattle docks

There was Olympia beer and Rainier beer, and I could hardly believe it to see pedestrians stop at the “don’t walk” lights, even at 2 in the morning when there were no cars on the road. No New Yorker would do that; I had friends who otherwise had a cavalier attitude toward authority who would stop me from jaywalking, as if the Stasi were keeping files.

When I got out of the city, the forests were populated with douglas fir and western redcedar. Nothing else. Endless miles of the stuff, climbing up the sides of mountain ranges and with downed logs greened over with moss, and the path a spongy loam under your feet.Hurricane Ridge, Olympic NP, Wash

I think that is what finally drove me to move back to the South: The sense of homesickness for a forest with scores, even hundreds of varieties of tree. The sameness of the Northwestern forest seemed unnatural to me, as if I shouldn’t be there.

There is much I loved in the Northwest. The moist air, the cool summer, the planked salmon and Ivar’s Acres of Clams. I knew a bunch of bicycle messengers, known as “Buckies,” and enjoyed the friendship they provided. There was a political progressiveness that was nearly universal; one could shop at the co-op grocery, the Public Market at Pike Place. Stop off at a bar and have a beer like a real person.Badger Creek Ariz

Finally, there is the American Southwest, as dry as Seattle was moist. One can see for 20 miles at a glance, taking in a meaningful quadrant of the earth circumference. The Southwest mean space. At least outside the city of Phoenix, where we settled — and we got out of the city as often as we could — the desert was intense, sharp and beautiful. Before a rain, the humidity made the creosote bushes smell like spicy cologne. The saguaro cactus stood vertical above the thorny undergrowth. Jack rabbits, roadrunners, the occasional javalina or rattlesnake darted in and out of view. The air was dry; sweat evaporated before you even knew it had escaped your pores. The sun bleached the landscape and radiated heat like an open oven door.

There were three different experiences of Arizona. The most common one was the urban experience of Phoenix.

My wife and I moved there because we had traveled summers across the country and thought it might be pleasant to live in the West for a few short years. I’m sure we were thinking of Flagstaff or Santa Fe. We wound up in Phoenix. We were thinking of having a little adobe house with a white picket fence and perhaps a butte in the background and a few pinto horses grazing in the pasture.  We wound up on Seventh Street, the busiest thoroughfare in the city, with traffic noise like endless surf crashing outside the house, and exhaust soot collecting in the cooling ducts of the house.

The street grid was punctuated by Circle Ks and 7-Elevens. The right-angle network of streets were broken in places by the eruption of mountains: Camelback, Squaw Peak, South Mountain. Enthusiasts climbed them to get a view of the city below, which spread out like a plaid tablecloth, divided into square patches. You could hardly get lost in this checkerboard of roads; you were either driving north-south or east-west, and the city’s mountains provided easy landmarks. You always knew where you were.camelback mountainSaguaro NP Ariz

Outside the city, the land was split between northern and southern Arizona. To the south, there were greasewood flats, saguaro cactus and stony mountains catching the sun late in the day to demarcate the rosy lit areas from the bluish shadows. Dry lake beds hovered in the distance, white salt pans, and the taller mountains caught snow in the winter.

To the north was the Colorado Plateau, Flagstaff, the Navajo and Hopi reservations and the Grand Canyon. The air was noticeably thinner and cleaner — no Phoenix, no Tucson to fill the valleys up with yellow smog. Roads unrolled in long ribbon streams ahead of you heading to the horizon bounded by mesas and buttes. The landscape painted tawny, ruddy, sooty, whitish and blue by streaks, the sky larger than you have seen it anywhere, and most likely uniform blue, only darker toward the zenith.

At First Mesa on the Hopi reservation, you can hardly tell the blocks of stone making up the hillside from the stone houses built atop. You drive endless miles across grassy plains to the next habitation. Streams are marked by slight empty depressions that only fill up in the rare rains that come, mainly in late summer as thunderstorms and mid-winter as constant frontal drizzles. They can become roiling mud rivers almost instantly. Cars will be washed away in the flow. You can always tell the newbies in the desert; they think they can drive through the flooded washes. They fill the nightly news and we see the cars floating downstream, their owners on the roof waiting for rescue.

