The kind of late middle-aged guy (obviously a tough life but in recovery, so what? an old 40? a rescued 60?) who sits with his shoulders hunched forward, hands in windbreaker pockets staring at a spot between the floor and hell, no ornamentation and no distraction, no need for headphones or Angry Birds, watching endless loops of the only newsreel showing in his soul cinema “Regrets,” headlines spinning out to freeze in endless moments of recognition and re-ownership (“Self horrified at own behavior,” “Self bottoms out,” “Self accepts God as his savior,” “Self rides el with weird guy who keeps looking at him then typing something on his computer,” “Self pretty sure guy typing about him”), his thin gray hair gelled back seeming propelled behind at the speed of his thought.
April 2, 2016
September 2, 2015
This morning, I misread a dentist’s sign for single tooth anesthesia as “single truth amnesia.”
July 30, 2015
The Rolling Mamet Players present today’s installment: Elephant Hunt. Characters include Carol and Laura* from my previous post and a new guy, Connor, about twenty in yellow surfer shorts and T-shirt, a backwards baseball cap on his shoulder length hair.
*The names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Connor: So I told him, “You are too unpredictable for me to hang out with.”
Laura: We just seen him downstairs.
Carol Little John?
Connor: So I got my stuff out of the house. Those blunts are shit. Those wraps are… you have to like lick them a ton to seal.
Laura: I gave you good.
Connor: No those blunts you gave me? The blunts were good. You gave me wraps; those were shit. I rolled a blunt with one this morning. I roll like three, two grams in a blunt. They come out looking exactly like a cigar. Everyone says, “Is this like a cigar?” I say, “No way.” (pause) Gotta get some cocaine. (He notices a guy in a crisp white business shirt listening to him.) Sorry dude. I’m just kidding.
Carol: So do you want a cigarette?
Connor: No. I don’t smoke. My dad told me if I had another cigarette it would kill me, so I quit. But my weed intake went way up. Twelve hundred fuckin’ bucks a month. My friend was using elephant papers.
Carol: What are elephant papers?
Connor: They’re like papers only they’re huge. It’s like a wall, only it’s paper. You guys should save money. For like two months. Buy like two grams and those papers and roll a blunt.
Laura: I can’t go without weed that long. I mean if I wanted to. I don’t want to. I mean I flip. My husband’s like, “Please somebody give her something.” I get really, really itchy.
Carol: I’m ‘a look it up. (She picks up her phone and starts typing.)
Carol: Is that it?
Laura: That looks like a dude.
Connor: It is a dude.
Laura: He smoked an elephant? Ha!
Carol: Elephant . . . dung.
Connor: No, no. No dung. “Rolling paper.”
Carol: (slowly, typing) Rolling paper.
Connor: Or look up “Bob Marley elephant papers.” (He exits the train.)
Laura: Rolling papers?
Carol: Bob Marley? Whose Bob Marley? I never heard of him.
Laura: I’ve heard the name. Bob Marley.
Carol: Bob Ma…
Laura: Not Bob Mathis. hahaha. (pause) “Bob Martin.” hahaha.
Carol: There they are.
Laura: That’s big.
July 28, 2015
Last night on the el, I overheard a man tell his friend, “He was so mean to me, and I was dealing with so much mortality at that time. When you wake up next to a corpse, it changes you.”
Well … yeah.
July 21, 2015
“When at last it emerges into recorded history, organic duration reverses the mechanical externalized time that is measured by calendars and clocks. Not how long you live, but how much you have lived, how much meaning your life has absorbed and passed on, is what matters. The humblest human mind encompasses and transfigures more conscious experience in a single day than our entire solar system embraced in its first three billion years, before life appeared.”
– Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine.
June 25, 2015
Performed this morning by the residents of a home for developmentally challenged adults in Evanston that all sat on my car. The names have been changed to protect the identities.
Laura: “If he didn’t explain it right at the time that’s fucked up. You shoulda told him, ‘you should told me that yesterday.'”
Carol: “I don’t want to get banged up and bruised.”
Peter: “Carol, remind me to bring that gravy sauce tomorrow.”
Carol: “What gravy sauce.”
Peter: “That gravy sauce I made.”
Carol: “Oh that.”
Peter: “I like it; it tastes great.”
Laura: “I’m gonna bring the meatballs.”
Peter: “Laura. Instead, instead of, instead of using a whole cup of water, use a half cup water and half cup of milk.”
Carol: “If you don t have milk, I have powdered milk if you want some. Do you got milk?”
Laura: “No. Yes, yes I do.”
Peter: “Damn, I wish that guy wasn’t standing out there. I woulda went right out there and got them. I shoulda done it. I shoulda taken the whole bag.”
Carol: “Yes, yes you should have.”
Peter: “I’m kicking myself in the ass now.”
Laura: “Paul got all over Anne.”
Peter: “That’s Anne’s fucking fault.”
Carol: “Over what?
Laura: “Fifty cents. She only had a dollar. I seen her and gave her a dollar.”
Carol: “For what?”
Laura: “Those things she smokes, the blunt.”
Peter: “That’s Anne’s fucking fault.”
Laura: “He said, ‘I asked you for a quarter. They cost fifty cents.’ I don’t know how much they cost.”
Peter: “It’s Anne’s fault because she started dealing with him.”
Laura: “That stuff that Ivan got, that was crack. I don’t want that.”
Carol: “That is physically impossible to smoke that much.”
Laura: “Well not impossible. But if you were at party.”
Carol: “Well, if you were at a party.”
Laura: “You’d still have to light one right after the other. I’m sorry! I can’t move over any farther. I’m fat.”
Carol: “Well then lose some weight.”
Peter: “Hahahahah. Jenny Craig!”
May 26, 2015
I look out the train window at the trees and clouds above the head of the man across from me. He looks up, thinks I am looking at him. (I have shades on so he can’t see where my eyes are looking.) People are fascinated by people. Joseph Campbell says we worship “our fellow neighbors.” We used to be interested in animals and worship the bear, tiger, etc. Then it was the stars when we learned that they were our “neighbors” in that they ran a predictable route each year and could help us time our harvests. Then somehow “God” got conflated with the caste that watched the stars and told people when to plant. We worshiped those who demanded worship, “The Church.” Then, with psychology in the 1800s, god was placed inside each human. People were the new gods. The cult of the self. Now it is computers. People are most interested in what the computer and internet can deliver to them. They worship it. The images on it are even called “icons” for god’s sake. But the trees and sky I am looking at are no less our neighbors now than they were in ancient times. Our objects of worship have changed to the point that the man across from me thinks I am looking at him. Maybe I should take out my phone and pretend to check for updates.
November 25, 2014
OK, I usually don’t comment on these things because politics is about emotions and therefore irrational. But the very people calling angry blacks in Ferguson rioters and looters champion White males who threw overboard tea that was private property and took up guns(!) against a government they felt did not represent them. It’s about the who not the what.
March 13, 2014
Steichen / Warhol: Picturing Fame, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Alsdorf Gallery, January 17, 2014–April 6, 2014.
[Murphy’s Law: I couldn’t find images online of the exact images I saw. These will have to do to dramatize my point.]
Seemingly intended to explore the similarities between Edward Steichen’s and Andy Warhol’s images of fame, instead for me this show threw their stylistic differences into high contrast (if you’ll pardon the pun). Steichen draws with black. Warhol draws with white. Warhol pales out everybody except for their most prominent features. Steichen captures in gray and black what is in addition to their prominent highlights. The effect of this stylistic difference is the difference between character and caricature. There is a prominent forehead bone on Eugene O’Neill. His ideas were bright, as dramatized by Steichen capturing the highlight on the skull. But O’Neill’s personal life and character were notoriously dark, as reflected in his severe face lurking in the shadows beneath and behind the skull bone.
In addition to more detailed images by Warhol of celebrities, on view are many of his Polaroids of the famous and not so famous. All are treated the same by the camera. Warhol seems to imply that the process by which he makes an image of a celebrity is the same as the process by which he makes an image of an everyday person. By extension, it is the process that implies the celebrity, not the character of the subject.
When Steichen took images of everyday people (a woman cutting a potato or a group of women at the travelers aid society), he used a different and unique set of lighting and backdrops and props to try to capture the character of each.
I left thinking the difference was between Steichen trying to capture one’s character and Warhol trying to create one’s caricature.
January 26, 2014
If a Van Gogh painting hangs in the forest, is it art? Could it be stripped of its designation as “art” just by virtue of not being seen? Or will it remain art until again viewed?
Such questions have been on my mind since hearing the story of Vivian Maier’s photographs and even more so since seeing Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures, a BBC documentary directed by Jill Nicholls and hosted by Alan Yentob at Northwestern University’s Block Art Gallery. (BBC rules dictate that this full 70-minute version be shown at a venue that does not charge for profit, so the Block introduced it as possibly the last time it will show in the United States; thus, this review’s title.)
Vivian was a nanny for families in Chicago’s affluent north shore suburbs. She also took thousands of photographs, which she had to store in commercial storage units. When she was older, she had no way to pay for those units, and their contents were auctioned off. The people who bought the prints and negatives began to sell and publish her work, and she gained a following. I had heard that story and was curious to know more. I wondered if that narrative obscured the relationship between the art and the viewer.
The movie presents a portrait in keeping with the elements of the myth of the undiscovered artist. All of us have this fantasy that we will be seen and appreciated for who we “really” are. And the fantasy may be obscuring the view of Vivian’s photographs. Here’s this artist who squirrels her stuff away when she is alive and becomes a celebrated artist after her death. The myth of the unrecognized artist is only validated by recognition. Who can count the number of unrecognized artists who are still unrecognized and whose works are lost to time? Perhaps your uncle had a crate of photos that he took that are just as artistic, but they get handed down or tossed rather than discovered.
Vivian is portrayed as a woman who was crabby but loving with her charges; who went downtown and photographed street life, faces in the crowd, and the lower classes before returning to the placid suburbs of the upper classes where she worked; who lied about her background to others and possibly even herself. Her father left her and her mother early in her life, and the narrative about her family that she told others or wrote on official documents shifted.
The film also portrayed a woman who took photographs to make sense of her world, to live her life. She needed to. It was a compulsion and a way to deal with being alive. Otherwise, the movie made little mention of the actual artistry of the pictures themselves. When very young, she and her mother lived with photographer Jeanne Bernard. Vivian bounced around the world when younger (her mother’s family was from France), and she started to photograph her travels in her youth. Note was made of her saying how important to her were true blacks and true whites. These are issues that people who actually make photos consider. Another consideration for her street photography would be the need to blend into the crowd. The ones no one sees is who she is trying to show, and she had to become one.
And she still is being overlooked. The meaning that the act of photography had for her–not to mention the actual photographs are little mentioned not only in the movie but also in the current mania of trying to define and/or sell her story and her work. And the person Vivian was is being replaced by her myth. After attending a previous screening of the same movie, a former employer of Maier felt that the movie may have presented a skewed vision. Vivian , she said, was not a “stereotypic private person” but had “a wonderful humor … a warmth about her.”1
The film was introduced by Pamela Bannos, a Northwestern arts professor researching and writing a book on Maier. She began by explaining that said she had to leave to give a gallery talk at Chicago’s MCA (which she followed by defining as “Museum of Contemporary Art”). It felt as if she was justifying her standing as an “expert” on Vivian. Bannos also said that, upon hearing from Jill Nicholls that she wanted to interview her for a movie she was making about Vivian, Bannos thought, “Thank goodness; here come the women.” The tone was like “We understand her; you don’t.” An article in the Northwestern Daily student newspaper about a previous screening of the movie said that “Bannos also said that men’s research on her work makes it more difficult to understand her as a woman.”1 If you want to understand an artist, gender does not matter. If you want to understand a woman, her being an artist does not matter.
Don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that Vivian is not an artist. I am saying that there is a difference between an interest in her art versus an interest in her work and life story as a source of income or career. Perhaps art is what is lost in translation between making it and experiencing it. Those who try to sell or interpret the art and artist have a different experience than someone basking in one of her images. Those who are making money and/or a reputation on her works and her story are the ones fighting for her to be declared an artist and feminist model. Art for Vivian was about the act of creating, which saved her soul in a way that cannot be defined. The making of her work and story into an income source, feminist narrative, or unrecognized artist myth is a commodification. In the movie, one person now making money selling Maier’s negatives and prints says, “Art is not art until someone sees it.” What are we being asked to view: the photographs or the myth of their “discovery” or a “feminist’s” photographs?
In the movie, one collector describes selling some of Vivian’s negatives to another collector. Each had brought their own armed guard to the exchange. Vivian approached the world armed only with a camera.
1. Shin, Heiwon, Daily Northwestern, October 28, 2013. Block Cinema screens documentary on photographer Vivian Maier. http://dailynorthwestern.com/2013/10/28/campus/block-cinema-screens-documentary-on-photographer-vivian-maier-2/
For more on the difference between making art and experiencing it as an individual versus commodifying and coopting it, see my September 23, 2008, entry about the movie Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? One takeaway from that movie was that, if the art world does not deem an artwork as authentic and/or worthy of a certain price, then it is deemed not so–even if the face of overwhelming forensic evidence of the piece’s authenticity.
* All praise and glory be thine, Jill Stauffer and h2so4 for the title idea, based on their “Reviews of Books I Haven’t Read.”
October 2, 2013
This post references my book at Hunting Nighthawks published at http://huntingnighthawkssofar.blogspot.com/
“Dear Mike: You have asked me an interesting question, and you aren’t even here. Your voice inside of my head asked what I had done form myself this trip. I have seen a town that I always wanted to. I have seen new art. I have discovered new independent coffee shop and stores that I like. I have met new friends. Your question made me realize I have done all of that partly for other people. William’s deadline, your enthusiasm, and other people’s urging me to finish the book so others can read about their feelings on this issue, are all prodding me to do a good thorough job of research and writing. It is doubtful that the book could ever make me back the money that I have invested, and no one has yet invented a way to give me back the time. I guess I see this as an extension of the volunteering work that I have been doing of late. I started working at soup kitchens and retirement homes. The people I met there quickly disabused me of the notions that I had inherited from the media and politicians. I never met the bogeyman “welfare queens” or stagnating elderly that I had thought I would. In a way, this book is partly an attempt to also get out the word that the people in your community are not as bad as you are led to believe. It is also a note to others who feel isolated that everyone feels isolated, and that we need to address this feeling and the issues that lead to it. Part of why people don’t understand that their neighbors are good people is that they are isolated from them. “To know me is to love me.” In a way, this whole book is something I am doing for me. If I do it for my society, I am member of society and therefore also benefit from giving it. Whatever you do for your community, you also do for yourself. This is perhaps the real meaning of Jesus’s, “Whatsoever you do unto the least of my brothers, that you also do unto me.”
September 29, 2013
This post references my book at Hunting Nighthawks published at http://huntingnighthawkssofar.blogspot.com/
In Utica, I dreamed of mafia thugs and blue collar workers. They went about their lives as if I didn’t exist. I began to panic that I was already dead.
Utica dream: I was on a windswept plain. In a ghost town. I was at a crossroads. I was supposed to meet some men there for a handoff. They were men of questionable honor. They had heavy coats and dark hats.
This post references my book at Hunting Nighthawks published at http://huntingnighthawkssofar.blogspot.com/
Minneapolis dream. I was in a world where everything was ice, white and tinkling, fragile. People too were brittle and their limbs broke off if I was mean to them. Some took their sharp limbs off the ground and tried to spear me with them. I couldn’t run away because the ground was so icy, so I started to skate across a parking lot in a getaway attempt.
What would be a closure dream? And where would it happen? In Montgomery, I have a dream. In it I say to a crowd of people, “I have a dream,” just like Martin Luther king did. My dream is that each of us could admit that we isolated others and therefore feel isolated and isolating. I was addressing a congregation. I offered to baptize people in thin paint, thinned with turpentine, like Hopper used to use. Watercolors. The color of watercolors that swirl in the water used to clean the brush. And people lined up to be baptized by me in this fashion: A man with a beaklike nose, a woman alone, Marilyn Monroe holding her legs against her chest, a tough old broad smoking a cigarette and looking into the sunlight, a whole parade of characters coming back to me to ask me to absolve them to resurrect them to save them and honor them to make them saints. They had been slaves, held captive on canvas. Now they were free or wanted me to free them.
Ohio Dream: I was surrounded by fish, each of which had one of my family member’s faces on it. They came close and then backed off, going in and out of focus. Each held up a dollar bill of a varying denomination. My ex -girlfriend swam up. I had not thought of her in ages. Suddenly I realized that we were not swimming in water but in café mocha and I could breather fine. I never worried about breathing in this atmosphere. It was a flying dream. I could fly. I was able to move instantaneously from one place to the next. I was a detective. I was trying to solve a crime, and everyone was laughing at me for even trying. No one would help me; no one would testify. Trucks on the open road swam by. A whale swallowed me up. Dale Carnegie was trying to tell me how to win friends and influence people. I nearly got mugged in Youngstown.
Dream in California: I was sitting by the pool drinking cool gin and tonics with Edward hopper and we were talking about his latest film. For some reason, he spoke with a British accent. Well my latest movie is very exciting. It’s called Nighthawks and it consists of a single frame, shown for the entire two hours of the movie.
A dream for Midwest. Gold haze corn breathing. Stalks and large swaths of fields. The image of the emotional truth I was living in the Great Plains trip was one of space, of being isolated with a lot of air around me, a lot of space. Even though I could see other things there seemed to be something in the way, air seemed to gel. It was like how hopper put two people in the same box of a café, but by using manipulating perspective lines, he made them also each in his and her own cube. Corn as tall as a building. Skyscrapers made of corn stalks. With yellow tassels off their roofs. Native Americans and buffalo sweeping across the plains. Buffalo in a coffee shop. A man hunched over his coffee whose hunched shoulders, the next time I looked over had changed enlarged and turned into the shoulders of a powerful bison. He had been wearing a leather Davie Crockett coat. The bison looked at me with human eyes that seemed to seek compassion. When I looked back to the other side of me at the café counter, there was a Native American in war dress with fringes and feathers dangling off of him, almost like someone who had been tarred and feathered. The buffalo and the Indian both told me that they were on their way out of town, they were moving on, and I said that’s funny everyone in Des Moines wants to leave too. A thunderstorm was brewing on the horizon but never seemed to reach where we were. I told the buffalo and the Indian that I was a lineman for the county. And the Indian muttered under his breath respectfully “That Edward hopper was a hell of a line man, too.” The Indian offered me a drink of cool water from a gourd but when I put it to my lips it burned my tongue. He laughed. The buffalo put me on his back and carted me around to show me vistas that he thought were particularly beautiful. While I was staring at one breathtaking view of the prairie sweeping away to the horizon, I turned around and noticed that we were right in front of a slaughterhouse and suddenly the sound of cows mooing in agony filled my ears. The dream ended and I awoke when I heard a thundering sound and we all three looked around to see the horizon filled end to end with horses and the us cavalry riding on us in endlessly deep rows.
If I were Edward Hopper, I would wake up and immediately be assaulted by the sounds of the city. In fact, I have been called “bat boy” because I notice sounds that other people I am with do not notice. This might be due either to a more acute sense of hearing, or maybe I am just more annoyed by the world’s noises the sounds of everyday living than are most people. I imagine that Hopper would have been the same. I require a lot of silence. I grew up a solitary kid and enjoy my inner life. Hopper, too, said that he had a rich interior life, and maybe the silences that he created in his paintings were needed as silences for his inner life to happen in the midst of such a noisy and chaotic town as New York. I like wandering the city and seeing vignettes that suggest stories to me or show how a series of elements has joined in just the right way to create a beautiful tableau, however temporary. Hopper did the same. In a way they create the silence that is not really there around us in the city because they seem to stop time, these tableaus of life and Hopper. I imagine him often hungry, having to keep alive and mobile so tall a skeleton. But being frugal, he stoked the inner fire with the cheapest available fuel, just as he burned coal and wood in his studio stove to save money. I imagine that Jo’s incessant chirping would be annoying as a noise. She (and perhaps Levin_) mistook it as annoying as a personal level. Being misunderstood is another thing that perhaps he and I share. Most artists end up feeling misunderstood or perhaps they become artists to try to better express themselves because e they feel misunderstood. In Hopper’s case this would not have worked, as people seemed to see in his paintings a demoralizing isolation when he instead saw an uplifting lighting situation. And yet he did achieve success as an artist, and therefore as someone who supposedly conveyed something meaningful about life to his viewers. It is just not always what we think that we are conveying that actually ends up being conveyed. That is another bad thing about being an artist. Interpretation. Maybe on his walks, Hopper also sought beauty in what was contrived and man-made and not just what the world managed to present to him: in art. He probably looked in on other friends in their studios and on the galleries and museums in New York. But again as someone who as read Shakespeare and loves best the works of James Joyce and I neither r attempt nor desire nor could write like them. So the question of how much one artist influences another is often overstated, overestimated.
When I began this project, I thought that I would discover new paintings and towns. What I didn’t know was how much I would discover about Hopper or about other people’s feelings. That I would be asked to find out what Hopper painting would be the best value on the market; asked not to say what corporation gave me permission to come see their Hopper; asked to house one of my interviewees when she took me up on my offer to come visit me in Chicago. Asked to “tell them about us.” People would ask of me as much as I asked of them. Asked to explain myself and my reasons for undertaking this project. Asked to recover Hopper’s reputation. Asked to decide which reproduction of a Hopper painting had truer color. Asked to impose upon the hospitality of acquaintances to act as hosts or gatekeepers. Asked to explain to bereaved Americans after 9/11 how isolation might have contributed to the attacks. Asked how to undertake a similar book for oneself. Asked how to find something as meaningful to someone’s life as this project was to mine. Asked whether someone’s hometown was as isolated as others I was visiting. Asked whether I was looking for someone to marry (twice). I asked others to give of their deepest feelings and selves. Yet more was asked of me than I had expected.
