Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Pumpkin Blue...

This past Sunday at St John's - Staten Island was family day, where friends and family of the entire community gathered together for fun and reflection. The reflection took place at the mass that was held at 11:00 to start things off. It was so well attended that they had to bring in more seats after the mass had started. And as the crowd dispersed to the great lawn outside, reflection gradually turned to activity, as the great tent and the bustle greeted us outside.

All through the mass, my almost-three year old daughter, Lucy, kept wanting to see out through the window behind us where they had begun to inflate this large play track. She had noticed it just before the mass started when we were still outside and as it expanded and distended, she could begin to make out the shape of the car that crowned the plastic structure. This drew her attention. This and the ice cream trucks that she saw parked in the driveway. As any child, she was drawn to the activity and impatient of the reflection.

So after mass no one renounced reflection more quickly than she, eager as she was to get outside and see what all the fuss was about. We walked slowly through the student staffed tables, past the bandstand, and found our way under the tent, where we waited for grace. Lucy liked just looking around, being carried, and sometimes walking through the crowds, and she kept asking, "Where is Connie?" and "Where is Harry?" (My colleagues, whom she met last time we were on campus. The memory of them anchors St John's in her thoughts.)

But she also got to meet, as did my wife, Johanna, some of my students, past and present, and their parents. And she loved the band and the flags that were on the table that she waved and brandished.

One activity that occupied her attention more than the others, though, was the pumpkin painting. With Halloween just around the corner and all the stores on 5th ave. in Brooklyn festooning their windows with harvest colors, Lucy is well-conditioned for the season of witches and mellow fruitfulness, as long as that fruit is a pumpkin. We already have a small pumpkin or two around the apartment and she is seeing orange everywhere. So it was no surprise to us that she gravitated towards the pumpkins that were on the ground behind the pumpkin painting table.

And when she saw what the kids were doing with them -- drawing on them! -- she was even more enticed. So she went over, picked out a pumpkin she could lift, sat down at the table, and began to paint...

There were several plates in front of her all with different colors, some containing sparkles, some phosphorescent. The plate she chose was one with a generous puddle of deep blue paint on it, with streaks of yellow swirled in the periphery, from the previous kid. Lucy began to paint, at first tracing delicate vertical lines and applying small and random (to me) dots to the surface of the gourd. But as she became more comfortable and got a feel for the brush and the spherical shape that was her canvas, she began to more liberally and totally apply the paint. She went for completeness, total coverage, and gradually all traces of orange began to be obliterated. She would have me turn the pumpkin to assure that all spots were covered. She did so with care and precision, not with wild abandonment, which was frankly the effect that was achieved. Her method, her technique, if one could call it that, was slow and almost meditative, like some kind of obscure ritual or service that provoked a reflection in her that was lacking when we were at mass.

After one final circumspection, she was done. She put the paint brush down (she was remarkably clean, not one spot on her dress or hands, a testament to her focus and devotion) got down from the chair and had me carry the pumpkin over to where the others were. We told her that it would dry there and then we would take it home with us. She seemed satisfied by this, and we then walked around some more.

By the time we left, we had seen other things, met other people, and had some cookies, and we didn't remember until we were almost home that we had forgotten Lucy's blue pumpkin...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"Brave New World of Digital Intimacy"

Here's an article from the New York Times Magazine section from 9/7 about facebook and twitter and about how these developed and how they have transformed or are transforming the way we communicate.

I was recently reading "A Painful case" from James Joyce's Dubliners, " and found a sentence that reminded me of this article. "A Painful Case" is a story about Mr Duffy, a writer manque, who is engaged in an illicit affair that he rationalizes by seeing it as part of the artist's life he craves. That the woman is married only adds to the charm while also making the affair "safe." Duffy is a portrait of an artist of a different kind. Mr Duffy is forever translating Gerhart Hauptmann's Michael Kramer and he keeps rotten apples in his desk drawer, so that when he is in need of inspiration he breathes in the apple fumes. The latter is a trick that he learned from Schiller, and it is as much this fact as it as any enlivening properties of decaying apple that serves his purpose and his self image. The woman he is seeing, Mrs Sinico seems like she has been written just for him, though her Bovary-like end is more of an inconvenience for him than anything.

But it was the following sentence that reminded me of this article, especially its discussion of twitter and the news feeds on facebook:
He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.
Now twitter and facebook feeds aren't generally written in the third person and the predicates are conventionally in the progressive not in the past tense, but the impulse is the same, to narrate our lives briefly, moment by moment, to capture and encapsulate the on-goingness of life, to telegraph experience, to translate our daily movements into traces of information, to an audience that is out there. And in doing so to see ourselves as writing our lives, as artists do, if only artists of the Mr. Duffy kind.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Lucy in the Park

Lucy and I went to the park this morning, before the thunderstorms that rolled in later that afternoon. We hadn't been to this particular park in a while, though it's the closest one to where we live. But she got it in her head that she wanted to go to the swings and I couldn't say no. I think what she really wanted was to walk down the block, the swings providing a convenient excuse, and since I did too we set out.

It was gray outside, warm and gusty, and I was glad that Lucy had insisted on bringing along her small jacket that for some reason she refers to as her raincoat. As we walked down our block and across 6th ave., Lucy stopped at every house and noted what was already familiar to her (the statue of Mary, the lighthouse on the lawn, the porcelain cat in the window, the house where the kids live, the flag etc.) or what was novel (the car in the driveway, the lady in the window, the streamers hanging from the tree from what must have been a birthday or a baptism, a real cat in a different window). She strolled, she dawdled, she had me lift her up so she could walk on the concrete barriers. Our progress was slow.

In the street next to the park, there was an empty B-16 bus parked in the bus stop. Its engine was off and there was no one nearby. Every time another bus passed it the driver of the passing bus gave a token honk of acknowledgment that was never returned. Lucy is always aware of buses and she duly pointed this one out. And where it was sitting reminded her of the ice cream truck that usually parks just ahead of the bus stop and she reminded me, with a wrinkled brow and a tone of reminiscence that clearly held out hope for the present, of the time we got ice cream. Later when we went to leave, the bus had gone and neither of us had seen it go, though it was visible from everywhere in the park.

When we entered from the far side, over by the checkerboards, we saw no one else except for one young father and his year old daughter who were just finishing up on the swings. We exchanged pleasantries but it seemed strange that we should both be there; had there been a crowd or had it been either one or the other of us, that would have made the scene unremarkable, but there being just the two (four) of us underscored the strangeness of it, and so they left.

Lucy wanted to go on the swing and she loved going higher and higher, and then she wanted to go on each of the four remaining swings as well, relishing the freedom to do so as much as the swinging itself. And then when she was done, we went on the kiddie slide and the other equipment. She also wanted to go on the older equipment, which is usually overrun by the bigger kids. It has a bigger slide and higher places to climb. So we did, relishing as I did the freedom to do so.

We played at various things for half an hour or more. It wasn't until we went over and sat on the bench near the stone frog that the strangeness of it all struck Lucy too. We sat there and chatted, and she kind of looked around from time to time not knowing what to do. The wind picked up a little bit and Lucy got down to make one more perfunctory round of the equipment. But her heart wasn't in it and she only made it halfway up the steps to the slide. Instead she came over and without saying she wanted to go home let it be known that it was time for us to leave.

