Monday, March 28, 2011

Black Market in Pink Flamingoes

San Diego County authorities are looking for art thieves who have made off with . . . a 600-pound bronze moose. The . . . thieves have stolen nearly $44,000 worth of lawn art since October. . . . [including] Buddha yard statutes [sic], a life-sized aluminum colt, a 3-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary and a copper statue of three children valued at $15,000. 
                                                       - New York Times (March 28, 2011)

Lawn art has come a long way since I was paying attention. In fact, the very phrase "lawn art" seems to elevate those artifacts some people strew about the place from the mundane to an aesthetic concept, as "travel" or "going abroad" can transform the practice of eating bad food in cheap hotels to the exotic, privileged and slightly mysterious. We used to call them "lawn ornaments." "Lawn art" is to "lawn ornaments". . . 

. . . as "going abroad" is to . . . 

"Pull this string if you will be wanting to be taking room service."

Now I can only imagine two settings appropriate to the idea of "lawn art." When you imagine any outdoor statuary that might merit being called "art," you think perhaps of some extensive and elegant grounds in Hertfordshire or Gloucestershire sporting, for example, a replica of the Winged Victory of Samothrace amidst the herbacous borders:

"I'll fly, you steer."

(Of course, the grander American establishments have always taken their artistic cue from remembrances of a rosy past, an easier time in a more benign order of things, before labor unions and various other "emancipations" made bronze mooses all the fashion):

Or contrariwise, you imagine lawn art plopped down amidst the precincts of the suburbanized American bourgeoisie of the 1950s - the pink flamingo, the glass "gazing" globe . . . 

"Oh. There's the bathroom."

. . . or amongst the devout working class who had often just remodeled the Hoboken bungalow:

"Oh. There's the bathroom."

The devout can still elevate their lawn aesthetic to the devotional and sublime. There is, it seems, a cheap garden Buddha for every mood, a vehicle for the serene ascetic . . .

. . . or the jovially raffish profligate . . .

I can imagine the police interrogation following the arrest of the culprit who absconded with the Buddha "statute": the Buddha perched on the table in front of a defiant suspect, good cop and bad cop both present, one seated, one pacing with cigarette. Good cop says:
"Why did you steal a Buddha statue?" The suspect remains silent. "Was it," continues the bad cop, "as a visual aid for meditation?" No reply from the scoundrel. "To add further Buddhist themes to a meditation room?" the policeman queries roughly. Still no reply. "Then perhaps to complement a general interior with a Buddhist decorative accessory." The suspect retains a dogged silence. The good cop interjects gently, "As a gift for a friend or family member who is interested in Buddhism?" Still no reply. "To add a Buddhist touch to a garden or yard?" Silence.

Finally the bad cop stops his pacing, leans over his colleague, and whispers, "Let's leave him for a bit - he's meditating on the Buddhist statutes."

Now the moose is a bit more problematic. Art theft has always, in the movies at least, been the precinct of the technologically advanced cat burglar . . .

"Gadzooks, sir! I am undone!"

. . . the stealthy cognoscento in a black turtleneck and stocking cap with grappling hooks and electronic jamming devices who makes his way into a museum, baffles the web of laser sensors and makes off with something like a Faberge egg that you could hide in a sock drawer.

Apparently the theft of the bronze moose didn't happen quite like that. A photograph taken by an area suveillance camera reveals that the culprit had plenty of help to lift the 600 lb. bronze statue and take it from the front yard of a modest ranch house in La Mesa:

Once the statue was removed from the yard, police told Times reporters, the gang carried it bodily to a flatbed truck parked nearby, placed it on a Tommylift, and drove off to a San Diego warehouse, where officers also found the copper statue of three kidnapped children (who are collectively valued at $15,000). Police have released a photograph of one gang member who has thus far eluded police custody:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Vatican Superfund Sites: Paradise Regained

My monthly issue of Harper's Magazine arrived in the mail the other day, and in the "Readings" section I find brief excerpts from Memoirs of an Exorcist: My Life at War With Satan. These are the memoirs of Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican's official devil disser, a founding member of the International Association of Exorcists and a man with a face to scare the very Devil himself. Dissing with the Devil can make any man look less than his very best.

