Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West by William McKeen

This is a book about a scene, and the scene was Key West in the late ’60s-’70s, centered on Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, Hunter Thompson, Jimmy Buffett, and some lesser known but memorable characters.  I tried to think of other books about scenes, and came up with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind, and maybe Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh, about Van Morrison’s Boston.  Then of course there’s Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, referenced here in the subtitle, a mean-spirited but often beautiful book about 1920s Paris.

I was drawn to this book after I heard Walter Kirn talking about it on Bret Easton Ellis podcast (McGuane is Kirn’s ex-father-in-law, which must be one of life’s more interesting relationships).  I’ve been drawn lately to books about the actual practicalities of the writing life.  How do other writers do it?  How do they organize their day?  What time do they get to work?  What do they eat and drink?  How do they avoid distraction?

From this book we learn that Jim Harrison worked until 5pm, not 4:59 but 5pm, after which he cut loose.  McGuane was more disciplined, even hermitish for a time (while still getting plenty of fishing done) but eventually temptation took over, he started partying with the boys, eventually was given the chance to direct the movie from his novel 92 In The Shade.  That’s when things got really crazy.  The movie was not a big success.

“The Sixties” (the craziest excesses bled well into the ’70s) musta really been something.

On page one of this book I felt there was an error:

That’s not the line.  The line (from the Poetry Foundation) is:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
but maybe I’m being a hopeless stickler and we can translate Burns from Scots into English whenever we feel like it.
After that small bump, I got swept up in the rhythm and the fun of this book and enjoyed it very much.  A vacation in book form.  From this book I learned that it was Jerry Jeff Walker who introduced then-failing country singer Jimmy Buffett to Key West, when Buffett went to Miami for what he thought was a gig, found out he wouldn’t be playing for two weeks, so the two of them took an impromptu road trip.

Part of what these writers found special about Key West, beyond the Hemingway and Tennessee Williams legends, was it just wasn’t a regular, straight and narrow place.  Being a writer is a queer job, someone’s liable to wonder what it is you do all day.  In Key West, that wasn’t a problem.

Key West was so irregular and libertine that you could get away with the apparent layaboutism of the writer’s life.

Some years ago I was writing a TV pilot I’d pitched called Florida Courthouse.  I went down to Florida to do some research, and people kept telling me about Key West, making it sound like Florida’s Florida.  Down I went on that fantastic drive where you feel like you’re flying, over Pigeon Key, surely one of the cooler drives in the USA if not the world.

The town I found at the end of the road was truly different.  Louche, kind of disgusting, and there was an element of tourists chasing a Buffett fantasy.  Some of the people I encountered seemed like untrustworthy semi-pirates, and some put themselves way out to help a stranger.  You’re literally and figuratively way out there, halfway to Havana.  The old houses, the chickens wandering, the cemetery, the heat and the shore and the breeze and the old fort and the general sense of license and liberty has an intoxicating quality.  There was a slight element of forced fun, and trying to capture some spirit that may have existed mostly in legend.  McKeen captures that aspect in his book:

 

Like McGuane, I found the mornings in Key West to be the best attraction.  Quiet, promising, unbothered, potentially productive.  Then in the afternoon you could go out and see what trouble was to be found.  Somebody introduced me to a former sheriff of Key West, who helped me understand his philosophy of law enforcement: “look, you can’t put that much law on people if it’s not in their hearts.”

I enjoyed my time there in this salty beachside min-New Orleans and hope to return some day, although I don’t really think I’m a Key West person in my heart.  I went looking for photos from that trip, and one I found was of the Audubon House.

After finishing this book I was recounting some of the stories to my wife and we put on Jimmy Buffett radio, and that led of course to drinking a bunch of margaritas and I woke up hungover.

I rate this book: four and a half margaritas.

 

 


The illusion of choice

Cool graphic, from “Monopolies are Distorting the Stock Market” by Kai Wu of Sparkline Capital


Founding Documents

Note to readers: from time to time we accept submissions written by correspondents about topics they’re passionate about that fit into our frame of going to the source.  Reader Billy Ouska sent us a writeup of something he’s passionate about, the founding documents of Facebook, and we’re proud to present it here.  If you’d like to write for us, send us a pitch!  – SH, editor. 

The Social Network (now available to stream on Netflix) tells the story of the creation of Facebook through portrayals of the legal battles over its ownership. In a pivotal scene, cofounder Eduardo Saverin flies out to Facebook headquarters to sign some seemingly innocuous legal documents. Of course, the cut to Mark Zuckerberg watching furtively from afar tells the viewer that something is up. We later discover that Saverin has signed off on corporate restructuring that will significantly dilute his equity in the company, leading to the lawsuit whose depositions serve as a narrative device for the film. (Moral of the story: know what you’re signing! If you don’t, hire a lawyer! If there’s a lawyer in the room, ask him, “do you represent me?” If he says no, get your own guy! If he says yes, make him put it in writing!)

We learn that Facebook was originally formed as a Florida limited liability company and that, through legal maneuvering, another Facebook entity was created in Delaware that acquired its Florida counterpart, giving it the ability to restructure ownership. I’m not here to delve into the legal tricks that were played; other corners of the internet have already done so. Instead, I’m here to talk about something even less interesting: entity formation documents!

Formation documents (what you file with a state to create a corporation or limited liability company) are almost always available to the public. If you know the state where the entity was created, you can easily find its initial records. So, after entering “Florida entity search” into your search engine of choice, you’ll get here. With some persistence, you should be able to find information on whatever company you’re looking for, like the initial Articles of Organization of thefacebook LLC:

Maybe it’s just me, but seeing a copy of these Articles feels almost historic, and maybe a bit inspirational. Facebook is now worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but only sixteen years ago it was so green that its owners listed in a public document what look like their home addresses—no, even better, their parents’ home addresses—because they didn’t yet have an office. Mark’s address even has a typo: Dobbs Ferry is in New York, not Massachusetts. (Or, was this not a typo but rather the first of many times in which Zuckerberg would intentionally flout governmental authorities?!)

