Thursday, December 18, 2008

Adventures With Bink

It turns out that a dog who wants to travel in the passenger section of an airplane needs a clean bill of health from a vet within ten days prior of the trip. We (and by "we" I mean "my wife") have decided to take the Bink home for Christmas. So this morning, I took Bink to the vet.

Usually my wife handles this kind of thing, both because she's more qualified, and less afraid. But today, after working in the early morning on a poem about lust, women's butts, and Aristotle (really) I loaded an unsuspecting dog into his carrying case (a black duffel bag with various points of access, many air holes, and a shoulder strap), bought him out to the car, and set out for the other side of town.

Getting to our old vet from our new house takes at least thirty minutes and involves a number of freeways. If you're a small dog, this means carsickness and that means vomiting. Sure enough, within the first ten minutes the high plaintive squeals of indignation and grouchiness had given way to the stunned silence of intense motion sickness. By the time we'd reached the vet, there was vomit on the bottom of the duffel bag and on the hair around Bink's mouth. He was shivering uncontrollably, his heart was beating like someone on speed, and his general demeanor was one of stunned terror.

After the appointment itself--a large part of which consisted of me trying unsuccessfully to wipe vomit off a dog's mouth with a wet paper towel--we got back in the car. This time the whimpering ended within minutes. The silence that followed was a different silence--a better silence. It sounded not like someone who had just thrown up, but like someone who has started to acclimate themselves to living for short stretches in a duffel bag. (A silence I think we all know.)

Unfortunately, I had to brake suddenly on the street near my house and the duffel bag tipped over. Upon removal, both Bink and bag displayed not only a fresh layer of vomit but an accumulation of something that looked dismayingly like urine. (I didn't investigate too closely.) The duffel bag got hosed down. The Bink was allowed to wander around the house for Free Play. And then, I drugged him.

Really. Because he's going to be on airplane, in the same duffel bag as above, for about four hours, we've decided for the sake of everyone involved to take the advice of past travelers and sedate him with Benadryl. The hope is that this will entail less whimpering, vomiting, and overall misery. Today marked the first test run of operation "BinkCalm." It involved one confused husband, a small pipette of Benadryl (previously prepared by his wife) and a more or less willing dog. (Luckily for us--at least some of the time--the Bink will pretty much eat anything).

The Bink, at this moment, is sleeping. I also would like to be sleeping, but I must go online and play poker, and try to win some money to pay for the Bink's vet bill, duffel bag, and plane ticket. Still, there's no doubt--his day was far worse than mine. Although, by now he's probably totally forgotten all of it.

Fun times. Fun times.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Two Readers Project, Pt III

This week's selection is from A Farewell to Arms, by Theophile de Gautier. Wait, no. That's not who wrote A Farewell to Arms at all. Never mind.

John and I are talking about the first four chapters, a section in which our hero, Frederic Henry, first describes the general course of the Italian offensive against Austria during World War I and then telescopes down to a summary of his own situation. It's a strange beginning, I think, because within the first four chapters we jump forward in time twice. We start with "the late summer of that year." Then, in Chapter Two, we are on "that next year." Chapter Three then opens with the hero returning from a leave for vacation, some months later. And this is all in five pages. So what I wonder is: why bother? Why not just start with Chapter III, with the hero back from his vacation. What do we need to establish in the first and second chapter?

The second chapter sets up the priest--a character whose importance is suggested later in this teasing phrase: "He had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget. But I did not know that then, although I learned it later." When I read this I immediately wanted to reread the whole book, because somewhere in here, I know, is a description of what the priest knows. Something to do with faith, and courage, probably.

But the first chapter does nothing, really, except set the tone. Its opening paragraph is among Hemingway's most famous, epitomizing the Hemingway style. It's all simple sentences and large, non-specific nouns, and the verbs are all weak (forms of 'to be' mostly.) For many people, this is what to love in Hemingway. What I ended up liking more, though, on reading this selection was, of all things, his sense of humor. We generally don't think of Hemingway as a funny writer, but a lot of the dialogue in A Farewell to Arms--especially the exchanges between the army officers--really shines. He's very good on contrasting the formality and ritual of official positions with the pride and ego and fear of the people holding those positions--the emotion that overruns the form.