Father Gabriele Amorth 

Father Amorth has even had the professional good fortune to find the devil in the Vatican, although since Old Nick is known to "walk up and down upon the earth" generally this should come as no surprise to anyone. Sounded like devilishly good stuff, so naturally I tucked right in and was not entirely disappointed. The excerpted samples are the usual tales - inability in a young bride to menstruate (check the rabbit, Father), unspeakable contents found in a fairly regular issue of vomit . . .

. . . expelling (from various ports) such jetsam as 10-inch nails "thick as your thumb," unpleasant exchanges with a vengeful little chap named "Zago," and so on. Nothing you haven't already seen in the regular course of your life.

But what struck me was the eerie timeliness of the Harper's piece, as I had myself only recently commented on the various geological appurtenances, protruberances, upthrusts, slopes, rifts, faults, prominences, vales, gulches, draws, radial dikes, trenches and other such topographical whatnots and fiddlesticks thrown in on a whim at the Creation which are named for the very personage featured in these fevered if somewhat hackneyed memoirs. 

Even a cursory search of Google maps will yield a landscape littered with references to His Nastiness: there are the Devil's Corkscrew, Head, Thumb, Garden, Knob (!), Nest, Gulch, Ridge, numerous Lakes and Dens, Hopyard, Reach, Eye, Elbow, Coulee, Kitchen, Punchbowl, Meadow, Playground, Backbone, Jawbone, any number of Heads, Canyons and Mountains . . . . The American landscape seems to be little more than a catalog of demonic possessions. Clearly a bit of sanctifying housecleaning is long overdue.  

"Where would you like me to sanctify first?"

I've given this a bit of thought as you may already have surmised, and I've come up with a proposal: as my ordination is already entered by the Recording Angel in the Book of Life . . .

"Spell your last name for me."

. . . as a priest, minister or general functionary in the Universal Life Church (nothing to be trifled with), I propose that the Vatican name me, Father Miguel de Montaigne, Vatican Emissary and Plenipotentiary for Landscape Exorcisms. So empowered, it would be with me but the work of a moment to sanctify Cartographic America by finding suitably blessed monikers for all the little topographic anomalies that seem to invite licentiousness and geographical blasphemy.

So, for example, Devil's Canyon is easily redeemed as St. Bridget's Cleft; Devil's Mountain becomes the Hump of St. Hilarion; Devil's Den is hallowed as the Most Hidden Place of St. Gina de Lollobrigida; Devil's Knob is the precinct of any number of the randy sanctified; the Devil's Bowl becomes the Monstrance of St. Whoever-You-Like.

When my work is done the world will be a better place and the Recording Angel will know my name.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Noodling With the Saints

I mentioned catfish noodling in a rather offhanded way in my previous post. I do not wish to leave the impression that the sport lacks its refinements and its esoterica. Ignorance of the fine points can end in impairments temporary or permanent, including wrinkled skin, "muddy water pallor", psychic trauma, lost limbs, time away from family and the office, even death. Noodling is considered "extreme sport" everywhere except in Alabama, where it is considered "nontaxable income", in Texas, where it is a cornerstone of Governor Rick Perry's "statewide job creation initiative without President Obama's he'p", and in Louisiana where it is simply "Cajun dating."

"His Cajun date"

I have a brother-in-law who grew up and still lives in the precincts of the "Ar-KAN-sas" stretch of the Arkansas River south of Wichita. He is a wealth of local catfish lore and an unfailing mine of accurate information on the topic. From him I learned that, historically at least, rivers oftentimes harbor large catfish because those rivers, and by extension their resident catfish, were receptacles of sewage. Time may be the river I go a-fishing in, as Thoreau would have it, but Oh Lord preserve me from eating what I catch (or catching what I already ate). "There's a good reason those catfish are so big," Dave concludes sagely. All in all, the catfish noodler must feel a lot like a dog chasing a car - what do I do with it if I catch it?

"I'll mount her, and then I'll take her to Branson."

