Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Forty Days of Lent: Day Eight

What It's Like, Inside My Head, Sometimes

I'm only posting this journal entry because it's 10:37 and I want to go to bed and I don't feel like writing about Thomas Pynchon's Against The Day, visiting the 911 memorial, or my deceased friends Eric and Dan. Tonight I should have headed home but I didn't feel like making dinner for myself so I stopped at Muggs for something to eat. Oddly enough before getting there I was musing on the fact that after all these years I still feel like an outsider, only to walk in the door and be warmly greeted by one of the bartenders who was hanging out on his day off. Shortly after that, I got into a conversation with a Scottish expat I've talked with before. Some of us will never feel like part of of a group no matter what.

At Muggs, while sipping on beers, I carried on an email conversation with my sister about Cloud Atlas and chatted via instant messenger with my friend K, who was doing sound at a small club nearby. After dinner i headed there to say hello and listen to ear splitting punk rock. I am closer to 50 than I am to 40 (and not just because time only goes in one direction) but I still love going to clubs and hearing live music. However, dinner out and hanging out in a rock club offering my sad job hunting ideas to someone who is currently without work does not get Lenten obligations met. So I'm doing something I said I would never do. I'm posting an entry from my journal. It's not that interesting but I have to go to work tomorrow and don't have time to write anything else.
February 15, 2012

I like a restaurant where the waiter compliments your glasses.

I ate tonight at Allswell, a restaurant in my neighborhood opened by the people who own The Spotted Pig. Spotted Pig had sentimental value for me, despite the fact that I think I’ve only eaten there twice. But it was a place that Karl dragged me to because a friend of his worked in the kitchen. While we were there, we got the royal treatment of nifty little foods the kitchen staff felt like trying out: tell us what you think of them? It was an added thrill after the fact when I began seeing the restaurant listed as one of New York’s best, soon to be followed by one of New York’s most difficult to get into.

Allswell is an off shoot that has opened across the street from Muggs, my favorite beer snob bar. (I admit when I began writing this entry, I blanked out on the name. For some reason, all I could think is that I had had dinner at Walgreens.) For some reason I was ravenously hungry when I left work tonight. It happens sometimes but unfortunately it has a way of completely throwing off my evening plans, which in this case included "do some yoga." I made my usual bargain with myself, ie “if there’s a seat at the bar at Muggs, then I’ll go there for dinner and a drink or two. If not I’ll go home.” A bargain, I should point out, that inevitably ends up with me buzzed.

However, I didn’t see any seats at the bar at Muggs and almost simultaneously with noticing this, I remembered a half serious resolution I had made, though obviously a touch more serioius than my resolution to do yoga more often. I had vowed to not eat at the same places all the time. I keep reading about all the great new restaurants, many of them in my neighborhood, yet I never go to them. This wouldn’t be much of a problem personally, I’m content at the same old scenes, but when people come to visit, it’s a little embarrassing to suggest going to a place that they’ve been to with me a number of times. This was particularly obvious this past weekend when S., J., C. and C. were visiting. Despite the fact that I knew what was coming I still wasn’t adequately prepared for it: the unavoidable questions of “what should we do? What’s cool in the city? Where should we go?” Questions that always make my mind go blank, an almost zen like state, and this is without even considering the fact that I was dealing with four rather different people, each with varying ideas of what is cool and what they wanted to see and do.

Happily it all turned out for the best. We ended up at Arthur’s, a little jazz dive bar in the West Village (this is not an insult at all. I liked Arthur's quite a bit). We were strategically placed close enough to the stage so that we could hear the music but far enough away so that we could talk to each other without disturbing those who only wanted to hear music. C. and C. danced, everyone talked and drank, S. interrupted the called for moment of silence in memory of Whitney Houston by saying “What? Did she die?” An enjoyable night out, unless you were a fan of Whitney Houston.

So tonight, in the spirit of finding and at least trying some new places to eat, I went to Allswell. Nice vibe about the place, which is code for “the staff was cool and friendly, not snotty and pretentious.” Perhaps it says something about my attitude right now that I think this is actually more important than the flavor of the food. Similarly, last Friday night, S. et al and I ate at Babbo. While the food was great, the main memory I take from the evening was how likeable the staff was, from the maitre d’ to the bartender to the waiters and sommeliers. It was the same tonight at Allswell, including the aforementioned compliment on my reading glasses from the lad who brought my food.

