Sunday, April 29, 2007

Tutu Too Much Coincidence

So I'm getting gas yesterday; $2.909 per gallon, an excellent price around here. I have just had my hair and goatee cut to military shortness, why I don't know, except that I let Don perform his tonsorial artistry while he asks about Berlin and my sex life, or both, or either. As I'm finishing up the Freudian act of inserting the pump into the gas tank nozzle, a person walks out of the KISS Mart (the title presumably incorporates the acronym for Keep it Simple, Stupid). The person is wearing a pink tutu. It's chilly out. Fair enough. At first, my brain registers: chubby, fairly unattractive woman in her late forties. Until I get to the full beard, glasses, and balding pate -- to go with man boobs, hairy legs, and sensible shoes. I find it only mildly perplexing, or faintly amusing. It is around noon. I'm still groggy from sleeping late on a Saturday morning. The gent filling up his fat-ass S.U.V. near my car is all excited in a "get a load of this, Marge" sort of way, can't wait to tell his fat-ass wife and kids and grandkids in his fat-ass vehicle. He looks over at me. I slowly shake my head and mumble. I don't feel like being complicit with the yokel in the S.U.V., then again, I do admit to myself to being intrigued by this, wondering if the Pink Tutu Guy is a) an actor, b) an anarchist or c) a proud transvestite. I walk inside to buy some newspapers, trying to discern more. There doesn't seem to be any buzz, and I don't have it in me to say, "Hey, did you see that Guy in the Pink Tutu?" It seems just too much much of a cliche to yuck it up, plus maybe I just imagined the whole thing, or maybe it's some street theater. Something. Or nothing.

I go home and read the front-page New York Times obituary on Mstislav Rostropovich. I've heard the name, but hadn't known much about him. (The photo above is "borrowed" from that obit.) I love the image: the brazen beauty of Mr. R. playing Bach at the crumbling Berlin Wall in 1989. In the splendid write-up, I find this revelation:

"He [Rostropovich] had a mischievous sense of humor that cut through the sobriety of the concert atmosphere. He sometimes surprised his accompanists by pasting centerfolds from men's magazines into the pages of their scores. At the San Francisco Symphony's 70th-birthday tribute to Isaac Stern, he played 'the Swan' movement from Saint-Saens's 'Carnival of the Animals' attired in white tights, a ballet tutu, a swanlike headdress and red lipstick."

Even without the serial comma after "headdress," I am now forced to wonder:

-- Did Pink Tutu Guy read this article earlier in the day and whimsically celebrate the life of this energetic, original, and fiercely independent maestro?

I'll never know. For now, I choose to think, Yeah. Sure. Why not.

Incidentally, the National Symphony Orchestra has a great photo of the late cellist as an infant in 1927. He's lying in his father's cello case. Symmetrical: bookends of a life.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Jupiter Chronicles

Yesterday I took a trip to Jupiter. Don't snicker. I really did. While I was there, or so I am told, a doctor and his assistants probed the coiled conundrum of my colon, taking videos and screenshots just like a tourist capturing images of Fifth Avenue or the Champs-Elysees or Unter den Linden. The medical explorers even sent off a few polyp souvenirs for further study. When I perused the photo album presented after the journey, I winced. It wasn't my cup of tea. It wasn't my picture of a semicolon. But back to Jupiter. I was there. I certainly was not in the room where the "procedure" was performed (don't you just love that word, procedure? It's so tidy, so antiseptic, so pain-free-sounding). I have no recollection of the journey the video camera recorded, no memory of pain or discomfort or anxiety. Just before going to Jupiter, I do remember saying, "Should I watch the screen?" "Some do, some don't," came the reply. "I'm feeling a little light-headed," I reported. "Don't fight it," came the recommendation. That's the last thing I recall before my interplanetary journey. Funny thing is, I don't remember anything about Jupiter either. It was neither white nor black, neither colorful nor colorless, neither gauzy nor glaring. Well, yeah, it was kind of gauzy. By deduction, I take it to be a pleasant place where time passes without notice, a place without care or conflict. Much like Heaven, I guess, in our collective Hegelian-Jungian imagination. I'd go back in a heartbeat, if heartbeats even exist on Jupiter. I can only surmise about Jupiter after the fact. It was a very smooth ride going there and coming back. I think the airline was called Demoral Versed Express (or was it the De Moral Express Versed? What rhymes would be chanted to induce sleep on that orbiter?). Upon returning to Earth, so I am told, I queried the doctor repeatedly and persistently and heart-breakingly, saying things like, "I know you told me the scale of zero to five was for pain, but what about the polyps? Can you give them a scale of zero to five?" Over and over again, oblivious to anything the doctor would say. Upon reflection post-Jupiter, this sounded to me alarmingly like a besotted bar patron, or a patient in an Alzheimer's ward, or a vision of me fast-future-forward in a hospital ward or nursing home. Allegedly upon my descent from Jupiter I recited portions of the Hail Mary (likely fearing Final Exit from this Vale of Tears) and jabbered lovingly about the Boston Red Sox (beloved Major League Baseball team of my late friend Doug, who succumbed to cancer nearly two years ago), but inexplicably I reportedly said nothing about my San Francisco Giants. Looking back, I'm most grateful I didn't say anything at all about having sex with that ostrich at the Berlin Zoo. Whew.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Will the Thrill

