Saturday, January 31, 2009

False Positive?

“Bet not thy whole wad.” Basic investment tenet.

Three weeks ago, in an admittedly weak moment of “irrational exuberance”, I thought the market was heading up despite the news. But, this is the Great Recession. I didn’t even follow my own advice. Investment newsletters that I pay a lot of money for every year said there was a "strong case” that the Dow had formed a base. I could see their point.

But the November 20 Dow Theory bear market confirmation is still in effect. We have no contrary signal to indicate a change to a bull market.

So, I’m heavy in cash. On January 6, I put about 15% of my cash position into
DIAs and considered dollar cost averaging in to the potentially revived market.

I haven’t added a dime to the position since.

“Bet not thy whole wad.” No one knows. According to
Richard Russell, right now selling pressure has declined dramatically but no one wants to buy into this market. That is a very bad sign. The market cannot rally without buyers and right now no one wants a piece of this market. So it more or less glides around the slowly declining 50-day moving average.

On Thursday the Obama Administration made a terrible mistake. This stimulus idea and bailout approach is wrong. It’s wacko. The idea of raising debt to generate wealth is deeply flawed and akin to all those fools who bought houses they couldn’t afford. Of course, it started before Obama took office. But now Obama will be crucified for it if it doesn’t work. Palin in 2012? Maybe the world will end first. So, there’s hope.

I reluctantly agreed that
AIG should not have been allowed to fail. We cannot have a good economy when the financial system is in failure. But, since then we have seen the spontaneous appearance of corporate welfare on a scale previously unimaginable. This is a New Deal for Corporate America.

It is a rather remarkable moment and people can’t fathom that
the Obama coronation – for all its poetic optimism (setting aside the fact that all that money was spent for an event that ended up being a redo; I hope that’s not an ominous sign, though it is certainly a comical one to me, accentuating the waste of the whole expensive affair) – is a dream. This economy doesn’t care who is president. This is the Great Recession.

Obama impresses me in the way most liberals impress me. With his
environmental policy, with his commitment to unprecedented openness of government, his judicial ideology (though closing GITMO reflects an overly idealistic understanding of our situation), his tolerance and respect for opposition, and his policy toward science, technology, and education.

Obama is wrong about the stimulus. There’s no stimulus to it. Just check out how all those billions have "assisted" the banking industry. So far, we have committed (or will commit if the Senate approves it) about $1.5 trillion dollars out of thin air to bailout and stimulate our economy. This is unprecedented. And the layoffs keep on coming.
There is not a shred of a sign of recovery.

My personal criticism of the stimulus/bailout philosophy is that it trivalizes risk. It sends the inappropriate message that it is ok to take as much risk as you want, to be rediculous with your enterprises. No need to worry. The government will erase the consequences of your ill-formed strategies. Meanwhile, those of us who play within the contraints of risk, who take risk seriously, who plan and worry and strive to minimize financial exposure - in short, to live within our means - get nothing. That's some twisted way to run an economy.

David Brooks made an excellent point last night that Obama has blown a chance to build genuine bipartisanship by pushing an agenda that goes beyond stimulating the economy into the measure. Over $290 billion of it actually. Change has not come. The vote was along party lines. And the legislation was passed at a frenzied pace, making bipartisan support (something that requires a bit more time and finesse to achieve) all but impossible.

If immediacy was needed why not just abolish the income tax for a year? Well, there are two wars still to pay for and a growing mass of entitlement partakers.

“best and brightest” minds may have screwed us again. This time, instead of Vietnam, we would get a Greater Recession because, ultimately, this additional public debt – that’s all the damn stimulus is – might weigh us down, devalue our fiat dollar more, and sink us further.

That would be Ayn Rand's perspective. There's been some press about it recently. But, there is no greed in Atlas Shrugged. Great book but did you ever notice that? Rand's characters are pristine, cardboard idealists. It seems to me that, as much as anything, a culture of the free pursuit of self-interest got us into this mess. Who is John Galt? I think a more accurate inquiry would be who is Bernard Madoff?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

NGC 2818

Space is an interest of mine. This recently released photo from the Hubble Space Telescope is a speechless beauty. Compare this image with a previous earth-bound telescope image and you'll see why the Hubble project has been such a enlightened expression of humankind.

