Monday, December 20, 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Recent iPhone Photos

By "recent" I mean "taken within 2010."

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Year In Status

While I am not a fan of the way that Facebook has cannibalized the internet, it has been good for some things. Friends can post pictures once so others can check at their leisure. It has also unleashed people's creativity, albeit in bite-sized doses. For all the Facebook apps that I want nothing to do with (Farmville, Mafia Wars, etc) there's something clever like the above: a random overview of my status updates for this past year. It's particularly handy, given the fact that I often can't remember what I've done last week, let alone for the last year, so reactions like "When did I see Fountains of Wayne?" are not surprising. What is surprising is how many of these posts deal with death, either directly or subtly. On the other hand, anyone who has perused this blog might notice that the only time I have anything to say is when I want to say "miss you."

Friday, November 19, 2010

My Poster for One Sheet Redux Show Currently at Maxwells

Originally I was going to write quotes from the film's omnipresent voiceover on the various leaves but decided I liked the image as is.

Many thanks for Henri Rosseau for painstakingly fashioning his unique views of nature so that I could come along a hundred years later and make a collage of them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Catching Up

I have a piece in this show - it's the first time in a long time I've made anything. Best of all, I'm fairly happy with the results. The theme of the show was artists creating new posters for existing movies. Eventually I'll post my poster here online; for now you can see my interpretation of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, along with other good work, at Maxwell's, 1039 Washington Street, Hoboken NJ.

Nice write up about the show here.


Other doings:

I've been posting semi-regularly on 7NOW!, random, subjective, opinionated, at time ornery lists of seven items. Since I don't usually detail my current faves on this blog, 7Now! is a good spot to see what I'm listening to, reading, watching, etc.


My friend Tammy is going to be working in Yemen for the next year, presumably checking toner cartridges before they're shipped overseas. She has been writing about the experiences here; given that this blog was born out of my overseas travel, you may find Tammy's experiences interesting.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rat Girl

Rat Girl
Kristin Hersh

Everyone goes through hopefully brief periods of intense upheaval in their lives. I worked with a woman who, in the space of less than a year, started a new job, suffered the loss of a close family member, had to adopt the family member's young son, discovered she was pregnant (with twins!) and had to move from the United States to Australia. The fact that she was able to handle these seismic changes with fortitude, good humor and grace is a testament to her and a lesson to me for when I get upset that someone has taken the stapler from my desk and not put it back.

Rat Girl is musician Kristin Hersh's memoir of the tumultuous year she turned 19, during which her band Throwing Muses moved from playing in seedy clubs to recording their first album, she was diagnosed as bipolar and put on medication, and she found out she was pregnant. It's no roman a clef; Hersh would rather write about her love of swimming, which leads her to sometimes sneak into stranger's backyards to use their pools, than offer any information about the father of her baby. It's an impressionist memoir of her life almost 20 years ago, one that appears intimate but is actually rather removed. To paraphrase George Carlin, she's only telling you what she wants you to know.

However, what she is telling you is interesting and not just for her fans, though they will appreciate the book's inclusion of song lyrics where appropriate, as a way of underlining the lyric's inspiration. "Oh that's what that means. It makes sense now." The sections dealing with the band are memorable not because they tell you anything new about the band, but because they remind you of what it was like to be young and ride around in a junky car with too many friends, everyone sitting on each others' laps to make room. But it's Betty Hutton who steals the show, as she was wont to do.

Kristin Hersh and 1940s film star Betty Hutton being college friends is one of those unfathomable historical pairings, like Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones being college roommates, but their scenes together are Rat Girl's highlights. Whether smoking in a bathroom as Hutton's moods travel 360 degrees or recounting Hutton trying to teach showbiz style to Hersh, who affects a deer-in-headlights blank stare onstage, it is an affectionate portrait of someone who had once been one of America's biggest stars. After finishing the book, I wanted more Betty and began seeking out her movies on Turner Classic Movies. Her eagerness to entertain an audience is a revelation. I can't imagine a better tribute.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Bob Fingerman

Full disclosure: the author is a friend of mine.

The ability of people at a certain age to use their friends as a surrogate family, especially if they have friends of both genders with different enough personalities to serve various roles within the group, is something that has been noted more than once and not just on sitcoms. But in large cities, the dynamic is different as you have to spend much of your time in close proximity with people you, at best, are indifferent to or, at worst, actively dislike. Pariah is a novel about people who are forced by circumstances (read “zombies”) to depend on people they don’t like very much just to survive. It is an active demonstration of Satre’s idea that “Hell is other people.”

Trapped within an apartment building by streets full of the walking dead, the characters become parodies of urban dwellers who can’t make or do anything themselves because they assume they can always buy whatever they want from a store. Cut off from any stores, they have little else to do but slowly waste away and turn on each other with what little energy they have left. This state of dwindling entropy is eventually interrupted by an inversion of the archetypal modern urban horror story, the murder of Kitty Genovese. In 1964, Ms. Genovese was attacked and ultimately murdered after coming home from her job as a bar manager. It was reported that many of her neighbors heard her scream for help but did nothing because they did not want to get involved. The case became the perfect symbol of how callous and selfish people are in big cities. As is often the case, the truth was more complex and more interesting. One of Genovese’s neighbors did yell down and in fact frightened her attacker away for a while. Another neighbor phoned the police. Later sociological experiments inspired by the case indicated that the more people who are involved in a situation, the less responsibility or control any one individual feels. If something traumatic happens in front of you and no one else is around, you feel the full responsibility of the situation. But if the same event happened and you are part of a crowd, you are more likely to leave the responsibility to someone else. It’s not that “we don’t want to get involved” but “we don’t know what to do but hope someone else will take care of this.”