San Francisco Giants fans dubbed Will Clark with the moniker "Will the Thrill." But as thunder rolls and a spring rain cascades, I salute a with a different will, Will (The Thrill) Shakespeare, on his birthday, or at least what passes for it (we can only deduce his birthday is April 23, because he was baptized April 26, customarily three days after birth; curiously, he also died on April 23).

The unfortunate thing about The Bard is that I can tell you as a former English teacher we mostly ruin him. "We murder to dissect," to quote Wordsworth. In other words, we often kill all the fun by dissecting his works for "meaning" and "interpretation." And we forget his plays were for seeing, not reading. And it wasn't high-brow stuff; more like professional wrestling than, say, educational TV. (This comes out nicely in the movie "Shakespeare in Love.")

In junior high (they call it middle school now), we had to memorize soliloquies of Shakespeare, from "Hamlet" or "Julius Caesar" or "Romeo and Juliet," among others. It was arduous but rewarding, even if we hardly had a clue as to what we were memorizing. (Do kids memorize anything anymore? he asks like an old curmudgeon.)

Of course, as with the Bible, out of context much of Shakespeare seems startlingly rude and violent and impolitic (like life). A guy named Thomas Bowdler tried to clean up Shakespeare and the word Bowdlerize (Bowdlerise, for Brits) survives. Did he venture the same effort on the Bible? (Apparently not, but he did so for The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon.) (Bowdler changed "Out, damned spot!" to "Out, crimson spot!" Imagine him going to town on some contemporary hip-hop lyrics; examples invited, Mr. Russell Simmons; see, The Laughorist is as up-to-date as a headline only hours old!.)

Shakespeare came alive for me as an English major in college. We did skits of various portions of "Twelfth Night." We played with it, we goofed around, we had a ball.

Just as Will did with the language.

"Unkennelled" [referred to in a post last week] was just one of thousands upon thousands of lustrous language gems Shakespeare played with. Ah, but I just made the common fatal error, elevating him to a dusty place on the bookshelf and forgetting all about "play."

So, all you readers, go commit some foreplay and chalk it up to Will the Thrill.

"Ripeness is all" --

now there's a juicy start, from "King Lear," thanks to Mr. S.

p.s. Shakespeare is of course often quoted out of context. My favorite out-of-context quote is

"To thine own self be true"

which is said in "Hamlet" by Polonius. But people forget he's a supercilious blowhard referencing what was surely a cliche even in Shakespeare's time.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Coachez-vous avec moi?

Have you heard about this one? You can hire someone to make sure you stay clean and sober. But it might cost you $1,000 or more per day to enlist the services of such a provider, called a sober companion.

Let me pause here to note how I discovered this fact: The hugely entertaining Sunday Styles section of The New York Times, which spotlights the glitterati, ran a piece on this phenomenon. You've got to admire their pluckiness. Last Sunday's edition featured a section opener on a designer, Anand Jon, who always found himself aswarm with barely (pun intended) nubile wannabe models and who now, um, faces multiple charges of rape, sexual battery, and lewd acts (big shocker); an article on fancy inventions, such as slippers that double as mops; and the piece on sober companions, featuring a profile on an ex-con, ex-user named Ronnie Kaplan. Oh, and the bottom of the page is anchored by a large banner ad (say, 14 inches across by 6 inches deep) by Gucci, for an "indy" silver leather bag: $2,590 for the large and $1,990 for the medium; roughly the cost of a few days for a top-drawer sober companion.

Apparently some of these sober companions come out of the entourages of celebs. Hey, they get sober and why not be a smart entrepreneur and combine the skillset of bodyguard, therapist, coach, pastor, and cashier! A sobrepreneur! (I take credit for coining the term.)

