Monday, March 31, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Twenty-Seven

I'm hearing it more and more.  "I really like this new Pope."  I do, too, though I'm such a bad Catholic that I had to look up whether "Pope" should be capitalized if no name is attached. Google says "yes."

I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who I suspect bases much of his self-image on being The Smartest Man In The Room.  He likes the new Pope and is one of those Catholics who likes Catholicism but doesn't practice it.  I had mentioned a novel I recently read that took place in a world in which Martin Luther capitulated and thus there was no Protestant reformation.  However, science was mistrusted so things we take for granted like electrical power were absent from this world.  My learned friend immediately disputed that, saying the Church was not anti-science and had  better record in that regard than some Protestant faiths.  I have no idea if he is right or not.  I rarely argue with people.  I prefer to let them go on and just listen and think to myself if they are right or wrong.  I can't even be bothered to verify his claims with research.  I can enjoy both his claims and theories from alternate world novels equally.    

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Twenty-Six

At the end of last September I went to Montauk, Long Island for a week's vacation.  I wanted an easy vacation - no ambitious travel or difficult logistics - and an inexpensive one.  Someone I worked with had been talking up Montauk for years as the "anti-Hamptons."  It was off season so prices were good and it's only a three hour train trip from Manhattan.

One afternoon I decided to rent a bike and ride out to the Montauk Lighthouse, an inescapable local attraction.  The lighthouse is featured on many of the tourist items for sale and on websites that aren't even affiliated with the lighthouse.  But I rode along Route 27, saw the lighthouse, did the loop that the highway takes at that end of the island before paddling back, returning the bike and going back to my hotel.

Once back at the hotel, I grabbed a towel and my current reading (Bleeding Edge) and headed to the pool.  I discovered that Maxine Tarnow, the main character in Pynchon's novel, normally Manhattan-based, was coincidentally heading to Montauk.
They continue out to the Montauk Point Lighthouse.  Everybody is supposed to love Montauk for avoiding everything that's wrong with the Hamptons.  Maxine came out here as a kid once or twice, climbed to the top of the lighthouse, stayed at Gurney's, ate a lot of seafood, fell asleep to the pulse of the ocean, what's not to like?        
Paranoia, odd coincidences and how people process them, seeing patterns or embracing that there are no patterns: these are themes in Pynchon's work.  So you can imagine how odd it felt that warm late September day to read a character in a book who was experiencing what I had just done an hour or two earlier.  I did consider Gurney's when looking for a hotel; I'm thankful I wasn't staying there.  That would have been too much.
But as they decelerate down the last stretch of Route 27...
As I did just a little while ago.
They park in the visitors' lot at the lighthouse.  Tourists and their kids all over the place, Maxine's innocent past....They drive our of the lot again, follow the loop around to Old Montauk Highway, presently hook a right inland on Coast Artillery Road.  
The connection to what I had been doing that day was eerie.  I didn't want to read further in case of...what?  It would describe Maxine sitting by a pool with a book?  Would she see me?  Happily the fiction took over again and her story continued on a different path from mine, which was a relief.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Friday, March 28, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Twenty-Four

Life Inside A Pinball Machine

My favorite bar in my neighborhood has at least one, sometimes two, pinball machines.  This is as opposed to my second favorite bar in my neighborhood, which is filled with video arcade games, yet curiously has no pinball.  

There seems to be a rotating schedule of pinball games, by which I mean there will be one game for a number of months (I've never kept track) and then one day - surprise! - a new pinball machine has replaced it.  My favorite bar flirts with dive bar-ness, though it really isn't.  I have seen some people walk in, survey the establishment, and walk out without a word.  So it's rather amusing that the current pinball machine at the bar is a Wizard of Oz pinball machine.  I have no idea how they are chosen.

The person who takes care of and services the machines, to whom the bar is beholden, has difficulty walking.  He needs a cane to get around and even so, his entire body lurches to one side with every step as if he is falling over, though he never does.  The bar's reliance on him to fix the machines when they break has given him a sense of entitlement and the arrogance that often goes with it.  It's not easy to spend a few minutes in his vicinity without contemplating kicking his cane out from under him.

