Monday, December 31, 2012

What? I Read This Year!

Sorry, slight punctuation mistake.  The title of this post should be "What I Read This Year," or more accurately "What I Finished This Year" as the first book I began reading in 2011:

Against The Day - Thomas Pynchon
The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho
Palm of the Hand Stories - Yasunari Kawabata
Mutants and Mystics - Jeffrey J. Kripal
Fair Play - Tove Jansson
Ella Minnow Pea - Mark Dunn
Amulet - Roberto Bolano
In Hazard - Richard Hughes
Midcult and Masscult - Dwight MacDonald
Content -  Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman 
Food Matters - Mark Bittman
A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond - Interviews with Capt. Beefheart
Do Movies Have A Future? - David Denby
Subliminal - Leonard Mlodinow 
Revelations - Elaine Pagels
Film After Film  - J. Hoberman
The Complete Cosmicomics - Italo Calvino
Love In The Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Miracles of Life - J. G. Ballard
The Buddha Walks Into A Bar - Lodro Rinzler 
House Made of Dawn - N. Scott Momaday

One of my New Year's Resolutions as we slid from 2011 into 2012 was to read 24 books this calendar year, going under the reasonable assumption that I could finish two books each month.  As you can see, this list is a record of my failure as I only managed to finish 21 titles.  Worst yet, I'm convinced I read at one or two more books but can't remember them.  This no doubt says something (insulting) about my ability to retain information.  

Several of the books on this list are relatively brief; at least six of the titles are less than 200 pages.  I admit that I chose them out of my perpetual "to be read" pile for their brevity, always keeping my two-books-a-month goal in mind.  I was in good shape to accomplish this goal as recently as October, but then the combination of starting Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie's memoir of living under the fatwa, and the hurricane that slammed much of New York City threw me off my course.  In those days I was glued to the television and the computer, hungry for whatever information I could find about the problems occurring a few miles from my door.  The focus, the attention that reading a book requires eluded me during those hectic days.  The only reason I finished 21 books is that I forced myself to read the final 120 pages of House Made of Dawn this evening so I could make the end of year deadline, which I managed with four hours to spare.

Perhaps it's not a matter of quantity so much as quality.  Looking over the list, the only book I didn't really connect with was Content, a marketing guide I never would have picked up if I didn't still have vague ideas of perhaps starting a business.  Other than that, there's nothing on the list I regret spending time with and there were a number of pleasant surprises.  David Denby is the Chicken Little of film reviewers, but his Do Movies Have a Future? (short answer: yes!) was an enthusiastic assessment of where we are in cinema history and an optimistic guess at where we're going.   I thought Mutants and Mystics would be an overview of mystical and occult ideas in mainstream comics and sci fi.  Instead, it was a history of such ideas in the lives of comic artists and sci fi writers.  A case of "this isn't the book I thought it would be...oh wait, it's better."  Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior is an entertaining layman's guide to recent findings in neuroscience and how they disprove common assumptions about individual consciousness and human behavior.  

Speaking of behavior, I find reading a Buddhist book every year or so refreshes and reminds me of my path.  I found much to value in The Buddha Walks Into A Bar.  As far as the purely physical realm is concerned, Mark Bittman's Food Matters provided a diet overview I hope to adopt soon, overlooking the fact that I had cookies for dinner the other night.  
There were also old favorites on the list: Calvino, Marquez, Pagels, Hoberman.  Part of me wishes Ballard had written his autobiography when he was a decade or two younger and still full of vinegar and outrageous statements, but I'll accept this mix of his memories of his internment in a Japanese war camp in WWII and his paternal pride in his children.  The book I kept thinking about this year was (no surprise) Thomas Pynchon's Against The Day.  As far as language is concerned, it's one of the most accessible and direct things he's written.  But the glut of events, characters, historical data and ideas can leave the reader wondering "where is this going?  What is the point?"  Incredibly, it comes together (sort of) in the second half of the book and even if you, the reader, don't find out what The Answer is, you find yourself compelled to follow the characters as they stumble towards said Answer.  The novel is over 1000 pages, yet I've been itching to re-read it since finishing it.  If I can resist, maybe I'll finish 24 books in 2013.      


Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012: The Year in Facebook Status Updates

Looking at the Mississippi, drinking an IPA.
December 4, 2012 

Last night I saw a white drag queen and a sassy black girl bond over eye liner.
If I saw it in a movie I think "how cliche." But here I think "well, of course."
December 3, 2012

Creepiest autocorrect ever:
I typed "gun" and it changed it to "gynecology."
I'm still creeped out by it.
November 17, 2012

"I find myself moved to support things which I did not think would be necessary to support at all in the past. Like seriousness, for instance."
- Susan Sontag
October 25, 2012

Today's quote, courtesy of Jacqueline Balfour:
"The little devil on your shoulder has an Irish accent."
October 11, 2012

"Nevertheless, Florentino Ariza discovered the resemblance many years later, as he was combing his hair in front of the mirror, and only then did he understand that a man knows when he is growing old because he begins to look like his father."
--Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "Love in the Time of Cholera"
September 30, 2012

"For Glory, For John. And message ended."
A rather poetic, although inaccurate, transcription of a voicemail message at work.
July 9, 2012

The company where I work had a very successful day today and the mood around the office was one of restrained, cautious glee. Yet I was melancholy all day because of what happened on last night's "Mad Men."
I am an idiot.
June 4, 2012

Facebook's "People You May Know" should be renamed "People You Probably Hate."
May 31, 2012

Just overheard at the bar:
"I'm a reasonably respected and competent criminologist. I am a lawyer but I'm more of a scientist now."
"It's up to you to change America."
"Well, I'm doing my best, Simon."
April 24, 2012

Just overheard at the bar: "He's a snake in bear's clothing."
February 3, 2012

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Why I Love Brooklyn

So tonight I was on my way to visit Ken, who does sound production for a local club. 
On the way, a guy stopped me in the street. "Can you help me for a second?"
"Oh great" I thought.
"I manage this store right here" he said "and I have really bad OCD. Can you just check to make sure the two locks on the door are locked for me?" 
I checked the locks, which were locked tight and the metal gate was down.
"They're locked - no problem" I said.
"Thanks" he said. "I have to do this every night."

(Originally posted on facebook on 9/27/12)

Friday, October 26, 2012

So That Explains It

"Until recently, I wasn't aware how completely books dominate my physical existence. Only when I started cataloging my possessions did I realize that there are books in every room in my house, 1,340 in all. My obliviousness to this fact has an obvious explanation: I am of Irish descent, and to the Irish, books are as natural and inevitable a feature of the landscape as sand is to Tuaregs or sand traps are to the frat boys at Myrtle Beach.... When the English stormed the Emerald Isle in the 17th century, they took everything that was worth taking and burned everything else. Thereafter, the Irish had no land, no money, no future. That left them with words, and words became books, and books, ingeniously coupled with music and alcohol, enabled the Irish to transcend reality."

-- from One For The Books by Joe Queenan

Thursday, September 27, 2012

New Graffiti Murals in My Neighborhood

From this angle, you can see how the metallic gold paint in the background shimmers in the sunlight. It's like a Russian icon.

In general, I'm not a fan of murals with a message. Positive "up with community!" and "we can do it!" ideals are fine, just not in my art, thank you. I suppose I'm decadent that way. Just the same, I did like the image of this boy and the uncertainty in his step, so I took a picture of it. If we have to have propaganda, at least let it be well executed.

After taking this picture
I looked back and noticed a cool effect. Look on the left hand side of the picture above the construction site.

From the other side of the block, the boy seems to be walking on top of the fence. Impressive.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Sleep Of Reason Brings Forth Clichés

It's been years since I've had a flying dream, a naked in public dream, a chased by a monster dream or any of the standard cliché dream archetypes. I do dream in recurring motifs and re-experience certain things that seem dead obvious to me (more than once on waking I've had the thought "okay, okay I get it!") but do not fall under the usual common dream tropes. They are part of personal mythology, not one shared with others.

