Wednesday, December 31, 2008
This puts 2008 over 2007, 86-85. I would be impressed with my consistency, at least, if I had greater cause for pride in the work, or at least any sense of its not being exhausted in an entirely fruitless endeavor. I am not seriously going to try to wean myself off of this habit anytime soon, however, so long as I am not prevented from doing so, and can perceive no alternative task which it is any more suitable or necessary for me to pursue.
My Youthful Aunt is Now 50. Having only seen my youthful aunt once in the last fourteen years, I just realized this the other night while staring dazedly at the Christmas tree lights. My youthful aunt was only 11 when I was born. When I went to kindergarten, she was still in high school. When I was a slightly older schoolboy, she and her friends were about the only remotely youngish, with-it people with whom I had any regular contact (when I say with-it, I mean they were socially confident, fun, and always desirable within their own circle, narrow in terms of the whole world but extensive within the area of the northern edges of Philadelphia and its inner suburbs--they listened to Billy Joel and drank Miller Lite, and dressed the part). When I was 19 she took me out, (though she was married and had several children by that time), on what was my first ever night of bar drinking in Chestnut Hill. She was the sort who always had good connections with people who had unlimited access to supposedly hard-to-get sports playoff and concert tickets. Anyway, now she's 50. Her children are college-aged or older. She never went to college or pursued any kind of career or espoused much interest in work, though she married well (a master carpenter). She was a socially capable person, so I suspect she finds some way to pass her time which takes advantage of this.
On Polar Explorers. My other great thought for this post, now going on two weeks old and equally stale, was of my increased respect for polar explorers after spending an hour tobogganning in 13 degree heat. Even now if I come across an issue of National Geographic with a story about polar travel I am always mesmerized, and think "Now that is the way to live life." The guys in these expeditions are manly as hell. They clash with each other incessantly. They have to carry serious guns, as well as other weapons for spearing and gutting fish and seals and so forth for dinner. They leave off of women and drink and comfort and warmth for months on end and come back ten times stronger and more desirable and better for it.
As someone who believes the spirit of enthusiastic amateurism produces enough vitality to a society to offset in many instances the rarer, and largely undiffused excellence of the professional, I have a certain affection and admiration for the notorious doomed British polar explorations of the early part of the last century, Scott's and Shackleton's obviously being the most famous. The pros of today look rather aghast upon their general lack of preparation, experience and attitude toward a journey that is anything but a lark or a game, and of course both of these expeditions resulted in varying degrees of total disaster, but that kind of naive romantic foolhardiness bespeaks a culture whose people really believe something rather extraordinary about themselves and their place in the world, which we don't allow to be attractive or desirable until we have lost it utterly in ourselves.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
In lieu of a special Christmas post, or a song, I will simply write Merry Christmas here and leave it at that. I had been grouchy that Christmas had become too much about chocolate and not enough about booze in recent years, but Santa stuck a few airplane bottles of scotch and Maker's Mark and Courvoisier in my stocking, which appeased me. It has still been a few years since I have been to an even remotely good holiday party, and all the people I knew who used to throw them are now dead, but I have been persuaded that it is not over for me, that there is yet a chance I will find my way into another one someday, and this has calmed me down somewhat as well.
This is as well the long-promised last post on Ruskin. This is mostly going to be like the last little walk, the last meal, the last hurried drop into a shop to get a snack for the ride before heading out of town. There are a few more observations on paintings, a few more overlooked churches noted, and then--Goodbye Venice.