Regardless, once when he had the plate glass top lifted up to fix one of the pinball machines I was able to stick my iPhone in and take a few shots.



Thursday, March 27, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Twenty-Three

Like other amateurs I take photographs thinking "this will make a great picture" only to look later and realize: nope, not even a good picture.  More likely than not the reaction is "what possessed me to take a picture of this?"

All of the photos I took in New Orleans in December 2012, this is the only one worth sharing.  

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Twenty-Two

This afternoon I was working on my resume and wanted to include some shows where I had exhibited some art of mine.  I called the friend of mine who had curated the show and asked him the date and the name of the exhibit.  He gave me the name but didn't have the date (we're all getting old) so he suggested I google the name of the show and the location to find a website with the date.

I tried but oddly enough that did not give me the answer.  I then began running variations: the name of the show and the city where it took place.  Nothing.  The name of the location and my friend's last name. Nada.  The name of the show and my friend's name...and what came up was the obituary for my friend's father.  A wave of sadness permeated me unexpectedly.  

One of the things I recall from my father's death was how reminders of him would seem to materialize  out of thin air.  Unexpected and uninvited but not necessarily unwanted, they would hit you hard, the sadness and loss washing over you.  And now?  Not only do we have memory doing this to us but we also have our internet search engines triggering our grief with the lucky combination of words.   

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Twenty-One

The Green Man
Kingsley Amis

Maurice Allington, the owner of The Green Man, a hotel near London that coasts on its charm, has some problems.  Some mundane, some serious, though it’s doubtful if Maurice can tell the difference.  His teenage daughter is estranged from him.  His hotel guests are annoying.  He’s firmly in the middle of middle age.  He’s begun seeing things, apparitions around his hotel, brought on either by his alcoholism or ghosts, though it’s doubtful Maurice can tell the difference.  He’s actually most concerned with trying to convince his wife to have a threesome with him and his mistress.

I washed down two more pills with heavily watered Scotch and went straight to bed, having locked up the casket in the office.  I needed what sleep I could get, with a funeral and an orgy ahead, and no doubt, something more.    

Sex, death, drinking, unease.  These are the concerns of The Green Man, Kingsley Amis’ ghost story and study of middle age ennui. Its supernatural elements are more eerie than scary, the model seeming to be the British ghost story rather than American-style horror.  It is also very funny:

“Yes. Well.  There we are.  I must go and see the major,” said the man of God, so rapidly and decisively and so immediately before his actual departure that seeing the major (even though there was a retired one actually present) might have been a […] family euphemism for excretion. 

The Green Man is an examination of the difference between boorish bad behavior and real malice.  Maurice is merely selfish, there’s no real malevolence to him.  The difference is easy to miss until the reader and Maurice come face to face with real evil, real horror.  Yet because this is a comedy, albeit a grim one, such horror is recognized and vanquished and something of a happy ending is achieved.  A treat.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Twenty

Every spring, I'm not sure who but someone sets up a fair complete with rides on a narrow residential street in my neighborhood.  I can't imagine the people that live in those buildings are particularly thrilled with carnival rides swinging and revolving just a few feet from their windows.  Yet, every year the cramped festival takes place.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Nineteen

Bleeding Edge 
Thomas Pynchon

Bleeding Edge is my least favorite Thomas Pynchon novel, though to put it in perspective, that’s like saying “my least favorite David Lynch film” or “my least favorite episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” If you’re keeping track, those would be, respectively, Wild At Heart and “The Golden Age of Ballooning.”  But there are great moments in those worst work of major artists.  Harry Dean Stanton’s death scene in Wild At Heart is supremely creepy; Sherilyn Fenn’s death scene in the same film is remarkably moving.  “The Golden Age of Ballooning” episode has one of my favorite Python non-sequiters when the Ronettes, a girl group straight out of Motown, enter the court of George III and begin singing his name over and over as the king falls to the ground and laments that “I’m not supposed to go mad until 1800!”  It’s one of the few times that Python had any reference to contemporary pop  culture.  This is one of the reasons why that series seems timeless whereas Saturday Night Live always seems dated come Monday morning.  So even the “least favorite” work can have something to recommend it.