The way Dave tells it is (and this is pretty much as it came from the horse's mouth): 
"Every weekend, this old boy at the office would go down to the river where they dumped all those old junk cars, and noodle for the catfish that would hide out in the cars. And there got to be some pretty big fish in there, and every Monday he'd come to work and talk about these big catfish he was catching. Well, this other fella got interested and kept after him to go down to the river with him and show him how it's done.

"Now the way it's done is, you get down on the bottom and feel around in the water and when you feel a catfish lying there in the mud, you slide your hand in under its belly and you rub its belly back and forth - sort of relaxes the fish. When the fish is relaxed, you slide your other hand into its mouth, hook your fingers in there behind the gill plate, and slowly bring the fish up out of the water. They'll come right up real easy until they break water, and then they just go crazy. You've got to be sure your feet are on the bottom and that you're not over your head. People have been dragged under and drowned by big catfish - that's why noodling was illegal in Kansas for years.

"There are two kinds of catfish in the Ar-Kansas. There's flathead catfish . . .

and there's blue catfish . . . 

"Any catfish will have these gristly little sharp teeth along the jaw. When you bring up a flathead, he'll just flop on your arm. But when you bring up a blue, he'll spin around and shred your arm with those teeth. Now these boys go out on the river together one weekend, and the next Monday Earl comes into work with his arm all bandaged up. We asked him, Earl, didja have a good time noodling? Oh, yeah.

"So we asked Carl what happened, why was Earl's arm all bandaged? Well, it happened that every time this old boy felt around on the river bottom and found a flathead, he'd get his hand into it and bring it up. There, he'd say, that's how you do it. And then whenever he'd find a blue he'd say to Earl, OK, here's one, now you try it."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Same Water, Different River

Voluntary or enforced, retirement is a strenuous affair when properly managed - it requires vigilant maintenance and brooks no slacking. So after returning from two weeks recreating in Texas, I drove down to the Arkansas River in my camper for a few days of fishing. 

The Arkansas is a schizophrenic flow of water running from Leadville, Colorado and emptying somewhere in the Missouri River (which is mostly in Montana and somewhere other than Missouri). The personality of the Arkansas is split between the western stretch, known as the Arkansas and properly pronounced AR-kan-saw, and the eastern stretch, known as the Arkansas and mispronounced locally as Ar-KAN-sas. They are two distinct rivers.

The upper portion of the river, between its source and the dam in Pueblo, is a classic freestone trout stream, clear enough that one can read a Chinese prenuptial agreement in six feet of water, and home to brown trout like the one shown here in the death grip of an amateur's disembodied hand. (I surmise that this is the hand of an amateur because 1) this is no way to treat a lady or an obliging trout, and 2) in his excitement he's thrown his rod on the ground, left his reel marinating in a puddle, and posted a photograph of the fiasco. Not to mention the clean fingernails.)


The lower (Ar-KAN-san) portion of the river is a lazy, muddy meander through sandbars, downed cottonwoods, the hulks of '59 Edsels, derelict washing machines and hot water heaters, harboring catfish of a stupendous size and appetite, as this specimen landed near Quangdong, Kansas amply illustrates (and "amply" is, I think, the mot juste):

1964 Nash Rambler retrieved from Arkansas River

The Upper Arkansas is the precinct of flyfishing with tiny flies, light tackle, stream waders - the usual aristocratic paraphernalia of any tradition-bound endeavor. The Lower Arkansas is the world of "noodling," the pursuit of large catfish by submersion in chocolately-brown water and trying to put your hand securely into the maw of something that, if it doesn't succeed in dragging you into eternity, can seriously abrade your arm. (Baptizing is just "noodling for Baptists.")

"First we dance, then you can buy me a drink."

In any case, I found myself camped along the river, communing with the geese, who float by in pairs and threes. Geese are the RV-ers of the natural world: they park anywhere they like, defecate everywhere, and seem to the innocent mind like a real wildlife sighting.
 "Hey, let's just camp here tonight. Bathroom's over there."

