Saturday, June 27, 2009

Writer's Apartment Building Falls Over

When we found out that we had been assigned an apartment on the eleventh floor and that we would have a view out over the city with an enclosed balcony we were very excited. Kim and I had waited a number of years on the list to be housed in the newly built exclusive writer’s building, “弯曲泥的沼”. It was only last week that we visited the apartment. We had the library and the locations of our writing desks all worked out. We both appreciated that it would be a perfect setting for us to finish my last novel and for Kim to complete her poetry collection. Unfortunate for us, I suppose, the last week has been something of a let down.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Ladders Can Be Dangerous

The only time I fell off a ladder, and want to tell about it, was when it was hit by a boxcar that had been let loose to roll down a slope. It was when I worked at the salt mine.

I was running electrical conduit at the entrance to a tunnel below the salt sifter building. I had five bosses on the ground telling me what to do. The classic too many chiefs, not enough Indians.

Regardless, the rail car was let loose, nothing unusual in that at the salt mine -- but this time it rolled toward me. I saw it and started to climb down off the ladder. The bosses all yelled at me to climb up the ladder saying the rail car would miss me. They were correct, it did miss me. But it did not miss the ladder.

I jumped atop the rail car and thought that was OK. But there was only about three feet of space between the ceiling of the tunnel and the top of the rail car. The ceiling was very rough, blown on clumps of concrete. All would have been fine at this point except it being an active construction site there was a large electrical cable draped down. I got tangled up in it and was worried if I did not get loose then I would be hanging quite a distance up in the air when the rail car went away without me. Let alone I was worried I might get a bit bashed up dragged along the top of the rail car more than absolutely necessary.

So in the three foot of space I did a summersault around the cable. I then lay down on the top of the rail car… on that long steel platform where you see dandies in the movies that walk a train.

When the car came out of the other side of the tunnel I staid down and there was no sign of me. All of the bosses were mystified that I had vanished.

This was one lesson; it was fairly quick and over with, where I learned to suspect authority figures of being full of crap and it being dangerous for me to pay too much attention to them.

A bit of history about the salt mine here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How Wordsmiths Erode Language

I have a bone to pick; it is a small and insignificant one. Lately in my wandering around reading creative work, poetry, novels and flash, I have run up on a number of occasions where a writer referred to ‘cement’ when what they actually meant was ‘concrete’. This inappropriate usage of the word ‘cement’ drives me just a little bit batty.

I feel each time like I had got some of that wet cement hit in the eyeball.

Not meaning to pick on Chris Middleman in particular, I do not know him, never heard of him until this morning I came across his poem online where he has the line:

“on the bone-white cement”

Cement for at least the last 100 years is the stuff that comes in a bag, as a powder. You mix it with sand and water to make ‘mortar’ and you mix it with sand and water and gravel (aggregate) to make ‘concrete.’

When I make something out of cement it is usually unintentional, like leaving a bag of it out where it gets rained on and turns hard, and pretty much useless. If I am lucky I can bash it with a sledge and turn it into mud puddle fill.

Sidewalks are made out of concrete... yes, there is cement in them, but if the poet walks onto a construction site they will quickly learn that cement is not concrete and sidewalks are not cement. Walls are not cement. Concrete buildings are not cement.

Middleman’s verse is almost like saying, “on the bone-white glue” because cement is the glue of concrete, sort of. Since so many writers say ‘cement’ is it a cliché? Why not say, on the bone-white mastic? Or, on the bone-white avenue?

In The Polish Woman (see me review elsewhere) I remember to imagine in my reading that I ran across 'cement' used at least a half dozen times, and never once an appropriate reference to the intended 'concrete'. Is it that 'concrete' just does not sound poetic? Or is it that poetics, and prose, are disjointed from a sensitive appreciation of modern industrial technology?

I can only begin to be bothered when writers do not bother to connect their metaphors into the reality of the industrial world where stuff like cement comes from. They should get out of whatever room they are sitting in and go visit a cement plant. If we want to have an environmentally conscious literature then it makes sense to know where 'cement' comes from (it begins with a really really big hole in the ground), which understanding may start with a distinction to know what cement is, and what it is not. Cement is not concrete.

The energy consumption in the production of cement is one of a small few critical GLOBAL environmental issues alongside oil and coal. The production of cement is also a top air pollution issue. The Interstate Highway system is made of concrete, as are dams for hydroelectric plants, and that concrete is made with cement, Portland cement to be even more specific, and when the government starts to talk about repairing 'infrastructure' you can bet the market cost of cement goes up.

Because of the cost of transport of heavy materials, like crushed rock on barges, cement plants need to be close to the really ginormous hole in the ground and therefore it is an industry not easily outsourced. The general rule is that a cement plant supplies cement for a 200 mile radius from the plant. The world is dotted with cement plants -- and they are all using massive clumps of energy and they are all exhausting into the air that we breath.

