Walking here and there on the Earth

30 January, 2007 at 10:32 pm (dear diary)

I remain unsure as to how I missed the previous announcement, but I learned today that friend and fellow college student Osa Tannis had died this summer. Despite the fact that it seems somehow bizarre to mourn the passing of someone six months late, it was a bit of a shock. Osa was one of those people that you hoped you’d bump into at some point in the future, one of those people that you do a web search for in an idle, nostalgic moment, because one was certain that he would continue to inspire people and be joyful and be fully in life. So it’s quite dismaying to learn that he was far from eternal.

I have a memory of walking through the hallways of the Starbuck Building — back when it was a large, unused common room with some gorgeous fireplaces, and before it was chopped into subdivided office space for mid-level admin staff — and finding Osa latched onto a piano, singing with vim and volume. It was finals week, and he had biology work to do, and he was evading it with that thrilling energy that comes from avoiding that which is necessary by instead doing something vital and personal.

FLICKR: Skidmore: the Adversary talks to God

Previously, we had collaborated in performing an version of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Book of Job, wherein he played the rumbling voice of God and I was the sibilant Accusing Angel. We were each impressed with how much presence each brought to the part, as he was not to be trifled with and I was rather cunning. The class was based upon the idea of using performance to understand literature, culminating in an examination of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and having Osa sing and emote and arrest attention with his voice was instrumental in providing the class with the context to feel the work as more than just words.

There was “no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil…” and I shall miss the comfort of knowing that he was out there someplace.

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Snapshots

8 January, 2007 at 1:48 pm (dear diary, new hampshire)

Much has been made of the recent weather in New England. My own circle of correspondents and contacts have been woeful about the lack of skiing and the general lack of season that has pervaded this grey, warm winter. I have responded in a characteristic and contrary way, enjoying the lack of difficulty of movement that snow and ice afford. I do worry about environmental impact — particularly with regard to local organisms. Will plants bloom too early to be pollinated? Will animals lose out on important food resources that are tied to a seasonal cycle? As much as I am enjoying the lack of snow, I do enjoy the New Hampshire niche of plants and animals and landscape, and would be disappointed to have its cast of characters change permanently with the climate alteration.

Still, as it’s snowed twice this season and I’ve gotten in a car accident during one of those days, I’m hesitant to actually endorse a substance that increased the difficulty of ordinary movement.

Today was a another day of rain, which I enjoy because it makes me want to drink tea, and tea is one of my primary sensual pleasures in life. Even consumed daily, a new cup of piping hot tea is a thing in which to regularly luxuriate; each one has its essential and simple now-ness. It demands time and attention. While snowfall provides a sense of the cancellation of sound, muffling and restricting the ability of noise to travel, which creates a curious sense of vast vide, the low percussive white noise of rainfall soothes me immeasurably. And since there’s less after-effect than snow, one’s pleasure doesn’t need to be tempered by the awareness of the eventual chores to follow.

The one downfall of today’s rain is the impenetrable blanket of clouds that ruined one of my standard daily neatnesses (it’s not a miracle or a mitzvah, but it is a minor marvel). When I leave in the mornings, the light is weak, and the sky a pervasive midnight blue, and by the time I arrive at work, the sky is light and the sun has achieved clarity. People who dislike winter hate the getting up in the dark and the driving home in the dark, and it’s quietly pleasurable to get to work earlier than many people (7:05am) and still have the sky have transformed from dark to light between stepping in and out of my car. I have only rarely seen sunrises that were spectacular; most tend to be chill and lacking in any dramatic effect. But — again — the simplicity of the fact that, yea, there is light, brings me cheer.

This post would be best topped off with a photograph of the morning full moon from the middle of last week, hovering high over the horizon and glowing with enough light to make one think it was a pale morning sun. Unfortunately, I wasn’t carrying at the time, and so this post is picture free. But it was lovely. “Irreducably complex”? Not remotely. It was simple. Amusingly, it reinforced something I had been surprised to see portrayed in Berkeley Breathed’s unfortunately repetitive Opus strip:

Opus' proof of the absence of God

Right, enough sentimentalism. I’m off for a wee cuppa.

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My sting? Oh, that’s right here.