As mentioned, Pariah breaks the stasis of its trapped apartment dwellers wasting away by introducing Mona, who is the opposite of Kitty Genovese. Instead of being attacked while her neighbors watch, Mona is able to walk the streets without harm, surrounded by the zombies yet somehow repelling them. She is safer in the streets than the people are in their apartment building. It’s not long before she becomes their delivery person, at first picking up the bare necessities like food and water, but soon going on expeditions for items to pass the time and entertain. But once someone’s situation is no longer life-threatening, are they necessarily going to be a better person? How much of our actions are determined by our surroundings?

My only complaints with Pariah have to do with the pacing. The novel is made of three sections and I read it in three sittings, which probably accounts for my sense of impatience with the first third of the book, despite its merits. To wit: it’s hard to keep a situation of hopelessly trapped characters interesting for a length of time. Fingerman uses flashbacks, plot twists and comic scenes to get around this, but my enthusiasm for the book didn’t really begin until Mona’s appearance. I think the final third is the strongest section of the book, as Fingerman’s vision of hell as other people, both living and dead, comes to dominate.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ten Little Indian Boys Went Out To Dine...

Last week I was talking with a friend, someone I had not seen for several months. She had had a very fulfilling summer. It seemed like she hadn’t completely left the season or its experiences yet. Part of her was still there while the rest was talking to me on a rainy night in October in Brooklyn.

She asked what I had done this summer and as often happens when asked such questions, my mind went completely blank. I must be the easiest person in the world to stump: ask me what I’ve been doing recently or what my favorite books are or even what I had for lunch and my mind empties. If only meditation worked this well. I knew I had done some things this past summer but I couldn’t really recall anything specific. Something happened, but it was located within a void in my memory, a void that had a definite shape. It wasn’t until the conversation moved on and she began telling me about a friend with serious health problems that it came back to me. What I Did This Summer. I visited my friend Ben in hospice and said goodbye to him two days before he died.

It has been a terminal couple of months. My nephew lost two friends; one was hit by a car, the other drowned. A sign of the way we live now: within an hour of the boy's drowning, almost all of his friends knew because they texted each other on their cell phones. The days of parents preparing their children for bad news are gone. A co-worker’s father fell to his death while hiking. A friend’s brother died. Ben died, which while not entirely unexpected, was and is still painful. During the 1990s I experienced a similar cycle. I thought of it in terms of concentric circles. I heard of acquaintances losing loved ones, then distant friends, and soon closer friends were experiencing great losses. I recall thinking that death was getting closer and closer to me and being unsettled by the idea. This cycle seemed to end with my father’s death. I’ve known people that have died since then, but the pattern, the sense of the steady approach, was gone.

I don’t see any pattern now. It’s random and chaotic, which means you never know when you’re going to get hit. A co-worker has developed Bell’s Palsy. Last night, a bartender at my favorite dive bar told me that his sister has been in the hospital for quite some time. She’s been developing blood clots and her doctors cannot figure out why. “I’m really sorry,” he added. “People are supposed to tell their problems to the bartender, not the other way ‘round.” With all this going on, it’s no wonder I can’t remember what I’ve been doing for the last few months.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is a collection of six stories, separated by genre, locale and time but linked by motifs, themes and perhaps a soul. As clouds move across the sky, so do people move across the expanse of time, similar yet unique. The novel is structured like a palindrome, sections running in the order A B C D E F E D C B A, as follows

A. the diary of an American notary sailing from Chatham Islands to San Francisco in the 1800s
B. letters from a young ne'er-do-well musician staying at the home of an aged, formerly great composer
C. a suspense thriller about a journalist investigating corruption at a nuclear power plant
D. first person account of a British publisher who runs afoul of gangsters
E. a science fiction story, an interview with a clone in a corporate-run future
F. a post-apocalypse story about a primitive society encountering someone from a more advanced civilization

Except for the post-apocalypse story, each story is split in two, with the first half ending with a cliffhanger resolved in the second. Each story is read (or experienced) by a character in the succeeding section, so that the diary in A is read by the letter writer in B, whose letters are in turn read by the main character in C., etc. As mentioned above, there are also recurring motifs and themes in each story and the novel presents a fairly bleak overview of human history. Yet reading it is anything but bleak. Mitchell is an entertainer; this is meant as a compliment. Each section is fueled by the primary narrative need: the desire to find out what happens next. I’m a fidgety reader by nature but this novel commanded my attention and I finished it much faster than normal. Mitchell is a master at elements of craft that are easily overlooked, such as pacing the flow of ideas, creating rounded characters and writing in different genres and forms. Reading Cloud Atlas is a pleasure. It’s after finishing the novel that frustration sets in.