Even better is that the amended Articles of Organization are also available for viewing.

I don’t want to pull you even further into the weeds of corporate law (thanks for even making it this far!), but what I find cool here is that the amended Articles include an attachment laying out the reorganization that is signed by the man himself. Another slice of history! Think of how much impact, both positive and negative, that Facebook has had on the planet: the media industry, the outcome of the elections, the way we communicate. So much of that can be traced back to this document (and a thousand others not available for public viewing). Did Zuckerberg have any idea? Did he pause and contemplate before signing this? Did he scribble his signature without reading it, like Saverin would later do? If you squint hard enough, it can be fun to imagine the answers to these questions.

It looks like the first Articles of Organization were sent to the Florida secretary of state via fax. So, after it was run through the fax machine, the original was probably put in a file cabinet by the Organizer (Business Filings Incorporated) or thrown out. I’m guessing the amended Articles of Organization were prepared by a Palo Alto law firm, signed in Palo Alto, and then faxed or emailed to a third party in Tallahassee, which filed the documents with the Florida secretary of state. I would guess that the original in Palo Alto made its way into a client file somewhere.
Even I, a noted corporate records enthusiast, don’t think that these documents need or deserve the reverence afforded to the Constitution. But I do think there is value in making them public record. Every once in a while, they give a peek behind the curtain into the workings of the corporate world, which could probably benefit from some more transparency.

(PS: every state lets you access corporate records like these from the comfort of your home, though some states will require the creation of an account and/or the payment of a nominal fee to search. Just imagine what you could find!)

 


Conversations with Faulkner

Alcohol was his salve against a modern world he saw as a conspiracy of mediocrity on its ruling levels.  Life was most bearable, he repeated, at its simplest: fishing, hunting, talking biggity in a cane chair on a board sidewalk, or horse-trading, gossiping.

Bill spoke rarely about writing, but when he did he said he had no method, no formula.  He started with some local event, a well-known face, a sudden reaction to a joke or an incident.  “And just let the story carry itself.  I walk along behind and write down what happens.”

Origin story:

Q: Sir, I would like to know exactly what it was that inspired you to become a writer.

A: Well, I probably was born with the liking for inventing stories.  I took it up in 1920.  I lived in New Orleans, I was working for a bootlegger.  He had a launch that I would take down the Pontchartrain into the gulf to an island where the run, the green rum, would be brought up from Cuba and buried, and we would dig it up and bring it back to New Orleans, and he would make scotch or gin or whatever he wanted.  He had the bottles labeled and everything.  And I would get a hundred dollars a trip for that, and I didn’t need much money, so I would get along until I ran out of money again.  And I met Sherwood Anderson by chance, and we took to each other from the first.  I’d meet him in the afternoon, we would walk and he would talk and I would listen.  In the evening we would go somewhere to a speakeasy and rink, and he would talk and I would listen.  The next morning he would say, “Well I have to work in the morning,” so I wouldn’t see him until the next afternoon.  And I thought if that’s the sort of life writers lead, that’s the life for me.  So I wrote a book and, as soon as I started, I found out it was fun.  And I hand’t seen him and Mrs. Anderson for some time until I met her on the street, and she said, “Are you mad at us?” and I said, “No, ma’am, I’m writing a book,” and she said, “Good Lord!” I saw her again, still having fun writing the book, and she said, “Do you want Sherwood to see your book when you finish it?” and I said, “Well, I hadn’t thought about it.”  She said, “Well, he will make a trade with you; if he don’t have to read that book, he will tell his publisher to take it.”  I said, “Done!” So I finished the book and he told Liveright to take it and Liveright took it.  And that was how I became a writer – that was the mechanics of it.

Stephen Longstreet reports on Faulkner in Hollywood, specifically To Have and Have Not:

Several other writers contributed, but Bill turned out the most pages, even if they were not all used.  This made Bill a problem child.

The unofficial Writers’ Guild strawboss on the lot came to me.

“Faulkner is turning out too many pages.  He sits up all night sometimes writing and turns in fifty to sixty pages in the morning.  Try and speak to him.”

 


The Lonely City and The Trip To Echo Spring by Olivia Laing

This book was great.  A kind of roaming meditation on the special poignancy of urban loneliness, which is so strange and powerful because, of course, you’re around other people, even in your solitude.  Also a kind of biography of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz.  (The last one I was least familiar with.)

After his mother died, Andy Warhol told people she was shopping at Bloomingdales.

Even the typeface and layout of this book is pleasing.  Henry Darger’s frustrations:

A conversation with Warhol’s nephew:

As a young person I lived in New York City, and can remember from time to time feeling loneliness there.  A loneliness that was almost pleasurable.  Of course this comes nowhere close to the form of loneliness you might feel if you were gay and alone and dying of plague.  But I felt I could connect to the feeling explored here.  Laing blends her own sensations through in a way that creates something special.

When I think about loneliness in New York, the work of art that comes quickest to mind might be Nico’s These Days.  I listen and I’m like yes, that’s the feeling.

This one didn’t quite come off as much for me, maybe because I read it second, or maybe just because drinking is sort of just a sorry, depressive subject.  A drunk when he’s drunk just isn’t that interesting.  Laing herself (if I read the book right) isn’t an alcoholic, or even a beyond-standard English level drinker, although she discusses a history in an alcoholic household.  But I didn’t feel the personal connection in quite the way I did with loneliness.

Writing in the mornings and swimming and indulging yourself in the afternoons – ideal lifestyle?

Hemingway is put on a “low alcohol diet (five ounces of whiskey and one glass of wine a day, a letter reports.”