Picture 1--Tintoretto--The Visitation--Scuola di San Rocco. Referring to the halos of light around the edges of dark forms, particularly the knee of St Elizabeth: "The daguerreotype has shown--what the naked eye never could--that the instinct of the great painter was true, and that there is actually such a sudden and sharp line of light round the edges of dark objects relieved by luminous space." I thought this was an interesting observation/insight into the capabilities of the mind and senses stripped of the aid of what is now a ubiquitous technology. Seeing how the Scuola di San Rocco was regarded as one of the highlights of all Italy for the most persnicketty 19th century Grand Tourists--Henry James, for one, was also a fan--I could not help wondering again how I happened to miss it. I still have the guidebook I took on that trip, the 1996 Lonely Planet Italy, and while it is not prominently touted, it does call it "one of the great surprises of Venice and under no circumstances should be missed". In the winter it was only open from 10am to 1pm. Admission was L8,000, which was about $4 at the time. I guess as the name Tintoretto did not mean anything special to me at the time--I somehow managed to avoid until my mid-30s all the effusive praise that is given to this painter, which now all of a sudden I encounter everywhere--and I just overlooked it. The Golden Book of Venice, a souvenir book of pictures such as I often pick up when I go somewhere--one might be tempted to chuckle, but I actually find I look at these souvenir books quite frequently when I am in need of some cheering, and my children like to look at them too--devotes page 102 to this sight, with pictures of the scuola and the chiesa and a brief paragraph about the art inside, in which the "magnificent staircase" and "breathtakingly beautiful cycle of paintings" are noted, but every page of the book is awash in similar superlatives about whatever building is featured on it, so there was nothing in this book to make me think I had missed anything more than usually extraordinary either. I looked on Rick Steves's web page to see if this had eluded him, but he had it covered, down to a personalized tour/commentary of 16 of the key paintings (in typical Rick style though, he recommends a hour to see the whole place). By the way, admission is now 7 Euros, and they are open in winter from 10 to 5. It was just me, I guess. I was the only one not in on the secret.
Picture 2--Tintoretto--The Crucifixion--Also at the Scuola di San Rocco. Ruskin: "I must leave this picture to work its will on the spectator; for it is beyond all analysis and above all praise." For what it's worth, I noted in my searching the internet to find this painting that a number of people had written that this painting is absolutely staggering to see in person, and that, even more than is usual, reproductions do not do it justice.
Friday, December 19, 2008
I nearly opened an account for myself on Facebook the other day because I happened to come upon the profile of a person I used to know, among whose many Friends were other people I used to know, and I thought it would be pleasant to be one of this person's Friends myself, and perhaps a few of the others' (but not all of them--that is always the rub with me) as well. But upon considering the matter more soberly I was enough restored to my senses to give up this idea. Besides that I have no claim on these people's Friendship--all of them could plausibly argue that they don't know me at all--it's not likely any of them would have been meeting up with me any time in the near future for a raucous evening of drinks, dancing, humorous conversation and brutally honest, unvarnished, cinematic assessments of our respective existences. Which for some reason is what I am always imagining is going to happen...
Is it me, or in most media accounts is not consumer debt still treated as debt, i.e., an obligation that it would involve some measure of disgrace to default on, while things like pensions, union wage agreements Social Security, etc, are referred to as 'liabilities' or 'entitlements' that it would be in the best interest of companies and the government to seek to rid themselves of? Just saying, 'cause people who worked on the assembly line at GM for 40 years regarded those liabilities as perks of the job, and a motivation to keep showing up every day. Really, there is so much tough talk now about how people need to be grateful just to have any job at all to avert starvation and homelessness, but you still have to make it somewhat worthwhile for people, especially men, to bother with going to work at all. Our society I don't think is doing a very good job of that lately; even if people are too pampered, and they probably are, to gracefully endure a decline in their living standards, if that is what is truly necessary, they aren't getting much help or encouragement in doing so from their supposed betters
