Wooly Baby detail

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The Big Picture

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Well, hello there. I haven't blogged in months, because I haven't had much to say. (You're welcome.) I've been quiet in part because I lost a friend a while back, and to the extent possible I dropped out of life for a while.

If you live long enough, you learn that grief leaches away slowly, day by day, at a pace of its own choosing. You wake up in the small hours, think about things, decide you're not going to be able to go back to sleep, and go down and make coffee, pretending as if you were getting up to go fishing or something. That's what I did this morning. And it was trash day, so I took the recycling bin out to the curb, and I looked up for a moment, and saw Orion. There was no moon out, and the stars shone brightly, and I stood there for quite some time. Then I went in, put on more coffee, and went upstairs for a book I hadn't looked at in years—a book about the constellations.

I opened the book to the appropriate chart for the time and season, and started going back and forth—outside to gaze at the stars, looking for patterns, then back in to pore over the chart. Until last night I only knew three constellations: the Big Dipper, Orion, and the Pleiades. But somehow, this morning the stars began to tell me their names. That star to the east of Orion's foot was Procyon, part of Canis Minor, and upwards from it were Castor and Pollux, part of Gemini. There was Regulus, there was Aldebaran, and over there to the west, Jupiter was blazing in Aries.

The writer T.H. White once said that one of the best remedies for sorrow is to learn something new. I learned something new this morning, and I want to build on that. If I wake up sad again, I'll go out and look at the stars, learning new ones, building on what I've learned before. Besides, I think another remedy for sadness is to see the big picture. It doesn't restore any particular thing you've lost, but looking at the big picture can sometimes give you some peace, I've found. And there's no bigger picture than the night sky.

Ad Copy I Really Did Read. Really.

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It was this: "Snoring is a silent killer." 

The Things that Aren't Caesar's

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Everyone has to think really hard about practical, necessary stuff, right? Like oxygen—you've got to have it, it's uncomfortable to go without it for more than about a minute, after a few minutes you'll pass out, brain damage arrives not long after that, and death soon after. So oxygen, put that on the list. Water, you'll be in trouble if you go without it for more than a day or two or three. Food you can do without longer, but not indefinitely. 

It gets fuzzy after that. Shelter? People manage without formal arrangements. Not comfortably, but they manage. Money, love, friends, intoxicants, television, flossing your teeth—there are people who manage. Again, not comfortably, but you can get by. 

And then there are other things, less tangible things, that seem to matter too, and the question is how to strike a balance. Beauty, mystery, awe, meaning—on some level, we seem to find them important too, and people ruin their own lives and other people's too—think religious wars—about it. Where to find those things, and how much effort in the search? It's hard to say. I find a good dose of them in music, art, literature, nature and such, but it does take up time that could be alternatively applied to making money and so forth. But I've had periods where I starved myself of the intangibles and did myself substantial harm. 

So hard to strike that balance. All I can say is that this morning, I was taking out the garbage, rolling the container to the edge of the alley so the truck could pick it up. I was doing that in the dark, because the truck comes early enough and I had to write a newspaper story by 8 a.m. We just had Daylight Savings Time kick in, so if you're about much before 7 a.m., it'll be dark. The moon, coming off its perigee victory tour, was noticeably off full—waning gibbous, if you want to know—but still bright. However, it was not as bright as the two streetlights on the alley that flanked it on either side. I'm not against streetlights, exactly, there are compelling reasons to have them, but they do drown out the stars. I was walking back to the house, and wondered if the moon could compete, so I held up a finger and looked at the shadows on my shed. There were two distinct ones thrown by the streetlights, but between them was a fainter one, fainter but distinct, certainly. That shadow was cast by the moon, I thought. You could probably measure and assign a number to the extent to which it held its own. And of course, if those harsh, practical lights weren't there, you could wait a bit, and with the moon so near full, pretty soon you could see quite clearly, by all means well enough to get around just fine, by its light. 

Since I was already predisposed to think that our spirit side presents us with some sort of necessity—not as keenly insistent or immediate, but still there—I thought it was some kind of metaphor. And then I trudged up the stairs and wrote my newspaper story, for which I'll be paid money. I need that money. But I'm still glad to have seen that shadow, glad and reassured. I still don't know precisely how to divide my efforts, how to get the right balance, maybe. But the moon matters in there somehow, I think, at least for your humble servant. So! Maybe a bit of music now, before bedtime, since one must rest for the next day's efforts. You need to sleep, and you need to dream. Strange world, no? Good night, at any rate. 