It should be noted that part of the sober companion's services typically involves attending with the client meetings of free 12 Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA. And it should be further noted that AA encourages and suggests that the new person find a sponsor (also for free). The sponsor is someone who shares his or her "experience, strength, and hope" about sobriety (but not about film deals, fitness tips, financial planning, or tattooing techniques).

One of the firms that offers these services is named the brilliantly marketable Hired Power. (Why didn't I think of that? Conscience? Envy? Not quite enough shamelessness?)

Incidentally, this all reminds me of some of the scenes in "The Player," the acerbic and first-rate movie by the late Robert Altman, where the guy pitching movie screenplays is told AA meetings are a hot place to shop scripts.

May I discreetly and delicately mention that (as readers who have read this journal can discern) I have some "credentials" in this arena? Ergo, I hereby offer some suggestions for other sorts of companions along the same lines. Alas, someone undoubtedly will take these suggestions and run straight to the ATM with them.

Labor Coach -- (No, not the one for labor and delivery of babies.) A professional to keep one on task during the workday, making one productive, happy, and whole. (I'd make a great one -- for someone else.)

Lustwaffe -- A personnel weapon, or battery of tools, to assist one in navigating through issues of concupiscence (I just love that word from my seminary days; come to think of it, seminary itself is such a richly layered word, too, in't?).

StepMaster or StepMistress -- Just another name for a sober companion, perhaps skewed toward sub-dom addicts.

Better Up -- Aimed at helping compulsive gamblers or impotent sex addicts or persons with low self-esteem.

Lip Service (or Imus-n't) -- Someone to protect you from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time (not that I'd ever need that, oh no, not me).

By the way, The New York Times article ends with this observation by Mr. Kaplan, "The lifestyle, most of it is a facade....Most of them are miserable. I try to bring meaning to their life." [Some day, I should do a post on the word "lifestyle."]

Excuse me, the phone is ringing. If it's Lindsay L., I've got to turn her down. Men with men and women with women. I know, sounds kinky. Hey, I was just in Berlin!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Between Silence and Scream

So, he was an English major, the mass murderer and suicide, and words were not enough to exorcise his demons. Words failed him. He failed in finding power enough in his violent and obscene words. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, he found the "time to murder and uncreate."

Last week, the topic in the U.S. was words and race and pain (or so I hear). I was in Berlin and saw in the courtyard at Humboldt University a plaque in the ground, amidst the cobbles, commemorating sadly the burning of books. Again, are words talismanic and dangerous? Or utterly futile? (Incidentally, do you recall what the tabloid topic was just before 9/11? Shark attacks. You can look it up.)

"Then how should I begin /To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?" (again Eliot).

This guy did so with bullets, finding words impotent to shape or hold or issue his rage.

"Unkennelled" shows up in Shakespeare's "Hamlet." What tragic dogs were unkennelled, unloosed, from this guy's tormented lair?

To my tiny mind, I see comparisons and similarities linking the Unabomber, Henry David Thoreau, and this guy. The rants against society, the unsparing "morality," the utter disappointment in human imperfection and injustice and moral decay. Of course, such a link is a stretch, a leap. The Unabomber was an anarchic, shadowy killer; this guy a long-simmering cauldron. And Thoreau had no bombs or guns.

I was struck by a passage in today's NY Times, quoting Lucinda Roy, a professor who taught Mr. Cho. She said he'd show up with a baseball cap pulled low, wearing sunglasses.

"He seemed to be crying behind his sunglasses,"

she said.

Now many more people are crying behind sunglasses, or in the open air. Alone and always and forever.

Miserere Nobis

Yesterday evening, I walked in Burnet Park, the dog and I.

The day after the last day.

The first day after the last.

The robin's insistent trill, a solitary vespers.

The jet engine's ascending roar in the distance, like that cobalt-blue Tuesday morning.

The light settling like a warm blanket.

The robin's chant.

The dog's piss stain on a patch of snow.

My human odor.

A ghost of a freight train rumbling.

The presence of absence.

The forsythia's whisper of yellow.

The stubborn verdancy of grass.

A broken branch under foot.

A lone robin, a sentinel and mourner,

Near the top bony branch,

Singing arias for the misbegotten

And lost.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Ticket to Ride (Deutsch Version)

So after walking through such venues as Unter den Linden, Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz, the Reichstag, and elsewhere, we decided to try one of those touristy boat rides with the glass ceilngs. Right near the Berliner Dom, just below a bridge decorated with lovely classical marble statues. It would be hard to believe they are from antiguity since some 70% of the city was destroyed, I believe, in World War II.