I have little background light around my land. We are surrounded by many acres on all sides of mostly woods and pastures. Within, say, a quarter mile in either direction there are only a half dozen houses. The nearest subdivision development is about a half mile away from my house to the north. In every other direction from my house there is no development at all but for sporadic houses separated by thousands of acres of woods and fields. This makes the sky remarkably bright and clear where I live and many nights I stand outside gazing at planets and constellations. What ever else there may be, our universe is a marvel of gas and light amidst unfathomable darkness. And silence.

NGC 2818 is the death of light, the after-star, the slow, constant, spectacle of an enormous thermonuclear explosion in our distant past, white dwarf debris expanding outward through millennium. So slow it seems not to move at all in the span of a human being.

The same image with some technical data superimposed can be
found here. NGC 2818 is so far away we cannot see it as it is today. We can only see it as it was 10,000 years ago. Tonight we see something as it was before human beings had written language. NCG 2818 is almost six light-years across. So the (planetary) nebulae is truly enormous. By comparison, our entire solar system is 0.000612401142 light years in size. You would need 10,000 solar systems to stretch across the breadth of the nebulae.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Locked on Lost

Note: This is an extremely long entry for my blog. But, length is relative. What follows is actually incredibly brief. Warning: If you don’t know the story of the TV series Lost my post contains tons of spoilers.

I don’t watch many television shows. The one series I currently follow is Lost. When Lost won the Emmy and the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Series back in 2005 it caught my interest. Jennifer and my daughter were going on an all-girls family trip to the beach so I decided to pass the weekend they were away with buying the first season on DVD.

I watched the entire season in two days. I literally couldn’t stop. It is obviously intended to be a “popular” series and has all the trappings of that…a love triangle, a lot of mystery and suspense, gripping action sequences, a gorgeous beach on a tropical island.

But, there’s more. A lot more. So much more that now, as Season Five starts, it is pretty much impossible to summarize the program except to say that there has never been a series on television with more character depth than Lost and the series has evolved into to something that only vaguely resembles the situation presented to the viewer in Season One.

The series centers around a plethora of main characters. You can’t say it is about any two or three or four of them. It’s about ALL of them. A typical episode of Lost is structured around the main story of what is happening on or due to (you’d have to know the series to understand what “due to” means) the tropical island and the “back-story” of the life of a different character each episode. The storyline advances as more and more character depth is presented (over the course of several seasons). The featured characters rotate so you learn about each at more or less the same pace.

This makes Lost incomprehensible by now to any wannabe or curious viewers and an absolutely must-see weekly event for many millions in the US (many more world-wide) that are totally hooked on the ride.

For example: Here’s my brief synopsis of my favorite character, John Locke (does that name ring a bell?). Locke (played in Emmy award winning fashion by Terry O’Quinn) was just another passenger on Oceanic Flight 815 returning to Los Angeles from Australia when the plan crashed on September 22, 2004. Miraculously 48 passengers survived.

Early on Locke seems remarkably content about his tropical surroundings. Though uncertain as to what to do next, he gradually becomes a hunter of the wild boar that are plentiful on the island. He manages to kill with select knives from a collection discovered conveniently (this is television) in the plane’s wreckage. Initially, the survivors feast on the meat Locke provides.

But Locke, like every other character on the show, has a secret. It is revealed in the jaw-dropping fourth episode of the first season. When Locke got on the plane he was in a wheelchair, paralyzed. But, upon surviving the crash he could suddenly walk again. I say “again” because in “flashbacks” of later episodes featuring him we see him living a normal, mobile life. How did he come to be paralyzed? Well, we have to wait for that.

Locke has lived a frustrating life. His mother was a teen who abandoned him. He was raised in foster homes. He’s never held a job of consequence. The few loves of his life all ended in disappointment. He is a bright, adventurous individual trapped in a mediocre life without any direction, largely an outcast from society.

Until he meets his father. A genuine friendship develops between them. Locke is happy for the first time in his life. His father turns out to be a successful man financially. The two of them go hunting and share similar interests. But his father is going to die. He needs a kidney transplant. John, naturally, freely offers one of his own. The operation is successful but…

…Locke’s father abandons him after receiving his kidney. His father is a con man and he used his son just to save his life. Locke is crushed again.

