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.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Eight

Spring has come to New York. People run up the subway stairs, hurrying to get into the sun.

I ran into my landlord for the second time since having an argument with him a month ago. The first time I saw him post-argument we said hello to each other but didn't really talk much. The argument was about the fact that he lets himself in to my apartment when I'm not there, which according to NYC tenant's rights, is a big no-no. Invasion of privacy and all that. My landlord only does it when he wants to fix something in the apartment or to let the exterminator in to spray for bugs. I realize I should be happy my landlord pays an exterminator to spray every other month, and his own unannounced visits are rare and a small price to pay for an inexpensive apartment in a good neighborhood.

But my landlord is not a young man and sometimes forgets the code for the front door alarm to my apartment. He also once forgot where he put my rent check, so I had to write him another one. A few days later he found the original check: it was under his pillow. "Why did you put my check under your pillow?" "I don't know - I don't know how it got there!"

The argument wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been one of those nights when I was in a hurry. I wanted to drop my stuff off at the apartment after work, change and head back into Manhattan to meet friends for drinks. I was going to be a little late but it was worth it to change from my office-drag into jeans. As soon as I opened the front door of my building, I could hear my alarm going off. I got to my door and saw a piece of paper on the floor from my landlord that said "John - call me!" Worst yet, the top lock on my door did not work.

I called my landlord and exclaimed that I could not get into my apartment. "Oh, I was gonna tell you about the alarm. I don't know what I did!" After a few minutes of mounting panic, I figured out that when he had left my apartment, my landlord had not locked the deadbolt. I had been trying to unlock what was already unlocked, which is why my key wouldn't turn properly. Got into the apartment only to see some strange hieroglyphics on my alarm system. I entered my code and nothing happened. Alarm kept tolling, strange hieroglyphics remained. I entered the code several more times, reasoning that it hadn't worked the first time cause I hadn't done it just so, to no avail.

Somewhere in this apartment is the user's manual that came with the alarm system, but it was nowhere I looked that night. I called my friend Kate, who lived here before me, on the off chance she would still remember how to reset the alarm of an apartment she hasn't live in for over five years. No answer. After pushing various buttons, I stumbled on how to reset the alarm and the resulting silence was, well, alarming.

I called my landlord back to explain how to reset it should this ever happen again and, because of my frustration, let slip "you know, you're not even supposed to be in my apartment when I'm not here without my permission," which is true, but just because something is true doesn't mean you should say it out loud. So a quick argument ensued, ending when I apologized, done because I had to be on my way. I wondered if I'd ever get my apartment sprayed for bugs again.

So when I saw my landlord tonight, I was relieved when we began chatting. I can only hope he forgot the argument. He showed me a cell phone he bought on ebay. It was an older model but still in great condition, and he was frustrated by the company's customer service department's inability to activate the phone. It wasn't too hard to see he was talking about more than phones when he said "Just cause it's old they want to get rid of it - not everything that's new is better," especially since he followed it up with the fact that the only take people's age into account when they are on a waiting list for internal organs, and never their moral character.

Monday, March 15, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Seven

I have a friend who's ill and I'm worried he's not going to get better. I have another friend who's leaving town this weekend and I suspect tonight was the last time I'll see him. But despite being a middle-aged man, when I look at these images I feel a little less sad.

Thank you, Chuck Jones.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Six

Deep In The Heart of Texas

The entire article from The Huffington Post is worth reading, but I thought I would quote the first sentence because I can't summarize it any better:

"A far-right faction of the Texas State Board of Education succeeded Friday in injecting conservative ideals into social studies, history and economics lessons that will be taught to millions of students for the next decade."

There is a slideshow with the article detailing some of the changes that were pushed through. It's the standard ultra-conservative party line: Reagan was The Greatest President Ever, minorities didn't play much a part in this nation's development, free enterprise is the best system every time everywhere. My favorite change, which is simultaneously the pettiest and most Orwellian: the US government will be described as a "constitutional republic" rather than "democratic." Amazing.

This reminds me of what George Carlin said about school: "They're only teaching you what they want you know."

