Saturday, December 25, 2010

Ten Thousand Words?

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2011 Elliott Joseph

January 2011

On Christmas Day The New York Times published The Year in Pictures 2010. To say they were remarkable, eloquent and breathtaking would not be an exaggeration. On the same day the San Francisco Chronicle published an article reporting that Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Kansas, the last lab in the world processing Kodachrome color film, will discontinue its service at the end of the year.

Also reported was "The Last Kodachrome Photograph Show." The photographer Pat Willard, who will have four Kodachrome photographs in the show, refuses to use Ektachrome film and will revert to black and white.

My wife Roz Joseph, also a professional photographer, has refused to go digital and has given up taking pictures, leaving some thousands of color slides and prints in her collection.

With page after page of color photographs in the paper, especially in the Sunday Magazine, it is shocking that the Times has announced it is dramatically reducing (believe it?) the publishing of photographs starting the first of 2011, in an effort to bring back some of the ten thousand words that even one picture represents.

Words will continue to appear in the paper for those intrepid readers who wish to go beyond the captivating images brought to bear by a host of talented shutterbugs.

So what's going on? It is the development of the digital camera that may be behind the return of the printed word. Rapid technological advance of the camera from the days of the old Graphlex encumbered by its outlandish flash, has transformed photography to today's convenient digital devices which not only do away with film, but which, with alarming alacrity, backed by the extraordinary manipulations afforded by Photo Shop, produce frightfully gorgeous results, such as raising a model's awkward eyebrow and putting a sports car on the top of Mount Everest.

I am a victim as well as a beneficiary of this ease of producing good color renditions heretofore requiring the most careful attention to format and subject, and without the need of utilizing painstaking studio work aided by brilliantly creative lighting.

In a recent three week trip to Portugal, one of the world's most photogenic countries, I shot, without any particularly professional ability, over 700 not bad photographs with a pocket sized digital camera I bought for less than two hundred and fifty dollars. Gone were the heavy, expensive Nikons and their array of lenses with there countless boxes of transparency film, to shoot dozens of guesswork slides that I could show to no one without a projector and a dinosaur of a screen, while they dozed off in boredom. Furthermore, each of those friends and relatives, with their digital cameras could now produce rather excellent pictures, making my own unnecessary.
I must say I have taken some pretty good pictures myself in the past, have gotten some awards, and have been the subject of photographs by some excellent pros, such as the one shown here by the renowned travel photographer Carl Purcell, who had led the safari trip to Kenya that my wife and I took twenty-five years ago. Because of his talented eye he was able to make a snapshot look thought out, and it proved good enough to be published in newspapers across the United States and abroad, demonstrating that you don't need a digital camera to do a great job.

In my early career in advertising I learned to respect the agency's art directors and photographers whose now ancient equipment could produce outstanding work. Who read my words of copy that I labored over?

So it's actually the quality of the photography these days that is behind The New York Times possible thoughts about questioning the proverbial statement that a picture is worth ten thousand words. And the word may be spreading. Amazon is back to selling books. With Kindle, your average consumer is reading more, and turning from the thrall of the image.

Sports, travel, advertising, arts and leisure, Sunday styles, even The Week in Review, have been dependent on the photograph to grab the attention that only a glaring headline used to produce.

If the Times ever does cut back its photography, will you miss the ease of all those amazing pictures to tell you their story? Will it try to make you want to know more with the word?

"Taking photographs," writes Susan Sontag in On Photography, "has set up a chronic voyeuristic reaction to the world which levels the meaning of all events."

Will I lose my former love of the photograph? Is it too seductive, too easy to relate to? Has it become too time consuming to think? Too difficult to ignore? Will I miss the words?

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Alameda Sand Sculpture

By Elliott Joseph

Photography By Roz Joseph

Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

December 2010

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read."
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that marked them and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Who can explain the compelling anti-Ozymandias passion to create beautiful sculptures and castles of sand, only to see them washed away within hours by a relentlessly approaching tide? This curious and highly vulnerable art form can be seen on countless bathing beaches around the world each summer, yet nowhere is it more poignantly and expertly practiced than at the Robert Crown Memorial State Beach in Alameda, California where each June several hundred serious men, women and children compete in the Annual Sand Sculpture and Castle Contest.

They come well prepared to this broad expanse, with its handsome view of the San Francisco skyline. They bring home-made tools, shovels, containers for carrying and spraying water, a sketch of their planned sculpture, warm clothes for protection against the wind, and enough food and drink to sustain them during the feverish work session to meet the deadline and beat the water before it erases their painstakingly constructed achievements from the memory of mankind.

The sculpture must be made of sand, with trimming of wood, rocks and shells found that day on the beach. That's the only rule before they go to work, singly or in groups, on the small plot of beach assigned to them at the low tide morning registration hour. By mid-day their sculpture will have to be completed so that the judging, and the all-important picture-taking, can take place before the inevitable.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fading Fast

Painted Wall Signs Are Disappearing
But Is Restoration The Answer?

By Elliott Joseph
Photographs By Roz Joseph

Reprinted From Online Preservation
Copyright Elliott Joseph

November 2010

In the heart of Chinatown in Oakland, California, there is an old advertising sign that looks just like new. In fact, it is. The "MJB Coffee Why?"sign, prominently displayed on the side of a century-old building was first painted in 1906, but was redone 15 years ago.

The owners of the building were able to get a grant from the MJB Coffee Company, through the Oakland Museum, to repaint the sign in its original colors. The sign was one of dozens that had been painted on walls throughout California for the company, which wanted to pique people's curiosity about their java.

Across the bay in San Francisco, on a building that housed the Victoria Theater, another old advertising wall sign was revitalized 25 years ago. The 1920 "Albers Flapjack Flour" sign had deteriorated so much that painters had to find photographs of the original wall from the Carnation Company, which owned Albers. Although the black-and-white photographs showed the miner's facial expression and other details on the ad, painters had to guess the mural's colors.

These renewed signs are among the exceptions, however. Thousands of others in cities, towns, and rural areas across America are not as fortunate. They are doomed, either by destruction of the buildings that are their canvasses, a covering coat of paint, or weather and time.

For instance, San Francisco's "Get Kist for a Nickel" sign, whose provocative message promoted the soft drink for more than 40 years, is gone. In the otherwise beautifully preserved town of Nevada City, California, the landmark "Rose Fashion Shoppe" wall sign can barely be read. Exposed to the elements for almost a century, it is simply fading away.

Created for commercial purposes on brick, concrete and other canvasses, old painted wall signs may have lost their power of persuasion, but they have taken on a value of their own as American artifacts.