We spent one Christmas day with friends in Walpi. We brought apples and oranges, coffee and sugar. They gave us cookies they were baking. It snowed on First Mesa; the fire in the stove heated the low stone house.

What you are never quite prepared for is the sense that the canyons are not, like mountains, something that rise from the level, but rather are gigantic holes in the ground you don’t see until you are right on top of them. The stratigraphy is a geological story that is told, part by part, as you move from one part of the state to another. The same layers, in the same order hundred of miles apart, although they might be covered by yet more layers in one place, and rest on the surface elsewhere. You could, like a good geologist, anthologize the landscape to tell a continuous saga.

When we left Arizona, we immediately became homesick for the Plateau and the desert. I cannot say, however, that we missed the city. I used to call it “Cleveland in the desert.” I loved my job there, and my colleagues and friends, and my wife loved her job and her colleagues and friends, but the city itself is rather charmless. The South called us back.

And so, we returned — for me it was my third homecoming. Now we live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and I am constantly amazed, as a Yankee, at just how open and friendly the people are — so much so, it sometimes creeps me out.

But as I was saying at the head of this periplus, I have lived and absorbed the people and land in the four corners of the country, but somehow, there is a gravitational pull to the middle I have always felt, to the place I have never managed to live, the vast gut of the continent.Chicago, Ill

For me, there are two emotionally resonant attractions to the middle. First, there is the rustbelt city, the factories, the immigrant populations, the train yards and highway junctions that all spoke of the industrious rise of the nation from the late 19th century through the Second World War. It is where so many of our great writers came from. It is the home of pirogis and deep fried ravioli, sausages and red cabbage. I have loved taking the train across the lower shores of the Great Lakes past Cleveland and Toledo to Chicago. There is a Midwest that is populated. What is not industry is farm. And there is corn and wheat, silos and tractors. The land tends to lie flat. You could play billiards on the ground in places in western Indiana.Joes Colo haystacks

But there is the second middle of the country that calls to me even more insistently: It is further west than the prairies; it is the Great Plains. Driving through North Dakota or Nebraska, eastern Colorado or eastern Montana — there you feel more than anyplace else in the 48 states that you live on a planet. On the coasts, it used to be proof of the roundness of the earth that you could see the ships and their masts slowly dip below the horizon; on the plains, you see the next grain elevator rise from the same horizon in front of you as you drive and later drop again behind you. You are always on the high point of a dome; the earth falls away from you in all directions. And on this dome, the grasses curl like whitecaps on the ocean.

It is this sense that Melville captures so well in his late story and poem (or is it poem and prose prologue) John Marr. “Blank stillness would for hours reign unbroken on this prairie. ‘It is the bed of a dried-up sea,’ said the companionless sailor — no geologist — to himself, musing at twilight upon the fixed undulations of that immense alluvial expanse bounded only by the horizon, and missing there the stir that, to alert eyes and ears, animates at all times the apparent solitudes of the deep.” The landscape between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains  was “hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.”

There is little in this expanse that can count as a city. Much that seems uninhabited. Moving across the Dakotas and into Montana, you find that neighbors count their separation not by fences but by miles. The land rises and falls like sea swell, and from the top of any ridge, you can see the land spread off in grassy waves.

Why this landscape should call to me so seductively is a mystery, even to me. I have wondered if it is some atavistic genetic memory of the Indo-European origins in the Caucasus, the Trans-Oxiana, where the grass continues unabated for a thousand miles, that Scythian homeland of my peoples, or at least of my language.Pawnee Buttes 5

Or perhaps, even further back, it is the imprinted memory of the African savannah where even before the global diaspora, we hairless monkeys were born. Why should I feel a homesickness for the grasslands that I have never actually lived in, unless there be some tick in my chromosomes that was molded there?

Whatever the cause, I feel it strongly. I feel it also in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and eastern Alberta. The grasses swirl in the breeze, like animated hair whorls on an infant’s head; you can see the breeze moving through the grass in waves, the way a man in a sailboat sees the fretting of the lake surface as the gust approaches.