So we strolled home just as slowly as we had strolled to the swings, and we looked at all the same things we looked at on our way there. And now all those novel sights we saw when we came were part of her stock of familiar things as we returned, except that the lady had left the window and the car had gone from the driveway, but those streamers were still there, blowing more stiffly in the rising wind.

When we got home Lucy related to Johanna with all due enthusiasm what we saw and did, and within half an hour it was pouring.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Research Pedestrian

The Economist ran an interesting piece in the July 19th print edition about the digitization of information and its effects on scholarly production. You can read it here: Great Minds Think (Too Much) Alike.

According to the article, a sociologist at the University of Chicago investigated the process and quality of research in this technological age and found that as more and more scholarly journals and their archives appear online, the scope and variety of citation in published articles has declined. In fact, the deeper the online archive is, the less likely it is that earlier articles will be used. Which is counterintuitive as the ease of access and culture of Web 2.0 would actually seem to contribute to the variety and texture of scholarly citation. What do we make of this?

The author of The Economist article speculates why this might be so:

Why this should be so remains unclear. It does not seem to have anything to do with economics. The same effect applied whether or not a journal had to be paid for. One explanation could be that indexing works by titles and authors alone, as happened with printed journals, forced readers to cast at least a cursory glance at work not immediately related to their own—or even that the mere act of flicking through a paper volume may have thrown up unexpected gems. This may have led people to make broader comparisons and to integrate more past results into their research.
The comments below the article offer some more theories on this phenomenon (not often kindly to the author of the article). One reason for this change might be simply that people are still less likely to see something that they found online as being worthy or authoritative and thus are less likely to cite it. Especially if it comes from an age when it was not "naturally" digitized." The very speed and ease of access somehow makes the work we do seem suspicious and the objects we uncover especially frail. This perception is something that research communities, and tenure committees as well, the latter of which The Economist author mentions, will need to grapple with.

It's as if there is still a latent belief that we must descend into the depths, into the basements, into the catacombs, the libraries, the stacks, passing by gatekeepers and guardians and an entire class of experts trained in their cataloguing and the maintenance of the bureaucracy of access. We don't trust that information has turned into light, that it is transmitted by wave and particle and not requisitioned by slip. If this were true, it would man that academia would be the last of the institutions of culture and society where this recognition has not become commonplace.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Here's a great blog, Funky Sixteen Corners, I just came across while looking for information on the funk band Cymande.

Cymande, from the Calypso word meaning "Dove," was formed in the early 70s in Britain and is best known for their song "Bra," which you may have heard if you saw Spike Lee's 25th Hour.

Here's a great song called "Crawshay" (not "Crawshway"), not that I know what that means...

Anyway, I'm going to go look around that blog...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Anniversary of Andijan Massacre

Three years ago today in Andijan, Uzbekistan, government troops fired on unarmed civilians who had gathered in the main town square to protest ongoing government repression and discrimination against the muslim population by the government of Islam Karimov.

The precipitating event occurred earlier that day when a group of men broke in to the local prison, located not far from Babur Square, the gathering place of the protesters, to free 23 local businessmen who had been imprisoned on charges of belonging to a militant Islamist group, Akramiya. There is little evidence that these businessmen, all of whom were local and successful, belonged to either Akramiya or to Hizb ut-Tahrir, the separatist Pan Islamist organization trying to establish a caliphate in Central Asia, of which Akramiya was supposed to be a local version. The interests of the men and the concerns of the crowd were local and economic.

People gathered throughout the day, including women and children, and the crowd swelled to several thousand. Later that day, the government, fearful in the wake of the various so-called color revolutions that swept the region in the months previous, acted forcefully and without warning, opening fire on the gathered crowds who had been prevented from leaving the immediate vicinity by government-erected barricades. Troops placed armored personnel carriers along Navoi Prospekt to the south, Komil Yashin St. to the west and Kizil Bailok St to the East, drawing the crowd down Cholpon Prospekt, where soldiers fired from the rooftops, and where armored peronnel carriers moved in, and there were even reports of choppers, though much of the information was hard to get at the time, in the beginning, and especially in the days and weeks afterwards.

The official government body count stands at under 200, though I've seen reports as high as 700 and some estimates over a thousand.

In his just-published book Islam After Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia, Adeeb Khalid discusses the causes of the Andijan massacre in the context of a wider view of the clash of Bolshevik ideology and Muslim life in the region. In speculating why the government suddenly became so concerned about Akramiya to the point that they persecuted and arrested 23 of their members, Khalid writes:
So what triggered this sudden burst of persecution? Religiously conservative businessmen who display philanthropy may be significant pillars of American society, but in independent Uzbekistan, they can be threatening to the established order. At the very least, the state saw the businessmen as ideological competitors, but it may have had other reasons for their persecution as well. As we shall see below, the regime has sought to keep the control of much of Uzbekistan's economic activity in the hands of a select few. The success of the Andijan businessmen was unacceptable to those who domiated the city's economy; the men's philanthropic activism made them suspect in the eyes of a state that seeks control over all public life; their piety provided the best possible pretext to frame them. Here is an extreme case of the state's construing unsanctioned piety as a threat and persecuting it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Interview with Sneha Mistri

In addition to a successful pop career in the UK, including the 2004 hit “Intoxicating,” singer, dancer, choreographer, and lately Profesora Sneha Mistri has recently brought her unique brand of music and style to Spain. Since moving to Madrid, the versatile Mistri has been involved in a number of projects, including choreographing and appearing in Salvador Calvo’s 2007 film Masala. The title refers to the popular genre of Indian cinema that blends together elements of all the other genres and this might likewise refer to the way in which Mistri herself successfully blends music, dance, and film as well as a variety of cultures, influences, and styles in all that she does. In addition to choreographing large scale productions such as the recent and successful Suenos de Bollywood, Mistri also teaches Bollywood dance to Spanish locals.

You can check out her official website here and her MySpace page here.

She has just returned from Sweden where she performed in the Oriental Dance Fever Festival and she has graciously agreed to talk with us about her career, about Bollywood dance, and about the state of Pop music today.

Thank you so much for talking with us, Mistri.

How did you get your start as a singer and dancer? Which came first?

Dance came first. I’ve been dancing since I was about 7, started learning pieces for pop songs for the school fete. Then I started Indian classical and realised how many styles of dance made me feel so good, and that I was good at it. Choreographing and trying out new steps became a challenge for me. Of course, in school I was also in the choir, which I enjoyed a lot although I didn’t think of it as a career choice!

Tell us a little about your dance and musical influences.

I’m a pop girl through and through, with elements of everything else thrown in for good measure. I love music and songs that you can “perform” to. I was very much into show artists like Janet Jackson/Madonna/Michael because of the choreography involved. I became interested in Prince when a friend of mine sold me her Sign of the Times cd. I then got hooked on the idea of lyrics and meanings as well of the drama of a song. So all those influences together made me who I am I guess. Someone who can enjoy a song but can make drama out of it in a performance if that makes sense!!