One of the companies that painted walls was the California firm of Foster and Kleiser. Before it was purchased by another company in 1953, when the service was discontinued, the company had painted walls in hundreds of cities in the Western states. The service was called the "Special Paint" department, says Joseph Blackstock, director of research at the Patrick Media Group, Inc., the company's current owners.

"The term 'Special Paint' was probably more accurate in the years following World War II," Blackstock says, "because we painted on other surfaces as well as on regular walls. We might paint designs on water towers or reservoirs or indeed do murals in commercial establishments."

Almost all outdoor advertising companies offered a wall-painting service in the early years. The paint was usually brightly colored, and signs were painted once a year, sometimes twice or more. Affectionately known as "wall dogs," the painters had to work with many kinds of surfaces.

"Some of the surfaces were so bad," Blackstock says, "they would wear out good brushes in a day or two. Another factor was the weather. In Seattle and Portland, much of the painting had to be done in the rain. In Tucson and Phoenix, it was often in temperatures of over 100 degrees."

The cost of painted advertisements was surprisingly low. In 1929, they ranged from $15 to $50 per month for a three year contract in heavily trafficked areas, with exceptionally busy locations going for $100 per month. Ten years later, the company sold advertisements for as little as $9 per month and as much as $250. More than a few new products got their start on wall ads: Coca-Cola, Signal Oil, and Canada Dry were prime examples.

In addition to using walls in cities, enterprising tobacco companies sent their representatives to rural areas to convince farmers to allow the sides of their barns to become advertisements. One of the most successful companies to do this was Mail Pouch Tobacco: "Treat Yourself to the Best" started to appear on barns everywhere.

"In the early days, the farmer was offered his choice of being paid subscriptions, says Mary Ruth Whorton of the Helme Tobacco Company, which now owns the Mail Pouch brand. Whorton tells the story of a British celebrity arriving in New York who was asked what he thought America was most famous for. Without a moment's hesitation, he replied, "Good looking women and Mail Pouch Tobacco signs."

At first, local sign painters were given the rural jobs. Later, by the 1930s, the firm of William and Ed Burner were handling all the contracts -- as many as 17,000 barns, walls and billboards. The 1965 Highway Beautification Act forced Mail Pouch to paint over many of its ads, since signs within 660 feet of interstate and federally aided highways are now prohibited. In former days, it took about three years to cover all the territories.

Currently, Helme employs one part-time person to paint signs in Ohio, West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania and Western Maryland. They are repainted every five to six years, and new locations are rarely added.

Painting walls is a tradition as old as Pompeii. In old wall signs a time is conveyed that can never return, when milk was delivered at the door, when flappers danced the Charleston and a penny bought a salted pretzel or a jaw-challenging gumball. Is restoring them an option? Some say that those who attempt to restore these ads change them in the process. They look too new, too crisp, too fresh, and too out of place, as if we expected to take their original message seriously. There is something to be said for keeping those that remain in a state of arrested decay.

"I loved those old wall signs," Blackstock says, "and was greatly disappointed when our company discontinued them."

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Six Days in The City

By Elliott Joseph

Reprinted from California Living
San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle

Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

From a diary found under a bench in Washington Square

11:10 a.m.
Up after nine and a half hours. Feeling good. Better wash T-shirt. Hair coming along.

Breakfast at Jim and Dora's. Saw Kim and Charles. Fog burning off.

1:00 p.m.
Almost succeeded in controlling left nostril after twenty-five minutes of concentration in Washington Square.

2:00 p.m.
Observed some suits. Wasted lives.

3:00 p.m.
Read "Walden." Really dig Thoreau. Wind coming up.

5:00 p.m.
Hunza's for a shake.

7:00 p.m.
Gold Spike for dinner. No wine.

9:00 p.m.
Cold tonight. Double espresso at Trieste. Rapped about war and photography.

Felt stiff neck coming on. Practiced concentrating on the left nostril again. To bed at two.

11:25 a.m.
Up after nine and a half. Neck OK.

Bumped into Maggie at Jim and Dora's. Said she's going to buy some belts and set up a blanket at Embarcadero Plaza. Asked me if I want to go into partnersip. Baba says, "All life is an effort to attain freedom from self-created entanglement."

1:00 p.m.
Held breath for three minutes in Washington Square.

2:00 p.m.
Hitched to Golden Gate Park. Got a ride all the way in a new Ford pick-up. Golden Gate Park was designed by one man. Why does man foul the nest?

5:00 p.m.
Took three hitches to get to North Beach. Bumped into Red Ed. Said he was going to Oregon. "I love a broad margin to my life." Sky bluer than blue. Bought some groceries.

7:00 p.m.
Beef stew at the U.S. Saw this groovy chick. Great teeth. Libra. Would you believe, a lawyer!

9:00 p.m.
Walked. Glad I didn't sell my black turtle neck sweater.

Smoked. Resolved never to shave the beard for anyone. Thought I was getting a headache, but it passed.

Ten hours. At this rate, I'll live to be a hundred.

12:30 p.m.
Breakfast at Jim and Dora's. Should take coffee black.

1:15 p.m.
Tried the right nostril at Washington Square Got a dog's mess on my left leg. Surprised I didn't get mad.

2:30 p.m.
Walked to Bank of America building. All bombing is insane. Peace has to start with each of us. Sorry I sold my camera.

4:30 p.m.
Watched the commuters running. To eat their meals? Play tennis? Make love?

6:00 p.m.

7:00 p.m.
Liver and onions at Little Joe's. The way he sweats!

9:00 p.m.
Peeked into three pornos. Do our bodies think?

10:00 p.m
Picked up this girl. Sally. Works for an advertising agency as a secretary. Has an M.A. in English, but didn't tell them so she could get the job. Inglorious man.

Three times.

9:30 a.m.
Phil, Mark and a guy named Bob crashed pad. Hitching all night. Mark going back to get his degree. Went back to sleep.

Called Sally. Crab meat salad at Mama's. Sally paid. Wondered whatever happened to Ruth Moore.

1:30 p.m.
Left nostril exercise at Washington Square.

2:00 p.m.
Wondered what I'll be like at thirty. Not all that far to go. Felt the warm sun under my skin. Bob made me laugh this morning. Said he'd come to San Francisco to make it.

3:30 p.m.
Walked to Cala Foods. No opening yet. Checker cum laude. The dears don't know what they're missing.

6:00 p.m.
Letter from mom. Herb got a raise. Her hints used to be more subtle.

7:00 p.m.
Everybody to the U.S. Had to wait twenty minutes for a table. Maggie there. Said she's got the belts. Told her I'm not cut out for business. Now how would I know that?

9:30 p.m.
Browsed through Tower Records. Shot pool at the Sport.

Alone again.

11:00 a.m.
Registered at Opportunity Personnel. Why is filling out an application so degrading? Should be called a supplication.

