Thursday, November 29, 2007

That Was Then, This Is Now

A true story

Yesterday I was waiting to cross the street when I overheard a father say to his two young daughters "Hey, do you see what's on the third floor of that building?" I looked up and saw the ballet school he was referring to. The daughters made an uncommitted acknowledgement, but then got excited when they saw what was on the second floor.

"Oooh, a DJ scratch academy!"

Monday, November 19, 2007

Oh, Damn...

One of the project ideas I've had for a while, which I started but planned to get back to just as soon as I had the time (along with my other various projects), was to cut up old illustrated books, encyclopedias mainly, to reveal the various images inside. It would be a way of creating a collage by revealing what was there but hidden, rather than pasting elements together. It was an idea that interested me and not something I had seen before.

Last night I received an email from my friend Stacey:

"These are pretty cool and for some reason I thought of you"

And there it was: my idea, but done by someone else and much better than I could have done it. I particularly like the pieces featuring colorful abstract shapes. The whole thing depresses me despite how much I like the work.

I know that there is nothing new under the sun and that there is nothing stopping me from going ahead and trying it myself. But my enthusiasm for the whole idea is gone. Why bother?

One point of interest: in the comments section, a Jonathan says

"Hey, did you read Italo Calvino’s “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler?” If not, you should, because there’s a character in there who does exactly this…"

Well, I have read If On A Winter's Night A Traveler. It's one of my favorite books, but I have to admit that I don't recall the character who does this. But knowing this reminds me of two years ago when I was in Venice and found myself inexplicably thinking of Calvino's Invisible Cities, only to discover that that book is indeed about Venice. It's odd that Calvino's work seems to plant seeds that later bear fruit, albeit bitter fruit in this case.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Real Letter to a Celebrity Magazine

I know someone who works at a well-known national celebrity magazine. Below is one of the many unsolicited letters the magazine has received. I have removed some of the identifying info from the letter.

I am not making this up.

Dear Sirs:

I am writing tonight to follow up on a tip I submitted a week ago, and will go into more detail about a possible connection between the fall that actor Christopher Reeve had from a horse, and the fall from a horse that recording artist Madonna had more recently.

My feeling is that there was a conspiracy of white supremacists, rather than one weirdo acting alone.

I feel that the white supremacists are killers, rapists, perverts , and domestic terrorists.

They are organized in a fashion that you might expect of something such as a secret society of Hate like the Ku Klux Klan.

I live in Texas, and they enjoy flaunting symbols to display their beliefs, such as the Confederate flag. They also get kicks from using terms like "nigger" or "greaser" in public places where they know the minorities can overhear them.

I will begin with five examples of domestic terrorism that are not in chronological order:

In 1996, I had a part-time job as a substitute teacher for the [XX] School District.

I happened to mention to a class of elementary school children that I had worked at WFAA in Dallas. One of the children, 9 year old Amber Hagerman, wanted the address to write to WFAA to suggest a story about her mom, Donna Norris.

WFAA is the ABC affiliate locally, and was preparing a story about Amber, when she was abducted in broad daylight by a man described by a witness as a Hispanic in a late model black pickup truck.

Amber Hagerman was brutally raped and murdered, and her body was found in a cement ditch behind the [XX] apartment complex where I was living with my wife and child at the time.

I will now follow up with another example of a brutal rape and murder to terrorize elementary school children:

In August 1982, the month that I graduated from college, the actress Jane Seymour visited my apartment in [XX].

That evening four visitors came by in an effort to meet Jane Seymour: [AA], [BB], [CC], and a young female student from the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine (TCOM) that used to be in Fort Worth, Texas. I don't recall the name of the young woman.

At about 7:30 a.m., the following morning, the body of the young female TCOM student was found in a Fort Worth elementary school playground. She had been brutally raped and murdered. The Fort Worth police did a high profile house to house search looking for evidence.

My point here is that an elementary school playground had been chosen by the conspirators on purpose in an effort to make children afraid to go to school.

In the mid-1970s, when I was still in junior high school in [XX], a female student from Sam Houston High School was brutally stabbed to death in broad daylight in front of a Montgomery Wards that had been at what used to be called the Forum 303 Mall located at Pioneer Parkway and Highway 360. A witness to that one said that the killer had been a black man who escaped across a nearby field.

Again, what we see here is an effort to terrorize the local school children.

In 1974 or 1975, when I was still to[o] young to have a drivers license, one of my friends from junior high was struck by an [XX] Police car right before my eyes, and dragged hundreds of yards down the street and back.

A witness to this is:

[name and address of DD]

[DD] was also standing right there. The three of us were the same age.

The incident took place in [XX] at the intersection of Park Row Drive and Sherry Street.

Joel Eden was on a 10 speed bicycle, when the [XX] Police car purposefully veered out of its path, and knocked him off. His bell bottom jeans caught the bumper, and he was dragged down past Thorton Elementary School and back, screaming.

Joel Eden was dead on arrival at [XX] Memorial Hospital. There was even some fake propaganda in the local newspaper the following day saying that he had been so intoxicated that the was almost unconscious, and that he had struck the police car.

This was not the case. the police car had purposefully veered out of its path to mow him down, and then disregarded his screams.

It was a hate crime, and another example of an effort to terrorize school children.

Essentially giving them the idea that it's not safe to shop at the store, play in the neighborhood, go to school, etc.

I graduated from [EE] High School in [XX] in 1977. A friend of mine who graduated the year before in 1976 was named Fred Kurz. Fred was also killed in a "freak accident" that also involved an [XX] Police car.

Fred was killed in either 1979 or 1980. He was a student at the University of Texas..., and was part of a college fraternity that had a frat house that used to be on Center Street.

Fred was in front of the frat house with his girlfriend, when he was the victim of a high speed chase. A vehicle was trying to speed away from an [XX] Police car, when it jumped the cub, and struck both Fred and his girlfriend. Fred was killed instantly, and the girlfriend was seriously injured. Please note that there were no police sirens to warn them to step out of the way. The person driving the car claimed it was an "accident," and thus got off with a light sentence.

What I have just presented here are example [sic] of young people who actually died.

I will follow up on this in a few days with reports of others who suffered some type of "medical misfortune" or had their outstanding reputations purposefully ruined.

I have seen first hand the actions of these "perverts," and they actually get sick pleasure from causing their victim's "medical misfortune" or "disability."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Today's Reading

I've begun going to church again, as my godson's Confirmation is coming up, and I need to be a Catholic in good standing in order to take part. But until then there are little rewards for going to church, such as hearing the first reading today as follows:

So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill.

So far, so good. But then:

As long as Moses held up his pants, the Israelites were winning,


but whenever he lowered his pants, the Amalekites were winning.