21 November, 2006 at 1:06 pm (dear diary)

Attended my third funeral in the past eighteen months, and the first for a non-family member. Prior to that, after attending two ceremonies for former teachers of mine, I had sworn them off entirely, realizing that the formal service was not personally helpful. The platitudes of faith and togetherness were not providing me with any grace or comfort, and it seemed unlikely, therefore, that my attendance at such things would provide any solace for any other attendants. And if that were the case, well, then it seemed better for all concerned if I simply forswore funerals altogether.

Attending these last few ceremonies have confirmed for me that there’s little the service can do to warm the cockles of my loss, but they have been interesting in clarifying the intended purpose of the event. And I’m beginning to understand that what I’m actually looking for in the post mortem is a good wake. The best funeral I ever attended was for the father of a friend, and it was organized as a remembrance of what the deceased was like in life, a celebration of the man and his works and his foibles. Vienna Teng has a song, “Say Uncle“, where she sings:

I retrieve the memories quickly as I can
add them to the portrait we all draw in our minds
your body gone, we shall keep the man.

That sort of mortal focus is what I need, the attempt at coalescing essence here, on this plane. And more and more I am coming to realize that this isn’t the intent of the service. It is there to provide words of the otherworldly, to prevent people from crying out, “But why?” It promises that, with patience, this will all be made right and that it was not meaningless. The difficulty is that Christianity is an evangelical religion, and in these trying times of flagging attendance, it seems to me that most ceremonial reminders of God’s divine grace tend to become mingled with entreaties for conversion. And, frankly, I find that to be the basest and most degraded of opportunistic shilling.

Charlie Nokes and Ryan McCaughn, 1999In addition to the confusion about the purpose of the funeral — and, admittedly, this could all be my own personal issues created by conflating the roles of the funeral and the memorial service — whether it is to celebrate the life of the deceased, to provide comfort with the belief of a greater beyond, or whether to serve as a cautionary moment to redirect the living towards salvation, this particular funeral had an additional master to whom was required homage: the military. Not only did the church need pulpit time to declare that we could mitigate our sorrows with the knowledge that death leads one to Heaven, the military trotted out its crisp, cornered ceremony to justify its actions on Earth. The military deals in death, it is the penny with which we all buy protection, but death of those on our side is somewhat embarrassing. It makes it look as if God in not with us, it reminds us that that fighting them over there is still guaranteed to hurt us here at home. Bugles, bagpipes, and triangular blue fields all try to say, “We are treating him honorably in death to convince you that we did honorably by him in life.” With particular unspoken emphasis on the circumstances that killed him. Yea, they are all, all honorable men.

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Studio or Real

8 November, 2006 at 3:13 am (dear diary)

Is it just me, or are the local anchors of my news stations barely repressing a decidedly unobjective glee as they report that Democrats are winning seats in the election?

Maybe I’m just projecting.

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Seeing Red, Fade to Black

12 October, 2006 at 3:16 pm (benjamin, dear diary)

No real stories from Dimitri’s wedding, but I am forced to revise my previous estimate that a hotel room is a hotel room, no matter how much one pays for it. My previous position was based upon a few hotel experiences and a growing sincere belief that one can dress it up, and buy different cleansing perfume, but that a hotel room still remained a box with an immobile bed whether it cost $35 a night or $100. Having just stayed in a $125 room, well, I’m ready to admit that maybe there are levels. It still had terrible construction and typical furnishings, and the headboard was hilariously broken and badly repaired, but the room had a better feel to it, a nicer sense of occupancy that didn’t drive one from its confines.

Noah Webster's Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, 1806Also, the four hour drive from Connecticut convinced me that I would not have the fortitude to drive back and forth to Amherst this evening for a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. This event sounds hella nerdy, and the draw is unmistakable. I have no real idea on what sort of basis the event would stand: would it be social, conversational, a lecture, a presentation? What sort of people would show up? What happens when bibliophiles, graphomaniacs, and librarians clash over cocktails? The answers to these questions should be compelling enough, but the idea of driving home between 9:10pm and midnight is simply no longer feasible. My ability to string coherent thought together expires each evening at 9:30pm, and the night from there becomes a sparkly, glistening enterprise of unusual word associations, heavy eyelids, and raucous laughter. Terrifically amusing to me and my flatmate, but not the optimal state for driving twisty back-country highways. So no Noah Webster for me, I’m afraid.