How would you define “Bollywood” for an American audience?

Bollywood is an interesting genre because really in the history of American cinema, we’ve already been there. The old American musicals are basically what Bollywood movies are. The word Bollywood comes from the fusion of the word Hollywood and Bombay which is the centre of the Indian film industry (it’s now been changed to Mumbai but I don’t think we’ll change the word to Mollywood!) A traditional Bollywood movie is family oriented, with something for everyone. Up to 10 songs with full dance choreography, stories of love, deceit, rich, poor……it’s another reason these movies are called “Masala” movies. Everything thrown in!

What drew you to Spain?

I did see an opportunity here to bring Bollywood to Spain. Whereas in the UK the whole Bollywood thing exploded onto the commercial market about 7 years ago, it’s just starting here and I thought I could be one of the first to enjoy the wave!

What’s the reception been like in Spain for Bollywood dance and music? Is there a Desi community in Madrid?

There is an India community here and also a Bangladeshi community but it’s still very much in the minority. Most of my students and people who come and see the show are Spanish.

How is living in Spain different than living in London?

Well living in the city of Madrid has its similarities to London but the weather is the biggest difference. It’s amazing the mindset of a person when the sun is shining. Everything seems a lot more positive and less depressing as you can sometimes feel in London. Of course people are still rushing around, but it’s definitely a slower pace here, especially when you go out of the city.

I’m in Brooklyn where the weather is bad and it’s rushed, so let’s change the subject. Tell us about your involvement in the film Masala. How did that come about? What is the movie about? What role do you play?

I was introduced to the director of the movie through a student of mine (she was his ex-girlfriend). She may have mentioned me to him and at that time he was looking for someone to work with him on a scene in his movie. It was basically a Bollywood dream sequence to be filmed in Madrid that summer. It was sheer coincidence that this happened. The movie is basically a story of a group of kids from differing ethnic backgrounds (Latino, Indian, Chinese etc) who go to a school that is going to close down. The story follows their private lives and dreams as well as their lives together in the school. I ended up singing the song for the dream sequence and appearing in the scene.

How was it working on a movie set? As glamorous as all that, no doubt.

Working in film is never as glamorous as they make out. I’ve worked on film and TV and you only remember the waiting around with a few minutes of filming. We were filming in August in Madrid which can hit 35 degree C and so it was a hot hot hot day and shoot. Of course it’s always fun on set as you can meet some great people.

Would you like to do more film work?

Yes, I do enjoy this medium a lot. I like the team work and the process. Of course it takes time but the end result is always fascinating.

In addition to introducing Spain to Bollywood dance I wonder if there are any Spanish influences you have picked up during your time in Madrid, either music or dance?

I love Spanish rhythms and their passion in music and dance. I have bits of Flamenco in my show and I am planning to learn Flamenco.

What similarities, if any, do you see between Bollywood dance and Flamenco?

Bollywood dance is a fusion of so many forms that its not a question of similarities, it’s a question of whether you include this form in your choreography. A lot of the music in Bollywood now is using a lot of Latin, Arabic and African rhythms and so you will see some aspects of this in the dance form too!

In what ways do all of these cultural influences, not only Spanish, but British, Indian, American pop etc. inform your work?

You are always influenced by all around you. As an artist you take in as much as you can to better your work. It would be sad to say that I know everything about my art as that’s impossible. You can always learn more and better yourself.

Novelist Vikram Chandra writing recently about the uniqueness of what he called the “Indo Anglian novel,” described it as a "form that grows out of interactions between Indian and western forms of narrative." Do you see this same kind of vibrant interaction working in Indian music, pop music in particular?

The problem with pop music is that ultimately it is a commercial product and so you can never be sure what the intention of that singer or writer is. It’s about selling music and image. That makes me sound a little cynical but I totally understand the industry. A lot of the pop music in India is very much influenced by the American industry because the kids are now watching MTV; they are very much clued up about the world and so want that to be part of their music. I was in India in January and was amazed at the music videos I was seeing. The quality is comparable to the American music industry even down to scantily clad backing dancers and BMWs! If this is the vibrant interaction that Chandra speaks of, then I guess it is!

Tell us about Suenos de Bollywood.

I’ve always wanted to put together a dance show and that’s what Suenos de Bollywood is.

It’s a journey through the different sides of Bollywood music and dance from a very classical style to a very funky one and everything in between. My style of dance and choreography is such that Bollywood is perfect for me as I can be so free in what I want to express as there are no limits. There is no “typical” Bollywood dance move -- it’s what you make it! I previewed the show last year and it was a huge success, I’m now tweaking it a little (a bit more time for costume changes is necessary!) And I will be performing it for 5 nights in July with my 8 dancers. It’s gonna be a lot of fun!

Do you think Bollywood has come into its own as an industry or maybe more importantly as a cultural force in the UK and the US?

Definitely. I can also see that in the quality of its movies and music and genres. There are some movies made specifically for the international market. The huge shows that they do are to keep the international fan base happy; there’s a lot of money to be made.

What music do you listen to these days? Are there any artists out there that blow you away? What do you think of Amy Winehouse for instance?

I appreciate Amy Winehouse a lot. Her voice is stunning and I do have her first album Frank and bits of the latest. Unfortunately, as an artist I don’t support her because of the choices she’s making. I really do believe that artists have a duty to be better role models. Of course we are not all perfect but we can make better choices. She has so much going for her, and she’s throwing it all away. It makes me sad that she’s wasting her talent. I listen to a lot of Bollywood music these days purely cos of my work. I’m constantly choreographing for courses and shows. When I take some down time, I like listening to R&B, Hip Hop, Pop, anything. I was at a great concert last week, a Spanish group called Chambao. They are unbelievable – mixing Pop with Flamenco. I highly recommend them.

I think I read that you were in London last summer. Did you get a chance to see any of Prince’s 21 Nights in London gig at the O2 arena? What was that like?

Prince is one of those artists that you appreciate more when you see him live. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve seen him many many times, over 30 for sure, in concerts as well as aftershow gigs. I saw him 5 nights last year and 4 aftershows and I took along with me a different friend each night who had never seen him live. I love seeing their reaction after the gigs because like always he blows them away. I don’t think you can get bored of his performance when he gives it his all, although some of the 20 min jazz jam sessions can get a bit tiresome!

Do you get back to London often?

I come back when I need to, every few months or so to see family and friends and if there are any projects for me.

Where do you consider home these days?

I think just for the language, the UK will always be home, although living here in Spain I’m very happy and content. It’s just that being around people speaking English gives you a different confidence and I only get that in the UK.

What projects are you working on right now?

Basically planning the show in July is taking up a lot of my time! My rehearsals start in a week or 2 so I have to start making all my ideas more concrete!

What does 2008 hold for Mistri?

I’m teaching a lot of intensive dance courses all around Spain. I’m very lucky in that I’m getting to see Spain this way. The people are great! I’m hoping to do a tour with the show later on this year, who knows!

Okay, so you’ve conquered Spain, when will you be bringing Bollywood to the States?