If I were writing a book review about the book in my proposal, what would I say about it? That it was episodic and choppy. The narrative does not seem to flow seamlessly. The author recounts some stories but not all seem to fit the overall plan of the book. However, the point of the book is to show the diversity if his experiences along the way, so this setback is unavoidable perhaps. The writing is occasionally sterling and occasionally clumsy. He seems to polish his phrase sometimes to the point of shining and sometimes to the point of wearing them down so they are unclear. The idea and the results are certainly honorable, admirable. BY telling some stories as stunning and touching as the older woman who begs him, “please tell them about us,” Grandfield makes us disappointed with the (many) stories that don’t pack that same punch. He as the author seems somewhat hidden. And when he does put himself in the spotlight it feels like something is held back, like we still don’t get all of him and thus can’t draw a clear picture for ourselves. His insight into Hopper’s paintings is incisive but brief, as he focuses mostly on the people he meets and their responses to the paintings. His analysis of Hopper as a person and painter is thankfully even-toned and spread throughout the book without preaching. His biography of Hopper provide useful context to readers when needed. But he is after different quarry than a usual bio.
In the summer of 1999, I was 36 years old and right where I wanted to be. Or so I thought. I was where I’d hoped to be or planned to be or positioned myself to be. Buts lowly it dawned on me that I was not where I wanted to be. I had just gone through yet another breakup of a romantic relationship, one of many I had gone through in my life, but maybe one that got my attention because she announced that she was going to marry my (now-ex) best friend. Obviously, I was not choosing partners (or friend for that matter) well.
I was also just back from my second two-month trip to Europe. I had viewed both junkets as possibilities to scout, as scouting for where I might like to move to be a writer. Unfortunately, that second trip Europe looked different than the first, and I returned knowing that a move there would just be trading in one set of negatives for another.
I was getting my writing published regularly and paying the bills. Unfortunately, the bills were getting paid by my day job editing medical texts, and my writing was mostly on spec book reviews. The more in-depth articles that I was writing were going largely to unpaying markets that were more artsy but less well read. I realized that I had to be known as a book writer to be taken seriously.
I figured out what I needed another trip. Travel always seemed to be a time during which I could find myself. Or at least it was a way to lose whoever I was when I left. My first trip to Europe had been a revelation of personal growth. Like I said, the second was less successful.
I told this idea to my writer friend Mike one night, as I sat inside at my hovel. One night, turning aside form my writing desk in the apartment where I lived alone, I called my writer friend Mike, and told him of my disappointments, disaffection. I also mentioned the idea of a trip.
“Well, you‘ve already blanketed Europe,” he noted sardonically, “What are you going to do now? Tour America?”
I hadn’t thought of what form the trip might take, but this thought seemed as good as any. Then I remembered that long ago I had an idea for touring the entire country. It was a calling I never followed.
The idea came to me after seeing an Edward Hopper painting in Toledo, Ohio. I was impressed by it and later got a calendar of Hopper images, from which I noticed that his paintings often hung in small museums in unusual towns, long forgotten by the mainstream media. I had always wondered what it would be like to travel around the country to see all of Edward Hopper’s paintings.
“That’s a great idea,” Mike said upon hearing it. “But you’re always using your trips as ways to get away from your troubles. Maybe this time you could actually make it not a flight but a grounding. Why don’t you spend some time exploring your issues while you’re on the road.”
He had a point. That hurt. My issues. What issues did I have? OK so I was alone, but I had been alone my whole life. MY writing was neither here nor there. Maybe I could write a book about my experiences along the way. But again that would just be another nice travel piece and not something that would explore my issues. What about Hopper was worth chasing around the country? Well, his most famous piece was Nighthawks, and he showed isolation. I know. I would ask people along the way if they felt as isolated as Hopper’s characters. That way, it wouldn’t just be a book about me. It wouldn’t be about me at all. It would be about other people and what they felt about isolation and Hopper’s paintings. Again, Mike approved. “That’s your book,” he said. And I saw the solution to all of my problems right there.
From birth, I always felt a little different from the other members of my own family. I was the youngest. I was conceived around the time of the death of my father’s mother, whom he loved more than anyone. My Catholic parents did not want more children and had successfully been practicing the rhythm method for some time, and I think that my dad always viewed my existence as another mouth he couldn’t feed and a reminder about his mother’s death.
At a very young age, I showed an advanced aptitude for reading and learning. Family lore has it that I learned from my sisters who returned home from Catholic school and taught me what they had learned by playing teacher. Because this involved hitting me when I got gave wrong answers, I apparently learned quickly. So when I arrived in kindergarten, the teacher put me alone in the back of class to read books, while the other children learned how to read.
This academic separation culminated in my going away to St. Andrew’s School, a college prep school in Middletown, Delaware. After I graduated, the film Dead Poets Society was filmed there, and you can get an idea of the beautiful setting in which I was schooled. The life itself though was nothing as harsh as the conditions depicted in the film. However, I was there as a scholarship student, and many of my classmates did not need the financial help. Also, I was one of the few students form the Midwest. So, even though I finally felt academically at home, I was often socially still an outsider. There were, however, many students there not on scholarship
As I mentioned, at SAS (as we called it), I also became best friends with Bruce and began to identify as an artist. Perhaps partly, I related to the long history from artist’s lives of feeling separated from society. I showed a talent for acting, and chose to pursue that after I graduated from SAS in 1982 at Northwestern University (NU) in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. Chicago theater was just hitting its stride (the hot commodity). Steppenwolf actors like John Malkovich, and Second City alums like John Belushi gave all of us young hopeful performers the sureness that greatness and fame lay ahead.
Unfortunately, this was not to be for me. My parents divorced after my first year at NU, and I was left to pay my own way through. It was difficult to juggle class work, rehearsals, and working enough to pay the tuition. Again at an expensive institution and studying a subject in which many of classmates were sons and daughters of successful performers, I felt like an outsider.
By the time I graduated college, I felt isolated in many ways. I had no family core, no hometown, the tastes of the rich, the debt of the poor, an academic bent in a capitalist market, and a degree that most employers scoffed at.
Postcard to Hopper: E.H. Having a great time on the road across America. I’d say wish you were where but I feel like you are. You not only are whispering in my ear, but also you have painted elements of the landscape so well that I seem to see bits of your paintings everywhere. It’s as if I’m traveling through one gigantic painting of yours and not just across land and through air. I hope sometime in the future we can meet to talk about these things. Kevin. (I mailed the post card to 82 Broadway in Nyack. To 3 Washington Square. I have no idea (can only imagine) what the NYU mailroom did with it.)
Dear Kevin: I have trouble answering any question about my paintings, much less yours. I do not think that my paintings are meant to show isolation or any other theme. They are meant to capture a visual experience that hopefully will lead people to a deeper inner place. But the minute you try to write about a painting you are miles away because one is a visual experience and the other is verbal.
Dear William: Well I took your warning to heart and am now traveling hell’s bells through the country (New England to be precise). I have learned, however, that there I s a fly in the ointment. I am traveling too quickly to make any sense of what I am experiencing. Then, when I get home, it will take me a lot of time to go through my notes and see what they are telling me. I need to learn from each trip that I take so that I don’t make the same mistakes on the next one. Also, I need to look at what people are telling me in answer to my question to see what other follow-up questions I might need to ask on later trips. You will be glad to note that your threat at least got men out and doing the actual project. I am traveling around New England and meeting new people and engaging them about a subject I love and seeing art. Even if for some reason I can’t complete the project, I will at least have had a trip more interesting that a layabout vacation on the beach. If some how the momentum for this project peters out. You and Burke challenged me to complete the project, and I am taking up the mantle. I wonder whether you two went back to your normal lives after the suggestion. Suggesting is after all part of normal everyday life for us writers: giving advice to our fellow writer friends. But by taking up the mantle I feel that my life has changed unalterably. IF I see the project through (and the more people I tell about it , the more I feel that I MUST finish it), I feel that it will be a defining segment of my life. I had hoped to write my first book about this, but it might also be the defining book of my life. It encompasses all of my loves in one essay, and as you pointed out, the thesis is a novel one and a good one. The e experiences that I ma having now that I have started out on this journey will affect me throughout life whether I complete the project or not. Hearing the desperation of the woman in Muskegon to have people know about her and the lives of others like her, to beg others to connect to their neighbors and the beauty that surround us, made me realize that I needed to devote myself to that, whether it was by writing a book or not. And I know that I will learn a lot about myself along the way. It will be a growing up process, a maturing. Do I have the wherewithal to stick with this project? What unforeseen circumstances might affect whether or not I can complete it?
A friend (Mike Burke) once said that there are only two stories: a person takes a journey or a stranger comes to town. Obviously, mine was a story of a person taking a journey. But I also felt like a stranger in these towns, and I realized that there is really only one story: that of the stranger, the outsider. Though I was an outsider, the towns and even the people in them were more like strangers that had come to visit me. You either are a stranger or you meet one, and you are one when you meet one. Strangers remind you of your own strangeness. This relates to Hopper’s paintings because he painted strangers, outsiders, loners. The isolated in his paintings show us all the isolated within ourselves. The stranger within.
It is a human tendency to judge people at first glance, to assume that you know the inner life of people from the outer clues. But I was finding this highly untrue during my travels and interviews. Was it also untrue about the characters in Hopper’s paintings? Were they perhaps not as despondent as we perceive them to be? Was it also untrue about Hopper? Was he perhaps an interesting man to be around when he was alive, and not the ogre that Gail Levin has made him into?
Maybe Hopper was just reflecting back to us what he saw around him, but it belies an aspect of the American experience. The land here was settled by desperate immigrants. Their housing and artifacts were ad hoc, catch as catch can. They have a kind of gruesomeness to them because they had to serve a purpose firstly. But their desire for beauty also led them to take what they could. Their aesthetics were often borrowed from their original countries of origin and pasted slapdash onto the American landscape where they looked out of context, no matter how beautiful the object might have been in itself. This combination of beauty and ugliness and the tension between the two is what Hopper’s paintings seem to capture so well. Even his landscapes always have in them railroad tracks, barns, or some other thing that man inflicted on the land.
The facts of his life are straightforward and well-known. He was born on July 22, 1882 to religious Dutch parents in Nyack, New York, where his father had a dry goods store. Edward loved to go down to the shipyards or sailing on the Hudson River just down the hill from his family’s home on Broadway Street. He reached the ungainly height of six feet by the age of 12, resulting in the usual story of a teacher asking him to sit down when he already was. Maybe because of the attention drawn by his freakish height, Edward was a very quiet, withdrawn youth and remained reticent throughout his life. Also possibly related to his shyness, he developed a gift for drawing.
At the age of 18, he went down to New York City to study art. His parents insisted that he study the more practical side, illustration, and he earned his money from such jobs until the age of 40, when his artistic recognition allowed him to focus solely on painting. He studied first at the New York School of Illustrating but soon transferred to the New York School of Art. Here, the star teacher was William Merritt Chase, but Hopper gravitated instead to Robert Henri. Hopper called him “the most influential teacher I had.”
Henri was actually born in Cincinnati on June 25, 1865 as Robert Henry Cozad. His family moved to Nebraska and founded a town named after his father. But when his father was accused of murder in that town, they moved to New Jersey and changed their last names. Robert chose a Frenchified version of his middle name. He studied at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under Thomas Anshutz who had been a student of the great American painter Thomas Eakins—who Hopper maintained throughout his life was one of the greatest painters of all time.
Henri moved to New York to teach and became part of a group known as “The Eight” (the Other Seven were John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, James Preston, Edward Davis, and Charles Redfield). Many critics rightly or wrongly associated with this movement the many students of Henri: including, of course, Hopper.
But Hopper vehemently denied that he was part of that movement, nor of the Americana Regionalists (like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton) or any other movement that critics tended to lump him into. “I was never after the American Scene or whatever,” he scoffed. “I was always after myself.”
In pursuit of “himself,” after graduating from art school Hopper went to Europe in 1906, 1909, and 1910. The Grand Tour was still expected of most America’s wealthy and all artists. In Europe, Hopper felt freed from the confining morals of his religious parents and American culture in general. He felt free to stare, to soak in what he was seeing, and he came back having painted many Impressionist style canvases of what he observed there.
Here’s a list of some packing essentials.
A T shirt with Hopper’s Nighthawks on it, so you can show people his most famous work if they are unfamiliar with his work.
Dictaphone with extra batteries and tapes. You’ll be driving a lot and in files where you can’t have a writing instrument.
An itinerary and a list of your local contacts. This includes not only the museum curators who will show you the files but any friends, relatives, or friends of friends who live in that town and could help you with interviews.
Some good walking shoes.
Power bars to eat on the run.
A camera and several rolls of film. It will help you remember the things that you saw and force you to look at certain things in such a way as to make art of them.
I’ll tell you how to “do” a town for such a book in two days.
If you want to follow my footsteps, I’ll save you a lot of trouble. First, go to the museum and look at the Hopper painting. They look different in person, and you need to be clear about the experience of the painting that you are there to study. Interview people in front of the painting, and the locals will likely point you toward some other places in town that are Hopperesque or important to the town and/or its isolation. If they don’t ask the museum staff. Museum workers tend to be interested in the arts and likely to know where to tell you to find other people to interview who know Hopper’s works and have thought about their meaning. Also ask them where the independent coffee shop is in town. You’ll need lots of energy for this trip, and you’re bound to find people there who could help you as well.
After the museum, go to the local visitors bureau and get every brochure than looks like it might possibly fit into your theme (Hopper and isolation). Then go to a coffeehouse and get your favorite drink with caffeine in it. Look over the visitors’ information you picked up and identify places that you need to visits because they relate to the theme. Ask the café workers and patrons for interviews and further recommendations about places to see and/or interview locals. Save the Hopperesque diners for your mealtimes, and kill two birds with one stone by eating there while you interview the people in there. Start sightseeing the most important sightseeing symbols of the city first. You need to know what the city associates itself with as you interview people. Also, visit the most far-flung sights so that you get a sense of the overall layout of the city. You might also pass some places that catch your eye that no one yet has recommended to you. Conduct interviews all along the way. Look at all of the sights you pass with an eye toward how Hopper would have seen them and how they night relate to isolation.
The second day, you should have breakfast at a Hopperesque diner and interview the workers and patrons. You should also drink a lot of coffee.
You should have scheduled your appointment to see the museum’s files for the second day that you are in town. This allows you a day in case anything goes wrong (Or right) at the previous town and puts you back a day. It also gives you the opportunity to see the Hopper painting a second time, with fresh eye s and a deeper understanding of the town and the history behind the painting. You can conduct interviews in front of it again and ask questions that you forgot to ask the day before. That second afternoon, you can see any sights that you missed on your list and ask questions to fill in about subjects that so far your interviewees have left out. That second night, you can go to a nice restaurant and/or bar and treat yourself a little for all the hard work you have accomplished in so little time. This will also put you in touch with a different crowd of locals than hang out at the Hopperesque diners. You can conduct some final interviews to see if they offer a different perspective.
Or you could just drive to the next town and start the whole process over again.
When we look at a Hopper painting, the nostalgia we feel for the old cityscape is ours. The delight and awe we take in the sharply contrasted lighting is ours. And the isolation we see in his characters is ours.
When I moved to Chicago in 1897, I was told that it was home at the time to the world’s first third and tenth tallest buildings. Chicago has always been trying to be the biggest and the best. In fact, it was the politicians who lobbied so hard to have the Nation’s Columbian Festival in Chicago in 1894 that gave it the nickname “The Windy City” (not the lake winds as many now believe). They got their wish, and the fair was so well attended and made the city famous. The Midway down the center of the White City created for the exposition to show off the most modern achievements in every science or art was so famous that the Chicago Bears became nicknamed “Monsters of the Midway:” because that sight was so associated with Chicago and they played on a field near there.
Having always striven for the biggest and best, it is no surprise that Nighthawks is here. The pinnacle of Hopper’s work. It is a surprise that it almost did not end up here. The original buyer swapped it for one that the art institute had. It almost seems like a mythical creature, like the man who broke the bank at Monaco: the man who let Nighthawks out of his possession.
Yet here it is. In perhaps the most typically American city because it is the largest American city not on a coast. It is the swaggering giant of the heartland. It was due to its position at the bottom of the Great Lakes and the halfway point from the West to New England that Chicago became the transportation and manufacturing hub that it was.
I came at art from traditional high art and at culture as a revolutionary, a questioner rather than an accepter. Many people in my culture came at art from Seinfeld and were swept along by culture and assimilated into it rather than questioning it or outside it. Where we met was in Nighthawks, which was representational but also a great study of painterly technique. Where we met was in that diner.
Luckily, what Hopper knew I already knew: art and Europe and the difficulties of making a living from your art and the shame of having to work outside of your art to pay the bills. And what Hopper didn’t know, I chose to let myself not know. For he was to be my lens; I was trying to see the world through his eyes. That way I would know whether he would have agreed with the people I was interviewing and what they said about his art and American isolation. It made the whole journey more pleasurable because what he would have avoided, I got to avoid, and I wanted to avoid such things anyway.
I wasn’t setting out to detail the subtle differences in each town’s Starbucks. Those places are designed to be interchangeable and thus as minimally different as possible. I was more interested in the wild swings in décor and feel and offerings among the independent coffee shops in each town. Being independent, they were more likely to reflect the city’s individuality rather than the country’s monotony. And while Hopper captured something generally true about the United States, he did so (like any good artist) by showing highly specific examples of it.
Maybe you want to follow in my footsteps, or maybe you want to go to towns that have watercolors of Hopper’s rather than oils. Some say he was a better watercolor painter than oil painter—perhaps the best watercolor painter the United States has yet produced.
While working on the Pittsburgh chapter, I got an idea for another book in a similar vein as the Hopper one: a tour of all of the Carnegie free libraries in the U.S.
It is interesting what you can see of a real town when you go looking for a fake scene.
J.P. Morgan said there are two reasons why a man does anything: a good reason and the real reason. I don’t know if Hopper painted women because he was fixated on his mother, a misogynist, or any other psychological reason. I do know that the human form, and the female form especially, has been the subject of art since the very first known man-made object, the “Venus of Willendorf.” And I know that Hopper’s women have a hold on our imagination equal to the archetype of the female form itself. That is ultimately the estimation of any work of art: its hold on our imaginations. Its calling to our soul, and our soul’s answering.
I was driving along the monotonous fields on the Great Plains when I suddenly realized that I hadn’t interviewed one key person. And now he was beside me in the passenger seat: Edward Hopper. He was dressed in a lightweight suit with a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off his face. His knobby knees stuck up nearly into his chest, and he looked none too happy about the arrangements; more like a hostage than a passenger. I asked what he thought about the landscape changes since his day.
He pressed his lips together till they pouted out and said nothing for a long while. “Unplanned,” he finally intoned. The car seemed to vibrate with his resonance. “More of the same.” He added and crossed his arms before his chest. “Subduing the land with hammer and nail.”
It seemed a paradox, but one held in his paintings as well. A love of landscape and a love of pure, manmade geometry. But the realization that one generally wins out over the other.
“What do you think of my project?” I asked.
He didn’t answer for a while. None of his responses came quickly. “You have to do what you have to do,” he said cryptically.
“I’m after myself,” I reminded him of his words. “What do you think? Are Americans isolated as you portrayed them?”
“It’s immaterial,” he snapped. “I portrayed what I saw.” He took a breath. “Perhaps others saw different things than I.”
September 25, 2013
I finally got a chance to sit down and talk to Jo, Hopper’s wife.
“I don’t know why you are chasing around the country looking for my Edward. I could have told you a long time ago all that he was about. He was about himself mostly. I don’t want that to sound too badly. I bore the brunt of it because I married him. But he also pursued his painting single-mindedly. And I think his paintings were better for it. I even played a part in them by allowing him to work so hard on them. Nothing else mattered in our household when he was painting. Of course I was never given the same situation. But basically he is not as big a mystery as people make him out to me. He is selfish like all of us are and he was selfish in ways that all artists are. They are always selfish with a purpose. They are selfish to stay true to their souls, and in so doing show others how to stay true to their souls.
As for his painting of isolation, I never saw that. I always thought he painted beautiful lighting situations and still lifes. Granted some of his paintings had subjects that might be a little down, like the Jumping Off Place [Room by the Sea]. And he never included trees or clouds that I thought would pretty up the pictures a little. But I still liked what he ended up getting down on canvas. And of course, I posed for most of those, so I contributed by using my innate sense of beauty in the poses that I held. I think that is why the people in his paintings seem more compelling than the settings–because my sense of beauty was informing them. But no matter. I am glad to have someone to talk to over tea, whether it is about Eddie or any other thing. So what else could we talk about?”
When I mentioned my time in theater, she was off and running. She told a story about her being on stage, a line delivery she gave. It was funny because it reminded me how time on the stage seems rarified, slower, heightened, like time in a painting of Edward Hopper’s. Maybe that was partly the connection between theater and painting for Edward. Or for other painters for that matter: Hockney, etc. who designed stage sets. They are both arts. And time is one of the elements that is changed in art. I also mentioned that I liked walks like Edward did.