A book exists in your mind in two forms: one while you are reading and the other in memory when you think about it after finishing. It was during the latter that my opinion of Cloud Atlas lessened a bit. The stories are linked but any attempt to create a coherent narrative for the novel as a whole based on these links and repeating motifs is inevitably frustrated by something within one of the stories. These contradictions don’t indicate the novel is deliberately ambiguous or slyly playful so much as it is without a larger design. The memory of the pleasure I experienced reading Cloud Atlas has been subsumed by the frustration I feel that there is no larger point beyond the presentation of six clever tales, enjoyable but ultimately as substantial as clouds.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Today's Reading

A nice refutation to those who criticize fiction for being too unlikely or unrealistic, this excerpt is from Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise, his history of 20th century classical music. It reads like something by Thomas Pynchon and best of all, it made me laugh out loud.

One day in 1948 or 1949, the Brentwood Country Mart, a shopping complex in an upscale neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, was the scene of a slight disturbance that carried overtones of the most spectacular upheaval in twentieth-century music. Marta Feuchtwanger, wife of the emigre novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, was examining grapefruit in the produce section when she heard a voice shouting in German from the far end of the aisle. She looked up to see Arnold Schoenberg, the pioneer of atonal music and the codifier of twelve-tone composition, bearing down on her, with his bald pate and burning eyes. Decades later, in conversation with the writer Lawrence Weschler, Feuchtwanger could recall every detail of the encounter, including the weight of the grapefruit in her hand. "Lies, Frau Marta, lies!" Schoenberg was yelling. "You have to know, I never had syphilis!"

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Helpful Clerk

Last night I stopped in my neighborhood bookstore, something I need to do at least once a week; otherwise I feel weird. I picked up a copy of Cult Magazines: From A to Z as a birthday present for a friend. On seeing my purchase, the person at the cash register said "You know, we also have copies of the fetish magazine Bizarre in really good shape," leading me to a glass case and producing two copies of the magazine. They were digest-sized and filled with drawings of ladies in skin-tight clothing. My friends know I have a habit of smelling books; happily, I was able to restrain myself from sniffing the copies of Bizarre.

I considered adding them as a gift but the price was more than I wanted to spend, though still reasonable given the magazines' condition. "I find ladies in clothes like these much sexier than when they're naked" the clerk told me.

"Oh" my helpful response.

"Have you seen the Puerto Rican porn magazines we got in?"

"Yes, yes, I did see those" because I had. Those magazines featured black and white photos, taken in sequence, showing people sitting around in a living room removing their clothes piece by piece. They were like stills from the drabbest stag film ever made.

I should point out that this is a regular bookstore and I was not wearing my dirty raincoat. So is it me? Is there something about me that says "tell me all about the second-hand dirty books you have in stock?"

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Freelance Online Critics and Scholars

It has been a slow day at work: one boss is working from his beach house; another is not feeling well and is working from home. In addition, this is the end of summer, the limbo before a Labor Day that has worked out to be later this year than usual. So I'm rather bored.

It still seems to be bad form to open a book at your desk at work but reading something on the internet is okay. The impression of being engaged and aware of your surroundings, dissolves when you're pouring over a book but not when you're immersed in the computer screen.

So thank God for online critics and scholars with their blogs dedicated to art, design, and literature. (I don't bother with political opinion blogs. I've never been that bored.) Some recent finds that have not only made the days pass quicker but have actually enriched them:

Got Medieval
A medieval scholar's playful blog featuring the hallmarks of medieval life I like best: crazy thinking, religious domination, scary monsters. He finds outstanding images I have not seen elsewhere.

Res Obscura
My friend Andrea just alerted me to this blog today. Still exploring but love what I've seen so far.

A Journey Round My Skull
Someone else who unerringly finds bizarre and beautiful images from artists both past and contemporary.

An archivist with wide-ranging taste shares images from a variety of little known or soon to be lost forever books.

Caustic Cover Critic
Speaking of books: want to understand good book cover design? Read this blog. Even if not interested in the hows and whys of design, you can marvel at the expertly chosen examples or laugh at the bad covers on display.

Now it's time for me to go home.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Role Models

Role Models
John Waters

“Being rich is not about how much money you have or how many homes you own; it’s the freedom to buy any book you want without looking at the price and wondering if you can afford it.”
- John Waters

An apropos quote, considering I bought Waters’ latest book Role Models immediately upon seeing a signed copy at St. Marks Bookshop. Nope, never even looked at the price. I knew no matter what it was, it was worth it.

Role Models acts as a bookend, and in some ways an answer to, Waters’ first book Shock Value. Shock Value (published in 1981) was the work of a hilarious, bratty young man and a manifesto, a call to arms against snooty good taste. Role Models is the work of a still hilarious, yet more refined older man, who has seen bad taste become mainstream, the only taste left in America. Parts of it read like a mea culpa, most noticeably in the chapters about Leslie Van Houten, one of the convicted members of the Manson family, and Shelia Alberta Bowater, aka “Lady Zorro,” a lesbian stripper in one of Baltimore’s sleazier clubs from Waters’ youth. Whereas Shock Value featured an almost gleeful attitude towards the Manson family – a picture of John posing with Tex Watson probably lost him (John, not Tex) more than one movie deal – Role Models’ chapter on Ms. Van Houten is actually an impassioned plea for parole based on the belief that people can change and reform themselves in prison. It’s also a testament to Waters’ friendship with Van Houten, even if Waters’ mother comments when a letter from Leslie is delivered to their house, “Does the Manson Family have to have our address?”