1:00 p.m.
Changed back into jeans.

2:00 p.m.
Dim Sum at Hang Ah. Wondered who is going to rent all that office space going up.

3:00 p.m.
Cable cars filling up. Must be the weekend again.

4:00 p.m.
Fell asleep on a bench at Washington Square. Hit by a frisbee.

6:00 p.m.
Walked to Henry Africa's. Didn't go in.

7:30 p.m.
Ham steak at the U.S. Mixed with the tourists on Grant. Called Sally. Out.

9:00 p.m.
Saw Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Couldn't believe it!

Irish at Buena Vista. Not one face made me happy. To bed at 1:30.


Hitched to Tam. Thick white fog bank off the coast. City absolutely the most beautiful sight. Raced a dog. Hitched to Stinson Beach. Alive at last. Should go back to Mendocino one of these days.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Russians of California

By Elliott Joseph

Reprinted from The Voice of America
Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

September 2010

The other night I had smoked fish, pelmeni and shashlik for dinner. My wife recently made borsch, piroshki and beef Stroganoff. A few weeks ago we spent the day at Russian Gulch State Park. Last week we toured the Russian River. One of our favorite magazines has published a new recipe for Kulebiaka. I sometimes go to Irinka for a glass of tea, or browse in the Ananie bookstore. On the bus I saw a man reading a newspaper called The Russian Daily Life. I live on Russian Hill.

Where am I? Moscow? Kiev? Saint Petersburg?

Not at all. I am in San Francisco, California, and it seems that a day can hardly go by that I don't see or hear or touch or taste something Russian. Russians are all over the world, of course. Through the many years of their great history they have traveled, they have traded, they have hunted, they have planted and settled. Some have remained, some have returned to their motherland. Some have settled in other countries and then moved on to other lands.

But a certain number of Russians have come to California. Here, too, some stayed and some left. And the process still goes on as Russians continue to come and go from all over the world. It was natural, even inevitable for the first Russians to have come to California. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the west coast of what is now America was the next step for Russians who had made the trip to the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. At that time the Spanish and Mexican governments in control of California felt threatened by what they regarded as Russian expansion. To prevent this, the Spanish increased their own colonization of California, and enacted restrictive legislation against the Russians, who were engaged in fur and whale oil trade, agriculture, shipbuilding, cattle raising, fishing and forestry.

The Russians formed a colony at the Russian River, north of San Francisco, called Slavensk, now known as Fort Ross. Meanwhile, the Spanish established missions up and down California to provide a sort of barrier against the Russians. The northernmost of these was the Mission San Francisco Solano, founded in 1823 at Sonoma, butting up against the Russian settlement.

Not all of the Spanish were hostile to the Russians, and there are many stories of friendship and mutual assistance. There is even a famous, if unfortunately tragic, love story. Nicolas Petrovich Rezanoff, a Russian government attache, and a celebrated sixteen year old beauty, Conception Arrilaga, daughter of the Spanish governor of the territory, managed to secure official approval of their betrothal. But Rezanoff, journeying across Siberia, to make a report to his government before the wedding, developed a fever and died. It was 35 years before Conception learned her Russian lover had not abandoned her of his own free will. In the meantime, she had taken church vows, and was to remain faithful to Rezanoff all her life.

Because their people were beset with physical and economic hardships and the mounting hostility of the Spanish, the Russian authorities ordered withdrawal of the Russian colony from California, selling all Russian properties in Decembeer 1841 to Johann August Sutter, a Swiss then living on the Sacramento River.

Today, there are about 50,000 Russians in California, most of whom live in the San Francisco Bay Area. They arrived in periodic waves starting around 1900, except for 50 families who came as early as 1869. Some were Molokani or "milk drinkers," pacifists who drank no alcohol. Others were "Spirit Wrestlers," sometimes called Doukhobours. Some were Subotniks. Many came by way of Turkey, Iran and Siberia. Many came after the revolution of 1917-1919. In the 1930s many came from Manchuria. The last big group to come to California were displaced persons from parts of Eastern Europe, just after World War II.

And what about today's Russians of California? What are they like? How do they differ from other Americans? Seeing how strongly their influence is felt, I became fascinated with the subject. I had to learn more, because in doing so I would learn more about California, San Francisco and myself.. And as I did, I felt I wanted to tell you about it.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

The Widow of Nob Hill

By Elliott Joseph

Reprinted from California Living
San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle

Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

August 2010

San Francisco has changed. It's so sad. Of course we've managed to save a few things. It was a lovely performance tonight, wasn't it? Verdi, Verdi, where would we be without you, Verdi? So passionate.

I'm fourth generation San Francisco, you know. But I've told you that, haven't I? Strange. Very odd being part of the hills, so to speak. I certainly am as old as the hills. Oh yes, I am. You'd rather walk a young beauty, wouldn't you? Oh yes, you would.

You are a perfectly charming young man. A perfect dear for taking me to dinner tonight. And the opera. How should I ever have gotten out of the house without you, Jeff? Jeff, that's a lovely name. So masculine and assertive.

My husband's name was Arthur. Now that's a substantial name. Arthur. Oh he had a good life. He did so much for The City. A really splendid man, Arthur. It's a good thing he's not here to see what those Vulgars are doing. Vulgars -- that's my descriptive for people who have no taste. Taste, cultivation, they're frightfully old-fashioned and unhip ideas, aren't they? Everyone in blue jeans and work shirts and trying so desperately hard to look hard up. It's such a bore.

I have always worn what I thought was beautiful, whether or not it was in style. I wish some of those little dears would have the courage to dress individually, instead of in that pseudo-individual look, which is getting positively sickening in its repetition.

Ah, but San Francisco's elegance is a thing of the past. We're relics, my dear Jeff. Anachronisms, living in a city that could be first-rate if it would only take itself in hand.

Now, I have never for a moment believed that a beautiful woman couldn't be interesting. Why should one expect less from a city? Here we are, the major cities of the world abdicating their responsibility for greatness, our civilization virtually peeling and crumbling, and San Francisco is primping and dolling itself up as though beauty were more than skin deep.

But I'm raving, simply raving, my dear sweet Jeff. You're probably thinking how awful it is to have to think about how awful things are. Your whole life is ahead of you. Ah, I should have been born a man. I envy you. I'd show the world what San Francisco could do. I'd do battle for my fair lady.

As a woman, a widow, I do what I can. But it's nothing. Nothing. I am not the grande dame of San Francisco. All I can do is my bit for the opera and the ballet and the symphony. Yes, and the museums, and my charities. At least, I tell myself, I can help keep our institutions alive. I meet with my friends. We talk. We decide. We do.