Tennessee Williams:

in 1957 Tennessee went into psychoanalysis, and also spent a spell in what he described as a “plush-lined loony-bin” – drying out, or trying to.  The seriousness with which he approached this endeavour can be gauged from his notebooks, in which he confesses day after day to “drinking a bit more than my quota.”  One laconic itemisation includes: “Two Scotches at bar.  3 drinks in morning.  A daiquiri at Dirty Dick’s, 3 glasses of red wine at lunch at 3 of wine at dinner – Also two Seconals so far, and a green tranquilizer whose name I do not know and a yellow one I think is called reseperine or something like that.”

The therapist was also trying to cure him of homosexuality.

I liked the parts were Laing describes the wonderful Amtrak tradition of shared tables in the dining car.

A different version of this book could’ve been called Drunk Writers and sold as like a novelty book at Urban Outfitters.  Do they still sell books at Urban Outfitters?

The drinker/writer Laing profiles who I knew least about was John Berryman:

Ordered a copy.

Might have to move on to To The River, about Virginia Woolf and the river Ouse.

Some iconic haircuts on Olivia Laing.


Herds

Long ago, when I was a young cowboy, I witnessed a herd reaction in a real herd – about one hundred cattle that some cowboys and I were moving from one pasture to another along a small asphalt farm-to-market road.  It was mid-afternoon in mid-summer.  Men, horses, and cattle were all drowsy, the herd just barely plodding along, until one cow happened to drag her hoof on the rough asphalt, making a loud rasping sound.  In an instant that sleepy herd was in full flight, and our horses too.  A single sound on a summer afternoon produced a short but violent stampede.  The cattle and horses ran full-out for perhaps one hundred yards.  It was the only stampede I was ever in, and a dragging hoof caused it.

from:

by frequent Helytimes subject Larry McMurtry.  You had me at “Long ago, when I was a young cowboy.”

Oh What A Slaughter isn’t a fun book exactly, but it’s about the most friendly and conversational book you could probably find about massacres.  The style of McMurtry’s non-fiction is so casual, you could argue it’s lazy or bad,

As I have several times said, massacres will out, and this one did in spades.

he says on page 80, for instance.  I suspect it takes work or great practice to sound this relaxed.  The book reads like the story of an old friend, even humorous at times.  There’s great trust in the reader.

One point McMurtry returns to an ruminates on as a cause or at least precursor to these scenes of frenzied violence is apprehension.  People get spooked.  Why did a heavily armed US Army unit watching over – actually disarming – some detained Indians at Wounded Knee suddenly unleash?

The Ghost Dance might have had some kind of millennial implications, but it was just a dance helped by some poor Indians – and Indians, like the whites themselves, had always danced.

McMurtry says.  Yeah, but it put the 7th Cavalry on edge, and they weren’t disciplined and controlled enough.  The microsociologist Randall Collins, speaking of fights and violence generally, might’ve diagnosed what likely happened next:

 Violence is not so much physical as emotional struggle; whoever achieves emotional domination, can then impose physical domination. That is why most real fights look very nasty; one sides beats up on an opponent at the time they are incapable of resisting. At the extreme, this happens in the big victories of military combat, where the troops on one side become paralyzed in the zone of 200 heartbeats per minute, massacred by victors in the 140 heartbeat range. This kind of asymmetry is especially dangerous, when the dominant side is also in the middle ranges of arousal; at 160 BPM or so, they are acting with only semi-conscious bodily control. Adrenaline is the flight-or-fight hormone; when the opponent signals weakness, shows fear, paralysis, or turns their back, this can turn into what I have called a forward panic, and the French officer Ardant du Picq called “flight to the front.” Here the attackers rush forward towards an unresisting enemy, firing uncontrollably. It has the pattern of hot rush, piling on, and overkill. Most outrageous incidents of police violence against unarmed or unresisting targets are forward panics, now publicized in our era of bullet counts and ubiquitous videos.

 


Conversations With series from the University of Mississippi

This is one my favorite books, I’m serious.  Shelby Foote is a great interview, obviously, just watch his interviews with Ken Burns.  (“Ken, you made me a millionaire,” Shelby reports telling Burns after the series aired.)  You may not want to read the whole of Shelby’s three volume Civil War, it can get carried away with the lyrical, and following the geography can be a challenge.  But the flavor of it, some of the most vivid moments, and anecdotes, come through in these collected conversations with inquirers over the years.

“You’ve got to remember that the Civil War was as big as life,” he explains.  “That’s why no historian has ever done it justice, or ever will.  But that’s the glory of it.  Take me: I was raised up believing Yankees were a bunch of thieves.  But it’s absolutely incredible that a people could fight a Civil War and have so few atrocities.

“Sherman marched with 60,000 men slap across Georgia, then straight up though the Carolinas, burning, looting, doing everything in the world – but I don’t know of a single case of rape.  That’s amazing because hatreds run high in civil wars…

There were still a lot of antique virtues around them.  Jackson once told a colonel to advance his regiment across a field being riddled by bullets.  When the officer protested that nobody could survive out there, Jackson told him he always took care of his wounded and buried his dead.  The colonel led his troops into the field.”

Finally treated myself to a few more of these editions. These books are casual and comfortable.  They’re collections of interviews from panels, newspapers, magazines, literary journals, conference discussions.  Physically they’re just the right size, the printing is quality and the typeface is appealing.

Why not start with another Mississippian, someone Foote had quite a few conversations with himself?

Wow, Walker Percy could converse. 

Later, different interview:

Do we dare attempt conversation with the father of them all?

I’ve long found interviews with Faulkner, even stray details from the life of Faulkner, to be more compelling than his fiction.  Maybe it’s the appealing lifestyle: courtly freedom, hunting, fishing, and all the whiskey you can handle.  The life of an unbothered country squire, preserving a great tradition, going to Hollywood from time to time, turning the places of your boyhood into a world mythology.

We’ll have more to say about the Conversations with Faulkner, deserves its own post!  Maybe Percy gets to the heart of it in one of his interviews:

Q: Did you serve a long apprenticeship in becoming a writer?