I am old now, and it is unlikely that I will dot the center of a quincunx of habitations by finally moving to the continental center. I will stay fixed in the North Carolina mountains. The Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest are part of my past. The spindle around which they all turn will remain a psychic locus, not an actual one for me. And the gust that frets the water a hundred yards off is the final one.

klemperer 6I am listening as I write this to Bach’s Mass in B-minor, in a version recorded in 1967 by the New Philharmonia Orchestra and BBC Chorus conducted by Otto Klemperer. I am blown away. rifkin cd cover

Not just at the music, which I know well, and have nearly a dozen recordings of, from Joshua Rifkin’s spare-outline version, with one singer per part, to the more full-blooded Robert Shaw version with his chorale and orchestra, to the zippy race-through by John Eliot Gardiner. Each is an event in its way — it is hard to make Bach’s music anything but beautiful and profound.

But Klemperer brings something else to the performance. You hear it with the first notes, the solemn adagio opening Kyrie. This is no period-instrument version, thin and edgy. This is the full power of Milton’s heaven resounding. You know this is not a collection of tunes, but rather a calling-into-being of the entire universe. One is reminded of the opening of the King James Genesis. This is serious music.

kyrie adagio

Since this recording, a prejudice has developed against grandeur: The authentic-instrument, period-practice movement took hold. One year after Klemperer’s recording, Nikolaus Harnoncourt released his stripped-down, lean and brisk period performance. Since then only a very few have ventured to record the music with a symphony orchestra and large chorus. Instead, we have chamber versions, and even smaller ones, such as Rifkin’s. I am not here to complain about them: Many are beautiful and thoughtful. And I would not want to do without Gardiner’s version. But in the quest for authenticity, something has been lost: In the search for “what Bach actually heard” using instruments of his time, we have given up what Bach meant.

This raises the question of “intent.” Period advocates measure intent by musicological and historical standards: Bach’s brass players had no valves, strings were gut, bows were slack, pitch was lower. All these things can be documented. But intent is more than that. Bach intended to create the glories of the heavens on earth. And one doubts Gabriel’s singers and instrumentalists were bound by the constraints of period technology. Bach intended his music to be as grand has possible. If what was possible in his age was limited, that should not restrict us to 18th century limitations.

Klemperer was famous for what has charitably been called “granitic” performances of Beethoven and Mozart: His slow tempos and careful orchestral balance underline the monumental structure of the music. If rhythmically driven or lyrically pretty music is what you seek, look elsewhere. Klemperer makes you see the music as something sculptural, complete from all angles and subject to minute scrutiny. This is certainly not to everyone’s taste, and when it comes to Beethoven symphonies or Mozart operas, Klemperer is a world I wish to enter only periodically, as a sort of reminder that not everything is Riccardo Chailly or Leonard Bernstein. Klemperer does not seem interested in our pleasure, and even less with our attention spans. This is serious music and he intends you to take it like that: It may be work, but you are better off for it in the long cover 2

But when it comes to Bach — and here we must mention also his monumental recording of the St. Matthew Passion — this approach gives us a weight and profundity that elevates the music. Instead of using his musicality to discover what Bach wrote, he uses Bach to discover the vastness and emotional depth of Creation. Bach is not the end, but the tool.

Now, for many current music lovers, this is a distortion of what Bach meant. And for many, this can come off like grandiosity. Expectations are lower these days: We find solemnity and profundity suspect. And Postmodern culture looks for art to be about art, about culture, and not about Providence or our place in the cosmos. We wish to remain modest about such things. “About what we cannot speak we must remain silent.”

The historical-performance people have this take on the music. Bach used dance movements, they tell us, and so the music should dance. They hit bar-lines like blacksmiths, beating out the rhythm, as if every movement were a Landler, OOM-pa-pa, OOM-pa-pa. They break phrases up into choppy bits, claiming scholarship for authority. And I won’t even mention the flat, vibrato-less performance and often-squeaky 18th century instruments. The results become not music, but a museum display.

I don’t dispute that we may learn something about how music was performed 250 years ago and I don’t dispute such knowledge can be important and interesting. But I will continue to dispute this is music. This is academia invading the concert halls. And it comes off as interesting as academic prose. And who but a scholar wants to read a dissertation?

