Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Musical Interlude

The final part of the ANCIANT European Travel Divine Comedy will probably not arrive until after the holidays.  In the interim, I'd like to ask everybody to respond to this question:  what is the single worst lyric that occurs in a hit song of the 1980s? (The 1980s part is key: we have to limit our search, a little.  Plus, this way we have an excuse to think about songs from the 80s).

I think I already have the winner.  It occurs in an otherwise fantastic song--"Africa" by Toto.  (Please note, that we're using the word 'fantastic' in a very specific way when we talk about 1980s Pop.  Nevertheless, I will happily argue for hours with anyone mad enough to claim that "Africa" is NOT a great song.  Because it is.  GONNA TAKE A LOT TO DRAG ME AWAY FROM YOUUUUU)

Toto in the 80s.  How I Miss Them.  (The Band and the Decade)

This is not to say, however, that it doesn't contain an absolute disaster of a lyric.  I refer, of course to this little doozy:
I know that I must do what's right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I was sure, last time I heard this song that lyric was "as sure as Kilimanjaro rises like a LEPRESS above the Serengeti."  I'm still not convinced that ISN'T the lyric, but I'm going to bow to the many sites on the Internet that claim it's Olympus.  It's still awful.  Way too many words have been crammed into the music, the simile is confusing, and the allusion to Olympus only confuses whatever is at stake in the song.

All right.  That's my submission.  The floor is open.  I await to hear from all my fellow 80s music loving fans.

Wait, first.  I can't help it--this lyric begs to be mentioned right away.  This way, we can get it out of the way.
He sees her, he starts to shake and to cough.
Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.
This should be a reference point for would-be poets on what constitutes a forced rhyme.  To pick at just one of the lyric's many many problems--the protagonist of Lolita, Humbert Humbert, is not an old man; he's middle age, at the oldest.  Also (need to stop--don't go down the rabbit hole) he is NOT at all embarrassed or ashamed of his love for young women.  He revels in it; he would never start to 'shake and cough' on seeing a young girl; that suggest guilt.

Man.  I'm wondering if we should just limit this discussion to Sting lyrics.  Because that is a rich vein to mine.

Anyway, now the floor really is open.  Let's hear 'em!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

European Vacation, Part II


After a week in Brussels we began the vacation portion of the trip.  First stop, Strasbourg.
  
Yesterday we took the train to Strasbourg, which has impressed us mightily.  We originally planned to go straight from Brussels to Dijon, but our guide book spoke so highly of Alsace we decided to stop en route.  We're glad we did.  So far, Strasbourg's been great.

The city is beautiful; all French cities are. There are no Liverpools or Daytons in France.  It's one charming panorama after another.  We're also ended up in a lovely hotel. (Le cour de courbeau--"the heart of the badger").  Strasbourg is in far Eastern France; we're literally walking distance from the German border.  As a result, half the guests in our hotel speak German.  (The other half speak Malagasy.)  The hotel staff seem to all speak French, English and German perfectly.  It's impressive.  And, slightly shaming.   (Recalls the old joke: What's the name for a person who speaks two language?  Bilingual.  What's the name for a person who speaks one language?  American.)

In planning this trip, one of our guiding concerns was where we would eat.  It's sort of one of our things--eating in 'destination', Michelin-star type restaurants.   Like a hobby?  No, that's way too yuppified and annoying to be a hobby.  It's an interest, let's say--and a way to organize and motivate travel.  For example: we're planning a trip to Chicago next year, in part because of all the supposedly great restaurants there.  Now, while I'm there, will I stop by the Bears Training facility and work with their O Line on how to implement a zone-blocking scheme?  Probably.  But that's not the impetus for the trip.  With Strasbourg, at least part of why we decided to stop here was because of the presence of highly-touted traditional Alsatian restaurant le Beureheisel (English: "the Beureheisel").  Last night we went there.  And the food, while good, probably doesn't qualify for our "great meals list."

In some ways, the whole thing of going to highly-regarded restaurants (for me at least) is a bit like how it used to be seeing live music. You go to see a band, because you hear that such and such a band MUST be seen live. OR, you just feel, as a music fan, that it's your duty to see Eric Clapton. You hope it will be a transcendent experience, one to tell your grandkids about (though why your Grandkids would want to hear about Eric Clapton is another story).  Usually it's not, but, regardless, you have a good time.  It's the same with the restaurants on the "Best Restaurants in the World" list, e.g.  (Which I admit to perusing frequently).  You hope, if you can make it to Alinea or the French Laundry, you'll have a sublime, live-on-in-memory type experience.  Usually you don't  (if the experience were common, it wouldn't be so exciting), but when you do, it's all the better.  I'd say only one of the restaurants we ate at on this trip reached that level.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

And now, having already started this hare, I feel motivated to think about "foodiesm."

The word, like 'hipster,' has acquired a lot of negative (even, overlappingly negative) stereotypes.  But in its best form, a foodie, is like a passionate 90s indie music fan.  The archetypal, ur-foodie experience, I would argue (and this was already covered in a recent Sunday times article, but reassert its truth) involves going on Chowhound (the website that's the hive brain for serious foodies), reading exhaustively about all the best places in your city to get, I don't know, beef pho, and then methodically and unswervingly trying them all.  Jonathan Gold, the LA food critic, is the model here.  (In fact, a credible argument could be made that he was the first foodie, that he invented the whole...thing).  But the point (or at least a point) is that Foodie-ism is NOT about fine dining, per se (though most foodies probably do also do a lot of 'star chef', fine dining too) but adventurous, encyclopedic dining.  It's about eating offal, or grasshopper, or sheep testicles.  It's about knowing (or believing you know) THE place to get Ramen on the south side of Chicago, or the difference between a true omakase and a westernized version.  Etc.  Anyway, according to this definition, the Wife and I are NOT foodies.  

To continue with the 90s indie music fan analogy... Foodies, like the people who worked at my college radio stations, tend to value "creators" (chefs or bands) who manifest the same traits.  1) They're spiritually pure.   Just as indie rock fans reserved their strongest disgust for bands that 'sold out' by signing with a big corporate label, so do hardcore foodies tend to sneer at chefs like Wolfgang Puck or Bobby Flay--people whose image adorn every type of sauce and refrozen burrito in creation.  (Emeril used to fall in this category, but he's rehabilitated his foodie-cred in recent years).  2) They're off the beaten path.  The 90s indie fans were almost most excited about being the first to recognize the greatness in a band that no one had heard of.  Same holds true for the real foodie; being the first to advocate for the greatness of an Albanian fried pork dish that can ONLY BE had from the back of a food truck which food truck ONLY CAN be found if you have a friendship with the driver...that's a big thing.  Hence the growing fad for pop-up restaurants and secret invitation-only supper clubs.  This overlaps with a larger desire that we may all have--to be 'inside' and not outside.  But that's not unique to foodieism, by a long shot.

