Sunday, February 28, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Twelve

The City and The City
China Mieville

There is a city, Beszel, and another distinct city, Ul Qoma, that exists in the same space and time, as if one city is superimposed on or interweaven with the other. Residents in each city ignore the other, having learned how to not see or interact with them, even as they walk together, inches apart. It is a serious offence to travel between the two cities without permission. When it happens either intentionally or by accident, it is called “breach” and investigated by a creepy corps of the same name.

When the body of a resident of Ul Qoma turns up in Beszel, there’s nothing inspector Tyador Borlu would like more than to turn it over to Breach. But it is discovered to not be a case of breach, and Borlu, in the best tradition of detective fiction, has to solve a crime by moving in circles he doesn’t understand.

China Mieville’s novel exists within the genres of detective and speculative fiction just as the characters exist in two city-states. There is something appealing about a police procedural taking place in an initially unfamiliar world. With his superimposed cities, Mieville has found a metaphor for what living in urban areas is like, how you move without really seeing the other people around you. It’s also a meditation on how different cultures can exist side by side without understanding each other, whether western capitalist vs. communist or Judeo/Christian vs. Moslem.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Eleven

A History of Christianity - Episode Two: Catholicism

If the first episode was history of Christianity as travelogue, then Diarmaid MacCulloch traces the rise to power of the Roman Catholic Church in the second episode by touring a number of great cathedrals.

It still seems incredible that what began as a small Jewish sect would ultimately become a world powerhouse religion. It did this becoming adopted by the powerful, most famously by the general Constantine “as he hacked his way to power” and established a Roman empire, and later by the aristocracy as that empire began to fall. Men of privilege, power and wealth kept all three by becoming high ranking members of the church when they began to lose political power.

When he became emperor in 306, Constantine made Christianity the state religion, focusing on St. Peter, perhaps because Christ says that Peter is “the rock on which I will build my church.” In Greek “Peter” means “rock” so it’s one of Christ’s rare play on words. “The power of Christian Rome” notes MacCulloch “founded on a Greek pun.” If this is true, then personally, I love it.

Friday, February 26, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Ten

Now The Trees Are Attacking Us*

Following up on yesterday's post about the animal kingdom's revenge when a killer whale lived up to its name, I wanted to note that a man was killed yesterday when a snow-laden tree branch fell on him in Central Park.

Perhaps instead of "40 Days of Lent" this feature should be "Countdown to The End."

*Which sounds like it could be song idea for Rush.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Nine

Neko Case, Modern Day Nostradamus

I saw the below article online this morning:

Whale drags trainer off platform in fatal attack

By MIKE SCHNEIDER, Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. – A veteran SeaWorld trainer was rubbing a killer whale from a poolside platform when the 12,000-pound creature reached up, grabbed her ponytail in its mouth and dragged her underwater. Despite workers rushing to help, the trainer was killed.

Horrified visitors who had stuck around after a noontime show watched the animal charge through the pool with the trainer in its jaws. Workers used nets as an alarm sounded, but it was too late. Dawn Brancheau had drowned. It marked the third time the animal had been involved in a human death.

The whale, named Tilikum, apparently grabbed Brancheau by her long ponytail, according to the head of animal training at all SeaWorld parks, Chuck Tompkins. He told ABC's "Good Morning America" that her ponytail swung out in front of the whale.

"That's when the trainer next to him (Tilikum) said that he grabbed the hair, pulled her under water. And of course, held her under water," Tompkins said...

[A witness] said he heard that during an earlier show the whale was not responding to directions. Others who attended the earlier show said the whale was behaving like an ornery child.

No, the whale was behaving like what it was: a wild animal. While reading the story, all I could think of was Neko Case's remarkably prescient song People Got A Lotta Nerve, released in 2008:

You know they call them "killer" whales?!
But you seem surprised when it pinned you down
To the bottom of the tank
Where you can't turn around
It took half your leg and both your lungs
"When I craved I ate hearts of sharks, I know you know it!"

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Eight

Long gone graffiti murals once seen in my neighborhood.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Seven

Shop Class As Soulcraft
Matthew Crawford

Even though it was several years ago, it’s a conversation I remember well: talking with my friend Scott about how bored we with our office jobs (I had quit mine earlier that year) and how much we preferred making things with our hands. I was surprised how much I liked making stained glass windows and rudimentary furniture, particularly thinking my way around any unexpected problems. Scott grew up in a garage and built his own Volkswagon convertible in high school but had spent much of his adult life as a manager.