Here come the new Dark Ages!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Five

Closing Time
Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan’s memoir Closing Time begins with what could be the start of an amusing affectionate anecdote about the time his father got stuck on the roof of their house and had to stay there all day. But because his father was a raging alcoholic who terrorized his children, the day is remembered as less humorous than peaceful, one of the few afternoons of peace the Queenan children got to experience.

I’ve read Queenan’s work before (he’s contributed to Spy, Esquire, and The Wall Street Journal among others) and while I can appreciate his wit, I don’t like the accompanying nastiness of his writing. Queenan sees this as part of his job as a satirist and while I certainly have a mean bone or two in my body, this tone has always kept me from being an enthusiast. In addition, his satire picks on easy prey and I disagree with his politics. On the other hand, I can’t be too hard on someone whose book of celebrity interviews is entitled If You’re Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble. Full disclosure: He is also a supportive friend and mentor to one of my friends. I’ve met him a couple of times and he couldn’t have been nicer. The first time he mentioned he was working on a book about his father but it wasn’t easy. The book is Closing Time.

Queenan grew up poor in Philadelphia in the 1950s and 60s, the son of an alcoholic who could not hold a job for long and a woman who had children but didn’t have much interest in them.

…he had simply suffered through so many calamities that the only way he knew how to respond to adversity was to brutalize those closest to him. Happily, his preference for victims shorter than forty-eight inches kept my mother out of the line of fire. Like many Irish-Catholic men of his generation, he would never dream of raising his hand to his wife, not only because he feared that it would have brought down the curtain on their marriage, but because men like him had an unwholesome reverence for their spouses, viewing them as domestic stand-ins for the Virgin Mary, with the one notable difference that, unlike the Madonna, they also cooked and cleaned. My mother was not a Madonna; she was an emotionally inert woman who had injudiciously brought four children into the world with no clear idea of how henceforth to proceed. While my father was skinning us alive with his trusty old belt, she would entomb herself in her bedroom, surrounded by newspapers she never seem to learn anything from, pretending not to hear what was going on downstairs. But the walls were not thick and the sound must have carried, if not in her conscience, at least into her cochleae.

Understandably, Queenan was motivated by escape: from his father’s beatings, from his neighborhood, from his class. He doesn’t want to be rich, he simply wants to stop being poor. A combination of luck, self-determination and the influence of a few kind souls saves Queenan, but this memoir is neither self-aggrandizing nor sentimental. There is no reconciliation with the father, no forgiveness, no moment that puts all the abuse into perspective. The book is a meditation on urban entropy, poverty, class differences and how culture and education can, but not necessarily will, help. (“Marguerite, a product of the slums, knew that if you were standing in front of a Brancusi and the light hit it just right, you could briefly forget you were poor.”) It is also funny and compulsively readable. When looking for passages to include in this essay, I found myself reading pages at a time until forcing myself to stop. Queenan is a master of smart conversational prose that always pulls you forward because you want to see what the next sharp detail, funny line or larger insight will be, as in this section describing he and his sisters riding in the back of his father’s delivery truck:

If I was not careful, I could have easily tumbled out into the street and been flattened by oncoming cars. But I was careful – I was born careful – and these outings were rollicking good fun. Anyway, back in the Paleocene 1950s, when being fond of one’s children had not yet come into vogue, poor people didn’t seem to mind all that much if one of their offspring when flying out into traffic, as everyone had spares.

Friday, March 12, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Four

My cousin Katie commented in response to this post:

It's driving that causes you to miss the beautiful. Wilkes-Barre is a beautiful city and you've seen it and photographed it because you've always walked it, John. When you drive, the run-down seems to stand out. When you walk (or bike-ride as my Dad loved to do) you get to see the beauty in the details. I always try to get out and walk when I'm home. It reminds me why I was so happy growing up there. And that snow storm, on that particular day, was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

Well, there's so much to respond to here. While I will always prefer walking to driving, I do love the blur of the landscape passing by when you are in motion, whether on a train, bus or in the passenger's seat. It's one of the reasons why I don't often read on buses. I prefer looking at the landscape in motion. When I walk, it's more like I'm looking at still photographs, whereas in a car or train, it's more like watching a movie. But yes, walking or biking gives you the time to appreciate the details.