Instead, I shall have to comfort myself with color theory. I recently learned that the school district that employs me did not see fit to have a consistent color scheme across its school athletic teams. So while the middle school wears blue, the high school players sport red. Now, I went to a combined middle/high school, so I lack the perspective and experience to know if this is normal. However, it feels odd. It feels like we have competing teams in the same system. And while I enjoy the classy black and red warm-up jackets that are worn about campus on game days or simply autumnal days, the actual red uniforms don’t do much for me. So I was amused to hear Sports Illustrated editor Frank Deford, on his weekly column on NPR go off on a torrent against too many teams that use red as their color. It’s a marvelously verbal essay, full of thesaurus listings and alliteration that would make Stan Lee envious.

There is too much of it, and I am asking for a bloody moratorium. OK, maybe—maybe—I can live with your darker hues, your maroon, your garnet or your burgundy, but the ripe reds running riot, row upon row, in stadiums and arenas, is becoming, as Chester A. Riley used to lament, a “revolting development.”

…Understand, I’ve got nothing against red. Hey, you’re listening to a man who named his daughter Scarlet. I’m just the fashion policeman trying to help all you cinnamon-clad crimson creatures, you puce people, you magenta masses, you vermilion millions. Everybody’s doing it now. Wearing red to games is tacky. It’s passé. It’s so yesterday. Red flag it.

—Frank Deford, “At Games across the land, seeing red

So marvelously wordy, but interestingly issueless. I like Deford. He does for sports what PRI’s Marketplace does for money: Marketplace charmingly makes money matters accessible and contextual for those who are not financiers, and Deford he talks sorts in a manner that’s jocular but not jock-specific. But while I think he’s been a clear voice of reason about many sports issues, it must be difficult to come up with something substantive each week, and this tract is a soft lob. Which is perhaps why the vocabulary is so lush: he had to fill the column-inches somehow. Enjoyable, but mildly disappointing that he didn’t speculate on the purpose of the power color, the cultural reasons why red is so preferred by players and fans alike. After all, if studies show that those wearing black uniforms attract more penalty calls and demerits thank those wearing non-black uniforms, then color and competition clearly collaborate in some psychological manner. Is it true or is it an urban myth that red cars are pulled over by the police more frequently than any other hued vehicle? Do we associate red with speed, with daring in the way that Mark G. Frank and Thomas Gilovich’s study indicates we associate black with violence?

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Sleigh Bells Ring, Are You Listening?

4 October, 2006 at 12:15 am (dear diary)

I always keep track of when I see the first instance of Christmas decorations each year. There has been a gradual creeping back, earlier and earlier, since my childhood memories. I recall that there used to be a Thanksgiving sometime in November, but Christmas decorations began coming hard on the heels of Hallowe’en. Then I began to see them when the Hallowe’en decorations started to come down, a few days before the holiday itself. I’m pretty sure that the earliest Christmas decorations I’ve ever seen — aside from the insane people that celebrate the miraculous virgin birth of Santa Claus all year ’round — we in the mid-twenties of October.

But today I realize I’ve been looking in the wrong place. Retail stores and supermarkets offer a window into the common commercial experience, and I always have used those as the most reliable indicator. But I now see that decorations and muzak may not have been the bellwethers I assumed them to be, and that I have been insulated from the truth. You see, I watch as little television as possible. And when I do watch TV, I try to make it as much a non-commercial experience as possible. And if what I experienced today is normal, is typical, then it throws my whole calendar out of whack. For today I saw a televised advertizement that was clearly a pre-Christmas teaser. It has elves and wishing and magic and expensive stuff. I didn’t come right out and say “the Holiday season”, but the visuals made it perfectly clear.

As if I really needed one more reason to despise Wal-Mart.

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Pennies to Heaven

8 August, 2006 at 12:30 am (dear diary)

In the year 2001, I was given an enormous jar of pickles by a friend who thought that it was be an amusing gift. It was, particularly because I hate pickles. I brought the jar to a department meeting and they were cleared out in moments by ravenous faculty members, and I took the jar home. I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to do this, except that it had been a gift and while I abhorred the contents I still wanted to enjoy the spirit of the gift in a tangible manner.

The jar became, by dint of random chance, the jar into which I dumped my excess pennies. There’s a new attempt to get rid of the penny, as previously documented on The West Wing, and I occasionally find myself agreeing with the prospect. And these times, by total lack of coincidence, tend to fall on occasions when I have seventeen cents in copper weighing down my change purse, and no other money on my person. We don’t even have a ¢ key on the standard western keyboard anymore, f’r cryin’ out loud! So, I would keep four cents for the purposes of exact change, and the rest would get habitually chucked in the pickle jar. Five years later, I still hadn’t filled more than about two inches of the jar, so perhaps the problem wasn’t as rampant as I thought, but when wandering around my apartment trying to find stuff to discard for my upcoming move, well… a giant glass jar of change seemed to meet the basic requirements.