It wasn't until I heard the following sentence ("Aaron and Hur held his pants up—one on one side, one on the other") that I realized it wasn't Moses' pants, but his hands. Completely changes the meaning of the passage.

I once asked my friend Bob which he would chose: deafness or blindness. He immediately picked deafness, not only because he is an artist, but also because loss of hearing would spare him all the annoying noises of the city. I also chose deafness: not just because the deaf have a tight-knit, insular community, but because, as today's reading shows, I would then live in a wonderfully surreal and silly world.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

From Now On

I was woken Wednesday morning by the sound and cool temperature of rain. After getting up and making some water of my own, I looked out the window and saw that the rain was hard enough to flood the streets, but oddly enough was not coming in my windows. So I left the windows open and fell back asleep to the soothing sound of a summer thunderstorm.

An hour or two later I woke up and saw that my sister (she's been staying with me) was dressed and ready for a job interview. "You're heading out?" I asked. "Nope, the subway system is shut down because of the rain." As I do when anything out of the ordinary happens, I got up and watched it on tv. Indeed, so much rain had poured down in such a short period of time that the subways flooded, making the trains unable to get through.

It reminded me of a conversation/prediction I had made four years ago. In 2003, you may remember there was a blackout in New York City. Apart from the blackout itself, the main item of interest was how well people in the city dealt with the power outage. Unlike the blackout of 1977, there was little looting and a sense of society coming together rather than disintegrating into chaos. So soon after 9/11, it seemed that people wanted to be good, that people wanted to help others and meet the challenge when things went wrong, as opposed to the summer of 1977 when everyone seemed pissed off and couldn't even imagine their better natures, let alone act on them.

The '03 blackout occurred while I was at work, which meant I had to walk down 59 flights of stairs. I walked behind one of my co-workers, who was a little concerned but trying to be brave as we made our way downstairs. Being with someone more anxious than I actually had calming effect: I got to be the rational one for a change. I wasn't wearing pumps, for one thing. Preparing for the worst, I was actually surprised when we got to the street. There didn't seem to be any tension or panicking. I saw people at intersections directing traffic and the drivers obeying rather than ignoring them. Making my way home, it seemed as if the entire city had been transformed into a series of block parties. I stopped at a bar and had a Guinness (cause it tastes good warm). Outside the bar, someone blasted music from the back of their truck and everyone just hung out, listened and swapped stories.

A few days after power was restored, I was relating my experiences to my friends Troy and Andrea, particularly my realization that the blackout was an indication of things to come. Enjoyable as it was, I knew that it was also a sign of the future. American infrastructure is fairly old, and has been pushed to its limits. Unfortunately, the prevailing mood in this country is to build new rather than repair old, and, even worse, that tax monies shouldn't be wasted on such things as repairing roads or upgrading utilities. People have been feed the line (fishing metaphor implied) of "less taxes is always good!" that they've forgotten the sort of things for which taxes are meant. I believe...I hope...that I sounded more accepting and cheerful than apocalyptic when I told my friends "this is how it's going to be from now on. Things are going to fall apart and we're just going to have to deal with it. The age of progress in America is over; now comes the age of everything falling apart."

Our subway system can't withstand a lot of rain. A steam pipe explodes in mid-town this summer. A bridge collapses in Minneapolis. New Orleans. They're all part of a list of the way things will be from now on. They are not the exceptions, but the rules.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Birthday Massage

On Monday I went for my annual Birthday Massage. I was about a month late, but my schedule didn't allow for the massage any closer to the actual day. After every massage I think "I should do this more often -- at least twice a year" but never do.

On my way, I saw a typical tourist family consulting maps and trying to orient themselves. The parents were wearing matching "I [heart] New York" shirts. I thought of telling them "Thank you, but you know you don't have to wear those shirts. It's not like a law was passed." Although if Giuliani had remained mayor, I'm sure one would have been.

My massage was scheduled at a spa for men located in an old bank building. The decor is New York Chic: minimal furnishings, steel gray walls, catwalks leading to the different rooms, what I assume is good feng shui. An impressive place, the effect of which was undone by bright yellow water in the toilet I went to use. Apparently the massages are so good that you're too relaxed to flush when finished.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

08:42 Brecht: Collected Plays Volume 2

Brecht: Collected Play Volume 2
Bertolt Brecht

Lead to this book because of my interest in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, I discovered it was actually my least favorite of Brecht’s plays, preferring A Man’s a Man and The Threepenny Opera. I’m rather bad at reading plays – even Shakespeare – never getting as much from the text as I do from an even halfway decent performance.

But some understanding of Mahagonny was needed as I was going to see an experimental film that used the entire opera, sung in German, as its soundtrack. The filmmaker Harry Smith was (wikipedia puts it best) “an American archivist, ethnomusicologist, student of anthropology, record collector, experimental filmmaker, artist, bohemian and Kabbalist.” As your grandmother might say, Harry was a “real character,” the kind that used to populate Greenwich Village and gentrification has dispersed to God-knows-where. Smith’s film of Mahagonny divided the screen into four equal quadrants, showing a variety of images in each quadrant. Often the same image would be shown in two quadrants though reversed in one, creating a mirror effect. The images were home movie quality, shots of New York as it was in the 1970’s and stop motion animation using whatever Harry happened to have in his apartment, mostly cigarettes and liquor bottles. I had seen the film several years ago and this time, read Brecht’s play beforehand, thinking that a familiarity with the opera would add to my understanding of the film.

Sadly no. I realized fairly early on that there isn’t much correspondence between Brecht’s text and Smith’s film; or rather, that like much of Smith’s work, the connections and meaning are so esoteric and personal that viewers remain outside. Brecht’s play itself is said to be a satire of America, following the experiences of immigrants to a golden city who seek only to get rich, become vulgarians when they do and eventually succumb to the city’s violence and corrupt legal system. I can see why it would appeal to a bohemian like Smith; what I can’t see is what it has to do with his film. As nostalgic as I am for the New York of 30+ years ago, my second viewing was a restless experience.

Brecht’s play features the standard Brechtian devices to remind audiences that they are not seeing reality but a play, a representation of reality. Culture, not nature. But the vaudeville-type satire is rather tiresome, despite the inventive technique involved. Again, this is as text. It’s likely that a well-staged production would reverse my opinion. Better are the two earlier plays included in this volume. The Threepenny Opera features the scheming and fighting among the criminal underclass and has better characters and a narrative drive lacking in Mahagonny.