The other night, in response to a friend's comment that he could see himself living in Los Angeles (a city that I profess to "hate" even though every time I'm there I enjoy myself a great deal), I instinctively said "I couldn't live in a city where you had to drive everywhere and had no public transportation." My friend pointed out that LA had fine public transportation and he in fact had friends who lived there who didn't know how to drive and got around just fine. I suppose I was thinking I could never live in a city that was not conducive to walking. A common characteristic of everywhere I've lived is that the were all pedestrian-friendly: cities that not only invited but also rewarded walking with the little surprises and treasures that Katie refers to. (Another characteristic of the places I've lived; they've all been near and partially defined by bodies of water, whether the Susquehanna, Thames or Hudson Rivers, the San Francisco Bay or the Potomac. I suppose i don't ever want to feel completely landlocked.) I've lived in Brooklyn for almost six years now and I still miss being able to walk to work.

In America, cities founded before the invention of the automobile were based on a 19th Century European model: a central downtown area with a mix of commercial and residential buildings, designed with the idea that people would walk to their destinations. I was lucky enough to grow up in such a town. However, much of this country is now based on a Los Angeles model: urban sprawl connected by roads with the assumption that people will drive everywhere, and that driving is somehow inherently better than walking. Even Wilkes-Barre, where I grew up, now seems more of a sprawl of malls, industrial parks and suburban developments than a town.

All of which is fine if you love driving or are a real estate developer, but having grown up in a town where everything you needed was within walking distance, I find it a frustrating way to live. I have friends I have not seen in years and I believe one of the reasons is because I don't like being in their house. They live in a suburban development and there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, unless you drive. I feel trapped inside their house. (Full disclosure: it's possible I haven't seen these friends in years because they grew tired of me, but I really prefer to blame their house.)

Driving is for efficiency, but this efficiency is linked to economic concerns not necessarily in the driver's best interest. A number of years ago, I imagined people whose entire lives seemed to consists of driving an endless triangle between the industrial park where they worked, the suburban development where they live and the shopping/strip malls where they shopped. If you legally declared that those could be the only three places they could go, almost anyone would protest. Yet many people do spend their lives shuttling between these destinations.

Walking brings contemplation. It's also not as goal-oriented as driving, though God knows there is much pleasure to be had in cruising around in a car or driving on a dark highway at night. But one of the things that I feel so grateful to have experienced is growing up in an area in which I could walk anywhere. This brought an early sense of autonomy and self-determination, as opposed to having to ask my parents to drive me any time I wanted to do somewhere. This probably explains why I've lived where I have and why my life has had the shape it has: because I am determined to live in cities where the element of chance that accompanies walking as opposed to driving is primary. This lack of efficiency, this importance of contemplation and belief in significant chance happenings has a great deal to explain my mindset and life.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a town that had its economic peak during the early 20th century, when people could still afford to build beautiful buildings of stone and brick. We can't afford to build such buildings now. That's another feature of shopping malls and most suburban developments: they're ugly at worst, boring at best. Even if you did walk among them, you'd be bored.

Yes, Katie. The snowstorm the day of your father's funeral was beautiful. He deserved no less. Snow makes everything beautiful but I had forgotten how ethereal and glowing it makes my, and his, hometown.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Three


The other night I was having dinner at my favorite bar and got into a conversation with Scott, the bartender. Scott's one of those bartenders who, if he recognizes you, reaches over the bar to shake your hand and tell you how good it is to see you again. He's going to be going to Europe soon, visiting London, Paris, Prague and Berlin. I told him what I remembered of London and Paris, paid my bill eventually and said goodnight.

Once outside I recalled I had a great photobook/traveler's guide to Paris that was invaluable when I was there five years ago. I had lent it to a co-worker for vacation, and she loved it too. So I turned around to go back in and ask Scott if he wanted to borrow the book when two girls who were heading in said "You know, you're going in the wrong direction. You were just in here."