It was a good meal considering I ate stuff that I don’t normally like, or more accurately, is the opposite of stuff that I do like. I had a pan friend encrusted pork slices, and a crouton of what I thought was cheese because it spurted when I cut into it with my fork but actually turned out to be a wee potato. Good and a nice change but it’s hard for me to be wildly enthusiastic about it. I miss the hominess of my regular haunt.

From now on, I've got to make sure to schedule time to work on this blog each night, because I am not posting from my journal again.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Seven

Ella Minnow Pea
Mark Dunn

On New Year’s Day 2011, I was celebrating the holiday as I usually do, with a dinner with friends. I was expressing my fondness for George Perec’s A Void, as I’ll only discuss literature at the table after I’ve had a few drinks. Perec’s novel has much to recommend it but it is best known because no words containing the letter E appear in the book. As A Void might put it, it’s a book minus a most common part of our lingua franca, using synonyms and substitutions with a smooth skill to portray a story of haunting loss.

Our cute waitress chimed in that A Void sounded similar to Ella Minnow Pea and that I might like it, too. She gave a quick overview that sounded intriguing: the novel is a series of letters written by people who live in Nollop, a sovereign island nation not far off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop is named after Nevin Nollop, creator of the sentence “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” which is impressive in that it utilizes every letter of the alphabet with few repetitions. There is a statue of Nollop along with the alphabet and his phrase on the island. The respect for him is so strong that, when the letter Z falls off the statue pedestal, it is ruled as a sign and stricken from the language, with escalating punishments for its use. The edict is treated as a joke. How useful is Z, anyway? Who will miss it? But as other letters begin to fall off and are similarly ruled illegal to use, more and more people are punished for their slips of tongue and others try to find a way out of their predicament even as language becomes more and more restricted.

It’s a clever conceit and the book is consistently inventive. When the letter D is outlawed, all days of the week have to be renamed (“Sunshine” for “Sunday”) and people are forced to say things like “birth-anniversary” and completely give up the past tense. Still the language flows and the little jokes you catch don’t detract from the pull of the story. It’s as a depiction of totalitarianism that Ella Minnow Pea works best. I would say "satire" but I think it's a bit beyond that. It shares a the sense of dread found in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Characters are forced to live under what they know to be arbitrary and ridiculous rules but have little hope to change them. As letters continue to drop from the pedestal and from usage you start to realize that this can’t possibly end well.

Perec’s A Void was also about loss, but there the characters didn’t know what was missing, they could only sense something was gone. Everyone in Ella Minnow Pea is all too aware of what is being taken away from them. It’s profoundly unsettling to read these literate characters ultimately reduced to writing sentences like “no got to rummage” and “we eat together tonight, yes?” to avoid punishment.

I can’t imagine an American writing a better satire of what it’s like to live under totalitarianism. It’s an amusing, entertaining, and disturbing little book.

I’ve been back to the restaurant but haven’t seen the cute waitress again.

Monday, February 27, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Six

This past weekend I went to PS1, a contemporary art space operated by the Museum of Modern Art and located in a former school in Queens. Even if I don't find any of the art particularly interesting I always enjoy walking the all but empty halls of the school. This past Sunday there was an exhibit that consisted of two burritos lying on the floor. I have less and less patience for this kind of "work" as I get older. However, the views of the neighborhood outside the window of this gallery were particularly edifying.

One of the long term exhibits is James Turrell's Meeting, a room with stylish tall benches along the walls and dominated by hole in the ceiling through which, weather permitting, you can sit and watch the color of the sky slowly change. I've been to PS1 many times before but have never seen Meeting.

From one side of the room, the opening revealed the intense blue of the sky. But from the other side you could make out the moon, a white sliver noticeable even in the middle of the afternoon. If you click on the above picture you may be able to see it. It's almost in the center of the frame.

As I was getting ready to leave, an older asian woman and a young couple that were with her came into the room. The woman looked around, confused and seemed to be say "is this it?" (I'm guessing, as she did not speak English). I waved her over to my side of the room and pointed up. When she saw the moon, she smiled and laughed and said (I assuming) "Ah the moon!" in her native tongue. When I left they were still there, staring into the sky.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Saturday, February 25, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Four

I've written before of my affection for the movie version of Godspell though I know it's certainly not great art or even good religion. Part of my affection is because of the setting which combines two things of interest: an empty modern city and New York in the early 1970's. It's hard not to play "I know where they are" while watching Christ and His disciples cavort around certain landmarks. Sometimes, I'd rather not know.

One of the songs, "All For The Best," starts out with a message of "don't worry about your troubles no matter how big they seem, you'll get your reward in Heaven." Fine. The second verse goes on to detail those who seem to have everything, "richer than the bees are in honey." But don't worry about them, cause it's all for the best. The staging for the song moves from a fountain in a plaza to the roofs of Manhattan's skyscrapers, landing for the big finale on one of the Twin Towers.