Eating It Anyway

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Once in the misty depths of the past I was hanging out in a college friend's kitchen and she mentioned that she was a vegetarian. As a devout carnivore, I felt I had to give her a hard time about it. "Suppose," I said, pointing to a box of spaghetti she was holding, "you found out that the wheat that was made from had a consciousness, had hopes and fears and all that? What would you do?"

She grinned. "I'd eat it anyway," she said.

Now here's the thing—I was joking. I don't think wheat has consciousness and hopes and fears. I just had oats for breakfast and I don't think there's a mother oat plant somewhere crying her eyes out over her murdered children. I do eat meat, and actually I have some moral qualms about that. About vegetables, not so much.

But it seems there's at least one person in the world sensitive enough to not see this as a joke. A writer for the New York Times wrote an essay in which she says that she gave up meat for a while and got to thinking about whether it's OK to eat plants either, because like animals, plants strive to stay alive and move around and so forth. Then she suggests that maybe someday we'll overcome our blindness about this, the way we decided generations ago it was wrong to view people of another race as inferior and exploitable as slaves and so forth. Maybe it's a joke, but if so, she pretends to be serious all the way through and concludes thusly:

My efforts to forgo meat didn’t last more than a couple of years. Still, I wonder what our great-grandchildren will think of us. Will we have trouble explaining to them why we killed animals or perhaps even plants for food? And if so, what on Earth will we be eating?
OK, two admissions here—I can't predict the future, and I may be an insensitive brute. That said, maybe future generations will slowly give up eating meat. But I'm pretty sure we'll still eat plants. The argument that they strive to keep existing just won't wash. Every object in the universe strives to hold itself together and maintain its integrity—the wastebasket under my desk, the Rock of Gibraltar, the nucleus of an atom, the ferryboats that go between Manhattan and Staten Island. I think the chances that our great-grandchildren will have the slightest moral qualm about eating plants are astrally remote, but if they do, I'm pretty sure they'll eat plants anyway.



Snow Shooting

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One of the fun things about winter—it's winter, where I live—is that you wake up and everything, literally everything, in the world outside is completely different from how it was when you went to sleep. That wooden chair in the neighbor's yard?

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It's very different from the day before. And the snow then starts telling stories—a bird walked here, a deer there, a skier crossed this hill, the neighbor got in his car and drove away, whatever.

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And then sometimes the snow tells bizarre stories that aren't even true, or that were true once, years ago, in the Alps, but even that once was amazingly unlikely. Long story short, I'm practicing the piano, take a moment's break, look out at the sidewalk, and see a face half-buried in the snow. Eyes, nose, one ear emerging from the ice, it was all there, the way they found the previously mentioned Otzi the Iceman in the mountains. It was one of those strange moments that pull you up short, like when Scrooge saw Marley's face in the door knocker. People complain about the snow, but that seems wrong to me, when it works so hard and so successfully to entertain. Yes, you have to shovel it away, and walk carefully when it's slippery, but I think that's a small enough price to pay.

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Marketing Fail: Using Corpses to Sell Food

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The other night the cupboard was pretty bare and I was down to two choices: make turkey hash, or use a box of pasta a friend had given me. The pasta is made from einkorn, which according to the box was the first kind of wheat to be cultivated. "Our interest in this most ancient grain was inspired by the discovery of Otzi in the Italian Alps, a Bronze Age man perfectly preserved in a glacier for over 5,000 years," the box read. "Scientists determined his final meal included einkorn."

Actually they capitalized "einkorn" throughout, even though it's a common noun, because Marketing People often Capitalize Words they think are Important to the Client. Anyway, as you'll recall, Otzi is also known as the Iceman, and upon his discovery in 1991 he was very, very dead and looked it. He was twisting his arm around, as if he were about to cough in his shoulder, and didn't look comfortable to begin with. He was quite dessicated. And he was approximately the color of a rotisserie chicken, and just as shiny. This looks more appetizing on the chicken than it does on Otzi, take my word for it.