Percy: Well, I wrote a couple of bad novels which no one wanted to buy.  And I can’t imagine anydboy doing anything else.  Yes it was a long apprenticeship with some frustration.  But I was lucky with the third one, The Moviegoer; so, it wasn’t so bad, I guess.

Q: Had you rather be a writer than a doctor?

Percy: Let’s just say I was the happiest doctor who ever got tuberculosis and was able to quit it.  It gave me an excuse to do what I wanted to do.  I guess I’m like Faulkner in that respect.  You know Faulkner lived for awhile in the French Quarter of New Orleans where he met Sherwood Anderson, and Faulkner used to say if anybody could live like that and get away with it he wanted to live the same way.

There’s one of these for you, I’m sure.  They also have Comic Artists and Filmmakers.

only one subject with whom I myself had a conversation

For the advanced student:

 


Chasing The Light by Oliver Stone

1969.  Young Oliver Stone, back from Vietnam, kind of lost in his life, having barely escaped prison time for a drug charge in San Diego, enrolls at NYU’s School of the Arts, undergrad.  He makes a short film in 16mm with some 8mm color intercuts, about a young veteran, played by himself, who wanders New York, and throws a bag full of his photographs off the Staten Island ferry, with a voiceover of some lines from Celine’s Journey to the End of Night.

He shows it to his class.  The professor is Martin Scorsese.

When the film ended after some eleven taut minutes and the projector was turned off, I steeled myself in the silence for the usual sarcasm consistent with our class’s Chinese Cultural Revolution “auto-critique,” in which no one was spared.  What would my classmates say about this?

No one had yet spoken.  Words become very important in moments like this.  And Scorsese simply jumped all the discussion when he said, “Well – this is a filmmaker.”  I’ll never forget that.  “Why?  Because it’s personal.  You feel like the person who’s making it is living it,” he explained.  “That’s why you gotta keep it close to you, make it yours.” No one bitched, not even the usual critiques of my weird mix, sound problems, nothing.  In a sense, this was my coming out.  It was the first affirmation I’d had in… years.  This would be my diploma.

This book covers the first forty years of Stone’s life, with much of it centered on the making of Salvador, Platoon, and Scarface, after experiences in Vietnam and jail.

The movies of Stone’s later career – The Doors, JFK, W, Nixon – are the ones that mean the most to me, and those aren’t covered in this book.  But I was still pretty compelled by it, surprised by the sensitive, easily wounded young man who emerges, experienced in violence but capable of great tenderness.  Struggling with his father’s expectations, his socialite mother.  His fast rise in Hollywood, frustrations and joys, and the druggy swirl that almost undoes it all, like when he gave a rambling Golden Globe acceptance speech after “a few hits of coke, a quaalude or two, several glasses of wine.”  (Video of the speech since scrubbed from YouTube, unfortch).

How about Peter Guber pitching what became Midnight Express:

Make a little money for college. Innocent kid basically, knows nothing, first trip outside the country right?  They beat the shit out of him!  Everything in the world happens to him – and then he escapes from this island prison on a rowboat…. that’s right!  A rowboat, believe it or not.  Gets back to the mainland, then runs through a minefield across the Turkish border into Greece – right?  Unbelievable!  Great story!  Tension – like you wrote Platoon.  Every single second, you want to feel that tension!


The people in the next booth

MAMET

I never try to make it hard for the audience. I may not succeed, but . . . Vakhtangov, who was a disciple of Stanislavsky, was asked at one point why his films were so successful, and he said, Because I never for one moment forget about the audience. I try to adopt that as an absolute tenet. I mean, if I’m not writing for the audience, if I’m not writing to make it easier for them, then who the hell am I doing it for? And the way you make it easier is by following those tenets: cutting, building to a climax, leaving out exposition, and always progressing toward the single goal of the protagonist. They’re very stringent rules, but they are, in my estimation and experience, what makes it easier for the audience.

INTERVIEWER

What else? Are there other rules?

MAMET

Get into the scene late, get out of the scene early.

INTERVIEWER

Why? So that something’s already happened?

MAMET

Yes. That’s how Glengarry got started. I was listening to conversations in the next booth and I thought, My God, there’s nothing more fascinating than the people in the next booth. You start in the middle of the conversation and wonder, What the hell are they talking about? And you listen heavily. So I worked a bunch of these scenes with people using extremely arcane language—kind of the canting language of the real-estate crowd, which I understood, having been involved with them—and I thought, Well, if it fascinates me, it will probably fascinate them too. If not, they can put me in jail.

from The Paris Review of course.

Really missing overhearing the people in the next booth these days.  Feeling the loss of the scuttlebutt.  The collective vibecheck you get from what the people you overhear in the coffeeshop, see in the elevator at work.  The tide is out on that kind of info, the shared hum.  When it comes back in, perceptions will change.  Understandings will be recalibrated.  Was wondering how this in particular with the stock market, which moves with this mood.  We may find out soon!


Scrapbasket

Some local street art (by Bandit?).  Since painted over I believe.  At least I can’t find it.

Photo I took in William Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, Oxford, MS.

from this WSJ commentary by Kate Bachelder Odell about leadership failures in the US Navy.

“Soldiers bathing, North Anna River, Va.–ruins of railroad bridge in background,” by Timothy O’Sullivan.  May 1864.  The work of Timothy O’Sullivan has my attention.  Follow his photos on the Library of Congress and you’ll travel in time.

by Alexander Hope.

Original Caption: Subway train on the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan, New York. The problem of how to move people and goods is ultimately bound up with the quality of life everywhere. The lands adjacent to the Bight, rivers flowing into it, and bays and estuaries edging it have direct upon the environment of the coastal water. The New York, New Jersey metropolitan region is one of the most congested in the world, 05/1974.

Just thought this was funny.


San Francisco (and Los Angeles)

Earlier this year, you moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco. How is the transition going?