Childhood of Famous Americans. I used to love these books, but I am starting to think they belong on the list of bad influences as far as my ultimate literary and intellectual development went. I am going over the course of the next few months to be examining some of these unfortunate influences, or, as they are more popularly known, The Kinds of Books That People Like Heidigger, Wittgenstein, Ludwig von Mises, Leo Strauss, T.S. Eliot, Robert Bresson, Anna Akhmantova, David Foster Wallace, et al, Did Not Read, or at least Did Not Get Taken In By For a Second. It was my peculiar fate that the library nearest my house when I was eight or nine or whatever had a large collection of this series--I have been to many libraries that did not have any of them at all--and my father being a history teacher so that I had a basic familiarity with many of the big names of American history, I developed an immediate attraction to the series, and thereon passed many hours in pleasant and, I imagined at the time, rewarding amusement. The original volumes of the series were published in the late 1940s and 50s, and were particular products of that time, the attitudes of which were already dated when I first got my hands of them in the late 1970s; these were probably the appeal of them to me however. The series operated from a conception of American history that was both dramatic and heroic, and that included, for that time, a fairly large number of volumes where the subjects were women, Indians, or blacks, though all were honored so far as they were seen to contribute to or embody approved qualities of the dominant mainstream narrative of an ever stronger, ever juster, ever more democratic, ever greater America. The endpapers of these books were so stirring to me as to have an almost magical quality. I used to study them for long periods of time and imagine myself fitting into one or other of the various categories of heroes. Both the front and back endpapers were lists of the series's books: the front was the chronological list, with the various divisions of historical pictures, accompanied by a little doodle ("The Revolution"--the three figures of the 'Spirit of '76'; "Westward Movement"--a covered wagon; "Turn of the Century"--a bowler-hatted gay nineties figure in a go-cart; "The Modern Age"--a jet) and the relevant biographies under it. The back endpapers were divided into categories according to achievement: Athletes, Explorers, Fathers of our Country (and Mothers--Abigail Adams, Betsy Ross, and Molly Pitcher--who has now made it into 2 of my last 4 posts-- are included here), Writer and Artists, Inventors (with doodle of a test tube). Indians were actually grouped under the category of "Indians" (doodle--teepee). In the later editions, as more volumes were added to the series, the little cartoons had to be sacrificed due to the space limitations. Those later volumes I knew were distinctly not as good as the earlier ones. As the series became more popular, it became more self-conscious, it had more hands in it, and more killjoys from the ranks of educators, librarians, critics, etc keeping an eye on it. The effusive pleasure of the early years of the project could not be sustained. Apparently the series continues still, and new biographies continue to be written every year, though I cannot believe the new books are any good.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
In Pennsylvania, they take their nostalgia very seriously. And I am happy for that.
The pictures don't do justice to the onslaught of cuteness on display. It is not that one buys into these comforting depictions of days past as historically accurate. It is just always easier to make them seem so than it is with the materials of the present, or the real, if one is incapable of mastering them.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
This will be the second to last of the Ruskin posts. As a response to the...well, I saw the exact, right word, and then I lost it again before my fingers could hit the keys...insipid niceness and easy accomodation of my rivals for supremacy in the blogosphere that have recently settled themselves far too comfortably in these pages, I am going to be adopting a far colder, more pointed, even revolutionary attitude on the site. Anyway, that is what people want, and they will respond to it.
Picture 1--Palazzo Foscari. "The noblest example in Venice of the fifteenth century Gothic...but lately restored and spoiled, all but the stonework of the main windows. The restoration was necessary, however..." I am through with celebrating palaces and all this aristocratic architecture and values they want to beat us about the head with, but which can't nourish us, our intestines not being finely wrought enough to digest them cleanly. In the section on the Church of St Giorgio Maggiore, there is a good and long (I wrote this accomodating piece of prostration before I realized it wasn't doing me a damn bit of good) essay on Tintoretto's altarpaiece in the north transept The Martyrdom of St Stephen. The "freedom and ease" with which the leaf of a book (the Mosaic history) is crumpled is "as characteristic of the master as any of the grander features" (this image shows, by the way "how the blind rage of the Jews was violating their own law in the murder of Stephen"). Later on, Ruskin remarks that "It is almost impossible to praise too highly the refinement of conception which withdrew the unconverted St Paul into the distance, so as entirely to separate him from the immediate interest of the scene, and yet marked the dignity by which he was afterwards to be raised, by investing him with the colours which occurred nowhere else in the picture except in the dress which veils the form of the Godhead." The run of painters, he argues, could not have pulled off such exquisite subtlety. I haven't been able to find a great picture of this painting on the internet, but here is one that comes with the voice of a droning tour guide at least. (Now the new me starts in earnest). One of my revolutionary aims will be to make it possible and normal for human beings to engage with real works of art and beauty without looking or feeling like jackasses (Another is to have myself fitted with dignified tailor-made clothes, which I have never had before. To which my wife would doubtless say, "Other people would want to end hunger or something like that...").