I think, if I were younger I'd rebel. I'd do what the young women are doing today. Run for congress, fly a plane, start a business, become a surgeon. My daughter and her friends, they're active, every one of them. Busy doing real things. My grandchildren will do even more.

I was a rebel in my time, you know. I wore short hair. I drove a car, I was violently against Prohibition. I fought intolerance wherever I encountered it. People knew where I stood.

What is a tired old woman with an annuity supposed to do -- backpack with the twenty year-olds? I'd look even more ridiculous than I do now. Yes, it's true. I am ridiculous. But what are we doing standing at the door. Come in, Jeff. Come in. Let me fix you a cup of coffee, or a drink.

There, that's better. You like the view? It's even more beautiful during the day. Views help us see outside of ourselves, don't you think? That can be a disadvantage, too. It's so good to come home. I am comfortable among my old things. An antique with her antiques. I like them because they are the only things I know that are older than I am.

Sit down. Sit down. We are deliciously alone. My housekeeper doesn't sleep in any more. She's wonderful to me, comes in every morning. She keeps this place so organized. It's much easier to take care of than the house on Jackson Street, but still there's much to do. She is a very good cook. Not as good as Felice was, I'm afraid. But then who could be?

Felice was marvelous. She could prepare Filets de Soles Orientale, Langue de Boeuf Choucroute, Ris de Veau Bonne Maman and mince pie as good as Escoffier himself.

Oh, but it's obscene these days to think of food like that, isn't it, with the prices so astronomical. I don't know how people do it. I have been so lucky. Daddy and Arthur took care of me. I have tried to be worthy of the pains they took to see I'd be comfortable.

Those are my grandchildren. In those little gold frames on the piano. They're much bigger now. Those pictures were taken two years ago. Good children. Not a bit spoiled like I was. Irreparably spoiled.

What shall it be? Coffee, tea -- or brandy? You're a dear. It's right over there. Just seven little drops for me. It's unbecoming for a relic to get drowsy, and that's what too much brandy does to me. It used to make me sexy. How sad to think of those bygone days!

Sometimes, to keep myself from falling asleep right in front of my guests, I play the piano or sing. Don't look so frightened. I'm not going to torture you with that.

I had a little training. Some talent, I suppose. But not enough to pursue. Just enough to appreciate what an artist must do to develop her art. Have you heard the new opera finalists? The winner is a genuine talent. So effortless. Such depth of understanding.

It's clear tonight. My, how the lights sparkle. The skyline has changed so, I can't tell you what it does to me. No, I'm not for preserving a glorious past. The past was not always that glorious. But it's frightening to think how quickly things move today, how much power can be brought to bear on this fragile city. It can be transformed in no time to something altogether different.

Life was so much easier for my great grandfather and my grandfather. All they had to do was pit themselves against the elements, test their strength and wits against the land and against other men. It was like a sort of club in those days. Everybody out for the same thing. There was no question that it was right. It was only a matter of how to accomplish your goal.

But today everything is so much more complicated. The whole world is a tightly related little village. You can't ignore the consequences of what you do. People must work. People must live. You can't dictate what should be done, what can't be done. You have to work it out.

Do you think it will work out, Jeff? You're so young and handsome and strong. You've got hope and faith and confidence, don't you, Jeff? You don't believe that we should cultivate our garden, do you?

Are we in a spiritual depression? It isn't all pleasure and self-indulgence, is it? Life can't be simply a matter of easing pain and having fun, can it? Everyone wants to go sailing or walk the beach. That's all very well, but we need a clashing together of ideas in San Francisco, don't you think? There's such a desperate longing for tranquility. Except, of course, for those who are angry. But anger isn't very inspiring, is it?

It's all so difficult to comprehend. Oh dear, I am getting far too philosophical. Look at the time! And you have been sitting there so patiently, listening to this monologue of mine. I'm so glad we were introduced, Jeff. I'm so glad we've had this opportunity to get acquainted. We're going to have other opportunities. Of course I have my box for the season. Next week I will be going with my little group, though. But soon the symphony will open. Then the ballet. Then, of course, the Spring Opera and Stern Grove concerts.

Tomorrow I'm going to my Mozart group. Then in the evening to hear the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. I just keep running, running, as long as my strength holds out.

Perhaps, if you're free, we can arrange to spend another lovely evening. Meanwhile, I must plan my trip abroad. There is so much to do you wouldn't believe it. I really should have a secretary.

The brandy is getting to me now. It's such a bore getting tired. I'll be up at the crack of dawn tomorrow. There's the flower show, if I can squeeze it in. I suppose I shouldn't be greedy and try to do too much.

Once again, dear Jeff, thank you so much for a lovely evening.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Portrait of Tracy

By Elliott Joseph

Reprinted from California Living
San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle

Photo By Roz Joseph

Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

July 2010

Sometimes I wish I never wanted to paint. What about photography? Ansel Adams. Imogen Cuningham. You could be the world's greatest woman photographer, age 21. Hold up the camera, and click! A work of art. If only there weren't so many photographers. Everybody, I mean everybody, has a camera. Click! Click!

Who cares about painting today? I like that little part. What else was she wearing on her right wrist? This will work. You're a genius. Forget photography. You don't know which end of the camera to look into anyway. Just keep on painting. You're the new Picasso. Age 21.

There's Jerry. "Hi, Jerry." He's so crazy. Cute, but crazy. He paints circles. Soft circles. He says they're not circles. Canvas after canvas of circles that are not circles. I can't believe it.

Do you have to be crazy to be an artist? I hope not. I am so hopelessly sane. So deliciously lucid. I think so clearly it's positively frightening! Loony bin, next stop. Paint, paint. Never give up. If we give up, art will die. Die, die, die. Dead, dead, dead.

Paint, paint, paint, you super gorgeous genius, and save the world, the Bay, the Mission District, and let's hear it for Yerba Buena!

There's Gordon. I can't stand that man. "You can go into advertising," he said. A fine thing for an instructor in Fine Arts to tell a fine, Fine Arts student. The pimple! Do I have to develop a heavy set of arrogance to defend myself from people like that? I am easily bruised, you inferior superiors. Oh, look at that blue. It's so wrong. It's so wrong! Maybe Gordon is right. Maybe I should go down to Batten, Barton, Honig, Harrington and Thompson. After all, some of my best friends are in advertising.

Is that all we are, illustrators, bartering our ideas for food? Is that what I am going to be, an illustrator? Is that why I came to the Institute? Is that why I paint until I think I am going blind?

Oh, oh, here comes Esposito. That man frightens me. Oh my God, he's looking at my painting. If he says anything, I'll die. I'll just die. I am not going to look at him. I am not going to acknowledge his presence. There he goes. The monster, he didn't even say a word!