It’s a feeling Matthew Crawford knows well. After getting his Ph.D. in political philosophy, Crawford landed a high paying job at a Washington think tank…and quit ten months later to repair motorcycles. Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work is his explanation of why he quit and an examination of how the emphasis on white-collar jobs has affected people. It’s ultimately a contemplation of what makes work meaningful to the individual doing it.

Crawford argues that even as office jobs are being outsourced overseas, the work of mechanics and craftsman has to stay local. Things always break and you will need someone to fix them. If your car is broken, you’re not going to ship it to India to have it fixed.

I think the rise of office work had a lot to do with class snobbery. Middle-class people had jobs in which they didn’t get dirty. Lower class people got dirty. Working in an office with your mind was seen as more civilized, more dignified, than working on machines with your hands. Despite how our economy has changed and the decline in office work, it still seems uncommon for someone with an education to willingly chose blue collar work. But Crawford writes how thinking is involved in such work. It’s a different kind of thinking, more intuitive, more self-reliant.

When I was in school, we rotated between three different shop classes: woodshop, mechanical drawing, and print shop. I don’t recall getting much in the way of instruction in mechanical drawing. I think our teacher, an egg-shaped man, probably thought “why bother?” It was obvious our college-bound class (this was only eighth grade but the kids destined for college were already separated from those who were not) were never going to pursue mechanical drawing. The only thing for the teacher to do was the bare minimum until kids in class fulfilled their requirement, hit them when they got out of line and then never see them again. I didn’t have much aptitude for woodshop and I was convinced I was going to lose a finger in one of the machines. But it was in print shop that I finally understood the concept of having to work and being graded.

The assignment was to make notepads, a process that involved creating a design (which had to include “From The Desk Of,” your name, some sort of border and a picture, which could either be chosen from design books or made with a Photostat), making a metal plate of your design, then printing a number of pads. I made two pad designs: one had the Yellow Submarine on it (in black and white, of course) and the other had an Apple Bonker. Because thought what I was doing was so cool and because of what I was like at 13, I didn’t pay much (read “any”) attention to quality control. I made a pad with the Yellow Submarine on it! It was the only one like it in the world. No-one else had one. Our teacher graded our work surrounded by everyone in the class, not to humiliate but to demonstrate mistakes to watch out for. He took out a pen and mercilessly circled each imperfection, every mark made by a dirt on the metal plate, every flaw accentuated by the printing process. Each mark cost a third of a grade. If I remember correctly, I got a low B on the assignment. But as he ticked my grade down and down, I had, for the first time, the realization that I would have to work, that I wasn’t going to get a pass just because I had come up with the coolest thing. More than a mediocre grade on any test, those circles on my notepads demonstrated the idea of standards that I would have to measure up to or fail. It was the first time I “got” it; it was the first time I cared.

However, lowered grade because I didn’t understand work notwithstanding, I had made something unique in the world and was always proud that my father, who had the same name as I, used the pads in his classroom at school.

I initially began this paragraph with the sentence “It’s hard to think of anything I’ve done in my office job that has made me proud” but that’s not true. I’m proud of the annual reports that we’ve done. Not because they’re outstanding in any way (they're not) but because I spend a lot of time making sure they are free of mistakes, even if they’re mistakes other people would never notice. When we finally send them to print, I’m usually exhausted but feel a sense of accomplishment. This example is part of Crawford’s argument: that work has more meaning when you are creating a physical product, particularly if it is from start to finish. Dealing with products that exist to you only as theoretical concepts robs your job of meaning and introduces a certain nihilism, similar to my mechanical drawing teacher who couldn’t see the point of teaching students who existed only as names in his gradebook rather than as people who might be interested.

Last night I was reading the conclusion of Shop Class As Soulcraft while having dinner at a local bar. While I was there, the man who fixes their pinball machine came in and I got to watch him work, which was fascinating in the way that competence in a field you know nothing about always is. I had never seen the insides of a pinball machine before and loved its mix of the mechanical and the electronic. The man had trouble walking, even with a cane; it was as if his legs were at the wrong angle to his body. But he was able to move quickly around the pinball machine and had it fixed in less than twenty minutes. I’m aware he sounds like a fictional character and a clich├ęd one at that, but there he was. I asked how he had learned to fix pinball machines. He said that he just started playing around with them, trying to figure out how they worked, and began fixing them, so that now everyone calls him if there is a problem. Watching him figure out what was wrong with the machine, test his idea, repeat to make sure he was right, I saw someone who was less at work and more at play.