Back on the island, Locke is the most adventurous of the survivors. While most everyone else is trying to figure out how to get off the island, John ventures further in, discovering all sorts of mysteries, becoming in tune with the island, strong in his belief that he (and everyone else) was brought to this island for a purpose. He can walk again, after all. Isn’t that proof of something?

Locke becomes a man of faith. He believes in the island. He survives some of its greatest mysteries (like an attack by the island’s “smoke monster”). He trusts that the meaning of it all will somehow be clear. Eventually he discovers something very odd…a Hatch in the ground.

The Hatch cannot be opened from the outside but, ultimately with the help of others, he manages to blow it open. This unveils a whole new world for the series. It turns out the island has a half dozen or so of these underground facilities. They are remnants of an experimental community that used to live and conduct research on the island back in the 1970’s. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In The Hatch there is a timer. Every 108 minutes the timer must be reset to avoid an electromagnetic anomaly that could possibly destroy the entire island. So, John and a few others push the button to reset the clock that defuses the electromagnetic energy build-up every 108 minutes. Locke feels he has found his reason for being on the island.

But, in the course of discovering the other (abandoned) hatches Locke learns that the whole 108 minute thing might be just a behavioral experiment. In another hatch there are monitors watching The Hatch with instructions to observe the actions of those in it. He is crushed to realize that he is “just a rat in a maze”…again.

The frustrated Locke decides there is no meaning in any of it and actually prevents the few other survivors who remain faithful to pushing the button. The timer ticks all the way down and The Hatch is subjected to a violent electromagnetic release that literally implodes The Hatch and has possibly other ramifications for the island and the survivors. The electromagnetic pulse causes certain people searching for the island (because of its many special properties) to find it. And what they want could well mean the death of everyone on it.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Back in flashback-land Locke hunts down his father and attempts to prevent him from pulling off his latest con. An argument ensues and his father pushes John out of a window many stories up. John miraculously survives the fall but is paralyzed and trapped in a wheelchair.

On the island the survivors discover there are remnants of the former experimental community still inhabiting the island. They are still conducting various experiments and largely live a very modern and comfortable life with all the comforts of home in a secluded compound. They travel to and from the island by submarine. One of our survivors manages to negotiate his way off the island. But before he can leave, Locke blows up the submarine.

Locke believes that no one should leave the island. This is not some evil working in him. It is part of his faith. Naturally his actions infuriate many of the other survivors when they learn of it. But, as the survivors slowly start to come unraveled from their time on the island (which across four seasons totals about 100 days of “real time”) a helicopter is heard overhead.

Oh…but first I should tell you this. While living temporarily at the compound with the island dwellers John discovers something miraculous and horrible. Somehow, inexplicably, John’s father appears out of nowhere on the island. (Weird stuff like this is happening all the time.) The island dwellers know that Locke has been healed and they believe this is because he has a unique and special relationship to the island. In order to “prove” himself as worthy of their respect and adoration, the leader of the island dweller’s (the character of Ben) insists that John murder his father, as a sacrifice to the island.

John, the outcast, cripple, wannabe hunter, man of newfound faith, simply cannot do this. The island dwellers lose some respect for him except for one guy who has apparently been on the island a lot longer than most (the character of Alpert). Through him John learns that his father is, in fact, connected to another major character in the series. (Everyone seems to have some sort of connection with at least one other survivor of the crash only they usually aren’t aware of this – only the audience is.)

Sawyer is that other major character. Sawyer is a con man as well, inspired to become that due to the fact someone conned his mother out of a lot of money when he was just a small child. The trauma of losing all the money led to his mother’s death with little Sawyer nearby to hear it all. The child wrote a letter of vengeance that he would one day find the man who conned his mother and kill him. He has carried the letter with him since the first episode. Well, you guessed it, that con man was John Locke’s father. So, while Locke can’t kill his father he knows Sawyer can. And Sawyer does.

When Locke brings the island dwellers the corpse of his dead father, then Ben has no choice to but live up to his previous promises to John to reveal the nature of the island’s secrets – something Locke has demanded ever since meeting Ben.