While it's nice to see this view, a view we can't ever see again...

there's something ironic and chilling about hearing people sing, as the camera pulls away...

"Yes, it's all for the best!"

Friday, February 24, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Three

Nittany Lying

The scandal concerning Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky raping a ten year old* (the thought alone boggles the mind) has some personal resonance. I grew up in Pennsylvania where you either loved the Penn State football team or hated them. I did not love them. Fans of Penn State football seemed to exhibit a special obnoxiousness particularly when the team was doing well that made detractors and the apathetic alike wish for their ruination. In my college speech class, the most controversial entry during our "Topical Speech" assignment by far concerned the idea of IUP joining the same league as Penn State so they could play them in football. The pro-incest and "let the starving children in Africa starve" speeches didn't come close to inspiring the arguments and resentment that "let's play Penn State in football" did.

But that was over 20 years ago. IUP never did play Penn State, which is just as well, as they would have been crushed. My dislike for the Penn State program has remained, though I certainly can't find any schadenfreude in the current situation as it rests upon a number of kids being raped.* As I've gotten older, I've lost most of my taste for the grotesque, both fictitious and real. I've stockpiled enough stories of what human beings can and will do to each other. I'm full. I don't want any more. This may account for why I don't like crime novels. In striving for some ultimate crime the authors strain credibility. "Really? The entire town, from the homeless man on the corner to the minister to the chief of police was in on the conspiracy to corrupt orphans and then sell them as food? That doesn't happen."

Or so I thought. Among those who knew of the crimes at Penn State and did nothing include head coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier. Paterno's "punishment" was making Sandusky hand over his locker room key, in essence telling him to take that somewhere else. It was revealed that the judge who set Sandusky's lenient bail had volunteered for his charity organization. On and on it goes. Writing this...strike that...just thinking about this, exhausts and depresses me (as evidenced by the fact that the first draft of this post was written back in November, but I just didn't feel like re-reading it, let alone revising it).

When I was in high school, a teacher once mentioned to me how much he had enjoyed his time as an assistant coach for the football team but he knew that those days were, sadly, over for him. The head coach had been sued by a player's parents for beating up their son above and beyond a coach slapping a player around for doing wrong. My teacher had testified in court against the head coach.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I saw him do it" was the matter of fact answer.

This teacher was one I never warmed to, and I don't think he liked me, either. But I've always respected him for is ability to recognize right from wrong and to chose the truth over any personal gain or tribal unity. He not only recognized what was right but acted upon it. He was never successful at teaching me how to structure a sentence, but he taught me something I'd like to think I've used more often.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Two

Old iPhone Photos

Because I was trying to finish Mutants and Mystics by Jeffrey Kripal and didn't have time to write anything.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day One

Ash Wednesday!

I have several friends, good nonbelievers all, who love Christmas. They decorate, listen to Christmas music and buy generous gifts for friends and wrap them so as to resemble little works of art. They truly have the spirit of the day within them. But not only do they not believe in the divinity of Christ or the existence of God but they seem offended by such concepts. I myself don't have quite the same enthusiasm for Christmas. I feel I should. I reflexively think of it as my favorite holiday of the year, yet in actuality, it just seems to bring a lot of additional obligations on my time and attention. I have a friend whose family threw some of the best Christmas parties I've had the luck to attend but now she, after a bitter divorce, flat out says she hates Christmas.

I think of my festive faithless friends every year around this time because I love Ash Wednesday. I love getting dirt smeared on my forehead. Today it looked less like a cross than a running man. I love seeing who else has ashes on their forehead, the other marked. I enjoy talking about the logistics of getting ashes with other people. "St. Pat's is giving out ashes all day. You can be in and out like that, unless you go at lunchtime." I believe I gave this advice to four different people today, including someone at work I overheard mumbling "Ashes. Everyone's got ashes today. Gotta go get ashes..."

It's almost 10:00 at night and I still have the dark smear on my forehead. It almost seems a shame to wash it off. This evening I walked past a church and thought about going in and getting more ashes. I could see the priest's moment of confusion. "You already have ashes, my son." "I know. But I'd like some more." Perhaps you could spend the entire day going from church to church getting more and more holy soot smeared on your head. At what point would they stop? Would it before you looked like you were part of a minstrel show? Would you be taken aside and lectured on the deadly sin of gluttony? I imagine a priest would refuse those who went back for seconds on communion, but are ashes one to a customer?