The real surprise was A Man’s a Man. A group of soldiers, fearing the wrath of their sergeant when one of their company goes missing while drunk, convince a local dockworker to impersonate the missing man. He agrees with the ruse, thinking it to be temporary, but stays and eventually becomes a better soldier than the rest of the troop. It’s a funny take on identity as being determined more by your surroundings than anything innately personal. The military farce is silly enough to be an episode of Sgt. Bilko or a lost chapter of Catch-22 and its theme on the malleability of identity haven’t dated at all.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

07:42 A Void

A Void
Georges Perec

I thought I had first learned of Perec’s A Void -- a novel in which the letter e never appears -- from The Book of Lists, which I read and re-read as a teenager. However, I just checked The Book of Lists and there is no mention of either Perec or his novel, a strange disappearance completely in synch with A Void. My interest was reawakened when I found myself constructing sentences without the letter e while half-asleep (details here). My sister Ann gave me a copy of A Void this past year for Christmas and I was off.

Reading the book, you can’t help but be aware of the game the writer is playing, and as you read, you constantly check to see if he slips up. Nope, he never does. Some stylistic indulgences are to be expected: past tense is avoided and some numbers are represented by digits rather than spelled out. Even though the book is based around a clever conceit, there is a sense of sadness and loss. Written as a mystery, it begins with the disappearance of the main character’s best friend, soon followed by the death or disappearance of others in his life. It includes the genre’s conspiracies, hair-pin turns and sudden reversals to portray a stable world sinking into chaos. It’s interesting that Perec, a life-long Parisian, wrote this, the most rule-bound of novels, during the political turmoil of the late sixties. It is anarchic in its imagination though reactionary in its respect for rules and order.

How clever is the book? Well, the second section and the fifth chapter are “missing” (because e is the second vowel and the fifth letter of the alphabet). Not content to craft his own work with one letter tied behind his back, Perec also rewrites and incorporates Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” Poe’s “Black Bird” (“Quoth that Black Bird ‘Not Again’”), and, for the ultimate achievement in being a smart-ass, Shakespeare’s “To Be Or Not To Be”:

Living or not living: that is what I ask:
If ‘tis a stamp of honor to submit
To slings and arrows waft’d us by ill winds,
Or brandish arms against a flood of afflictions,
Which by our opposition is subdu’d? Dying, drowsing;
Waking not?…

I should point out that A Void is a translation, skillfully handled by Gilbert Adair from the original French, which may actually be the greater achievement. It brings to mind the old line about Ginger Rogers being a superior dancer to Fred Astaire because she had to do everything he did except backwards and in high heels.

Monday, June 25, 2007

06:42 The Baron In The Trees

The Baron In The Trees
Italo Calvino

A delight. One day in late June 1767, the young Cosimo di Rondo, first-born son of a local baron, upset at his sister Battista’s latest perverse culinary creation, climbs a tree in protest…and never comes down for the rest of his life. What begins as a child’s willful act of defiance evolves into one man’s desire to live free of earth’s constraints, even though his life is determined by the trees in which he lives.

The irony is that, even though Cosimo tries to live a solitary life, he is still connected to the lives of others. He fights in wars, meets statesmen and philosophers, battles pirates, farms, hunts, has love affairs, and all without ever setting foot on the ground. The Baron In The Trees can be read in many ways: fable, satire, ribald tale, outsider’s view of the Age of Enlightenment. Despite the eccentricity of the plot, Calvino’s language is never coy or precious. Cosimo’s younger brother narrates the tale, his bewildered yet intrigued tone prevents it from becoming an exercise in terminal whimsy.

As with any novel that records the span of a character’s life or a specific historical era, there is a sense of loss that pervades The Baron In The Trees, as in this early passage, included for verisimilitude:

I don’t know if it’s true, the story they tell in books, that in ancient days a monkey could have left Rome and skipped from tree to tree until it reached Spain, without ever touching earth. The only place so thick with trees in my day was the whole length, from end to end, of the gulf of Ombrosa and its valley right up to the mountain crests; the area was famous everywhere for this.

Nowadays these parts are very different. It was after the arrival of the French that people began chopping down trees as if they were grass which is scythed every year and grows again. They have never grown again. At first we thought it was something to do with the war, with Napoleon, with the period. But the chopping went on. Now the hillsides are so bare that when we look at them, we who knew them before, it makes us feel bad.

The abundance of life inevitably falling victim time’s sharp ax. But at least a baron in the trees (as well as The Baron In The Trees) pays tribute to the rich strangeness possible in life until the final chop.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I Believe You

On the subway this morning I spotted a fashionably dishevelled young man wearing a ball cap. On the front of the ball cap was written:

Rock and Roll Asshole


Monday, June 18, 2007

05:42 No god But God

No god but God: The origins, evolution and future of Islam
Reza Aslan

Author Reza Aslan has always come across as one of the more reasonable, informed guests on shows like “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “The Daily Show.” I read “Imperial Life In The Emerald City” after seeing its author on “The Daily Show” so now I’m not only getting my news from Jon Stewart but also my reading list.

Aslan’s book is aimed at the Western non-Islamic reader so that s/he can understand the religion’s current conflicts and their historical origins. “What is taking place now in the Muslin world” writes Aslan “is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West. The West is merely a bystander – an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story.” The conflict is basically between fundamentalists and progressives – a similar battle that rages across most religions and political systems. “Fundamentalism, in all religious traditions, is impervious to suppression. The more one tries to squelch it, the stronger it becomes. Counter it with cruelty, and it gains adherents. Kill its leaders, and they become martyrs. Respond with despotism, and it becomes the sole voice of opposition. Try to control it and it will turn against you. Try to appease it, and it will take control.”

No god But God begins in pre-Islamic Arabia, providing an overview of what Mohammed was reacting against (polytheism, mainly, but also city-state corruption) when he began reciting the word of God. It continues with an overview of Mohammed’s life and the development of the Quran, taking time to address standard complaints about Islam, notably its sexism and being a “religion of the sword.” Addressing these concerns, if Aslan sounds defensive it’s because, well, he is. He attempts to justify ideas one would think incongruous with a peaceful religion through three methods. One: “Everyone else does it, too” (ie Christianity’s history is as bloody as Islam’s). Two: “The Quran has a verse that says NOT to do that bad thing.” Which is fine as an excuse for the scripture, but doesn’t excuse what people do in its name and ignores scripture that contradicts it. The third and final excuse “you have to understand these things in historical context.” This is where my problem with Islam (and other organized religions) begins.