Anyway, the posted cost was 7 euros each (for two adults) and 3 euros for those under 14 (one). But the curly-haired guide told us she did not offer the tour in English. She uttered this in flawless English, of course. We asked about alternatives. She knew of none. She offered us a discount; 14 euros total. We took it.

It wasn't too bad; nor too great. For one hour, we toured the canals and rivers and listened to the tour guide's descriptions in German. That wasn't really bothersome. What was bothersome was not being in on the jokes. She seemed to telling jokes about architecture, seemed to be mocking the new chancellery buildings near the Reichstag. Maybe she was being sarcastic about the costs. I picked up the word "euros' frequently. I became defensive in my mind, defending the architects of this modern, dynamic buildings. I don't knpw what her laugh-out-loud jokes were, what her shtick is. I'll never know.

This coincided later that day with finishing Grammar Lessons by Michele Morano, with its telling observations about fluency and language and cultures.

It's late.

A few more headlines:

Only by happening to read The Guardian did I discover that a significant part of the wall was removed secretly in the night while we were here.

In the dead of night.

What a shame.

Does anyone here even know? Certainly no protests or alarms. Maybe that is the bigger crime.

Homeward bound soon.

Yes, we have our own shames to contend with.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Bipolar Bear Berlin Madness

You may've heard about Knut, the cuddly polar bear cub at the Berlin Zoo. In fact, if you have not heard about Knut, you are the only one, the lone ignoscentus among the legions of the global Knut cognoscenti. (Blog about it, if you have not heard about Knut. It's newsworthy in and of itself, since knowing about Knut automatically puts you in the know. Take Leonardio DiCaprio; he's so in the know he and Knut are on the cover of the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair, fitting enough to be vain so famously, in a photo taken by the famous Annie Lebowitz.)

We saw Knut today at the Berlin Zoo. Knut was allowed to live after his mother rejected him; that's rich for all kinds of Freudian musing, speaking of another famous German.) Knut was allowed by his handlers to make a personal appearance between 1400 and 1500 hours. The press of crowds remined me of Beatlemania! Barriers held throngs back; uniformed guards controlled crowds by megaphone and stern reproach. Batches of people were allowed a 10- or 15-minute glimpse of the bear celebrity -- as popular as a bare celebrity -- human version. Women and children -- well, children -- were allowed along the first ring of viewers (speaking of that, we saw on Sunday a very original ballet rendering of The Ring yesterday; the short version, two hours; sort of a take by Maurice Bejart by way of Samuel Beckett by way of Richard Wagner -- at least to these eyes because the narration was all in German; it should've been called The Pole because there was more of long poles being swung than any ring or ring or Ring(s).) Back at the zoo there were international TV crews. Pushing. Bustling. Feverish excitement.

I saw a few glimpses, being in the Outer Ring.

Exciting? No. Mildly entertaining for a few minutes.

I get the cuddly and warm thing; I get the saved and rescued victim thing. But it's a polar bear (one that PETA ironically wanted killed)!

Later, back at the panda bear exhibit, a small handful. At the Washington, D.C. National Zoo, there would be throngs for the pandas (not thongs; they wouldn't fit).

Fame is such a fickle animal.

How bipolar.

What disturbed me was the artifice of it, the mob mentality of celebrity. If somehow a komodo dragon was deemed the object of fame, or a muddy hippo, or a violet macaw, would we be braving the lines and jockeying for space and snapping pictures, because this was Famous? This was a Cool Celebrity Animal? Probably.

The bipolarity of fame and fortune; celebrity and anonymity.

Thanks for your comments and your views; more later this week, perhaps; maybe some pix too.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Harpooning Happiness

Ah yes, harping on happiness. That's what we do; we harp on the subject, plucking that one string, over and over, in the hope we will hit the perfectly right note, get the right vibration, usually never even considering to harp on another string, perhaps on the other end of the scale.

Or maybe it's
harpooning happiness, vigorously attacking the object of our desire -- even if it kills it, or us, in the process.

I gather this makes me sound like a Midwestern Methodist minister, to mumble alliteratively, but here's what got me thinking about all this. In last Saturday's New York Times I spied a banner advertisement (advert, as the Brits say; ad, as we say) anchoring (can a banner anchor?) the bottom of a page. It was red and white and featured an overturned bowl of cherries [obvious cliched metaphor of sledgehammer weight and proportions for "happiness"].