Thank you. Thank you. Oh, thank you. Yes, my instructors lavish praise on me. You are so kind. Oh, it really isn't that good. It is? You're just saying that. You really mean it's the best thing you have ever seen in your entire life? Thank you, Mr Frankenstein, thank you Mr. Fried, you really are outstanding critics.

I am such a phony, such a sick, sick phony. I searched for a garret, and found a two bedroom flat in Pacific Heights. I force myself to suffer. Send me no money, father. I shall steal the little clothing I need. If I am hungry I will shoplift. Don't worry, I can take care of myself.

I hate my job. I hate making Cafe Borgia and cappuccino. I will never drink coffee again as long as I live.

Tiny, tiny stroke. Once over very, very, very, very lightly. Careful, dammit. That's all right. Painted with an eyelash. What am I saying. What am I not saying? Don't think. For God's sake, don't think.

I could always go back to selling waterbeds on Broadway. At least that was fun. That freak and all those people from Nebraska. Why do they come to Broadway anyway? A waterbed in Nome? No, that's Alaska. The time that guy tried to get me on that waterbed. "I just want to see if it's possible," he said.

Why couldn't I sculpt? Because it's a silly little word, sculpt, that's why. And besides, I'll be able to go to Los Angeles or New York, and sell this canvas to a forger for a very small fortune, who can then auction it to the People's Republic of China, so that Avery Brundage can be so impressed that he will switch to collecting young, beautiful painters from the San Francisco Art Institute, and the world of art will say, "Lo and behold, Tracy What's-Her-Name, she'd be all right if her painting wasn't out of date ten minutes before the canvas dried."

Actors are the only people in San Francisco who are worse off than painters. I am going to do something about your eye, changing lady of my portrait. I have looked at your two eyes, your one sad and your one happy, your one mad and your one glad, your one lost and your one won, your one tossed and your one fun, and I am going to do something right this minute.

What are they looking for, those galleries? Why do they tempt us with success?

That eye. That eye.

Lady of my painting, can I feel your body through your blouse? Are you warm? Are you breathing a little more heavily than usual?

Bessie walked to Vista Point. Twenty-two shades of gray in the silver sunset. She wouldn't have done it unless - but who knows why they do it? You're dead now, Bessie. Dead. What does that mean, anyhow? Some want to live. I want to live.

You've got to have luck. Maybe it's all a matter of luck. Ben painted Aunt Lara twenty years ago as Mother Earth, a nineteen-year-old girl. And now Lara has become Mother Earth. That's genius.

If they don't buy it, it's not important as not letting me paint. You don't have to buy it! Do you hear me out there? No offense. If you don't want it on Union or Geary or Sutter, I'll simply take it to 57th Street and have John Canaday insist that I get a Guggenheim.

That boy was kind of nice. I told him I was going one block. He got out of the car, took a long, disbelieving look at me and said I should be ashamed of myself. Then he took me by the hand and walked me up the hill. Will he call me?

Everybody at Perry's says they never go there, and they never dress like that. What was that story? "A Clean, Well Lighted Place." Why are we so afraid to be alone? We are the topless generation. No head. It's weird. Four out of five people I meet are from the East.

What if I made both eyes happy-sad-happy?

The library upstairs is so clean. Books are so clean. Ideas are so crisp when they're written down. Look at this place. Nothing crisp about Studio 116. "Do not remove!" "Paint for Jesus!" You could put a frame around this floor and get a fortune for it. Oh look, somebody's painted the bulletin! "College of the San Francisco Art Institute. Offering the Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in filmmaking, painting, photography, print-making, and sculpture/ceramics." Ah, the fun life of art. "Abandon all hope, ye that enter."

There's Ted. He's really good. He doesn't look like an artist. The enemy of art is the artist who looks the part. Do I? Am I too happy? Sometimes not knowing why or how I am alive tears me apart with fear. So why am I so happy? Wait, there's plenty of time. You won't always forget so conveniently.

Wipe the extra paint on your sleeve. Mix and match, not so precisely, not so exactly. You used to get less paint under your nails, when you bit them.

"Hi, Ted. What? Do you think so? Thanks. I like the thing you're working on now. Really good. True, we are all geniuses. How can a genius not get a passing grade? Even from Esposito. Keep struggling."

I'll bet Ted would be a great teacher. Another year to get my degree. Is there life after graduation? There's something about getting a degree in painting that's silly. Where would I have gone if I didn't come to San Francisco? They say this is the best part of your life. So why not end it at twenty-one? Technique, technique, technique. The message, the message, the message. Whatever happened to the happening? Art. What is art? That's for the critics and the teachers to decide. That particular changing moment of that particular life is for you to decide. They decide if you decided right. They judge. You are the judged. Will I play an imaginary zither to my paintings, like that old woman I saw on Beach Street? Let's sing to the canvas and the glory of art.

Where would I take my dear little brother if he came here? What would I show him? Pretty little Union Street? Ghirardelli Square? Things all nicely decorated to sell? Is that the only answer to filth and poverty? Am I getting all this in that eye? No, that's what a background, an environment - you should excuse the expression - is for. The socio-psychological-cultural milieu. When you put it that way, you don't put it. So just paint your mistresspiece and then go to your friend's concert on Maiden Lane and stare at the hat on the sidewalk so it will fill all the way up with money. One person, one single person listening is enough. Play your heart out. Keep your beat. Count if you have to, but keep on playing. Never, never open that valve to nothingness, the way they did at that party. That can't be the way. That's what beer used to be for, and now the new way is faster and different, but not so different.

If Jack would only put some paper in the printer when he writes that novel. But there will always be Wendy who can play so that you wonder how it all can happen, and be grateful that your egg was swimming at the right time. On Maiden Lane and at the Faire she plays in her sandals and flowing robe. On the stage at San Francisco State, pardon me, Cal State San Francisco, she's neat and formal and her hair is civilized. And she's part of a bigger sound that speaks to many people one at a time. And her eyes dart up at the conductor and back at the music.

I can't get up in the auditorium and tell everyone how she helped me, when I kicked the bed and cut my hair, telling me not to say anything when Tim said he was leaving. He was going to stop working for praise, and was going to Los Angeles to get on a TV series about a successful young beautiful actor in San Francisco. Then he finally said that he didn't study Chekhov and Shakespeare to do that.

Why does a man need victories, so many victories?

What did I study? Where did I look? Music and Art High School. Visual Arts. The Brooklyn Museum. The Whitney. Modern Art. The Metropolitan. The Louvre. The Rijksmuseum. The National Gallery. The Prado. Venice. Florence. Rome. The fields of Arles. The faces of my mother and father. This woman, this lady of my painting. This changing woman. The olive trees of Toledo. The stones. The woods. The inaccessible light. The walls. The blues, rich, trumpeting, blinding. Soften them. Soften them. Just beyond control. A wildness that isn't wild. Confusion that isn't confused. We are both witness and victim.