Long story short, I had the turkey hash that night. The box says the pasta tastes really good, is high in thiamine (also capitalized) and has an oxygen radical absorbence capacity that's twice that of whole durum wheat. Those are fine things to say if you want to persuade a person to eat einkorn. But saying that a corpse ate einkorn, even a celebrity corpse, tends to put me off my feed, to be honest, and when you talk about scientists determining the corpse's last meal I think about autopsies, and by then my appetite has shrunk to a point and disappeared. They didn't have a picture of Otzi on the box, which is good, but not mentioning him at all would have been even better. There are no hard and fast rules in life—except, I don't know, maybe in metallurgy or like that—but I think this case study suggests that dessicated corpses are not what you want to associate your product with if the product is food. I mentioned this at a family gathering and when I mentioned the einkorn-as-final-meal part, my brother-in-law asked, "Did it kill him?" Scientists have determined he was shot with an arrow, cut with knives, and hit on the head. The einkorn is not considered a suspect. But really, you don't even want the question to come up.

For Free

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There are amusing animals—ducks come to mind—and there are amusing words, words I just like, and one of them is "busker." You've probably seen a busker, even if you didn't know it—buskers are musicians who stand on the street to perform. They usually have a hat or guitar case open in front of them, and people put in money if they're so moved. Most buskers aren't that great, frankly, but sometimes you can be amazed. I saw a very cool gypsy-klezmer band called Gadji-Gadjo playing on the street in Montreal once, and years before, also in Montreal, I saw a group of Andean pan-pipe players in traditional costumes. I don't want to listen to that for hours on end, but they were interestingly alien—when you see a group of colorfully garbed Peruvians piping away on a city street, you feel like they might as well have dropped from the moon, and you can't help but check it out for a minute. Then there was the time in Washington that I heard a kid on the street playing drums on those white plastic containers they use for construction materials and the like, and he was really good too. You just have to listen for a few seconds, and sometimes you'll be surprised at the music you can hear for free.

Joni Mitchell was a busker once, before she was famous. Can you imagine? You're walking down the street in Toronto, and here's this young woman on the sidewalk playing guitar and singing, and she just happens to be one of the greatest artists of her generation. Maybe she wasn't then what she would become; maybe she was mostly a kid who sang and played folk songs better than average. But maybe she already had that enchanting poetry in her, and it was there, on the street, not a commodity, but a phenomenon before you, as mysterious and magical as the northern lights.

Or maybe not. They did an experiment a few years ago—the Washington Post sent the famous violinist Joshua Bell into a subway station to play and see if anyone would stop and listen. Few people did, and the columnist Gene Weingarten reacted by basically saying people are pigs. Me, I pretty much think people are pigs too, but I'd be willing to give them a pass on the Joshua Bell in the subway question. Of 1,097 people, seven stopped to listen, and one recognized him. First of all, most people aren't that crazy about classical music. Second, there's a smaller percentage that have a good enough ear to tell an outstanding player from a merely competent one. Seven out of 1,097 isn't bad, actually. It's more than I'd have guessed. And third, a subway station is, by definition, a place you go the hell away from as quickly as you can. Very few people go there ready to be enchanted and you can hardly blame them for that.

All this is a lengthy preamble to the latest news—I suppose that I'm a busker myself, now. I offered my services playing piano in front of one of my town's art galleries during October's First Friday art stroll. And when I told the bass player in the trio about it, he wanted to busk too, and when the drummer heard he signed up as well. So the other night we lugged our stuff in front of the gallery, strung all the wires, and started playing. For a joke, I put the bass case in front of the drums, opened it, and threw a few bills in.

There weren't as many people out that night as there sometimes are, because the local creek was flooding, but there were enough. The evening was crisply cool, pleasantly autumnal, with clear skies that went from blue to indigo to black as we played. Passersby would come into our sphere and their faces would light up—not, I think, because we're so awesome, but at least in part because you just don't hear jazz much on the street or anywhere, really, these days. Also, there was another busker up the street singing and playing guitar who served as a foil for us and made us sound good by comparison. He had a powerful public-address system, certainly, but his sense of pitch and his taste in music were much weaker. He sang songs by Journey and the Monkees, for Christ's sake, in a way that hurried people down the sidewalk to where we were, sort of like the beaters who chase the tiger toward the hunter's elephant.

At any rate, people would smile, stop, applaud, say nice things, and in several instances they dropped a dollar on the velvet lining of the bass case. Each time I looked over at the drummer, who happens to be an architect, grinning and shaking my head at how funny and strange life is, with strangers dropping a dollar in front of three middle-aged men with houses and day jobs and all, but that's busking, isn't it? They aren't paying you a dollar so much as they're paying you a sincere compliment, and even if we thought it was funny we thought it was awfully nice, too. People who were dining al fresco across the street strolled over to say they liked the music, and again, we were flattered.