It felt like the opening minute of Randy Newman’s song “I Love L.A.” Looking back on the twentieth century, I recall it was Los Angeles that was always the city of the future, and the city of craft and guilds. Every movie was essentially a six-month startup that brought together know-how and expertise from so many different areas: art, set design, costume, carpentry—and all the weirdly named professions like grips, gaffers, and boom operators. That ethos still lives on in the spirit of the place. With SpaceX and other aerospace companies making headway, I wouldn’t discount Southern California in the race to become the next big creative cluster. Of course, Sacramento may ruin the entire state before that happens. But that’s another story.

Michael Gibson (had never heard of) in City Journal.  Gibson wrote a piece for City Journal where he called San Francisco “America’s Havana.”  He pointed out inarguable problems with San Francisco, which is a shocking mess.

But, like Havana, San Francisco is also magical.  There’s just something about it.  Maybe it’s the drastic geography, set on hillsides over a bay that’s both perfect and hidden.  The sea air is part of it, for sure, and the lushness of the flora.  In both Havana and San Francisco, the very air is magical.

When you read the history of San Francisco, a certain tolerance of criminality always seems to have been part of the mix.  Stepping over a druggie passed out on the street wouldn’t’ve been unfamiliar to a resident of Gold Rush-era San Francisco or Barbary Coast San Francisco, or the 1940s San Francisco that inspired all the noir movies.

I’ve had in my files this bit by Lillian Symes from a 1932 Harper’s, reprinted from the archive:

The city of cheap yet superb living:

More:

When I got to LA in 2004, I found the living superb.  It was cheaper than New York City, but I’m not sure it could really be called cheap.  And it’s gotten less cheap.  Readers, where would you say, these days, the living is cheap yet superb?

San Francisco scenes:

 


Uh oh


Life is moving

In the Moscow Art Theatre, in Tel Aviv in the Habimah, productions have been kept going for forty years or more: I have seen a faithful revival of Vakhtangov’s twenties’ staging of Princess Turandot; I have seen Stranislavsky’s own work, perfectly preserved: but none of these had more than antiquarian interest, none had the vitality of new invention.  At Stratford where we worry that we don’t play our repertoire long enough to milk its full box office value, we now discss this quite empirically: about five years, we agree, is the most a particular staging can live.  It is not only the hair-styles, costumes and make-up that look dated.  All the different elements of staging – the shorthands of behaviour that stand for certain emotions; gestures, gesticulations and tones of voice – are all fluctuating on an invisible stock exchange all the time.  Life is moving, influences are playing on actor and audience, and other plays, other arts, the cinema, television, current events, join in the constant rewriting of history and the amending of the daily truth.  In fashion houses someone will thump a table and say “boots are definitely in”: this is an existential fact.  A living theatre that thinks it can stand aloof from anything so trivial as fashion will wilt.  In the theatre, every form once born is mortal; every form must be reconceived, and its new conception will bear the marks of all the influences that surround it.  In this sense, the theatre is relativity.  Yet a great theatre is not a fashion house; perpetual elements do recur and certain fundamental issues underlie all dramatic activity.  The deadly trap is to divide the eternal truths from the superficial variations; this is a subtle form of snobbery and it is fatal.

This made me hmmm as I consider what to think about the exiling of comedy now felt to be unacceptably hurtful.


Rubber bullet and non-lethal projectile collecting

Sunday morning four weeks ago on the streets of the Beverly – Fairfax district was a bonanza for us collectors of non-lethal shells and projectiles.

The Honus Wagner card of this kind of collection is the LAPD stamped bean bag shell

A key guide for the hobbyist is the LAPD’s equipment page.

I hope I don’t have any more opportunities to add to my collection.

(Always remember the scene in The Last Castle (2001) where James Gandolfini, a military history buff, hears Redford, a real veteran, assess his collection of Civil War bullets and Minié balls: “it’s just something that caused some poor bastard a whole lotta pain.” 

Couple real good scenes in that movie.  When Redford teaches Ruffalo the meaning of a salute!)

 

 

 


How to read a Racing Form // Belmont Stakes value picks

Every time I’m in Las Vegas I pass through the sports book and pick up a few racing sheets. I’ve never been able to make much out of them, but the life of the full-time degenerate who’s eating a hot dog and watching the 3rd at Gulfstream or Louisiana Downs is somehow attractive.   Why is that?  What is it about this that’s appealing?  The songs and legends are part of it, for sure.  I’ve always found sitting in the stands at Santa Anita an appealing afternoon.  Less so since news of the frequent horse deaths.

Santa Anita is running right now, without spectators.

“I love to go back to Paris,” Hemingway said, his eyes still fixed on the road. “Am going in the back door and have no interviews and no publicity and never get a haircut, like in the old days. Want to go to cafés where I know no one but one waiter and his replacement, see all the new pictures and the old ones, go to the bike races and the fights, and see the new riders and fighters. Find good, cheap restaurants where you can keep your own napkin. Walk over all the town and see where we made our mistakes and where we had our few bright ideas. And learn the form and try and pick winners in the blue, smoky afternoons, and then go out the next day to play them at Auteuil and Enghien.”

“Papa is a good handicapper,” Mrs. Hemingway said.

“When I know the form,” he said.

from the Lillian Ross New Yorker profile of Hemingway.

How do you “learn the form”?

I chanced recently across this academic paper, Sports Betting As a New Asset Class, by Lovjit Thukral and Pedro Vergel. It addresses the possible money-making potential of a strategy of “laying the favorite.”

The authors take a simple betting strategy based on Horse races in the UK and invest consistently on laying (betting on the event not to occur) the 4 favourite horses (with the lowest odds) in each race. They find the following:

(1) this type of horse racing strategy provide uncorrelated returns to the market;

(2) the strategy outperforms the Credit Suisse Hedge fund Index and S&P 500 Total returns on average for the last 6 years.