For creative writers to be ignorant of the world, as witnessed by their not even knowing the ramifications of what they say when they say 'cement', amazes me. But, as I said at the start of this rant, it is a small bone to pick. A larger one would be how poets, flashers and novelists ignore science and paint pretty pictures of a world that does not exist... not that I particularly care for the austerity of realism. Hopefully writers all practice intelligent design and we can rest assured in the feelings of faith that they spread with their creative use of words.

It is very rare that concrete would be bone-white. That in itself is a bad observation of color. Usually concrete is a soft gray, and off-white, if old concrete it will be darker in color, maybe, and in an historic district it may have been tinted black, but it is not black, it is only a darker gray. The basic color of concrete is GRAY, not white, not bone.

If you want WHITE concrete then you need to use white cement, and white cement costs a whole lot more than GRAY cement and hardly anyone in their right mind (other than an artiste or a poet slightly disconnected from reality) would ever think to make concrete with white cement, and certainly would not consider to make sidewalks of concrete made with white cement. White concrete in a sidewalk will not remain white for very long.

Now, if we really want to get esoteric let us talk ‘terrazzo’. Hardly ever do we hear from the creative writers about the bone-white terrazzo.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Morning Visitors

This is my morning visitor. Very wary. Every move I make to position the camera he flies away. If I cleaned the window outside of my writing desk it may help my photo and bird watching ambitions?

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Polish Woman, a novel by Eva Mekler

The Polish-American experience is a complex one and there is a vast disparity in that experience between if one is a Jew or a Catholic. I am neither of the above, and I am not Polish.

“Americans are not interested in Poland,” she concluded as though this were a foreign conclusion. “Why should they be? When our artists and intellectuals leave, they go to Paris or Prague and live with respect as émigrés. Only our poor go to America where they become refuges – which Americans make sound like a dirty word.”

As an American my interest in Poland derives from a business partner of some 20 years whose mother was from Poland, living in Williamsburg-Greenpoint, Brooklyn amid the Polish community (before it became fashionable to live there), in the construction business of historic preservation employing Polish mechanics over many years, several Polish friends (particularly Misia Leonard, deceased, a Polish born actress who became an architect), and lastly a friend who has been gracious to bring me to visit his homeland on several visits. One of those visits in connection with the desire to reconstruction a 17th century log and timber synagogue near to Bialystok.

Mekler’s novel, a romance, explores not so much the Polish-American experience, though it is certainly evident in very subtle and striking details, as she explores the very difficult relationship between Polish Catholic and Jew.

“So this is how you will decide?” Meyer grumbled. “Over coffee and a danish?”

It is an incredibly bitter relationship full of emotional land mines and deep scars of distrust and hatred, and has to do with the Holocaust and how it was played out in Poland, and continues to play out in the lives of the characters. It also plays out in the lives of my friends, a few of whom have distanced themselves from me as I have become increasingly interested in the richness of the culture of Eastern Europe, and in particular the Polish facility for heritage restoration.

The novel takes place in the late 1960s, prior to Solidarity when Poland was under Soviet domination, and prior to the assassination of Martin Luther King (an historical detail I throw in for benefit of the disinterested American). Since the 1970s Poland has gone through a whole lot of changes in politics, I suspect though that the land, the trees, the rivers, the birds have remained pretty much the same. My personal forays have been with a look in a range of the 1300s, or earlier up to the current post-EU Poland. What I can say, and this from visits to a variety of synagogues, churches and mosques is that the Catholic-Jew relationship is not as volatile in Poland today as it was in the late 1960s. It did no help anyone that in Poland the history and memory of millennia of Jewish culture was repressed by decades of Soviet domination.

“The Soviets would bleed the country dry before letting the Poles succeed in anything but growing potatoes...”

Karolina Staszek is the female protagonist of this novel. She is a sculptor, works with stone, and she has come to New York from Warsaw as a young artist. In the unfolding of the plot she is faced with the quandary if she was the child of a Jewish leatherworker who was harbored during the Holocaust as a child by a Catholic farmer and his wife. If her father was the Jewish leatherworker he subsequently survived the Holocaust and moved to America where he became wealthy as a construction contractor. Karolina becomes enmeshed in seeking out the truth of her background, if her identity is as a Jew or a Catholic. Along in the plot there are various emotional and romantic attachments, and for those needing it some very pleasantly subtle sex scenes. Oh, yes, and there is a Jewish lawyer involved.

There is also much beauty to the Polish-English language of the dialogue of this novel, a particular breaking down in translation that often creates new measures of understanding between cultures.

“Good,” Karolina said. “Soon you will speak like a native.”

Philip broke into a grin. “Yeah?”

“No,” she said, without breaking her stride. “But I wish to encourage.”