I can not accept any spiritual teaching that explicitly favors part of God’s creation over another, such as proscribing different laws for men and women or members of one tribe versus another. The Quran, the Torah and the Christian Bible all contain such passages. “Historical context” is usually the excuse, but a truly spiritual teaching, not to mention the Word of God, would transcend human history. What would be as true in 6000 BC would be as true in 33 AD and would still be true tomorrow morning. I accept that ideas need to be understood in context, but then I can not accept those ideas as the legitimate edicts of an all-powerful, all-benevolent, eternal God. This applies specifically to Islam, which is said to be the recitation of the Word of God by His prophet Mohammed. Without this claim as divinely inspired speech, the Quran is a nice (abeit inconsistent) book of teachings, no better than most others.

Azlan's book is a great overview of the history of the religion. Islam, like all major religions, is particularly conflicted in the face of science and rational thought. The Muslims are just as skilled as the Christians in tying themselves in theological knots when they attempt to "logically" explain the nature of God. Like all religions, it always falls back on "you just have to believe" with the hidden corollary "if you don't believe, then you have to live with the fact that I believe."

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Everyone Gets Atrophy, part II

Yesterday I received the following email from my friend Andrea. The show she is referring to is an amateur art exhibition in Lancaster county, PA. I wrote about last year's edition here.

Mon, 4 Jun 2007 11:42:49 -0700 (PDT)
From: Andrea Collins
Subject: titles
To: John Hanlon

I thought I would send you my favorite titles from this year's "If you pay your entry fee your painting is in" show that we took you to last year.

"Untitled Little Boy" (Not exactly untitled then, is it?)
"Lady in Cage"
"Latte Conversation" (A painting of two ladies talking, because ladies love lattes almost as much as being in cages)
"Oscar Wilde Twice"
"Nurturing Earth Mother, She's All We've Got"
"Stacking the Lobsters"
"The Nose Licker!" (My favorite)
Thank you, Andrea.

It's hard to pick a favorite, but this morning I'm leaning towards "Stacking the Lobsters."

Monday, June 04, 2007

04:42 The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point
Malcolm Gladwell

I borrowed this book – what, three years ago? – from someone at work. Then I quit my job and had no desire to see the person from whom I borrowed the book, so I kept it, unintentionally stealing. Then, as fate would have it, I ended up being rehired at my old job as a temp (I didn’t make enough to be considered a “consultant”). Earlier this year when I decided I was going to quit my job for a second time, I was determined to read and return The Tipping Point before I left. I’m a big fan of closure, though obviously not a big fan of that job.

Why do some phenomena become ubiquitous in the culture, whereas others die a quick death? This is the guiding question in The Tipping Point but you get the sense that Gladwell’s answers could fit on a PowerPoint presentation: he classifies people who carry new ideas as Connectors, Mavens, or Salesman; outlines a “Stickiness Factor,” and the “Power of Context,” all of which explain (or are imposed on) such disparate phenomena as sneaker popularity, venereal disease epidemics, and teenage smoking.

I remember the article in The New Yorker in which Gladwell first articulated his ideas. He used the example of cars parked on a street in an unsafe neighborhood. A number of cars are parked on the same street, similar with respect to price, condition, and age. But if you noticeably damage one of them (for example, cracking the windshield), then that car alone would then be preyed on and further vandalized within a few days, sometimes even hours. All factors were equal save the broken windshield, “the tipping point,” the one extra nudge that would let people in the area know that this car could be damaged without repercussions. This theory, “little things mean a lot,” was behind Giuliani’s crackdown on crime in New York City in the 1990s. Remove the atmosphere that forgives minor crimes and you’ll remove the atmosphere that permits major crime. We may not be able to prevent crimes like murder, but we can stop the small noticeable crimes (graffiti, panhandling) that let people to think they live in a society that ignores all crimes.

Like many books written by journalists, The Tipping Point reads like a series of previously published articles re-written and edited to fit a theme. Gladwell does write well and is able to discuss scientific or sociological studies without wallowing in jargon. The proof offered for his theories ranges from “Sesame Street” to Paul Revere’s ride and seems chosen less for applicability than for the fact that he finds them interesting. As did I. The “Stickiness Factor” and the Connectors aren’t as engaging as the history of “Sesame Street.” For example, before the show aired, child psychiatrists insisted that the Muppets be kept separate from the scenes with live actors because children wouldn’t accept the interaction between fantasy and realistic figures. When they tested the show with children, the kids lost interest as soon as the Muppets were off screen. The producers decided to try an episode in which Muppets and humans mixed. This time, the children’s attention rated higher than it did for either the Muppets of the humans alone, and they never had any trouble with the mixing of fantasy and realism. Makes one wonder what else child psychiatrists have gotten so wrong.

What was most satisfying about The Tipping Point was that it supported two pet theories of mine:

1. The human mind is formed and formatted by narrative, not by language.
Child development experts, psychologists and neurologists have argued that language, initially spoken, then written, is the source of connections in the human mind. Learning language is what sparks growth in our brains as children and it is how our brains are thereafter conditioned. Other factors can be important (images, music) but language is primary.

Doesn’t ring true to me and never has.

I have long believed that it is narrative, little stories, cause and effect, that structures a child’s brain, and remains the underlying way in which they think as they get older. Yes, we use language to express and understand narrative, but narrative is what’s primary, not language. Before children can understand words, they experience life as a simple story, cause and effect: I was hungry, I cried, I got fed. A story with a happy ending. As we grow, the stories become more complex as our brains develop and our understanding of the world increases. Language develops in response to our brains’ growth and its ability to handle more complex narratives.

I’ve never done the requisite research to prove this – I wouldn’t even know where to begin – and I think I’ve only discussed this idea once or twice with others (while a little drunk, no doubt). However, on page 119, Gladwell writes:

The project centered on a two-year-old girl from New Haven called Emily, whose parents – both university professors – began to notice that before their daughter went to sleep at night she talked to herself. Curious, they put a small microcassette recorder in her crib and, several nights a week, for the next fifteen months, recorded both the conversations they had with Emily as they put her to bed and the conversations she had with herself before she fell asleep. The transcripts – 122 in all – were then analyzed by a group of linguists and psychologists led by Katherine Nelson of Harvard University. What they found was that Emily’s conversations with herself were more advanced than her conversations with her parents. In fact, they were significantly more advanced. One member of the team that met to discuss the Emily tapes, Carol Fleisher Feldman, later wrote:

“In general, her speech to herself is so much richer and more complex [than her speech to adults] that it has made all of us, as students of language development, begin to wonder whether the picture of language acquisition offered in the literature to date does not underrepresent the actual patterns of the linguistic knowledge of the young child. For once the lights are out and her parents leave the room, Emily reveals a stunning mastery of language forms we would never have suspected from her [everyday] speech.”

Feldman was referring to things like vocabulary and grammar and – most important – the structure of Emily’s monologues. She was making up stories, narratives, that explained and organized the things that happened to her.