“Oh, I never went for those much. That was his thing. Of course, back then, it was different. A lady would not go out as much, and a smallish one like me might meet the most terrible people. Still, Eddie seemed to enjoy his walks and stay away a long time gathering ideas for paintings. We both enjoyed reading too–as you said you did–and I think that both were a way for us to find some peace amidst the bustle of this agitating city. That was what we had on Cape cod and always missed when we had to come back here. You said that you like your own silence too. I don’t know. Maybe you are the right person to go looking for Edward. Although anyone looking for Edward can find him in his paintings. You don’t have to go traipsing about as far as you did. And why not go to Paris. That was a big influence on Eddie and meant a lot to him and to both of us. You know he said he married me because I spoke French. I’ve always been proud of my command of the language. Oh, but I’m keeping you from your next journey. But it is so nice to have someone to speak with, especially someone with so much in common. You know Eddie is not big on talking. That’s another reason you should ask me about him and not go seeking him in other towns.
September 18, 2013
Dream about Hopper: I dreamt I was caught in a funhouse, a Gothic old mansion with rooms of differing sizes and shapes that constantly shifted. When I went through a door, I went from a room with 20-foot ceilings to one with 6-foot ones. When I reopened the door and went back into the former room, it had changed entirely. Closet doors opened onto brick walls. Hallways melted into ballrooms. Ceiling scraps fell on my head and I had to escape into the next room through the next door. Always when I entered a room, it seemed the door on the far side had just closed. I was in pursuit of someone, who constantly stayed one step ahead and seemed to know the magical house’s rules. Distant laughing mocked me. One room I entered and was stopped dead by a blindingly white light. Then the light went out, and I was plunged into darkness. I felt behind me for the doorknob, but it had moved. When I finally found it and opened it, it was a different room than from where I had come. There was a window in there, and I ran to the sill to see if I could look out and find out where I was and how to escape. When I looked out the window to see if I where I was and seek a place to escape I only saw a flat blue sky, as if I were high up in the air. Then suddenly a huge human eye filled the window, shocking me awake, and I woke up gasping.
September 11, 2013
In movies, when you act in a scene that is not in the final movie, it is called “ending up on the cutting-room floor.” I figured that what didn’t make it into my book-as-blog would end up on the floor of the Nighthawks café. Dorothy Parker said writing is “killing your babies.” I had many passages or vignettes that might be pleasing to fans but not pertinent to the story and its throughline, so I figured this blog could be a way to share some of them. Look for more in coming weeks!
November 15, 2012
November 8, 2012
November 7, 2012
While Nate Silver is getting strokes for predicting the election using numbers, Joseph Campbell did it using human nature. “…not authority but aspiration is the motivator, builder, and transformer of civilization.”
I haven’t seen anyone mention this, and I think it’s bigger than we’re giving it credit for. Obama just became the first African-American re-elected President of the United States.
November 6, 2012
Is it just me or does Google’s logo today look like it (the corporation Google) is reaching in and stuffing the ballot box? Oddly, that seems possible.
October 22, 2012
April 23, 2012
Most readers will probably dislike this review of Calixto Bieito’s production of Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real at Chicago’s Goodman Theater for the same reason most viewers of that production (including seasoned reviewers like Hedy Weiss) seemed confused and conflicted about seeing it: it deals with the dark side of the American psyche. (For context: I define dark side as “shadow” in the Jungian sense: that part of human experience that you deny in yourself goes to the part of your psyche that is hidden from you but part of you nonetheless—the shadow.)
Let’s jump to the most danced-around scene: a graphic depiction of homosexual sex. Why did reviewers and viewers always comment on how hard this scene was to watch in a play during which all sorts of other graphic depictions of the worst of human behavior were also graphically depicted? Why is it harder for Americans to watch a depiction of two men having sex based on possible disparities in power than a man and woman having sex based on a definite disparity of power (as was often depicted here with the prostitute character)? Because homosexuality is perhaps our nation’s most hot-button shadow issue in this era—just look at the debates about it. The fear of homosexuals in public is the fear that there may be a homosexual inside oneself. There are many instances of a campaigner against homosexuality being caught in a homosexual act.
The scene in the show depicted a White man (Policeman) putting a Black man (Baron de Charlus) into chains and having sex with him. Bieito is certainly not the first to show Whites chaining Blacks to evoke the mistreatment of slaves. The Baron is also clearly portrayed as gay and looking for a tryst. So if the source of viewers’ discomfort is not slavery or consensual sex, what is? The fact that Bieito graphically portrays what we do not want to see about our history and psyche.
Two facts I know from reading history. (1) White men had sex with Black women in slavery as practiced in the U.S. (2) Male rape has long been a form of insult/punishment, etc. (and still is in many cultures). I knew both of those things and yet never let myself realize that, of course, (1a) White men had sex with Black men in Slavery as practiced in the U.S. This is the essence of the shadow: I could not let myself make that imaginative leap. Yet when Bieito presented it, I immediately recognized the truth in it and was grateful he could help me see it. The revelation of such new truths about the world is certainly a sign of good art. Hedy Weiss lamented that “the blatant pornographic violence more often than not overwhelms the poetry.” Maybe the pornographic violence is the poetry. Unless you define poetry to be as childish as “I think that I shall never see…”
Viewers and reviewers seemed to think that the world of the play was impossible to imagine, some dreamscape, etc. It is a strange world only in the sense that it is the part of our psyches we never look at (the shadow). The world created in this production reminded me of the works of Terry Gilliam. They are visually stunning and heightened, but they are the logical conclusion of the way in which our lives are lived. In this way, this production of Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real was a satire in the vein of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”
Another image had a narrator (an obvious parallel to Tennessee himself) drinking and explaining the play, occasionally popping pills and vomiting. The audience was audibly upset by the retching. But this is the logical outcome of drinking too much and by all accounts, something Tennessee spent many a night doing. Again, the play seems disturbing only to those who have not imagined the logical outcome of Tennessee’s life.
Charles Isherwood of the New York Times posited that the world of the production “represents the confused outpourings of [Williams],” “perhaps his last dream.” I would counter that it represents everything Williams experienced in all-too-real ways. Williams was a homosexual known for a taste for rough trade. He was an artist off of whom many others (agents, producers, etc.) made money (the nature of an artist). He was an alcoholic and drug user. To then portray rough trade, unbridled greed, and a vomiting drinker in a production of one of his scripts is to recognize his experience.
Throughout the play the characters call the place the “Cami – No Real.” This not only emphasizes the fact that we are in an imaginary setting (No[t] Real), it is precisely how the many Americans who know no other language would pronounce the title. This is another example of how the play worked for me: as BOTH fantasy and a critique of the reality.
At one point when the character Kilroy asks the meaning of the place and/or a way out, they distract him with the Carnival. A bevy of lights are turned on at once, blinding the audience. But this is exactly what happens in the U.S. Whenever an honest question is asked, it is immediately undermined by the circus that surrounds the issue as framed by the media. Thus, we question the patriotism of a man who served in combat in Viet Nam versus his opponent who never showed up for the National Guard duty that kept him out of the war.
The set included at the back a big iron fence that pushed the people behind it way upstage. It was used as a metaphor for many things throughout the play: the border with Mexico, the border between moneyed classes, etc. A fence is emblematic of the U.S. in many ways and again it cannot be blamed merely on the director’s negative view of the U.S. Robert Frost made it an American emblem.
Bieito is from Spain, and much has been made of his “controversial” productions. His tactics, however, are a generation old or older. Brecht blinded the audience with stage lights in the 1920s. Robert Wilson created hallucinatory images of humans doing absurd things in absurd ways in the 1970s. So if the style was not as controversial or new, then what is? The content. The idea that the U.S. is a morally bankrupt hedonistic empire in decline. The idea is perhaps only new to U.S. citizens.
I could continue unpacking his many rich images and how they led to my reading of the play, but I will stop here. Ironically, Hedy Weiss wants from the production “redemption”—a particularly strong and persistent American fantasy. If you find it while reading the play on your own, great. But that would be the play as read in the museum of your head. Bieito has made a production of the script that is current to our world and relevant to the culture in which the show ran. The production presented the U.S. culture as it is, not how it is portrayed in the media; not as we might imagine it once was; not how we would like to believe it is (most notably, amnesiac conservatives); not even as we might imagine it could be. The production reflected the U.S. culture as lived by many if not most—only, as I said, tweaked like the films of Terry Gilliam so that the world is at once recognizable yet a vision of what it might be like in the near future.
The play may have been hard for viewers to watch or reviewers to understand, but the recipe for appreciating the productions is simple (though not easy): read your history, give up your fantasies about your own country, and look hard into your soul.
April 17, 2012
The kitten alights on the hearth
upsets the cooking pot
licks itself clean
February 21, 2012
Re-reading Chatwin’s letters. From 24 February 1969, how prescient this passage seems, three days from its 43rd anniversary. Not only does he describe what I see happening, he uses terms that are in the headlines today. Right after he asks you to “…consider the Mormons, who aspire to the Presidency,” he goes on about wealthy jet setters:
They have reached satiation point at home; so they wander – from tax haven to tax-haven with an occasional raid on the source of their wealth – their base. How often has one heard the lamentations of an American expatriate at the prospect of a visit to his trustees in Pittsburgh. The same thing happened in the Roman Empire in the Third Century AD and later. The rich abdicated the responsibilities of their wealth; the cities became unendurable and at the mercy of property speculators. Wealth was divorced from its sources. A strong state took over and collapsed under the strain. The rich wore their wealth, and the governments passed endless laws against extravagance in dress. Compare the diamonds and gold boxes of today, and the aura attached to portable possession. The mobile rich were impossible to tax: the advantages of no-fixed address were obvious. So the unpredictable demands of the tax collector were laid at the feet of those who could least afford to pay.
February 2, 2012
Woman on the train this morning with big brown eyes, a sharp nose, and no chin. Reminded me of nothing so much as those Spy vs. Spy comics in Mad Magazine years ago.
January 31, 2012
Saw three movies over the weekend and they got me thinking about style versus substance.
Beginners stars Ewan McGregor as Oliver, the son of a man (Hal, played by Christopher Plummer) who comes out as gay after his wife (Oliver’s mom) dies. Oliver, a heterosexual, has had problems as a grown man keeping relationships going. No surprise given his parents as models and the role he was force to play in their household growing up. One night at a Halloween party (Oliver dresses as Freud tellingly), he meets a woman who falls for him. She is dressed as a man and has laryngitis so she has to write everything on a pad. Later, we learn she is, like him, unable to be happy in relationships and make them work. But we learn all of this with many jumps in time to pertinent scenes of the past as Oliver and the new girl struggle with their relationship in the present. One of the early scenes is of when Plummer announces he is gay to his son. It is given in several different ways and the narrator admits he is unsure which one is truest to reality. This theme that the past is hugely influential but may not be as one imagines, dictates the many jumps in time and perception. Yet as a viewer, I never felt unsure what timeframe we were in. Masterful storytelling in keeping track of the story even when the scenes were out of the “real time” story being told.
Meanwhile, I was disappointed by The Artist. I had heard as long ago as last year’s TIFF that it was a great movie. Since then, it has won awards and gained word of mouth. Yet the story was as stale as any from the era of movie making in which it was set: the silent era. Using black and white film and no dialog is unusual in this era in which color and sound are easily included in a film. However, it is not the same as clever storytelling, as was used in Beginners—in which characters were also mute (albeit much more briefly). Style is not substance, and Beginners would be a better silent movie in black and white than The Artist was (to put it in the best and most obvious comparison for argument’s sake).
One man who would never be accused of artifice for its own sake is Bill Cunningham, street and fashion photographer for the New York Times. The documentary about him, Bill Cunningham New York, is a compelling study of a man with a calling—not only to recognize and document good fashion but also to do it as ethically as possible. He lives in one room; bikes everywhere on a “no-speed” bike; repairs his darkroom blackout sheet with electrical tape; and eats $3 breakfast sandwiches. As he admits late in the movie, being as ethical as he is is perhaps nowhere harder than in the settings in which he works: New York City, the high fashion business, and socialite balls. But by merely being who he is and standing on it, he inspires almost everyone with whom he comes in contact to set aside preconceived notions and try to see if indeed the emperor has no clothes (or has bad ones).
January 3, 2012
“New Year’s resolation” a resolution that blows your mind (and probably made while drunk). Mine? Be a f*cking saint!
December 9, 2011
Re-reading Spalding Gary’s Swimming to Cambodia, I came across the passage where he meets the Navy guy on a train. I was thinking that the story had taken a hard right turn, but then I remembered what came right before: him admitting he had no idea what Cambodia was but also that he had no idea what America was. So here was an example of what America was and a person sure of what America was. Right after I had that thought, I turned the page, and someone had written in “What does this have to do with the story?”
Spaulding Gray gives a false ending in his book. When he turns the corner and sees the Indian Ocean, he talks about the joy, but then says it was a 9 and he needed a 10 for his perfect moment. This felt a little like cheating to me, but I’m glad that feeling that way helped me to notice it. There is a long history of the false ending in art. One thing it does (in a performance, such as Gray was doing) is wake up any audience members who might be dozing off. “Have we reached the end?” they ask and perk up to get ready to leave.
December 7, 2011
One reason why Frantzen is not appreciated by more Americans is they have no sense of humor. They have no distance on themselves. Frantzen is (like Chekhov) a misunderstood comedian. These are the lives these people lead (the many in their society) and by putting them out there in a work of art, he hopes there is enough distance for people to laugh at the characters’ motives but afterward realize their motives are similar. Their lives are laughable. “You must change your life.” I read Frantzen, relate, and laugh. The irony is I am viewed by many people as overly serious when in fact I see the humor of our American lives more than they do.
November 23, 2011
In the first pages of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, he touches on liberal guilt, the fact that adults are children in the U.S., and the American belief that it is a right to make unbridled profits. He not only has a finger on the pulse of the nation, he has his foot on the country’s throat (metaphorically).
I’m not sure even Franzen could articulate this, but his opening scene to Freedom made me see one social trend that might help explain one aspect of the conservative backlash. In the late 1970s, inner cities were dangerous, and many who stayed did so because they had the working class’s equivalent of a trust fund: a house that was paid for by previous generations and on which they were only paying taxes. In the 80s, gentrifiers came in and put sweat equity into inner city neighborhoods, and the people who were already there now were sitting on houses worth more but also with a higher tax burden. Perhaps this partly explains the many working class voters electing those who cut taxes for the wealthy.
As far as narrators go, Franzen has give us some of the best and the bitchiest. The book grinds to a halt when he decides to change the form to the diary of a main character. Without Franzen’s guiding incisiveness, the tension falls out of the story. To take himself out of the story telling is to rob it of its power.
The “plot” is really just the lives of the main characters living out, but the theme each situation they find themselves in share is how capitalism (and its relationship to politics) taints every interaction in our society. The “main” character is Patty (the diary portion is hers), whose wealthy family decides to sweep under the rug her rape as a teen at the hands of the son of a local politically powerful friend of her father’s. She goes to the University of Minnesota to get away from her family and meets her eventual husband Walter. From a poor, dysfunctional family in Hibbing, Walter wants to do good rather than do well and chooses to do so through politics. But the environmental trust he is hired to run turns out to be a shell game to net its corporate overlords more money. She also meets Richard. An iconoclast musician disdaining mainstream culture, he is (of course) eventual made a cult hero by the mainstream, putting him in a no-win situation artistically. Patty’s son Joey develops a passion for unbridled money making early in life, much to his parents’ dismay. But he (like his father) enters into a business deal in which his partners sacrifice him for their own profits.
In the end, pursuit of these ends causes the family to break apart. When Patty’s dad dies, she has to negotiate the inheritance with her siblings. The management of wealth and passing it on to future generations is maybe the big theme here (“wealth” in many meanings; Walter’s trust is to preserve forest habitat for a rare bird). And it affects the politics of each family and the Family of Humans. How to negotiate that and manage our impulse for greediness is the big question of our day and of this novel–a book of its day.
November 22, 2011
I am a thought articulator more than a story teller. I can get ideas for stories but have trouble making the actual stories. My medium is probably more poetry or even journals (an old word for blogs). As Mencken said of poetry: “Poetry has done enough when it charms, but prose must also convince.”
November 10, 2011
If a blog talks in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a blog is published in cyberspace and no one reads it, is it real?
In cyberspace no one can hear you scream. Or whisper. Or argue for sanity.
November 8, 2011
Media Criticism 101:
Sun-Times headline: “Occupy Wall street slightly more popular than Wall Street.”
Article content: A poll showed OWS was 32% popular and Wall Street 16%.
In other words, headline: “Occupy Wall street TWICE AS popular as Wall Street.”
Media Criticism 102:
Wall Street Journal headline: “Credit Unions Poach Customers.”
“Poach”? This is the kind of arrogance of Wall Street against which OWS is demonstrating. When the banks’ own practices result in customers fleeing to credit unions, the banks blame the credit unions. They instead need to take a look in the mirror.
November 3, 2011
How to incorporate time, the fourth dimensions of art? Her famous performance on skates frozen into an ice block was a way to answer that. She had that problem because her art was not based on the Western ideal of “a person encounters a problem and they overcome it (or not).” So how do you know when it is over? When the ice melts.
The idea for a singing table came to her when frustrated with writing something on an electric typewriter. She put her head on her hand and her elbow on the table and heard the hum of the typewriter’s motor. She spoke of how the little is the big (and vice versa). A bad day writing can turn into an idea for a singing table, for example.
She recently created some sculptures for a Japanese garden as part of an Expo. The garden led from lush beauty to barren wasteland, like the cycle of life. Breaking the pattern of rhyming. Why, she wondered, in Western art is there always “rhyme,” in the sense of connecting one thing to another. In Japanese haiku, it is connecting a thing only to itself, or evoking one thing, In isolation rather than in contrast.
She designed a sculpture for the Japanese garden in which haiku went downward in a straight line of lights in Japanese characters, and when it hit the water, it circled in letters of light in English or another language. She designed a sculpture of metal strips rattling in the wind in trees. Only when seen from a child’s height on the path at the right angle did they line up to portray a Japanese mythic character. She put speakers under a bridge that “played” sounds when you ran your hand along the bridge railing.
Simple ways of creating beauty and reawakening people to the world. This is why she was awarded the Gish prize for “outstanding contributions to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”
In Australia, she gave a performance for dogs. Because dogs listen. Better than humans. They have better hearing. (They may have better focus, but that’s another essay.)
Instead of being called a “performance artist,” she preferred the term “multimedia artist.” That way, she explained, if you write a book, you’re just changing media and people can’t complain that you are not an artist in that form.
She talked about there being no reality. “We’re not even here is my personal belief,” she said offhandedly.
She is known for her incorporation of technology into art. She was NASA’s first ever art-in-residence (and last she admitted). She said that we need artists in residence in other areas and singled out Congress. That got a big round of applause.
She stated simply what I have been struggling to express about life since 9/11. “Fear can make certain people a lot of money.” But she feels people are finally awaking from their fear and standing up to the institutions put in place by corporations and politicians to take advantage of that fear. She said she feels the world has changed more in the ten years since 9/11 than in any other ten-year span.
She lamented that we are losing the human voice, something I identified in a conversation with Jen Neal over three years ago. I naively thought of filling that void by speaking in podcasts and vlogs. But Laurie noted that that is not the human voice any more than an mp3 is music. An mp3 is the compression of sounds so as to be playable on electric media. She talked of how musicians go out of their way to record in a studio in a spatial way. For example, you might put a guitar at eleven o’clock and another at one o’clock. Compression flattens them; they might both sound like they are coming from twelve o’clock. She said she was invited by early mp3 developers to hear her music in electronic form; they eagerly asked her what she thought. She said, “It’s terrible. It’s not music and it’s not my music.”
My wife and I went to see an exhibit of Soviet posters at Northwestern’s Block Gallery this past weekend, and I noticed the irregular lines of letters where the lithograph, stencil, or silk screen had minutely dribbled, scraped, or otherwise affected the paint line. “No computer logarithm can ever reproduce that,” I thought. And that was Laurie’s point. We need to get back to the human mark.
The girl who asked her the question that led to Laurie being silent for one minute could not help but drum her fingers in the silence. This Internet generation needs to be stimulated 24/7, can’t sit still. You will never hear your inner voice that way, nor the voice of The Other.
My wife and I ran home and watched the Robert Wilson documentary, Absolute Wilson.
A Tree is Best Measured when it is Down (CIVIL WAR$).
September 27, 2011
No, really; the final movie was My Worst Nightmare. There’s an obvious joke there. And tempting, too, because I disliked much of this movie. And yet it was not nearly as bad as consistently as some other ones we had seen before our final day (we saw this the same day as Peace Love & Misunderstanding).
The premise (like Peace Love & Misunderstanding) is that an uptight woman gets “thawed” by a wild-hearted man. This being Paris, she is an exacting art gallery owner, and he is a Belgian drunk. Mary asked why I disliked it so much, and I was hard pressed to say. The characters were beyond the level of believability, but not so far beyond that they reached the realm of the comic. Thus, I didn’t believe them before the crisis of the plot got things moving, and I didn’t believe the plot as it unfolded because I didn’t believe the characters. I could not willingly suspend disbelief. I understand that it is a French farce and a comedy of manners, but again, that does not save a film that is not artistically good enough to keep me suspending disbelief.
So: real life and noble ideas (artistic or political) are no excuse for bad art. You can make a god movie about anything, and you can make a bad one about anything. Some of these topics were important to look at. But the look (or looking) has to be interesting, too.