So, Klemperer uses the music to find a place in the cosmos, and if the cosmos is vast, so the music expatiates. It fills the space of the heavens. If it takes three days for an astronaut to reach even our closest neighbor, the moon, then so what if it takes the conductor 13 minutes to span the Kyrie. Yes, we could get there faster if we up the tempo, but we lose the metaphor in doing so.

It should also be noted that Klemperer has some of the best soloists available at the time: Janet Baker, Nicolai Gedda, Hermann Prey and others. Full-throated singers who can rise above a full orchestra. klemperer caricature

One looks back at the history of art, music and culture and sees the pulse, diastolic and systolic, changing from an era that sees itself examining itself and human societies to one that looks for humanity’s place in the universe. We often call these impulses “classical” and “romantic,” but these terms are quite gross. The realities are more subtle. But think of Alexander Pope and compare him with Byron, for instance. Or compare Gluck with Wagner. We are in a slack period, uncertain about insisting on great themes, large statements, universal truths. In fact, we are likely to say there are no universal truths. The violent, murderous 20th century we lived through, full of ideologies and dogmas — all claiming to be universal truths — taught us to be more humble. Universal truths can be genocidal.

So, we have drawn back, like turtles into our shells, and claim that since a belief in truth can be bloody, therefore, there must be no truth. We have become a generation of Pontius Pilates. This makes emotional and historical sense, but it does not follow logically.

There is at least one universal truth, I believe, that is impossible to deny: We will all die. Death is universal. And if our own extinction is inevitable, so is its corollary: Everyone we love will die; everyone we love will leave us. Loss is a universal human experience.

If we start from first principles — and death and loss count as just that — perhaps there are inferences we can draw from these axioms. And even if some of them are not universal, they may still be widely prevalent among human cultures. Of course, we want to tread lightly with these. Stalin, Franco, Hitler, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden may still give us pause. But we should not be deterred from seeking these inferences from first principles. Art that merely looks at art seems pasty-faced and weasely compared with the larger attempts of artists such as Michelangelo, Tolstoy, Homer, Beethoven — and Bach.

So, I say, open up the floodgates, let the dam overflow, give Klemperer his head and let it all fill us up, fill up that empty space we all feel, the community of humanity in our loss, our finality, our upward vision into the starry night for the immensity of creation.

And I say this as an atheist. Bach may be using the Catholic liturgy, but we don’t need to be Catholic to feel the power of the universe behind his notes. Bach, himself, wasn’t Catholic. His religion did not use the full Mass. But that didn’t stop him from filling out the words, in a language he did not speak, with counterpoint and harmony that reflects that immensity.

So, I don’t wish my Bach shrunk down to human size; I want my Bach to be a Mount Palomar opening into the cosmos.

The Mass has played out in the time it took me to write this short note. Now, I think I am ready to change the CD and begin the Matthew Passion. Open heavens, let me see into you.

Restaurant   I couldn’t take my eyes off her breasts. They wobbled under her shirt like porpoises and, despite the soup I was eating and the woman who sat across from me, the only thought in my head was the heft of those breasts at the next table.

“Stephen, what are you looking at?,” said Sarah. “Stephen?” She knew, but wanted to shame me into stopping. I looked back at her, pretending not to have an answer. But with each comma in the conversation, each semicolon in thought, my eyes sprung back to the table where those breasts were singing to me.

They were not large, and for their size were slung rather low. But they had such a roundness and they were velvety black. I couldn’t help imagining the dark nipples that poked into the cloth of her shirt and embossed such a clear impression. Black breasts, purple nipples.

Sarah was the kind of woman anyone’s parents would approve of, especially if they were members of the country club. Her chest was trussed solid with underwire and stitching. Those breasts wouldn’t sway in a hurricane; you can’t wiggle plaster.

The woman with the black breasts didn’t notice me. She was deeply involved in her dinner, eating as if she hadn’t in a while. Her clothes were elegant enough — not rich, but not poor, either. She couldn’t have been as hungry as she seemed. She gorged on lasagne and French bread. Oh, they wobbled. They wobbled each time she reached over her plate for another pat of butter.

As I lifted a fork of sirloin to my mouth, I flicked my tongue back and forth over the sharp tines of the fork. I did it with closed mouth, so Sarah wouldn’t notice.