Emily is making up stories to make sense of the world around her, and to entertain herself before she goes to sleep. The story is primary; language is merely the tool to express it. This reminds me of my own experience as a child. Language and words were not that important to me or any of the children I knew. But stories were. Not only as entertainment, but as a way of processing and passing on information and solving the mystery of the world into which we are born.

2. Individual psychology is overrated; group psychology is underrated.
For a while, I’ve been interested in what I think of as group dynamics: the way that people assume roles when in a group, modifying their personalities or behavior based on how best to fit in or what they think the group needs. Consequently, I see individual psychology as only significant when an individual is alone, and how often is that? Otherwise you have to take the group dynamics into account when discussing someone’s personality or actions. In other words, personality is not fixed and rigid, but depends on context.

This idea came from observing people act differently depending on who they are with. When I was younger I judged this as hypocrisy; now I accept it as human. I recall a few years after college seeing a group of friends and being annoyed at how they kept treating me as the person I was rather than who I thought I had become. The irony was that, under their influence, I began acting like that person again, reverting to my old self. At the time I thought “This isn’t who I am anymore. Why am I behaving this way?” My answer was to attribute it to the power of group dynamics. Gladwell would call it the power of context.

To demonstrate this, Gladwell writes about a study conducted by Hugh Hartshorne and M. A. May in the 1920s to measure the honesty of children using several kinds of SAT-type tests. I won’t go into the details of the study, but the results did show consistent patterns, though not as consistent as one might think. The researchers concluded that most children

Will deceive in certain situations and not in others. Lying, cheating, and stealing as measured by the test situations used in these studies are only very loosely related. Even cheating in the classroom is rather highly specific, for a child may cheat on an arithmetic test and not on a spelling test, etc. Whether a child will practice deceit in any given situation depends in part on his intelligence, age, home background, and the like and in part on the nature of the situation itself and his particular relation to it. (from Hartshorne and May)

Gladwell continues:

This, I realize, seems wildly counterintuitive…All of us, when it comes to personality, naturally think in terms of absolutes: that a person is a certain way or is not a certain way. But what…Hartshorne and May are suggesting is that this is a mistake, that when we think only in terms of inherent traits and forget the role of situations, we’re deceiving ourselves about the real causes of human behavior…

Character, then, isn’t what we think it is, or rather, what we want it to be. It isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits, and it only seems that way because of a glitch in the way our brains are organized. Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.

So it’s not just group dynamics that determines an individual’s behavior, but everything about a situation. It was acutely painful for me when I believed in consistent individual psychology because that was not how I experienced the world. In Western psychology, I thought of my personality as “fragmented.” Not dysfunctional, but without a clearly defined core “self.” I was too aware at how I would change based on the immediate situation. It was a relief when I read that in Eastern religions, not clinging to a rigid sense of “self” and being able to go with “the way” are goals that one should work towards.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


I took these pictures last year. It was the best use of vandalism I had seen in a long time.

A new building was being built on Broadway across from Lincoln Center. A fairly common sight, as was the re-routed sidewalk and the protecctive wooden barricade which lined it. Because there's little that's more offensive in New York than a blank surface that's not being used to sell something*, the entire wall, a block long, was covered with a billboard size advertisement for the bank that will eventually be on the site.

A lot of money was spent on this ad from conception to printing and hanging. Yet all it took to completely subvert its message and render the money and time spent wasted was a smartass with a Sharpie. How successful was this subversion? Well, I have no idea what bank this ad is for. All I remember is the commentary. Plus it was taken down shortly thereafter; I'm assuming ahead of schedule.

Once while visiting New York City as a teenager, I saw a subway ad that someone had taken a sharpie to, but instead the usual penis going into someone's mouth, blackening their teeth or giving them a Devil's beard, the vandal had done a clever semiotic analysis of the ad, transforming it from sponsored information into a lesson on images and how advertising works. Again, I have no idea what the initial ad was trying to sell (tourism, maybe?) but I still remember some of the ideas expressed by the graffiti.

Sadly, these photos don't do the experience justice or express how funny it was. Walking alongside the mural, the first speech balloon would catch your eye and you'd think "Okay..." But the combination of montonous repitition, its minor variations, and the notion that the only thing anyone could think about was a new bank, served as a parody of advertising's methods and goals. It's also a critique of the changes in New York City. Goodbye playhouse and the arts. Goodbye little shops, like your florist. Hello to a city now dominated by money and populated by those who can only conceive of things in financial terms.

Of course, we all know who ultimately wins in the battle between powerful financial interests and smartasses with magic markers. The proof of their victory is all around us, although I am happy that there are at least a few who fight as if its not over yet.

*Don't even get me started on the ads placed above urinals in bars and restaurants. I hope there a special torment in Hell awaiting anyone responsible for, or who benefits from, this annoying piece (or piss) of marketing.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Endless Things

It's a good year for fans of John Crowley. Sadly, there aren't enough of us, but he is one of my favorite writers, one of the few whose work I connect with on a personal level beyond other "better" writers.

Mr. Crowley is not the most prolific of writers: he manages to publish a novel once every couple of years. But this year, there are three "new" books by him. One of these, Little, Big, is an old novel being re-published in a fancy pantsy illustrated slipcase limited edition. I have been thinking seriously of late of limiting the number of books I own; however, this is one that I will be happy to double-dip. Speaking of limited editions, In Other Words, a collection of essays and book reviews, also came out this year in a signed, numbered small press edition. I have number 580 out of 600 copies. Mr. Crowley's signature is beautiful and looks like script.

But for fans, the biggest news is the publication of Endless Things: A Part of Aegypt. This is the final book of a four-part series that began with AEgypt, published almost twenty years ago. I can remember seeing AEgypt's distinctive cover at the Walden Books where I worked after college. The second part Love and Sleep came out shortly after I moved to New York, and I can remember my excitement, the sense of triumph, when I discovered a copy at the Strand for half the cover price. Daemonomania was published while I worked at, and I made a point of featuring it on the website. This time the elation came whenever we sold a copy. Now, with Endless Things, the cycle is complete.

One of the jokes of these novels concerns the main character, Pierce Moffet, who has esoteric theories about The Way Things Really Work, but can't quite put them into words. He's living off of a publisher's advance, having promised to write a book outlining his thoughts, but he's at a point where he feels his ideas more than he thinks them. Then, surprise, circumstances lead him to an old unpublished journal that spells out exactly what poor Pierce has been trying to say. This experience may be familiar for many who read (I'm going through it right now with The Nuture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris, which puts forth the most accurate description of child development and socialization I ever read. In a nutshell: socialization does not come from your parents, but from your peer group. I'll post more about it when I've finished the book), and it also echoes what it's like to read AEgypt. You've found a book that expresses a sense of life you've felt but never expressed, and then the main character finds a book that expresses a sense of life he's felt but never expressed.