There's a scene much later in the book that shows this perfectly. Frederic has just spent twelve straight hours fleeing in a boat from Italy to Switzerland. He's exhausted and stressed and in danger of being arrested for deserting the war. When the Swiss customs officials pick him up, he tells them he's come to Switzerland to experience "winter sport." The officials know he's lying, but instead of harassing him they immediately break out into an argument about which town in Switzerland offers the best opportunities for winter sport. The entire exchange is too long to replicate, but the opening is funny enough:
"[We would like to go to] Montreux."
"It's a very nice place," the official said. "I am sure you would like it very much here at Locarno. Locarno is a very attractive place."
"We would like some place where there is winter sport."
"There is no winter sport at Montreux."
"I beg your pardon," the other official said. "I come from Montreux. There is certainly winter sport on the Montreux Oberland Railway. It would be false for you to deny that."
"I do not deny that. I simply said there is no winter sport at Montreux."
"I question that," the other official said. "I question that statement."
"I hold to that statement."

The humor here is in the contrast between the intense dignity of these men--(dignity is HUGE with Hemingway. For him, I think it's a species of courage, and there's no virute he more admires. Think of the two old men in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place.")--and the pettiness of their provicincial biases. It's not funny in a laugh-out-loud, P.G. Wodehouse sort of way, but I think the levity of these scenes give the drama--maybe the melodrama--of the other parts of the book more impact. It was a surprise to me to see the variety of tones that Hemingway is capable of using. By the later books, his voices ossifies and everything is about courage and impossible odds and doomed heroism. But here, all that is tempered; there's a restraint. It's really a great book to read; I started on the first four chapters and got halfway through the book before I put it down.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


For the Two Readers Project this week, John chose an essay from Dave Hickey's seminal book of art and cultural criticism, Air Guitar.

A lot of Hickey's essays start out with a personal reminiscence, and this one's no exception. In this case, the essay begins with Hickey recalling his work writing a dissertation towards a PhD in Literature and Linguistics at the University of Texas in the mid-60's. "By September of 1967," he writes, "I had the project pretty much nailed, and only then, unfortunately, did its true eccentricity begin to dawn on me--only then did I begin to realize that there was no support anywhere in the academic world for what I was doing, nor was there any inkling that such support might be forthcoming."

He considers what will happen when his dissertation is reviewed by the committee: "The two post-structuralists, confronted with the empiricism of my practice, would almost certainly fling themselves upon the barricades. The literary humanist, faced with the prospect of calculus, would go catatonic; and the two linguistics wonks, who spent their summers taping Hopis and thought Gertrude Stein was something you drank beer out of, would bitch and moan about my "unscientific" literary parameters and probably resign from the committee."

Deciding the whole thing sounds like a "bad bet", he decides--on a whim, it seems like--to become an art dealer. "That night I called up all my artist pals and told them I was going to become an art dealer. They all said, 'Great!' Within the next two weeks, I had borrowed ten grand from a local banker who hung out in rock-and-roll bars, rented a space downstairs from a lawyer who defended drug offenders, had some stationary printed up by an outlaw printer in south Austin, and got a tax number from the State Comptroller."