I regret starting this hare.  


A final point--if true foodies resemble 90s indie rock fans, my wife and I come closer to the mainstream readers of Rolling Stone (or a less lame alternative).   We have the time or energy to see every concert or listen to every album, and so we're willing to pay to get good seats when to the few shows we do attend.  Except that that analogy doesn't give us quite enough credit, because the average middle-age Rolling Stone reader (at least in my stereotype) probably gets a lot less good information about music than does the average Chowhound reader about food.  I hope.

Let me also say, before turning back to France, that I often do feel an amount of weariness and self-disgust at all this fetishizing of food, and that the contradictions and maybe even immorality inherent in spending on a single meal what some people earn in a month is not lost on me.  And that while I may write about our 'concerts', 90% of the time we eat at home on food that I cook, and that said food is neither unhealthy nor expensive (roast vegetables and grilled chicken, sautéed greens and tri-tip, etc.) 

Let us, at last, abandon foodiesm.  The point is, we ate, on our trip, at a lot of 'good'  (well-reviewed, highly regarded, much recommended restaurants) in Europe.  And this place, the place in Strasbourg, le butter house, or whatever, was one of them.  And though it was "good" in all the expected ways, it won't live in memory.  Like seeing Clapton, or Sting, but not, I don't know, Bowie on the Earthling Tour, or U2 on Achtung.

Also (and here we can at last return to my telling dissections of foreign mores) a notable exchange occurred at end of our meal.   Our entrees finished, we decided not to order any coffee or dessert (in part because we were full, and in part because we'd already been given a plate dessert amuses, which featured what was for me the 'best bite' of the meal, a delectable mango fruit gelee on shortbread).  Ten minutes after our plates were cleared, we'd left the table and gone to wait in an anteroom off the dining area for a cab.  The sommelier, walking by, reacted to seeing us as if he'd stumbled on some teenager publically urinating on floor.  What were we doing?  Why had we left from our table?  Hadn't they offered us dessert?   Coffee?  Tea?   What about cheese?  Some more wine?  Over and over we assured him that, yes, they'd offered us everything, we had just wanted to go.  (We'd been there 2.5 hours at that point.)  He was dumbfounded.  It was almost as if, we'd insulted him.  

Because, of course, in Europe, when you book a table, you have that table for the night.  And what sane person wouldn't want to linger at said table, engaging in witty banter over the port and walnuts, as it were?  Whereas in America, of course, restaurants like nothing more than for a guest to leave immediately after dinner; it means they can seat another guest.  (This leads to interesting moments, at high-end American restaurants, where they really really really want you to leave, but don't at all want you to feel like they want you to leave.   At the better places, they solve this problem by offering to buy you a drink in the bar.  Meaning, essentially: get up from your table and I'll give you free booze.)  But, in Europe, not only can you stay at a table for at least an hour after the entree is done, you really SHOULD.  I guess.  To a certain extent, he might have just thought we didn't know that we were welcome to stay.  He was a nice guy.


Okay enough about food.  The next day in Strasbourg we went to the Strasbourg Cathedral.  Said Cathedral was fricking awesome.  I include photos, but they weren't taken by us.  I don't know why we didn't take pictures--because it was so phenomenal.  But, anyway.  Here are pictures.  The characteristic pinkish stone comes from the Vosges, a chain of cactus-laden mesas in Southern Australia (not really).

The Strasbourg Cathedral Astonomical Clock

Inside the Cathedral we got to see something my wife called "The Chicken Clock."  Basically, it's an elaborate clock that chimes once a day.  I recommend you read about said clock in more detail.  It has many many moving parts, and plays out a series of scenes involving Biblical stories every time it chimes.  There is also a chicken (well, a rooster) that crows, three times, as the disciples in the clock pass by Jesus.  We waited in the cathedral for 30 minutes, in a crowd of other expectant tourists, to watch it chime.  It was worth it.  I loved the chicken clock. 

Detail of the Clock

* *

The afternoon of the chicken clock viewing, we took a train to Colmar, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece.  Said Altarpiece is one of the three most important pieces of art done in the Middle Ages.  (Such a claim, of course, is well-nigh impossible to defend.  But nevertheless, I make it.  Undaunted.)  So, I decided we should go and see it.  (It came up a several times in my college and grad school art history classes).  After all, we were only an hour away, and Colmar is not a town one passes often.

Nothing stood out too much about the day in Colmar.  Except...given that the Isenheim Altarpiece is by far the most overriding reason anyone would visit Colmar, it was curiously difficult to figure out where it was located.  But we found it in the end (in part because I struck up a conversation with a French student, who then asked the natives, and guided us there).  Le retable (the French word for "altarpiece."  Also "canned tuna") didn't appear as impressive as it could have; it's kept in a monastery that's been repurposed as an art museum, and the museum’s keepers had been very sparing in their installation of electric lights.  The only way you could really see what was inside was through natural light, and since the day was overcast, the whole interior had a murky funereal vibe that made viewing difficult.

Still it was a worthwhile trip, although by this time, I'd become slightly disenchanted with train travel.  (I viewed it more romantically, I think, before the trip began).  It's not so much the train ride itself which I've grown to dislike, but all the before and after--the haul to the station, the arrival, the search for ticket booth, the line, the back and forth with the agent, the search for the platform, the buying of the snacks preparatory to the ride, etc.  

The Isenheim Altarpiece

Some interesting knowledge picked up in the Isenheim museum--St Anthony is frequently depicted in Medieval art with a pig nearby.  And, around the Antonine monastery where we visited (where the Isenheim altarpiece was stored) those pigs that monastery property were marked as such with a ring through their ears.  That ring meant those pigs could not be used by the villagers, those were allowed to roam free, and none of them could be killed by the villagers.

In our next episode: The Burgundy wine country and Paris.


Friday, November 15, 2013

European Vacation, Part I

As promised, here is the first of my (slightly edited) journal entires from our recent trip to Europe.

 *  *  * 

Below are excerpts from the journal I kept while the wife and I travelled in Europe.  We had gone because the Wife had a medical conference in Brussels.  From there, we went to Strasbourg, Dijon, and Paris.  I'll break my journal up into a few different posts.  Where necessary, I've gone back and filled in clarifying details.