References to contemporary culture and getting them right, playful anachronisms, material that can be supremely creepy and/or remarkably moving; Pynchon is skilled at all of these.  Bleeding Edge is set in New York City and begins after the early 2000’s dot com bust and ends shortly after the World Trade Center towers fell. Like his previous novel Inherent Vice, it is a detective story pitched at a smaller scale than his other work.  Inherent Vice had the advantage of being set in a time and place – Los Angeles at the end of the 1960’s – where the mores and the mindset have changed so much since then that that book might as well be a Margaret Mead anthropological study of a long vanished tribe (or “vanquished” if you want to bring politics into it).  Bleeding Edge is the first of his novels set in a time and place in which I actually lived. While reading it I kept thinking “Yeah, I know all this.  I was there.  I still am.”  New York hasn’t changed that much since 9/11, it’s only gotten more so: more expensive and more in thrall to money and power.  This sense of “having been there” might account for my resistance to the novel.  There’s a section early in the book in which characters discuss “The Rachel” haircut, named after Jennifer Anniston’s character on “Friends.”  Pynchon gets the scene right.  I’ve overheard or been part of similar conversations.  People did spend time, probably too much, talking about such things in the early 2000’s.  But I’m stuck now reading several pages of characters talking about hair.

The novel doesn't become compelling until perhaps halfway or maybe two thirds through, beginning with a party on Saturday, September 8, 2001 and continuing through the aftermath of 9/11.  Pynchon shows what it was like living in the city during those stunned days.  I was there.  I still am.  I thought I knew all this but it wasn’t until finishing the book that I remembered how much I had forgotten.  Pynchon avoids obvious dramatics – no major characters die in the attacks – but captures the feeling, the experience of living in the city then.  And now.  Greater than the change wrought by 9/11 (see above – there wasn’t much change) is the revolution afforded by the book’s true subject: the internet, the phantom that’s taken residence in all our lives.

The fact that Pynchon wrote this novel while in his mid-70’s is astonishing.  The writing has an energy and an awareness of things that writers half his age can’t muster.  It’s just my least favorite book by him and yet thinking and writing about it makes me want to read it again.    

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Eighteen

Spent most of today at a birthday party for a friend.  I had a great time, didn't have much time to think of a post for today.  So when all else fails, consult Linus Van Pelt.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Seventeen

Spring is here!

Celebrate the new season the Hieronymus Bosch way.  Grow some flowers out of your butt.  Join the giant bird parade. Let a friendly duck feed you or share a giant strawberry with some friends.  It's been a long winter.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Sixteen

It looks like I won't be going on retreat to the Buddhist monastery as I had hoped.  There's an intensive week-long retreat beginning this Sunday.  Traditionally they ask that those who have not attended retreats at their monastery before come for a weekend session; I was hoping to perhaps bypass that requirement.  This morning I had a phone interview with someone who works at the monastery and discovered that, not only do they recommend first timers not try to attend the entire week long session, but the retreat is fully booked.  There's a waiting list.

The woman I spoke with on the phone was very nice.  She tried to explain that sometimes people come to the retreats with very high expectations, only to find themselves frustrated by the actual experience. Her example: "Let's say you come to the retreat and in the room, where you are staying, the dorm room, there is a snorer.  He snores the entire night and you don't get much rest.  You have the morning session, but your tired.  Then after breakfast is the work session, but you're not fully rested and the work is difficult.  Then another meditation session and let's say the person next to you is a very loud breather.  How would deal with that set of circumstances?"

It's not exactly a trick question.  I certainly knew not to respond with "I would insist the snorer and loud breather be moved somewhere else or I would demand my money back immediately."  I explained as best I could that I understand the experience would not be exactly what I was expecting but that I felt confident I could still practice despite any distractions.  We talked for a bit and then, as if in an unconscious display of this principle, she began coughing.  She apologized, said she was just getting over a cold, but if made the conversation a little more difficult, in that it took her twice as long to say something and I had to repeat myself several times.  I suspect between her and the theoretical snorers and loud breathers, it's probably one of the loudest Buddhist monasteries in the New York region.  