So far it's all been pretty much recollection (leavened, as always, with both deep generosity and mordant cynicism). But soon--and this is usual with Hickey--the personal stuff becomes an occasion for something more intense. As an art dealer, Hickey watches all sorts of everyday, "uneducated" (at least artistically) folks come into his gallery. His conclusion is one of the many great moments in the piece:
Regarding the degradation of trying to sell objects to people who know nothing about art, I can only assure you that everyone in this culture understands the freedom and permission of art's mandate. To put it simply: Art ain't rocket science, and beyond a proclivity to respond and permission to do so, there are no prerequisites for looking at it. This is the first thing I learned as an art dealer, because everyone who came into my little store--the paper boy, the mailman, the plumber, the tourists, the hippies, and the suburban matrons--"understood" what was going on, even when they did not approve.
The final third of the essay (and I should note that even though I'm quoting liberally here, I'm leaving out a significant amount of really great writing) considers the way art is valued. He draws a parallel between art and money (currency): both are investments of faith and "when you trade a piece of green paper with a picture on it, signed by a bureaucrat, for a piece of white paper with a picture on it, signed by an artist, you haven't bought anything, since neither piece of paper is worth anything. You have translated your investment and your faith from one universe of value to another." It's a long, and characteristically thought-provoking discussion, which then goes on to consider the ways certain artists and paintings rise in value in relation to the institutions of the art world (dealers, museums, galleries) which, like the Federal Reserve, contribute, by virtue of THEIR investments to the art or artist in question, added value.
The point, however, is that the issuing institution or individual can never guarantee the value of art or money sent forth into the world. It must be sustained though investments by complex constituencies of individuals, public institutions, and private corporations. The government may say a dollar is worth a dollar. Fiduciary investment tells us it's worth thirty-five cents. The Whitney Museum may say that Wanda Whatzit is the next big thing, but only the sustained investment of money, journalism, exhibition space, scholarly prose, foundation awards, loose talk, and casual body language can help maintain Wanda's work in public esteem.
As you can probably gather, I've always loved Hickey's work, and this essay's no exception. There's a lot to admire, but if I had to chose a single virtue it would be his approachability, how lightly he wears his erudition (and the man, as any sustained contact with his writing will show, is seriously smart). Because he never talks down to you--because he always assumes you understand exactly what he's saying (and we do!--because of how well he writes) he makes you feel smart. In what may be his best essay, he writes with admiration about the paintings of Norman Rockwell. It's a prototypical Hickey essay; Rockwell is a great painter for Hickey because he disguises how hard he works. His paintings are not afraid to give the viewer pleasure but they do so (at least according to Hickey) without insulting his intelligence. They "rhyme." The same can be said of Hickey's writing; it doesn't scruple to give the reader pleasure. It's funny, it's moving, and it's humble. I also think that most of it, insofar as the word can be used when talking about criticism, is right.

So. Dave Hickey. Air Guitar. Read it. I mean, come on. The opening quote is by Keith Richards. "Let me be clear about this: I don't have a drug problem, I have a police problem." Funny, yes. But also, deeper than it seems.

PS: There's an artist around today whose work consists of hand-painted reproductions of American paper currency. Does anyone know who this is? They're supposed to be so accurate that he's occasionally arrested for counterfeiting. This essay reminded me of him.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The New House

As of Friday, we have moved in to the new place. The floors, which we've paid to have sanded and refinished, are coated in a fine layer of silt despite my constant mopping. The backyard has standing puddles in it (the man who has been doing the gardening while no one lived here seemed to be going for a Florida Everglades-type feel). Our entire dining room is filled with boxes. Our bathroom has no central light, so we've had to import a desk lamp, which now totters on the small counter between shower and sink, shadeless. The new cable box hums so loudly that you can't carry on a conversation if you're sitting next to it. Every shutter from every single one of our windows is currently lying in our garage, ready to be given a new coat of paint. (The painter--who is coming more and more to resemble Elton from Murphy Brown-- promised us he would be done last Tuesday). And whenever any faucet or toilet is activated, the entire house shakes, and a noise roughly akin to that of an army of angry gnomes toiling with jackhammers to demolish the foundation, issues forth. This FREAKS OUT the dog who, having been uprooted from a quiet, cosy carpeted nook in a place he knew to a large, loud, linoleum-covered kitchen in a place he does not, is already freaked out almost beyond what he can bear. (He's refused to eat or drink for the last twenty-four straight hours and spends most of his time yowling and scratching at the kitchen door.) That means that going to the bathroom late at night is a bad idea because it will wake him up, freak him out, and precipitate a half-hour of door banging from the kitchen which is highly injurious to calm, anxiety-free sleep.

Still. I own a home. Yes!