In the note on the Church of St Gregorio, it is mentioned as being beside the Church of the Salute, which made me think about how close together churches were built in all the ancient cities of Europe. Rome famously has 981 churches, and London had 107 in the one square mile of the City prior to the fire of 1666, of which 21 survived and 51, plus St Paul's Cathedral, were rebuilt. Many of these churches are within no more than a block or two of each other; none of them that I know of supports an active congregation of more than a handful of members now, if they are even still functioning as churches. It is one of those things which is obvious enough once one examines it, but is rather striking upon a first casual amble around the old quarters of these cities.
Picture 2. I don't get angry at (presumably) ordinary people having a good time rather than humbling themselves in awe at great sites and straining to improve their dim understanding of what such greatness entails. Ruskin presumably would have, as well as most of the canonical writers and scholars who lived before 1960. They expected something more out of men. The mirthful, even blasphemous exploits of men like Byron and Casanova amid such scenes may be tolerated because they are such superior spirits and talents; the frivolities of the lesser sorts of men should expect to meet no such tolerance.
Libreria Vecchia--"by no means to be missed, whatever may be sacrificed to see them", according to Ruskin: a beautiful and strange Madonna, by Bendetto Diana; two noble Bonifazios; and two groups, by Tintoret, of the Provedditori della Zecca. I can't make out whether these paintings are still to be found at this location however. The library itself seems still to exist.
Ruskin's flamboyant description of the grotesque sculpted childrens' heads tied up by the hair on the altar steps at the Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli merited being quoted in a mainstream modern guidebook I happened to look into in my researches, for what it's worth.
Picture 3--Chiesa di Santa Maria de Miracoli. Of course I did not see this church on my brief visit there. I find the pictures of it to be especially impressive, in spite of my new skeptical attitude towards received wisdom and opinion.
Monday, December 08, 2008
O's Eatery, Chatham, NY. On the Taconic State Parkway. Highly Recommended.
The Crew Gearing Up For Lunch at O's. As usually happens, the fried meal I ordered tasted much better than the sun-dried tomato and lobster-flavored mayonnaise thing that Sabrina ordered, so we had to switch plates after two bites.
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
Here are some of the ideas for posts I've had over the last few weeks. None of it turns out to be quite what I am looking for. I have to remind myself that this little enterprise should not be thought of as constituting anything significant in itself, but is supposed to serve as a kind of transitioning vehicle for my mind from the obsolete way of thinking and relating to the world into a form more suitable for functioning in the present and future. As such I cannot expect it will always produce results that are pleasing to me.
I. Why Psychiatric Treatment Has Not Led to More Successful Results With Me--For the same reason that I have not had success in many areas requiring engagement with educated professionals, that I am unable to trust them because they won't, or are unable to engage with me in anything approaching the way I would desire people (especially if I am paying them) to do so. I know I probably make it hard for most people to be able to do that, but I would expect it to be part of a good psychiatrist's job description to be clever enough to pick up on the particular pretensions that a patient desires to have humored, doing which one would think would enable the doctor to more easily tease out the crux of any real and curable problems the patient may have. Also whenever I suggest that perhaps I might benefit from some of the old techniques of psychoanalysis such as you always read about in those psychology books from the 50s, Erik Erikson and Jung and all those people, Freud obviously, the therapists just kind of laugh as if they are dealing with a fool such as is rather beyond hope (Most insurance plans don't cover psychoanalysis anyway; I am usually just trying to throw an idea out there). I don't want to say that the general vibe this field strikes me as akin to a more emotionally/intellectually centered version of visiting a brothel, but the sensation of paying a certifiedly highly intelligent person, who is generally completely disinterested where you are concerned, to allow you to talk all about myself to them for a certain alottment of time before you are hustled back down to the street (and without addressing any of your actual real problems), rather begs the comparison than otherwise.