When I get a call, I’ll be right over!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Blog Til You Drop

Blogging: A Cautionary Tale...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Biomorphous Black Monster: Slapdash and Ambiguous

Here's an interesting story out of Russia about a proposed monument to former president of Russia Boris Yeltsin that was rejected out of hand by the competition committee and by representatives of Yeltsin's Family.

After a competition that involved over 6,000 entries, the winner was declared to be the young artist Dmitri Kavarga, whose black metal sculpture was called Biomorphous Black Monster.

Here's a picture I found of the biomorphous black monster on the BBC News website:

It looks like some kind of infernal ab machine, if that isn't redundant. As the article points out, the stated reason for rejection of the BBM was that it has not been 10 years since Yeltsin's death, though why then they were having a contest at all is a little puzzling. In rejecting the proposed monument, a spokesperson for the State Duma's commission for monumental art also called Kavarga's work "slapdash and ambiguous," so apparently there were at least some aesthetic considerations that were made as well.

Kavarga himself said of his work that it "symbolized de­struction and break-down, the swallowing-up of orderliness by chaos." (Again, very much like an ab machine.) And this is a view of Yeltsin's reign that is not unheard of. For anyone interested in learning more about Russia in the nineties with Yeltsin at the helm I highly recommend Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinsky's wonderful book The Tragedy of Russia's Reforms: Market Bolshevism Against Democracy, a gripping and detailed account of the slapdash and ambiguous Yeltsin years.

The statue would have stood in Lyubyanka Square, not far from Red Square and the Kremlin, and in front of the old KGB headquarters, currently the FSB headquarters. For many years, the square was the home to a monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, which was the muscle behind the Red Terror.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

New Kid on the Block

Lucy played with the neighborhood kids for the first time the other day. I mean she plays already, of course, whether at daycare or at home etc. And she has friends, though they are mainly kids of our friends; but yesterday was the first time that she played with the neighborhood kids.

We were walking home from daycare and she saw this older girl (about 8 or 9?) whom she knows slightly, and her brothers, also young -- one is about Lucy's age and the other may be 5 or 6 -- out in front of their house kicking a ball against their front stoop, and she was mesmerized. This was happening a few doors down from ours and she wanted to go down and see (she wouldn't go inside) and when we got closer she just stood there frozen, watching. The girl smiled at her and invited her over, but she didn't go, though I could see her become more alert. I asked her if she wanted to go home, hoping that would prompt her to join the kids, but she shook her head and remained planted, watching them kicking the ball.

She drifted closer to them, almost imperceptibly, while holding onto my finger, trying to be cool about it, but she wouldn't break free and go over. Suddenly, she looked up at me and mouthed "My ball," and pulled me home. She wanted to get her ball and bring it outside. So we went inside and found her lime green rubber ball and when we got back outside she started kicking the ball as best she could, to me mainly, and I kicked it back to her, but it generally went in the direction of the kids. And she wanted to play closer to where they were still playing. And she kept getting closer, until she blended in with them, and then suddenly they were playing together, and I saw the next years of her life laid out there...

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

I Threw Out 50 Books Today...

It wasn't easy but it had to be done. We are bursting at the seams and need to lighten our load.The books I threw out were all old yellowed paperbacks, many with either water damage, bent or ripped or missing pages, or markings too unintelligible to ever be of use again. Some were "doubles" and some were cheap (usually Dover) editions of works that I had in other formats. They weren't even books that could be given away. I would be turned away at any respectable bookstore and probably run off my street if I was to try to have a stoop sale.

But even with the guilt free knowledge of the necessity of it all it was a melancholy day. Out went William Blake; out went Thomas Traherne; Plato was discarded three times over, Edgeworth twice. A water-damaged Mary Shelley was hard to part with as I don't know when I might see her again, though frankly a marked up Norton Critical Edition of Percy Bysshe was a relief to be rid of. I didn't even realize I owned Tom Clancy. Well now I don't. Andre Hodeir argued with me fiercely, but I put him out next to Conrad and some Cavalier poets. The Blind Owl was left to consider the state of dark wisdom from the perch of the Thursday night curb. I threw out 3 copies of Madame Bovary, leaving two behind (all 5 translated by Steegmuller). I threw out a very old very yellowed paperback copy of Harry Kemelman's Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet, a book I acquired more than 10 years ago at the American Studies Department of the University of Innsbruck, where I rescued it from being discarded (it being yellow even then). My goal was 100. I had a quota and conviction. But the more I pruned, the harder it got. I had to stop thinking like a collector and consider the likely use these books would get, the use that *I* personally could give them or get from them, and only such twisted and perverse thinking allowed me to proceed. But it was bibliocide, and my conscience kicked in just as I got to around 50. I turned and looked at a semi-worn Rebecca West. I eyed the cover and the muscular paragraphs and the lithe sentences. I put the book down, and that day I threw out no more.

I can only imagine what it would be like to decimate a library like this, not just a collection. In some ways it would be easier to weed, because you could submit the task to the discipline of criteria and rules, and not get caught up in the erotics of it, the sensual nature of paper and bindings and memories, and the stark authority of it all. You could simply deselect a set number of books and mark each one for reassignment according to such practical matters as how infrequently it has been looked at, or requested, or touched, or how much dust it had accumulated, the dust of its own disintegrating self, loosed from the body of the book and redescended in a certain thickness. As if that was a bad thing.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Lucy and the Senator from New York; or, To Think that I Saw it on 5th Ave.

We went to the Saint Patrick Day's parade today (don't ask) in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and had a memorable time. I took my 2-year-old daughter Lucy along and told her we were going to see the "people in the street," in a tone that conveyed that this was something she might like. In fact, she seemed so eager to see the "people in the street" that she practically pulled me down to the corner herself once we got outside. Johanna had to catch up with us later.

We got there just as the lead police horses were passing by. At the sight of this and the drum corp that followed, Lucy froze in amazement and remained that way for the remainder of the parade. She was most entranced by those horses, by these two clowns who were carrying a green banner and honking, and by this giant eagle that was strolling down the street waving to people. She kept looking down the street after it had gone saying "Where'd he go?" She was also glad to get a yo-yo that was handed to her by an employee of Commerce bank and which was emblazoned with their logo. She later saw a green balloon fly by that someone had let go and she pointed at it and followed it with her eyes as it drifted into the cold blue sky. When the balloon was gone she cast her eyes back down to the street and as she did she noticed these three teenage boys who had taken up a perch on the top of a building across the street. She pointed to them and kept saying "look at the guys!" This was an eventful day.

Towards the end of the parade, after about a half dozen bagpipe bands, several vintage cars, a lot of green hats and wigs, twirlers, vans, the aforementioned giant eagle, flags, and vendors, we saw Senator Charles Schumer walking up the street. Apparently he was born in Brooklyn and still resides in Park Slope, and he was here today in Bay Ridge paying his respects to the Irish.

Just as he and his retinue were passing in front of us, the parade paused. As the Senator was glancing around, looking for a target for his next wave, he saw Lucy who was in my arms in front of the Benjamin Moore paint store. He broke from his people and came over. He asked Lucy's name, complimented her shoes (which we had just bought her the day before at Payless - they are white faux-patent leather, with little mauve flowers on the straps...the Senator has remarkably good taste), and wistfully remembered when his daughters were young. It was a very nice moment and we were thrilled to have talked with him however briefly.

