Monthly Archives: March 2013

From Steinbeck to Hane to Bach, by way of Ixtlan and Li Po


Culture is a slippery slope. One thing leads to another. A book leads to a poem, or a piece of music, or a painting, and suddenly you’re haring off after something else entirely.

We’re coming up on the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. Even if you don’t know him, you know his music. Even if you don’t like classical music and avoid it like the plague, you’ve heard something by Bach. One of the pleasures of getting to known the man’s immense body of work is the little epiphany you get every now and then, realizing something he wrote — Toccata and Fugue, anybody? — has been imitated and recycled so many times that it has permeated the cultural aquifer.

We’re coming up on Bach’s birthday, and at the top of the post is the cover of the first Bach album I ever bought — Book Two of The Well-Tempered Clavier, performed by Glenn Gould. If memory serves, I scored my copy at a long-vanished record store in the Moorestown Mall. The thing is, I wasn’t looking for The RickettsWell-Tempered Clavier, I was looking for The Art of Fugue. That’s because my favorite book at the time, the book I re-read at least three times that year, was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which I still think is the best thing he ever wrote — second only to The Pastures of Heaven. And if you’ve read Cannery Row, you know the novel is, among other things, a song of devotion and admiration for Ed Ricketts, the Monterey-based marine biologist Steinbeck used as the basis for Doc, the novel’s scientist hero. Along with being a scientist, heavy drinker, and epic lover of women, Doc was also passionately fond of The Art of Fugue, and while the teenaged me could at the time only dream of indulging in the first three, I could damn well score myself a copy of Bach’s valedictory work.

Only I couldn’t find The Art of Fugue in any record store, and in the pre-Amazon landscape of the mid-Seventies it was a rare and lovely thing to find a record store willing to do special orders. Even so, I’d been wanting to take a crack at Bach — I approached album purchases as a form of self-improvement back then — so I thumbed through the bins in search of something that looked promising. That’s when I saw the angel-coiffed Bach staring back at me.

Another of my high school, fixations, along with Steinbeck, was the works of Carlos Castaneda and his (probably imaginary) encounters with the Yaqui Indian seer Don Juan Matus. The covers of A Separate Reality and Journey to Ixtlan sported the magnificent cover art of Roger Hane, whose style was so instantly recognizable that I had to get that particular Bach album. There was even a full-sized wall poster of the cover illustration. Hane also painted the coversJourney_to_Ixtlan for the 1970 Collier paperback edition of The Chronicles of Narnia. (Hane was killed by muggers in 1974, and when the fourth Don Juan book, Tales of Power, came out I was pleased to see the cover artist had written “For Roger” over his own signature.) So I proceeded to work my way through the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, and when The Art of Fugue finally turned up, I found it to be every bit as good as Steinbeck (and Doc) had promised.    

Cannery Row, as well as the essay “About Ed Ricketts” from The Log from the Sea of Cortez, included paens to the work of Li Po, and in due course I found the collected works of that drunken Chinese poet. Another bell ringer. 

See what I mean? It’s a slippery slope, this culture business. One thing leads to another. And all this because we’re coming up on Bach’s birthday.

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Surf’s up

Now that the Jersey Shore has taken yet another pounding from a winter storm, it may be time to spend some idle moments with this N.J. Flood Mapper, prepared by Rutgers University to show the effect of rising sea levels on selected areas of the Shore. Let’s just I’m revising my fantasy of owning a house by the ocean.

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My dog Sadie, founding member of Clan Westie and endless source of delight to anyone who knew her, is gone. After years of steadily declining health and mobility, she reached the point where a dog of her age (she was sixteen in dog years) could only look forward to more pain, despite the meds we had been giving her for the past year. Last night I petted and soothed her as the veterinarian gave her a sedative, waited for her to fall asleep, then administered the final shot.

In the comedy troupe that was Clan Westie, Sadie was the bossy one. She would fix you with her piercing black Westie eyes and subject your eardrums to a series of imperious yips that demanded instant obedience and delivery of whatever service she wanted at that moment. Late in the life, that usually meant she wanted to be lifted onto the couch. 

Her biggest problem in life was that Wee Laddie, the Westie who came home with her, was a bit heavier and a lot more rambunctious. When he decided to open up a can of whoop-ass on her, she gave as good as she got, but she would use strategy. When he started charging around the back yard, she would stand under one of the lawn chairs — not to hide, mind you, but to keep her opponent from triumphing through sheer momentum. Whenever he slowed to look for a way in, she would  spring out and scrap with him.

Sadie was the nicest birthday present I’ve ever gotten, given to me in the nicest way imaginable. My wife at the time came to get me, ordered me to wear a blindfold, then told me to wait in the parking lot, still wearing the blindfold. After about five minutes, a soft weight was placed on my chest and Sadie covered my face with the first of many kisses.

Sadie was the scourge of squirrels — or would have been, if only one had fallen from the trees. She would stand at the foot of a tree, tail held high like Cyrano’s panache, barking warnings of certain doom to the squirrels looking down from branches about twenty feet up. She also had cat issues, but since she wasn’t stupid, she only chased them when the Wee Laddie was beside her. This happened early on, when she and the Wee Laddie staged almost weekly jailbreaks from the back yard until I instituted Stalag 17 security measures.

She had a soft, silky coat, not as coarse as the other dogs, and it was very hard to stop petting her. I can feel the texture on the palms of my hands as I write this.

Her decline was terribly sad, because she had been so funny and scrappy. Her hind legs grew all but unusable, and she suffered spells in which she wandered, dazed, making little screeching yelps. The screaming stopped once we put her on meds, but she was only conscious long enough to eat and do her thing outside. Near the end, her hindquarters never stayed up, even after we lifted them and held her steady for a few beats.

When I gave the go-ahead, the veterinarian placed Sadie on the floor, on a warm thick towel, so she wouldn’t feel anxious about being on the high metal table. As she relaxed into her sleep, the lines of her body softened. She looked like her old self again. She had been in such bad shape for so long, I’d almost forgotten what she looked like in her prime. She went to sleep with hands soothing and stroking her, with voices she knew and trusted speaking her name and telling her she was a good girl. The doctor administered the final dose, then listened to her heart through the stethoscope. “She’s gone,” he said.

We bring these little souls into our lives and look after them, and after a time we realize that they are looking after us, as well. Sadie was one of my best and smallest friends, and I’m confident she spent every waking moment of her life certain in the knowledge that she was loved. That’s a comforting thought right now as I blink at this blurry screen, missing her terribly. When I’m done here, I’m going to grab the Wee Laddie and give him a belly rub he’ll never forget. Because what would be more appropriate?          

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