Monday, February 22, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Six

Number One In Heaven

Below is a list of the ten best rock/pop albums as picked by the official newspaper of Vatican City L’Osservatore Romano.

1. Revolver by the Beatles

2. If I Could Only Remember My Name by David Crosby

3. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

4. Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

5. The Nightfly by Donald Fagen

6. Thriller by Michael Jackson

7. Graceland by Paul Simon

8. Achtung Baby by U2

9. (What’s the Story) Morning Glory by Oasis

10. Supernatural by Carlos Santana

The opportunities for jokes and cheap shots are too easy, particularly with Michael Jackson's Thriller on the list. "Pretty Young Thing" is certainly something priests and Michael Jackson can agree on. You know they didn't pick Rubber Soul because the Vatican wouldn't like an album with a song called "Think For Yourself" on it. Etc, etc.

In addition to the "huh?" factor (downer stoner classic Dark Side of The Moon is included?), what I like is that the list shows personal taste, rather than just big albums by the usual big stars. David Crosby at number 2? It truly is a miracle.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Five

A History of Christianity - Episode One: The First Christianity

American television has produced similar overviews of Christianity, but none I have seen can compare with the lush visuals and clear language of this BBC production. It’s as much a travelogue as it is a history lesson, one whose images remind you of how visually beautiful Christianity is at its best. Oxford professor Diarmaid MacCulloch visits the locations of important historical events, sometimes to ironic effect. The palace where the Council of Nicea was held is now underwater, so MacCulloch sits beside a calm shore while discussing this first attempt to unify Christianity. Later he travels to China to interview a historian who deduced that an ancient Taoist temple was originally a Christian church based on the feng shui of its design – an impressive piece of detective work. However, irate villagers resentful of interest in Christianity overshadowing Buddhism prevent them from entering the temple.

Perhaps my favorite moment occurs when Professor MacCulloch approaches the site in Syria where St. Simeon stood atop a pillar for almost 40 years. Clutching his little digital camera, MacCulloch tells us how excited he is, having first heard about St. Simeon when he was eight. “I never thought I’d get to come here, and now here I am.” Anyone who has traveled knows that giddy enthusiasm.

Much of this first episode is structured around the church’s divisions (or diversity, if you want to be more positive about it). Leaving Jerusalem, some Christians headed west, a branch eventually adopted by the Emperor Constantine and made into the state religion of the Roman Empire. This is the story of Christianity I know well. However, other Christians headed east to Turkey, Syria and ultimately Asia. The stereotypes: western churches are more theological, eastern churches more mystical. The Council of Nicea was Constantine’s attempt to unify the faith and quell the endless theological arguments threatening to split his empire. The decision that Christ is “of one substance with the father” i.e. divine, worked for about 100 years, until some bishops began asking the damaging question “How?”

Nestorias, the Bishop of Constantinople, argued that Christ’s human and divine natures were like oil and water in the same glass. Even though they were in the same container, they were quite separate. Cyrill, the Bishop of Alexandria, on the other hand, argued that Christ’s human and divine natures were like water and wine in the same glass, mixed together.

There’s something I find both funny and deeply sad about this situation. The phrase “number of angels dancing on the head of a pin” comes to mind. The fact that people spent so much time arguing about something that either doesn’t exist or can never be proven astonishes me. This isn’t like a zen koan, something to be contemplated as way of spiritually training the mind. These were arguments as an attempt to “prove” something supernatural or transcendent. MacCulloch puts it in a historical context, saying “Understanding exactly how Jesus was God explained how He was powerful enough to save you from Hell,” but they might as well have been arguing over exactly how Santa Claus makes all those deliveries in one night.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Friday, February 19, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Three

Sometimes I forget how pretty my hometown is.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Two

If you have time, I highly recommend the article in the current Esquire about film critic Roger Ebert (available online here).

the picture that accompanies the article is rather startling. Ebert has been battling cancer in his mouth and salivary glands for years and the medical treatments have removed most of his jaw. Those who remember his rounded visage from "At The Movies" are in for a shock.