September 26, 2011
Peace Love and Misunderstanding. Actually the title includes an ampersand. Peace Love & Misunderstanding. This was by far the best movie we saw. This is an interesting assessment only if you know that I have a long history of preferring foreign movies and art house films and of disliking mainstream Hollywood movies. This is a mainstream Hollywood movie. But perhaps it is a lesson in why people like Hollywood so much. The main story is about an uptight lawyer (Catherine Keener) who takes her kids to her hippie mother’s (Jane Fonda) in Woodstock because Keener is getting a divorce from her husband. There are the usual and expected and clichéd plot points of Keener resisting and then succumbing to the more laidback lifestyle of the hippie locals. Meanwhile, her son keeps filming video in hopes of becoming a famous documentary filmmaker, and the daughter falls for a young man who works at the local butcher in Woodstock. The daughter is a pacifist vegetarian initially against the young man, but she learns that he does it to keep in business farms like his dad’s, which was taken from him by corporate lawyers. In a later scene, the butcher kills a deer hit by his truck to put the deer out of its misery. The daughter had wanted to try to take the deer to a vet. The butcher says he is on the side of life, neither a protester nor a patriot, just a guy trying to get by.
So many plot lines are hard to bring together, and the director Bruce Beresford makes a wise choice by having the climax of the movie be the documentary film that the son made out of his footage. It actually includes video we have not seen him take, and all are woven into a non-strident film about man’s incredible ability for both cruelty and love. Being Hollywood, it couldn’t leave well enough alone, and there is a tacked on ending where Keener and her kids move in with grandma. But to me the crux was the film within a film. It showed how the youngest, those watching the older generations bicker and make mistakes, find a way of making sense through the new media available to them. Again, I have to emphasize that this metaphorical overlay of the movie is my projection or is there for you to get or not get. At heart, this is a typical romantic comedy plot. There are many funny moments and many touching ones. It was nice to be put through the wringer. I felt like this was the first movie to put me through the wringer. But then I realized it was the first to put me through the wringer emotionally. The others had put me through the wringer aesthetically.
After a quick opening scene in which we learn of the divorce, there are a couple scenes of the car with Keener and her kids on the highway, and then they pass a sign saying “Woodstock 3 miles.” I mean, it’s not rocket science, right, to get a character from one place to another without the audience losing track of where we are. The movies we had seen so far had not been able to do this basic task.
September 25, 2011
Fatherland: A movie more like a photo exhibition. Filmed entirely (barring zoom in and zoom out at the beginning and end of the movie) in the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, it attempts to tell the story of a country through its ghosts. The exercise is not a strained metaphor. In fact, like magical realism in literature, it almost seems best suited for a South American country like Argentina.
The film opens with a montage of government forces attacking the public. It begins with black-and-white grainy film of the 1930s and continues to confrontations that are only months ago. But the modern scenes are shown also in grainy black and white–I think to dramatize how it is a continuous history and not a series of isolated events.
The film then cuts to a descent into the cemetery, which looks, due to its building-like mausoleums, like a city within a city. A schoolgirl in a white school smock that makes her look like an angel waits awkwardly by a grave in front of the camera, and the tension is allowed to build as she just waits for her cue and the audience hears street sounds. Soon she starts to read. At the end, we learn in a burn-in onscreen that the writer was an Argentine politician in the early 19th century. The film then continues to alternate readings beside the graves of the readings’ authors, with long takes of the cemetery life or monuments. These long still shots are beautiful as photographs. The readers are often “dissolved” out of the shot and the shot remains. It seemed an apt metaphor for the country’s people being passed over while the monuments continue to leaders who were involved in wars that often were on or at least at the expense of the public. And the writings seem to reinforce what the opening did: that this division and violence has been a part of the country since its founding.
We went to see it with an Argentine friend of my wife’s, so we got a little extra insight. The quote that was read from Evita Peron (the Argentine leader my wife and I knew the most about) showed her to us in a new light and not one we trusted. Our Argentine friend said that all of the readings surprised her when it was revealed who had written each. She said they seemed to have been chosen to show the author in a new light. She didn’t say, but I made the leap, that maybe the director was trying to show how there have never really been two sides to these confrontations in Argentina’s history. The people who led them, who seem so much one way, were actually shown to have expressed the opposite position in their writings. So: a noble experiment but perhaps one that does not translate well to film. As a film, it was definitely not riveting. It seemed better suited for an installation piece with images of the graves and cemetery interspersed with text. But then, the audience would be limited to those who went to the gallery of such an installation. The idea that film is a democratizing media is a trope. But in this case, it did make available to a larger audience what would have been made available in such an exhibition as I outlined above.
September 24, 2011
After two down and disappointing movies from Africa about or based on true events, I made sure for our next movie we sat on the aisle so that we could leave as soon as possible. We never did.
It was from Iraq and titled, In My Mother’s Arms: a documentary about a man running a humane orphanage in Iraq. In title cards at the end of the movie, you learn that there are an estimated 800,000 orphans in Iraq due to the violence there. The main character houses 32. They tell stories of being in other orphanages, where rape, abuse, and being sold into slavery are common. The man who runs the orphanage is never interviewed one-on-one. Whoever made the choice, I support it: it made the movie not about the “hero” doing the work to save the boys, but the boys themselves, each of whom is a hero for having merely survived and found his way to this safe haven and a way out.
The story begins to focus in on two in particular, the older Mohamed who is a diver on Iraq’s national team, and the young Saif, who has behavior problems due to the lingering trauma of having his parents killed in a bomb attack. It was hard to tell how manipulated the story might have been. I could hear and see jump cuts in the sound and video that might have been splices due to editing or might not. But that is quibbling in the face of what the boys have been through and struggle with every day, apparently successfully, as all are in school and many have jobs or activities like diving that keep them focused.
I have soured a little on the experience of film festivals. They seem to be for the stars and the cult followers. The attendees increasingly seem like aging Asperger’s sufferers, running from movie to movie and comparing punch cards as if it were a scavenger hunt. But I was reminded of what originally I liked about them: seeing glimpses of places to which I would not or could not travel. In this movie, the cameras were rolling on a typical scene of trying to get the boys ready for school when a bomb exploded only a couple hundred feet from the camera. This brings home more than any reportage what effect these random bombings can have on an individual.
Also the camera was rolling on several scenes when the electricity went out. I have not visited for a while a country in which the electricity is dicey, but I have been in Ecuador and Slovakia when each was such a country. It was a reminder of how much we take for granted here. And it is that armchair travel that I think is one of the best aspects of attending movies at a film festival (a fine distinction from attending a film fest—in the compulsive way mentioned above).
September 23, 2011
The second movie we saw was titled Man on Ground. Also from Africa. Also missed the mark. Only more horribly so.
Ostensibly “based on” an incident in which a Mozambique visiting worker was set on fire, this movie seemed about nothing and was also vague about details that the narrative needed to be specific. It opens with a man being tortured in Nigeria. From his head in a bucket of water, he emerges, gasping, from a muddy river. Next we see an African woman with a British accent addressing some sort of luncheon, and her husband comes up afterwards and kisses her. He then goes from their hotel or apartment building (even that was fuzzy) to meet his brother who never shows up. Unclear then, but eventually you are left only with the conclusion that the brother was the man we saw in the first shots. The story is then about the brother’s search for his brother, who has been burned by locals who resent his presence as a foreign worker. But in the mean time, we have to suffer through long slow-mo shots of people smoking, with loud crackling noise effects, a repeated slow-mo shot of a single wooden match being lit, scenes in which one character speaks and a huge gap forms before the other character responds, a bad parody of Pinter pauses or something. I can only imagine the TIFF committee admired the subject matter, which was essentially: Isn’t it ironic that this people who only recently emerged from institutionalized xenophobia (apartheid) are now practicing xenophobia. I had no idea that South Africans were prejudiced against Africans from other nations, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, and this movie did nothing to make me feel any way about it.
This film brought up an issue I had noticed increasingly about film descriptions for festivals or online streaming. They are deceptive. I suppose those peddling them would argue that they have to motivate people to see them, but not at the expense of truth. When we got home, we learned that the main character was a banker who lived in London. None of this was clear in the movie. His accent was British, but most foreigners learn English with a British accent, and a bad South African accent would sound like British to an American ear. But you know you’re not being clear on details when we had an argument over whether he was staying in a motel in South Africa or his wife and he had an apartment in a building. The shame is that we end up talking about such shortcomings rather than films’ often important topics.
September 22, 2011
The first movie we saw was The Education of Auma Obama. The filmmaker did not make clear the relationships of everyone. She also seemed to be coy about the fact that neither Barack Obama nor his mother was interviewed for this. It’s a shame because the story of this woman, Auma, Barack’s half-sister, is amazing.
She was born to a Kenyan mother. The father went to the U.S. for education and came back with a white “wife.” (Not only the filmmaker, but also the polygamous nature of Kenyan life, made unclear the logistics of family arrangements. It probably didn’t help that Barack’s father was also named Barack.) Auma was sent to a private Episcopalian school. But then the family fortunes changed, and she had to go back home. But then she impulsively went to Germany to study at college. She was one of the first Africans studying in a German college when the idea of multiculturalism was gaining hold. Her professor seemed fascinated with the theory and proud to have been one of the fathers of it. But, tellingly, Auma said he seemed more interested in his students as “lab rats” (my words, not hers) than people. But he also said in an interview with the filmmaker that Auma was one of the smartest Africans students he has ever had, so he did seem to remember her. (Yet he did seem obsessed with the idea of multiculturalism as an academic discipline and not the human implications).
Auma went on to become a journalist and a vice for Africa in Europe. I found it odd that one of the group I went to see it with didn’t understand an exchange on German TV by Auma and other journalists. Her point was merely that if the point of view constantly remains the point of view of the colonizers, then the discussion never gets shifted. The Germans (and West in general) claim that Africa benefits by being paid money for, say, their bananas. Auma counters, “What’s wrong with us eating all of the bananas. They are after all native to our land.”
Another disturbing scene was an academic showing a children’s primer on economics and exploitation that said when a buyer buys 30 bananas, 27 of those (or 90%) he gets the profit on, and 10% the suppliers get the profit on. The author of that book went on to be a financial counselor of some sort in the German government. And that book was suddenly banned from being taught in Germany. So, like I am always telling people, we do not live in anything resembling a “balanced playing field” that the capitalists insist we have. The game is skewed to those in power and their friends. And if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand politics.
Barack makes a brief appearance in a video of his visit to learn of his Kenyan roots. Their father was apparently killed in an auto wreck late at night that could possibly have been a set-up murder. This, too, was unclear, as I wasn’t sure who the woman was from whom we heard the story.
In the end, what could have been an inspirational movie about a strong woman leading an amazing life after an amazing journey petered out as the audience tried to keep track of the story’s threads. I was left to make the leap on my own that Barack Obama missed the opportunity to help Kenyans (and by extension all other underrepresented countries) as much as his own half-sister has done.
November 5, 2008
OR: They Call Me PRESIDENT Obama!
I guess that‘s what a little community organizing can do.
I think only longtime Chicago residents can appreciate what just happened. This will sound like hindsight to those of you who didn’t hear me say it during the campaign, but I wanted to wait to see if Election Day proved me right. In a town that a MacArthur foundation-funded study called the second-most-segregated in the U.S., Harold Washington did the unthinkable and won Chicago’s 1983 mayoral election as an African American. His campaign workers went into all-black housing projects and registered voters, and then made sure they were able to vote on Election Day. Obama and his crew did the same thing on a larger scale. Identify those who would vote for you, register them, and get them out to vote. I realized when Washington got elected that there is a huge invisible voting bloc in the U.S.: the disenfranchised. The most obvious example in our country may be African Americans, but the disenfranchised include a lot more than just that. This election, Obama promised to represent the disenfranchised, help them believe it, helped them register, and motivated them to vote on Election Day.
BTW: I have to give a shout out to Chris Robling, a Republican analyst on Chicago’s WGN TV this morning. He said the same thing. Further, he acknowledged that the Republican Party got railroaded from fiscal responsibility to pork and from personal freedoms to “security” (warmongering). That’s exactly what I have against the Republican Party is the railroading. I actually agree with their calls for personal freedoms and fiscal responsibility. What was so irksome was that the Republicans preached one thing while practicing another. It gives me hope that Obama’s call for unity can be met that I found myself agreeing with this Republican’s ideals. The problem in the U.S. is not Conservative Republicans or Liberal Democrats. The problem is those in both parties who sell out principles for easy gain.
Speaking of which: maybe this will teach the Dems that Kerry and Hillary were not options; they were more of the same. I liked Obama’s line this was not a campaign begun in Washington hallways. This was really an independent candidate that a party was forced by its voters to back.
My wife and I spent a lot of time while visiting friends in Canada explaining that the presidential nominee was chosen by Democratic Party, NOT the Democratic voters. We also spent a lot of time explaining that, yes, all Americans were a bit insane the last eight years. We were, too, though we only felt it when we got to Canada and noticed how out-of-step our actions were there. We have been on-edge in this country, taking the lead from paranoid and warmongering leaders. Now, today, we can breathe. Yes, we can.
November 4, 2008
I often call Jungianism my religion, and in my bathroom I keep The Portable Jung edited by Joseph Campbell. The other night I found this: “…the very fact that a problem has gripped and assimilated the whole of a person is a guarantee that the speaker has really experienced it, and perhaps gained something from his sufferings. He will then reflect the problem for us in his personal life and thereby show us a truth.” I was lucky. I followed my heart. I was told I could and believed it. In our society, we are told “Follow the money.” “Follow the power.” “Follow the cameras.” Rarely do we hear “Follow your heart.” Yet that is the only thing that will lead to satisfaction. And, as Jung so keenly notices, it is the only thing that will help other people, too.
October 30, 2008
Haven’t used this blog to plug much, but The Bottle Shop in Wilmette now offers light fare in the evening, and my wife and I had a great experience there a couple of nights ago. We ordered the spicy hummus (which was great) and had them open a bottle of Portuguese Dao wine that was very good and quite reasonably priced. One of the owners, Joe, sat and talked with us about the charms of Europe, and his sitting there with us actually felt like the encounters one has with proud shop or restaurant owners in Europe. His co-owner was named Amy, and I couldn’t resist dubbing it “Amy’s Winehouse.” Anyway, you should check it out. It’s a great place to have a civilized after-work drink in Wilmette in a low-key environment. And that’s a niche that needed filling.
October 27, 2008
Oil and water don’t mix. Oil is called hydrophobic because it repels water. Some college football programs seem success-phobic. This past weekend, we saw many of them rear their heads.
Pitt came into the season everybody’s darling, the pick to win the Big east after upsetting West Virginia in their final game last year and having Sean McCoy emerge as a legitimate workhorse running back. Then they lost to Bowling Green in the opener. But after 6 straight wins everyone was on their bandwagon again. They were building momentum; they were the pick in the Big East again; the opener had been an aberration. But no, the opener had been due to overblown expectations, and now that those expectations were back in place, Pitt tanked against a struggling Rutgers squad. Some teams just don’t do well when they are expected to.
Anyone remember Tommy Bowden?
Another team that fell victim to its own success this weekend is South Florida, which is scrambling to create a new record that no one would have envisioned before they made a program trait of doing it: consecutive losses as a ranked team. Seems every time they get ranked, they lose until they are out of the rankings, when they start to win. After beating Big 12 Kansas at home a couple of weeks ago, they couldn’t stop Big East Louisville this weekend. Guess they’ll drop back out of the rankings this week. I’d put money on them next Saturday.
Northwestern also was also apparently sniffing its press clippings. After surprising everyone (even themselves, if their drill sergeant coach would allow them to admit it to the media) with a 5-0 start, they lost to Michigan State three weeks ago. No shame there, they spotted a good team 17 points off turnovers in the first quarter. But losing to Indiana this past weekend. Shame.
Part of the problem is the bandwagon mentality of the major media which creates the rankings in the first place (the “coaches” poll is actually filled in by his lowest grad assistant). Sports reporters have become celebrities; they’re busy people; they love all sports. They can’t always pay the attention necessary to know whether a college football team called it in during a slim victory or gritted it out during a slim loss. They only read the results—and the opinions of their peers who are in the same boat. And it is the character of a team as a whole (and a program by extension) that determines how they will perform week to week.
A college football season schedule is a high-wire act, and it demands concentration, humility, and good decision-making. These are not qualities that 18- to 22-year-olds are long in. As recent headlines how, they’re more about partying and wanting to feel good about themselves. But it’s also a time to keep learning and to question what others say. I think college football coaches should urge their players to read Beat poet Charles Bukowski, who wrote, “believe you are good when they say you are good, and you are thereby dead dead dead.”
October 2, 2008
Three of my greatest loves in life are sports, the arts and Jungianism. I have often had friends who are fellow fans of sports not understand my love of the arts, and vice versa. But it is the third love, Jungianism, that explains the connection between the other two.
Jungianism (simplified) argues that, just as we come into the world with unlearned instincts or images (Jung calls them “universal archetypes”) of what we fear (spiders, the dark, etc.), we also come into the world with unlearned instincts of what we love. Like fears, these become individualized throughout a lifetime and define who we are by what we are drawn toward.
Being universal, these archetypes and the things they tend toward are personified in many gods and mythical creatures. My tendencies toward the arts and sports are personified by the Trickster: Hermes (Greek), Mercury (Roman), Coyote (Native American), Legmon (Africa), and Ganesha (Hindu). Interestingly, all of these gods in their very different cultures are united by being “in charge” of two particular psychological activities: storytelling and upsets. Thus, my favorite sport is college football, partly because of the upsets. (This past weekend was heaven.)
Some people don’t see Jung’s point, so I’ll present a more practical explanation of my love of college football. I was raised in a household where my dad played tennis and had a copy of The Inner Game of Tennis on the coffee table because it helped improve his game so much. I spent about a month as a cornerback with my high school football team and played several years of varsity baseball for one of the better known coaches in the U.S. (he headed the committee to choose National Coach of the Year). Before spring break, he presented us with a one-inch thick binder of diagrams and text explaining what every player’s responsibilities were in every situation. You were quizzed on all nine. So I learned the inner game of theory, to go with the inner game of player psychology.
I went to a prep school where everybody had to play a sport because so few attended the school (St. Andrews School, Middletown, Delaware, where they filmed Dead Poet’s Society; attendance 250). They stressed the importance of character building that sports taught you. I once wrote an essay about the many lessons I learned from my baseball coach. I argued that baseball was not about home runs; the essay’s title was “It’s Knowing What to Do When You Get the Ball.”
Add it all up and what do you get? Someone who explains to his poet friends his love of college football (and his love of the arts to sports friends) by saying, “What else is a juke, catch or well-timed hit except ballet with a ball. Stanford 24, USC 23 is one of the greatest stories ever told. Even on a team where 21 starters are going pro, it’s that 22nd who is going to be an insurance salesman who the other team is going to pick on and therefore on whom the game hinges. He had better have good character and mental toughness–and the game of his life.”
Having studied and played the game and a variety of opponents, I was thrilled a few years back to discover collegefootballnews.com, who seemed to appreciate this aspect of the game and know that an Arkansas State game held the same dramas as an Arkansas one–if you know how to look. In our current media, teams are viewed as brand names. The same programs get the preseason love due to big PR budgets and lazy reportage. Then when those teams get picked off, journalists slowly weigh down the bandwagon of this year’s up-and-comer.
But they miss the point. The non-BCS schools have the same challenge as the BCS schools each Saturday: to overcome themselves. The media in fact becomes something they have to overcome because they vote the name brand BCS schools ahead of the others from habit. But as this last weekend showed, you don’t know yet which team will keep winning. So how is a defeat of (or by) Tennessee “better” than one of or by Vanderbilt?
This leads to a surprising and uncomfortable conclusion. Keep the bowl system. If my Northwestern team finishes 13-0 and ranked number 4, they still get to be my number 1. The point of college football (played by so-called “student-athletes”) is not to be better than the other teams but to be better than you have been before. That’s a lesson you can apply to any realm of life to which you are drawn after you hang up your cleats.
September 23, 2008
Only in the United States is art expected to imitate life. In Europe and elsewhere, it is a part of life. A well laid-out garden or table setting; a café conversation about a show or book; a spontaneous song in a pub; these are the things that are beautiful and true. It’s no surprise that Frenchman Marcel Duchamp would find art in a urinal.
(My friend Bruce drew a beautiful urinal in high school–again, more interested in the play of light off of the metal surfaces than the subject). But in the U.S., we want art to be representational. Thus, Rockwell is considered “better” than Hopper because his paintings are more “realistic” than Hopper’s. But there’s a big gulf between the real and the true. An even worse strain in American art is its self-righteousness. Joseph Campbell called it not art but “moral pornography.” The man in the white hat always wins. The underdog overcomes. Boy gets girl. Yet this more rarely happens in real life than in fiction. Shakespeare was great because he took his own advice to “hold a mirror up to Nature” and in so doing “I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you.” I like James Joyce because he just presents life and does not judge.
I saw a great movie over the weekend: Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? It’s about a female truck driver who buys a painting that may be a Jackson Pollock. A noted forensic scientist finds strong evidence that it is: a fingerprint matching one on Pollock’s paint cans in his studio; dust on the canvas that matches dust from his studio; etc. Yet the art world refuses to believe that it is a Pollock or (more importantly) even consider that it might be a Pollock. A most telling moment is when a former bigwig at the Met says that art world opinion is worth more than scholarship or science. Also tellingly, a Wall Street investor says that the painting would have more chance of selling if it were signed, even if the signature were a fraud! It is much easier to dismiss somebody than to address their arguments. This art world disdain for facts or others’ opinions is a metaphor for or another instance of the pattern we see everywhere of dismissal: shock jock radio and TV talk shows, newspaper editorial pages, and (most damagingly) politics.
