Sunday, March 20, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day Twelve

New Murals in the Neighborhood
It may not feel like spring yet but there's new murals in the neighborhood. I made sure I got pictures before they were ruined by people writing all over them.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day Eleven

The first thing I saw this morning when getting off the subway was a middle aged man with a dark smear of ash on his forehead. "Wait a minute" I immediately thought "is it Ash Wednesday? It can't be. We just had Ash Wednesday." A long moment ensued in which I was completely thrown off my bearings, as if the past two weeks were just a dream. I tried to reorient myself in time: "today is Friday, I'm going to Hawaii next Saturday, Ash Wednesday was a couple of weeks ago, I got ashes at St. Pat's..."

I looked again at the man. What I had mistaken for ash was in fact a large dark mole. Relieved, I thought "he should have that looked at, cause it may not be healthy and it's confusing the hell out of people around him."

Friday, March 18, 2011

40 Days Of Lent: Day Ten

Possibility of More Karma

I didn't buy gifts for many people while visiting London and Paris. What I did get, I got as impulse buys. "Oh, here's an [object]. [Person] loves [object]s. I'll get it for them. They'll love it!" For what it's worth, I didn't buy myself that much either.

However, I did make a point of bringing back coins in a variety of denominations as a gift for one of my boss's kids. He's become fascinated by currency and money (the words "apple," "far" and "tree" come to mind), particularly money from other countries. His older brother, on the other hand, is the artist of the family and likes making things, including a Lego picture frame that's much nicer than it sounds.

While pouring the pile of coins onto my boss's desk I suddenly saw my future. Inspired by this gift, his kid will grow up to work in finance - perhaps currency exchange - and become wealthy whereas I inevitably will end up lying in a gutter somewhere. Not recognizing me, he will feel compelled to throw me a few coins as he walks past but not know why, and the universe will then be in balance.

It reminds me of another time I saw my future. A friend was complaining about the unseasonably hot weather and asked "why is it so hot all the time all of a sudden?" I gave her a rather incredulous look, to which she responded "You don't think it's that, do you? Ugh, I hope not." The irony of the situation is that her husband works as a lawyer for energy companies. Hearing her denial, I flash forwarded to see myself crawling across a scorched desert that was probably once a major American metropolis and thinking back on our conversation right before I died.

No, I don't ever see my future as dying peacefully in bed surrounded by my loved ones. Hopefully I'll be pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day Nine

Godspell's Probably Inadvertent But Nonetheless Subversive Demonstration Of The Religious Impulse

I've always had a soft spot for Godspell, the musical retelling of the gospel of Matthew done as children's theater. The songs are either undeniably catchy or touching, whether or not you agree with the words. The nonstop mugging of the cast gets on my nerves, but it's balanced by beautiful shots of a depopulated New York City. The Last Supper scene always gets to me, more for its depiction of someone saying goodbye to friends he'll never see again rather than for any New Testament reasons.

However, last time I watched Godspell a little bit of business went by and I thought "Did I just see what I think I saw? They couldn't possibly have meant that the way I'm interpreting it." It is, in just a few seconds, an effective demonstration of the religious impulse, almost a parody of said impulse.

It's about 24 minutes into the movie, during the comedy bits that follow the song "Day By Day." The disciples are cavorting in a junkyard (which is a sentence I can't imagine ever writing again) when we see one of them plant a small twig.

Jesus then comes by and waters the twig.

Unbeknownst to the first disciple, another disciple comes along and replaces the twig with a young tree.

The first disciple, while ignorant of the perfectly normal explanation of what has happened, is amazed at this "miracle."

Rather than look for any logical or natural reason for what occurred, she attributes it to Jesus and His magic...

and becomes His follower.