"Yeah, I know" I said "but someone said something that made me mad, so I'm going back in to fight him."

"Oh, no! You have great bone structure - I'd hate to see it get ruined in a fight."

So there you go. You go to do something nice and the universe throws a nice compliment your way.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Two

What happens when it's midnight and you haven't written anything for your online journal yet and you don't have any ideas that you can finish by the self-imposed deadline and your friend Jeff's comment from yesterday has brought up all sorts of old Lampoon nostalgia not only for the individual issues themselves but for the times (early 1970's) when they were published and the times (your teen years) when you began buying them, though it should be said that Bob's suggestion that you write about the current Vatican sex scandal in which a choirista was apparently soliciting male prostitutes isn't a bad idea either:

You just post a National Lampoon cover you found online.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty One

Nazi Literature in the Americas
Roberto Bolano

Roberto's Bolano's experimental novel is a catalogue of imaginary extreme right wing literature that somehow took root in North and Latin America. In tone, it recalls Jorge Borges and Stanislaw Lem's imagined fictions along with the pieces Woody Allen wrote for The New Yorker in the early 1970's, such as "If Impressionists Were Dentists" which imagined the letters Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, but substituting dental procedures for art-making.

The central idea seems to be a play on the way that most people in the arts lean left or at are at least liberal. It is written in the same dry, deadpan language of most literary surveys. What if someone paid serious attention to more right-wing authors? It leads to laugh out-loud lines like these:

She took to drinking in dives and having affairs with some of the most unsavory individuals in Buenos Aires. Her well-known poem 'I Was Happy with Hitler,' misunderstood by the Right and Left alike, dates from this period.

In 1958 she fell in love again. This time the object of her affections was a twenty-five-year-old painter. He was blond, blue-eyed and disarmingly stupid.

As a young man Salcvatico advocated, among other things, the re-establishment of the Inquisition; corporal punishment in public; a permanent war against the Chlieans, the Paraguayans, or the Bolivians as a kind of gymnastics for the nation...
He was a soccer player and a flutist.

He is against monopolies, especially cultural monopolies. He believes in the family, but also in a man's "natural right to have a bit of fun on the side."

It is the pacing, the mix of the straightforward with the absurd, that recalls Woody Allen's influential early work.

But there is also something else here. All of Bolano's authors end up sad failures. Part of you wants to say "thank God" as they are horrible people and their beliefs are destructive. Yet there is also a remarkable melancholy that creeps in as you read yet another case study of someone whose passions and hard work ultimately lead to nothing. It reminds me of Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon, in which all the conspiracies of those in power (the Dutch East India Company, the Jesuits, the British Crown) ultimately came to nothing as those organizations passed into irrelevance. As one who lived through the Bush years, it can give you hope.

On a personal note, apropo of nothing, I have the nice surprise of realizing that the photo on the cover of Nazi Literature in the Americas, like many of Bolano's other early novels, was taken by my downstairs neighbor Allen. The cover seemed familiar without my ever realizing why. I like the idea that the book was in my apartment while the man who created the cover image was just one story down.

Monday, March 08, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty

Barbie and Ken Pieta
One of kind craft/sculpture available for purchase here.

Very special thank you to my friend Carol for telling me about this.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Nineteen

The Summer Book
Tove Jansson

It was the cover of NYRB’s republication of The Summer Book that initially interested me. Like all their books, it is a simple, elegant design, using a pleasing mix of colors and an image that seems perfect. It was perfect: it was a watercolor of an island silhouetted against a light sky by author Tove Jansson used for the novel’s first edition. Unlike DVD companies that forgo a film’s original iconic poster in favor of a mundane picture of its stars when designing their discs, NYRB knew better than tamper with perfection. The DVD comparison isn’t far-fetched. NYRB reminds me of the Criterion Collection in the way they republish lost classics in handsome editions, usually with insightful introductions by contemporary authors. I have a number of their books; I haven’t read them all, but they are all beautiful objects.