I notice at work we don't discuss our dreams except on the rarest of occasions. We do, however, talk about our sleep and how well or poorly we are sleeping. We discuss our slumbering lives the way others talk about their sex lives.

Last night I had a stereotypical dream. I was taking part in a talent show and most of the dream took place in the backstage chaos, as the other actor and I made sure that sets, costumes and the like would be ready. By the time everything was and it was time to take my place on stage before the curtain rose, playing Linus from "Peanuts," I realized I wasn't sure I knew my lines. Part of me felt panic, another part of me felt confident I could just wing it. I woke before the curtain rose, ending my dream of being onstage and not knowing the lines, which seems a variation on "taking a test in school that you are not prepared for."

I woke in a position that immediately made me think of the joke "last night I dreamed I ate a giant marshmallow and when I woke up, my pillow was gone!" Because of the streetlights outside my bedroom is never completely dark. I will sometimes sleep with a black tshirt over my eyes to block as much of the light as possible. This morning I woke clutching the tshirt as if it were Linus's security blanket.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Think back on your life.  What do you remember? When I do that, I find that it is not enough.  Of my father, for example, who died more than twenty years ago, my memory holds but meager scraps.  Walking with him after his stroke, as he leans from the first time on a cane.  Or his glittering eyes and warm smile at one of my then-infrequent visits home.  Of my earlier years I recall even less.  I remember his younger self beaming with joy at a new Chevrolet and erupting with anger when I threw away his cigarettes.  And if I go back still further, trying to remember the earliest days of childhood, I have yet fewer, ever more out-of-focus snapshots: of my father hugging me sometimes, or my mother singing to me while she held me and stroked my hair.

I know, when I shower my children with my usual excess of hugs and kisses, that most of those scenes will not stay with them.  They will forget…(b)ut my hugs and kisses do not vanish without a trace.  They remain, at least in aggregate, as fond feelings and emotional bonds.  I know that my memory of my parents would overflow any tiny vessel formed from merely the concrete episodes that my consciousness recalls, and I hope that the same will be true of my children.  Moments in time may be forever forgotten, or viewed through a hazy or distorting lens, yet something of them nonetheless survives within us, permeating our unconscious.  From there, they impart to us a rich array of feelings that bubble up when we think about those who were dearest to our hearts – or when we think of others whom we’ve met, or the exotic and ordinary places we’ve lived in and visited, or the events that shaped us.  Though imperfectly, our brains still manage to communicate a coherent picture of our life experience.  
The above passage comes from Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow.  Mlodinow's book is an accessible overview of how our brains work.  The unconscious is not a Freudian realm of repressed desires but is instead an autopilot, receiving information and processing activity that would overwhelm us if we were conscious of it.  The above passage comes after Mlodinow discusses the tricky nature of memory, as seen in faulty eyewitness testimony and unintended revisions after the fact.  But the passage hit me hard for another reason.

This Monday, my Aunt Juleann is moving to an assisted care facility.  Though only in her late 70's, Juleann has had Alzheimer's for the last few years.  What had manifested as some forgetfulness and good days versus bad days is now at a point where she needs constant supervision, and from more than one person.  I love everyone in my family, but Juleann was always special.  Knowing that she is slowly fading away even though she is still physically here has been heartbreaking.  The nature of memory, both her's and mine, has been much on my mind.  Soon she won't remember and I'm afraid of forgetting too much.  The affection will be there even if the memory of the individual reasons for it are gone, or as Philip Larkin put it:
...and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Forty

Easter Eve

So early one Saturday afternoon in August 2010 I got a Facebook message from my friend Colette letting me know that they had moved our friend Ben into hospice. "His liver is failing so he's confused and jaundiced." I knew I had to get home to Wilkes-Barre immediately to see him. As soon as I realized this, I began to procrastinate. People sometimes live in hospice for months so I probably had plenty of time to see Ben before he died, perhaps even get to see him a couple of times.