March 17, 2008
In January, we went for a week to the Carribean island country of Grenada, where we rented a self-catering cottage (Mangi House) one hill over from an associated hotel (Cabier Lodge). The next couple of entries will be excerpts from the journal I kept on that trip.
Our trip started in the gray January snow with brown ground and barren trees. Our flight to San Juan was as painless as any in a long while. In San Juan, we had no trouble. Taxi to hotel, check in, get 2 beers and some salt snacks and watch college basketball. Next day, the hotel’s continental breakfast was awful: tiny dry breadstuffs. We first went to a (supposed) American Express office to try to get some Eastern Carib Dollars (ECD), which we would need in Grenada. It was not where Google maps showed it, and it turned out to be a travel agency and that in turn had gone out of business. Our young cabbie, Jose Calderon (the name sounds like a second-rate relief pitcher), was very nice about the detour and when he dropped us to sightsee Old San Juan, he gave us his card to have him take us to the airport.
I felt I had set us back from sightseeing by that wild goose chase and we would want more time, but we quickly tired of Old San Juan. It had narrow streets with nice Spanish Colonial architecture facades. The street bricks were blue-glazed. We saw the old fort and a couple of ferias with cheesy crafts and food stalls. We had a much-needed breakfast at Starbucks (Yes. Starbucks. Me.). Puerto Rico seems decidedly a NON-coffee culture. We split a Ben and Jerry’s malt and went back to the hotel to get our bags. I got a bottle of rum to have at Mangi House. Then I worried whether I could take that through customs. But it was OK. One liter of alcohol allowed.
We had time at the airport, and I bought a hat to protect me from the sun. I felt so middle-aged. We also had lunch and a couple of drinks. I hadn’t realized how undernourished I’d been.
Then we went to the gate, and all hell broke loose. A bunch of young kids had “working dogs.” Mary asked what they did, and the owners ignored us. Then the airline workers said that the flight was too full due to weight restrictions. They asked for volunteers to wait. We, of course, couldn’t because we had Mangi House rented on specific dates and the driver Mr. Japal was waiting for us at the airport. That’s why I booked our seats way in advance. But when we got to the ticket-taker, he said we would not be allowed on because of the weight restriction. I went ballistic. The woman he shuffled me off to just kept saying the same script. She said we didn’t check in early enough. We said we’d been at the airport 4 hours. When did we first arrive at the airport? She asked, and her face fell when we replied “Yesterday.” Mary said if I didn’t calm down, they would never let us on. But I firmly believe the opposite. The two boarding passes she produced right then were because I had the attention off everyone in the five-gate waiting area.
This woman was just the appropriate exclamation point to our very underwhelming visit to San Juan, PR.
* * *
Then the appropriate beginning to the Grenada portion was the fellow on the shuttle bus who engaged me in conversation. His father was a Grenadian political hero, with a street named after him in the capital of St. George’s. He now lives two weeks each month in Florida; two weeks in Grenada. He said if he moved fulltime to Grenada he would miss most about the U.S. the sports. “Any seat I have in the stadium is better than a seat at home,” he answered when I said he could watch via satellite.
On the plane, a gentleman said he was just glad to see that I got on, and the French couple in front of us were as livid as we were because they had the exact same experience. I felt better then about my tirade in the airport.
* * *
Remember when the U.S. “rescued” Grenada in the early eighties? Well, they were mainly protecting the privileged Americans’ kids who go to medical school at St. George’s. That’s who our flight was filled with, and that’s who had filled up the plane with 5 dogs, 2 turtles, and a cat. I only realized in flight that they were lying about their dogs being working dogs in order to have their pets back at school with them after Christmas break.
* * *
So. We arrived to find Mr. Japal. He was the strong silent type. About 6’3″ even at age 60, with a curly cue of gray hair atop his forehead and a very chic white soul patch on his chin. He said his great grandparents came over from India to work on a plantation. But he didn’t know any Indian language, where they came from, what samosa were, etc. We were flying along curvy mountainside roads in the dark, when we suddenly came to a stop. Mr. Japal got out to see what the hold-up was. Turns out a driver of a “bus” broadsided a van. Mr. Japal said he knew both drivers. Mr. J seemed to be a respected elder on the island because traffic started moving again after he went to the crash site.
Along the way, we passed many tiny cinder block edifices on stilts. Fluorescent lights lit a room here and there, and in some people had gathered for Friday Night BBQ and reggae or soca music. Two youths yelled at our car, “Hey, girls.” I guess seeing only Mary’s red hair. Businesses in these tiny shacks had hyperbolic names like “DVD World” or “Blockbuster Music.”
Then we got led through the dark by Mangi House’s caretaker Andy to our idyll. We were exhausted.
* * *
They have these things in Grenada (frogs? bugs?) that have vocal abilities that, frankly, as a former actor, stun me. Every second for hours, they can produce a piercing tone. I finally got up to see what it was and took a flashlight out–and a broom. I was met by two black eyes on a tiny marsupial hanging from our electric wire. (A Sugar Glider, I learned later). Earlier, Mr. Japal had pointed out a roadside fire where people were barbequing. When Mary and I looked over, we saw a denuded rodentia carcass being rinsed by hand with water. “Like possum,” Mr. J explained, but I had seen Web sites that seemed more on the mark: “like an armadillo” (without the shell).
But the little fellow on the electric wire was not my culprit. I traced the peeping to a single tiny bush. I hit it with a broom but to no avail. So I turned on the outside light to get a better look. And the sound ceased. I kept the light on, went to bed, and fell deep asleep.
Until the storm hit…
* * *
Storms in the Caribbean (probably all islands) sweep over with speed and savagery. The island is so small a dot of land in the middle of the sea that the storm acts as if there is nothing down there.
The storm passed, and we awoke to a sunny view from the loft bed of the gardens and trees, the meadow next door with cows, and the sea, with a rock outcropping near the beach and a sea cliff in the distance. Gorgeous. Mary jumped up to make coffee, and I started to get out of bed, only to find myself staring down a lizard. He was in our loft, under the railings. I wanted to shoo him out, but Mary said to leave him be; maybe he was a welcoming spirit. I took to calling him Hermie.
We went over the hill to Cabier Lodge to take care of business. We learned that it is pronounced Ca-Bee-Yay, and our house Mon-GEE (hard G). We took care of some business bought some provisions, and got some ECD. We made an appointment for dinner the next night, and then carried home our shandies (ingredients [in order]: water, beer, sugar, lime, caramel).
Sunday we lay in hammocks. Mary read, and I got all my Hopper blog edited. After another nap, we went swimming at Cabier’s beach. Then we had a rum punch on the deck while waiting for dinner.
I had developed a series of red itching bumps on the back of my hands. I worried that it was the dreaded poisonous manchineel tree, indigenous to Grenada. But Michael, the husband of the couple who ran Cabier, said they were probably mosquito bites. He asked if I slept with my arm out above my head, which I do. He said they bite right through the mosquito netting that I am touching, which I actually felt that first night; it woke me up. The manchineel, by the way, is poisonous. They tell you not to touch the bark or eat the apples. They cause large burning welts and possibly blindness (I read on one Web site).
At dinner, we were put with the English-speakers: 5 of us versus 12 at the German table. One man with us was Phil; about 59, affable, seemed curious and contemplative, like an aging rock star or artist. He was a landscape artist form outside Bath, who now did ecologically sensitive pools. He was here on the recommendation of a friend who stayed on Grenada when he was down here “cabling up the islands.” The other people at our table were also from Bath. They said that English people could get very cheap charter flights from London to Grenada. I realized we were the only U.S. we saw on the island. The ECD is tied to the US dollar, which is at an all-time low against the Euro and Pound. Probably such countries are great bargains for Germans and English (Canadian, too).
The other couple were a college librarian and a professor. (He was not, they quickly added, the gay porn star who had the same name he did.) She had gone to Oxford, though was low-key about it. He had earned all his degrees paying his own way. We all had a great conversation about politics, education and class. Mary and I had not eaten much and been out in the sun and surf. Eveline (the wife of the couple who ran Cabier) gave us two free rum punches for having brought her a transformer, and then we had two caipirinhas (rum, cane sugar, lime juice, ice) with dinner. So our spirits were high. Michael’s caipirinhas were some of the best I ever had. Dinner was Mexican corn bread and barracuda (a bony fish) in a fabulous coconut-cream-and-onion sauce that was flavorful, spicy, and sweet. Dessert was rice pudding. Our table was there long after the Germans had left, and only disbanded because Eveline needed to eat her meal and clean up. We walked home by torch light (flashlight to Americans) talking of how much we’d enjoyed their company. When we returned to Cabier on Wednesday, Eveline greeted us by yelling, “You have an invitation to England.” And waving a piece of paper on which the English couple had written their contact information. I guess they enjoyed our company as well.
* * *
Monday, we went into Grenville. We walked all the way uphill to the main road, which was much farther than we remembered from our first night’s drive in. We passed tiny one-room shack that had signs attached to them saying, “Top up here: Digicel.” Odd to think of so primitive a sight being a place for the latest technology: the cell phone.
Along the way, we passed a young and old man and woman, all four seated on the curb. The older man wanted us to buy his son’s land, just across from where they were sitting. Mary said, “I wish.” And he said, “Well, it’s right there.” As in, “just do it.” Mary explained we didn’t have the money. I told the old joke about wanting enough money to buy an elephant. Don’t want the elephant, just the money. But it seemed expressive of a dichotomy on the island that we noticed. On one hand, it seemed he assumed we had the money. On the other it seemed like “Follow your bliss.” If you want something, go get it. They have this innocence combined with a mercenary tendency.
That dichotomy was perfectly summed up in a phrase common on Grenada “I tink so” (I think so). It can be used straightforward to mean that you think something will happen. But it can also be used ironically to mean that’s unlikely, like “Yeah, that’s gonna happen.”
At the main road, we caught our first soca bus, so-called for the loud Caribbean soca music played on them. All tourist publications make them out to be cramped, loud, and dangerously driven. “Breathtaking vehicular audacity” is how the official guide to Grenada put it. The one we got on had on it only two older people, and was driven by a polite older man who listened to old R&B standards softly. His driving was fine. In general, driving in Grenada was not as scary as portrayed. You drive on the left on narrow hilly curving roads. If you’ve ever driven any of these, you know the conventions that go with it. I’ve driven hilly curvy roads (up mountains in the U.S.) and narrow roads on the left (in Ireland). So I always felt comfortable.
It was almost humorous to see the stoplight in Grenville. It was an old stand-alone model. I didn’t even notice whether anyone obeyed its signals. In Grenville, we started by ducking in a pharmacy. I had noticed that I had a bout of athlete’s foot. But clotrimazole was expensive (though they had it). We ended up buying 2 diet cokes because the young woman who greeted us at the door was so sweet. You don’t see that in retail in the U.S. and probably less worldwide as time goes by: the sales associate who is actually well-dressed, friendly, polite, and knowledgeable. She doesn’t double as the cashier, and this lends a “keeping hands clean” dignity to her role. As we paid, the cashier said, “Enjoy your stay.” I joked, “What? We don’t look like we’re from around here?” I was wearing that hat I had bought in San Juan, and I felt like a schmo.
* * *
You gotta love an honest beggar. We were walking the strip of stores to see what there was and compare prices, when an older gentleman approached us. “Excuse me,” he said. “Do you mind if I talk to you for a while, and I’ll end by being a beggar.”
He said his name and that he was a Grenadian who got his U.S. citizenship by enlisting for the Viet Nam war. Perhaps that explained the deformed right hand with which he shook mine. He (like many people we met this trip) worried about the direction the U.S. was headed, though he threw in more specific city names. He claimed to be a “steel drum musician and intellectual” who had played for Disney and made $5-6 K a week. He told a story of meeting with Disney head Michael Eisner and telling him, “I just wanted to see the man who signed the checks.” He did talk a good game, and he did end by asking for $3ECD for a coke. We gave him 2 because that’s what they cost us at Gitten’s Pharmacy.
We wanted to change some money at Grenada Co-Op Bank, but there was a long line (and people blocking the entrance that had a “No Loitering” sign). Out front, a man gardened using a huge machete. (We passed several men during our visit blithely holding huge machetes; each greeted us warmly).
So we changed money at Scotia Bank instead. No line. Then we went to Imagination Bakery for lunch overlooking the water (and a small boat named “Rambo”). We bought some bread there, too. The school children just let out for lunch pushed their way ahead of me, but the sliding back of the display case jammed, and we all had to wait (including the German or Scandinavian tourists behind me, who were obviously miffed by the lack of efficiency).
Next, we went grocery shopping and realized we had far more money than we needed. Marketing alliteration was everywhere. We saw a cooking margarine called “Cookeen,” and our dishwashing liquid at the cottage was “Sqezy.” We found pre-bottled bitters and soda, with lime. It was like our bitters and sodas at home, only with lemonade or limeade added. Peanut butter is expensive, and crisps (potato chips).
Afterwards, we looked half-heartedly for mementoes and lambie (fried conch). Ended up buying some whole nutmeg and a bracelet for a niece. No one had fried fish for fish and chips. I think the waters were too rough to fish that week. So then we got on our second soca bus. Again, the driver was old, music was soft, we were the only two on it. But it was just sitting at the depot. Soon, then the driver left, a young kid changed the station and volume to loud soca, and right before leaving 12 other people got on. Then more people got on at stops near town. The vans have fold-out seats that make the seats wall-to-wall and people just keep sliding over into each other to accommodate new riders. Now, we were having a true Grenada soca van experience.
* * *
We had caught a bus up to Grenville immediately upon reaching the main road, so we didn’t know where to stop the bus to get off. Form our lana (porch; veranda), we could see on the next hilltop a huge (by Grenadian standards) well-built modern house that was salmon pink. Someone said that he was Grenadian but had gone to Trinidad and made a fortune as the first insurance agent in the Caribbean. So we used that house as a landmark. Except, right when we spied it and were ready to knock knuckles on the side of the van (how you request a stop), we turned sharply right and uphill off the main road. Atop a steep hill, an old white woman with a British accent and a frumpy black T shirt got off at Mama Cannes near the Trinity Church and St. Andrew’s cricket club. Then we came back down, and Mary and I got off at the next turn. Walking back downhill, we saw a burro that we hadn’t seen on the way up and stopped in a shop that we had noticed to have a shandy. It was mid-afternoon, siesta time, and ungodly hot. The woman who sold us the shandies was brought her lunch by her daughter.
Mary and I went home and fell fast asleep. That night, we made rum punches and played Yahtzee. We had to relearn how to play, but ended up loving it and played every day after. Rum is the one hard liquor I like, and Mary is not a big fan, but my rum punches won her over.
* * *
The next day, we had arranged for a local worker at Cabier Lodge to make us a creole lunch at Mangi House. She made curried fish, rice and “local peas,” and a salad of tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers (a variety called “Christofen” [from “Christ fern”?]). We invited her to join us, and for four hours we sat on the porch having her regale us with tales of local life, mostly what it was like during Hurricane Ivan, which virtually denuded the island. Mary wanted to get to the beach that day, and we were too tired and it was too late to go. Andy had stopped by and seemed sad. It threw us off for a couple of hours, but after a nap, rum punch, and Yahtzee we got back in the swing of things.
* * *
Wednesday was our biggest beach day. We packed up headed out and set up on the beach and went swimming. By mid-day, we’d had enough and went home for a nap. Thursday was spa day. We got massages from Eveline (who used to work in a hospital in Austria). Then we had fish cakes for lunch with banana ketchup and goldenapple sauce. Delicious. Followed by nutmeg ice cream. We had some in Grenville and enjoyed it, but this was even more flavorful. We settled up with Eveline, and had some farewell rum punches. Then we went for a swim at the beach.
Andy and his friends were cooking an octopus that his friend had caught for lunch. We told him about the twin girls who showed up each night. On Sunday night they had shown us the short path to Cabier. (We had taken two separate long and challenging paths.) And we had rewarded them with chocolate. They had told us they were 2 of 7 children, including a wheelchair-bound sister. But they were both runners. They ran cross-country (barefoot), and were their school’s stars.
After we swam, Andy came over with a “jelly,” an unripe coconut. With a large kitchen knife substituting for a machete, he chopped a prefect-sized drinking hole in the top. The liquid inside was slightly viscous and sour. Then he cut the shell at angles near the stem and chopped it into three pieces–one for each of us. “Spoon on back,” he said. And sure enough, the arc of the shell where he had cut it was perfectly shaped to scrape out the jelly-like unripe coconut meat. I told Andy he was a nice man. “Sometimes,” he answered. It was the only time I heard a Grenadian admit that the island might be anything less than Paradise.
We came back and fell fast asleep. We both said it was one of the deepest sleeps we ever remember. I don’t even remember dreaming like I normally do; just BLACK. Then we had a final dinner of the tuna salad on toast and a Carib beer. We were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes as we played Yahtzee downstairs during a torrential storm, so Mary suggested we go up under the bed’s mosquito netting. Once there, we felt dozy and tried to sleep. It was a night of broken sleep.
* * *
At 3:30 we got up, showered, packed and lugged our stuff up the hill. Mary said she would rather be a little bit late than early, but Mr. Japal was already waiting when we got there. As we drove, I was surprised at the number of people up and/or on the streets. But Mr. Japal note that many had to travel far. For example, some sell in morning markets in St. George’s, the capitol on the other side of the island. It just seemed appropriate to leave with a reminder how hard life must be for the people on Grenada–like on any island.
“Hermie” the lizard had disappeared on the middle of our stay, but was back in the main room that morning. It seemed to reinforce our fantasy that he was a sort of spiritual guide, looking out for us on our travels at arrival and departure.
So will I go back to Grenada for him to welcome me again? “I tink so.”
November 9, 2007
“Any citizen at all is an artist when he or she cuts through cant, demands quality, and refuses to be anesthetized. … Artists are not those who have taste, but those who do taste, taste and see the world. They do not have special senses, sensibilities, sensitivities; they simply sense as men and women of sense, sensing what goes on, and responding 100%…” – James Hillman
I have been reading Hillman on the repression of beauty. Repression is by definition where you are NOT looking, he points out. It sounds like Algren saying he looked around for those in society that people were doing their best NOT to see. Hillman says that the usual candidates for the repressed are all in the open now: sexuality, family dysfunction, etc. What is absent in discussion is talk of beauty. And not superficial beauty he is quick to add; not the tacked-on sequins or tree in a parking lot. Organic Beauty. Internal beauty. Structural beauty. Louis Sullivanesque form-follows-function beauty. One simple example he gives is not to put a stream in the middle of a lifeless mall. That is Disneyesque he calls it. Make the mall meander LIKE a stream. He also talked of architecture. He called the ceiling one of the sickest things in our society. He said you look up for inspiration; you look up out of desperation; you look up for hope and beauty. You find white tile badly maintained and a patternless arrangement of fluorescent tubes and water sprinklers. I looked up in the bathroom that day and noticed that the cobbled ceiling tiles’ openings mimicked clouds. Maybe unconsciously. He said that ceilings started as tarps thrown between the elements and the people underneath. He mentioned the importance of kings’ tarps and tents. I think it is because they could only usurp gods’ (and by extension, individuals’) power by not allowing people to look up to gods (or inward) for answers to their questions but to rely on the kings for their decisions. He called right angles in architecture “crotch shots.” I made a note to buy faux capitals if my new place has no moldings.
I was thinking today about my Hermes energy as contrarian. Hermes is playful but also challenges the mainstream. He swims against the stream. It is almost like Hermes (if he were a Jungian himself and therefore conscious of this) realizes which direction the current of the masses’ psychology is flowing and purposefully swims against the tide. He is trying to provide balance. Then I remembered he is also the god of medicine, his caduceus is the symbol of the AMA. He is trying to heal society of its imbalances.
We keep hearing how there is nowhere to discover on the planet. Outer space is all that is left they claim. But inner space is there for those who want it. The problem is we raise people so distracted with stimuli that they are never aware of an inner space. Because inside is where that voice lies that says, “Do you really need this?” which consumerism would die without. Inside is where you ask, “is this right or wrong?” which our government would not be able to exploit others as it does if people could hear their inner selves ask.
July 19, 2007
There is “…no great workman in any art, but he sees more with the glance of a moment than he could learn in the labour of a thousand hours.” – John Ruskin
That could be said about John Ruskin, who I just finally got around to reading. I started with his writings on art and capitalism. Much of what he says is still pertinent today. For example, exposing the fallacy of Reagan’s so-called “trickle-down” theory, Ruskin gives the following example.
“If I were to put a turnpike on the road where it passes my own gate, and endeavour to exact a shilling from every passenger, the public would soon do away with my gate, without listening to any pleas on my part that ‘it was as advantageous to them, in the end, that I should spend their shillings, as that they themselves should.'”
He also gives a good example of why the WPA in the 1930s helped make America more beautiful as well as more stable. Ruskin wonders why was “the strength and life of the English operative were spent in defiling ground instead of redeeming it? … [because] the capitalist can charge per-centage on the work in one case and cannot in the other.” “If his labour is so ordered as to produce food, and fresh air, and fresh water, no matter that his wages are low ;-the food and fresh air and fresh water will be at last there; and he will at last get them. … the real good of all work and of all commerce depends on the final intrinsic worth of the thing you make.”
He exposes the absurdities of politics and economies in simple, elegant ways. For example, he imagines countries as neighbors and then asks what we would think of neighbors who spent all their money on guns rather than taking care of their house and grounds.