Ben takes Locke to a cabin where John hears the voice of what is apparently a spirit that supposedly no one else can hear other than Ben. Ben realizes that this means his position with as leader on island is in jeopardy. He shoots Locke and leaves him for dead. But…

…the bullet penetrates through where Locke’s removed kidney would have been. If he had had his kidney it probably would have killed him. But as it is, he was only wounded and, as we’ve seen, the island heals him rather quickly.

Now, back to that helicopter. A rescue team has come to save the survivors, finding them with the aid of the large electromagnetic pulse released by the imploding Hatch (which at this point in the story happened two seasons ago). Only Locke doesn’t believe they are genuine. He manages to hobble around well enough to kill the leader of the rescue team before she can deliver an important message about their location on the island. This creates even more tension between Locke’s extreme faith and actions and most of the other survivors.

He begs the survivors to follow him back to the compound where the islanders were living (they have abandoned it when they learned that the “rescue team” was coming). Locke claims that it’s the only safe place he knows until he can think of something else to do. Again, he acts without actually having a clearly defined plan. He simply trusts a way will be shown to him.

It turns out that the opposite of his intent occurs. The rescue team, in fact, is composed of two groups. One group consists of scientists who are fascinated by learning about the mysterious qualities of the island. They end up with the survivors that did not follow Locke’s group. Instead, John and his people are left to deal with a team of mercenaries sent in to kill everyone – except Ben who they are instructed to take prisoner.

Very few survive the attack on the compound. But John and several other major characters do. Ben tells Locke that John is now the leader of the dwellers. They will follow him. The power of the island has passed to him. At the end of Season Four Locke sets off, alone, to be welcomed by these strange people, some of whom have been on the island for a very long time.

Oh yeah, then the island disappears. The whole thing simply vanishes leaving nothing but open sea. Oh...another thing. Locke is dead. I guess I’ll have to stay tuned for what’s up with all that. Season Five starts tomorrow night. I can’t wait.

Lost is unique is so many ways. One significant distinction is that everyone affiliated with the series has agreed that it will end after Season Six. So, the show has a definitive timeframe, allowing the writers to create a definite story and character arc. I don’t know if this has ever happened before with a major network television series. Anyway, everything that happens is leading up to a conclusion already known to the producers.

Oh, the love triangle I mentioned at the beginning? Well, that’s Jack, Kate, and Sawyer. And that’s a whole other story. Actually three stories among a dozen more just as complex and intertwined as Locke’s. That’s Lost.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

First Feast

Last night Jennifer and I went to Mark and Eileen’s home in Atlanta for what has become an annual tradition with some of our closest friends. We call it the First Feast because the gathering is centered around a scrumptious array of appetizers, main courses, and desserts that everyone brings. Though closely proximate to Christmas and New Years, it is technically the first time in the year we get together like this.

Music and conversation permeates all of our gatherings. We enjoyed a KFOG radio stream then switched to all sorts of tunes from a nice Pat Matheny mix to old Van Morrison. Beethoven even made a brief appearance. We’re a rather eclectic bunch.

Lively discussions were scattered through the dozen or so people there and could leap and change topic without a moment's notice. I had a great talk with Clint about Proust and looked at some photos he had recently taken, with Erin about digital cameras, blogging, and what it might be like to be in a plane crash, with Mark and Lyle about a New York Times article on architectural changes to the White House, with Eileen about the specifics of what she was preparing in the kitchen, with Jean about tension build-ups and how noticing them in the body helps to deal with stress in general, with Jennifer and Will about Obama and health care reform, with Diane about the behavior of dogs and whether it was right or not for Senators to be appointed rather than elected, with Bryan about chopping wood, his new furnace, and future plans to remodel his house. It was all kinda random like that but always entertaining and interesting.

Naturally as the wine and beer and port continued to flow things tended toward the silly a bit more.

For the appetizers I experienced a wide range of olives, crackers, fruits, and cheeses. The Saint Andre was excellent as was a special blueberry and jalapeno fruit spread on nut thin crackers. My favorite appetizer was the fresh dried dates with Humboldt Fog cheese on them. I had more than my fair share of those. There were also these wonderful roasted beets which I discovered served as a superb palette cleanser to recalibrate for the next taste sensation.