As mentioned above, I don't think this was intended as anything more than comic business. While this is happening, the other disciples are painting each other's faces and playing with a beat up car. Nothing else in the film is as subversive, but it's hard not to see this little vignette as an example of someone becoming religious because, in their ignorance, they attribute to a god or religious leader something that's actually part of the natural world.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

40 Days Of Lent: Day Eight


When I'm keeping my hair short, I go to a cheap barbershop and tell them to sse the #6 guide on the clippers and that it's just like mowing a lawn. However, whenever I decide to grow my hair a little longer, or to be more accurate, lumpier, I go to the rockabilly themed barbershop that's about a half hour's walk from my apartment. I make an appointment with D. and I'm usually happy with the results.

But there is a twist. With D., the longer you can keep him engaged in conversation, the better the haircut you get, so it's best to come prepared with a couple of topics to discuss. I hadn't realized this until one time D. was either talked out or not in a social mood. Then my haircut consisted of clip-clip-clip okay you're done. That's it? Yeah, that's it.

Beyond the obvious benefit to my coif, I enjoy talking with D. for as long as possible because he's an entertaining conversationalist. He once swore me to secrecy before telling his idea for a novel. Upon hearing the idea I regretted my promise and wished I was the sort of person who stole ideas. It was that good. Another time, his story of the police trying and failing to arrest a local drug dealer slowly evolved from "guess what happened in the neighborhood today" to a great unfilmed Keystone Kop misadventure. "He looks like...Stan Laurel" D. said of the drug dealer, an image that still makes me laugh.

So while getting my hair cut last week, I was able to keep D.'s attention for a good long time with stories about my recent trip to London and Paris. "You took your mom? That's so sweet! I'd love to take my mom and dad on a trip overseas, but one at a time, thank you. Not together."

This seems to be the definition of karma: do something nice like take someone on a trip and the universe rewards you with a better haircut. On the other hand, last time I saw my sister, she asked "Did you get a haircut?" Hearing yes, she looked it over before asking in earnest "Did you do it yourself?"

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day Six

Want to check your email but you got your period? No problem!

Seen near the Pompidou Center.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day Five

My mother had promised her hairdresser that she would bring him back a pack of French cigarettes. He didn't request any particular brand, just wanted French cigarettes.

While wandering underground through the maze of shops and less important artworks near the Louvre, we spotted a tobacconist that also sold tickets to the museum. Two birds, one stone. While buying my ticket, I asked if I could also have some cigarettes, pointing to a pretty white pack among the many choices on the wall.

"Which one?" the clerk asked.

"Le 'Fumer Tue,' s'il vous plait."


Thinking I was mispronouncing the name, I repeated it and pointed. "Non, non, le Fumer Tue...les blancs...ah, oui. Merci."

While ringing them up, the clerk said in English "Do you know what 'Fumer Tue' means?"

"Non, non."

"'Smoking Kills.'"

It wasn't the name of the brand, it was the blunt warning on the pack. So yes, I stood in front of a line of people wanting to buy tobacco and kept repeating "Can I have the Smoking Kills cigarettes? No, not those. The Smoking Kills ones. Yes, thank you."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day Four

I like gargoyles.

From Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur.

Friday, March 11, 2011

40 Days Of Lent: Day Three

Woke up this morning to news of an earthquake in Japan, one of the largest ever to strike the islands, and attendant news and concerns about resultant tsunamis. It's seems unseemly to be writing or even thinking in my customary cheery way, yet that's how I feel. Things are not just going okay, they're actually going well. I don't hate my job, my current living situation is one of comfort, I certainly don't want or need for anything, my outlook has been upbeat. Maybe there's a certain naïveté to my current state, but lurking at the back of my mind is the awareness of how it can all change, the speed with which everything can go wrong. But until that happens, I'm going to appreciate things being good for as long as it lasts.