And a singer the bass player knew stopped by to see us, and she sang some tunes with us and was great, which just made it all the better. It struck me how she was singing on the sidewalk, for free, simply because she liked to sing and was good at it. It was refreshing—it's the kind of thing that makes you think the human race isn't entirely awful.

The folks at the gallery kept sending us glasses of wine to keep our spirits up, and when we were done and packed up, we divided up the dollars we'd earned and then retired to a bar to eat and drink and have a convivial time. We had fun, everyone agreed. And we felt, if not exactly paid, certainly well enough compensated. I just may be a busker again some time. I probably won't play in the subway, or in the lobby of a burning building, say, but if you pick your time and place—I'm talking to you, Mr. Weingarten—people can, in fact, be pretty appreciative.

Blade Inflation

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The other day I read a very serious article in the very serious magazine The Atlantic Monthly about a very serious problem, the likelihood that Iran will have nuclear weapons sometime soon. I can't solve that problem, I'm afraid. Wish I could, but I can't. The problem I did solve doesn't quite rise to that level of seriousness, but it was a vexing one nonetheless. I made a note to myself the other day to buy razor blades, and when I went to the store, I found that a package of 10 Gillette Sensor blades would cost nearly 18 dollars. This seemed outrageous. It's a bit of plastic with another couple of bits of steel in it, made by slaves in China. I would conservatively estimate the markup as a billion percent.

So I looked at the racks. You could get dual-edge Wilkinson blades that fit Atra and Trac II razors for a much more reasonable
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price. But you couldn't find razor handles that would accommodate them, so no joy there. Worse, clearly the trend is away from two-blade razors like the Sensor toward blade inflation—four- and five-blade razors that probably give you a nice clean shave, but the Sensor did too and unless the five-blader means you don't have to shave for a week, I don't see  that we're further forward. Enough!

 I briefly wondered if people were selling used Atra or Trac II razors on Ebay, then shook off the unappetizing image. It turns out that you can use the inexpensive dual-edge Atra blades with the currently available Gillette Vector handle, available online although not in the three stores I went to. This solves the problem of the dual-edged razor blade that costs $1.80 and the four- or five-edged model that goes for $2.50 or so—solves it temporarily, at least. I can't solve the problem of a nuclear Iran and I don't think I can permanently solve the problem of blade inflation but on the second thing I'm at least trying. And you have to at least try, right?

Sunshine and Flowers

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A new friend who knows I do photography wrote to me to get over to a field near my house where 400,000 sunflowers were in their fullest glory. And the first morning I was free, I dragged my groggy self over there and felt well rewarded—sure enough, the sunflowers flowed out over the fields until they were quite literally out of sight.

The retreating glaciers that created the field had been inconsiderate enough to do so in a way that prevented me from showing one flower up close with the rest of the mass swooping dramatically away, but I did the best I could. A cooperative bee posed next to one flower, so that's the image I chose to slap up here.

It was only when I thought about it days later that I realized I'd gotten some decent pictures but had missed an opportunity anyway. There were a number of other people there—several of them professional photographers, and a whole photography class of some sort. And for a moment I thought of them as competition, the way you hate to see other fisherpersons at a stream you'd prefer to fish alone. But when I thought about it later, I decided I was glad they were there, and wished I had taken their pictures, because they were part of the story too.

I don't know—I look at the news stories that crowd their way onto my computer screen, and I think sometimes that the world seems to be full of tawdry celebrity gossip, mindless, hate-driven sloganeering, and little else. So it's refreshing to know that a few gentle souls will take some time to gaze at a field of sunflowers. As a race, people do wonderful things and horrible things in what seems to be equal measure, and taking time to gaze at a swathe of blazing yellow because it'll be gone in a few weeks is one of the wonderful things we do. I also like that we, at least some of us, look into canyons and listen to symphonies and learn to name the constellations. Beauty and awe, you know? Good stuff.

And then I further thought about it, and realized that although I think direct experiences are better than media experiences, I have to admit that this new friend is one of those modern friends you make before you've actually met in real life, if you ever do. She has a very cool blog and we seem to have some interests, attitudes and experiences in common. But if it weren't for our hyper-mediated world, I might not have met her yet in any fashion.   But I did, which is nice.

And that's all, really. A field of sunflowers, and some of the thoughts you might think about them.