Admiring the cover, I thought “Tove Jansson? I know that name – how do I know that name?” The explanation was on the back. Jansson was the creator of Moomin, a delightful comic strip that began publishing in the 1950’s. Finding out she also wrote books is like discovered an unknown novel by Charles Schulz or Walt Kelly.

The Summer Book is the story of Sophia, a young girl who bonds with her grandmother while they spend the summer together on a small island in the Gulf of Finland. Despite this set-up, the book is not sentimental or even overtly emotional. Sophia behaves much like a child, alternately charming and frustrating, and the grandmother can be moody, swinging from wise and sharing to irascible in the space of a few sentences. They’re two women, one young enough that she hasn’t fully learned how to “be nice” so people will like her and one who is old enough to gratefully let go of such social pretence. On this isolated island, they’re just themselves.

They’re themselves, surrounded by a natural world of old vegetation, unexpected storms, and debris that washes up on the beach. The vignettes of the book are described in a language that’s restrained but filled with a sly humor wise to the characters’ traits. Jansson’s description of a sometimes harsh landscape and the people who chose to live there reminds me of Annie Proulx and the episodic nature of the novel recalls comic strips. It is a sensuous book, passages written to appeal to the senses as to how things smell, feel, taste as well as look and sound. A passage I particularly like:

Grandmother snorted. “We sowed our own tents,” she said, remembering what they had looked like – huge, sturdy, grayish-brown. This was a toy, a bright yellow plaything for veranda guests, and not worth having.

“Isn’t it a Scout tent?” asked Sophia anxiously.

So her grandmother said maybe it was, after all, but a very modern one, and they crawled in and lay down side by side.

“Now you’re not allowed to go to sleep,” Sophia said. “You have to tell me what it was like to be a Scout and all the things you did.”

A very long time ago, Grandmother had wanted to tell about all the things they did, but no one had bothered to ask. And now she had lost the urge.

“We had campfires,” she answered briefly, and suddenly she felt sad.

“And what else?”

“There was a log that burned for a long time. We sat around the fire. It was cold out. We ate soup.”

That’s strange, Grandmother thought. I can’t describe things any more. I can’t find the words, or maybe it’s just that I’m not trying hard enough. It was such a long time ago. No one here was even born. And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost. She sat up and said, “Some days I can’t remember very well. But sometime you ought to try and sleep in a tent all night.”

Friday, March 05, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Seventeen

25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom
Alan Moore

I’m disappointed by 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom. Perhaps I should rephrase that. I was disappointed by Alan Moore’s book of that title. When I heard that writer Alan Moore was going to be writing a book about erotica and pornography, I expected a fresh perspective on these controversial topics. One thing that Moore’s work has never suffered from was a lack of ideas.

But while Abrams has done their customary exemplary job with the book’s design and production -- it is a handsome book to look through and the illustrations are well-chosen -- the essay within is a little lacking. The more sexually open a culture is, the better it is. There’s good pornography and bad pornography, aesthetically speaking, so we should strive to make good pornography. The social or political reasons people have against pornography are either repressive or disingenuous. Whether you agree with those statements or not, there’s not much here to argue with. The text is more manifesto than essay, so the reader is left with little more than what Mr. Moore thinks. Historical proof or logical arguments aren’t really part of this book. That’s a shame because I would be interested in reading a serious scholarly work that used historical precedence and logical arguments as a justification for erotica.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Sixteen

Drawings by Carl Jung

Granted, he's not as good as my friends Andrea or Cindy, but I think these drawings done by psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung are still mighty impressive. Which is to say that when I saw them in person, all I could think was "Wow"" as I felt my head buzz.

I don't know if I accept any of Jung's theories as anything more than myth, but the fact that he sought to express his ideas in visual terms apart from analytic theory makes me think that he understood exactly how these things work and makes me want to cut him some slack.

All of these drawings come from Jung's Red Book, a work in which he struggled to reconcile his ideas of myth and individual consciousness. I may write more about this book and Jung later on, but for

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Fifteen

Ghostly Hands Wave Arian Christianity Good-Bye

Arian Christianity was a branch in the first few hundred years of Christianity that argued that Christ, while important, was not the equal of the God that created the universe.