The chapter on Lady Zorro is also heartbreaking because if focuses on the damage she inflicted upon her daughter who, against the odds, has managed to pull her life together and now has a bemused attitude towards her alcoholic and destructive mother. In his early films Waters collected people and ideas that were against the norm, as an enemy of his enemy (middle class manners and hypocrisy) being a friend. But as an older man, Waters seems to recognize the cost it takes to live outside the norms, both to yourself and those around you. He now seems horrified by Lady Zorro’s home life and instead respects her daughter’s quiet dignity.

It’s an attitude I can understand. When I was young, part of what attracted me to a particular group of friends was that they were not “normal.” They were funny, all a little crazy, but had neither a desire nor an ability to fit in. The sentimental inclination is to say that we all formed our own family, but that’s not quite true. It was more like these outcasts formed their own asylum, with each one taking turns being either inmate or social worker. I guess because I am fundamentally middle-class and bourgeois and normal, I assumed that they too would eventually calm down and we’d grown into funny wacky adults together. But that’s not what happened. Some of them died from drugs, some people’s craziness eventually make them impossible to be around, and some of them slipped into desperate lives that are as far from normal as you can get but still function. I remember when I realized “They’re never going to get better. This is who they’re going to be for the rest of their lives.” That sort of melancholy, that surveying of a devastated landscape behind you, came to mind reading Role Models. The lucky ones who live and endure get to remember and talk about those who didn’t.

This makes Roles Models sound like a dreary affair; it is anything but. Waters writes with his customary wit, and his insight into people and the arts still surprise like flash bombs. He’s equally adept at writing about singer Johnny Mathis, artist Cy Twombly, author Jane Bowles and gay pornographers. His article about avant-garde fashion designer Rei Kawakubo didn’t make me want to wear her clothes, but I understand why Waters does: “…I like to wear a blue coat that, if you look really closely, you realize, no, it doesn’t need to be cleaned; those coffee stains are part of the fabric. This way if a drunken fisherman spills a drink on you, you’ve turned him into a fashion designer and he’s none the wiser.”

One final word from Waters, and it’s not a bad one to live by: “I’ve always said true success is figuring our your life and career so you never have to be around jerks.”


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains
Nicholas Carr

Ever since I’ve lost God, or rather misplaced Him, I’ve been looking for the prime cause a little lower; within my brain, to be exact. Once I stopped thinking of “my second favorite organ” (to quote Woody Allen) as a fixed operating system but instead as an ongoing work-in-progress, one that you could effect by your actions and that, in turn, would effect you, I’ve become interested in how the cauliflower inside our heads gets anything done. Neurology has replaced psychology and, as it is still a fresh field for me to explore, I am fascinated by the ideas that grow there.

One favorite idea is that technology changes us fundamentally because technology changes our consciousness. Our ancestors of long ago, who lived their entire lives without various tools, might as well be a different species. It’s a very Marshall McLuhan idea, though I was infected with it by David Cronenberg. The way that technology changes us, that it is never a passive tool free of consequences, is the underlying thesis of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Carr moves from the anecdotal and personal (“I can’t seem to concentrate on reading anything for very long nowadays”) to trying to find the reasons why. It’s not just that concentration and deep reading are a bore or old fashioned in today’s infobyte culture. It’s because prolonged exposure to the internet and how we surf the web causes changes not just in habits or learned behavior but in the physical structure of the brain itself.

Like the internet, The Shallows contains multitudes. It is a history of books and reading and of the internet, including an overview of Google (the book grew out of the author’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”). It includes a demonstration on how technology changes consciousness. Clocks changed man’s perception of time (the first people to demand precise time measurement were monks in the middle ages who wanted to know exactly when to pray) and maps changed man’s perception of space. It is an accessible primer on the physiology of the human brain and how experience is transformed into memory and a demonstration of why human memory is nothing like computer memory. It is a warning of the consequences of individuals and cultures abandoning the concentration that comes with focusing on a text in favor of gorging on information in a short period of time.

In a digression, Carr himself admits the irony in the fact that he set out to write a book about the fact that he seems to be losing his ability to concentrate on anything for an extended period of time. To finish his book, he had to deliberately curtail his internet usage, but confesses that as the book neared completion, he found himself going online more and more.

I find myself with a slightly different problem. I’ve always been a fidgety reader, but once I get past the initial phase of looking around, looking at the cover of the book for the umpteenth time, flipping through its pages and re-reading paragraphs, then I am hooked. I can’t blame the internet for that. However, I now find it takes a great deal of effort to watch a movie. It is rare I watch a film in one sitting at home anymore. Inevitably I have to stop to make tea, check email, take a nap, or indulge in some other distraction. I suspect that this is internet related and that it is the similarity of the television screen to the computer monitor that makes me want to mentally “click” on to some other idea. This doesn’t happen when I watch television shows, probably due to the faster-paced storytelling.