Brussels
  
So here I am in Brussels, staying in what I think can safely be called the worst hotel in human history.  Let me amend that: worst luxury hotel; it's the luxury aspect that makes the place so irritating, because we (or, to be more accurate, my wife's employer) are shelling out 400 Euros a night for this place.  For that amount of argent you'd think we'd get a room where you could turn on the lights when you went to the bathroom.   But, hey, the breakfast room has four dozen books of fashion photography available for perusing while you drink your cafe!  And--as if that weren't enough (and it is)--a glassed-in dress from some recent avant-garde fashion collect awaits your approval in the area outside the breakfast room.  (The place bills itself as a 'fashion hotel' which is ridiculous on so many levels I can't even get into it.  Except, I will say that putting a hotel dedicated to fashion in the middle of Brussels feels like constructing a museum for temperance in the middle of Moscow).

Where was I?  Oh...the bathroom.  The bedroom has only two light panels--one by the bed and one by the door.  And the switches are...minute.  So going to the bathroom in the middle of the night means either stabbing hopefully at the panel until you hit the light for the bathroom (in which process you will inevitably turn on all the other lights in the room, thus waking your spouse)--or going in the dark.  And I mean the dark.  There is no ambient light at all.  Also, the "bathroom" is not a bathroom in the sense of "a separate room, closed off from the bedroom."  It is, rather, a disassociated set of functions--a toilet and a shower--both of which open directly into the bedroom.  (This lack of buffer zone between toilet and bedroom causes inconveniences of its own, which I won't get into).  Even worse, both toilet and shower use the same door.  Its pivot hinge lies directly between toilet and shower.  This one door must thus be toggled to close off EITHER the toilet or the shower--but never both.  This is very irritating.  And, often, discomfiting.

But no more about the hotel.  Except this--today I went to the front desk to ask if someone could help me book a train ticket.  I was told the concierge wasn't in till tomorrow.  What kind of "upscale" hotel, I wanted to ask, doesn't have a concierge on service during business hours?  Instead I asked when he'd be there.  "In the afternoon."  Did she know what time in the afternoon?  She shrugged.  And I cursed the hotel again in my mind. 

Anyway, I'm still feeling a bit tired, from the jetlag/time shift.  It's been overcast and rainy since we got here; without exposure to sunlight the human body struggles to adjust to new time zones.  Also, the dietary changes have been more difficult than expected.  I ate large salads every day during the weeks before we left, with copious vegetables for dinner.  Belgian food features lots of meat and butter, but salads and 'les legumes' (vegetables) feature less plentifully. 

What about the language?  I majored in French in college, but that meant only that I could read a Sartre play or a Mallarme poem and (probably) write a decent essay in response.  So I spent the months before we left working on my French (via a great app, recommended by my brother, called DuoLingo).  Since we arrived, I've been speaking with at-least moderate proficiency.

Brussels City Center
The difficult moments with a second language come in situations where there is no obvious context for the interaction.  After dinner tonight, for example (at "The Parakeet," an inexpensive cafe specializing in pitas), when the waitress came to clear our plates, she said (I thought)  "Votres choses?"  Our coats were nearby, on a chair, and so I thought she was asking if those coats, the ones right next to us at the table, belonged to us.  Which, admittedly, was an odd thing to ask.   ("Votres choses" for non-speakers, means "your things?")  So I said yes ("oui!")--these were our things.  And she looked confused.  Then, in English (always a dispiriting moment, when they switch to English) she said, "do you want anything else?"  And I realized she'd said not "votres choses" but "AUTRES choses?"  Which in a noisy restaurant, sound pretty similar.  But, had I'd fully understood the post-dinner ritual, the context for conversation after eating, I wouldn't have had to try and distinguish, in a crowded restaurant, between 'autres' and 'votres.'   Just one of many moments on this trip, speaking French, where I felt foolish. 

Not only am I continually reminded that I don't (and can't) fit in--the citizens seem pleased for me to be so reminded.  I can't know their rules and codes, they seem to say, and they don't wish me too.  Last night (at Lola, an upscale bistro) I asked (in French) for tap water.  That's a slightly unusual request; most people who eat out drink bottled water.   Sure enough, that's what we got--bottled water.  I thought at the time that I had made a mistake with my French, but today I learned that my French was fine, and that asking for tap water in Belgian restaurants is just "not done."  It was entirely likely, in other words, that I had asked for tap water (correctly), but just hadn't been given it.  More than that, by virtue of the incredible gaucherie I'd just inflicted upon this upscale restaurant, I'd marked myself as a tourist--a fool.   

And in doing so, I'd probably given my Belgian waiter a secret thrill.  I know: that sounds paranoid, but I often feel my Belgian interlocutors (good band name?) enjoy my repeated errors.  They want me/us (Americans?) to feel like outsiders, to sense our inability to belong.  Their codes, their behaviors, their comfort in navigating all the day-to-day rituals of European life...it's as if that knowledge is all that the Belgian people--inhabitants of a fraying, minor European power--have to feel good about.  Their country may be about to split in two, they may be an afterthought in world politics, but hey--at least they know not to order tap water in a restaurant.  At least they know not to try to eat dinner at 6:30!

What I find surprising in all this, though, is that instead of discounting these rituals and codes as foolish (what the hell is wrong with ordering tap water?) I respond by trying to go along.  I know I'll never NOT look like a tourist, but I still want to try.  At the same restaurant, we were shown, when we arrived, a terrible table--awkwardly positioned, right next to the kitchen, at the very back of the house.  In America, I would always ask to sit somewhere else.  But here, somehow, I didn't dare; I didn't want to stand out.  I wanted to be accepted.  Which is odd, because--and I say this only slightly in jest--I don't have any great for the Belgium people.  I find them dour, irritating, and close-minded. 

And yet, I do find them intimidating.  Their lifelong indoctrination into a complex code of behavior gives them power.  If, in any given situation, you know, with certainty, what should be done--that knowledge, though it may limit your freedom, also releases you from the anxiety of having to choose.  If there is always a correct response, a behavioral code to fall back on, there is no necessity to stake out your own personality, define your own character in choice.  The code is an armor and a protection, and that protection is, I imagine, tremendously liberating.  This is the source of our nostalgic obsession for Downton Abbey, I think; its great appeal is not of wealth or status, even, it's that we could imagine inhabiting a society in which it's possible to learn all the rules.  In which everything was ordered such that there was always a correct action.

But I've gone off a bit from ordering tap water.

The Delirium Cafe
A few days later

It's now Sunday night.  The last post was from Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest.

What has happened since?

We got more comfortable in Brussels but never grew to love (or even strongly like) it.  We returned to Le Perroquet, and even once sent back a dish (a massive gaucherie, I know).  We made it to the old, medieval city center of Brussels; that lifted our opinions of the whole city (very lovely).  I made us go to the Delirium Cafe--a Mecca for beer enthusiasts around the world, with over 2000 bottles served.  I'm not a huge beer person, really, but it seemed silly to go to Belgium and drink no beer.  