I didn't have the heart to tell Senator Schumer that Lucy is an avid Obama supporter, that every time she sees him on television or in the paper she shouts out enthusiastically, "Barack Obama!"

Kids today. Like I said, memorable etc.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Where My Nukes At?

Here's a story that would send chills down Ted Taylor's back.

The article recounts two "accidents" involving nuclear materials or parts for nuclear materials in the past year or so.

This article is from Thursday, March 27th 2008. Today (Friday) there is an OpEd cartoon in the New York Times about the legacy of Three Mile Island...

What do you think about either or both of these stories, bloggers?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Research Challenge

I can only find the opening lines of Andrei Sakharov's article "Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom" online.

Can anyone do any better?

If you find the whole thing somewhere and post a link, that will count as a blog post.

If you write about it? Two.

He sounds here like a Creative Nonfiction writer...

We regard as "scientific" a method based on deep analysis of facts, theories and views, presupposing unprejudiced, unfearing open discussions and conclusions. The complexity and diversity of all the phenomena of modern life, the great possibilities and dangers linked with the scientific-technical revolution and with a number of social tendencies, demand precisely such an approach, as has been acknowledged in a number of official statements.

The Arms of Orion

Here's some early video of testing that was done on the Orion project, which would have propelled spaceships and more to planets well beyond Mars.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Big Bombs, Big Bomb Makers, and the Sounds of Dissidence

Krystina at "For the Record" makes a good post here about the biggest bomb ever detonated by the Soviets or anyone, the so-called Tsar Bomba, which yielded 50 Mt and was tested in the Nova Zemblya (Russian for "New Land") archipelago on October 30th 1961, the same day as it happens that Stalin's body was removed from its privileged place inside Lenin's tomb to a lesser place outside, near a Kremlin wall. The Soviets claimed at the time to possess an even bigger bomb that would have yielded 100 Mt that they were holding in reserve and whose existence coupled with the testing of Tsar Bomba they were hoping would act as the mother of all deterrents.

This idea of building the biggest bomb possible as a means of ending the nuclear race, as preposterous as it seems, is something we saw in the youthful idealism (if we can call it that) of Ted Taylor as well, as McPhee describes it in The Curve of Binding Energy.

And it seems that the Russians had their own Taylor just as they had their bomb; for one of the scientists who worked on Tsar Bomba was Andrei Sakharov, who would go on to become one of the leading Soviet dissidents and opponent of proliferation.

Sakharov was also a critic of anti-ballistic missile defense seeing it as fueling the arms race and perpetuating the cold war. Not to mention that he saw it as a policy that would inexorably lead to nuclear confrontation. ABM defense was to Sakharov what safeguards were to Taylor.

Sakharov's words and activities led to his arrest and internal exile in 1980, from which he was not to be released until December of 1986 by Mikhail Gorbachev, during the early years of perestroika and glasnost.

And for those of us who wonder and worry (as does the Amazon reviewer) about the potential dangers of breached nuclear secrets documented in McPhee's 1974 book for all to see and the danger such openness generally poses to an open and democratic society, we might consider these words from Sakharov:

The second basic thesis is that intellectual freedom is essential to human society — freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices. Such a trinity of freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorship. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economics and culture.

Sakharov died on December 14th 1989, 164 years to the day after the Decembrist uprising shook the Russian monarchy in Moscow.

Friday, March 14, 2008

"And poor old Homer blind, blind as a bat"

An Op Ed in today's New York Times provides a different perspective on the downfall of Eliot Spitzer and the subsequent rise of David Paterson, the blind, African American Lieutenant Governor suddenly thrust into the spotlight The mainstream media has largely mined the incident for all its salacious details regarding Spitzer and "Kristen," reviving a kind of news tabloidism not seen since the mid-nineties, but Stephen Kuusisto here gives us our first real view of Paterson and attempts to discuss what he says will be harder for the public to deal with than even his race: his blindness.

Kuusisto, who is blind himself and thus speaks from experience and with authority, describes the challenges that Paterson faces every day:

I can’t afford forgotten things. Blind folks must constantly keep track of what we learn and memorize our surroundings. For us, an unfamiliar setting that a sighted person could map out in a glance is a puzzle that requires agile problem-solving. On occasion we even need to ask strangers for advice.

And what is perhaps more important for our immediate purposes, and I suppose related in some obscure way, is that Kuusisto also teaches Creative Nonfiction (which the NYT editors see fit to put in lower case) at the University of Iowa.

And I was struck by how all that Kuusisto says here applies to the writer in general, but how it particularly applies to the Creative Nonfiction writer, who is constantly probing what they see, the received, the perceived. Writers must not take the world around them as an end, but get beneath it in whatever way they can. Rather than being complacent in what they have seen, the Creative Nonfiction writer must constantly ask "What is it I have seen?" to reapply an interrogative formulated by Francois Hartog.

The urge to see and the lack of satisfaction with what we do see should guide all of our writing efforts, as we see in this famous account of a student learning to see what was before his eyes.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Henry Street Settlement and The Big Give

Yesterday on The Oprah Winfrey show there was a segment promoting Oprah's new philanthropic reality show "The Big Give." It showed a brief clip of a shipment of shoes being delivered to The Henry Street Settlement.

Here's a link to an article that says more about it.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Still in NYC

Here's a video that harks back to the days of Candid Camera...

Performance artists and installation artists have always been drawn to the activity and bustle of NYC. Not too long ago we had Christos and the orange gates that he spread through central park like construction cones on the BQE. Now we get this group performance piece that has the opposite effect: rather than pathways being highlighted in bright flappy orange, human barriers suddenly materialize in the paths of thousands of New Yorkers in one of the most heavily trafficked places in the city.

But although the stunt is revealed at the end of the clip and people clap, perhaps the best analogy is not the "gotcha" humor of Candid Camera so much as the clever hoaxes recorded in Herbert Asbury's All Around the Town. I am thinking especially of "The Sawing Off of Manhattan Island," a story about two clever con men who, according to Asbury and his source, manage to convince a large number of people to take seriously the notion of cutting Manhattan Island off, floating it out to sea, hooking it past Governor's Island, and floating it back to reconnect to the mainland. The con men convince people that this is the only way to redistribute the weight that had thrown lower Manhattan out of balance in the 1800s because of increased traffic and construction.

The story climaxes with thousands of ready-to-saw New Yorkers gathered in midtown waiting to take their orders from the two con men, who by this time have long since absconded, their hoax having been played out.

Of course, the hoax is directed as much at the gullible reader as it is at the contemporary New Yorkers who are left wandering around, no doubt seething and filled with thoughts of vengeance and humiliation. Who, after all, would believe that such mass gullibility could exist? Who in their right mind would follow such patently absurd logic? How could two con men mobilize such large numbers of civic minded people in a scheme so hairbrained?

Anyway, the piece of performance art in this clip is more a hoax than anything, especially since the target is not a single person like it is on CC, but rather a large number of people, who are confronted with the unprecedented notion that there can be beauty in stasis and who applaud in relief when movement resumes.