Happily, I’ve become interested in reading in a way that I have not in years. An irony to add to Carr’s: I was completely hooked on his book about how books are losing their place as the prime purveyors of information, particularly to sections discussing how human brains work. Having finished The Shallows, I try to force myself to concentrate more, particularly while at my job, rather than get swept away in the tide of instant messages, emails, jumping online and indulging in all the other distractions. I can’t control the world around me, but I can try to exorcise some control over how it affects and if it changes me.

(And yes, I did look at the internet many times while writing this post).

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Okay, I can't take credit for discovering these; I'm reposting them from Caustic Cover Critic, which is a great blog in its own right. I don't know what is worse: the fact that there is an Anne Frank manga or the fact that Astroboy is apparently one of the characters.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Timechart of Revelations

If the Bible was more like USA Today, or for those who need a quick reference to the End Times, because who really will have time to read once the seas are a-boiling?

Sinners: please click on to make more legible.

Thank you to Andrea and Troy Collins.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Louise Bourgeois, 1911 - 2010

I didn't love everything she made, but seeing her sculpture Maman at the Guggenheim in Bilboa was awe-inspiring. It's a work that seems to give birth to more art: I don't think it's possible to take a bad picture of the sculpture.

The other thing that comes to mind aboutf Ms. Bourgeois is the scene in The Spider, the Mistress, and the Tangerine, a documentary about her life, in which she cries while recalling how much her father's infidelities hurt her as a child. To watch a woman in her nineties still weep over a trauma so long past is beyond heartbreaking. May she rest in peace.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I was visiting friends in Louisville this past weekend and rediscovered something I hadn't realized I'd forgotten: what it's like to sleep in complete silence. The bedroom I was in faced the back of the house and opened onto a neighborhood that is quiet at night. Even the iguana in the room was silent. (This isn't metaphoric or an attempt at surrealism. My friends' son has a pet iguana.)

The contrast to my usual sleeping arrangement was obvious my first night home. Every piece of street noise, every passersby's conversation, was enough to jolt me awake and miss the quiet of Louisville. I once saw a report on 60 Minutes about sleep deprivation and how noise, even if it doesn't wake you up, can keep you from entering deep restful slumber. No wonder New Yorkers are so cranky.

Last night, I felt sleepy around ten o'clock and thought it would be nice to get a full eight hours rest. Not long after I lay down, I heard drums playing; obviously a rhythm track from some passing car. I waited for the sound to fade as the car pulled away...but it didn't. Assuming someone was parked in the street and playing their radio loud, I looked to see if I could determine which car it was. No luck. But a moment or two later, the drums stopped. Great.

Except then they started again. This time it was obvious that it wasn't a recording but someone was playing live. Naively I kept expecting them to stop, even while waiting on hold for almost ten minutes to register a noise complaint with the police. I gave up on the noise complaint and went outside to see if I could get a sense of the situation. The drumming was coming from the erroneously name Ascenzi Square, which is in fact a triangle situated between two streets across from my apartment.

I expected the source of the noise to be some surly drunk hipster having an impromptu jam session, so imagine my surprise when I saw that the cause was in fact a drum circle made up of eight girls in their early twenties. "Uh...I'm sorry to ask, but can you guys perhaps do that somewhere else? I have to get up early tomorrow." There might have been a quiet "sorry" but none of them argued with me, so I thanked them and left.

"What do you have to get up early for?" one of them asked as I walked away.

"Work - sad, but true."

"I have to get up tomorrow at 7:00" another said.

"Well, it's not a contest, but I get up at 6:00."

After that, no more drumming (thanks ladies!) though it took another hour and an episode of Glee to make me feel drowsy enough to sleep.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Favorite Passage

Each year, author Alan Bennett publishes selections from his diaries in the London Review of Books, and they have been included in his omnibus collections Writing Home and Untold Stories.

Below is one of my favorite passages, his memorial of Dudley Moore, who, along with Bennett, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller, formed the influential comedy troupe Beyond The Fringe. What I love about this passage is how much it accomplishes seemingly effortlessly, with a natural flow of ideas one into another. It memorializes a friend, includes some gossip, challenges (not unkindly) some notions the deceased had, offers insight into how both jazz and comedy work, and ends with an illustration of the simple ways someone long ago can still influence you.

25 May
Thinking about Dudley M. since his death, I'm struck by how little was said at the time of his musical abilities. In particular his talents as a jazz pianist. This would have come as no surprise to him as his success as a comedian and subsequently as a movie star put his musical accomplishment in the shade; jazz became marginal...

...when later in life with that slightly aggrieved air with which he discussed his early career Dudley complained of being unappreciated by his colleagues in Beyond The Fringe, this was partly what it was about. He was a very funny instinctive comedian but he was not a writer and, no good at one sort of language, he found that music, the language he was good at, was largely discounted. And when on chat shows and interviews he gave his always defensive account of himself, complaining of the inferior status he had been accorded, particularly by Peter, music was at the heart of it.

Of course, words and music are not the only languages and at this time, when we were all in our twenties, what ranked him above the rest of us and indeed anyone I've ever come across since, was his sexual success. This, unlike his musical accomplishment, was the subject of constant discussion and enquiry and it was a topic on which, while not boastful, Dudley was always frank, informative and very funny.