At Delirium I had a delicious framboise, a fruity raspberry concoction which tasted not at all alcoholic but very strongly of raspberries.  We were there around 2 pm; at a table near us, sat a woman nursing a young baby.  She herself had the remnants of a black eye.  There were two other women sitting with her, all quite young, and several empty beer steins.  I wondered what their story was.

Besides beer and mussels (and enslaving half of Africa), Belgians are known for French fries.  Yesterday we went to a famous chip stand (a kiosk, that is, that sells only French fries.)  Maison Antoine, was its name.  It's been in operation for more than fifty years.  Because it's just a kiosk, if you want to sit indoors after you get your chips, you have to go to one of the nearby cafes.  Those that will allow you to bring in outside chips, have a little sign, resembling Frylock from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, on the windows.  That, we liked.



The fries, by the way, were not great.   

On Friday afternoon we took a day trip to Bruges.  It drizzled most of that day (indeed, has done so every day we've been here), but Bruges still had enough beauty to overcome it.  While I was there I kept quoting to myself one of the lines from In Bruges, a film that tries to generate comic energy by having a duo of sadistic gangsters juxtaposed against the city's quaint medieval loveliness.  (The line, like most of the movie, is R-rated, so I won't repeat it).

The Stadhuis, Bruges
Bruges felt to me a bit like Florence.  It's not actually a real place anymore; it's an exhibit, a staged experience for tourists (who thronged the place).  On the train ride back I tried to imagine what it'd be like to grow up in Bruges, a place so heavily impinged on by the past, a place where you are always being brought back to what has already happened a long long time ago.  (We did pass an enjoyable half hour in the Stadhuis museum.  Reminds me of an idea for a kind of esoteric humor joke, which is to do with the battle of the Golden Spurs, in Bruges history).  I think it would be incredibly claustrophobic--your sense of possibility and options, I imagine, would feel hugely circumscribed. 
A residential street in Bruges
I had some thoughts too about how European political parties frequently skew so much more radical than their American counterparts.  (There's no fascist party in America, whereas dozens of European country have viable, neo-fascist ones).  The weight of the past figures in.  There's so much more to want to be free from, in Europe--so much more to want to tear away.  To be a conservative, to want to limit change, means staying in the 15th century in somewhere like Florence.  It's not enough.  You want to destroy it all and start again, tear down all the museums and churches and have a blank slate to work with.  I don't know.  These are kind inchoate ideas, but...yeah.

Anyway.  Bruges felt like a place we had to go (being in Brussels); now, having seen it, we need never return.


Friday, November 1, 2013

"Celine Dion was Really Awesome to Him."

We got back from France on Tuesday in the early morning; I'm working up some entries on our adventures there, but they'll take a few days to assemble.

In the meantime, I recommend that anyone interested in Elliot Smith (and if you admire strong songwriting, you admire Elliot Smith) check out this oral history of his life and times.

One of the many interestings bits of info in it had to do with that icon of Portland indie songwriting, Celine Dion.  Smith, as you may remember, was nominated for a "Best Song" Oscar in the same year that Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" conquered the universe.  When he was invited to perform at the ceremony, there was something, let's say, of a disconnect between his world and that of Titanic-era Los Angeles.  But, it turns out that Dion went out of her way to make Smith feel at home during the Oscar ceremonies...
... the highlight of that event for Elliott was that Celine Dion made him feel comfortable, from backstage to onstage. It really was amazing. She made him really feel at home, like he was one of them.

ROB SCHNAPF: Celine Dion was really awesome to him. She really was.

For some reason, that made me happy.  Knowing Celine Dion, for all the terribleness her songs emit, is  a decent person.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

He Can Read. And He Knows that Finishing the Whole Book doesn't Prove Anything

I recognize that I haven't posted in quite a while.  Quite a long while.  I feel guilt, concerning my long absence.  Why guilt?  Why would weep, should Marius fall?  I mean, I don't know why.  But I do.  Because if you're going to go to the trouble of saying I HAVE A BLOG, you have, I think we all agree, some obligation to post at least every week.  Right?  And I have let down my side.  I have not lived up to my responsibilities.  I have slept while Rome burned.

So.  I will say only that the last few months have been dark, dark and grim, dark and grim and bleak, and that, in that darkness (which I write of now with a mock ironic tone, I acknowledge that, and what could be worse than mock-irony? NOthing, that's what could be worse than that--nothing) I have felt a desire to shrink into myself, to communicate with no one, to say nothing. to be a faux-Beckett, with nothing to say and no way to say it.

Or to put it less pretentiously, why inflict my sorrow on readers?  Or to put it more honestly--it's not that I'm hesitant to inflict my sorrow on CERTAIN strangers.  But then again, who might read this?

Because a blog, is, in its way, a public forum.  Drake, Usher, LeBron--any one of them, on any given day, might be reading my blog.  And do I want LeBron to know I'm feeling down?  To let him know I've lost a step?  That I can't hit the long J like I once did?  I do not.  Of course, I do not.  It will only make it harder to D him up, come November.  And that, I do not need.

So I pass over all that.

And I talk about trivialities.  We are all comfortable locating ourselves in trivialities.

I'm reading...oh who cares?  Not me.  Some stuff.

Eating more salads.

Listening a lot to a band called Ultraista.  Almost got my daily run to three miles.  Well, at least eclipsed 2.5 miles.  Rewatching the entire Sopranos series.  Without italics.

I'll be in Belgium, then France, soon.  Belgium is, I believe, the capital of Mongolia.  So, that should be interesting.  To see how they live, the Mongolians.

My wife is pretty wonderful.  My dog is pretty cute.  I've almost recalled my semi-ability to semi-speak French.  That's about it.

That's about it.

I think we can all agree the punctation on this text was deplorable.

I would also say that if anyone has to face down anyone quoting Julius about Eliot's anti-semitism, James Wood has pretty much the definitive last word on it.  In The Broken Estate.

And, if you're not watching The History of Film on TMC you're some kind of lame-ass sucker.  That's right.  I said it.  A lame-ass sucker.

ANCIANT out.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Because It's Been A While.


The Bink, newly groomed....



Saturday, August 10, 2013

Neighbors



The suburbs seethe with a barely-comprehesible oddity. Lynchian, in some ways, the buried threats and strangeness of people in their nested rows of comfort.

 This afternoon my wife was disturbed from a semi-nap to find that pellets of mud were being hurled against the side of our house. Who would hurl pellets of mud at another person's house, you ask? Answer: the children who live next door.

The mother of said children, watching the pellets hurled, told her children...wait for it...."that is NOT imaginative play."

!!!

What the hell kind of a rebuke is that??? "Imaginative play?"