The main courses were served about 9:30. Let’s see if I can remember the setup…fresh tossed salad with homemade blue cheese dressing, fresh-made monkey bread, rice with black-eyed peas, green beans and kale, broccoli and cauliflower casserole, baked salmon with brown sugar, thyme, and coriander, and veal served with sauteed fennel and shallots.

The dining room was extended with three tables and assorted chairs (from cushy to plastic, hey, our sense of classy is all in the mind’s eye), wonderful assorted candlelight, topped with party favors that were enjoyed after most everyone had their second helping.

Then, amidst a sprinkling of feigned complaints, desserts were served. Oatmeal and honey cookies, followed by a prune bundt cake with an orange glaze, followed by Mark’s mother’s “award-winning” frozen toffee pie perfectly augmented with plentiful amounts of strong French-pressed coffee.

To the uninitiated, it all might sound more than slightly decadent. But, though extraordinary for the moment, it was, in fact, typical of our gatherings. A lot of booze and ideas tossed around punctuated with multiple feeding frenzies. Diane summed it all up best when she called the wide variety of fare a “foodgasm”.

Cheers to all our friends for a memorable evening, the highlight so far of this young 2009.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

2001 in 2009

As I mentioned in a recent post, I had no Blu-ray discs when I purchased my PlayStation 3. Since then I have purchased a few. One is an excellent BBC documentary series on Planet Earth, another is the superb final cut of Blade Runner, and third is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The high-definition beauty of these discs is a real feast for the eye visually. Everyone knows about the improved quality of image (and sound) in Blu-ray. I was a bit skeptical, however, when it came to
2001. That film came out in 1968. How good could you make an image look that didn't have the benefit of today's computerized technology?

I was impressed. The clarity brings back the original, almost breath-taking, richness of
one of my favorite films.

Kubrick, with Sir Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Ridley Scott, and - more recently - Christopher Nolan, tops my very short list of favorite directors. I have all his films either on VHS or DVD.

I remember when I first saw 2001. I was about 9. I saw it with one of my best friends at the time. Being that age we sat on the front row of the theater, of course. Due to some mix-up I don't now recall we came in to the film during its intermission. (2001 has a "traditional" epic film structure of an overture of music, an intermission, and a musical presentation after The End.) So, what I saw was the last half of the film, first. Then the beginning.

It didn't matter. The story was beyond my comprehension at that age. Many adults don't get the film at all either.

2001 is a highly visual experience - some one called it a silent movie in the sound era - with very little dialog. It blew my mind in terms of its special effects and its whole science-fiction aspect. I had never seen a sci-fi film so realistic looking. I would go so far as to say 2001 was one of the fundamental reasons I went on to study film in college years later. Certainly, it has influenced several generations of visually appreciative artists and admirers.

Through the years, I have come to increasingly appreciate the deeper and broader metaphorical and philosophical issues inherent in the "space movie". What it suggests about the nature of God, the nature of humanity, of intelligence, of technology, etc. All these themes and more are liberally explored throughout the course of the slowly paced, richly photographed, work of Art.

The weakest aspect of the film is the depiction of the Earth itself. You have to remember that this film was made largely in 1966-1967. No one had ever seen the Earth in its entirety at that time. It was only after 2001's release that the famous Apollo astronaut "Earthrise" photo (and others like it) informed us of exactly the color and shade of our "pale blue dot".

Otherwise, the famous scene featuring the space station presented with Strauss' "The Blue Danube", the various shots of Jupiter with its moons, the first spaceship into deeper space, the landing at the Clavius moonbase, all these compare strongly with the best special effects of today. That's why I wanted to see it on Blu-ray. They are outstanding.

It is so easy to get carried away with the ground-breaking special effects. All Kubrick films are visually interesting. You react to what you see, even if nothing is really going on with the film's story. However, after you consider the story later you see a wonderful depth to it. This is almost staged acting. Scenes specifically construct a series of ideas Kubrick wishes to convey. Kubrick wants to make you think while you are being visually entertained.