I will not discuss my successes or failures in those three days, except to say that by the end of the first day I was feeling pretty frustrated. So when at day's end I did finally land a decent trout in the 14-inch class, I decided that it would be supper. Since it was about to become a piece of history, this fish was clearly of the variety trutta simplistica, which are the only ones ever hooked and landed (generally the ones who think they're still living in a hatchery).  The other common varieties are trutta ascetica (the ones who never eat anything); trutta vegetariana (the ones who never like whatever fly you're offering); trutta bulemica (the ones who promptly spit out whatever goes into their mouths).

Supper that evening demanded some culinary genius, as I was bereft of the usual complement of ingredients that makes a trout on the table what it is - for example, I had brought along on this trip no butter, cooking oil, herbs, eggs, bacon fat, corn meal, and so on. Nothing in fact, except one (nonalcoholic) beer. I decided to make a court bouillon in which to poach the fish. So I diced up the carrot and celery sticks in my larder (intended for lunch the next day), simmered them in the beer, added a packet of Gulden's Brown Mustard for some frisson, and poached the trout.

I won't say I dined like a king, but what with the magnum of Roederer Cristal '85 to start, a complex little Batard-Montrachet '97 with the trout, a half-bottle of Dow's late bottled '64 port and a few rounds of chemin-de-fer at the Indian casino, I did better than the geese in the parking lot. And so (as Samuel Pepys used to say), to bed.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Javelina Journal: My Texas Vacation

I just returned from two weeks spent in Texas, one of the states in which Obesity assists Christian Endeavor. I went to Texas in order to experience Nature firsthand, so I went with my friend Peter, who is a desert ecologist. Desert Ecology is one of those disciplines that begs comparison with John Cage's musical composition 4' 33", in which content is necessarily at a minimum (it's a desert, after all). So we went to these deserts and we didn't see a whole lot except javelinas, which are unpleasant even when not approached and which I understand are the only North American pigs.

Divine, the Other White Meat

I met lots of nice people in the campgrounds, many of whom had come to Texas for the catfishing, which is said to be spectacular. As it was a desert, however, no one seemed to be having a great deal of success. These folks were despondent of their chances and, as their vacation dwindled away, were considering the prospect of trying another place, maybe a place with "Lake" in the name. I suggested Lake Erie.

"Wanna play Yahtzee?"

But I was there to recreate, as they say. A successful vacation should refresh the mind, bring new insights and perspectives with the change in scenery, so I thought of this Texas sojourn as a sort of blogger's holiday, or "blogiday," an opportunity to escape the pressures of regular blogging for money and refresh the fund of ideas. Instead I rode my bicycle.

Riding a bicycle in the desert requires that you be aware of the landmarks, the geological features in particular. Many of these features seem to be named for the devil's various body parts and accoutrements - the Devil's Thumb, Eyebrow, Nose, Needle, Playground, Jawbone, Hedge Fund, and so on. I chose for my turnaround point the Devil's Foreskin, by which I demarcated a particularly notable geological prominence situated at the apex of a three-mile climb. (Geological prominences in a forbidding landscape should have august names, so I thought 'foreskin' had more gravitas than, say, its Yiddish cognate 'schmeckel.')

At the top of this three-mile hill I met a group of Texans, fellow cyclists whom I had been meeting occasionally along the road as they passed me, all of whom applauded my ascent in the 90-degree heat, offered me their lunches, some chocolate chip cookies, God's undeservd blessings, and made me regret having ever aspersed any of their fellow citizens.

One thing I brought away from this relaxing time was the ability to keep my own counsel, to refrain from blurting the first thing that springs to mind. For example, whilst admiring the grandeur of the evening sun setting on El Castolon, the iconic formation in Big Bend National Park, I thought to myself (but did not say aloud), "Hey! that looks like a giant hat!" My patience was quickly rewarded by the fellow behind me, who promptly said it for me.

The Devil's Hat

Likewise, standing awestruck in the bowels of Carlsbad Caverns, wanting to but daring not speak its name, I heard in the semi-darkness of the cave a fervent voice: "Hey! That looks like a giant asparagus!"

The Devil's Asparagus

New ideas are hard to come by, even on vacation.