Can this be so?  A quick investigation reveals that “laying the favorite” in this way doesn’t seem to be a commonplace option in US horse betting.  I don’t think this strategy would be financially viable here.

This talk of laying favorites reminded me of my friend Beth Raymer’s book, Lay The Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling.

The book was made into a 2012 film starring Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

In the book, Raymer describes learning from the professional gambler and line-setter Dink:

Studying to find value — into it!  I resolved to learn how to read a Racing Form, and try to glean some information from it that might give an edge.

Using the very helpful resources provided by the late Neil Benoit’s Getting Out Of The Gate website, which has a Racing 101-401 course, I was able to grasp the basics.  This resource at Art of Manliness was also quite helpful, and there’s a Wikihow about racing forms, but it’s Benoit who really gave us a gift.

I’d like to try and summarize my learnings for you, to save you the time in case you’re interested, and because the easiest way to really learn something is to try and teach it.

Let’s take as our example the first horse, Route Six Six, in the 7th race tomorrow (Saturday, June 20) at Santa Anita.

Up top we’ve got some basic info about the horse, like who owns her (f=filly), and her mom (Dam) and dad (Sire).

Personally, and this is based on zero study, but I suspect there’s all together too much focus on breeding in horses.  It feels distracting and possibly irrelevant, like when the old-time scouts in Moneyball are focused on how hot a player’s girlfriend is.  It just feels old-fashioned and unstatistical.  But then again, since I haven’t run any statistical studies, this belief of mine is based on zero evidence as well.

You know what I want to find out from a racing form?  One thing.  How fast is this horse?

I turned to my high school experience as a cross-country runner under the rigorous coaching of Livingston Carroll, who also taught statistics.  He’d always have a pretty good sense of the average race times of most of our competition.  It seems to me that the racing form, while interesting as a compressed pile of information, doesn’t really focus in on the central question: which of these horses is the fastest?  Beyond that is intangibles and unpredictable noise.
Luckily the Racing Form gives us lots of info towards figuring out which horse is fastest, if we can just figure it out.  We get a bunch of data on the horse’s recent races.
We see that Route Six Six ran on the 16th of May 2020 in the fourth race at SA (Santa Anita) in fst (fast) conditions at a distance of one mile.  OK, already useful info.  Remember what Thomas Ainslie says in his Complete Guide about the basic components:
1) elimination of horses that seem unsuited to the distance of the race
2) elimination of horses that do not seem in sufficiently sharp condition
3) elimination of horses that seem outclassed
4) elimination of horses at a serious disadvantage on today’s footing or in light of track biases
The distance helps us sort out #1.  Route Six Six, as we can see, has been running at 1 mile, even 1 1/8 mile.  A mile is 8 furlongs.  1 1/16 mile should be a reasonable distance for this horse.  Races of a mile or longer are called “routes,” vs shorter races, “sprints.”
In my limited experience I find routes are more predictable.  At Los Alamitos they run races at 330 yards.  At that point it can come down to what kind of jump you get out of the gate, which seems harder to predict based on the info in the Racing Form, or at least a different category of study.
Now, let’s talk about class.  It’s worth reading Benoit on class.  Horse races are at all different classes, starting (for our purposes) with Md Sp Wt, or Maiden Special Weight.
A maiden horse has never won a race.  Maiden races are thus famously kind of unpredictable.  Let’s say you win a maiden special weight, as Route Six Six did on December 31, 2018, “breaking her maiden.”  Well, now she’s on an Allowance race.
When it comes to understanding class, the metaphor of minor league baseball is often used.  Going from maiden racing to an allowance race is like going from single A to AA ball.   A horse moving up or down in class is facing a different caliber of competition.
Now, as they say, “the horse doesn’t know what class it’s in.”  But it’s something to watch for, and learn from the Form.  Is this a promising up and coming racer moving up to face faster horses?  A declining athlete going down a level to compete against weaker competition?
Note that Route Six Six is coming down from an 80K to a 62K.  I don’t know what that means, may not even be anything, but it seems like a slight step down in class.  Which could be good!
Now, these numbers in bold.  The Beyer Speed Figure.
Beyer figures are a whole thing
as my bud Jeff Fischer says.  The Beyer speed figures are exclusively in Racing Form, and they’re designed to kind of create a uniform assessment of the horse’s speed, homogenizing for track variables, etc.  They’re still calculated by Beyer’s team.  From a profile of Andy Beyer by Michael Konik in the autumn, 1996 issue of Cigar Aficiando:

Beyer took a stack of old Daily Racing Forms and did the laborious math by hand, sifting through years of data, applying the analytical skills he had developed as a games-playing child. “‘Six furlongs in 1:13 equals seven furlongs in 1:26 and a fifth’ was my E=MC2,” Beyer says, laughing. By 1972 he had managed to construct a reliable speed chart that incorporated the important element of track variance, a measure of track speed and bias, which was previously calculated by an antiquated–and, in most cases, inaccurate–system. Beyer devised a highly specific, sophisticated method for determining track variances, a method that accounted for the times turned in by different types of horses.

By combining his newly minted speed ratings with his fresh perspective on track speed, the young columnist invented the Beyer Speed Figures.

Interestingly, Beyer come up with his numbers specifically because so much of racing thinking at that time was centered around class:

“The orthodoxy back then said that ‘class’ was the measure of a race,” Beyer says, while making hieroglyphic notations in the margins of his race program. “For instance, if a $10,000 claimer was running against a slower $200,000 claimer, the assumption was that the slower but ‘classier’ horse would win. I was looking for a way to verify–or contradict–that assumption.”