Luckily, my local supermarchet has what’s known as a Coinstar machine. Truly, a brilliant invention. One takes one’s giant pickle jar of pennies to the supermarket, and dumps them in a scoop. The machine counts the pennies and either turns them into actual, useful money (while removing a percentage for the service), or — and this is the really cool bit — turns the pennies into gift certificates to useful megaconglomerates like the iTunes music store or Amazon.com.

Back in the day I rowed crew, and every day on our way to practice we would stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts to buy a 20-pack of chocolate munchkins for $1.99 (which should give you an idea of how long ago this was). After a concentrated four seasons of this, we had enough pennies left over from the change from $1.99 to buy a 20-pack of munchkins: one hundred and ninety-nine pennies. It was an event, and we were proud. I figured I’d have a similar amount saved up today, enough to buy one of the two remaining episodes of The Office that I hadn’t seen. Imagine my surprise when the machine clinked and clanked up a count of 978 pennies.

Wow. That was a really good gift, even with a slight briny cent, sorry, “scent” (no pun intended, really) lingering over my pentennial accumulation of spare change. I’m now totally excited to go to one of the five Coinstar machines within easy distance of my new apartment and pour in a whole new bucket of petty cash. Too bad it’s going to take a few years to accumulate an equivalent experience.

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Too Darn Whiny

19 July, 2006 at 1:27 am (dear diary)

It was really, really hot for a while, and it’s still quite warm in some places. The National Weather Service issued warnings and people dehydrated to the point of death in their close, inhumane apartments.

The heat has produced record electricity use and enormous air conditioner sales and it becomes apparent that a culture that uses “the lifestyle to which I am accustomed” as a legal measure is never, ever, ever going to learn how to conserve, no matter how unexpectedly charming and urbane Al Gore is, nor how amazing one finds his PowerPoint presentation.

I was going to write about the heat and the humidity and the awful disgustingness of it all, but the weather has actually been quite variable and marvelously comfortable at times. And last year at this time I couldn’t do anything except sit and my apartment and drip with perspiration… This year, it hasn’t been nearly as oppressive. So while I’m still going to encourage you to listen to a marvelous rendition of Ella Fitzgerald singing the sexy standard “It’s Too Darn Hot“, it really isn’t.

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Not a Jot Nor Tittle

12 June, 2006 at 4:55 pm (benjamin, dear diary, literary)

Jottings and small thoughts:

+ I had occasion to go to a florist a few weeks ago, and it had been a considerable amount of time — at least a few years — since I had had occasion to visit a florists’, and so I may have looked a little out of sorts as I stood patiently at the counter. However, despite any sense of experience I may have felt I possessed, the proprietor of the shop seemed to think I looked sufficiently at sea that I must be a teenager buying a corsage for the prom. You know how women will say they like getting carded because it makes them feel young? I can’t actually imagine wanting to be a teenager again, except for the marvelous metabolism, but I decided to take the comment in the same spirit: as a twisted, misguided compliment.

+ Went to a Chuck Palahniuk signing in Boston at the Brookline Booksmith. I’d never read anything by Chuck, but he was giving out free gelt to people who stood in line: bunny-ear headbands and stuffed rats. I got a plush snake, which he signed, “Chucky P.”

Vienna Teng's DREAMING THROUGH THE NOISE+ Hem and Vienna Teng, who I saw play a gig together at the Iron Horse last year, are both coming out with new albums this summer. This is Hem’s fourth album in three years, so I’m a little worried about quality control, but Ms. Teng is releasing her first album with Rounder Records, so I hope that it combines her excellent songwriting and technical expertise with their stripped-down, schmaltz-resistant sensibilities. I like her music, but it’s a guilty pleasure, as she does tend to have records produced with that extra dose of cheese. I found out about the releases on NPR’s All Songs Considered, which is darling enough to have RealMedia full-length previews of a track from each album. We’d prefer MP3, but we’ll make do with what we have. The Hem track is called “Not California“, and the Vienna Teng is quite good and titled “Blue Caravan“. Hem also has a zipped MP3 available from their website, a live recording of “Reservoir“.