Ben had liver cancer for some time, this after a heart attack and a previous bout with cancer. The tumors in his liver had been too big to safely remove surgically, so he had been undergoing chemo and radiation but so far they were unsuccessful at shrinking his tumors to removable size. Every treatment had come with a plan B. "We're going to try thing and if that doesn't work, then we'll try that." But in late July, not only had the tumors not shrunk but they had actually increased in size. A new chemo regime was recommended but this time with a difference, in that there wasn't a plan B. The doctor said that if it didn't work they didn't really have much else to offer.

Colette told me Ben was moved in hospice on August 14. An email from his wife Cindi dated July 26 mentioned that Ben was still working because they didn't have the money for him to quit and go on disability yet. On August 5th, I got an email from Cindi that's a comedy of horrors as Ben's chemo makes him loopy but she can't get anyone to take him to the hospital as her mother's car isn't working and her brother is having an allergic reaction to being stung by a bee.

If Ben died before I got to see him, I would regret it the rest of my life, so I was on the bus to Wilkes-Barre. It was raining when I arrived, a nice piece of pathetic fallacy, as I walked from the bus stop to what used to be General Hospital. My aunt worked at General Hospital for many years, and the few occasions I had been there, for bloodwork or to visit a friend, it had always seemed like a busy bustling place. Not this time. I don't think I can express how eerie, how "off" it feels to walk around a deserted hospital. The security guards and tough nurses you expect to see, directing and restricting you, are missing as you walk along empty uncomfortable hallways by yourself, left to find your destination. In high school I had a friend who worked at the hospital and he used to swipe bottles of wine from the store room. The wine was intended for new parents but who would miss a bottle or two? But in this empty hospital, not even someone at the information desk, what mischief could you do? What would it matter?

On a rainy Sunday afternoon I found my way to Ben's room. He slept much of the time I was there but when he was awake he did recognize me and tried his best to keep up polite, enjoyable conversation. Cindi and I chatted for a bit, but she needed a break from being in the room. So Ben and i fell into a pattern where he would sleep for a bit, wake up and talk about nothing of any significance, certainly nothing related to what was happening or would happen soon, and then he would sleep some more. I watched tv. I remember watching an infomercial for a dvd collection of the old Dean Martin celebrity roasts. I couldn't help but notice that almost everyone at the roast was now dead. That world of celebrity, already dying when I used to watch the roasts as a child, was gone now.

Then it was time for me to go. Cindi and her daughters Emma and Veronica returned. I said my goodbye to Ben, thanking him, telling him it was good to see him, meaning it but without belaboring it. After I said goodbye, Ben responded "I'll be in touch." It was something he said almost every time we parted company; this time it made me say "uh...okay" as I looked quizzically at Cindi. Did he not know he was in a hospice? Did he think he was going to go home? Cindi later told me that no, when this was discussed, Ben fully understood. His comment was probably a matter of an automatic response and not thinking completely clearly due to the painkillers.

My optimistic denial of "people live for months in hospice" proved wrong. That night, Ben was awake less and less and was less coherent even when conscious. The next day he was barely conscious at all; he died around 1:30am on Tuesday, August 18th. Cindi told me she spent Monday night with him alone. The lights were dim, candles burned, music that she and Ben both loved accompanied his sometimes labored breathing. "One of the nurses walked in while Robyn Hitchcock's It Sounds Great When You're Dead was playing. I can't imagine what she thought but I don't care. To me, that's comfort music." I know exactly what she means.

One of the most peaceful moments of my life I owe to Ben. It was the December after I had graduated college. I had reestablished my friendship with Ben and Cindi some months before and we spent much of that time sharing enthusiasms and discoveries. "Have you seen this movie? Oh, you're going to love it! Have you ever heard this record?" I worked at a bookstore during the week and then on either Friday or Saturday night, sometimes both, I went to Ben and Cindi's house after work and we hung out and had dinner and drank beer and watched tv and talked. Even at the time I knew that those were some of the happiest times of my life. That December I was driving to upstate New York to go with my friend Jane to her company Christmas party. Hearing I was going to be traveling, Ben loaned me some cassettes, including one that consisted of two albums by Robyn Hitchcock: I Often Dream of Trains and Element of Light. Mr. Hitchcock was one of Ben and Cindi's faves and I had heard a number of his songs over the preceding months and liked what I heard. Sixties-style pop with surreal smart-ass biology based lyrics: how could I not love it? On the trip home, after making my way through the Escher-like elevated highways to finally drive on some roads through the mountains, I put one of Ben's cassettes on. It was I Often Dream of Trains and, in addition to thinking "this is great" I thought "this is me - this is what it's like inside my head, the good and the bad." Driving through mountains as the December sky slowly shifted to beautiful dark hues as the light faded far away and listening to that music was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I've never taken that car ride for granted.