The ad announced the arrival in paperback of a book called
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. It looked interesting enough, so I unevenly tore the ad away from the rest of the paper, discarded the day's dreary news and kept the sloppily torn-out shred for future reference. Days later (today), I Yahooed a search of the book title and got this.

Then I browsed around and got this very cool video. Very intriguing.

In short, it appears the gist of the findings of Gilbert's lab at Harvard, and of others who study affective forecasting, is that we don't quite know what makes us happy or why. He seems to be saying two things:

a) that which we think makes us miserable may not, not quite -- at least not in the way we imagined or predicted

b) the same for happiness.

Some of these heavy-duty techno geek psychology experts call this, er, the Big Wombassa.

Why didn't someone tell that to me when I was salivating over all those centerfolds in, um, my earlier years?

There's some solace in this, too (not that I've read the book yet, but I think I will): namely, after dreaming of my Giants' winning the World Series since 1955, and not having that dream come true (tantalizingly and agonizingly close in 2002) I can now imagine nothing could ever live up to what I've imagined that "happiness" to be, not now. Just ask Red Sox fans. Was it really that fulfilling? Maybe.

Speaking of bats and balls, is sex, for example, usually as thrilling and as fulfilling as imagined?

In his
TED lecture at Oxford, Gilbert says something like this: studies show that a year after either winning the lottery or being paralyzed, people are about equally happy! Does that mean both events are equally desirable? Of course not. But he does provide scientific, and entertaining, data on the human ability to synthesize, create, happiness. And I guess that's why I've got to read more about this subject, this so-called happiness.

I'll be in Berlin for a week, so you may be happy (or unhappy) (or unharpy) to know I'll be out of pocket, more or less.


Sunday, April 01, 2007

Devil or Angel?

"The devil is in the details."

You hear that phrase a lot, especially when people are discussing the fine points of a contract or some other type of negotiations. In his entertaining and thoroughly researched book The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When, Ralph Keyes chronicles a long history of the saying. (I myself first heard it in the 1980s, in reference to arms talks between the Americans and the Soviets.)

Ralph Keyes notes that architect Mies van der Rohe was fond of observing, "God is in the details," and goes on to cite earlier variations of the saying, including French and German proverbs. One particular citation is from a mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam professor, Caspar Barleaus:

"Believe me that in the smallest particle God is enshrined."

I like that particular example because it resonates with a mysticism of the ordinary world. This richness is found in the writings of the French anthropologist and priest Teilhard de Chardin (read him years ago; very difficult but rewarding) and in Taoist and Buddhist writers. The universe in a grain of sand. The divine milieu. Traditional haiku celebrates such epiphanies in the natural world (as seen in one leaf, for example).

So, how did the God-oriented phrase transform into "The devil is in the details"? Ralph Keyes mentions quotes from Admiral Hyman Rickover, an old German proverb, and even H. Ross Perot as reasons for the popularity of the Luciferian version. But the question is left unanswered.

Whether devil or angel, count me as a details person. I can't help it.

For some people, details are an annoyance; these folks can't be bothered. They leave it up to us to do their dirty work, so to speak. But I shouldn't call it dirty work.

It's the heart of the matter, if not the heart and soul. (Speaking of which, if you are having heart or brain surgery performed, you will want one of us detailed people.)

I confess this obsession with details is either a blessing or a curse. In my youth, it came in handy on exams, with my brain acting as if it possessed pornographic (oops! photographic) memory. But translate that to a depiction of God, and you get The Infinitely Accurate Nitpicker Supreme Being. Not very healthy, or spiritual.

Incidentally, typos can matter big time. The whole concept of so-called domain swiping or domain tasting depends on seemingly tiny errors to engage in cybersquatting. Thus, Web site names with words like the intentionally misspelled "Hoogle" or "Winows" can potentially involve large sums of money, or significant lawsuits. (I haven't experienced such a winfall, or windfall, yet.)

So, is it the devil or an angel in the details?

I'm going for:

"The angel is in the details."

It may make my Monday more rewarding; perhaps it will suffuse the details of my day with redemptive qualities.

After all, it is Holy Week.

p.s. Wikipedia has a fine entry on Chardin, including this tasty morsel: Teilhard died on April 10, 1955 in New York City. . . . A few days before his death Teilhard said "If in my life I haven't been wrong, I beg God to allow me to die on Easter Sunday". April 10 was Easter Sunday.