Lookit, hippie, the problem with your children is NOT that they don't know how to play with imagination. It's that they're churlish and disrespectful brats. (I shudder to imagine what my mother would have said if she's caught me throwing mud at my neighbor's house. Suffice it to say that it would have been quite a bit stronger than "ANCIANT, that is NOT imaginative play.")

As it happened, I was half lit when I got the news about the urchins and their mud missiles, so I went to the neighbors and voiced some strong objections. (It's oddly liberating, to yell at other people about their children.) The woman who I dealt with (NOT the mother, btw, but some kind of visiting parent) expressed great regrets and sympathy.  But still. I mean, come on! Is this the Haight? Is this Cuba, in the 50s? Do we not have rules? Do we not have PROPRIETY???

This makes me think of Jane Austen. And my erstwhile teachings. "Propriety" seems, at first blush, a relatively banal and uninteresting notion. What's 'proper' or 'expected' or 'polite' can seem, to the revolutionary, so tediously bourgeois. But the genius of Austen was to see the link between seemingly trivial proprieties and larger (dare I say 'tectonic?') moral agencies.

To put it another way: the husband/man/patriarch of the house next door, is a big soccer fan. I, a moderate soccer fan, occasionally engage him about important matches. Several years ago I attempted to commiserate with him (an Italian, and thus, bien sur, a fan of team Italia) about a difficult Italian loss in the Euro Cup. In the midst of such loss, an umpire (black) had made a slightly debatable call. Male neighbor's response: "to have a whole match RUINED by this _monkey from the jungle_...it is disgusting."

And I thought: THAT is what you think is disgusting?? (This reminds of the great Nick Kroll skit about Europeans--the fake ad for a hostel. It has a whole bit about how Europeans express great horror at racism while themselves expressing views about minorities that would get you fired/arrested in, say, rural Mississippi.)

Point is, Lynch had it right. Suburbs, they have some odd and freaky events in play.

Also, I think these neighbors are deeply invested in the marijuana grow business. But that's a story for another time.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Do You Want To Feel Happiness?

Because this will make that happen. Ignore the lead-in; the good stuff starts with the music.

The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Video Archive

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Jury Duty

Well, here it is: my first post written inside a courthouse.  Yes, loyal readers, I write you from within the wearying bureacratic soul-suck that is...Jury Duty.  Where, as it turns out, they offer free computer access.  But not much else.  So, since I have a minimum of three more hours to wait and I've already read most of the interesting magazines lying around (well "interesting" is a stretch.  The most recent thing here came out in March.  This morning I read an issue of Harpers that was published during the Bush administration.  Really.)

What to talk about?  Well since I've spent the last hour reading every web site I can think of to kill time, I guess the news is a place to start.

Oh--first--jury duty itself.  This is my second time to be called to Jury Duty in LA.  The first time was at a different courthouse, one that sent most of us home by 10 AM.  I mistakenly assumed, receiving this recent summons, that I would be going to the same courthouse; in fact, however, I ended up at a court where they make you wait around all day.  I've been here since 8:30.  It's 1:30 now.  So far not one person in the room has been called.  I'm hopeful they'll start to release some of us soon.  Though since I know they won't I guess 'hopeful' isn't the word.  What, then?  Praying, maybe.

Back to the news.  It's sort of dispiriting, isn't it?  How about bullet points on the big issues.

-Can we all agree to be collectively outraged about J McCarthy being given a full time job The View?  I realize daytime talk is not exactly the Oxford debating society, but at least most of their regularly-scheduled idiots aren't offering opinions that might actually cause immediate harm.  Stay-at-home moms are the meat and potatoes of a show like the The View.  McCarthy espouses dangerous nutcase theories that lead to under-vaccination and, in some cases, death.  Yet ABC gives her a public platform in front of the very audience who she threatens the most.  Appalling.

-My take on George Zimmerman.... (as if the world needed more people talking about him).  The man is pathetic and foolish; he's like The Office's Dwight Schrute--only with a gun.  In a state that allows him to shoot people.  Still, I think that what he did was legal, at least according to Florida law.  The issue at stake--as many in the media have pointed out--is laws that allow "Stand Your Ground" justifications for the use of deadly force.  (A media meme has taken hold, recently, suggesting that "Stand Your Ground" actually played no role in his conviction; for a refutation of same go here.)  Florida laws don't seem particularly reasonable to me, and though I'm not qualified to pronounce on the subject, I don't see a need for "Stand Your Ground" type laws in general.  Though much about that night will never be known, Zimmerman seems to me to have been something more than an unsuspecting, innocent victim (the fact that he ignored the 911 dispatcher's order to say in his car and instead went back after Martin is telling).  At the very least, I believe he helped to provoke the violence that lead to Martin's death--but without any witnesses it's obviously impossible to say what actually happened.

My gut reaction to this kind of news is to say that nobody anywhere in the US should be allowed to carry a pistol (except cops).  I know that's a simplistic solution to a complicated set of problems.  Still, as ever in America, guns make things worse.  (As the mob was to the Sopranos, so guns are to America; they serve to turn every problem, disagreement or tension into a matter of life and death).   Any problem that exists in American society is made worse--deadlier and more horrible--because of the ready access of guns.  The Newton killings, for example, or the shooting in Colorado, the core problem, in both instances, is our difficulties in dealing with the mentally ill.   But guns make the problem worse.   In China, by contrast, mentally unstable people go on knifing sprees; people are hurt, and it isn't pleasant, but it's nothing like as bad as it is here.  There, the potential for mass violence is siginificantly absent, because guns are so much harder to come by. 

But I digress.
("But it's all there in the letter."  "Verbatim.")

I would say, as a sidenote, that I think the prosecution overcharged Zimmerman.  If they'd have gone for ONLY manslaughter, giving up on 2nd degree murder, they might have got a conviction.  Also worth remembering; the Florida crime scene people made serious errors in handling the evidence.  Had they bagged  Martin's bloody clothes correctly, DNA evidence might have been more conclusive.  Yet more proof that "CSI" and "Crime Scene" are the most arrant of fictions.

-I'm working now on a Modern Family spec.  Then, back to a play.  A different one, I think.
-It's been a tough summer.

-I'm getting back into tennis, trying to get back into serious shape.  For most of last year my main exercise was walking.  That allowed me to listen to books on tape, and for that reason I relished it (I "read" all of Trollope's Barsetshire Novels while walking around the Hazeltine/Sherman Oaks park last year.  Wonderful.)  But walking, while relaxing, doesn't soup up the metabolism like I now think I need.  It also take time from the day.  So back to running, jumping rope, and--for now--tennis against the backboard.  Lessons may resume shortly.

-Okay, time to go read the January 29 issue of National Review.  Really.