II. Advice to Notre Dame Regarding Rebuilding Its Football Program. I thought that rather than further downplay their Catholicness and interest in integrating players at least somewhat into the academic culture of the campus in a Quixotic quest to attract freakish athletes--who apparently don't want to go there that much anyway--to rescue their team, that they should actually reemphasize, and proudly so, their Catholic identity first and foremost, which is how they were during most of the era when they were good. Indeed, as recently as the late 1970s, when Joe Montana was the star and they finished ranked #1 in the country, almost the entire team was still made up of Catholic players. If BYU can go 8-4 every year and 10-2 every fourth year with an unapologetically all-Mormon team, surely a team of Catholics, even with a mediocre coach, assuming it takes them 10-15 years to find an outstanding one, could at least match the 3-9 and 6-6 records as Notre Dame has put up the last two years. They might even be able to beat Navy (who, along with Army, was also a national power 50 years ago, but is unable to recruit the most superior football players to sign with them anymore; however, they continue to compete honorably and, in recent years, having had some good coaches, have consistently outplayed their opponents in terms of the supposed quality of talent on each team, Notre Dame most conspicuously). Boston College, the other Catholic college with a Dvision I team, and which appears to have more actual Catholic players than Notre Dame does at this point, manages to go 8-4, 9-3 every year, and has also beaten Notre Dame 6 times in a row. Now is this type of program going to be competitive for national titles with Florida and USC on a year-in, year-out basis in the 21st century? Probably not. But then Notre Dame hasn't won the championship, or even been a serious contender for it, in 20 years anyway, and they have won it once now in the last 30. When they were a consistent top-10 team back in the 60s and 70s, and 40s, they benefited from the demographic advantage that their main source of talent--Catholic high schools attended by students from actual Catholic households--were a much more substantial percentage of the pool of potential players than they are now, while at the same time the southern schools that are the most dominant programs today did not have any black players on their teams at all before 1970, and most continued to maintain a quota of no more than 10 or so black players per team for ten years after that. That kind of favorable dynamic for Notre Dame on a national level is not going to come back, and is exacerbated (for the purposes of fielding a good football team) by the appalling softening/rejection of this same Catholic upbringing and school experience over the same time span...I don't want to go on forever, but I have been to Notre Dame, and known a couple of people who went there of whom I think highly. These people were all of good intelligence, and seemed to have acquired a decent amount of learning and improved understanding during their time in school, with much less detectable arrogance about themselves than I find I encounter generally in the northeast. They do have more to offer high school players coming to their campus than just football, and they should stand fast by that position. If they cannot get enough quality talent with such an attitude to field a team that is not an embarrassment, than you have to consider that maybe big-time football is no longer compatible with the mission of the university.
III. NYT Magazine Article--This was the one written by the gazillionaire Southhampton writer/socialite/fourth wife of an investment banker about using a surrogate mother to carry her child. Some of the attitudes, if you aren't exposed to these sort of people a lot, are pretty breathtaking, and especially in a paper that is widely-read pretty far down the income scale. I only bring it up at all because at one point during her description of the life of the surrogate mother (who was married and had a college degree, for what it is worth) which was made out to be borderline lower middle class and somewhat remote from civilization, as she pondersed how to explain to her son how he came to be born in such a godforesaken spot, she anticipates the question "Where is Abington, Pennsylvania?" Now it so happens that I was born in the hospital in Abington myself, and grew up in the next township over. I am not going to claim that there is anything particularly memorable or spectacular about it, but it quite a bit different from what the article would lead one to believe. First of all, it is located about 3 miles from the city of Philadelphia, and is entirely urban. Secondly, the average educational and income levels in this town must be well above the national, state and area averages in both of these areas. The town has a large Jewish population that is highly active both politically and culturally; in the last twenty years there have also been significant influxes of highly-educated Korean and Indian professionals. Meritocratic, new economy success and high SAT scores are actually more the norm than the exception there.
My point I guess is that there are lots of people there who are much smarter and more accomplished than this writer, and are well-rewarded and compensated for it as well, and I think it is an important point, because one encounters these offhand condescensions all the time that in some cases really should not be allowed to pass. I am not attempting to boost Philadelphia's particular place in the world beyond what it merits so much as trying to understand why the amount of genuine talent and intellect that so obviously exists in a place is seen by people, even some people who live there, as so insignificant and unworthy. I actually had someone tell me once that she had lived in Philadelphia for three years and never found anyone with whom it was possible to have an intelligent conversation. What such a person means of course is that she never found a social circle in which she could move where she was able to have the kind of talk that she likes; and I am sympathetic to that, because I never found my scene there either (nor have I found it anywhere else, really, but that is a matter for another day). But for people to proclaim constantly--as they really do--that there is no cultural, literary, intellectual, social, etc, life in Philadelphia, or Washington, D.C., for that matter, though each of these cities has numerous world famous universities, research hospitals, art collections and other museums, large numbers of foreign professionals who have been educated and have worked all over the world, etc, such that they can find no one worthy with whom to converse or associate with, is really to strain credulity as far as I am concerned.