His surgeries have also left him without a voice. He communicates now by handwritten notes, improvised sign language and a computer that "speaks" for him. The article reads like the best short fiction: not in its narrative, but in the way little epiphanies are offered by otherwise mundane details. It is heartbreaking and hopeful, not because of Ebert's condition, but because life itself is heartbreaking and hopeful.

There are two outstanding passages quoted from Ebert's online journal that I want to quote:

(on death)
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

I'm writing "40 Days of Lent" this year because I wanted to quote the second passage online. It should be printed on posters and hung in classrooms, incorporated into speeches, reprinted in anthologies. It should replace the story about the two sets of footprints in the sand. It should be repeated every day. Unfortunately, I'm all teary-eyed now and I'm writing this at work, so I'm going to go answer some emails and schedule some meetings.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day One

Schmutz Wednesday!

Always my favorite of holidays, getting some schmutz patshkened on your kop, though hopefully not all over your punim. That would be shreklekh.

I went to St. Patrick's Cathedral this morning for my ashes, a place so ploimdik you could plotz. I've written before how there's something about smearing dirt on your head as a religious ritual that appeals to me in a way that more mundane liturgical rituals do not. I don't understand try to understand why; only a shmendrik would try.

I have decided to am going to do my "40 Days of Lent" postings again this year, as you can no doubt tell. Yesterday an email from my friend Andrea reminded me that Lent was beginning, but I planned on not posting this year. Then last night I read something I liked so much that I decided I would post during Lent just so I could share that one passage, which I will do tomorrow or the next day.

As I don't have a lot to say today, I'll conclude with the below picture of some ducks pulling a cart of naked ladies, originally seen in the Chronicle of Saxony (1492).


Monday, February 15, 2010

Oh Damn. The Telephone Bar Has Closed.

A thought that recurred fairly often: "If I can't think of anywhere else to go, I'll just stop in Telephone Bar." Perfectly located on Second Ave, around the corner from St. Mark's Place and St. Mark's Bookstore, a few block from my subway stop, I could always find a seat at the bar. This past Saturday, that thought was quickly replaced by "uh-oh" when I walked past and saw that the windows of the front door and the three red British phone booths that lent it its distinctive look were covered in brown paper.

At first I hoped they were just remodeling, though there was no sign on the door promising to reopen soon. Once home, I went online and discovered that, after 22 years, the Telephone Bar and Grill has closed. It has been sold to someone who owns other bars in the East Village, all of which sound, from their online descriptions, rather crappy. So another piece of "my" New York is gone. Unfortunately I missed their final night on January 31st. Apparently it was a "thank you" for their regulars.

It didn't quite capture the ambiance of pubs in Britain, which at their best, feel like auxillary living rooms, but it was a comfortable place just the same. Their chicken wings had the right blend of sweet and spicy and their portobello mushroom sandwich was wonderful. Nice mix of beers and whatever game was on tv was never too loud.

My friend Karl reminded me that when we first lived in New York, it was our "go to" place in the Village. I think I've taken everyone who ever visited me there at least once, although recently I didn't stop in as often as I once had. To be honest, I don't go to any bar as much as I once had. But four or five years ago I was a regular. I recall one particular couple I met at the bar: he was a researcher in neurology and she was born in Germany. They had met and married while he was stationed there in the army; her accent was still strong. They were at the bar having a drink before they went to see an off Broadway play. She liked experimental theater and he was a good sport. We had a great conversation, which was unexpectedly continued when I stopped in the bar the following Saturday...and there they were in the same seats, this time having a drink before dinner.

This was shortly before I traveled to Europe (which was the initial catalyst for this blog). She had traveled widely and gave me suggestions of places to see and what to avoid. Disappointed that I wasn't going to Germany, she kept making a case for the beauty of her homeland. He and I talked about conclusions drawn from neurological experiments, or rather, he replied to my naive questions with explanations on how the brain works and how this impacts our behavior. I understood a meager fraction of what he was saying but no matter. The conversation helped form a new way of thinking for me, moving the source of human behavior from personalities created by nature/nurture to synapses firing away in our mushy brains. In my completely undisciplined manner, it's become a subject of study for me. Just as her recommendations on travel influenced what I saw in Europe, his explanations on how I was experiencing "experience" influences me still.

I never saw them again after that day.

RIP, Telephone Bar and Grill.