-Addendum: Jury Service ended at 3:30.  Now, to nap.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Call To Action

Hi everyone. This is an unusual post for me; I almost never try to advocate for or against...well, anything. But this is different. This is about Jenny McCarthy. The rumor is that she is currently being considered by ABC as a potential host for The View. Anyone who's followed the anti-vaccination debates knows that Ms McCarthy has been one of the most vocal advocates against vaccinating children. Her work is dangerous and it's ill-informed; giving her a voice on national TV is only going to give credence to the substance of her ideas.

Therefore I'd like to ask--to plead, in fact--that everyone who reads this site click on the link below taking you to ABC's feedback page. There, I'd ask you to leave a short, polite note, expressing your opposition to McCarthy's candidacy. I've pasted a sample (taken from Slate) to give you an idea of what might be an appropriate note.   Please.  It will take literally two minutes of your time; and it has the chance to do a lot of good.  Also, if you could forward this information to anyone else you know who you think would be willing to post, I'd appreciate it.
Thanks

ANCIANT

Sample Letter to ABC (taken from here):
Dear ABC- I've heard that Jenny McCarthy is being considered to co-host of "The View". I strongly urge you NOT to hire her. Ms. McCarthy is a vocal activist for highly dangerous health ideas, including the mistaken belief that vaccines cause autism. While the world suffers outbreaks of measles and pertussis, Ms. McCarthy continues to advocate against vaccines. Having her host a respected show like The View would damage its reputation. For more info: goo.gl/hXJos.
Thank you,

link to feedback page for ABC


link to discussions of McCarthy's dangerous anti-vaccination work
number one
number two
number three


Sunday, July 7, 2013

When I Walk Into A Room, I Do Not Light It Up

Why Must Everything Have A Title?

I have, I know, posted almost not at all over the last month plus.  This is because I've had, in a way, too much in my head to put it out.  And then again the medium, the blog, it's not ideal.  It's far worse than not ideal, really.  It's quite unsatisfactory.  And I, too, am unsatisfactory.  More than unsatisfactory, insignificant.  So I feel less and less inclined to impose--or seek to impose--my insignificance upon the world.  Or, rather, the minor subset of the world which constitutes my readers.

But I'm having some difficulties.  Let's say only that.  Let's not devolve into self pity and the rending of clothes, or even the rending of pretend clothes.  Let's not do that.  So I'm going to locate myself in the familiar and banal, which is safe--or safe enough.

And in that world, the familiar and undangerous, I'll say a few small things about what I've been reading and viewing.  To wit: 1) Chabon's Kavalier and Clay very much lived up to all its hype.  I highly recommend it to anyone who likes a good--a great--book.  In a Martin Amis review of Updike he says something to the effect that, reading his first Updike novel he has the sensation--the unpleasant and regrettable sensation--that "now I'm going to have to read everything he ever wrote."  I understand completely what he means.  And this is how I feel about Chabon.  Every time I read a new piece of his, I am again reminded that I need to just get on with reading everything he ever wrote.  Because he's worth that time.

Old John Williams, the New York intellectual, put me in the way of The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury.  And that was very very funny.  He was right, that intellectual Brooklynite.  Worth a read.

I've found a website--for which I surely SHOULD provide a link--in which you sort of..toggle various adjectives (funny/sad/erotic/serious) and adjust them, really, to various degrees... (i.e.: adjust 'funny' to..not at all funny, or to very funny, or whatever) and based on the degrees that have been toggled, book recommendations are produced.  I could easily find the link, I'm sure, but I'm not going to.  Anyway, the first book it spat out was "The Ask" by Sam Lipsyte.  Who seems to be a rising cougar, in the great savannas of the night.  But, no, I say--no.  The Ask is yet another example of an artifact which substitutes cynicism for wisdom.  It's a snide fried dough pie of trite Brooklyn intelligensia despair.  If it were to be burned at the stake--and such it surely deserves--the stake in question should be best a cheap, East Texas pine.  Certainly nothing like cherry, or mahogany.




Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Rather Weird


Unfortunately, this review of a new photo-essay collection on the life and times of the notorious genius Ludwig Wittgenstein is paywalled. Still, an excerpt can stand in for the whole thing:
After the war, Wittgenstein saw through the publication of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and then abandoned philosophy, all problems of which he considered himself to have solved. His conviction on this point rested on his view that all philosophical problems arose out of misconceptions about the nature of logic and language. In giving clear and correct answers to the questions “what is logic?” and “what is a proposition?,” then, he regarded himself as having answered once and for all philosophical questions. He thus gave up philosophy in favor of teaching in elementary schools in Lower Austria. Between 1922 and 1926 Wittgenstein taught in three different rural villages and was regarded as rather weird in all of them.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Am I, like, 5 years late on "The National?" Probably.

Found out yesterday that the band I'm now obsessed with opened for REM in 2007 or 2008 or some year in which I SAW REM PLAY LIVE.  But I didn't see the opening band.

Q: Should one see opening bands?
A: I gave up on them after 1998.
Q: But you missed The National, en resultant.
A: C'est vrai.  C'est vrai, et c'est triste.


A: I'm old and old and lame.

But: The National are so so good.  We're all already doomed, so let's just accept it.  I love this song and like this video.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Closer to the Golden Dawn


I am still contemplating on the new Bowie album.  My first reaction was that it was in the same ballpark as Reality and Hours and..., which, to me, means not that great.  But it's growing on me.  The song told from the vantage of a soldier in Iraq ("I'd Rather Be High") is excellent; some of the others have the potential, maybe, to turn into minor favorites.  A lot of critics have talked about the album in terms of all the references it makes to songs and phases of Bowie's own past.  What it most reminds me of, so far, is actually late-era Dylan (Modern Times, e.g., or Time out of Mind).  It's an album by someone who has no difficulty turning out solid, enjoyable rock but who clearly, given the right circumstances, is capable of much, much more.  It's not reasonable to expect a man in his mid-sixties to subjugate himself to the emotional and artistic anguish it must take to make an album like Low or Station to Station; I can't hold Bowie accountable for not producing a masterpiece of modern music.  Still, I wished he'd pushed himself a little more.  The lyrics feature too many uninspired cliches and the rhymes are often equally unimaginative.  The musical ideas, such as there are, don't do much for me either.  It's the album of a man who doesn't have to push himself and doesn't want to push himself.  It inspires admiration, maybe, and gives a modicum of pleasure but it doesn't feel significant, in any way.