The woman with the black breasts finished before we did and as she got up to leave, I stared at how long her torso was, how narrow her hips, how gentle her shoulders and how smooth her black skin was. My eyes followed her past the maitre d’ and I watched the swing of her behind and the syncopation of her long legs.

“You’re drooling,” Sarah said.

After we left the restaurant, we took in a double bill at the rep house. All I saw on the screen were those sooty breasts. A harmless fantasy.

Or so I thought. I never saw Sarah again. I never saw the woman with those breasts, either, though I have been searching now for two years. Any restaurant I enter, I survey from the highest vantage point I can find. On streets, I look, not into the oncoming faces, but at the tide of chests that washes toward me. In movie theaters, I walk to the front row just before the feature starts and search over the crowd. On busses, I walk from front to back; in office buildings, I ride the elevators from bottom to top and back.

My search continues. On bad days, I curse my idealism.

Beach“You know what a euphemism is?” Stuart asked.

“Well, yes … Oh, wait, I know. You have a joke.”

“A euphemism is synonym and sugar. You know, that’s the first thing I ever wrote that got published, way back when I was in high school. I sent it in to the Reader’s Digest.”

“And that made you into a writer.”

“If you want to call what I do being a writer. But I think what made me what I am — and made you into the writer you became, too — is a sensitivity to words. It comes as easily as arithmetic to a math major.”

“This is probably true.”sky

We were walking along the beach on one of those days that isn’t exactly sunny, but when the blue sky comes and goes behind a fast moving scud that occasionally drops a fine mist of drizzle. The clouds are dark, then bright bands of white and whisps of blue between. And with just enough wind to keep a low haze of sand flashing across the beach, only a few millimeters above our footprints. Stuart’s dog ran ahead of us, checking out the one other dog being walked by its owner. Stuart waved; they knew each other.

“I’ve been thinking about synonyms,” he said. “I don’t think they exist.”

“Why not? English is filled with them. More than any other language, probably.”

“Yes, but they aren’t really the same, are they. I mean you have “pig” and you have “pork” and the difference is whether it eats or is eaten.”

“English is such a promiscuous language. It says ‘Hi, sailor’ to so many loan words, that it has built a vocabulary of prodigal variety. We can sort them out to distinguish minor differences that other languages just don’t allow for. Things like pork and pig, but also hog and swine and boar and sow and shoat. Beef and steer and ox and cow and bull — and I could go on. It’s one of the things I love most about my mother tongue.”

“But they don’t really mean the same thing, do they? The Venn diagram of each word may overlap, but is not identical to its mate, like non-identical twins.

“Take lethal, mortal and fatal,” he continued. “You might say they mean the same thing, but we use lethal in its potential sense primarily — a lethal weapon, for instance. No one has yet been killed, yet the weapon could produce death. We use mortal for a different kind of potential, one that is inevitable. It was a mortal wound; he’s not dead yet, but there is no chance he’ll survive. As for fatal, we also use it in a kind of philosophical sense, a fatal mistake, where the mistake may either be the death of a person, but more likely the death of an idea.

“And so, they may all seem like they mean the same thing, but they have different resonance, and get used in different contexts.”

“And if you want to be a writer, you had better feel those differences.”

“Right,” he said.

“Like ‘mortal’ also feels like an antiquarian word,” I said. “We don’t really talk about ‘mortal wounds’ much anymore. It was a phrase used in the Civil War. It almost feels like ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’ We are more likely now to use the word ‘terminal.’ A terminal illness instead of a mortal wound. And it has a further resonance in that ‘mortal’ implies a certain humility: ‘I’m only mortal.’ Mortality is humbling.”

“And ‘fatal’ carries with it an atavistic belief in fate, something that has been willed by the gods. We don’t think of it that way anymore, but it’s still there underneath its conscious meaning. These things hang around our vocabulary like the spirit of the ancients.”

Language has deep roots, I thought. It’s why so many are fascinated by etymology, as if that explained what words “really” mean. But really, it’s all changing all the time and we constantly redefine the words we use. Nevertheless, when we are blithely unaware of the roots, of the emotional overtones of language, we wind up speaking like bureaucrats and academics.

“Lord save me from that,” Stuart said.

“Lord save us all.”