That Dudley, given the chance, could talk illuminatingly about music was brought home to me in almost the only conversation I had with him about jazz, when he explained the difference, as he saw it, between a good and an average performance. It had to do with the musical beat, which he told me to think of not as a brief and indivisible moment but as an interval with a discernible length, and a beginning, a middle and an end. The art of playing good jazz, he explained, was to try to hit the beat as near as possible to its ending.

To musicians this may well be a truism but I had never come across the notion before, and it linked, as Dudley then linked it, with comedy timing in the theatre, where the same applies and which I did understand and practiced, though instinctively.

This conversation would have taken pace in New York sometime in 1963 in the apartment which he was then subletting on Washington Square and where he also taught me to add a spoonful of water to the mixture of the scrambled eggs we invariably had for lunch. It was there too that, possibly in order to wean me off Elgar, he played me the long sinuous romantic theme that begins Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. Though I always add the water when scrambling eggs, I have never got much further with Bruckner and the opening of the Seventh is still all I know.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Forty

The story goes that, late in his life, Guglielmo Marconi had an epiphany. Th godfather of radio technology decided that no sound ever dies. It just decays beyond the point that we can detect it with our ears. Any sound was forever recoverable, he believed, with the right device. His dream was to build one powerful enough to pick up Christ's Sermon on the Mount.

--from Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner

And that's it for this year's 40 Days of Lent postings. I know Lent doesn't end until Easter next Sunday, but I've hit my goal of 40 entries. Anything beyond this will be like the bonus features on a dvd.

Cheers to all who read.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Nine

Race With The Devil

I just finished watching Race With The Devil, a movie that seriously freaked me thirty five years ago when I saw it as part of a double feature with my friends Steve Gutin and Johnny Paucilo (sp? - sorry John). I suppose I was wrong when I wrote about penis surgery footage being the one thing I couldn't watch, because when I saw Race With The Devil, I was so unnerved I kept leaving the theater to sit in the lobby until the scary parts were over. It's the only film I saw as a child that had that effect.

It's not a bad little thriller. Two couples, Warren Oates and Loretta Swit and Peter Fonda and Lara Parker, set out on vacation in a Winnebago, intending to drive from San Antonio to Colorado. The first night out, the men spy on what they think is an orgy, but is in fact a Satanic ritual complete with human sacrifice. They report it to the police, but sense with growing paranoia that everyone they meet on the road is in league with the Satanists and end up on the run for their lives. Watching it now, I can see it's completely of its time. It mixes the paranoia of the early 70's with its interest in the occult and the popularity of chase movies. At the time I liked movies with chases and lots of stunts. Main characters who were doomed never bothered me. So why couldn't I be in the room with Race With The Devil?

Because they were being chased by Satanists, of course. Had it been a biker gang, bad townspeople, even aliens, it wouldn't have affected me the same way. But making them Satanists just made the threat that much worse. Not only could they kill you, they could also send your soul to hell, so reasoned my young Catholic mind. I couldn't even watch a chase scene that consisted of pick up trucks ramming into the Winnebago because the pickups were driven by those in service to Satan. I went out to sit in the lobby for what had to be the third or forth time, only to return a few minutes later and see the credits had started. Despite my embarrassment, I asked my friends how it ended. I don't think we ever talked about my inability to watch the movie. There wasn't much to discuss. I was simply scared beyond rational control.

Friday, March 26, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Eight

Some Things I Thought While Waiting For My Friend Bill In The Basement Of The Whitney Museum

- As soon as I start updating my blog, he'll show up. Any second now...

- Oh, the elevators. I've been watching the stairs and forgot all about the elevators. It's only one flight down. Has Bill become a lazy man?

- David Hockney or Andy Warhol?

- She's cute.

- Hope Bill shows up before this band plays/hope this band isn't too loud.

- Hope Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon don't think I keep getting my iPhone out so I can take a picture of them. I'm just obsessed with what time it is.

- God love you, why would you chose to look like that?

- You are not going to just leave your empty coffee cup sitting there...yes, you are.

- I haven't seen Bill in a couple of years. Maybe he's here and I don't recognize him.

- She's cute too.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Seven

The Crystal World
J.G. Ballard

I was out for dinner the other night (Happy Birthday, Kenny!) when my sister and I got into a conversation about the work J. G. Ballard, British writer of science fiction (if you can call it that). She had recently re-read Concrete Island, a book of his she hated the first time she read it, but found she liked it more this time. It goes without saying I envy her finding the time to re-read stuff – even stuff she hates! – whereas I don’t have time to read everything I’m interested in.

But how to explain Ballard? He considered himself a surrealist, writing the literary equivalent of Salvador Dali or Max Ernst’s work, which explains the consistent depictions of human beings in strange landscapes. The standard expectations of fiction, such as realistic characters with recognizable psychological motivation and verisimilitude in plot, didn’t mean much to him. He thought science fiction was the best mode for writing about the changes technology had wrought on the individual psyche, but generally avoided the genre’s trappings (aliens, spaceships, robots). Even when his work is experimental in form or content, the language is always clear, accessible. The tone is reasonable; you just have to get over your “what the hell?” reaction.

It’s this contradiction that gives his work its power: the reasonable British voice describing the most irrational things. He seemed completely uninterested in morality, whether his characters were “good” or “bad.” As the environment changes unnaturally and people go mad as a result, such a man-made dichotomy seemed irrelevant.