"Light, more light," said Goethe. Just enough on the canvas. Not one bit more. It travels fast enough itself. You are not being painted to be hung, my lady of the painting, but to remain on the easel. You are never quite finished. Your blood is on my arms. You comfort me. You satisfy me, when I don't understand. You feed and house me. I don't need to worship or escape into the noise or oblivion of shock and tastelessness. You are my medicine, my law, my social service, my Ph.D. You free me, and I am grateful. Lady of my painting, soon I won't know you as I think I know you now. I won't know what it is that we want from each other. You are different every time I look at you.

Here comes Esposito! Who is that with him? They're coming this way. The four of them. They're coming here. They're all going to look at you, my lady of the painting. They want to see you, my candidate for the museums of San Francisco. Are you ready?

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Other Pebble Beach

By Elliott Joseph

Reprinted from California Living
San Francisco Sunday Examiner
& Chronicle

Photos By Roz Joseph

Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

June 2010

Forty-five miles south of San Francisco, on Route 1, there is a small cove known as Pebble Beach. This fragile natural gem is not to be confused with the glamorous broad white sandy beach at Carmel further south, or the much publicized Pebble Beach Golf Course near it, along the beautiful 17-Mile Drive on Monterey Peninsula. Most people do think of the manicured greens and rolling fairways of the championship golf course when they hear the name Pebble Beach. That Pebble Beach is where celebrities and some others play, a better organized and more highly developed world.
There are no celebrities, however, on my little Pebble Beach. What local fame it has is due to the unique beauty of the hundreds of thousands of little pebbles that the sea cuts out of the accommodating rock, as it crashes and swirls and surges in the headstrong way of the waters of northern California.
The colors of these lovely stones, which the relentless surf polishes to virtual jewels, are altogether bewitching. I never fail to drop to my knees or sit among my pebbles when I'm there, and hold them in my hands, letting them fall between my fingers, enjoying the richness and sensual pleasure of their touch.
As the surf recedes over their glistening perfection it seems to say, "Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" as though it does not want the rest of the world to know of its treasure. To me the pebbles are part of an organism, and the beach seems to cry out in pain when the pebbles are taken away in the pockets or the plastic bags, or as I recently witnessed, in the pails of their misguided or unthinking admirers.
The number of stones had been dwindling over the years as so many visitors failed to resist temptation. There used to be a sign at the entrance to the beach asking that you do not take any pebbles away with you. But for a while, mysteriously, the sign was missing from its post. Until it was replaced, the silent rape went on without admonishment.
Ironically, the pebbles distract the plunderers from the exceptional tidepools that border the beach at its southern end. Situated amidst a geological fantasy of color and shape -- a moonscape in miniature, a simulated aerial view of the canyons, valleys, buttes and mountain ranges of the great American southwest -- the tidepooles contain rich worlds of tiny sea life.
When the tide is out this variegated universe is stunningly revealed in the canals and caves of the slippery rock. As the sea churns and swells at a safe distance, the temporarily still waters of the tidepools can be seen teeming with little creatures.
In their zeal to take the pebbles, the plunderers are less moved to bother the strange tidepool animals, which go on living their curious lives, oblivious to the threat of their existence.
Perhaps it is a sacrificial function that the pebbles of Pebble Beach perform, protecting the innocent snails and sea urchins from an untimely death. But how long will their own number, like the heroic citizen-soldiers of a bygone civilization, be sufficient to stand guard?

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Do you have a special beach?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Chinese Laundry Torture

By Elliott Joseph

Reprinted from Saturday Review
Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph
May 2010

Some time back I took the usual weekly bundle to my local Chinese laundry, only to make the disquieting discovery that an enigmatic, dark-haired, ageless stranger by the name of Sam Wip had bought out my old friend, Ben Chen.
Since it had taken me, when I first moved into the neighborhood, a number of painful months to acquaint Ben with the manner in which I preferred my shirts, something I have always been most particular about, I did not look with favor on the new proprietor, whose presence foreshadowed another tortuous path of tight-lipped training, disappointment, and frustration toward the seemingly impossible.
Imagine my pleasant surprise when with the most profound understanding he informed me that he was well aware of my problem and would do everything in his power to help.
The following week I found my cuffs and collars that perfect meeting of soft comfort and crisp body that I had learned to love. As I adjusted my tie around the collar of my white, 2x2, Imported Pima, which I had purchased at Saks, I noticed a small black spot just under the pocket.
"Well," I told myself, "accidents can happen to anyone. We'll give this fellow a chance."
I wore my gray striped broadcloth instead, and decided to drop off the Pima on my way to the office.
Sam greeted me with a wide smile, which he maintained throughout our short conversation.
"You wear vest?" he asked.
At this I began to grow a bit disenchanted with my new friend, but I said nothing and left the shirt hopefully.
It came back with the spot a few shades lighter. It would, I told myself this time, be all right under my vest. As I fastened my right cuff, however, I discovered a shapeless, muddy stain there. It was late and I didn't take the time to change. Besides, I thought, I would cuff up my sleeves a couple of times once I got to the office.
"They eat candy at laundry," said Sam the next day, still smiling. "And forget to wash hands." He'd see what he could do.
This time the stain was traded for a neatly sewn, small diagonal rip at the second buttonhole. To Sam's next question I admitted I never wore bow ties.
"Then everything OK," he grinned. "Nobody see."
"I'll see," I said.
He shook his inscrutable head and went on smiling.
When the shirt came back blue I drew the line.
`"Do you know how much this shirt cost?" I asked sardonically. "One hundred dollars! " I added, answering myself.
"You buy on sale?" Sam asked.
"What's that got to do with it?" I replied.
"Blue very nice," he said.
"I want my white shirt!" I shouted.
"Expensive shirt make you unhappy," he said.
"You're the one making me unhappy."
"Shirt you can afford never make you unhappy."
"I can afford the hundred dollars," I lied.
"Then why you get mad?"
"Your job is to do the shirts right!" I said. "Not give me advice."
"Shirt too expensive. Make laundry man nervous. You buy cheap shirt. Get good job."
So I went out and bought four shirts, and paid less than a hundred dollars for the lot. And you know, he hasn't gotten a mark on them!