I think on some level any good art is hoax.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Silent Storm: Poems of Obliteration

I found this online, a poem that was written by selective obliteration of text on a page.

Here's the main page that describes the process.

It's an intriguing notion, though not one new to poets: the idea of creating from what is already there, writing through erasure, the act of restricting language to meter and rhyme and somehow adding to languages power in the process of studied subtraction.

The American poet Ronald Johnson wrote a book length poem of obliteration using words taken from an 1892 edition of Pardise Lost that he found in a bookstall in Seattle, WA. Johnson's poem is called radi os.

Here's a sample from radi os that I doubt I will be able to get the spacing correct on, though the line breaks should be close:

and thy words so strange

double-formed, and


In darkness

Out of thy head I sprung. Amazement seized

in secret
And fields

Through all the Empyrean.
Into this Deep;
I also:

Without my opening.

Johnson contrives this poem by the erasure of words from the following passage from Book 2 of Milton's poem, in a scene between Sin and Satan before a council in Hell:

"So strange thy outcry, and thy words so strange
Thou interposest, that my sudden hand,
Prevented, spares to tell thee yet by deeds
What it intends, till first I know of thee
What thing thou art, thus double-formed, and why,
In this infernal vale first met, thou call'st
Me father, and that phantasm call'st my son.
I know thee not, nor ever saw till now
Sight more detestable than him and thee."
T' whom thus the Portress of Hell-gate replied:--
"Hast thou forgot me, then; and do I seem
Now in thine eye so foul?--once deemed so fair
In Heaven, when at th' assembly, and in sight
Of all the Seraphim with thee combined
In bold conspiracy against Heaven's King,
All on a sudden miserable pain
Surprised thee, dim thine eyes and dizzy swum
In darkness, while thy head flames thick and fast
Threw forth, till on the left side opening wide,
Likest to thee in shape and countenance bright,
Then shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed,
Out of thy head I sprung. Amazement seized
All th' host of Heaven; back they recoiled afraid
At first, and called me Sin, and for a sign
Portentous held me; but, familiar grown,
I pleased, and with attractive graces won
The most averse--thee chiefly, who, full oft
Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing,
Becam'st enamoured; and such joy thou took'st
With me in secret that my womb conceived
A growing burden. Meanwhile war arose,
And fields were fought in Heaven: wherein remained
(For what could else?) to our Almighty Foe
Clear victory; to our part loss and rout
Through all the Empyrean. Down they fell,
Driven headlong from the pitch of Heaven, down
Into this Deep; and in the general fall
I also: at which time this powerful key
Into my hands was given, with charge to keep
These gates for ever shut, which none can pass
Without my opening.

This is a classic epiphany scene. Satan doesn't recognize the "snaky sorceress" in front of him, so she reminds him of who she is and where she came from. She tells how during the Satan-led rebellion in Heaven -- Satan's greatest moment thus far, even in failure -- and before the legions of rebellious angels and gathered seraphim she sprung out of the left side of Satan's forehead, clad in armor, frightening momentarily the heavenly hosts, who are the ones who named her Sin.

This scene is a dark redaction of various biblical and mythological accounts. Allusion is made to the holy family, to the trinity, to the virgin birth, and, of course, to the classic myth of the birth of Aphrodite, who emerged fully clad in armor from the forehead of Zeus.

Or was Milton perhaps not simply "alluding"? To create this passage set in hell, Milton obliterates all that is good from the story of Athena's birth. He obliterates the sanctity of the various biblical generation stories; and finally he obliterates the very act of recognition itself on the part of Satan, who doesn't know his own offspring until she explains who she is, and who in another mythological incarnation represented the painful but divine birth of wisdom.

Johnson hints at the mechanism of allusion through the "double-formed words" and "phantasms," but he obliterates all reference to a lack of recognition, thus restoring a special kind of wisdom and sight that Milton obliterated and had obliterated in him.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Amazing Memory Man

Here's an interesting story from CNN about a guy who remembers everything.

In a letter to his brother, the twentieth century Irish novelist James Joyce once described imagination as the constant reworking of the material of memory, or something like that, and Joyce seems to have had a phenomenal memory and a prodigious ability to rework it.

It is this reworking faculty that makes memory something creative, something sacred. Otherwise it is just like a really good scrapbook.

The article mentions another woman, known only to the public by the initials A.J., who also had an astounding memory and who describes it like this:
That woman is in her mid-40s and was identified only by the initials A.J. She told McGaugh that whenever she hears a date, memories from that date in previous years flood her mind like a running movie. The phenomenon, she laments, is "nonstop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting."

"Most have called it a gift, but I call it a burden," she wrote. "I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!!!"

Friday, February 22, 2008

Punctuation in the News

It's not often that punctuation makes the news; here's a story about semicolons that you all might find interesting: from The New York Times. I like this section:

In fact, when Mr. Neches [the marketing manager who wrote the sign] was informed by a supervisor that a reporter was inquiring about who was responsible for the semicolon, he was concerned.

“I thought at first somebody was complaining,” he said.

Typical New Yorker. I'm curious, though, about that 2004 case in San Francisco. I guess it's appropriate that those who would try to prevent two people from being joined would be undone by a judge wielding a semicolon.

Here's an online semicolon quiz you can take to pass the time:


Friday, February 15, 2008

What is Missing From This Post?

A hint: "I am most common of all, and though I am hard to do without you probably don't know that I am missing."

So far, you all do a fantastic job with your blogs! Onward and upward! (Sorry for my colloquialisms. lol) I think that this kind of writing (blogging) is good for what you will do in all your work at St John's. Sports and fashion blogs? Most common, yah. Both flood my blogroll. But both sports and fashion blogs should avoid (Important word! This post has a void in it...) only including information that is got from tv and such , but mostly, I can say good work! Watch now how I do it (blog) in an unusual way, mainly so you can grasp various ways that you might blog on your own. (Or not.)

This kind of writing (this particular blog post) is painful. Avoiding that which is most crucial, it's as if I was doing without a vital part of my soul. Just this past Monday, as I first thought of doing this, as I was crafting it in my mind and as it took off, I thought I would go crazy. I would walk around and sights and sounds of that which is missing would fill my mind I would stray, not pay any mind to walking, and so bump into things. It was foolish, but it shows how much I took this thing for an important task. Okay, not "important," but it is a task that has a vital point to it.

Anyway, can any of you say what is missing from this post? (And no, it's not "humor," hahah). If you know, contact my St John's account.

Or...do a post just as I did (75 words+, minimum) that mimics a singular and important lack in this post...and I'll post to yours with a yay or a nay.