My plans were on hold until this call.  I didn't want to be making any travel arrangements in case I was going on retreat.  There's another monastery that has retreats that begin each Friday.  Perhaps I'll see if they have any space available the week after next.  Even though the call was finished by 10:00am, I went back to bed.    

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Fifteen

Saint of the day: St. Joseph

The saint for today, March 19th, is St. Joseph: husband to Mary, father of Jesus.  He is the patron saint of the Universal Church, an unofficial patron of doubt and hesitation, and, one assumes, cuckolds (Okay, sorry, sorry!).  In the mid-1950s, Pope Pius instituted an additional feast day for "St. Joseph the Worker" on May 1st, as a way of preempting May Day, a celebration for unionists, socialists and communists.

I would have like to have found more out about St. Joseph, but every time I clicked on something on Catholic Online, I got a pop up window asking me if my Mac was clean.  I'm not sure if this means free  from sin or not.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Fourteen

Two photos I love courtesy of friends' Facebook accounts.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Thirteen

What? I read last year!

Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa
Turning the Mind Into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham
One For The Books by Joe Queenan
The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall
High Rise by JG Ballard
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
That's Not Funny, That's Sick by Ellin Stein
Ten Tales Tall & True by Alasdair Gray
Three by Perec by Georges Perec
The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
Ruling Your World by Sakyong Mipham
Top of the Rock by Warren Littlefield
The Comics Journal Issue #302
Glittering Images by Camille Paglia
Gathering of the Tribe: Music and Heavy Conscious Creation by Mark Goodall
Now Wait For Last Year by Philip K. Dick
Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff
The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll
The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky
My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
The Alteration by Kingsley Amis
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
Too Much To Dream by Peter Bebergal
Life, Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff
In Other Words by John Crowley
The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch
The Green Man by Kingsley Amis
Otherwise Known As The Human Condition by Geoff Dyer

Looking at this list I think "Yeah, that's me: leftist, cultured, more interested in imagination than in realism, and even though I never use this word to describe myself, Buddhist."

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Twelve

Graffiti Murals, San Francisco, 2012.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Eleven

Some things overheard / seen while in Manhattan this afternoon.

1) Woman at movie theater: "I told her 'Get out of here with your volunteer service!' "

2) Couple at a bar: "Can we split a shot?"

3) Book seen at used bookstore: The Idiot's Guide to the Gnostic Gospels

4) "Is Bass Canadian?" (Bass is in fact one of the best known and most popular beers imported from Britain).  "Oh, I'm thinking of Yuengling" (which is from Pennsylvania).

5) Person mentions that a radio station has been taken over by a conglomerate: "But they're going out in style.  They've been playing Nelly's 'It's Getting Hot In Here' nonstop since Friday afternoon at 3:00pm."

"Yes! That is the best story I ever heard!"

Now, I understand hyperbole since I'm better at it than anyone else on Earth, but the fact that someone thought that was the best story they ever heard should be addressed.  First of all, what school did they go to?  Have they never read Tolstoy's How Much Land Does A Man Need, Joyce's The Dead or even Clive Barker's In The Hills, The Cities?  Secondly, I don't think the disgruntled employees playing a Nelly song over and over really qualifies as a "story."  An anecdote, maybe; unfortunate, definitely.  It's a shame there's no book called The Idiot's Guide to What Constitutes a Story.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Ten

What it looks like when the windows of a skyscraper are covered in ice.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Nine

I've been thinking of going on a retreat, most likely at a Zen center or monastery.  My research online has given me an idea of availability, cost, what the practice would be like.  One FAQ has eminently sensible questions such as:
What are the accommodations like?
What kind of meals are served?
What should I bring?
My favorite question, however, is
Is there coffee served?
I picture the monks having to say "Yes we have coffee.  How do you take it?" so often that they decided to use it as a test of their peace of mind.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Eight

Last Friday I went to see Particle Fever, a documentary about the Hadron Collider, the large research facility in Sweden that conducts experiments to find out more about the Higgs Boson particle in particular, and by extension, the very nature of matter.