The Crystal World is one of Ballard’s apocalyptic novels, but it’s a beautiful apocalypse. Everything within a jungle in Africa – animals, plants, people – is slowly crystallizing, turning into stunning clear jeweled objects. The contradiction is something so beautiful being so bad. There are enough descriptions of the natural world in crystal form that you wonder is Ballard is a frustrated painter, describing images he couldn’t create. In terms of literature, it’s like reading Joseph Conrad as you drift off to sleep. Its tale of squabbling Westerners moving into a mysterious jungle keeps turning into descriptions of a jungle that looks like it was made of glass.

The transformation of the world inspires some to embrace this change and deliberately allow all or part of their bodies to crystallize. The explanation for the phenomena is a quirk in how space and time relate, so that anything that crystallizes is actually frozen in time, neither alive nor dead, and eternal. It’s mysticism linked to science rather than spirituality.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Six

I Have No Idea What's Going On
Illustrations from children's books

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Five

Super Size Thou

This reads like something from The Onion, but apparently it's legit. Actually I think it's a pretty interesting idea and I'm glad someone thought of it and was able to do the research.

from The Los Angeles Times:

Last Supper helpings have grown

An unusual study looks at the food portions in artistic depictions of the Last Supper throughout history. The apostles have eaten better and better over the years, scholars say.
By Melissa Healy
March 23, 2010

The Christian faith holds several acts of "super-sizing" to be miracles accomplished by Jesus Christ -- a handful of fish and loaves of bread expanded to feed thousands; a wedding feast running low on wine suddenly awash in the stuff. Now a new study of portion expansion puts Jesus once more at the center.

In a bid to uncover the roots of super-sized American fare, a pair of sibling scholars has turned to an unusual source: 52 artists' renderings of the New Testament's Last Supper.

Their findings, published online Tuesday in the International Journal of Obesity, indicate that serving sizes have been marching heavenward for 1,000 years.

"I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or 'portion distortion,' is a recent phenomenon," said Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think." "But this research indicates that it's a general trend for at least the last millennium."

To reach their conclusion, Wansink and his brother Craig, a biblical scholar at Virginia Wesleyan College, analyzed 52 depictions of the meal the Wansinks call "history's most famous dinner party" painted between the year 1000 and the year 2000.

Using the size of the diners' heads as a basis for comparison, the Wansinks used computers to compare the sizes of the plates in front of the apostles, the food servings on those plates and the bread on the table. Assuming that heads did not increase in size during the second millennium after the birth of Christ, the researchers used this method to gauge how much serving sizes increased.

And increase they did.

Over the course of the millennium, the Wansinks found that the entrees depicted on the plates laid before Jesus' followers grew by about 70%, and the bread by 23%.

As entree portions rose, so too did the size of the plates -- by 65.6%.

The apostles depicted during the Middle Ages appear to be the ascetics they are said to have been. But by 1498, when Leonardo da Vinci completed his masterpiece, the party was more lavishly fed. Almost a century later, the Mannerist painter Jacobo Tintoretto piled the food on the apostles' plates still higher.

New York University nutrition researcher Lisa R. Young called the Wansink study fun. But as the author of "The Portion Teller," a history of portion size through the 20th century, she also pointed to the three decades that ended the millennium as a "tipping point" for humankind.

There is scant evidence that the body mass index of people in developed societies soared into unhealthy ranges for most of the 1,000 years studied, Young said. But there is little doubt, she added, that that changed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s -- coincidentally, when portion sizes began a dramatic run-up.

The Wansinks, however, suggest that portion growth may have a provenance far older than industrial farming and the economics of takeout food.

Instead, they suggest, it's a natural consequence of "dramatic socio-historic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food" over the millennium that started in the year 1000 A.D.

"The contemporary discovery of increasing food portions and availability may be little more than 1,000-year-old wine in a new bottle," the Wansinks wrote.

Monday, March 22, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Four

What I Can't Watch

When I was a younger man, I prided myself on being able to watch or read most anything. Part of it was the punk ethos, part of it came from liking horror movies, part of it was perhaps my version of machismo, an Aesthete's Macho: there's nothing I can't watch.

However, when I was in my early twenties, I discovered something I just couldn't look at. It was at the Chestnut Cabaret in Philadelphia at a Butthole Surfers show. Films were projected onstage behind the band while they played. As this was during the Reagan years, it was inevitable that one of the films would be a loop of mushroom cloud footage. On stage right, however, I saw what I could not watch and was surprised by my inability to look as I was at the content.

What I couldn't bring myself to watch were medical films of penis surgery.

It was so bad that I had to lift my left hand and block that part of the stage from view. Every once in a while I would move my hand to see if the film had ended, but nope, still going on. I recall at one moment moving my hand and seeing the gloved hands peeling the skin back as if it was a banana. [Shudder]

Something about that show seemed to coincide with losing my taste for the horror genre. I don't think the two are connected, apart from the fact that one of the reasons I rarely watch horror films or read horror novels is that I feel vulnerable now in a way I didn't then. No matter how obnoxious they are, I feel bad for the victims when they are suffer.