Good luck.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Udach' Kuqax*a'a'ch

On January 21st, Marie Smith Jones, the last remaining speaker of the Alaskan Eyak language, died. You can find the story here in The Economist, where the author gives us a linguistic snapshot of the world of Smith Jones:
BEYOND the town of Cordova, on Prince William Sound in south-eastern Alaska, the Copper River delta branches out in silt and swamp into the gulf. Marie Smith, growing up there, knew there was a particular word in Eyak, her language, for the silky, gummy mud that squished between her toes. It was c'a. The driftwood she found on the shore, 'u'l, acquired a different name if it had a proper shape and was not a broken, tangled mass. If she got lost among the flat, winding creeks her panicky thoughts were not of north, south, east or west, but of “upriver”, “downstream”, and the tribes, Eskimo and Tlingit, who lived on either side. And if they asked her name it was not Marie but Udachkuqax*a'a'ch, “a sound that calls people from afar”.
An older article from The Economist says that at least one language is lost every day.

A Life in Books

On a corner of Court Street in Cobble Hill, there is a used bookstore that is owned and run by a man who lurks on the threshold and looks like a trapper. His scraggly beard and distracted air give him the appearance of some mad Russian prophet out of Dostoevsky. He has the social graces and the bodily twitches of a hermit, but he knows every book in his store.

I've found some good things in his store. It's a corner store and so has ample space and the inside is divided and arranged in a labyrinth of aisles lined with a shelves and piles. I suspect that were one to climb to the storage space above one would find an endless stretch of shelves, appearing kaleidoscopically to the climber, honeycombed to infinity. His shelf system has long ago been strained to the breaking point by the new books that constantly arrive, dropped on the doorstep. Although perhaps "system" is too much to describe the canyons of books that have overflowed the shelves and drifted to the sides of the aisles. The walls are made of books.

I avoided the place at first -- though I love any bookstore -- because I resented the apparent disresepct with which the owner treated the books that came to him, the way they were heaped and handled. He would display them in front of the store on these old and rickety card tables, still in the boxes he found them in when they were abandoned on his doorstep. Sometimes he would put them outside even when it was drizzling. He also doesn't distinguish between yellowed paperbacks and books with cloth bindings. Instead he just piles them together indiscrimminately.

The piles always seem unprocessed, the ones outside anyway. They are arranged in no categories that I can tell. More like a permanent flea market than a book store really. Part of the reason for that, no doubt, is that most of the books he receives are donated from locals, from people trying to lighten their loads during a move, or from former graduate students who shed their books as quickly as they shed the unpleasantness of the graduate student life. No one person could have the time or energy to organize all these books. It would take 15 years or more.

But I did come to like the store and to respect certain things about the owner. For one, he sets his own hours. He's rarely open during the day and seems only to emerge around 4 or 5 and then stay open until, I don't know, I've seen him standing in front of the door as late as 10 or 11. He also closes during the peak months of summer for two months and then opens in mid September. This holiday being announced in a fine handwriting in black magic marker on a crumpled piece of paper hung in the dusty shielded window. That must be a great way to make a living. And whenever he's closed, when I walk by, I miss the store and the books inside.

I think I like buying books more than anything, almost more than reading them, though these are very different activities. Reading a book is to share an experience, not necessarily the experience portrayed in the book, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, but the experience of someone who has sat down and taken the time to shape their thoughts on the page. Collecting is a different kind of activity. I sometimes buy a book knowing that I probably will not read it, but always with the impulse that I might, in some unforeseen situation, need to. Buying books is for me a collector's activity. In collecting books we amass and store the experiences of others; it's a kind of recovery effort, a desperate search and rescue. I have very few books that are worth anything, except to me. And I guess in some ways what is true for me might very well be true of the owner of this local bookstore as well, whose role seems to be that of a collector, a wanton gatherer, a Maxwell's demon of text, a bibliophiliac.

I once bought in this store an old Modern Library collection of Russian short stories I found. Among these stories was one I first read many years ago called "The Bet," a story about an older Banker and a young Lawyer, who, at a party the Banker is giving, get into a heated discussion about the death penalty. The Banker feels that life imprisonment is less humane than the death penalty because the death penalty kills you instantly while life imprisonment draws the life out of you slowly. The Lawyer disagrees saying that "to live somehow is better than not to live at all." In order to "prove" their respective opinions they arrange this bet whereby the Banker stakes two million roubles that the Lawyer will be unable to stay in prison for 15 years. His "imprisonment" will occur in a lodge somewhere on the grounds of the Banker's estate, where he can be observed.

One of the stipulations is that the lawyer will be able to have all the books that he wants. We then see how the lawyer spends his 15 years in solitary confinement, and we witness his psychological ups and downs, as we see him either lying on his bed doing nothing, weeping, or, alternately, reading and learning with a fevered exuberance. He plans his time carefully and strategically in the first year, denying himself the pleasure of smoking, for example, so, he says "as not to despoil the air inside" his room. After 5 years, he shows signs of weakening, but then recovers in years 6 through 10, as his struggle with captivity continues.

Towards the end of his confinement he spends a good year reading nothing but the bible. Then in his final years he begins to order books haphazardly, randomly, books that seem to get opened and set aside, cross referenced, abandoned. All of this we guess by the way we see them scattered about on the table, the chairs, and the floor of the lodge, heaped and handled.

The Banker has been observing the lawyer over the years with growing concern, and is near frantic as the lawyer approaches the end of his term. Over the years the Banker has lost much of his fortune to gambling and speculation and paying this bet now will ruin him. Out of desperation, he decides that he must kill the lawyer. The night before the bet is up, he sneaks into the lodge to smother the man. As he is about to commit the deed, he sees a letter that the Lawyer has written (in a "fine hand") and decides to read it first.

The letter is a manifesto of disillusionment, as the Lawyer first regurgitates everything that he has read in the books that have been his sole companion over the years, and then repudiates both earthly happiness and wisdom as being fleeting and illusory. The letter is shocking both to the Banker and to us as we realize that we have never really known, even though we have followed his reading over the years, what has been going on in the lawyer's head. It is a letter of despair, in some ways more desperate in its tone and message than a suicide note. He ends by stating his intent to leave his prison just before the time is up and so renounce the bet and the money.

In response, the Banker weeps, returns the letter, and leaves the man alone and alive. The next morning when the guards announce that they saw the lawyer escaping over the garden wall, the Banker removes the letter from the desk before anyone can see it and locks it in a fireproof safe. Just as the Banker has been watching the Lawyer in his prison and communicating with him through notes through the small window made just for that purpose, so the Lawyer has been observing the world through the windows of books. Neither man makes any sense of what they see, as they are both cut off from life in ways they are not always aware of. I have always wondered why the Banker puts that letter in a fireproof safe at the end of the story. Wouldn't he want to trumpet the news of the Lawyer's renunciation of the bet to all the world?

But I guess this is a story not only of two strongly willed and foolish men, but about small spaces and windows in and out: it's about the room in which the lawyer is confined and in which he is observed by both us and by the Banker. The books he reads are windows onto the world he cannot touch, just as they are windows into the minds of others, though they are windows that can't ever be opened. "The Bet" is also about the small space of the human skull and how it both can and cannot be peered into by others, who seek to understand us through our words and through our actions. In the letter, after stating how much beauty he has read of in the books he ordered, the Lawyer says that he feels like all the wisdom in the world has been compressed into a small compass in his head, or as a better translation has it, a small lump at the base of his skull. That the Banker puts the letter, the one true window that we have into the Lawyer's mind, back into the enclosed space of a safe, is somehow appropriate and perhaps even part of the great power of this story. The letter is returned back into a confined space, hermetically sealed, closed off, it never gets released to the world. As if Pandora's box was being resealed forever. As if the world was not ready for such a bleak assessment. For his part, the Lawyer is seen by the watchmen climbing over the garden wall. He disappears and one wonders where he goes...