Many of the barbarians that sacked the Roman empire were, in fact, Arian Christians, which, in addition to their destructive tendencies, put them at odds with Roman Catholic Christianity. In fact, this argument over the precise nature of Christ's divinity was one of the reasons for the Council of Nicea, which determined the belief structure of Catholicism for almost 2000 years.

Once Arian Christianity was defeated, traces of it were wiped out even from churches built to practice the faith, which leads to the interesting moment in the second episode of the BBC's History of Christianity when Diarmaid MacCulloch visits a form Arian Christian church. The barbarian king Theodoric has been replace in the church mosaics by a gold field and his courtiers have been replaced by curtains.

But whoever did the censoring didn't do a perfect job, because as MacCulloch points out, you can still see their hands on the columns in the mosaics.

I love these ghostly hands, reaching out of the darkness. They're like something from a surrealist painting, or, had they been in black and white drawings rather than multi-color mosaics, like something you'd see in an Edward Gorey story.

I love how they beckon us into the darkness, into the past. "Step into the dark" they say "and we'll tell you what we believed before we were erased from our own church." Join us.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Fourteen

The Chilean earthquake was so powerful that it has shifted the Earth's axis and shortened the day.

Read that sentence again, and here's the article from which I got my info:

Chile earthquake: Earth axis shifted, day shortened

March 02, 2010 04:17 PM EST

The earthquake that rocked Chile has apparently shifted the Earth axis, according to a report by Ker Than of National Geographic news.

The magnitude 8.8 quake is the fifth strongest ever recorded, according to the USGS, and apparently caused the axis of the Earth to shift by about three inches.

Calculations done by geophysicist Richard Gross of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory say that, by speeding up the Earth's rotation, the quake could have shortened an Earth day by 1.26 millionths of a second.

Scientists explained the phenomenon by drawing comparisons to a figure skater. Keith Sverdrup said that as a skater spins and pulls her arms in, she starts rotation faster. During the quake, a portion of Earth's mass pulled in, speeding the planet's rotation ever so slightly.

Don't expect to notice a significant change to your day, or any change at all, for that matter. Apparently scientists can measure Earth days only with an accuracy within 20 millionths of a second, meaning the recent changes can be estimated but not scientifically proven.

I have two thoughts about this. One: "Cool." The other: "Uh-oh."

Monday, March 01, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirteen

Naked Lunch
William S. Burroughs

So I finally got around to reading Naked Lunch on its 51st birthday. Unlike other literary touchstones, it’s half-century mark passed fairly unnoticed, apart from a hardcover facsimile edition put out by its publisher. However, the copy I read was (improbably as it may seem) the movie tie-in edition meant to capitalize on the David Cronenberg film of almost twenty years ago. Yes, that’s how long I’ve been buying and holding on to books without actually reading them. Disgraceful, isn’t it? Oddly enough, it feels like yesterday when I bought the book. In defense of the book, it has not dated at all in those 20 or even 50 years. There are contemporary writers who wish there work was this fresh and inventive.

So it is a black humor fantasmagoria mix of pulp detective and science fiction, addiction memoir, perverse sex, Mid-Eastern travelogue, and beat poetry. It’s also funny and the closest to a Hieronymus Bosch painting in print as you’re likely to find. Oy. Look, anything I have to say about Naked Lunch has already been said by better writers than I, so there’s not much point in trying to describe a book as ludicrous and impressionist as this.

Naked Lunch, like most of Burrough’s work, seems to fall in the “Grandfather” category. Not meaning things that are allowed to slide despite laws passed afterwards, but things that influenced people who influenced me. Cronenberg and Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and the Firesign Theatre: all of them were influenced by Burroughs and all of them influenced me, but did Burroughs himself? Reading this book, as much as I liked it, it’s hard to find a line of heritage.

However, it did make me laugh. That’s something, in the face of the horror of human existence, n’est-ce pas?