Shortly after Ben died I watched a videocassette he had made for me over twenty years before. For a time Ben had worked at a video transfer and duplication company, so he was able to make mix videotapes the way others might make a mix audiotape. The cassette I watched was a record of what we watched during that halcyon time we hung out: music videos by bands we liked, Bugs Bunny cartoons, Monty Python skits, parts of Ben and Cindi's wedding video showing us dancing happily but badly.

There's a neat effect you can do with video. It's fairly easy: you plug a camera into a television monitor and then point the camera at the monitor. It produces feedback, the visual equivalent of the squeal you get when you put a microphone too close to a speaker, but the images produced from video feedback are swirling psychedelic patterns of color and shape, similar to the sequence towards the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The tape Ben made for me ended with such a sequence. Brightly colored lights spun around the black screen, seeming to emanate from some point in infinity. In the lower left corner was Ben's final message.

It said "Bye."

Goodbye Ben.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Nine

Pop Up Mysteries of the Rosary: Part III The Glorious Mysteries

The Glorious Mysteries are the final part of the rosary trilogy. They present Our Lord triumphant over death and Our Lady crowned in Heaven.

Intro: The Family Recitation of The Rosary

Said to be the most effective way of saying the rosary. Note that the man on the right is levitation. I prefer to think this is due to the power of the rosary rather than a flaw with the pop up book. I'm not entirely sure why the face of the little girl on the right is so red. Expelling demons, perhaps?

I. The Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ

I particularly like the look of panic on the guards' faces. This is not a case of schaudenfreude.

You'll note, by looking at the one guard's spear and the other's hand, that the pop up figures were cut out by hand. I can't imagine a machine being that precise. Impressive.

II. The Ascension of Out Lord Jesus Christ Into Heaven

III. The Descent of the Holy Ghost upon Our Lady and the Apostles

I like how the Holy Ghost doesn't look like a realistic bird at all, as opposed to the human figures. It's more abstract, almost iconic or cartoonish.

Apostles with tongues of fire above their heads.

IV. The Assumption of Our Lady Into Heaven

When Mary died, her body did not decay, the reason being that because she was born without Original Sin. Therefore, it is Original Sin that makes your body decompose after death. Anyway, as her body was still in a perfect state, it was reunited with her soul and was transported to Heaven.

Some of the stagecraft used for this miracle. (In the book, not real life.)

V. The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Heaven and the Glory of All the Angels and Saints

The three members of the Trinity, The Father, Son and Holy Ghost, crown Mary as the masterpiece of creation.

Friday, March 30, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Eight

What I Saw on My Bike Ride Across The Golden Gate Bridge

I'm not a fan of bike riding, not the way I was when I was a boy when I spent at least one entire summer doing nothing but riding my bike around the neighborhood from early morning till after sunset, taking breaks only to pee and eat (not at the same time). I have several friends and acquaintances who are avid bike enthusiasts; interestingly enough, they're all male, as opposed to most of the runners I know being female.

But I am a fan of "I'm on vacation, I'll do things I don't normally do." Hiking trails, eating something I'd normally skip so as to favor local cuisines, shamelessly going to tourist spots. I had originally planned to walk over the Golden Gate bridge, especially after learning that it was only half a mile longer than the Williamsburg Bridge, currently my favorite path to walk. But the appeal of doing something out of character, not to mention the time it would save, won out. I rented a bike (and helmet, thank God) at Fisherman's Wharf and was on my way.