+ Superman Returns is due out soon, and I’m all aflutter for its eventual release. However, for some unknown reason, Warner Brothers marketing people are trying to get in the way of my peaceful coexistence with commercialism as brokered by the fine folks at Universal Studios and as recorded in the previous post. Listen, WB: if you’re going to get Superman plastered all over the cereal aisle, at least contract out with General Mills or with Kelloggs… those guys are whores, and they will make sure that their cereals contain crappy toys. Crappy toys that I will lust after and buy cereal in order to acquire. You, however, have decided to go with Quaker, who are more wholesome, and are content to offer coupons and “Memory”-stylee matching games on the back of their boxes. This is insufficient. I require more crass commercialism with my blockbuster DC Comics movies, and you are not giving it to me. Admittedly, it is pretty damn cool that there’s a red cereal that turns the milk blue, but that’s not technology that I can place around my computer monitor and shoot at my students.

Superman: SPACE+ Lastly, on the cereal front: the “Memory” game? It comes on packages of Life, with a different set of eight cards on each flavour. Of the four pairs of cards, the first three are different pictures of Superman, Lois, and Lex Luthor. The fourth pair of cards is a location. And on the plain box of Life, that location is “SPACE”. Look, guys… I know you’re already lame, because you’re trying to pass off cut-up pieces of recyclable pressboard as a toy. But you couldn’t come up with three locations from the film that didn’t include “SPACE”? You have the entirety of the Warner Bros. press machine to provide you with material for this sham of a promotional item, whereas I’ve only watched the trailer. However, I can come up with three locations from that limited footage. Actually, more: Metropolis, Smallville, The Daily Planet, the Fortress of Solitude. Even allowing for the fact that the use of “Smallville” might involve sticky trademark issues, that’s still three better “Memory” cards than “SPACE”. Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

+ I have more free disc space on my e-mail account than I do on my computer. How did that happen? Gmail really has caused a paradigm shift in the base expectations of what webmail should and can provide. That and the fact that my harddrive is only considered “sufficient” by pre-BitTorrent and DVD-burner standards. Ah, the quaint days of 1999.

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Chickens by the Car, Bizarre

25 March, 2006 at 5:06 pm (dear diary)

I’m not one to delight in other people’s misery. Not ordinary people anyway. CEOs of corporations, politicians… for these people who have thrust themselves into the capitalist limelight, I have nothing but schadenfreude, and I am so hot right now for Tom DeLay to go to prison. But decent, ordinary folk get a variety of sufferings thrust upon them, and I wish it otherwise. Chris MacLaren’s blog entry about a neighbor’s burning house reminded me vividly of driving through Saratoga on my way to 9 Derby Drive and passing a house on fire. It was beautiful. The flames were spilling out of the front door and pouring along the roof of the porch. There the air currents caught them and pulled them back into the second story window, creating a swooping column of fire that curved and roared and pulsed like the most dangerous crazy straw imaginable. But even as I was awestruck by the spectacle, I knew that this was someone’s everything that was being destroyed, and I couldn’t, in good conscience, rubberneck just for the breathtaking physics and colors.

The other day, the house that is diagonally across the street from my window had emptied its contents out onto the lawn. I don’t know if the property was foreclosed or condemned or the tenants evicted… I can but speculate, but it didn’t look like the occupants were simply moving, and so it’s likely that the circumstances were unhappy.

So, um, why did the, um...However, as a result of the evacuation of this property, there is now a pair of vagabond chickens wandering the yard. And because they are feeling the liberty of suddenly being free range, they often leave the yard and explore the adjacent street and parking lot and the yards of the neighboring houses. I have long held the philosophy that any movie that has a shot of chickens running amok in a dusty road is going to be awesome, or at least that moment will make me more predisposed to ignore other glaring flaws. In any case, the occasional view of chickens nonchalantly meandering through traffic has increased the joy I feel while idly gazing out of my tiny kitchen. And while this probably doesn’t improve the circumstances of the previous owners of these chickens any, it feels good take some irrational, cackling cheerfulness out of the results of their misfortune. That probably makes me a terrible person.

(I have subsequently communed with and photographed these chickens, and I was hoping to have the photos developed and up for this post, but the likelihood of me actually getting this film to the pharmacy or even to SnapFish with any due speed is heartily unlikely. Don’t “stay tuned” or anything, but I will edit this post to include visual documentation at some point. EDIT: Which has, clearly, been done.)

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