One of the people I work with is a bit of a Chicken Little. In 2008, when the stock market began to slide because of the overvaluation of e housing market, he ran around the office in a positive panic, just barely stopping short of predicting that soon we'd be eating our young. It was an entertaining experience. I was so enchanted watching his meltdown that I didn't even pause to worry about the fact that our economy might be imploding and we might be heading into a new depression. I find the era and the culture of the Great Depression fascinating, but that doesn't mean I necessarily want to live through one. After news of yesterday's disaster, he went online and found a wealth of information about the possibility of tsunamis striking the east coast on a website called Basically, if a giant wave heads towards the NYC area, we'll have time, but not nearly enough, to get to safety.

Even this news didn't alter my mood. I know I'm going to die someday, but for some reason, I just get upset about that fact.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

40 Days Of Lent: Day Two

Telling my friend Bob the previous story, he commented that Paris has been having a huge problems with gypsies, which could account for the man's overreaction (my opinion) at the ATM machine. Happily our only direct encounter with people I assume were gypsies was not that bad at all.

We were making our way along the Seine when a woman in front of us held a gold ring out, saying she had found it on the ground. Perhaps it was my mother's? Maybe she had dropped it on the ground? My mother said no, not her's and then immediately said she was worried about whomever it was that had lost their ring: what an awful thing to happen while on vacation.

My mother said the woman should keep the ring as we had no idea how to return it to its proper owner. But the woman insistently gave the ring to my mother and rather than argue, we said okay and were on our way.

We had walked about four steps before the lady called to us and rubbing her fingers together in the universal sign for money, indicated she wanted us to give her money for the ring. "Oh...." we said, catching on to the scam. We handed the ring back to the woman with an unspoken attitude of "nice try" and resumed our walk.

Crossing a bridge, we saw the woman again, surrounded by some companions, one of whom bent over, placed a gold ring on the ground and then picked it up. This woman made her way towards us holding out the ring. "Nooooo...we just did this with her!" I said, gesturing to the first woman and laughing at how lackluster their scam seemed. Happily, both women laughed too, in a friendly way,nas if to say "Oops! Silly us!"

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day One

Ash Wednesday!

First day of Lent and getting ashes smeared on your forehead is one of my favorite religious rituals. The enthusiasm that John Doe brings to singing about the Fourth of July is almost, but not quite, how I feel about Ash Wednesday.


Last Tuesday, after arriving in Paris and enjoying a good lunch at a bistro across from the Gare Du Nord train station, I found myself doing a quick dash among unfamiliar streets in a desperate search for a bank with an ATM. I had booked a flat from a remarkably laid-back landlord who had waived both the security deposit ("I don't need it") and 1/4th of the rent ("you can pay me in cash when you get here"). I had most of the rent in British pounds but was hoping to exchange it at a place with better rates than the kiosk at the train station. But apart from the more touristy locales, Paris is not over-run with places to exchange currency. Plan B: find an ATM and withdraw the rent in Euros while my mother waited in front of the apartment with the luggage.

I jogged along, thinking that eventually I had to run across a bank. I later found out that at the end of the first street, had I turned right instead of left, I would have found several banks a block or so away. But I am by nature gauche so it took me a little longer to find a bank and when I did, I was greeted with a sight like something out of a Michael Haenke film.

A pretty woman (there are no other types in Paris) was standing at the ATM while her male companion was roughly shoving two small children, running interference and keeping the children at arm's length from the woman. From what I could see, the children were not aggressively begging; they were just sort of standing there, looking unwashed and sad like ghosts from a Henry James short story.

How was I going to react to the situation when it was my turn at the ATM? It became a moot point, as the kids had silently disappeared by the time I began punching in my code. Didn't see them at all during my quick jog back to the apartment.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Letter Of The Law, Rather Than The Spirit

While I was in Paris, I saw some girls wearing a ḥijāb, the traditional Muslim head covering. But one girl in particular stood out, because in addition to the head covering, she was wearing the tightest blue jeans and the spikiest heels I had seen in days. She almost looked like the result of one of those children's books in which the pages are cut and you can mix and match tops and bottoms. I wonder if the look was the result of a compromise with her parents. It was the best illustration of East and West, traditional and modern, and the religious and secular worlds I had seen.