The movie is well made and entertaining.  It does a good job at explaining difficult ideas so that a layman can understand and also lets the audience see its scientists as likeable characters.  Much of the math and science did soar over my head, but I got a good sense of the importance of the work being done.

What I hadn't anticipated was how touched I was at the film's end, at the emotion that welled up in me, exiting as liquid via my tear ducts.  I was overwhelmed by how amazing life is, both my own and life in general, at how incredible it is that humans can understand and learn about the beginning of time by conducting some experiments.  I felt so happy to be alive.  So many Hollywood mainstream films aim for such uplift yet leave me cold, yet the sight of joy on these physicists' faces, the excitement of ideas when they talked, filled me with a renewed appreciation for existence.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Seven

Two Things:

1) "When the bird and the book disagree, always believe the bird." - James Audubon


Monday, March 10, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Six

Some of the weirdest and most beautiful church decorations of all time.

I could try to improve on that title or copy some of the images to this blog, but it's really just worth going to i09's incredible article on their website.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Five

From LiarTownUSA, a blog reminiscent of National Lampoon at its best.
Warning: Like the National Lampoon, there's cursing, nudity and potentially offensive material in the pursuit of laughs.  Let the viewer beware.

Thanks to Stacey to bringing the blog to my attention.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Four

We are sent to school early to "grow up," to "be serious," and if we don't let go of our childhood innocence, all too often the world tries to knock it out of us.  A hundred years ago the American painter   James McNeil Whistler encountered this attitude in his engineering class at West Point Military Academy.  The students were instructed to draw a careful study of a bridge, and Whistler submitted a beautifully detailed picturesque stone arch with children fishing from its top.  The lieutenant in charge ordered, "This is a military exercise.  Get those children off the bridge."  Whistler resubmitted the drawing with the two children now fishing from the side of the river.  "I said get those children completely out of the picture," said the angry lieutenant.  So Whistler's last version had the river, the bridge, and two small tombstones along its bank.
From After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield 

James McNeil Whistler, unrepentant smartass.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Three

A group of artists based in Lancaster, PA (some of them my friends) will be working on projects over the Lenten season:
By and Large is curating a series that will document several artists’ projects over the course of 40 days. The title of the exhibit -Forty Days-  takes a page from the disciplines traditionally associated with the period of Lent. Instead of subtracting, or ‘giving up’ something, we will be ‘adding to’ by documenting the process/progress of the work. The project is slated to begin March 5 and last until April 15.
You can follow their progress here:

Thanks Andrea!

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day Two

Last night around 10:30 I got a call from my landlord.  When I saw his name on my phone, I dreaded  the anticipated conversation.  "I notice you've been home during the day the last couple of weeks.  What's going on?"  I'm sure eventually I'll have the "I've been laid off" conversation with him, but I wasn't in the mood to have it last night.  I answered the phone anyway.

"John, I know it's late to be calling but I saw the light on in your apartment..."

"No, no, it's not too late.  I was reading."


Here we go.

"I've done it again.  I can not find your rent check.  I had it with the other rent checks and put it in a pile of papers and now I can't find it.  Just your's.  I have everybody else's."

This has happened at least once before, perhaps twice.  But given the fact that I would much rather have this conversation rather than the one I expected, I was not going to complain.  Previously, when he misplaced my check, he did eventually find it beneath his pillow.  I have no idea how or why it got there.  I am comfortable with certain mysteries in life.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Forty Days of Lent: Day One

It's Ash Wednesday which means that spring will be coming soon.  But for all the complaints I had to weather about this past winter, I will miss the season.  I will miss the quiet, the beauty of the snow, the contrast between the cold outdoors and the warm inside, the hearty effort involved in getting from one place to another.

Saturday, March 01, 2014