But his common sense falls on deaf ears. Ruskin laments “it seems impossible to gain so much as a patient hearing of any inquiry respecting the substantial result of our eager modern labour.” This is prescient of the introduction written by one Peter Cain, a professor at University of Manchester (when he wrote this), who called Ruskin’s urgings “an impossibly Utopian demand though Ruskin refused to recognize it as such.”
This unwillingness even to talk about alternatives will be our downfall. In our debates, we have substituted “This is how things are” for “This is how things should be.” We are never going to get rid of the evils of capitalism until we are able to imagine another way to regulate society’s wealth and draw the courage to follow it. There has to be some arbiter better than money whose value is decided each morning by a cabal of economists at the World Bank. As Ruskin points out, “All healthy people like their dinners, but their dinner is not the main object of their lives. So all healthy-minded people like making money … but the main object of their life is not money; it is something better than money.”
We don’t respect enough qualities like compassion, respect, humility, etc. Rather, we worship quantities: vacations, toys, and most of all money. I think reading Hillman again has me thinking again in Jungian terms. I might otherwise never have noticed the dual meaning of qualities versus quantities.
July 16, 2007
The other day I passed someone smoking a cigarette outside the hospital emergency room. How many important moments of our lives are spent in the most mundane surroundings: faceless, efficient, concrete buildings where everyone has to go sooner or later. Is this why we seek beauty and comfort so much when in the parts of our lives that do not require us being at such places? Or is it that we naturally seek beauty and peace, and these places seem so sterile in comparison? Either way, the juxtaposition of places, settings, indicates an important event is happening.
These efficient places are depressing to visitors because they are designed for the needs of the users. The patient is happy that things are sterile and that IV tubes are available. The visitor who does not need them feels unneeded, out of place, an annoyance. Such places creep people out partly because you usually first visit as a visitor. Then you feel Stockholm Syndrome when you finally need the services and wish to be in that place that you once hated being in.
We are born with physical instincts, such as searching for the mother’s nipple and sucking to prevent starving to death. Similarly, we are born with mental images that impel us to action. These are called archetypes. Why do we see in art like Edward Hopper‘s, which is a two-dimensional representation of the planet on which we are all walking, a world that seems more real to us? Because they are painting images that are inside us and not the world that is outside us. In many ways this inner world is more real, if not the only real world.
Carl Sagan used the example of a world that was flat as a piece of paper called Flatland. To Flatlanders, a round ball that passed through it would appear first as a dot then an ever-widening circle, then a shrinking circle all the way back down to a dot. That would be the succession of sections of the ball that intersected with the Flatlanders’ perceptions.
Similarly, nothing about the outer world is seen cleanly in its objectiveness; rather, it touches off the images inside us related to it. An apple looks to our eyes like (among other things), the ideal apple we imagine, the apple on the third-grade teacher’s desk we stared at all afternoon one day, and the juicy living (sex to Christians) that it has come to symbolize because of an apple’s qualities.
So when we look at an Edward Hopper painting, the nostalgia we feel for the old cityscape is ours. The delight and awe we take in the sharply contrasted lighting is ours. And the isolation we see in his characters is ours.
July 4, 2007
On the way to work the other day I dropped my water bottle trying to put it into its holder. It made me scared because my wife would have run over it and crashed had she been following me to work as she normally does instead of taking a day off. It also made me annoyed because it was the latest in a series of instances where I had lost my balance or coordination as I age.
I recently read a book by my favorite neo-Jungian James Hillman because the title contained the life-affirming phrase “The Force of Character.” It turned out the book was about aging, which has been much on my mind since I turned 40. I turned 40 a couple of years ago and immediately began to notice a series of changes in me (despite people saying that 50 is the new 40).
Hillman is relentless in his search for what life-serving purposes our experiences might have. He points out that in our society we view old people only as “dying” when they are still living. He notes that we ask all the wrong questions about old people. How can we keep them from dying? We should be asking, What is the purpose of their still living?
One of the things I don’t remember him discussing is what I and many of my peers have been experiencing recently: losing balance. My wife’s friend who swims a mile a day and eats healthily fell while walking down the steps of her basement. She lives in an old inner-city house with steep stairs, and the fall left her with brain damage and bleeding through her nose. The paramedics said if her husband hadn’t been home to call for help, she might not have made it. She lamented to my wife, “I just turned 50! Is this what it is going to be like from here on out?”
The day we learned about that by phone call, we biked over to buy jewelry from another older friend of my wife’s. That woman had lacerated her face tripping on a flatbed dolly while visiting Mexico. Biking home from her house, my wife hit my back tire with her front one and took a nasty spill, gashing her knee.
So that morning when I dropped my water bottle trying to fit it in its slot, I wondered why I feel so much less coordinated as I age. Our scientific society might argue that the body weight distribution is changing; muscle mass is being lost; and brain circuitry is getting clogged, slowing or skewing the messages that used to get the jobs done. Or they might point to the changes in the balance center, the inner ear. This would also explain why I am showing that senile annoyance with sounds. I seem never to have noticed all the voices, music, power tools, and other loud noises in my neighborhood, and now I hear them all. (My wife calls me “batboy” for my long-range hearing).
But I thought of a different reason why I might be losing balance–physically. Jungianism argues that everything contains its opposite (even human behavior) and that both positive and negative aspects of a pattern must be lived out. If not, the un-lived-out portion goes to the Shadow (the subconscious), where we live it out without being aware of our doing so.
So if I am upset with losing my balance physically, what is the good thing in my life that it might be the dark side of? Balance! I got married at 40 for the first time. Just when I found my life’s partner and achieved balance in my love relationship, I started to lose balance in my physical activities. (When I pour liquid into a cup or mug, I tend to spill or overfill.)
I got a new job at 40 that I love, and my new freelance business is flourishing. Just when I achieved balance in my work life, I started to lose balance physically. (I drop every day items while carrying them at homes: pens, newspapers, etc.)
I recently went to my 25th high school reunion. I went to an all-boarding school, where we bonded more than your average high school class. I had been feeling that I wanted to make these friendships more in real time than in five-year increments, and I was pleased when my classmates said the same things. So just when I found balance in my place in community, I lost balance in my physical life. (Once I went to kiss my wife goodbye from a bike ride and forgot that she was on the side where I had clipped in to the pedal. She had to hold me up and push me back over to my side with the free leg.)
One of the most positive aspects to me about Jungianism is this idea that there is balance (!) in all experiences. In many instances, it teaches you what to look out for from your subconscious, that most effective and stealthy of saboteurs. Any time I experience a series of good things, I think about what their negative correspondents would be to know what to be on guard against form my subconscious. But in this case, Jungianism helped me deal with a negative trend by finding what positive aspect of life it might be making up for–or balancing.
I wonder what will happen now that I see this correlation. Another thing I love about Jungianism is the self-regulating or healing. By bringing things to light, out of the Shadow, they have a way of resolving themselves with the help of your conscious self working with your subconscious. One thing that Jungianism warns is (as Tom waits sang) “if you exorcise your demons, you angels may leave too” because everything contains its opposite.
And so Jungianism helps me to deal with this new aspect of my aging: losing balance. Part of me would like to feel not so bumbling, yet if I became more in balance physically, I might lose that balance I feel in my relationships. I have finally achieved in many aspects of my life a balance that usually only comes with wisdom and therefore with age. Be careful what you wish for you just might get it. In my case, I won’t cry over spilled milk. I’ll smile because it came from the land of milk and honey, and spilling some won’t lessen my good fortune–or my balance.
June 20, 2007
I have been having a lot of talks recently with my peers about aging. I just went to my 25th high school reunion right before turning 43. The 25th reunion seemed like the bigger life milepost. My high school and reunion were not like most. My sisters had a one-night kegger at a state park for their high school reunion. Mine was held at the school itself over a three-day weekend. I went to an all-boarding school, the one used in Dead Poets Society. So we all came back and stayed in the same dorms and created a community again for three days. It’s a little like Brigadoon or a preppy Burning Man. Anyway, I was impressed with how well many of my classmates had held up physically, while others had obviously deteriorated. But one of them mentioned that he had to go back afterwards to his doctor, who would tell him he needed to get into better shape. This sounded like a line from a 60-year-old in a Woody Allen movie. But it is where we find ourselves. Whoever said “50 is the new 40” is fooling himself. But that’s what we Americans do about aging.
I have two older brothers, so I have some examples to watch of what will happen to me. I remember being horrified seeing my oldest brother’s potbelly appear around 40 and equally shocked when it happened to my other brother. I kept my stomach trim, but it seemed slowly to be harder to do, until I realized that it was impossible to do. That was just the way of all bellies and the individual form of our family genes for middle-aged male bellies. I also remembering hearing that my brother who is a year and a half older than I threw out his back doing yard work. I forgot all about that. Until I threw out my own back, too. Exactly a year and half later.
My wife has a couple of friends how suffered falls recently that resulted in pretty severe injuries. Coming back from visiting one of them, she had a fall on her bike. I never thought about lack of balance coming with age, but it does. Coupled with your body’s muscles not being able to do what they used to, it makes falls probable.
That is why I finally “got it.” The other day I went to lift something and took an extra second to make sure that my footing and posture were correct. Another day, I used a step stool and went much slower than I used to and than I felt I needed to. With the baby boomers beginning to reach the older years we will all no doubt soon see an explosion of writing about aging. But in my early twenties, I read the journals of Andre Gide, and was struck by his saying that no one had written about aging and therefore he, as an old writer, was going to do it to fill that void and provide some guidance for future generations. Even then, I was aware of getting older. Living in America, whenever I said this, people rushed to counter it: “You’re not old.” “I didn’t say I was old,” I had to clarify, “I said that I was older.” That was something about themselves that they didn’t want to think about, and so they didn’t want me to think about it either.
Another book that I read recently helped me think about getting older and make peace with it was by my favorite neo-Jungian author, James Hillman: The Force of Character and the Lasting Life. I had had a very busy start to my year and felt I got a little away from my self, my soul, my inner voice, whatever you call it. I have found that Hillman and Jungians always put me back in touch with that. I got the book out because of the title’s phrase “The Force of Character.” What it ended up being about was how the force of character becomes stronger in older years and what those aging years are about. It was a very positive look at the things that happen in old age physically and psychically. Why can’t we lift as much? Are we being asked to let go of whatever burdens we bear? Why do we take up birding, gardening and social causes? Are we getting in touch with the never-ending universals, which we are about to merge with? I find myself stating these points of Hillman’s in rhetorical questions rather than as a catechism of question-and-answer. The point is to ask yourself as you age in your own way, “What lesson might this change be trying to teach me?” Our society is youth-obsessed, and so such questions and their answers have been of interest only to the aging themselves. But as that baby boomer generation ages, look for a lot more people to be asking what purpose aging serves. And why in our culture, the aged are mocked or locked up.
June 19, 2007
Jesus had some revolutionary ideas, so after he was dead, his friends got together to discuss them over dinner. That is the basis of the mass, which is now so formalized and numinous that it has been lifted beyond the practical or realistic, precisely to establish its otherworldliness and therefore its holiness. When in fact, it is just ordinary human behavior here on earth. We miss so much by looking for divinity and direction elsewhere than inside us in the here and now. Heaven, like the past, does not exist.
Taking the el to work after being inside our cocooned air-conditioned blindshaded apartment all weekend is a rude shock. It’s like a Dr. Seuss book. “They’ll bang their bangtoozlers. They’ll play their ipoders. They’ll scream the cellphoners.” In the words of the Grinch, “That’s one thing he hated! The NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!”
“I can’t hear you,” someone on a cell phone said. Well, no shit. You are on a roaring train. Hang up. Why would you think that you would be able to hear someone? I crack my knuckles a lot as I type to keep my fingers limber. I am sure that his annoys some passengers on the train as much as their noises annoy me. But I get relief from it, as they do their noisemakers.
Video screens now pop down from the same panels on airplanes that hold the oxygen mask. It would be poetic justice for our society that worships entertainment and distraction over practicality if, during a crash, the video monitors came down instead of the oxygen masks.
April 20, 2007
We had over for dinner the other night our friend Sallie, who is an architect and a fine artist (paintings and drawings). Sallie had seen the Francis Bacon show in Milwaukee that we had seen (see entry 28 March 2007). She was as impressed as much as anything else by Bacon’s outlandish behavior. But I pointed out that everyone has outlandish behavior; that’s human nature. It’s just that artists are celebrities and therefore put on view and under more scrutiny.
There was a CSI episode in which a family was exposed as neglecting their child to the point that it died. And the mom said to Catherine, “You must think the worst of us,” and Catherine said, “You’re just a normal family under a microscope.”
I noted that we could find 200 self-destructive gays (the implied allegations against Bacon in the show’s signs) in Chicago’s gay neighborhood that night, some of whom might even be painters. But because they are not famous, no one will look at their behavior. This led to a conversation about what is an artist.
My wife believes that a lot of people hide behind the moniker “artist” to excuse their erratic behavior. The arts does attract outliers. On one end, are geniuses and visionaries. On the other are sociopaths. It is easy to claim as an outlier on one end (sociopath) that you are in the arts because you belong on the other end of the bell curve (visionary). I go to art events to absorb the events themselves. Some other people seem to be there to coattail celebrity or some such. At a Ceclia Bartoli concert we saw, one woman in our section kept screaming at the stage “grazie” during the applause for encores. As if she somehow had a connection to Cecilia just by knowing she was Italian. She was acting as if her Italian “thank you” was more important than the other audience members’ applause. It was a way to stand out. It’s about a willingness to give yourself over to the event, not to come to the fore.
I was rereading the art critic John Berger and thinking that I had lost my connection to him while reading his essay “The Moment of Cubism.” But then he started to talk about what art means to the non-art professional and how the projecting onto art of class assumptions has prevented many from seeing its beauty or seeing it objectively. I then remembered why I connected with his works when I read them so much earlier in life. Because he sees the class and power implications that befuddle us when we try to see a work of art as it is and for what it is. Jeanette Winterson did a little of that as well in Art Objects, which I talked about below.
Berger states: “[Art museum curators have a] fantasy [that] weaves around the notion that because they have been asked to accept as a grave civic responsibility [emphasis original] the prestige accruing from the ownership of the works under their roof. … the notion that works of art, before they are property, are expressions of human experience and a means to knowledge is utterly distasteful to them because it threatens – not their position – but what they have constructed for themselves on the basis of their position.
– John Berger, “The historical function of the museum” in The Moment of Cubism and Other essays Pantheon: New York, p. 35.
This recovering of art for everyday people, a sort of Robin Hood of Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural capital, is the upshot of why I undertook my Hopper book–which has never been on my mind so much as now that I have “given it up.” I was on the train listening to my music when “One Place” by Everything but the Girl came on. I forgot that it was that line, “Bruce says we should keep moving on,” coupled with me reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Bruce Chatwin that made me want to pick back up the Hopper material to create something that might mean as much to others as Chatwin’s writings meant to me.
So I had set aside the Hopper material before (a fact that I had forgotten). And I picked it up again because I was intoxicated with inspiration that I might possibly write something as meaningful to others as I had found someone else’s writing. But the problem with that is that the best reason to write is not to inspire others or get famous; it is to say something true and meaningful to you. Maybe that is why I keep bogging down with Hopper. I keep trying to write it because it is a “good idea” for a book. But the idea is unwieldy, and the many things that I put in because “they make good copy” or “others will love it” may not be the passages that need to be there. I should write only what interests me and fascinates me.
I have been reading Paul Fussell’s essay on Orwell as critic, and Cynthia Ozick‘s essay about the debate between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, his rebuker in the pages of Harpers. Meanwhile, I have been reading reviews in various sources.
I have published more than 200 reviews, and I always thought of myself as critic rather than a reviewer. Meaning I was not writing ad copy or fluff or flak. I was writing what I thought about an art work and why. In fact, I quit one job when the editor explained that she had to have an intern “punch up” one of my book reviews. Luckily, I have my day job to fall back on. If no one wants my ideas in the marketplace, I can still publish them in the black market, which is where the only true things get said because of the immense filters on the mainstream media.
I work at a university, and my janitor once talked to me very eloquently about Caribbean music because I was listening to some at the time. I asked his name, and he turned out to be the host of my favorite Afro-Cuban music show on the local public radio station. When I asked what he, an expert in his field, was doing as a janitor in my building, he said “This is my ‘fuck you’ job. I can turn down any gig I want and know that I can still eat.”
Orwell pointed out: “We all live by robbing Asian coolies. And those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all agree that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living and hence our ‘enlightenment’ demands that the slavery shall continue.” Orwell talked about a “power of facing unpleasant facts,” and I think that is what I try to do.
Earlier (entry 25 Jan 2007), I phrased it as, “Truly educated people believe what they do not wish to believe.” Orwell called it a power; Fussell notes the distinction. It is not a facility or a talent. Because we all can see these things; some just choose not to avert their gazes from them.
To then compare Fussell’s even consideration of Orwell’s levelheaded approach toward considering that quality of literature and what it shows us about the world with Ozick’s refereeing between two authors who sound like ten-year-olds in a pissing match is a depressing revelation about how far we have fallen away from quality criticism. Ozick’s perspective on Franzen v. Marcus shows that writers are now more concerned with public acceptance and market share of either the buying public or the critical circle of academics. This is because that is what the publishing institutions are devoted to or beholden to.
That is why I chose eventually to publish in a zine call h2so4. They had thoughtful criticism that was willing to look at unpleasant facts yet remained lighthearted while doing so, an even more difficult feat.
The problem with politics today is not preaching to the converted; it is preaching to the unconvertible. Fundamentalism is the ideology of our time. Ironically, Einstein’s era of “relativity” lasted very short. Until we can face the same “unpleasant facts” that Orwell urges us to, we will continue on a path towards pain. If religious fundamentalists believe so firmly that the world was created by a god of which there is no empirical evidence and dismiss out of hand the large body of hard evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, we will never be able to have rational arguments debates about important political issues that require people to face “unpleasant facts.”
I said earlier that Truly educated people believe what they do not wish to believe. Conservatives are not willing to believe what they do not wish to believe. They are rethinking rethinking the war in Iraq because they have been confronted with incontrovertible evidence. Changing your mind based on a debate beforehand saves changing your mind because of a disaster afterwards. It is this American anathema for changing one’s mind, for debating based on logical premises that has led us to be what Johnny Depp describes as a “like a dumb puppy that has big teeth that can bite and hurt you.”
I have always found it ironic and amusing that the very character who denies evolution in favor of his religion and says that science cannot provide the answers then turns around and buys his pickup based on which has the most horsepower and highest dragging capabilities. That information was only arrived at through the same science that affirms the theory of evolution.
The U.S. is flabby not only in body but also in spirit. I can see it in the look I get when I ask someone why I have to listen to their music on the train, and they reply “You can buy your own ipod.” This material wealth and ease leads people to expect everyone to have the resources that they do to deal with the public space. So we chop up the public space further and further and sell off the lots. We only went to the moon to see if it was worth owning.
April 1, 2007
The genius of the Magna Carta was to hold the King responsible to others by forming a parliament. The genius of the U.S. Constitution was to hold government officials responsible through elections. Corporations are undoing all that (with the help of buying “elected” officials) by dictating worldwide policy while not being elected by everyone in a country. The story of our era was best described in Thomas Frank’s book What’s Wrong with Kansas. Now that democracy offers a vote to all citizens, the politicians work hard to get voters to stay away from the polls and get the ones who do go to vote against their own best interests by introducing splinter issues.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence, by inserting the phrase “the pursuit of happiness,” was the first document to say that governments have a duty to provide for basic emotional needs. Previously, it was assumed that governments only had to satisfy physical need (food, shelter, security).
My wife and I went shopping on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile recently. I noticed in an art studio and then in stores spun glass and blown glass vases. These sorts of fragile baubles are sometimes beautiful but sometimes not. But seeing them in the context of upscale boutique stores and townhouse bay windows made me think that maybe part of what they are is merely objects to buy to demonstrate that you have the tools and personality to take care of things. That is why you see them in the homes of “leaders” of business and politics, to try to dramatize that you can trust them with your money. But the side of the transaction that nobody comments on is the waste of resources in the first place (these vases cost thousands of dollars) to obtain the thing that shows that you know how to save resources. Funny, huh?
I saw a condo in my neighborhood advertised for $309K. I thought that was an absurd price. My wife and I are ready to buy, but not at those prices. This shows up one of my pet peeves about the “free market” of capitalism. Now that money is no longer tied to gold (thanks to Richard Nixon), there is nothing that it is related to except the idea of money itself. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. My wife and I are outliers. Class X as Paul Fussell would call us. So for us who have different idea of what things are worth and what we are willing to do to get things via money, we are punished. People who say that the house is worth that much are those who also say that it is worth it to spend their energy getting that much money for the place. I think that is crazy. But since I am one of the few, I slip farther and farther behind “the market” because the market is just another term for the masses.
March 28, 2007
We went to see the Francis Bacon show at the Milwaukee Art Museum, one of my favorite buildings, designed by Santiago Calatrava. Bacon worked directly on canvases, unprimed, which seems a metaphor for the rawness of emotion in his paintings as well. The canvases have a dark, aged look already, not white and preserved like other paintings. And the paint looks like sweeps of raw emotion.
His most famous paintings feature a roaring mouth and/or a distorted face. Few things are expressive as the human face. Yet to represent it literally on a canvas is to do a disservice to this ability of the human face. For that might convey what a face looks like, but not how it works or what it can do. Bacon distorts the human face to make it more true. Even his studies of heads were as moving as many finished works I have seen.
