Sunday, November 29, 2009

I've Been Saltered

After hearing two of my friends debate whether or not anal sex was the sport or the pastime, I knew I had to read James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime. At least four times a year, a really good piece of fiction comes my way, comes your way, and they somehow manage to change our thinking forever. I kind of wonder why the guy isn't a poet, but I'll take what he has, you know, any way he wants it.

Salter's Faulknerian, Hemingwayishness of story-telling combines a sort of lush spareness with decisive imagery. Or maybe it's not even imagery. I don't really care what these characters look like or what the room looks like, but they all seem to be in a place that I know, in time that I can feel passing. I'm trying to say Salter's prose has movement, Alice Munro movement. "They have turned off the light. In the room there is a huge armoire, a wicker basket, chairs. A metal tree on which garments can be hung. The ceiling is very high. In its center--one's eyes must be accustomed to the dark--a grotesque fixture. The hours pass. She is pinioned on the bed, her arms trapped beneath her, her legs forced wide. Her eyes are closed. The radio is playing Sucu Sucu. The world has stopped. Oceans still as photographs. Galaxies floating down. Her cunt tastes sweet as fruit" (64). Who doesn't want to read more? It jumps and pivots and sometimes just kind of floats. I usually throw up on airplanes, but I made myself finish this book on my journey home. I just couldn't go through another day with it unread.

There's so much to say, but I'm kind of tired from my flight. Change is something I think about often, what really changes someone, if anyone changes. I used to think that place changed a person, that you could be anything if you were in the right place. After reading A Sport and a Pastime, I wonder if it isn't physical love, not even love really, but someone else's flesh that makes you feel alive or scared a bit, definitely more yourself. Change through physical discovery--that's what I scribbled on the top of page 123 anyway.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Airplane Movie Reviews

Quantum of Solace:
Better with the sound off.

500 Days of Summer:
When are these kids going to leave their office-like internship and go back to class? Aren't they going to be late for class? The principal is going to be pissed! He may call their parents!

The Proposal:
Better with the sound off. You know when they're talking about boobs because they point to them!! You know she's a mean business woman because she can't climb down stairs and wears a suit!! With high heels!!

Grease 2:
Sorry, but it's kind of cute as hell. And I like that Paulette is over thirty and has smoker's voice.

Madonna: Truth or Dare:
Oddly, this is edited really well. It's interesting listening to her talk to her parents. The painter and poet Francis Picabia was really interested in the anti-Madonna, the motherless woman, the one you didn't have to feel bad about. Madonna's "Daddy" wanted to know if he could attend her show both nights and if it was going to be "racy."

New in Town:
Another mean business woman in heels. She totally needs a man! She changes because of the town! She learns something about people!

Lesbian Vampire Killers:
Ha ha. Fooled you. I didn't see this on a plane. I haven't seen this one.

The International:
There's a woman in it because...

Love Happens:

Ghost Town:
Nicely confusing with the sound off.

Christina Ricci always seems like someone I'd like to know, I mean really. I think it's her face. Who is Mark Palansky and how did he come to direct such a pretty-looking movie?

I am Legend:
Okay. I didn't see this on an airplane, but in a theater. My apartment building stars in this movie! It was even on a subway poster!

I started this post because I thought it would be funny, but now I feel sad.

Monday, November 23, 2009

"'Bout the rebel yell, 'bout the one that fell..."