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Too Much Impulse Appeal

By Elliott Joseph

Reprinted from PUNCH

Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

April 2010

Thanks to those motivational research experts I've gone and fallen in love with a package, the kind you find in supermarkets. It wouldn't be so bad if it were a matter of admiration, or affection. But I'm in love with it.
So much goes into package design these days, I'm told. It seems packages have to sell themselves, now that sales personnel are practically a thing of the past. Well, they've gone too far this time.
I was in the supermarket picking up a few things for myself, and there it was, on a shelf, just below eye level, about on a line with my shoulders. You wouldn't say it was beautiful exactly, but there was definitely something compelling about it.
It was a simple, slender box, principally white, but with daring dashes of red and gold tastefully worked in with crisp, clean lines of typography. A subtle, almost sensuous design outlined the promise of a shapely bottle teasingly contained inside. The whole thing had a freshness, a vitality, an aura of youth and gaiety, yet a mysterious, profoundly mature quality that seemed to understand me. I had an overwhelming desire to reach out and clutch it.
But I was ashamed of what I felt, for I didn't really need it. I turned to continue along the aisle, but I couldn't, and in a wild moment of ecstasy I plucked a package from its resting place and thrust it into my shopping cart. A hot, inexplicable feeling of satisfaction burned its way through me. Exhilarated, I completed my chores, impatient to get home.
Alone in the privacy of my own surroundings, I fell to admiring the slim little package that had suddenly come into my life.
It stood there before me, so pert, so cute, wearing a strange little smile. I actually began to talk to it. I told it personal things, things I've never been able to tell anyone. I got so lost in talking about myself, I didn't even think of noting its name.
And then a queer feeling came over me. I put my hands on the glistening box. Barely realizing what I was doing, I allowed my fingers to search for the lid. Gently, ever so gently, I opened it and reached tenderly inside for its precious contents. In a moment my hands held the treasure itself, delicately swathed in a gossamer gown of pale tissue.
In a state that was bordering on the delirious, I slowly undid the dainty wrapping until the soft, supple plastic bottle lay there naked, its rich curves nestling comfortably in my impassioned grip. I bent over to unscrew the cap and take my fill of the heady fragrance that stole from the graceful neck, my eyes closing in a delicious reverie.
It was pretty silly, of course, and the next day found me irritable and distracted. That evening, however, rationalizing my need for butter and eggs for breakfast, compulsively drawn to the supermarket, which was open late, I found myself standing ignominiously before the self-same shelf. Once again I was gripped by desire for the little package, and in an uncontrollable gesture I scooped up the entire contents of the shelf.
I paid the open-mouthed clerk and passed quickly out the door. In the apartment, I discovered I had neglected to buy the breakfast things, but I didn't care.
In the weeks that followed I found it convenient to set up a separate closet for the little packages. I had them neatly arranged, but every time I opened one up I felt I had to replace it with two the next day. I bought so many I adopted various disguises to avoid the curious stares of the clerks. In spite of the immediate satisfaction the packages gave me I grew increasingly depressed as the emptiness of my guilt-ridden compulsion wore on me. What's more, I developed an annoying tic in my left eye.
One day, desperately resolving to break myself of the habit, I walked into the store. I would prove I could muster enough self discipline to resist buying the package. No hidden persuader was going to get the best of me.
But blinded by my addiction, with shaking hand I placed one on the counter. "Just one, sir?" asked the clerk with a sneer.
You can see the low state to which I had sunk.
Somehow, after a heroic struggle, I left it there, and walked slowly, painfully, triumphantly, to the exit, both eyes tic-ing away. Stoically, I entered the bus and sat stiffly while it carried me to my stop. I managed to get upstairs, where I broke completely and opened one package after another in the wildest, most bitter orgy of my experience. It left me more dead than alive. After that Pyrrhic victory only a miracle could save me.
The next day I put on one of my best disguises, a red crewcut, and painted a thin mustache on my trembling lip, donned an elevator operator's uniform and affecting a low left shoulder and sweeping limp, careered into the supermarket, intent on replenishing my empty closet.
I arrived at the customary spot midway down the fourth aisle to find the shelf filled with detergent. Abandoning my limp, I made up and down the aisles like a lunatic, only to come upon a sight that filled me with horror.
There, staring me right in the face, in a big basket at the head of one of the aisles, were dozens of the little packages, jumbled crazily on one another. A huge garish sign nailed to a piece of wood, protruded from the mass of little boxes. "SALE!' it screamed. And the boxes -- what had happened to them? Printed boldly across each one were the words, "One dollar OFF!"
People were crowding about the display, pushing against one another, grabbing. Two, three, four at a time they took. "Say, are you buying or aren't you?" said a man trying to reach past me into the basket.
Dumbstruck, I let him brush by, and stood there transfixed as his hands opened and closed around one package after another. I was furious as I pictured them lined up in his closet.
But it had done the trick. I was free of the compulsion at last. My tic disappeared and I no longer wanted the package. It was ugly now, sullied , fortunately, by its maker's sordid sojourn into the depths of commercialism.
And then, just this evening, I was shocked to see it in its old spot again, brighter, whiter, more beautiful than ever. Flashing brilliantly across the box were the words, "NEW! IMPROVED!" With a monumental effort I managed to fight my way by, but the little package cried out to be bought, bought, bought!
And now -- I think the tic is returning.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Gift For The Language