We’ll come back to Beyer Figures in a bit.
Now, how about the jockey?
Don’t bet the horse, bet the jockey
is an old racing adage.  It is interesting that jockeys have very different stats and results.  Here are the stats at Santa Anita from this week’s Racing Form.
Prat wins 27% of the time, and J Valdivia Jr wins 10% of the time.  Worth considering.
Finally, we see the results of the horses in previous races:
Note those boldface names on the most recent race.  That tells us that Ax Man (AxMn) and Multiplier (Mltplr) both are in this very race!  So Route Six Six is running today against two horses that have already beaten her!  This is good information to know, as we try and figure out who will win today’s race!
The notes on the race are kind of helpful, but in the age of YouTube, you can also go back and watch these previous races, and see if there’s anything interesting that may not be fully recorded here in the Form.
One more thing: works.  Sometimes the horse hasn’t run any races, and all you have to go on are the “works,” or officially timed practices.  These are intriguing measures of a horse’s speed, although the horse is (always? almost always?) running alone in these conditions.
Take a look at Route Six Six’s opponent Ax Man’s works:
That bullet mark means Ax Man had the fastest work of any horse of the day on June 17 at Santa Anita.  How meaningful is that?  Depends, I guess.  (Note that Ax Man is a gelding (g in the gender line).  They castrated Ax Man?!  Rude.  I don’t know much about the meanings of horse gender on speed.  The colts seem a little faster than the fillies, but three fillies have won the Kentucky Derby.)
Here’s my crude handicapping method:
Let’s start by just trying to rank these horses on speed.
Simply averaging the Beyer speed numbers, occasionally throwing out some outliers, and factoring in a pinch of understanding about class and jockey and so on seem indeed to be a reasonable predictor of which horses will finish first in a race.  In two days of experimental handicapping, the winner was always in the top three I selected via this method.
Now, you compare these results to the odds.  It’s possible to occasionally spot a “value” horse.  I found the results, as Ainslie would say, salutary.
In horse race betting, you’re not competing against nothing, or even the morning odds.  You’re competing against the other bettors.  Their bets determine the final odds.
Knowing a particular horse is the fastest competitor in a race isn’t that useful, because it’ll probably be reflected in the odds.  Very occasionally, though, you can spot anomalies, where your personal handicapping of the race differs from the odds in an interesting and possibly profitable way.
Remember though, the track is taking an 18-20% take.  You need to predict 20% better than the cumulative wisdom of the crowd just to break even!
Anyway, here’s how I’d handicap the Belmont Stakes tomorrow:
1 – Tap It To Win – average Beyer Speed Figure minus any outliers I chose to throw out: 75.6
Coming off two consecutive wins, but if this race goes off at any kind of speed will struggle to keep up
2- Sole Volante – 90.2
Very consistent, won on June 10 decisively.  A fast horse, maybe underappreciated.  Worth looking at the odds close to post time.  This could be a value bet.
3- Max Player – 75.33
New jockey today.  Don’t think this horse is fast enough.
4 – Modernist – 76.4
Last won a race in February
5 – Farmington Road – 77.33
A solid also ran horse
6 – Fore Left – 72.75
This horse’s last win was in United Arab Emirates.  Feels fishy.  But that was a good clean win and very fast.
7 – Jungle Runner
A weak horse
8 – Tiz The Law – 91
The strongest contender by far, on the cover of Racing Form this week.  But look, the favorite loses something like 78% of the time.
9 – Dr. Post – 84
Can a new jockey get something out of this horse?  The pickers like Dr. Post.
10 – Pneumatic – 89
Something just seems off about the results for this horse.  Does he know how to win?
Hely Picks
8 – Tiz The Law
2 – Sole Volante
10 – Pneumatic
I haven’t looked at recent odds.  This morning Tiz the Law was at 6-5, and Sole Volante 9-5, so no real value there.  Fore Left came in at 30-1, and Pneumatic at 8-1.  Pneumatic to show could be interesting?
One attraction of horseracing is it really draws out a certain kind of stylized or old-fashioned writing in enthusiasts:

Benson has had it with this hanging crepe for its own sake!

Disclaimer: I’ve spent maybe twenty hours learning about horseracing.  I know nothing.  There are thousands of horse race bettors who’ve spent easily 10,000-20,000 hours on this.  There are whole teams that have seen every single race any one of these horses have run, and spent hours putting information into fast computers.  That’s the competition.   I’m posting this for my amusement, and to enhance the amateur enjoyment of this pastime for my well-rounded readers.
Before you bet any actual money, which no one’s encouraging you to do, see if you don’t find a small “mind bet” as emotionally stimulating, as satisfactory in victory without being as painful in defeat.

Jaipur Addendum!  

Readers, I just idly checked out the 9th race at Belmont today, the Jaipur.  Will be televised on NBC.  I noticed Hidden Scroll, a very fast horse, had something aberrant in his last race:

What’s that about?  Here we see the pleasures and oddness of the Racing Form as compressed storytelling:

What?

Luckily in this glorious age of YouTube what Hidden Scroll did in his last race, this might be the craziest thing in a horse race I’ve ever seen:

Motherfucking horse nearly broke his own neck, lost his jockey, and still almost won!  He’ll have the same jockey (JR Velazquez) today!  That should be a very interesting race.

 


George P.A. Healy (G.P.A. Healy)

Healy was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the eldest of five children of an Irish captain in the merchant marine. Having been left fatherless at a young age, Healy helped to support his mother. At sixteen years of age he began drawing, and at developed an ambition to be an artist. Jane Stuart, daughter of Gilbert Stuart, aided him, loaning him a Guido’s “Ecce Homo”, which he copied in color and sold to a country priest. Later, she introduced him to Thomas Sully, by whose advice Healy profited, and gratefully repaid Sully in the days of the latter’s adversity.

so far as I know no relation, there are plenty of Healys and Helys from here to Australia.

He painted Tyler

and drew Grant.

He’s got a few that have appeared in the White House, like this one, The Peacemakers.


Earthquake?

 

or something more?  Let’s get a more detailed atlas…

Lotta shakin’ and quakin’ going on at Naval Weapons Center China Lake (Restricted Area).

I’m prepared to conclude this was no earthquake, but the escape or an attempted escape of a captured UFO.