Stuart had just taken a job teaching at a two-year school. I say, “taken a job,” but it was a position as adjunct instructor, teaching a course in writing about movies. It wasn’t a “job,” in that it hardly paid anything.  Stuart had never had a full-time job as a writer, but had freelanced often, whenever he felt like it or could find a gig. And writing about film is something he enjoyed. Now he was thinking about it again.audience 2 keaton

“I’m thinking particularly of motion pictures, or moving pictures, as they used to be called. We have different words for it, and they mean different things. Going to the movies is different from film. It’s the shades of meaning that get to me.

“I use the word, ‘movies,’ for the basic experience: watching a story unfold on the screen. The vast majority of movie audience pays little attention to anything except the narrative. A good movie tells a good story. It tells it efficiently and clearly, and usually without too much subtlety, whether in plot complexity or its inherent morality. There are white hats and there are black hats.”sam fuller

“Like what Sam Fuller said,” I chimed in. “When asked what makes a good movie, he chewed his cigar a little and said, ‘a story,’ and then pressed for what makes a good story he said, ‘a story.’ There was a twinkle in his eye for being clever.”

“Well, yes,” Stuart said. “Whether its a revenge plot, or overcoming obstacles, or falling in love, the story is primary, and its unfolding is key. What keeps us involved is waiting to find out what happens next.

“But film is different,” he said. “Film is what is taught in film schools. When you attend a film, you notice the lighting, the editing, the acting, the pacing, the special effects, even the titles. Those who pay attention to such things have an infinitely richer experience of their artform.

“Alfred Hitchcock explained film by saying all it was was short bits of film spliced together to tell a story. Change the bits and change the story.

“We see a door; we see a hand knocking. Cut to a woman’s face inside the room and the fear on her face. We see the hand turning the doorknob. We cut to the woman reaching into a desk drawer for a gun. The door opens; she points the gun.

“Same bits of film: We see a woman reach into a desk drawer for a gun, we see a hand knock on the door and turn the knob. The door opens; she points the gun. Same pictures, different story.”

“There are filmmakers who love to play with this sort of stuff,” I said. “But it isn’t only the technique. These people also value an awareness of the history of the medium, so that their enjoyment of a film depends on getting the ‘in jokes’ and references.”

“God, yes. Way too many films are being made with film as its subject.  If you expect your audience to be “in” on the technicalities — and the cliches — then you can manipulate them to keep your action moving forward. I think of all those self-conscious horror films that comment on themselves as they unspool. Quentin Tarantino makes film, not movies. He knows that you know that he knows, etc., that all those martial arts films, or those gangster films, or those drive-in movies, are the real subject of what he is making.

“We are drowning in genre film these days. All that CGI, all those superheroes, with their genre expectations, all that dazzling film school technique. We are way too knowledgeable about the gears and levers of filmmaking. It is what nerds talk about when they talk about Star Wars.”

george lucas star wars set copy“Yeah, and I blame George Lucas,” I said. “Back in 1977, when Star Wars was first released, he talked about such things as editing rhythmically, taking apart shots, frame by frame, to show how a ratio was used to time the tiny fragments of film that were pasted back to back. It really hit the fan when DVDs began to include bonus tracks with director commentaries. It let us in on the secrets of filmmaking.”

“This is my distinction: Most moviegoers only know Star Wars was exciting; filmgoers knew how it was done, and thenceforth knew to complain when it wasn’t done well. A badly crafted film makes for a flaccid affair, a boring experience that should have been better.

“It should be noted that movies and film are not mutually exclusive categories. A good movie should be made well, and a good film had better tell a good story. But you see the difference in emphasis.”

“It ain’t just in film,” I said. “Postmodernism is all about playing with the levers and gears and showing off how shiny those gears are.”

“I should point out there is a subculture that enjoys bad craft, looks for movies that ‘are so bad, they’re good.’ There is an unseemly level of self-congratulation in such appreciation.mario bava 2

“There are epicures of exploitation films, bad sci-fi, horrible martial arts dubbing; there are scholars of the slasher films of Mario Bava and those who can quote chapter and verse on the lesser excrescences of the various Arthur Rank studios from the 1950s. There is a kind of reverse snobbery in such scholarship. Although the movies are bad, the same insider knowledge of filmmaking is brought to bear: ‘Look at this bad edit,’ ‘Notice how the lighting in the B-roll doesn’t match.’ ”

“If you can name more than one cinematographer — or if you call him a ‘D.P.,’ then you are into film, not movies,” I said.