Incidentally, this posting has nothing to do with the healthcare bill passing last night.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Forty Days of Lent: Day Thirty Three

Oh damn, it's happened again. The thin line between my real world and my fictional map of the same momentarily dissolved.

Today's post was intended to be a passage from Jim Woodring's late 1980's comic Jim. Jim was a collection of automatic writing, strange drawings and comic stories. One of my favorite pieces from the comic, a piece that exists, God as my witness, was a fake PSA warning people about praying while drunk. It was very funny and was never reprinted in any of the Jim anthologies that followed. However, i could not find the piece in question, despite going through all my old issues several times.

However, one thing I did find was a story in which Jim sees something in a book that disturbs him so much that he sets the book aside. Later, when he is compelled to look at it again, he's mystified because he can't find it...similar to what I was experiencing. "That's funny" Jim concludes "it's not here at all." No, not funny at all.

I've had this sort of experience before. Much of the worst excesses of the Bush years felt like my paranoid story ideas from years before. As I watch my worst thoughts come to pass, I began to wonder if maybe I should just not think some things for everyone's sake.

The clearest example of this phenomena occurred a number of years ago. For a while I had carried a story I called "The Flood" around in my head. One of the elements of this story is that the main character is haunted by an image of a woman sitting on a man's back that causes either catatonia or seizures each time he sees it. One Sunday afternoon, I was in the gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and saw a postcard of the image I had been imagining. Not the exact image, but close enough to make me seriously uncomfortable. It was like assuming a role in a story I had invented. There was nothing I could do except accept it, calm myself and try not to freak out over the weird coincidence.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Two

It's amazing how quickly the anger comes on when old resentments are mentioned, especially when someone blithely gets their facts wrong. Historian Nell Irvin Painter was on The Colbert Report to discuss her book The History of White People when she stated that, for example, people were once referred to as Irish and then started subcategorizing, such as Scots-Irish.

Colbert was quick to correct her. "Scots-Irish are not Irish."

"Yes, they are."

"No they're not. Scots-Irish...there's no Irish blood in Scots-Irish people. They are Scotch Presbyterians who were given land in Ireland, they took our land, they drove my people across the river Shannon, where we forced to farm rocks by Oliver Cromwell and I will see him rot in Hell before you call Scots-Irish people 'Irish!' You wanna fight?"

It's always interesting seeing what will make Stephen break character, how passionate he gets, and how quickly he is able to switch back to entertaining once his point is made. He shifts from wishing to see Cromwell rot in hell to playfully challenging Ms. Painter to armwrestle in the space of a few seconds.

The whole interview is here. You're not really going to learn anything about the history of white people, but if you want to see Stephen's rant, it's at around 2:20.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Nell Irvin Painter
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care reform

Friday, March 19, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty One

On Wednesday, I was out with my friend Cindy, who was visiting from Los Angeles. The only guideline we had was that we wanted to avoid anyplace overrun with St. Patrick's Day Celebrants. As anyone who knows me can tell you, I am very proud of my ancestors*, but loathe holidays in which everyone feels it's their duty to get drunk (see also Halloween and New Year's Eve).

We met for tapas and then went for Mexican food, only to discover that my go-to place for sloppy Mexican food, Maryanne's on Second Avenue, was closed, or rather "seized" due to non=payment of taxes. Peering through the window, Cindy said "It looks like it didn't happen that long ago. There are still napkins on the tables."

However, all I could think was "one more regular (or semi-regular) haunt is now gone." Not to be self-pitying, because I know the loss of a favored spot is nothing compared to the loss of a job suffered by those who work at such places when they close, but so many places are closing that I haven't had time to find new places yet. I've kvetched before (did you know the "k" was silent?) on this website about Telephone Bar closing. Last fall PlanEat Thai in my neighborhood closed, and that was a restaurant that I thought was going to last forever.

Is this what Alzherimer's is like? The landscape slowly changing or shifting around you, but you just react in befuddlement? I know the cliche is that "in New York, the only constant is change" but is it so much to expect a bar or restaurant to stick around for a while? It's not as profound, but is what I'm feeling a fraction of what my grandparents, social butterflies that they were, experienced when their friends began dying?

Cindy and I got food somewhere else but I was pursued by the sense that my New York was slowly shrinking. Donde est last straw? When is it no longer a city I recognize? Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. I walked past Maryanne's tonight and the restaurant was not only open but full of people. I stopped in and asked the hostess what had happened. "Oh," she laughed "that was all a big misunderstanding."

* re: How The Irish Saved Civilzation: you're welcome. Is it so much to expect a "thank you" every once in a while? I still don't think we, or rather I, have received proper due for that. Sheesh.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty

The Stigmittens Are Here!

Knitted by my friend Carol for me, these fingerless gloves will always remind me of the agony our Lord suffered while they keep my hands nice and warm. Perhaps the name of this blog should be changed to The Happiest Boy In The World.

As a bonus, she also sent me this great Virgin Mary nightlight.

Thank you, Carol. Words can't express my appreciation.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Nine

Happy St. Patrick's Day From Jack Chick!

Spreading his message of strict dogma and intolerance to everyone - now in Gaelic (or "Irish" as it says on his website). I'm surprised it's not one of his anti-Catholic tracts.