By Elliott Joseph

Reprinted from McCall's

Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

March 2010

I have always been interested in the problem of communication. Keeping oneself from being misunderstood in one's home, by someone who speaks one's own tongue, is difficult enough. So it may not seem surprising that when faced with the prospect of a European trip, I started boning up on my languages.
My wife, who regards preparation of any kind as a pitiful waste of time, viewed my long hours of study with the tolerance of a psychoanalyst.
"You'll never learn a language by studying details," she said. " Infinitive, present indicative, imperative -- that's all nonsense. The only way to get to know a language is by grasping its mystique."
"And what," I asked, "is that?"
"Oh, that is le je ne sais quoi of Spanish or Italian."
"That's French," I said.
"Language is something you feel -- like the dance," she said, ignoring me and waving her delicate arms.
"We'll see," I said. We did.
Our first problem occurred on board the plane. We were seated next to a left-handed Spaniard. He was at the window seat on my right. I foresaw difficulty rubbing elbows at dinner in those close economy class quarters, and dove into my phrase book for help.
"Dispénseme," I began, "habla usted inglé s?"
In return he smiled pleasantly. He was an elegantly dressed man, about my age, I guessed. His proud, brooding eyes seemed typically Spanish.
"Oh, good," I said. "Say would you mind switching seats with me? It's so tight here, and..."
His smile faded instantly into the cloudy reaches of incomprehension.
My wife leaned forward and smiled. The Spaniard smiled. I smiled. After a moment of awkward silence, my wife smiled again, and moved her finger back and forth a few times, and pointed to my seat. We both stood up. He looked at me, and I smiled. I took a step toward his seat. He got into mine.
"Well, that wasn't so difficult," said my wife.
"I suppose that's what you mean by mystique," I said, calling to her past the Spaniard. "What are you going to do with Lefty now?"
She didn't seem to mind him on her right, so we left him in the middle seat. The man remained puzzled by the whole thing, and we switched back before dozing off after dinner and the movie. In Madrid he tipped his hat and strode out of our lives.
At the hotel we were taken to a dark room overlooking a narrow courtyard. I was prepared for this and said to the bellboy, a shy, handsome Spanish lad of no more than eighteen, "No tiene buena vista."
"No speak English," he said, dropping his eyes. Undaunted, I opened the phrase book and pointed right to the line. The boy looked and shrugged his shoulders. Then my wife said it.
"No tiene buena vista." Suddenly, the boy lit up.
"Ahhh," he exclaimed, "no tiene buena vista! Momento, por favor." He picked up the telephone and minutes later we were in a beautiful room overlooking the broad avenida. I gave him too generous a tip, of course, and he bowed out of the room, nodding gratefully, first at me and then at my wife.
"Tone, inflection," she said. "It's how you say it that counts."
"Sure, after I showed him the phrase book."
"Perhaps," she said, patting her hair as she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror.
Whatever the explanation, the same thing happened again and again. For some reason she was able to understand waiters when they explained the menu, taxi drivers when they described the history of some interesting site and policemen when they gave us directions.
This was as true in Italy as it was in Spain, which I was thankful for, since we would be taking a car in Rome and driving through the countryside, where the language barrier might prove formidable.
We avoided the autostrada, sticking to the smaller roads so that we could see more of the towns and the people. The sun was glorious and I was glad we had chosen a convertible for the trip. The wind rushed by crisply, and my wife leaned her, now tanned, arm over the door and faced into the breeze, letting her hair blow as we drove through the morning.
This idyllic state ended abruptly at the gate of a quiet hillside village with the dull thumping of a flat tire. I set to work changing it at once, only to discover that the spare was also flat. A tall, dark-haired man of about thirty stood watching me.
"Che peccato," he said.
"He said it's a shame," said my wife.
"Ask him if there's a garage nearby."
"Is there a garage nearby?" she asked.
"Quasi dieci minuti."
"About half a mile from here."
"Well, I guess I'll start hiking," I said.
"Ma è chiuso a l'ora di pranzo," he said.
"He said it's closed for lunch," said my wife.
"Il ristorante è vicino," he said, pointing. "Voi andare a mangiare insieme?"
"He says we might as well join him for lunch," she said. "Come on. It might be fun."
It was fun, all right. For her. She and this fellow, a doctor, it turned out, had a wonderful time. They laughed. They talked. She in English, and he in Italian. They spoke about America and Italy, and art and literature and the theater and wine and food. They spoke about wine and food interminably. I had never known she was that interested. I tried to speak to him in English once or twice, but he looked at me quizzically. Of course I couldn't understand a word he said. Well, we sat there for about two and a half hours, eating and drinking and the two of them gabbing away and slapping the table. It wasn't until about four o'clock that I got the tires fixed and we were on our way.
"I've really got to hand it to you," I said to my wife. "You have a remarkable aptitude for romance languages."
"It's what I told you," she said. "Get your nose out of tense and case and possessives. Concentrate on the spirit of what you want to say. Get into the lyricism of the language. Don't listen to the words. Listen to the music."
I'll have to admit she had me believing her. I all but threw away my books, and then looked forward to Paris to watch her slice through the subtleties of French gender with that theory of hers. There was just one thing I had overlooked. "In French," my book had said, "all things are either masculine or feminine." It set me thinking.
On our first day in Paris I observed that my wife got nowhere with our hotel's patronne, and nowhere with our chambermaid, and nowhere with our waitress. And I was about to commit her great theory to the snide wastebasket of a rational man's skepticism, when to my profound surprise I found myself applying the theory on my own, with inspiring success.
It was to me that the girl in the parfumerie addressed her remarks. It was at me that the pert receptionist at Christian Dior smiled. It was to me that the chic woman at the Café Select on the Champs Elysées talked of France and America, and art and music and wine and food.
And you know -- as I was telling my startled wife that evening -- I had never realized it before, but there is really nothing in this world as interesting, as civilized and as mysterious, too, as the wine and the food of La Belle France.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Can You Live With It?

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

February 2010

It started with the car, now a designated classic, my 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Convertible, of which I am the original owner. Miraculously, it has 296, 010 miles with the original engine, though it has had two transmissions, several starters, two valve jobs and enough repairs to have helped send my mechanic's two children to private schools, and more recently to college.

For this gorgeous vehicle -- which gets the high sign daily from the drivers of passing cars, pedestrians, policemen and bus drivers -- and children who have never seen anything like it -- and the frequent shouts I hear to "Sell It?" -- finding parts has been difficult and some times impossible.

I think the first time I heard, Can You Live With It? was from my mechanic about the door on the car's passenger side that has a temperamental lock. To repair it, the door would have to be dismantled, there would be no guarantee that the repair would work, and even a risk that the door could no longer be opened or locked. In addition, the cost would be quite high.

"Yes," I said, "I can live with it."

I realize there are actions one can take to repair things, or to try to change the difficult behavior of others, but at the same time that there could be the possibility of unintended consequences. So the nagging question must be faced. Can You Live With It?

For example.

You love your wife, but she snores. Can You Live With It?

Your cat brings you dead mice. Can You Live With It?

Your neighbor, with whom you have an otherwise good relationship, plays the loudest, most god awful music on the weekends. Can You Live With It?

Your loyal dog barks and sheds. Can You Live With It?

You get parking tickets you can't fight. Can You Live With It?

Children scream. Can You Live With It?

Newscasters shout. Can You Live With It?

It seems people are beginning to speak more and more softly, making it difficult to hear what they're saying. Even the actors on stage are no longer projecting enough. Can You Live With It?

War. Can You Live With It?

The economy. Can You Live With It?

Lies. Can You Live With It?

People on cell phones. Can You Live With It?

The way the newspaper makes you sneeze. Can You Live With It?

Your loss of height. Can You Live With It?

The weight you gain. Can You Live With It?

The misspelling everywhere. Can You Live With It?

Other people's taste, or the lack of it. Can You Live With It?

The dripping bathtub faucet that would require breaking through the tiles and the wall to fix. Can You Live With It?

The leaking windows. Can You Live With It?

The smokers. Can You Live With It?

Your mother-in-law's cooking. Can You Live With It?

The nearly maniacal laugh of some people. Can You Live With It?

Those terrible movies. Can You Live With It?

You know what I'm talking about. All those annoying, frustrating, challenging things you can't get fixed or changed. What are yours? Do you let them get to you?

Can You Live With It?

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