IV. Movie and Book Reviews on Blogs--I will get back to this another time. My position is that if such things are thoughtful and well-written, then there is value in them. I personally have learned a great deal more about the world from reading book and movie reviews over the years than I have from reading op-ed columns.
V. My Reunion--My high school (in Portland, Maine) did end up having a 20th reunion after all, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and I did end up going to it. I did not have high expectations, which was good, because while I talked to a few people, even very brief encounters took a lot out of me, and I mostly shuffled back and forth between the bar and the catering table. I realized once I was there that I had only lived in town and attended the school for two years, while most of the people had been born there, grown up there, either stayed there or went somewhere not too far away for college, and moved back there when they were done. So comparatively my presence in their lives was very brief. One sad note was that none of my female classmates talked to me or even seemed to remember me, though I told myself that maybe if we could have had the girls from younger classes there someone might have remembered me or expressed some emotion--surprise, pleasure, horror--at seeing me. A few of the women (including a couple that I--er--used to like) I must say looked quite good, considering that we are all 38 now; I was expecting much worse. I thought I was looking pretty good myself when I was getting ready in the hotel bathroom, but in the pictures that have been posted on the web from the event I look, compared to literally everyone else, stiff and unnatural and rather like a walking corpse in every picture. Still, it was a good party, though I didn't participate in it too much. I always liked the people in Portland. They are friendly, but with a little edge to them. They have distinct personalities, and they are fairly comfortable with those personalities, at least around each other. I think most of them just didn't remember who I was.
VI. The Apartment--I watched The Apartment last week, for the 1st time in about 15 years. With my superior critical powers acquired during these years I noticed that the plot is fairly ridiculous, that the ending is a fantasy which has no basis to support it, that some of the dialogue is cringe-worthy, and that the supposedly sympathetic characters are little more virtuous than everyone else in the movie, and are sympathetic mainly for being pitifully weak. All that said, I still love it, and I was sad when it ended and I had to come back to 2008, without even a raucous office party or white collar alcoholic's bar to look forward to going to.
Here are some reasons why I think I like The Apartment so much :
1. It's underrated as a holiday movie. All right, one of the main characters tries to kill herself on Christmas Eve, but this actually enhances rather than kills the mood, because now the main character has a good-looking girl, albeit an unconscious one, staying at his place instead of being alone. The scenario is actually quite appealing, to a certain extent, and to a certain type of boy.
2. The apartment itself, the staircase, hallway, neighbors, etc. Not realistic, but the stuff that makes the atmosphere of people's imaginations. When I used to imagine myself having an urban bachelor pad after college, once I made my big move and all that, I think the apartment in this movie is the exact one I had in mind.
3. The treatment of the girl who has overdosed on sleeping pills is left to the lonely guy, not the professionals. This is an important and often overlooked aspect of the fantasy of movies, books, etc, that people are forced to handle difficulties and unusual situations much more on their own than they are generally allowed to do anymore in real life. The doctor neighbor does come in and give the schlemiel directions as to what to do with the girl but then instead of sending her to a hospital he leaves her in the guy's bed.
4. People are smoking indoors, even in bars! This is a new pleasure, because the last time I saw this movie, it was still actually allowed to do these things.
5. Shirley MacLaine sort of resembles my wife in this movie. She doesn't have the same hair, but there is something uncannily similar in her facial expressions--the squinting of the eyes perhaps, or the set of her mouth--which is pleasing to me.
I think there are more, but I'm going to stop. Here is a good video of the movie's highlights, with the very nice theme music. If you hasn't seen it yet though and are planning to someday it will give away the plot, if that is something you care about.