The gears on the bike were not in perfect condition, probably from overuse, but the brakes worked which was more important. I did manage to bike up all three steep hills, save one, before reaching the bridge. The first hill inspired the "I can do this" spirit, the second "okay, alright" and the third "to hell with it, I'm walking up."

The bridge is undergoing some work for the celebration of its 75th anniversary this year, which meant that pedestrians and bikes going in both directions had to share the same none-too-large pathway. But the combination of motion and the views were worth it, would be worth almost anything.

If you look at the sky in the above pictures, you can see how fickle San Francisco's weather is.

The other side of the bridge is in Sausalito. Rather than turn around and ride back over the bridge I took a ferry back to the city. I love boats and being on the water. Riding back to San Francisco, I suspect I had the same look on my face that dogs do when you take them for a ride in car.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Seven

My final day in San Francisco saw me returning to Kayo Books, a used bookstore that specialized in pulp novel paperbacks and The Magazine, a store that sold old magazines. Mostly porn but there were some other journals, too. I then checked out of the hotel and headed to the Embarcadero area to have lunch by the bay.

I was feeling rather melancholy. Rather than sensing it was time to go back, I was wishing for one more day to revisit some sights, in Berkeley mainly. As I sat there and watched two sailboats in the water moving so slowly they might as well have been still, Olivia Newton John's "Have You Ever Been Mellow?" began playing. Something about the music and how it fit the calmness of the bay was actually causing tears to well up. However, I was damned if I was going to sit there and be sad to some schlocky Olivia Newton John song so I instead focused my attention on my shrimp cocktail, which contained so much cocktail sauce (the restaurant's doing, not mine) that it reminded me of how I prefer my macaroni and cheese bathed in ketchup.

Then it hit me: macaroni and cheese covered in ketchup is the poor man's shrimp cocktail. It was time to go home.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Six

If you're taking your vacation properly, you should be doing things you've never done before or at least doing things that you wouldn't do in your regular life. For me, this turned out to be watching CSI Miami, a show that's interesting because it tries so hard to be intriguing and arty and cutting edge, but just seems a little silly. It's ripe for parody because the show is so over ripe, from it's bad performances to scenes that consists of nothing but exposition ("Why the DNA test wouldn't find that from his left hand which is why we're testing his right") to David Caruso's William Shatner-like performance.

But I've found myself these past few days lying in bed after the hotel's complimentary continental breakfast and watching back to back episodes. I suspect that after I get back to NYC I will never see another episode again. Otherwise, God help me.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Five

I spent almost all of today walking around the Mission District taking photographs of the incredible graffiti murals in the neighborhood. It's funny to go on vacation and do the same things that you do at home. I took photographs of murals, went to some bookstores and when the rain got too heavy, ducked into a bar (Irish, natch) to wait it out.

Not that I needed any proof, but I also discovered that I am my mother's son. My mother is a fan of returning to the same restaurants where she had good experiences or food, even if she is one vacation. The best example of this is when she and my father were in London and they ended up going to the same restaurant (Ask Pizzaria in Belsize Park) each of the three Saturdays they were there.

Since having the delicious salmon sandwich at Triple Rock brewpub this past Saturday, it's been at the back of my mind that I've got to get back there and have said salmon sandwich one more time. Goal was accomplished tonight, though there's nothing wrong with, schedule permitting, going back one more time before I leave.

I don't have many photos of today's journey around the Mission District to share, as the pics are all in my camera and I have no way to upload them until I get home. However, I will share the below photos with you. At the end of the day, as I was making my way to the subway to go to Triple Rock (did I mention how much I like their salmon sandwich?) I stumbled on the below murals. I assume they were painted recently in memory of Moebius. They made me gasp like a woman with the vapors. They they made me happy at how well they were done, and shortly after, sad once again that he is gone.

Monday, March 26, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Four

Yesterday I went to see Abel Gance's epic silent film Napoleon at The Paramount, a grand movie palace in Oakland restored to its art deco glory.

The movie was accompanied by a live orchestra and contained footage long thought lost. I enjoyed wandering around the theater before the film as much as the film itself.