* * *

Not very anxious 
to bloom, 
my plum tree.
-Issa


* * *

I'll be in [Southern City] at the end of April.  The play--the long promised play--is finally being read (or walked-though, whatever you want to call it) by real actors.  It'll be very low-key, with a small (or non-existent) audience, but still: it's a deadline, and I'm excited.  I'm working eight or nine hours a day right now on good days; if it weren't for a flare-up of some my old, somewhat debilitating blood sugar/hypoglycemia issues (short version: I get dizzy and slow-witted after almost every meal, and my mood sometimes collapses for no discernable reason) I'd say this is the happiest I've been in LA in a long time.  My doctor's appointment is at the beginning of April; hopefully that will do something towards rectifying my health.  And then... it'll all be discotheques and yachts, and champagne-swilling on the Champs-Elyssee.

* * *

Doctor Faustus got progressively more tedious the farther I got into it.  Does anybody read Mann anymore?  Fifty years ago he ranked in the top echelon of 20th century writers.  Now, I can think of only person I've ever known who's recommended one of his books to me.

I started A Passage to India last week.  I had it around, I hadn't read it, I needed something new.  I'm also going back through the Aubrey-Maturin books for the...fifteenth time, I think?  Each time through each book I find something new to appreciate.  In 300 years will people consider the two greatest writers of the 20th century P.G. Wodehouse and Patrick O'Brian?  It wouldn't surprise me.

* * *

The wife got us tickets to John Logan's play Red, last Saturday.  It was being recorded for some audioseries, so there was no set, staging, props, nothing--just two actors speaking into a microphone, with a sound effects guy on the side.  It ended up being surprisingly captivating.  Alfred Molina, who pioneered the role, was playing Rothko.  That guy can do anything and make it worth watching.  (Watching the old guy makes all the sound effects off to the side in real time was really neat).  Play where people do nothing but argue about theories of art--those are ANCIANT plays.  Great stuff.   Good job, Wifey!

* * *


Climb Mt Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.
-Issa

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Status Update Wombat

Not much happening but I'm due to post and I'm sure my legion of loyal readers are breathless to hear what I'm up to.

Vegas:
was great, as per usual.  Sage, a restaurant in the Aria, remains one of the two best in the whole city (Le Cirque is the other).  Again it delivered a superlative meal.  I even loved the dessert (a pineapple themed...thing far too elaborate to describe here).  The card games were fine, and I won substantially playing 8/16 H/L Omaha.  A bad beat at hold'em the next day (I got all in as a 95% favorite and lost) took my winnings for the trip down some, but I still finished up.

Wine
The last few weeks I've been really enjoying Hugh Johnson's exceptional World Atlas of Wine.  The world of wine is endless--even the world of French wine is near-to-endless--and the knowledge and experience it offers both fascinates and slightly nonplusses me.  We just ordered a new selection of Burgundies, with a few Northern Rhone and Italian reds thrown in for variety.  One nice bottle every week has become the new MO (the old--four not-nice bottles every week--is discontinued).

Doctor Faustus
Alex Ross recommended the Mann novel in his Five Books interview a while back and I've been slowly pushing through it ever since.  I won't attempt a thorough summary here, but it does cry out for a good translator (the one who did the Modern Library edition is appallingly bad).  Faustus conforms to almost every stereotype of German art you can think of; it's filled with abstruse, sometimes incoherently complex philosophical, theological, and historical speculations; its prose often seems designed to defeat, and not promote comprehension; and it cares about ideas to the expense of all else (pleasure, drama, character, development of scenes, etc).  For all that, it's still a great, great novel--though perhaps one to be admired more than loved.  I'm considering reading more Mann fiction after this, but we'll see.  I may need a break.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"We call the moment at which this ache first arises..."

Though I don't wholly share his views on the subjects, I thoroughly enjoyed Michael Chabon's recent essay in the NYRB on the films of Wes Anderson.  It opens as follows:  

The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.”
There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people all their lives.
Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness. The question becomes: What to do with the pieces? Some people hunker down atop the local pile of ruins and make do, Bedouin tending their goats in the shade of shattered giants. Others set about breaking what remains of the world into bits ever smaller and more jagged, kicking through the rubble like kids running through piles of leaves. And some people, passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.


Friday, February 15, 2013

On the Road Again

Today the wife and I are heading out for a weekend vacation to The Eternal City, The City of Lights, The Big Easy, The Big Apple, Las Vegas.  We got offered a bunch of free stuff to stay at the Wynn, so, there we will stay.  Among the freebies offered were tickets to "Le Reve", their (I think?) Cirque-du-Soleil esque in house show.  Report to follow, maybe.  We're also planning on revisiting Sage, one of the best restaurants in Vegas, and site of one of our top five meals ever.  Anyone who wants me to place some big money on the upcoming baseball/basketball/football season should send me a text.  Or, if you just want me to put 200$ on the roulette wheel--we can do that too.

Back on Monday.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Too Much Tuna

I've been thinking about this skit ever since I saw it. I think it may be the funniest thing I've seen in a year. Or is it? It seems to me to border on brilliant--I laugh just thinking about it--but I'm curious if anyone else will have that reaction.  Is it only my odd, odd sense of humor that this appeals to?

At the very minimum I predict my brother will like this.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Church



Last Sunday, the Wife and I, for the first time since we were married, went to church.  We've been trying since we moved to LA to find some community, meet some people we could maybe cultivate as friends, and church seemed one place to start.  We didn't go solely for the social aspects--we both of us want to develop a shared spiritual life--but I'd say our main goal (well, my main goal) was to alleviate some of our loneliness.

Before you can go to church you have to chose a church, and in a city where you're a relative stranger, this is not as simple a task as it sounds. What we ended up doing was exactly what you'd expect we'd do--we used Google.  (Yelp, also, maybe, for all I know--the wife was in charge of this part of the mission) We came up with a list of top candidate and, on Sunday, we started at the top of the list--at a Methodist church in North Hollywood.  Why Methodist?  In part, because my wife was raised Methodist.  Also, the church we got married in was Methodist, and both liked that a lot during the time we were there.

On Saturday night we went to bed early, and on Sunday I got up, showered, and for the first time since I've lived in Los Angeles, put on a pair of slacks and a formal jacket.  If I'd been in Houston I would have worn a tie, but I assumed that California church would be much more informal than the churches of my childhood, and I didn't want to stand out.  I was right too--even with no tie (just a jacket) I was more dressed up than at least half the men in the church.

The church we chose was built at the turn of the century--making it ancient for the San Fernando Valley--and had the comfortable, homey vibe that comes with things that have been around long enough to find their place in the world.  Outside the doors, a friendly older lady manned the information table.  Immediately recognizing us for first-time visitors, she welcomed us, thanked us for coming, and encouraged us to stay after, for fellowship (i.e. coffee and conversation).  Then we went inside.

The church was relatively small (in size and congregation).  The interior was done in a style I think of as "Mid-Century Califonria Mission" (not what it's actually called, I'm sure). Lots of natural wood and brick, with lantern-y carriage light/chadeliers hanging from the rafters.  At max, I'd guess it could 500 people; attendance at our service probably numbered around 100.  