As mentioned before, three books in one year by Crowley is a big deal. There were times when his work was hard to find and used copies were quite expensive. It was during one of these periods, after I had read AEgypt and decided I had to have it in hardcover (to go along with my hardcover copies of Love and Sleep and Daemonomania), that I convinced my friend Ben to steal it from the local library for me. Not exactly "steal." I had asked Ben to take their copy out, then report it as lost, pay for the book and I would reimburse him. Well, the library had a policy that you had to wait two months before a book could be classified as "lost." Then you would pay the cost of the book plus the two months late fees. It turned out to be about as much as buying it on ebay, but at least I got a nice copy of the book in hardcover.

Combined with the release late last year of Against The Day, the new novel by another one of my favorite writers, Thomas Pynchon, the last several months have been a good one regarding my little interests. In fact, it reminds me of ten years ago. I can distinctly remember one night in the early months of 1997 telling my friend Karl that I expected it was going to be a good year because my three favorite directors were each releasing a movie that year: David Cronenberg - Crash, Peter Greenaway - The Pillow Book, and David Lynch - Lost Highway. However, as much as I like these films, 1997 was not a good year. My father died in 1997, and I learned a very long and painful lesson about what is important and what constitutes a good year versus a bad one. When I think back to my naive self on the way to a bar, chirping about how good the year would be based on a couple of movies and having no idea what was coming my just makes me sad.

It reminds me not to boast and to keep things in perspective. Yes, three books by someone you like is nice, but there are more important things. One of the things I gained from my father's death was a sense of perspective, but I would have traded this in, and would have traded anything I had, to have my father back. The choice was not mine.

Little, Big concerns, among other things, a family that consists of a father, mother, three daughters and a son. Father and son have something in common: they both sense that everyone else in the family is connected, and they are the odd man out. The son, Auberon, moves away from home to the big city where...he doesn't do much of anything, but eventually returns home for a visit.

Smoky looked up at his tall son. Through the whole of their lives together, it had been as though he and Auberon had been back to back, fixed that way and unable to turn. They had had to communicate by indirection, through others, or by craning their neck and talking out the sides of their mouths; they had had to guess at each other's faces and actions. Now and then one or the other would try a quick spin around to catch the other unawares, but it never worked, quite, the other was still behind and facing away, as in the old vaudeville act. And the effort of communication in that posture, the effort of making oneself clear, had often grown too much for them, and they'd given it up, mostly. But now -- maybe because of what had happened to him in the CIty, whatever that was, or maybe only increase of time wearing away the bond that had both held them and held them apart, Auberon had turned around. Slowly I turn. And all tht was left then was for Smoky himself to tun and face him.

That was my dad and I.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Red Light Green Light

Well, I didn't mean to give up posting on The Hanged Man for Lent. It just sort of turned out that way, a unconscious contrast to last year's daily Lenten musings. Oops.

Last week I re-encountered one of those mysterious artifacts from my childhood. When I was in first grade, our entire class, and if I remember correctly, the entire school, had to go to the gymnasium to watch a movie. The movie was meant to teach kids "don't talk to strangers," and to make the point as obvious as possible, a red traffic light would be superimposed over each creepy adult's face.

Seeing the movie again last week (it's called "Red Light Green Light" and is available on the dvd The Educational Archives: More Sex and Drugs) I was amazed by how much I misremembered. I recalled a stern narrator's voice accompanying each red traffic light with the warning "this is a red light person." Nope. The movie was also a lot looser than I thought: lots of scenes of the kids just playing, hanging out, having fun. The "beware of strangers" scenes actually make up very little of the movie's running time. It's actually kinda slow - I'm amazed I sat through it.

I do recall, however, when we were discussing the movie afterwards in Miss Lord's class (yes, my first grade teacher was named Grace Lord), Miss Lord saying "I don't know why they had the red light over the man who was trying to give the little boy an ice cream cone. He seemed nice - I think that was a mistake."

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Music of the Subways

I had a series of nice New York moments this weekend, in addition to the fact that it is snowing right now and Brooklyn always looks beautiful in the snow.

I was on the subway last night and an older gentleman got on with a friend and his 12 string guitar. He looked like "Old Bluesman" straight out of central casting, but when he began playing guitar, it was anything but the standard blues (the music of complaint). It was beautiful, soulful, soft and hypnotic. He seemed to be playing for his friend rather than money. When he was finished, the two of them talked rather than getting up and passing the hat.

At the next stop, a group of four Mexicans got on the car with their instruments: guitar, accordian, stand up double bass, and hat. Yes, one member of the group was only there to pass the hat for donations. I'm assuming they were Mexicans because their first song was that "Aye-yi-yi-yi-I am a Frito Bandito" song, but they could have been from Honduras or El Salvador. I was half-expecting a battle of the bands between them and the Old Bluesman, but he just listened to them play while continuing to talk with his friend. Someone one the subway was eating an orange and its scent perfumed the entire car.

The best occured this afternoon while taking the subway to Manhattan. I was reading a book when suddenly I heard someone singing the "Ave Maria." I looked around the car expecting to see the standard robust opera singer (again, right out of central casting) and was surprised to see the incredible sound coming out of a rather slight, unassuming young lady. I guess I should count myself lucky that it wasn't a fat lady, cause that would mean that it was over. Regardless, the girl was able to sing the "Ave Maria" in a way that resonated throughout the subway car, her beautiful voice completely saturating and subduing everything else going on the the car.

It was absolutely beautiful, one of those unexpected moments in life that you treasure.

I gave her a dollar.

Friday, February 16, 2007

03.42 What If Our World Is Their Heaven?

What If Our World Is Their Heaven? The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick
Edited by Gwen Lee and Doris Elaine Sauter

Philip K. Dick is my favorite science fiction writer. Philip K. Dick is a lot of people’s favorite science fiction writer. I don’t know if it’s because he flatters the reader’s sense that no matter how lost they feel their lives serve a greater purpose or because his great theme was the way in which an individual’s sense of reality may not correspond with everyone else’s. Maybe it’s because he’s less concerned with those who invent shiny rocketships than with those who have to clean them. Regardless, he’s one of the few science fiction writers who is taken seriously by those who don’t read science fiction and with good reason.