Interesting thing about this area: though desolate it’s dotted with petroglyphs, some alleged to be 10,000 years old.


Yolo -> Yo lo vi

Interested in the Goya drawing, in his series Los Desastres de la Guerra, where his only commentary is “yo lo vi.”  I saw it.  What else is there to say sometimes?

 

 


Guides to New Orleans

 

A medical expert once described the difficulty of surgery on the liver, a soft, fragile organ that can shred in your hands and rip with every stitch.  The heart is a hard lump of muscle, but the liver is delicate spongy tissue.  Manhattan is a rocky island, San Francisco is as solid and situation at the end of a long peninsula; those cities are as clearly defined as a fist or a heart.  But think of New Orleans as a liver, an expanse of soggy land doing some of what a liver does, filtering poisons, keeping the body going, necessary to survival and infinitely fragile, hard to pull out of context, and nowadays deteriorating from more poison that it can absorb, including the ongoing toxins of the petroleum industry and the colossal overdose delivered by the 2010 BP blowout.  

from:

The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds – the cemeteries – and they’re a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchres- palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay – ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who’ve died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here. 

You could be dead for a long time

so says Bob Dylan in Chronicles

New Orleans is illogical, upsetting.  It makes a mockery.  You start in Chicago, sensible enough, but float down the river and you end in African jungle, a Caribbean outpost of a forgotten empire, ruled by French pretension – but pretending to what, exactly?  No matter, it’s already forgotten.   What the jazz player and the performing drunk act and the crooked politician all act out is the tension: this shouldn’t be here.

Vivien Kent in The Fatback of America (1948, is she cancelled?)

The minute you land in New Orleans, something wet and dark leaps on you and starts humping you like a swamp dog in heat, and the only way to get that aspect of New Orleans off you is to eat it off. That means beignets and crayfish bisque and jambalaya, it means shrimp remoulade, pecan pie, and red beans with rice, it means elegant pompano au papillote, funky file z’herbes, and raw oysters by the dozen, it means grillades for breakfast, a po’ boy with chowchow at bedtime, and tubs of gumbo in between. It is not unusual for a visitor to the city to gain fifteen pounds in a week–yet the alternative is a whole lot worse. If you don’t eat day and night, if you don’t constantly funnel the indigenous flavors into your bloodstream, then the mystery beast will go right on humping you, and you will feel its sordid presence rubbing against you long after you have left town. In fact, like any sex offender, it can leave permanent psychological scars.

Tom Robbins in Jitterbug Perfume

Did not complete my reading of that book — it was too dense!  Every page was packed!  Every bite was sausage and spice, there was no rice.

In addition to the Atlas I had this one:

Books are good for getting ideas, but no information set in as permanent a form as a book should be trusted when it comes to New Orleans.  Whether it’s open, what night is good, intel of that nature must be gathered with by asking somebody, or a phone call, or maybe best of all by walking by.

One of these books gave us the notion to take the ferry to Algiers from the foot of Canal Street.  The book claimed it was free, I believe it was $2.50.  Small price to pay to be out on the river.

This book is just wonderful, I can’t recommend it enough.  What gifts Lee Sandlin left the world!  Lee begins his book by talking about how, when he waits for the bus in Chicago, the water under the grate at his feet is on its way to the Mississippi River, and on down to New Orleans.  This book has it all: Mike Fink, the New Madrid Great Shakes, the siege of Vicksburg.  And my God if he doesn’t make you feel like you’re really in Congo Square, or at one of the true Mardi Gras nights, a candlelight carnival, when the wildness could turn deadly, when they really thought they might summon the dead or the devil or worse.  I keep meaning to devote a longer post to Wicked River, but I shouldn’t miss this chance to recommend it.

New Orleans, populationwise, at 391,006, is about the size of Bakersfield, significantly smaller than Fresno.  Just a hair ahead of Wichita, Kansas.

One idea I really got out of the Snedeker Solnit Atlas is New Orleans as part of the Caribbean.  Bananas were shipped through here.  United Fruit Company, it was going down.  District Attorney Jim Garrison may have been off but he was not wrong to smell conspiracy everywhere.

There actually used to be an overnight ferry between here and Havana.  The mambo figures prominantly in New Orleans piano.  Professor Longhair.  It’s the Cuba Connection.

Steve Zahn’s character says in Tremé.  It was really funny in Treme to have a character whose main quality was how annoying he was about being “into” New Orleans.  If you’re really “into” New Orleans, does that not by itself prove that you don’t get it?  Is that all part of the joke?

Re: the banana connection, The Atlas had me go listen to Lil Wayne’s Six Foot Seven Foot.

Life is a bitch and Death is her sister

Sleep is the cousin what a fuckin’ family picture

This time last year I was in New Orleans.  From The Atlas we learn of the Money Wasters second line.  The WWOZ website confirms the date and a route for the parade, ending Under The 10, in the epic sonic canyon created by the concrete freeway overpass that takes I-10 across the city on its way to Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Florida.  What a time!  What a place!  When will we feel that free again?

A guy at the second line said to me

if it’s Sunday in New Orleans and you ain’t at the second line you’re either stupid or dumb

When the wind is right it’s said you can see a dead body in the ruins of the Hard Rock Hotel.  A living ghost story: how New Orleans is that?

Commerce

I’ve been thinking about New Orleans, and listening to WWOZ.

 


Coming out of quar

I call this picture “Reflection”

Once I was in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada doing a ridealong with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  In Yellowknife in the winter the sun comes up at 10am and goes down again by 3:15pm.  It’s dark and cold and tough to get through the winter.  But the Mountie sergeant told me the problems happen when spring starts.  It’s the coming out that people can’t handle.

It’s my perception here in southern California that people are beginning to re-enter the world.  Traffic is returning to upsetting levels.  We’re still a long way from where we were, most stores are shut down, but I get the sense people consider themselves done with lockdown.

I wonder if coming out of quarantine will be harder or at least crazier than being in it!