The minister ("Reverend Joey") wore no stole or specialy priestly vestament--just a jacket and tie.  He opened the service by standing up and talking to us racism (It was Martin Luther King's birthday).  Using an incident from Cornell West's Race Matters as a starting point, he described his own personal failure in combatting racism at the church.  Years ago a parishoner made a racist comment to Reverend Joey and he merely stopped talking to the man, instead of confronting him.  That incident still bothered him--he accused himself of cowardice--and his reflections on his own personal failings were very moving.  He was a decent man, Reverend Joey.

After that, we sang hymns.  That would have gone better, I think, had the church been more crowded.  As it was, the singing had a tentative, bedraggled quality.  Amidst the hymns, there were the usual church goings-on: The Lord's Prayer, call-and-response between the minister and congregation, and a pickaxe-throwing competition with all invited to strip down to their shorts and compete in a sawdust ring they'd made in the middle of the church.  (No no.  It was really daggers they used--not axes).

A slight oddity (to me): about halfway through the service, a member of the congregation got up at the front with an acoustic guitar and performed "(Pride) In the Name of Love."  He sang it very well, but it did still seem to make the church feel a little like a college coffee shop.  They also had a moment where all the kids from Sunday School were brought to the front of the church to be taught about equality.  Their teacher (Muffet) had brought in several bags of Oreos to serve as symbols for an extended parable about human similarity.  The gist: Oreos now come in a million varieities (they make one now with three cookies and two layers of cream!) all of which look different on the outside.  But, they're still all Oreos.  (I.e., the same.)  The same is true of humans.  We all look different from without, but inside, we're all made up of sugar, cornstarch, and hydrogenated chocolate.  (Wait, no).

Muffet's thesis raised, to me, some interesting ontological questions, (e.g.: the sameness of human beings is determined by our joint awareness of what consitutes a person, whereas the sameness of Oreos is decided by executives at the cookie compnay, who could, at least in theory, put out a piece of carrot between two pieces of celery and call it an Oreo) but with all the squirming eight-year olds on the altar holding Oreos, they weren't susceptible to deeper exploration.

Then we sang some more.  There was a reading from the Bible (from the book of John--the wedding feast at Cana), done poorly and quickly (by a man in short sleeves!)  That one reading ended up being our only encounter with The Bible.  In fact, odd as it sounds, the service actually featured very little talk of God.  Most of it, as I've said, involved singing--the only book we were ever called on to use was a hymnbook.  To be fair, the Methodist hymnal also contains many of the church's prayers.  Still, I didn't even see a Bible in our pews, although the wife assured me one was there.  The point for most of the people there, seemed to be not so much to cultivate a sense of spirituality, to grow in faith, but to cultivate a sense of decency and to grow in friendship.

I don't know why the absence of God bothered me; I'm probably an agnostic, most of the time.  I suppose looking back I wanted someone there to challenge me, to make reexamine my faith (or lack thereof).  At minimum, I wanted some kind of intellectual takeaway--to be made to think about something.  If Rev Joey had spoken, during the sermon, about his interpretation of the water turned to wine (and he could have; the man clearly knew his theology) that would have been something.  Instead he delievered an uninspiring discussion of God's plan for us in our lives and how we find signs of that plan.  (We don't, was the core answer: we just trust it's there).

We didn't stay for the after-service fellowship.  At that point, we'd exhausted our courage for trying new things.  Having to talk to a lot of people we didn't know seemed more than we could handle. 

Which is not to say that the experience wasn't, on the whole, pleasant.  It was.  The question is, should 'pleasant' be what one seeks in a church?  I don't know.  I was made, in my youth, to attend a conservative Episcopal church.  In a million years never would a minister there have spoke about Cornell West.  Never--ever--would someone at that old church be allowed to come up to the altar and sing--even with a piano.  An acoustic guitarist would have been refused entry at the door.  Nor would any of their Priests allow themselves to be addressed as "Joey."  It'd be Joe, or more likely, Joseph.  And, as I've noted, the Episcopal priests dress up--they have stoles and vestaments and chasubles and albs and perukes and diadems, and all sorts of complicated accoutrements.  Also, those priests, during service, talk about The Bible--quite a bit.

On the other hand, I never liked my old Episcopal church.  I never went willingly, and even now, when I'm made to go back, I find it fairly objectionable.  (The last time I was there, for my grandmother's funeral, the sermon infuriated me so deeply I still haven't forgiven the priest).  The Texan church, though thriving and lavish, and very well-attended, seems, to me cold, intolerant--even somewhat bigoted.  I LIKED that this new California church tried to make us reflect on racism.  It was appropriate, given the occasion.  I liked that the congregation was not all white.  I liked that some of couples there were gay.  To people from the South, it all may sound a bit too...California-y, but to me the congregation felt like a honest picture of America--what it is, not what it was.  So, though the part of me that was raised in a wealthy conservative enclave of the South dislikes seeing anyone at a church not wearing a suit and tie, another part of me appreciates that maybe not everyone who goes to church owns a suit and tie.  And anyway, isn't it more important that people go to church, than that they wear the correct outfits?

So it's not the exterior informality I think that bothered me about this new Methodist place, but rather its excessive desire to be liked.  My biggest problem was, it wasn't difficult.  It could have challenged us more--challenged our faith or, at least, challenged our minds.  I didn't leave knowing anything more than when I came in, and that's a problem.  The bigger problem, though, is that in trying to hard to be accessible, this new church became forgettable.

It's the same fate that popular entertainment suffers when it tries too hard to be accessible.  Trying to be liked makes you cautious, and that makes you boring.  (The worst music ever is not 12-tone atonal, or rude aggressive punk, it's elevator Muzak--music that, in trying to offend nobody, offends everybody).  You don't want to risk alienating people.  You don't want to challenge them, to put out ideas they might find difficult or unpleasant.

But Christianity, faith, is challenging--at least, it should be.  This, of course, is one of Kierkegaard's great insights--that faith is difficult.  It's odd, it's inexplicable, and above all else, it isn't comfortable.  God shouldn't be some benevolent Dickensian uncle, ready with sweetmeat and a fond pat on the back.  He isn't Dumbledore--at least he shouldn't be.

At least, he shouldn't be for me.

I don't know.  I'm going off topic here, a bit, and I'm certainly not ready to go into a wide-scaling of my own religious sentiments.  For now, the plan to try out a few more churches, and see how they compare.  For our next attempt, we might seek out one with a bit more pomp about it.  Ideally it'll be one where women wear long, formal gowns; where the priests speak only in Aramaic; and where the service features a mix Gregorian chants, memorized recitations from the Septuagint, and ritual flagellation.   It should be good.