One of Playboy Magazine's most famous interviews in its long history of publication was with Kubrick just after the release of 2001 in 1968. The interview covers a wide range of ideas presented in 2001. (Being 9 at the time of seeing the film, it would be several years later that I would be exposed to this interview. It would inform me of some of the film's broader possibilities.)

At one point in the interview Kubrick states something that gives you an example of the kinds of things 2001 is offering for the viewer's consideration which I find personally appealing.

"Playboy: If life is so purposeless, do you feel it's worth living?

"Kubrick: Yes, for those of us who manage to cope with our mortality. The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. ...The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death - however mutable man may be able to make them - our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light." Stanley Kubrick: Interviews; (page 73)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Goodbye Smoltzy: The national pastime in past tense

Today the Braves let John Smoltz go to the Boston Red Sox. The last bastion of former Atlanta pitching glory is gone. Time was when the thought of facing Smoltz along with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine put fear in the minds of any opponent. Maddux and Glavine have been gone for years (though Tommy tried to make a go of it with us last season).

So, the Braves really have no pitching of that caliber left and today many Braves fans vented their frustration, including Chipper Jones. With all that has happened to the game and to the organization, Smoltz's exit seems just another symptom of why I prefer to live my baseball in the past tense.

I remember the first time I went to an Atlanta Braves game. It was
August 28, 1966. You might not believe that I remember that game but I do. Back then the Braves had a huge four-story (or so) smiling Indian brave in right center field that would move its mechanical arm with a tomahawk up and down whenever the Braves did something good in the game. Meanwhile, over in the left field bleachers, Chief Knockahoma had his tee-pee. It bellowed smoke out of the top of it if a Brave hit a home run. And if the opposing team hit a home run the Chief would come out of his tee-pee with a shot gun, take aim, and fire a very loud blank at the dastardly opposing hitter as he rounded second base.

Can you imagine that today? An employee of the Braves pretending to shoot a member of the opposing team during a game? Ah, things were simpler then.

I'm not really a baseball fan. Sure I enjoy reading about baseball, talking baseball, watching the Ken Burns series on baseball (which is really as much about baseball's labor relations as anything else) and I usually catch the World Series every year. But, more than baseball itself I am into the Braves. I have always rooted for the Braves. Even when they lost over 100 games in 1977 and 1988 the Braves were dear to my heart.

So, I've paid my dues. I didn't mind winning 14 consecutive division titles or the World Series in 1995. I didn't mind that one bit. Because I knew that someday things would change. Every dog has his day.

But, the luster for the Atlanta Braves faded a bit in 1994 with the strike. I recall listening to a sports talk station one evening as the strike approached. The announcer and his guest were taking plenty of calls. But, as I listened I heard the game of baseball being referred to as "entertainment", as a "business", no one was talking about the "sport" of the thing.

I then realized that major league baseball was no longer a sport. It was no different from a movie or a music CD or a three-ring circus. It was just entertainment. I dialed the talk show and waited about 45 minutes before they took my call. All I had to say was that if baseball is no longer a "sport" then there could no longer truly be any "fans". Instead, against my will due to the strike, I was now forced to become a "consumer" and react to the what baseball had become the only way a consumer not buying the product.

I haven't been to a half dozen Atlanta Braves games since. Though I do still enjoy the game by supporting the Rome Braves, Atlanta's Class A affiliate.

Then, of course, came the steroid controversy. Nothing pained me more than to watch Barry Bonds (whose feet grew 2 and a half sizes after the age of 35) overtake Hank Aaron's home run record. One of the great things about baseball used to be that you could make comparisons through the eras. But, now in addition to becoming just another form of "entertainment" the game became (and probably will remain so with more sophisticated, difficult to detect steroids) a freak show for asterisk kings.

So, goodbye Smoltzy from a former major league baseball consumer. I would shed a tear for the way you were treated but, hey, it's just business right? And what is all the whining about from the delusional "fans" who think in sentimental terms more appropriate to the idea of a glorious game before artificial turf and the designated hitter, when the postseason was played in the light of day and did not feature the shadows of "juiced" players in prime time feeding the self-serving media machine?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Rain!...and time to buy!