What If Our World Is Their Heaven is a collection of interviews Dick conducted a few months before his death. Knowing that he died a few months later adds a special poignancy to the proceedings, whether he is enthusiastically discussing the first big budget film based on his writings (Blade Runner) or describing a fictional character who willingly gives up his life in exchange for spiritual revelation. Beyond that, the book is an interesting example of a mind at work, or, as Robyn Hitchcock once put it “the odd act of a mind trying to explain itself.” Dick describes a novel he would never live to write, working it out while talking about it -- it’s fascinating to witness a writer at work. The novel concerns an alien from a world in which they communicate through color / light frequencies rather than sound, so that when one of them arrives on Earth and confronts sound for the first time, he has no concept of it and is convinced that he is having a religious experience. (Hence, the title of this book). This alien mind invades that of a hack composer who experiences truly beautiful music for the first time, and is willing to give up his life for more.

Dick was adept at talking about epistemology and philosophy, about how we perceive light and sound or the history of ancient religions, all without losing his sense of humor or wonder. Hearing his voice directly, without the filter of his fiction, is a treat for his fans or anyone interested in the “oh, wow!” aspects of science.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Since You Asked...

In the comments section to the previous entry, Iva (aka my mother) asked:

"Can anyone tell me why we started this war (with any kind of logic at all?)"

Okay - my take on why:

They (not "we") decided that the U.S. needed a Western-friendly region in the Middle East. (When we say "Western-friendly" what we're mainly talking about is "friendly to Western business interests" but our political system is so entwined with our economic system that most in government can not picture one without the other). Basically, they wanted a US-friendly puppet government, similar to what the Soviets created in Eastern Europe during the cold war. In addition to access to Iraq's resources, the US would be able to establish the military bases necessary for gaining more control of the region.

Our other ally in the region, Israel, has never been stable enough for the US to use as a base of operations without creating a full-blown occupation. And Israel's problems are going to get worse, not better. I read an article a while ago that mentioned that Israel's population is declining and a number of younger Jews don't want to live in war-zone, whereas the Palesinian population has been increasing. Within a generation or so, the Israelites will be surrounded by even more people unsympathetic to their cause and in need of what few resources they have. The name "Custer" comes to mind.

So the Middle East was the Gordian Knot and invading Iraq became the answer to all of the US' problems. Want a Western-friendly region in the Middle East but want to avoid a conflict with Islamic clerics? Invade Iraq - a country with a secular leader unpopular with much of the Arab world. Need access to oil to put off the coming energy crisis as long as possible? Invade Iraq - second largest oil reserves in the world. Need a home for military bases from which we can, when the time comes, start moving into other countries? Invade Iraq. Need a country we know we can beat since we did it 15 years ago? Invade Iraq.

I'm sure there were other questions I don't even know about which "Invade Iraq" was the answer. Hussein was a US ally in the 80's - I'm sure he had some dirty laundry that the Bush administration preferred be burnt. It wouldn't surprise me if Saudi Arabia mentioned they'd like a US-friendly Iraq as a buffer between them and the rest of the Arab world.

This sort of theorizing ("We want to control this, how do we do it? If we do this, how will another country react?") is what conservative thinktanks do. It's what they're for: endless theoretical arguments are created, predictions made, schemes hatched. Most of those schemes come to nothing because there's no way to legally put them into practice. But with the carte blanche given to the Bush administration after 9/11, neo-conservatives seized on a rare opportunity and decided to invade another country on manufactured pretenses according to plans drawn up in right-wing thinktanks.

I'm sure the original plan was for a quick war and takeover of Iraq, then, after a year or two, boostered by support from the American public, begin the process again with another country. Syria: maybe. Iran, if feeling particularly ambitious. However, it didn't work. For all their funding and ideas, the conservative think tanks were wrong. No plans for post-invasion Iraq were made because (it sounds incredible) the planners of the war truly believed that the Iraqis would fall in line and create a mini-America once Hussein was gone.

In an interview with, Seymour Hersh, author of Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, was asked what he thought the real purpose of the war was. Hersh replied:

"...But these guys, do you realize how much better off we would be if they really were cynical, and they really were lying about it, because, yes, behind the invasion would be something real, like support for Israel or oil. But it's not! It's not about oil. It's about utopia. I guess you could call it idealism. But it's idealism that's dead wrong. It's like one of the far-right Christian credos. It's a faith-based policy. Only it wasn't a religious faith. It was the faith that democracy would flourish.

"Q: So you don't think that this is some Machiavellian, cynical, manipulative ...

"I used to pray it was! We'd be in better shape. Is there anything worse than idealism that doesn't conform to reality? You have an unrealistic policy."

So that's my take on why we invaded Iraq: a grand experiment in imposing a "democracy" overseen by the US on an unstable region with a history of inter-tribal conflicts. Neo-conservatives and the Bush administration truly believed that they could transform the Arab world by converting it to a Western-style democracy. Other nations would see how well it worked in Iraq and change their governments and the region would become more stable. It's odd that Bush would be such a fan of democracy, considering how he had to circumvent it in order to become president. But, as I've written before, my cynicism and finding little ironies doesn't help the horror of a situation that has claimed the lives of thousands of innocent people.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

02:42 Imperial Life In The Emerald City

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone
by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

It’s like something out of a novel by J. G. Ballard: a gated community filled with all the comforts of the western world located incongruously in the middle of a war-ravaged country. Or perhaps it owes more to Paul Bowles, with its tale of Americans, led predominantly by their own naiveté or arrogance, being completely undone by the Arabic world. But it’s hard to imagine a better depiction of why the U.S. occupation of Iraq is, and was always doomed to be, a colossal failure than Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s record of the year he spent inside Baghdad’s “green zone.”

The “green zone” is the heavily fortified base of the Coalition Provision Authority, located in and around Saddam Hussein’s former palace. Think “green” as in naïve or “green” as in money, and you have a summary of the U.S. occupation. After Baghdad fell, the Coalition Provisional Authority were in charge of stabilizing the rest of the country. But many people were hired for the CPA based not on their qualifications but on their loyalty to the Bush Administration or the Republican party. Even some of those interviewed seemed surprised that they were hired and sent to Iraq.

A pattern repeats throughout the book: someone who knows very little about Iraq is hired to help rebuild part of the country’s damaged infrastructure. They are usually well-meaning and have some good ideas, though often inappropriate or unworkable. Once in Iraq, they discover that they are literally starting from scratch: the widespread looting that began after the war, which the Pentagon was warned about and did little to prevent, has stripped much of the country of its basic infrastructure. (Looting is such a common theme that by the time I was on page 100, I checked to see if it was in the index, curious to see how often it was mentioned. Sadly, no entry for “looting.”) Faced with few resources and an almost impossible task, some sink into cynicism while others try as best they can, but achieve little before they return to the U.S.