This local bookstore reminded me of this story for some reason, not only because it was there I bought this book. There the walls themselves are made of books, and it is owned and run by a man who is a mirror image physically of what I imagine the lawyer would look like, unkempt and raggedy, as if after 15 years of not minding himself; but who now comes and goes as he pleases, who can most often be seen slouching at the threshold with a cigarette, blowing the smoke outwards into the evening air, so, I guess, as not to despoil the air inside.

The Hawley Arms is Burning...

Last night, around 8:00 GMT flames swept through Camden Town, North London. As firetrucks descended on the area locals formed bucket lines to try to quench the massive blaze. The fire was thought to have started in a market stall just behind The Hawley Arms, a pub located near the Camden Lock bridge and famous for its clientele, which includes, among others, singer Amy Winehouse.

The Camden Town district is known for its nightlife. The marketplace is a mecca for alternative lifestyles and vibrant subcultures and young people vying for the mantle of cool and alternative. The emo, the goth, and the otherwise disaffected congregate in clusters of cool in clubs such as The World's End, The Underworld, The Good Mixer, Koko, The Purple Turtle, Dublin Castle, and the Oh! Bar. One wonders which, if any, of these hotspots was the inspiration for the cutting satire of Amy's "Eff Me Pumps."

By 8:10 last night reports were coming in that the fire had spread from the market stall to surrounding buildings. Half an hour later witnesses saw flames leaping 30 feet above the buildings, as the number of firetrucks responding reached at least 20 and rumors of people trapped inside began to circulate. These rumors were dispelled early on as the smoke cleared, and as of today there were no reported fatalities.

The Hawley Arms, standing adjacent to the source of the blaze, was badly damaged. Pictures surfaced on the internet almost immediately showing the building shrouded in smoke that glowed with the flames beneath. The pub was at first thought to be completely destroyed, but by morning the damage was upgraded to severe, and patrons voiced hope that it would be back in business soon.

An article in The Independent from last summer tells more about the famous Hawley Arms and its star clientele, including Winehouse who was seen sometimes in the company of Kelly Osbourne and sometimes fresh out of the clinic.

Amy wouldn't have been at the Arms tonight in any event, as she is scheduled to be performing at the Grammy awards in a few hours, though she will sing from London, appearing live via satellite, not from the Staples Center. Her recent and publicly broadcast troubles with drugs and with the law have derailed her career in a number of ways, forcing her recently to cancel tour dates and appearances. Musicians from George Michael to Prince have reached out to the singer with offers of assistance of whatever kind she might need, having been touched by her talent, and there seems to be a general feeling of sadness and inevitability among friends, fans, and fellow musicians alike who have been watching her in the past few months. The US State Department even reversed at the last minute a ruling that prevented her from entering the country to perform at the awards in an odd moment of compassionate bureaucracy, but, according to her publicist it was too late for her to appear in L.A.

Her album Back to Black is up for Album of the Year and she received a total of 6 nominations altogether. For those of you not familiar with her album, it is striking for its retro-soul feel, its Saturn-like digestion of the music of the past, and its compelling lyrics that have gotten so much attention for (amazingly!) drawing on or otherwise relating to her own life and experience.

Here's hoping she doesn't perform the song that is nominated for record of the year, Rehab, as it is too easily a joke for the tabloids as it is, and doesn't give an accurate notion of what the album is about anyway. Here's another song from her freshman effort Frank that you might like better:

Winehouse seems to be welcome fodder for tabloids these days, who hang on her every failing with a thinly-veiled glee and offer it up for consumption; it's as bad as those who stand around watching a fire and fan the flames of rumor by saying, with well-intentioned though unfounded certainty, that there are people dying inside The Hawley Arms.

Monday, November 19, 2007

It's Like Pulling Teeth

In his essay, "Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character," Philip Lopate warns that when writing in the first person we should "resist coming across at first as absolutely average." We have to approach autobiography, in other words, like any other writing task, and instead of describing the all-too-familiar or documenting the mundane, we should instead be mindful of the unusual, the odd, and the offbeat.

In his 1924 autobiography Everywhere, Arnold Henry Savage-Landor Landor, the famed traveler and painter and grandson of Walter Savage-Landor, describes the following moment from his childhood.

There was in our garden a big tree, a Mespilus Japonica. The lowest branch was too high for me to reach. The tree was laden with fruit. I went to the stable, took a long feather strap and threw it astride the lowest branch, then held one end firmly between my teeth while I jumped up, pulling at the same time with my hands the other end of the strap, thinking I could thus lift myself up. Result -- my eight front teeth were torn from my gums. With a bleeding mouth I picked up my incisors which lay scattered on the ground, and ran to show them to my horrified mother. You're lucky you're not seven yet," she said. I was then four and a half years of age.

Lawrence Lessig: Three Stories on Their Way to an Argument

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Postcard from Syria

I received a postcard the other day from Syria, from a friend who has been traveling in the Middle East. I didn't know he was there.

I've known him for many years. We both come from big Irish Catholic families. We went to grade school together and had many of the same classes, though I don't remember which ones. In 3rd grade we both had a crush on the same girl. We took swimming lessons together, went to religious ed, etc.

He's one of those friends who I don't see or hear from for many years at a time, but when we do get together it's like we pick up in the middle of a conversation that has left off a only few minutes ago.

The fact that I didn't know he was in the Middle East means very little. I remember one time when we were in college I called his house for some reason and got one of his younger brothers on the phone. I asked if K. was there. The younger brother turned his head away from the phone without covering the mouthpiece and yelled out "Is K here?! It's David!" I then heard a return yell in the background (yelling being the preferred means of communication in both of our families) "He's in Venezuela!" The young voice came back to the phone and said "He's in Venezuela." "Okay." I said, and hung up. I knew there was no use asking when he would be back since they probably didn't know themselves.

While in college, we traveled to the USSR together. This was back in the heady days of glasnost and perestroika, not that we knew what those were, or cared particularly. I remember that when I would take the subways in Moscow, I would always get people coming up to me and asking directions, whereas when he walked around he looked very much the American. (He used to wear this t-shirt with a big picture of Opus from Bloom County on it.) And yet for some reason he always seemed more at home there, more comfortable meeting people or just letting his feet wander. I think those early trips (there were several of them) impacted us both in different ways: he continued to travel to many different places and continued to meet people and see things; I wound up writing about travel writing...

This postcard, as I mentioned, was from Syria. It said little, as postcards do. Just, "I wanted to send one from Lebanon, but the postcards there weren't as nice." There was something reassuring about it. With this "war on terror" still raging on, with all the talk of security and borders, with the use of airplanes as weapons, with the travel restrictions, the travel warnings and the general small-mindedness that seems to characterize many Americans' world views these days...it's nice to think that K. was walking around Syria and Lebanon, probably wearing a worn t-shirt that says "Who farted?"