With the ONE beautiful, amazing, lovely person who showed up to my reading in Richmond, Virginia, the old man and I snuck into the Hollywood Cemetery. More than 18,000 confederate soldiers are interred there, as well as Jefferson Davis, Presidents Monroe and Tyler, and some other Civil War generals. The confederate soldiers are memorialized by a mortarless pyramid that is around ninety feet tall. We were hankering to see the pyramid, especially after my friend described a sound show that she'd like to do, featuring a recording of the confederate rebel yell, which sounds like a pack of dogs, bees, mosquitoes, and a bubble maker in tall grass. Have a listen:

After we jumped the first fence, the three of us dodged the security guard by wrapping ourselves together around a large holly tree, Bugs Bunny style. I'm thinking the guard saw us and let us go to our destination. (By the way, I warned the old man not to talk to the guard, if it came to that. The old man is from Massachusetts, knows how to pronounce wine correctly, says "O Geez" fairly often, all of which does not go over well to local law enforcement. I can whip out some southern if I have to and our friend sure could've and I think the two of us gals would've come up with some form of romantic excuse for being in the graveyard with one speechless man; I have done this in a cow pasture after all).

The pyramid was quite a site, pointing high into the cool night air. We were too afraid to use the flash, for fear of being caught, so this is an over-exposed night photo of bricks carried up from the James River. Do you think the guard thinks I'm a ghost? After a very harrowing climb over a high back gate, one of us lost a sock in the cemetery.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

It's No Seven-Up, But It's Fascinating

The most comprehensive longitudinal studies in the United States began in the 1940's at Harvard. Arlie Bock started surveying men as early as 1937 to see what made them normal, healthy men. The study is comprised of 268 men from the Harvard classes of 1942, 1943, and 1944. One of these men was president, four have run for Senate, and one took a spill while drunk and died. The study was designed to determine what factors lead to a normal life, normal being sort of loosely, 1940ishly, Harvardly defined as being stable enough to be successful. Totally problematic, but interesting nonetheless in that it was one of the first studies of its kind to focus on what makes people live a long, healthy, and perhaps happy life.

From the time of the study's inception, the 268 men annually undergo a physical examination and answer survey questions. Quite a bit of work, right? The study has been running under the leadership of George Vaillant, who took it over in 1967 when it was barely surviving. His charismatic approach to the study, it seems, has contributed to the study's survival of seventy-two years, which is also Vaillant's age. He's written two books about the study, Adaptation to Life (1977) and Aging Well (2002). Although he is now in an ancillary position, he still seems deeply affected by the lives of these men, focusing on the story of their lives as a way of understanding what it means to be able to live a well-adjusted life. A small number of them are still living, in their 80's, but most of them are deceased. Many of the men, 80% of them, fought in World War II, most of them apparently seeing heavy combat, so the study has been a useful tool for understanding PTSD.

I first read about this study in the June 2009 issue of the Atlantic, in an article entitled, "What Makes Us Happy?" written by Joshua Wolf Shenk. (He's the author of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness). The article is written so well that I would hope Mr. Shenk would write the definitive book about this Harvard study. Mr. Shenk sifted through the thick records and directly addresses some of these anonymous men while reporting on the history of the study and study's potential findings. I leave you with one of the addresses, but first want to take a moment, let it settle in a bit, to think about what it means to study someone's lifetime, their life span. Vaillant's approach is very clinical, regardless of how touched or influenced he is by these men's lives, and he says, "...when someone dies, I finally know what happened to them." It's a weird truth, hard to stomach, and he's had to do it so many times.

Joshua Wolf Shenk, to Case No. 47:
"You ducked the war, as a conscientious objector. 'I've answered a great many questions,' you wrote in your 1946 survey. 'Now I'd like to ask you people a couple of questions. By what standards of reason are you calling people 'adjusted' these days?' ...You married young and did odd jobs... You said you wanted to be a writer, but that looked like a distant dream. You started drinking. ...By 1964 you wrote, 'Really tie one on about twice a week...' ...'I've never been more productive, and I'm a little wary of rocking the boat right now by going on a clean living kick...' ...In the early 1970's Dr. Vaillant came to see you in your small apartment... ...You told Dr. Vaillant he should read Joseph Heller on the unrelieved tragedy of conventionally successful businessmen. ...You went on to a very productive career, and became an important figure in the gay-rights movement. ...You died at age 64, when you fell down the stairs of your apartment building."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Syllabus: Samurai Films


Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa)
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (Kenji Misumi)
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (Kenji Misumi)
Samurai Assassin (Kihachi Okamoto)
Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa)
Lady Snowblood (Toshiya Fujita)
Samurai Trilogy: Miyamoto Musashi (Yoji Yamada)
Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano)
Samurai Reincarnation (Kenji Fukasaku)
Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto)
Twilight Samurai (Yoji Yamada)
Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa)

Field Trips:
Art of the Samurai, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Course Objectives:
The way of the warrior is to live to die. Weird titillating breast-feeding scenes: discuss. Comments on culture. How a samurai sword is made. Committing seppuku. The battle is never won. In-class homemade blood packets blood splatterings: wear clothes you don't care about. Actor as swordsman as actor. Bandits, ronin, samurai: chart qualities of all. Who's running this country. If you cut off their topknots, they will be so dishonored that they'll kill themselves. Oy rape scenes galore: why. How did death become honorable. Wait--where's his sword--oh shit how did he do that. Compare Kurosawa's version to all. Is a duel challenge a form of bragging or a wish to die. How to remain calm. What is the samurai code.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

There's More in the Fridge If You Want Some

Today I cooked sweet potato soup from Deborah Madison's Vegetable Soups. I kind of jumped the gun because sweet potatoes are technically a winter vegetable and it's not quite cold enough. (Do you feel you can bring winter on by wearing hats and scarves when it's not quite cold enough? I do). (This is when I get embarrassed and smile funny). I had a country bumpkin moment while food shopping--ah! but that what's New Yorkers say. New Yorkers say they go FOOD shopping, not GROCERY shopping. Is a yam the same thing as a sweet potato? I couldn't find sweet potatoes, so I naturally assumed that Yams were the Northern version. The sign next to the yams said that a yam is technically a sweet potato. I tried to call the old man's mother, but she didn't pick up. When I'm in Louisiana, we buy sweet potatoes from roadside stands.

Deborah Madison wanted quince in the soup, but I couldn't find it, so I used three tart apples that I picked while I was upstate. I like this soup because the stock contained apple cores which is cute as hell. It's nice to cook with all that stuff instead of throwing it all away. I like how Madison and her people construct the recipes and word the directions. Listen to this: After a few minutes, when the wine has reduced by half or so, pour the stock through a strainer right over the vegetables. Pretty nice, right?

I love cooking. Sometimes I want to invite the neighbors I know from the elevator over for dinner. I wish I had a long bench and when the person in the middle wanted something, we would all have to touch it. I love it when I think I'm done cooking and can finally eat, but wait there's something I forgot about that I have to go get, and shouldn't I squeeze out a pie while I'm up? At long last, that first bite is always so good.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Please Don't Change That Grit

Streamers hang from a string of lanterns and confetti is peppered about the floor, along with balloons that have lost their umph. Be careful that you don't step on the sword that also rests on the floor. Did someone leave it there or was it thrown there? Circled about are chairs, as though people had been talking and on one chair rests a large head-mask, mustached and staring only where it can stare. The mask will return in another photograph by Paolo Ventura, as well as the sword, but in this photo, titled "2:00 a.m." the mask and sword and the room itself are at rest. The party is over, the space has been cleared, and the piano waits for people to play it once again.

The photographs of Paolo Ventura are of miniature sets that he constructs. The old man and I first came across his work in the latest issue of Harper's and you can see the portfolio here. Ventura's work is not miniature but of miniature. His sets boldly have people, circus performers or just people in their hats and coats walking down the street, not that that's that bold, but the figures themselves look like old dolls or toys that look like people. There's a new grit being explored in these sets... the clown with the dirty gloves, the sword swallower performing on a dirty stage to no one, the soiled-apron waiter looking out the window of an empty restaurant. There's always a feeling of departure, someone heading home, someone dressed up in a bird mask with no one around to see, a figure who holds a brief case and looks through a gate. (The soundtrack here coming from the gritty musicianship including the likes of Sunset Rubdown, Department of Eagles, Phoenix, and Grizzly Bear. Maybe Beirut. Maybe Devotchka.)