Bacon’s people (or dogs, etc.) are seen but only half portrayed. The viewers fill in the vision of the object in their imagination. This is always more moving than art that tries to literally represent everything for the audience. But Bacon has got right the massing of the thing. So you willingly make up what is missing.
The people in his paintings are in cut off planes that impersonalize them. They are put into volumes that make them appear to be drowning in tanks of water. They sit in oversized chairs that shrink their humanity like the chair of Lily Tomlin’s little girl character Edith Ann. And yet, the incomplete volumes of the subjects and their surroundings give the paintings and the subjects epic qualities, as if they are growing so large through their artistic representation that their boundaries dissolve. The boundaries are blurred, but the main volumes of the things being portrayed are ok.
The images that Bacon creates that are so unusual that they actually make sense in several ways. They speak of an emotional truth, but also a visual truth, like any good visual artist will strive for. The sweep of one subject’s hair was followed through down the face like a scar the entire length of the face and became the same stroke that created the mouth. There was a visual connection between the two so why not continue the line right through it?
Easy to see a connection between Bacon and Gerhard Richter: the smearing of otherwise recognizable painted objects. In Head 1, bacon paints two very clear intense eyes by pooling the colors black, blue, purple and white. Then he smears the same colors in broad stroked washes to create the backdrop so that the figure seems to be dissolving. The equal but opposite effect is that overall painting’s overall color wash becomes pure and distilled in the eyes, which are the intended focus anyway.
I had noticed once that Van Gogh used a series of vertical plant stalks to make a paradoxically horizontal line across the canvas. Similarly, Bacon uses drips and dashes to create different textures and planes from that of his main subject. For example, he had a painting titled Man with Dog. He used a series of black drips to indicate (what looked to me like) rain on the street surface. Yet a series of white dashes indicate the leash. In a painting of a man and a monkey, he used dashes to great effect to create the visual plane of the cage separating the two. Yet where each had put a hand on the cage was a shared blob of flesh colored paint. What I also noticed is that though the title was Man with Dog, the only thing indicating the man was a squarish green blob that only through the conventions of painting looked like two human legs. The calves were lighter where the muscles would have bulged, and the two sides of the green blob were separated as if they were two distinct legs.
The End of the Line was a painting of Auschwitz. The number 47 and two parts of bodies were shown in a shack at the end of a series of tracks, slats that run in several directions implying something that slips through the cracks. Anselm Kiefer‘s Auschwitz painting also focused on the tracks.
Other connections: Bacon uses patterns on wall paper like Matisse. His two owls painting had a really brilliant blue background that I saw once in a Picasso painting of a portrait of woman, not the usual blue associated with his blue period. Some of Bacon’s color fields reminded me also of Rothko or Edvard Munch.
A program note said that later in life, Bacon used as subjects people and things that were close at hand to him. Older artists do not rely so much on imagination because they realize that they have these things of beauty right before them, and these things of beauty might be going away soon.
My wife and I saw the Bacon show on the way up to the American Club in Kohler, WI, taking advantage of a winter rate sale. The American Club is a five-star hotel about two hours north of Milwaukee. It is in the factory town of Kohler, a municipality owned and operated by the Kohler company, like the town of Pullman in Chicago, built by George Pullman to make plush train cars for the wealthy and make a profit off of his own workers. When they buried Pullman, they had to put on his grave railroad ties sunk in concrete from fear that his workers would dig up his body and desecrate it.
Kohler (they proudly crow in their publicity) wanted to “keep always before his men that they were in America now.” Well, so was he. He came from somewhere else. I may have written this already in the blog, but it bears repeating. Our immigration history is one reason we are the most conservative country on earth. I used to work in the office next to a Greek emigrant, who said that the “Greeks” he saw in the U.S. were not at all like the ones in Greece and much more conservative. They were trying hard to hold on to a culture that they left, but that culture itself had moved on. As he said, “The Greeks in Greece don’t have to prove that they are Greek.”
I saw on the Web site for Kohler Arts Center a John Ruskin quote “Life without labor is guilt. Life without art is brutality.” Labor is necessary but so is beauty. We have forgotten that second half as the enlightenment’s influence wanes in the world. I guess the post-truth era in which we live, when people lie and get away with it to the point that they don’t even try to address reality, might be called the endarkenment.
At the American Club, I used valet parking for the first time. I felt like my car was being held hostage. I know that I have trust issues, but I think that others are in denial to this aspect of valet parking. The things that we take for granted are often the strangest when encountered afresh. That is why I like to travel to very different cultures (in this case, economic class). It reminds me what I take for granted. Because what I see them take for granted there seems so strange.
March 16, 2007
I have given up (at least temporarily) on the magnum opus work about Hopper. I am getting back to writing how I like to write and I how I feel it is right to write. Start from an emotional truth. My poetry was successful because it started with the premise “write one true thing.” Hemingway, however out of vogue, still has something to teach me.
I have anxiety or hopes about still being able to write publishable and/or quality material. Interesting to note from writing that phrase that they are not necessarily the same thing. Something that I know would be revelatory of thought provoking might end up on my blog but never be of interest to a publisher.
Here’s an interesting theory or question. Did many of my generation’s writers (I’m 42) fall through the cracks because just when they were producing works that would be publishable by the old method (over the transom), the very process of publishing shifted due to the Web? The medium is the message. And I feel a shift in what gets published from paper books of complexity to electronic Web posts of snark. My generation may be the last that believes in narrative cause and effect and being able to defend (much less or even explain) your opinions.
That heading can be read with two intonations and therefore two meanings. A book that I very much enjoyed was Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects, in which she had to point out to me that she intended the title to be read with the accent on the second syllable of “objects.”
I feel more like writing in my paper journal than using the computer these days. I can be out in the sunny main room instead of the darker studio. But I could have brought the computer out; it’s portable. Maybe it’s the size of the screen, which would take up more of my field of vision. Or maybe it is that it would demand that I look at the light that its screen generates, whereas this journal page basks in the sunlight filling up the room. It feels good to be hand writing in my paper journal again. Like taking the time to focus solely on the blank page makes the connections in my mind more vivid of obvious. Maybe it’s just that I use the computer for so many other activities that it’s a “don’t shit where you eat” situation. My wrist grew sore from writing so much after being out of practice, but it was a nostalgic sort of sore.
March 15, 2007
I saw an ad in the paper by BP (British Petroleum): “Sugar beet, corn and wheat: our recipe for renewable energy.” Did their marketing people not see the absurdity in that? The company’s position appears to be: “It’s a shame that rich nations are using so much of the world’s resources that people in poor nations have no food, so we are going to solve the problem by creating fuel for rich nations–out of food!”
I have not had time to post about 1984 yet. I had forgotten how great it was in its analysis of politics as it is played. I had also forgotten how well it works as a story–for the first two thirds. After Winston and Julia are detained, the story falls apart for me. Part of its power was the specificity with which Orwell was able to make that world come alive. Once they are captured, they experience traumas that are glossed over or presented in a laundry list. And the ultimate defeat is that the party has something that each person cannot resist the fear of, so everyone ends up betraying someone. But what that is is never shown clearly, beyond Winston’s rat mask.
I have not had time to post about 1984 yet. I had forgotten how great it was in its analysis of politics as it is played. I had also forgotten how well it works as a story–for the first two thirds. After Winston and Julia are detained, the story falls apart for me. Part of its power was the specificity with which Orwell was able to make that world come alive. Once they are captured, they experience traumas that are glossed over or presented in a laundry list. And the ultimate defeat is that the party has something that each person cannot resist the fear of, so everyone ends up betraying someone. But what that is is never shown clearly, beyond Winston’s rat mask.
Why do people on the train apologize when they bump someone, yet not when their music is too loud? Both are invasions of someone else’s personal space. But one is bodily and one is merely sound. Touch is more visceral than sound. Wrestling between combatants can result in death and wrestling between lovers can result in life.
The social contract used to err on the side of caution: “I won’t do this because you might not like it.” Now, it seems to err on the side of assumption: “I’ll do this because you might not dislike it.” At its worst and where the progression is headed, it leads to erring on the side of entitlement: “I will do this, and I don’t care if you dislike it.” This is certainly the message sent by the U.S. Government that does what it please without the consent of foreign governments or even its own people. I suppose that the new social contract involves allowing others space for their noise makers like cell phones and ipods in case you, in turn, want to use yours in public. But where does that leave those who choose not to use them in public or who do not have such devices or cannot afford them?
March 14, 2007
Got out from the library the complete poems of e.e. cummings. I had thought that cummings would inspire me to regain my playfulness with language. Not as good as I remember. But then again, I remember having that same reaction the last time I tried to read his poems. On the other hand, Eliot’s poems seem to become more meaningful as life goes on. Interesting that Eliot should then be the one that academics prefer. They are in midlife. What a difference between teaching what is meaningful to the teacher and what is meaningful to the undergrads.
Hearing this woman behind me describe her first attempt at directing her play as a nightmare. She says that the promoter pulled out two-thirds of the way in. That upset her, which is what it was meant to do. But she took the wrong offense: at the promoter. I see someone like my playwright friend Laurie just asking the promoter in that case, “Is the play just bad?” There’s nothing wrong with being bad. Unless you’re “nice.”
How ironic is it that I came to the local café to write, but I was prevented because of the jabbering of the… writers group meeting here.
“Some people would answer that while professing to be a socialist I am trying to make money: but this is not quite true as they mean it. If I made a fortune it is by no means certain that I would keep it. What I wish to do is to secure a competence on which I can rely, and why I expect to have this is because I cannot believe that any State requires my energy for the work I am at present engaged in.”
Selected Letters of James Joyce, edited by Richard Ellmann, p. 61
March 13, 2007
The U.S. is deep in the throes of the baby cult. I can see the biological basis for this. If we don’t have an impulse to love the little buggers and feed them, our race would die off. But personally, I have never gotten it. I had a friend who pointed out that a lion cub or other wild animal baby seems so pretty to us, yet they often grow up to be horrifying creatures and deadly. Meanwhile, she noted, human babies are the ugliest things on the planet, yet many of them grow up to appear to us as quite fetching.
I don’t dislike children. I dislike parents’ assumption that I adore them, worship them. It belies a deeper assumption that everyone is like you, which in turn belies an unwillingness or inability to consider that other people are different than you.
Another article I read about bad parenting has me revisiting my feelings about this. In a society that grows up with a government preaching might is right (let alone preachers preaching a God who believes might is right), we raise generation after generation of people who only respect (and elect) bullies. This politics/religion makes most sense for us as a country because we had to justify wiping out the way of life of the Natives who lived with a totally different relationship to nature. If we wanted to own buffalo, and they said everyone owned the buffalo, then by God (literally) we would wipe out the buffalo. Maybe this explains why the only leftist pacifists in our pantheon are not white males: MLK, Ghandi, etc. Because to recognize the heroicness of white males like Eugene Debs would be to show the public immediately the shortcomings of their current senators (96% White, 84% male).
I have a similar distaste for artificial drama as for children, and I see a connection here. Every person who ever lived got here by being born. How can it be that special of an event? It’s deifying the normal. Similarly, the art world with its demand to stamp artists and artworks with its imprimatur of “value” just deifies creativity, which is also only a natural impulse. Some have posited that man ought to be called the image-making animal, not the tool-making animal.
March 9, 2007
My wife and I went to the Chicago Art Institute last week on Thursday night, which is the only time it is free. (It used to be pay-what-you-can.) We were surrounded by students, as we expected. The small side photo gallery had an exhibit about color in film. It mentioned that color film was introduced about 1935, but still very expensive and iffy, and that “color photography was shunned by artists until the 1960s and 1970s.” So they did an exhibit based on the people who “embraced” color many years later: William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, etc.
Well, my wife and I had seen an exhibit the year before in Tucson’s Center of Contemporary Photography of photos by Giselle Freund. I had picked the photos not only because we admired Freund’s work, but also because they were of some of our favorite artists. I was surprised to see they were in color. James Joyce had liver spots the same color as my Irish grandfather’s. Andre Gide wore a dashing scarf a unique shade of purple. Freund had “embraced” color long before these people who were being celebrated in a major museum show. In fact, the student showing us the photos in Tucson was not familiar with Freund or many of the artists that we were seeing. She asked when I thought they were from, and I guessed 1939. She said that was probably wrong because not many photographers used color then. But when we got the folio cover it said they were from exactly 1939. How much of artistic fame is serendipitous. The Art Institute probably chose to focus on those photographers it had in its collection. The exhibition sign even coyly notes, “Eggleston[‘s] work Near Jackson, Mississippi was recently acquired by the Art Institute.” But they are ignoring others, like Freund, who not only embraced but even pioneered the use of color.
And so do subtle changes occur in perceptions. And perception is the coin of the realm in the arts.
In one Art Institute gallery, A man walked by and said to his friend that he had up in his living room a painting by a painter who knew Matisse and painted very like Matisse. He spoke like a man who wishes he had an actual Matisse instead, like a man who did not appreciate what he had bought to appreciate, who did not see what was in front of him.
Other people may behave in ways that are strange to us as individuals or a society, but that does not make the people or the behavior bad. Then again, within our daily lives, there may be behaviors that are bad, but we do not see them as such because they are not strange to us.
February 1, 2007
We cram the poor into overpopulated housing and ignore their cries for better lives, so of course they come out screaming in public places. No wonder that they do not know about the social contract; society is not fulfilling one towards them.
The social contract also involves building beauty and giving people access to beauty. The concrete slab buildings going up are a form of contract violation. They supply little lifeless garages in which individuals might store their toys and make life what they want. But outside, the many who have to walk past the façade all suffer the same sadness. Again, because of our era of entitlement, we have been sold the idea that the trade-off is fair. It is life on a sinking ship: every person for herself. My nephew was asked to break the social contract as an exercise in communications class for high school. He had trouble thinking of an idea and then elicited little response when he stood backwards and looked the wrong direction on an elevator. People have no idea what the social contract is any more, so they don’t know when it has been violated.
The middle class does not belong in the suburbs. By making the highway system and suburbia in the 1950’s, the ruling class effectively (though possibly unintentionally) divided those with similar class causes but different demographics. Legislation that affected the cities affected all ethnicities before whites moved out. Thus, they would never have let the changes happen, even if it affected “only” the blacks because the blacks lived nearby even if in segregated neighborhoods. But once the suburbs sprang up and siphoned off the middle classes, the cities were left to flounder. Perhaps, we look at it backwards. Perhaps “poor” is not a euphemism for “black.” Perhaps “black” is a euphemism for “poor.” The ruling classes pit the middle class against the poor to distract them because the middle is the only class large enough to take over the ruling class.
The people getting off of the train this morning during rush hour looked like they were on their way to a pro-boredom rally.
The age of regrets: the 40s, when you start to think you lived the first half of your life wrong just because you want to live the second half differently. The two are not the same.
Life view and occupations are interrelated. The problem with a hunter is he only sees prey. The problem with a preacher is he only sees sin. And the problem with economists is that they only see money. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but when economists are asked to resolve social issues, it becomes one.
I read recently that the American story is one of redemption. I think rather that the American myth is of the windfall. People wait to win the lottery. People sue in hopes of getting unearned money. And similarly they want to gain unearned forgiveness, not redemption.
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never been unfortunate; you have passed through life without an antagonist; no one will know what you can do, — not even yourself.”
January 26, 2007
“No one is surprised to find that a foreign city follows its own customs and speaks its own language. Only a boor would ignore both and blame his defaulting on the place. Every day this happens to the artist and the art.” – Jeanette Winterson
I read in the Reader about a former NEA director who said that the non-profit arts scene is dead. He said that for profit companies will be competing for non profit money. No contest. He also said that the arts are becoming increasingly individualized. Witness my blog. But the problem with his vision (and he was NEA head under a Republican right after the Mapplethorpe et al. scandals) is that both visions rely on “the market.” My individualized blog is only as “successful” as the number of people who want to read (“consume” if you will) it. The only corporate art produced (or reproduced) will be that which a think tank of people grubbing for money deem as “market-worthy” or likely to generate influence. Individualized sources of art that become popular, the money grubbers will buy out. Thus, the cycle always ends in corporations dictating and controlling what is offered as and considered “art.” We need a non-profit arts scene if only as an alternative to that. Children may not like broccoli, but they need the vitamins. The American public might not like certain art works, but they need the freedom of discourse and experimentation. As far as I know, no one is reading my blog besides my friends, family, and associates. However, I have no doubt about the importance of saying what I am saying in here. In a media-mad world, I am a thoughtful reasoned commentator. And like the religious monks in the Dark Ages, I have to keep alive certain ideas or ways of thinking so that when reason is again needed and therefore respected, it is able to be practiced by some who have kept the flame alive.
We think our lifetime is the most important because it is the most recorded. But every age is the most recorded in its time. What will stand the test of time and speak to human nature and the human spirit?
“In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden.
January 25, 2007
Here are some excerpts.
Truly educated people believe what they do not wish to believe.
Thoreau writes, “To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.”
Voltaire: “… it was not enough to introduce one or two of those situations which one finds in all romances, and which always seduce the spectator, but that it was necessary to be new without being odd, often sublime and always natural, to know the human heart and to make it speak; to be a great poet without allowing any person in the piece to appear to be a poet; to know language perfectly–to speak it with purity with continuous harmony and without rhythm ever taking anything from the sense. Whoever does not observe all these rules can produce one or two tragedies, applauded at a theater, but he will never be counted in the ranks of good writers.”
“Until you write, you don’t know what you think,” my friend told his Writing students. Writing is a form of responsibility. It is a form of accountability. When you write on the page in a book review, say, that the author has a strong voice, it forces you to question, “Does she really?” The statement is outside of you and concretized; it is on a piece of paper that anyone can see. If you had said it, you could claim that the listener misheard, that your words were inexact, etc. But when it is on paper, you have to admit that you wrote it (“said” even feels like the wrong verb). Accountability is sorely lacking in our world. It always has been, but its latest incarnation is corporations, who hide behind their sprawling tentacles whenever their corporation commits a crime and claim, “we can’t find the single individual responsible.” Then they ask special exemption from committing the crime because they are not an individual. Politics is about people trying to avoid or displace blame and shuffle off their accountability. It is also about deceiving you that their interests are yours. Salmon Rushdie insists that writing is the single most subversive art. Writing is done alone in a room where no one can tell you that you are wrong or do not believe what you have written. Films, theater, and music require an audience if not a band, and even art invites a viewer. But writing can be done just to write (indeed, some of the strongest works have been meant for private eyes only). Writing is not necessarily done with an audience in mind but rather from the writer having to say what she has to say.
January 4, 2007
Read an article in Harper’s about the History Boys, the movie about a life-changing teacher. Also, I recently twice taught a friend’s class on nonfiction writing. And I received my prep school alumni magazine in the mail. So teaching and education have been on my mind. There was a little blurb on the morning news program that they are encouraging raising teachers’ salaries to $95K a year in order to stay competitive with other nations. Now, that I would be willing to go into teaching for. It is the lack of income and benefits that is the biggest stumbling block. I have no doubt that it be would be rewarding. And I know that I would be good at it.
Higher education is a meritocracy-generating machine, a log-rolling factory. Everyone is “qualified” these days because the definition of education has been watered down to mean professionally trained. We get a certificate. Mine was called an MFA in Writing. But I am a writer who can see the fallacies and syllogisms in the scientific articles and grants that authors submit to me in my day job as an editor. Science needs to be rigorous, but we live in a time and social situation that is not rigorous about education (or much else). Those who pay for a degree get one whether they deserve one because “the customer is always right” and gets what he pays for. Like in the Special Olympics, everyone gets a certificate just for finishing.
Similarly, recently the number of literary “prizes” given out has proliferated. Everyone has to justify their existence and their claim to being the best, so endless rewards and awards are invented to do so. But the number of people willing and able to identify really good writing, that which speaks to the human soul and will stand the test of time, is dwindling. I have found my own way to so many authors who have been revelations that I know that much of the best writing goes unrecognized.
Current political correctness posits that everyone is qualified to judge literature. Yet the burgeoning number of literary awards mentioned above implies that elitism also has its place. The problem with both of these is that they are concerned with being empowered to judge. They are not concerned with the actual act of judging. And judging is not the same as discerning or discernment. A story is neither good nor bad; its telling is. A story’s “message” (political or otherwise) is entirely inappropriate for judging it as a piece of writing; the overall impression that the work leaves is what should be judged.
My favorite book is the ordinary day of one ordinary man. But the way that James Joyce tells Leopold Bloom’s story in Ulysses makes it riveting. There are passages that lull me to sleep, but the overall effect on me is overwhelming and religious. I am loath to suggest that he cut anything. When a critic of his day did, the story goes that Joyce replied, “The book has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Which do you propose I cut?”
Our military industrial complex and technologically revved up world demand that everything be reducible to a sound bite or accountable for a bottom line. Yet who among us wishes to think of our lives or those of our loved ones in those terms? Judging a book by the amount of income it generates on the market is no reliable assessment of its “worth.”
Andre Gide called “journalism: anything that will be less interesting tomorrow than it was today.” I often think about that when writing. I suspect that John Updike will be taught for a hindered years or more because he is so successful now and his work will be analyzed and create a self-sustaining industry. I also have no doubt that his books will NOT be studied in 400 years. They are lengthy and boring and poorly written. The only justification that I have ever seen a reviewer give for their being good is that they capture the “WASP lifestyle.” Again, how interesting will that be tomorrow compared to today?