There are many times in Imperial Life in which the culture clash is so obvious and funny that you don’t understand why those living through it don’t see it. A recent college grad, who knows nothing about finance, is hired to re-build Iraq’s stock exchange. Opportunists win a contact to guard Iraq’s major airport for millions of dollars even though they have never run a security operation before. A media consultant is hired to create a television news service in the country, but soon runs afoul of the military for not broadcasting enough “positive” news about US efforts.

But perhaps “funny” is the wrong attitude to take here. My bemusement at others’ foolishness is tempered by knowing the chaos that the Bush administration has unleashed on that country. It’s hard to laugh about cross-cultural ignorance when said ignorance has cost tens of thousands of people their lives (and that’s a conservative estimate – pun intended). Recently, after a night out, I had a drunken argument about Iraq with a friend of a friend, who quickly resorted to the “isn’t it good that we got rid of Saddam Hussein -- do you wish he was still in power?” “I don’t see much difference” I replied. “He killed thousands of people, and now we’ve killed thousands more. I’m sure the people who died in the war wished he was still in power. We’ve lost that moral argument.”

“Yeah, but things might get better now…” he answered.

Another green zone.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Quote of the Day

From over here, I couldn't tell if you were yelling or just complaining.

- Said to me by a co-worker, 2/7/07 1:28pm

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

01:42 Bottomfeeder


FULL DISCLOSURE: The author, B. H. Fingerman, is a friend of mine, though this doesn’t mean that I’ll automatically like his novel. This past year I read a novel by a woman I went to grad school with, and while I admired the craft with which she wrote her book, I didn’t care for the book itself. It’s very uncomfortable when you don’t like the work of friend or acquaintance. It becomes a void all of your conversations dance around.

But I liked Bottomfeeder. The main character, Phil Merman, is a vampire but is neither self-aggrandizing nor self-pitying. He’s just sort of getting on with it. Goes to his job (at night, of course) at a photo archives and occasionally, when hungry, feeds on a human being. Phil preys on those who will not be missed, society’s outcasts, and one gets the sense that this is as much out of a desire to spare a victim’s loved ones any undue pain as it is an attempt to keep his feeding habits private.

Without being obvious, the book poses a basic existential question: what exactly do you do with your life? The fact that the vampires in the book have eternal life only compounds the problem for them. There are those have enough trouble filling 70+ years. But perpetual existence? Some sink into decadence, some make attempts to help other vampires, and others (like Phil) just live their existence day to day, without too much consideration of where they are going and what it all means.

Bottomfeeder is also a good New York novel, one that actually has scenes in Queens and Brooklyn as well as Manhattan. It captures the “Let’s Make A Deal” feeling in New York that anything could be behind any door. It could be an orgy or it could be a group therapy session. As one who still walks around Chinatown thinking to himself “I just know there’s an opium den around here somewhere” this sense of New York’s chaotic yet stable mix felt true.

The above description doesn't hit at how funny the book is. Phil’s point of view is sardonic and bemused by the actions of both the living and the undead. The voice recalls a tough guy private eye, and this could be both an homage to pulp novels and a comment on how such genres have influenced how we think and talk. There’s a sense of characters wanting to play at what they are not. Whether it’s a vampire orgy that Phil senses is just trying too hard to be “bad,” or an annoying friend who speaks with a British accent even though he’s not British, everyone seems to be trying on a persona, and Phil is there to helpfully mock them.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

New Graffiti Murals From My Neighborhood

Okay, the last one is actually not from my neighborhood but from the East Village. No, I don't know what it means, either.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

0:42 Knew Your Resolution

I never intended two and a half months to lapse between posts. I've been kinda busy without doing anything special. The holidays took some time and my job has been fairly hectic, but the main reason I've been so mum is there just wasn't anything I wanted to write about.

I post here when I have something to share. I don't see this site as a private diary made public or as my daily speaker's corner to kvetch about the state of the world or what I saw on tv last night. That's why we have email, the phone and dinner with friends. It may not always be apparent, but I do put some effort into these entries, at least re-reading them before I post. Despite my grammatical blunders, I always (pretentiously?) thought of this online journal as the equivalent of an op-ed page rather than chatty gossip on the phone and there hasn't been much I've wanted to op-ed about.

Which brings up something else I've never been interested in: New Year's Resolutions, a concept that combines two of my least favorite things, self-discipline and the passing of time. However, I have made a resolution for 2007 and will be writing about it as the year progresses. My goal is to finish 42 books by December 31st. For those who know me, this may seem like no big deal, but it will actually take some work. I think I am more bibliophile than reader; in other words, I love books as objects as much (if not more) than I do the act of reading. I realized this while traveling in Europe and spending lots of time browsing in bookstores, examining volumes I couldn't possibly read. Read, schmead: I was fascinated just by the look of Italian paperbacks, Portuguese novels and French art books.

For over ten years, I've been writing one or two page reviews for each book I finish. This started because one year I couldn't remember much of what I had read. I knew I had read something and assumed I enjoyed it, but only by slowly looking over my bookshelves was I able to recall what I had read. I found that writing brief book reports made me pay more attention while reading and enriched the experience. It's from these book reports that I know that I usually finish around 20 books a year. Not a bad number, I guess, but it's not a lot. This average - less than two books a month - is due to how easily distracted I am by other media, mainly film or internet based.

Some rules: note that I said I would finish 42 books this year. This means including things I started last year but didn't finish. Everything I chose has to be new to me: no re-reading. Graphic novels don't count. (This is a shame, because I'm really enjoying Buddha by Osamu Tezuka.) Art books will be considered depending on how much text there is.

Why 42? It seems like a good goal. It's achievable (unlike trying to write a novel within a month) without being too easy. It's double what I can do without trying, plus a 10% gratuity.

It's also, according to Douglas Adams, the Ultimate Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything:
According to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, researchers from a pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent race of beings constructed the second greatest computer in all of time and space, Deep Thought, to calculate the Ultimate Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. After seven and a half million years of pondering the question, Deep Thought provides the answer: "forty-two." The reaction:

"Forty-two!" yelled Loonquawl. "Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?"

"I checked it very thoroughly," said the computer, "and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."

--Courtesy of Wikipedia
The other reason I've chosen to read 42 books this year is that I will turn 42 in June. I've never really cared about the standard milestone birthdays, whether dictated by the decimal system or by society (16, 21, 35, "it was a very good year..."). I was more impressed when I was about to turn 34 because, as I put it, "I've outlived the Lord!" "Yes," my sister Julie replied "but look at all that He achieved by the time He was your age."

Ah well. So I will be posting about my progress throughout the year, this resolution has the side benefit of making me post to "The Hanged Man" more often. I will, of course, also be writing about my usual misadventures, such as thinking I know what Dutch babies are saying, buying artwork while drunk, and spilling things on myself.

Hope everyone has a good 2007.