“Among the film aficionados, there can be an obsessive interest in the minutiae of film history. And an attendant argumentation on such points: Compare the comedy teams of Ole Olson and Chic Johnson that of  Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Was Harold Lloyd really greater than Chaplin and Keaton — after all he did his stunts with a maimed right hand — and besides that, he pioneered stereo photography, and the pictures he took were celebrity photos for all that.”  patsy kelly

“So, you get books suggesting the Ritz Brothers were better than the Marx Brothers (or maybe it is the Howard brothers best of all, if you are really perverse). And then come doctoral dissertations on the films of Earl Dwire, Rondo Hatton or Patsy Kelly.”

“All this scholarship, all these theories are fine. Patsy Kelly deserves a biography,” Stuart said. “But they are all about the externals of the film, the methods and the techniques, the bios and the politics, the genre expectations and history. They all far transcend the basic story that makes a movie. So, it is film.”

“But those aren’t the only terms,” I said. “Movies and film.” They used to be called ‘moving pictures’ …”

“Boy, that sounds antique — ‘twenty-three skidoo’ …”

“… and motion pictures, and flicks, and cinema.”

“Cinema is a horrible word,” Stuart said. “It is a word that should only come from the mouth of a John Simon, an Emanuel Levy or a Stanley Kauffmann. It reeks of pretention and condescension. No one ‘goes to the cinema.’ Cinema is something that is written about, not watched.”

“But we need something to define the use of strips of celluloid to explore the experience of being alive, something that isn’t about mere storytelling, and it isn’t about the mechanics of filmmaking; it is about using the medium to tell us true things about ourselves.”

“I guess we call them ‘art films.’ I don’t know a good term,” Stuart said.

“But even some art films are not about real life,” I said. “I don’t know what you would call a Jean-Luc Godard movie if it isn’t an art film. Yet he seems much more involved with the tricks of filmmaking than in the application of his ideas to real life. His films are always, in some manner, about film.”

“And the opposite,” Stuart said. “Some great cinema has little concern for such clever niceties. Roberto Rossellini, for instance, made many profound works of art with scant film technique; they could almost have been made by an amateur.

last year 2“Others make art with little story to follow. Can anyone actually say what happens in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad? I didn’t think so.”

“So, it isn’t strictly ‘art film’ we are talking about. It is using the medium to explore, propose or illustrate some ideas about reality, about human nature, human tragedy, the complexity of moral questions, the unreliability of perception, the consequences of actions, thoughts and emotions.”

“Movies are about story; films is about how the story is told; This other thing is about what the story means.”

“These are not mutually exclusive categories. It is possible to have all three at once. Consider Citizen Kane, for instance, which Pauline Kael once called it “more fun than any other great movie.” It tells a great story, is hugely inventive in the way it tells it, and explores the depth and complexity of its characters, all at the same time.

godfather i knew it was you fredo“Or either of the first two parts of The Godfather. Ripping yarn, a doctoral thesis on filmmaking, and as profound a tragedy as anything by Euripedes. You can have it all.”

“These three overlapping categories describe not only the artform in question, but their audiences as well,” Stuart said. “Those who like movies are often put off by the seeming pretentiousness of art film, although if they don’t notice it slipped in among the action sequences, they may not mind it. Older audiences tend to fall into this category. I remember my father being upset by Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 because it was told in flashbacks. He wanted the story told straight through. ‘I don’t know why they can’t just tell the story,’ he said. ‘This is too confusing.’

“There are those who most enjoy being in the know as to what the filmmaker is doing and derive their pleasure from recognizing the cleverness. They loved Memento, Adaptation, Time Code or The Blair Witch Project. They can take apart a Hitchcock film frame by frame. They can spot the difference between early Dario Argento and late Argento.”

“But do they know what love is?” I said, thinking of Tom Hanks.

Stuart laughed. The dark clouds moved in and the blue sky disappeared. He called his dog back and we walked up over the dunes to the house.