The NOAA Storm Total Map indicating
6+ inches of rain in our area for today.

The drought is over for now. Over the past couple of weeks we have gotten regular rains and I've witnessed local ponds rising. Today it rained over 6 inches here. I don't remember getting so much rain in 24 hours. More is due tonight.

One local pond on a nearby farm that I use as a gauge for how low we are on rainfall was about two feet below its banks at the beginning of December. Today as I drove home the entire pond - banks and all - was underwater along with about 4 acres of pasture surrounding it.

We needed the rain desperately after what has effectively been a two-year drought. But we didn't need to make up for it all at once!

My daughter is so excited. About 8 tonight all her friends started texting each other. School has been cancelled tomorrow due to flooding in some areas. We were fortunate. A torrential downpour early this afternoon washed some of the gravel from the end of our driveway into the ditch leaving about a 12 foot long trench about a foot wide. I'll have to dig some of that out later. Hopefully that's the worst of it.

On another note, conditions in the stock market are such that it was time to start buying back in today. So, I took a position and plan to add to it over the next couple of weeks. I think, in defiance to the horrible economic news about auto sales and more lay-offs, this market's going up in the coming weeks. Forget the news. The market marches to its own tune. I'm in.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

"The precious little patch of yellow wall"

View of Delft, Jan Vermeer, 1660

Marcel Proust wrote a truly epic novel about ordinary life infused with a richness of experience. Of nature, of sensual pleasure, of jealousy, of habit, of desire, of loss, of philosophy, of art, of every passing moment of being aware.

Art is experienced in Proust at a technical, emotional depth as an inherent part of being human, though his character Francoise offers the reader a humanity without much taste for Art. Certainly, Proust was one of the most intimate writers in western literature, surpassing, say, Hemingway (another brilliant writer I should become better acquainted with).

This respect for the human expression of Art into Being is, to me, fundamental to my enjoyment of In Search of Lost Time.

One of the best Christmas presents I got this year was from Jennifer’s parents. It was a book of paintings that Proust either refers to or discusses in some detail through the long course of his novel. Paintings in Proust contains well over 300 color prints of a vast array of paintings.

Proust visited the Louvre often in Paris during his teens and twenties and had a bright mind for Art. His impressions of many of the canvases he admired are expressed throughout the novel. An amazing accomplishment finally collected in this new book.

One could consider Proust from a wide variety of perspectives. The Art of writing (through the character of Bergotte) or the Art of music (through the character of Vinteuil) are certainly both strong perspectives expressed in Proust. As are the internal demons of possessiveness and force of habit.

The intimacy of the Art of painting (through the character of Elstir) is explored often in the novel but perhaps not more intimately than in the death of Proust’s fictional great writer Bergotte. He dies while viewing a painting by Vermeer.

“At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic’s article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, this precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of yellow wall.”

That yellow wall was Bergotte’s last conscious motivation before he died from complications of “a fairly mild attack of uraemia”. His death seems almost sentimental to our postmodern mind. But Proust has enough of a edge to pull things like this off similarly to how Mahler gets away with his moments of sentimentality throughout his body of symphonies.

But what is more intimate than death? And how better to represent Art’s essential quality to the dignity of human experience than to have it rendered as the final experience of an artist who, upon seeing the painting, becomes troubled by the quality of his own work? Then Bergotte considered the “precious tiny patch of yellow wall” and died. There is no closer way for the human mind to touch Art (though there are other ways).

I have considered paintings hung in galleries closely all my life. I’ve always had a fascination for visual arts. I majored in a visual art in college. So this book Paintings in Proust is a real wonder of a work, showing us clearly how vast is the mind of Proust in his novel for this is but one tiny aspect of what Proust portrays and the ideas he presents throughout In Search of Lost Time.

And understanding how a patch of yellow can be so meaningful and significant is what appreciating great art is all about. It is a moment, among many moments, that can grant Being a meaning.

Proust visited the Vermeer exhibition in Paris the year before his own death. A photographer captured him standing outside the gallery on the occasion. These are the last photographs we have of Proust alive. Proust called Vermeer's View of Delft "the most beautiful painting in the world". (William C. Carter, page 753; Jean-Yves Tadie, pages 744-745)