Faulkner’s speech to the Nobel Prize committee is a better guide of what will live forever about human nature and therefore what should be addressed in good literature. He says, “There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
My most recently published piece (the only bit of my Edward Hopper book published to date) is about my trip to Terre Haute to see the Hopper painting in that city’s museum. But it is actually about the attitude with which I went to the city and the changed attitude with which I returned. My trip to the city as part of a personal quest is not a long-lasting story. The ability to be surprised by places, experiences, and people is. The transforming quality of travel and leaving behind your comfortable home and preconceived notions is.
The article in Harper’s that I mentioned above was the first one I liked under the new editor. I can only assume that the author sent it in that well edited. Lewis Lapham, please come home. The pieces in there under the new editor have been entirely too long and indulgent and about mundane lightweight issues. I am letting my subscription lapse after ten years but will gladly sign up for any magazine that Lapham chooses to edit. Most of the articles that you hear me refer to in Harper’s in this blog are from under Lapham’s tenure. They made such an impact that they are still on my mind this far later. Lapham is a prime example of the themes about which I have been writing: education, discernment, and good literature.
December 7, 2006
Over Labor Day Weekend, I went to Canada to visit some of my wife’s friends from when she lived there for seven years. We were both surprised by how different things felt up there, just a one-hour flight from our home. I want to share some of the experiences and thoughts that caught my attention.
Our hosts asked the first night a question that other Canadians repeated: “Has everyone in the U.S. lost their minds?” It wasn’t until I was sitting there in a foreign country a mere hour’s flight away that I realized and answered, “Yes.” Even I had lost my mind, but I hadn’t known it because I was steeped in a culture where that was status quo. I was anxious, paranoid, on edge, and feeling a confrontation always at hand. The visit to Canada was an eye opener and a bit of an antidote.
Our host Larry said that Canada prefers the image of itself as a mosaic rather than the United States’s “melting pot.” “We welcome every aspect of the cultures that people bring with them, except their violence,” he said. That is the best prejudice, I think. Would that the U.S. replaced its racism with this prejudice.
We almost went to an Iraqi festival in Toronto on our first weekend there. I told our hosts that I was willing, but that they should know I would end up in a photo in an FBI file. They thought I was kidding. In the end, we decided not to go because no food was going to be available. Similarly, I did not duck into a Native People’s store because food was not advertised. On reflection, I wondered if eating from other culture’s foods allows us to feel that we have “internalized” that culture somehow. (_____ See “The Primacy of Food” 11-12-2006)
Maybe one reason that Canada seemed so much saner was that it was so much more laid back. The whole atmosphere is less adversarial than in the U.S., where every interaction seems a confrontation. People crossed in the middle of Toronto’s busy wide downtown streets. And cars stopped! That let me know not only that I was always feeling ready for a fight to break out, but also that I felt everyone in the U.S. was in a hurry, and that had made me hurry too.
Even all the clocks in Toronto were wrong: storefronts, people’s watches on public transportation, etc. They all showed a different time, and many were hours off. It was not related to daylight savings; if so, the clocks would be exactly one hour off, but most were off by more than one hour and many were off in minutes by more than fifteen. It was as if to say that there is no tight schedule to keep and no need to hurry. It made me realize that part of Americans’ uptightness is the mania for clockwatching. (Which comes from the history of being run by factory owners who view a worker’s time as their business’s profit.)
I went to get a stamp at the post office. The man behind the counter was Indian. A Carib had come into order something like a money order. The Carib’s license didn’t match up to what was on the Indian’s computer. “What’s your name?” “Fitzroy Alexander Cummings,” the Carib answered. “Who’s ‘Junior’?” the man behind the desk asked. “That’s me!” the man exclaimed. “I am called junior.” “Well, I am sorry, but I can’t send it if the name doesn’t match. You have to change one name or the other. Tell your sister not to use ‘Junior.’” “My sister,” the Carib shook his head. “She can’t do nothing right. You can’t do me a favor and send it?” “No,” the Indian insisted. “Rules are rules.” “Well, give me a quarter then. I got to call my sister.” And without blinking, the Indian opened up the till and handed the man a quarter.
On one hand, Canadians are law-abiding. On the other, they are law-abiding out of compassion for their fellow citizens. They are not law-abiding in order to assure their personal share of wealth or resources like Americans are.
Canada’s foreignness and separate history were driven home when I passed a man on the sidewalk reeking of liquor and screaming into a cell phone in a British accent, “Everyone knows that the sodden bitch is morally bankrupt. The queen mum has no standing.” I had forgotten how much the British drink and swear. And Canada is a former dominion.
Articles in the paper here use long and convoluted sentence structure. They assume that the reader can follow a thought through twists and turns of dependent clauses. In the U.S., everything is dumbed down. Canadian papers also use old and archaic words and British use. A baseball pitcher’s elbow that needed surgery was described as “wonky.” The quarterback on an American football team was called “the pivot.” They don’t follow American sports as much, and they report on the disabled games. They seem much more aware of others and inclusive.
Even the level of discourse in their letters to the editor is great. Practical solutions that address the fact that developers are ruining everything and that everybody has to get along and be provided for.
Walking in Toronto is a form of therapy. Walking in foreign cities always has been for me. There’s something about keeping your body busy with a repetitive motion so your mind also achieves some sort of equilibrium; similar to religious rocking or whirling dervish dances. Freud’s “talking cure” might work for extroverts and is of interest to the doctor (like Freud) who needs patient input for his studies (and also most likely for is personal voyeurism). But for introverts, or people like me who can get pulled out of themselves in order to please others, walking in silence with myself helps remind me who I am, especially in an environment that shows me who I am not, by giving me time to hear my own voice, as opposed to that of some therapist. Tiring the body, quieting the external demands.
Or maybe walking is just a stage in therapy. The next stage is writing. Listening for that inner voice. Hearing it even more clearly now that I have calmed all of the other inner voices, and hearing what it has to say that is new, having been not only silenced for so long but also exposed to different stimuli of the foreign place. That is what traveling has always been for me. A way to get back to hearing my inner voice.
And my inner voice was telling me that, yes, I like everyone else in the U.S. had lost my mind.
I always have great plans for writing while on vacation. Instead, I vacation while on vacation. I wrote most of this at the Toronto airport, which, unlike ALL American ones, is not blaring TV at a decibel level that cannot be ignored. I need to check into getting Canadian citizenship. Not that their country is not headed down the same slope, with right wingers taking over. Ironically, these notes come at the end of a vacation during which we kept telling Canadians that all Americans were going a little crazy with anxiety about their fascist leaders. And here it is September 11, five years to the day that their pathology started. Last time we were up here was for July fourth weekend, and we both talked about how nice it was to be away from the jingoism of the U.S.
Part of why we went up when we did was to see some films at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which began the second weekend of our visit. The Chicago International Film Festival had been an event for which I cleared my calendar, bought a multiple-entrance pass, and watched movies for two weeks straight. But recently I had noticed that the quality of the movies offered seemed to be sliding. A festival is only as good as its choosing committee. This year, I did not go see one movie at Chicago’s Fest. The TIFF published a large glossy program detailing each of the couple hundred movies it was showing. I made notes about which ones interested me but were playing after we left town. Only two of those showed at the Chicago Film Fest. Which I took as a sign. The whole vibe in TIFF is different. It prides itself as being an international film fest still for the viewers rather than the film industry types. I really appreciated that. The Chicago Film Fest is beginning to feel like it is for a small in-crowd of its planners.
I’ve published several hundred reviews of books and films, so below you can read my take on the movies that I saw. Hope it helps you decide whether to see a couple. (You can get more plot reviews and bald opinions elsewhere. I will just talk about the subtler implications that interested me.)
Venus is a dying breed of story, featuring a dying breed of actor. It is a comedy of manners starring Peter O’Toole as an erudite old actor (Maurice) who becomes enamored of a crass young teenage girl (Venus), the visiting niece of one of his fellow actors. If Maurice was not attracted to Venus erotically, he never would have gotten to know her platonically. Someone I mentioned that to took exception and wanted Maurice to be interested in her as a person or an ideal right away. But that would never be believable in a fiction. It would become a morality play. One thing artists have to ask themselves is, “How would I realistically get this character to do be in a certain situation? After it gets over that hump, the story can show that Maurice is kinder to Venus than anyone else. Her uncle, mother, and even boyfriends treat her poorly. He is the only one who has respect for what he loves. And he teaches her to respect what she loves and to love herself. The two are related. Everyone tells Maurice that he was always more interested in his own pleasure than someone else’s. But first you have to know what you love. Then you have to woo it. His taking Venus to theater can be seen as trying to make her into what he wishes she were. Or it can be seen as trying to show her things that she might like but that others have never exposed her to (maybe by inference because they do not love her properly). Maybe another point of the movie is that those who know to combine erotic love or lust with a true caring for the person who is the focus of that lust are a dying breed–as are the story and its players.
Yokohama MaryThought I’d hate it. Didn’t. Documentary about a bag lady in Yokohama who became a cultural icon associated with the city. She disappeared in 1995. The filmmaker wanted to learn about her. The people we meet who portray a portrait of her are interesting. But we also learn what happened to her. A great example of how even the outsiders have something to offer society and are actually a part of it. Without castoffs, society could not define what it is. That is the whole point of sacrifices and scape goats. I was also surprised at how accepting people were of her and her past. She was well known as a prostitute. She was broke. She had delusions about herself and nowhere to live. But people helped her out. One man interviewed was identified as a sex industry journalist, and someone in the audience snickered. I would have thought the Japanese would be scandalized by such things, but everyone in the movie seemed to accept it without blinking. One geisha recalling her clientele said, “Many gangsters. About half. The other half were cops.” People knew the games that were played to help her feel better about herself. They did it willingly. Being in Canada I think helped me see that such behavior is normal in other countries. It is only the U.S. that ostracizes people for their behavior and makes pariahs of people who cannot afford the daily needs or a permanent address. A person identified in a newspaper account in Toronto was identified as “of no fixed address.” If only the U.S. could be so neutral about homelessness as to put it in such terms. Instead we bandy the word “homeless” Like we do “crazy person” or “murderer.”
Typical Ken Loach: heavy-handed and slow moving. His movies are so over the top in defining good guys and bad that you feel pummeled rather than persuaded. They also are so uninterested in storytelling or willing to sacrifice storytelling for political soapboxing that you don’t figure out key relationships or events until halfway through the movie. God love him for his anti-fascist and anti-empire messages. I just wish he would tell them in a way that made watching his movies satisfactory and might convince more people on their own rather than just beating them with a stick.
Volver is being reviewed all over and will get released to even more reviews. All say the obvious. It is a tale of woman power. It’s a buddy movie, but with women instead of men. They help each other move heavy furniture and bury dead bodies. They help each other with birth and death. I’m not sure what I might add to the dialog about the movie. I thought that my reading of his movie “All About My Mother” published in h2so4 (order Issue 13[?] to read it) was a good subtle Marxist interpretation. But this one I might not be so insightful about. Yet.
Kinshasa Palace was the only bad movie of the lot. Basically a home movie pawned off as fiction, it was not dramatic in any way. “Real life is no excuse for bad fiction.” True for Loach’s film as well as Kinshasa Palace, though one is obviously fictionalized and one only passingly so. Billed as a search for a brother gone AWOL, it was a look at a family brought up apart and torn further apart, both partly due to the family coming from a formerly European colony in Africa: Congo/Zaire. The feelings of the family are of interest but less interesting as fiction and misleading to present them as such.
November 22, 2006
Recently, we in Chicago had our Indian Summer–a pejorative term based on the colonizing settlers’ feeling that the Indians were devious. They were no more devious than the settlers, whose U.S. government broke more treaties with Native Americans (they weren’t even Indians) than with any other nation. I found it fitting then that, while biking to work one day in “Indian Summer,” I saw the following bumper sticker (again, this was before the recent elections): “Should you trust the U.S. government? Ask a Native American.”
November 14, 2006
The Chicago Humanities Festival is going on here. Saturday I went to see documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, Cultural Critic Paul Fussell, and an Ars Antigua performance of Monteverdi’s music in Quigley Seminary’s stained glass St. James Chapel.
Errol Morris was great. My friend Maggie described him as “disarming.” He slouched out dressed in comfy tennis shoes, loose khakis, and a blousy white shirt, and addressed the crowd in the halting style of one who felt uncomfortable in being singled out to be up front rather than in with the group.
He said he would answer a question of his own devising but one he gets a lot in Q&A: Where does he get his ideas for his work? Lots of what he said resonated with my motivations for undertaking my Hopper project (see my blog entry dated 25 August 2006).
He said he made documentaries partly just from being curious about particular things that he had a passion for. He talked about the importance of his non-adversarial interviews to get people to open up, unlike confrontational interviews, the only type you find in the media these days. He even was surprised himself that while interviewing people that way for his documentary The Thin Blue Line, he got people to admit on film that they had perjured themselves at this trial of a man who ended up on Death Row. Interestingly, Morris once was a private investigator to make ends meet between movies. He got people to open up to him then because he (somewhat truthfully) told them that he was a filmmaker, and because he had no equipment with him, they thought everything was off the record.
But he was relating all of these strands to why he was working on his most recent project. He is making a documentary about the photos from Abu Ghraib. I thought that he had an interesting take on those photos. He said that, in 200 years, when textbooks have to run photos that sum up the Iraq War, these will be included. That was a humbling thought. He started the project because he read a Susan Sontag book in which she claimed that a photographer during the Crimean War had “posed” one of two photos he took during a single shoot. One photo shows a road with cannon balls in the ditch along it, and in a second photo cannon balls are strewn in the middle of the road as well. Sontag claimed that the second one was posed to make the place look more dangerous.
Errol read that and asked a simple but obvious question (my favorite kind): Why does she assume that the posed photograph is the second one and not the first? He became obsessed with trying to figure out the sequence of the photos, even traveling to Sebastopol in the Ukraine in search of the spot where the two photos were taken. He never found out, but I like that he followed his passion to try to learn the truth, or at least learn what pursuing the truth could teach him. That is why I undertook the Hopper project.
Paul Fussell wrote a definitive history book about World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, and was a participant in World War II, where he was wounded. Now, he is a professor of English at Penn, but I like best his two slim books of cultural commentary: Class and Bad. The theme of this year’s Humanities Festival was Peace and War, and Fussell made an interesting point on Saturday, which happened to be Veteran’s Day. He said that if you go into the army, you try to find a way to be on the cool side of a war. You can be a cook, or a driver, or have some office job. He pointed out that many people in the army never see combat. He then lamented the trend in reading obituaries of people in his generation where every one says that the deceased was a “soldier in World War II.” He pointed out that very few were actually soldiers, and that those who were did nasty, amoral work that did not demand the best of human virtues, except perhaps courage at occasional times. I thought it was an interesting distinction, especially coming from someone who was wounded in World War II.
Sitting in Quigley’s stained-glass St. James Chapel reminded me how the church was the manipulative media mogul of the Dark Ages. TV and computers are light boxes that are leading us back into Dark Ages, in which the populace is only visually literate. In the original Dark Ages, no one could read or write except the clergy, so the stained glass windows were how stories were passed down visually or reinforced visually when told orally. The stained glass showed different sections as the sun moved across the sky, encouraging people to go at different times of day in order to see different stories illuminated. It was the equivalent of today’s TV trailer, “Don’t miss Jesus Healing the Lepers, every day at 10:30 (later times in winter).” Stained glass was a way of owning and controlling how stories were disseminated and interpreted.
Golden candelabras hung above my head suspended from the vaulted Gothic ceiling. Thus light and air were only above, where the church says heaven is. Promise the people the light and air that they see only in church will be theirs after death if they go to your church. This must have been attractive to people who lived in dim hovels and worked the dark land below them. Light was valued and by extension flames and reflective materials. Thus, the iconography in the church of flames and metals and jewels.
November 8, 2006
No, not about God. The former notion of God is dead or should be. No, he was wrong in saying that whatever does not kill you makes you stronger. He never lived through middle age. I get a flu every winter, and this year’s lasted longer than ever: throughout the entire past month. These days, they don’t want you taking antibiotics or other drugs to kill it off, lest you create a resistant strain. So my doctor did not prescribe any drugs to help my immune system beat the flu. The theory for him and Nietzsche seems to be that I will be stronger by beating it on my own. Yet each year, my bout of flu gets longer and more intense. Q.E.D. Nietzsche was full of shit.
Which explains why I haven’t written on the blog. After finding my voice, I lost my voice. Due to physical illness not mental illness. That’s why I haven’t written. That and still busy at work. But now I have a bunch to post. I often joke that my autobiography will be titled, “Balance Through Extremes.” That seems to be playing out even with this blog. So here is a bunch of material that I have been generating but not had time to post. By the time you get through it all, maybe another big chunk will have been published, so keep checking back.
I continue to take inspiration from Emerson. I always try to go to the original source. Inherited wisdom is one a major problem with people’s visions. It has always been so, but it seems more drastic and insidious and in need of addressing in this era when all major television stations funnel up to only four companies, three of which have extensive government contracts for war (GE, Westinghouse) or sweetheart deals with congress protecting their copyrights (Disney). One should find out for oneself. I will do that and put my musings down not so as to give you even more inherited wisdom, but to inspire you to seek out great works and find how they resonate with you.
I had always heard that Emerson was either a liberal humanist or a Yankee conservative. I found him to be both. His arguing for DIY American can-doism strikes me as odd when he also touts humanitarianism that helps the neglected. He seems to take it on faith (and he was a minister after all) that humans left to their own self-determination will have some sense of helping the downtrodden. Yet he also had to give speeches railing against slavery because he saw that such a belief was in fact wrong. Interestingly, his speech against the Know-nothings not only deals with that but is as good an attack against the rampaging conservatives of our day as any I’ve heard.
“The party of property and education, the Whig Party, have they ever addressed themselves to the solemn purpose of relieving this country of the monumental calamity of slavery? That party has resisted every progressive step. Did free trade come from them — have they urged the great question of reform, the prophetic action of the time? No, they would nail the stars to the sky, and with their eyes over their shoulder, fixed on the past, they adore their ancestors, the founders of the Constitution. Nolumus mutari, we do not wish to change the laws of New England; they wish their age should be absolutely like the last. What does this mean? There is no confession of destitution like this fierce conservation [conservatism]. Can anything proclaim so loudly the absence of aim, of principle? What means this desperate grasp upon the past, if not that they have no hope, no law in their own minds, no principle, no future of their own?”
How interesting that no one today has couched it in terms so simple and clear: conservatives by definition look to take us backwards in time and thus backwards in our humanity in all its meanings. Yet time marches on; it always progresses. Thus, “progressives” are on fact the only hope the race has. If we do not “progress” and you are not for progress, then we stagnate and die. An interesting thing to read on the verge of midterm elections. Emerson also noted, “Plato says that the punishment which the wise suffer, who refuse to take part in the government, is, to live under the government of worse men….” So get out and vote.
Emerson muses that “The soul of God is poured into the world through the thoughts of men. There was a time when Christianity existed in one child. But if the child had been killed by Herod, would the element have been lost?” With so many fundamentalist fanatics in our time, it shows how they focus on the wrong thing. The person and not the creed. I will take an idea over a person any day. And that leads to clarity of thought. Jesus said to respect the poor and downtrodden, and the pope says to deny matrimony to gays. I’ll take the idea over the person and say that the pope is wrong. If we get back to ideas and move away from personality (our era’s cult of celebrity), then we might have a chance.
I read a great essay on humanism in Harper’s a while back and that was a point that stuck with me. To be a humanist is noble but hard. It says that the same ideas and ideals should apply to all humans (thus the name).
I recently signed up for a program where I get a batch of food for the week (three meals) for $65. The woman who runs it also runs soup kitchens and other food programs helping to feed the homeless. If she can find a way to make food available, why can’t the government? She is even turning a profit. Or at least generating income. But it makes me think about the primacy of access to food. As agribusiness gets its fingers around the throat of a world’s food supplies and lobbies to patent genes and seeds, it is becoming apparent the primacy of people having access to their own food. Every household used to have a garden, and the food supply was spread out across the world. There were alternatives. Now, it is being centralized like so many other processes, and many are suffering. This woman is working to change that discrepancy, and I applaud her for it. The FBI meanwhile considers her a possible terrorist. She had posted at the food pickup point an article about who the FBI was investigating as possible terrorists, and included in the list were “organizations providing vegetarian meals to the homeless.” Great, so now a philanthropist is a terrorist.
One problem with the world is that the people outside of power are nicer than the people in. So, of course, they cannot imagine someone stealing an election because they would not do it themselves. Meanwhile, the politicians cannot imagine that anyone would NOT steal an election given half a chance. So they look at the people’s innocence and yearning for justice and peace as a mirage. Or more accurately, they do not look at it at all. They do not see it.
Looking in to the windows of high-rise apartment buildings on my train ride home, I thought about the allure of voyeurism. There are all of these lives being lived that are not ours, and we are curious about them. Because “there but for the grace of God, go I.” Jungianism explains this nicely. Each of us contains all humanity, all human possibilities and potentials. We are designed to live out certain forms and figures (archetypes). And the rest we relegate to the coal bin of our soul, the Shadow. And what is in the Shadow, we ostracize: The Other, that which we are not. BTW: There might be Jungians out there who would argue that I do not properly understand Jungianism. I would argue that they do not and yet they do. Given that everybody is different in their “code” for the archetypes that will light them up when activated, how can we avoid each having an individual form and understanding of Jungianism. To me Jungianism is a replacement for (in addition to being an explanation of) religion. And you will hear a lot of it woven into this blog.