Ventura's work reminds me of lonely afternoons of Sicilian siesta, when everyone would drop everything, eat a huge lunch followed by a nap. The only people out were the leather bracelet makers from Africa, the drunk flip-flop salesman, or the occasional mother rocking a restless child. It was so quiet you could drag a stick on a wall and no one would tell you to stop. You could peak in someone's window and see something similar to "Table for Four," stacked dirty dishes, crumbs everywhere, empty bottles of wine, a pan with grease waiting to be scrubbed, the smell of pasta lingering.

Paolo Ventura was born in Milan but now lives in New York. His collection of photographs entitled Winter Stories accompanies me sick in bed today. I will flip and flip and flip through them, piecing the stories together, noting the footsteps or tire tracks in the sooty snow. He has a show here in the city pretty soon. Come with me when I'm all better?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

It All Started This Day Thirty Something Years Ago

Today's the day. The old man spelled "happy" across the floor with books. Health care barely passed, but it passed. In the photo my father and I are devouring a watermelon, my favorite thing to do. The only bad thing about living in the city, really, is that we don't get good watermelon here. It's always a little pink, not too hearty. If you don't agree with me, I'm driving you to Louisiana in July and you'll see. You'll say I told you so. Behind me is a white salt shaker. It's a Southern delicacy to sprinkle salt on watermelon. Those days are over for me, you know, because of my age, but I sure do miss that simple weird taste.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Human Zoo, Closed on Mondays

I've been to see quite a few shows recently, well more than normal since all the musicians I like are apparently autumnal travelers. At a rather disappointing Noah and the Whale show, I couldn't help but note the human zoo-ness of it all, the light on everyone's faces, the guy next to me hornily looking at the woman next to him and the curly headed kid not to far ahead of me who could've very well have been my kid because he looked like a cool kid. (I'm so sorry for not liking Noah and the Whale. I wanted to so badly because I really liked most of their first album. I haven't yet watched the film that accompanies their new album, so maybe that will change how I reacted. For further aside, the lead singer of Noah and the Whale is the fourth or fifth English performer who commented on how polite his American audience was. Really? Do you really think your fans are the stupid ones? Come on.)

It's funny how we all show up at events to watch whatever, to see what we think may be greatness, some of us totally unaware of who we're even sitting next to. When I travel, I always try start up conversations with people, you know if someone asks me to take her photograph or something like that. It's no secret that I generally don't like to go the movie theater as much as everyone else does because I find it to be total sensory overload. (More on that later...) It's so weird to me that we all pay a rather high fee to go stare at a large amount of light, sitting next to strangers in total darkness, wanting it to be darker, and then we all leave--with sad faces if the movie was sad, etc. I just want to know why everyone is there and who they are really. It's a type of connected disconnect I guess.

When I used to visit my grandmother in Grenada, Mississippi, she would take me to Wal-Mart and we'd sit in the car, watching people go by. She would call me Sugar and point someone out that she thought I should see. One of the best human zoo experiences I've had was when the old man and I saw the, correct me if I'm wrong the old man is sleeping right now, Olafur Eliasson exhibit at MOMA. There was one room filled with orange light and when you walked into it, your sense of color as you knew it transformed everything into black and white. It was as though I was suddenly in Casablanca and it was time to kiss Bogart. I immediately turned to the old man, who was already flipping out, and said something about how film noir the light was. We sat down on a nearby bench, took off our coats, rolled up our sleeves, just to see what our skin looked like under the weird light. I could've sat on that bench for a year, watching people react to the orange light. Some people didn't get it at all and made funny you-call-this-art faces while others, I could tell, were thinking they'd just stepped into a black and white movie too.