Monday, December 29, 2008

A Muscular Holiday

From where I sit here on Deer Run Road, it's been a fabulous Christmas. But I'm not a local shop owner worried if I can stay in business, and I'm not living in Gaza. None of my friends or neighbors have had their children killed this week. And this is probably not my last blog.

In my little corner, the pleasures of the season were many. Santa was not shot down over Alaska by Sarah Palin, and so he managed to drop off lots of loot. The weather has been all but perfect--unlike that in Chicago, where my best friend's ceiling collapsed in her bedroom after an excess of melting snow leaked into some miscreant drain spout causing mayhem and a night-long bucket vigil. Unfortunately the same thing happened once before, requiring the purchase of a new bed and a makeover for the ceiling.

By contrast, my own holiday cruised leisurely across four agreeable days spent happily with different friends, eating, drinking, celebrating, and opening presents, that included some vintage napkins embossed with one of Frida Kahlo's self-portraits, and an electric tea pot with automatic switch-off, obviously meant to foil my repeated, absent-minded attempts at burning the house down. Virgil, king of his alligator tribe, received some delicious prezzies too: not one, but TWO solid milk "chocogators," over fourteen inches long and one pound each in weight (total fat 14%). He also received a spectacular Christmas ornament for his collection: a green alligator, wearing a hula grass skirt and playing a drum. "Watch me now," Virgil says. "We are tricksters in the blood, and we practice drumming on the run as our way of surviving in the modern world." He is wearing his beaded necklace, and wants to know if "Evelybody happy?"

Not quite, I tell him. The Wall Street Journal today had an article on the front page about Igor Panarin, a Russian academic and expert on U.S.-Russia relations, who has been predicting for some years now that the U.S. will fall apart in 2010. Economic and moral collapse will trigger a civil war that will lead to geographical disintegration, with richer states seceding from the union and others falling under foreign influence. If you want to check this out further, cut and paste this reference into Google:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Throwing Shoes

At fifteen, I'd never heard of D.H. Lawrence, but he instantly became my favorite witer once I'd read "Sons and Lovers." I had grabbed it, entirely by chance, from a shelf at the public library library on Amsterdam Avenue and 81st Streeet (where I trudged each week from my home in Manhattan, going back and forth with an armload of books), simply because of its intriguing title--which to my fifteen-year-old mind sounded quite enticingly juicy. It wasn't long before reading Lawrence became my downfall. His writing hypnotized me, and I became addicted. I couldn't get enough of him and went on to read everything he wrote.

I also became weirdly fascinated by Lawrence's relationship with his German wife, Frieda, who had abandoned her husband and two children to be with him. They were both very passionate and adored each other, but they had legendary fights, in which all hell would break loose and Frieda would throw handfuls of crockery at Lawrence. I was, I confess, in awe of a woman who could fearlessly throw things at the man she presumably loved, whenever he pissed her off or triggered a bout of rage. Sometimes, in fantasy, I would imagine myself, in the heat of a fight, defiantly throwing a shoe across the room at someone I loved, wondering how my life might have been very different had I had that skill. But I didn't, and even if I had, I lacked aim. Rather, I was the type of female who would burst into tears at any perceived hurt--not glow in the dark with rage. I wasn't any good at playing softball with shoes, except in blurred fantasies about a power I didn't possess.

All of this reentered my consciousness after hearing about the Iraqi TV reporter, a 28-year-old Shi'ite who has come to hate the U.S. military occupation, spontaneously hurling his shoes at President Bush, while Bush was making a final "victory" speech at a press conference in Baghdad. "This is a gift from the Iraqis, this is the farewell kiss, you dog," he yelled as he tossed, first one shoe, and then a split second later, the other. The guy had amazing aim: those shoes were headed, with the speed of missiles, straight for the President, but he deftly managed to duck them both.

The reporter, Muntadhar al-Zeidi, has been taken into custody and may be indicted. But in Iraq, he has become a national hero. Crowds have been demonstrating all week for his release. I append some of the responses in this country to the event (from the Huffington Post of December 16th):

"Mr. al-Saidi was not assigned to this particular event by his paper. He went because he had a message for the Decider/Liberator, who liberated millions from their homes, families, lives and country - a country now destroyed. No, don't fire this man, he is courageous enough to make news for all of us. He should be spared and hailed a hero. No, he would not have thrown shoes at Saddam. Only the U.S. was ignorant enough to do that. Under Saddam, he had a country, he had all his relatives, he had a home, a job and a life. ..Thank you, Mr. al-Saidi. Call me if you need more shoes."

"When does ANYONE have the right to physically assault another human being who is being non-confrontational? What would happen if I threw a pie at Obama? I would be arrested. That is what should happen to this so called 'journalist', and he should never be able to work for that news source again."

"Illegally invading a sovereign nation, leveling it, torturing Iraqi prisoners and leaving thousands and thousands of its citizens dead is pretty darn confrontational in my book."

" You are absolutely correct, the only question that remains is: should he be arrested for throwing the shoes . . . or for missing his target?"

"For those who haven't received the email from a friend, there's a Send Your Shoes to Bush campaign on, and now's the time to do it! Show support for the Iraqi journalist by sending a pair of your old shoes to GWB at the White House now. (Since they will probably end up being donated to charity, you'll get to express your opinion AND help a good cause!) The journalist, btw, was kidnapped in Iraq so he definitely experienced the effects of the war more than Goerge Bush did."

As for Bush, he has blithely brushed off the whole episode. "I didn't know what the guy said, but I saw his sole," he commented recently, wryly alluding to his now-infamous remark of some years ago, after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And then there was Imelda Marcos, and her 3,000 pairs of shoes, which also became a politically radioactive cause celebre. I can't help wondering if she ever threw any of them at her husband, Ferdinand? Meanwhile, I just took some of my old shoes to the Good Will. Utterly boring!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Virgil Claus

Among alligators, Virgil informs me, Santa is King.

"I'm going to be really busy this Christmas," he tells me, "crawling through snow and muck in my universal terrain vehicle, the Microlight Muskeg Rover, delivering cardboard boxes, cloth bundles, and other mystery parcels, making sure I get to all those wigwams in the Nick o' Time. Ritually speaking, Christmas Eve's the night when we turn the mood, liberate chickens, autistic colonists, and generally overthrow the world that you remember. I'll be trimming my nails for the occasion, mending any broken zippers, and smearing rouge and other cosmetic hues on my cheeks. This is big!"

"Maybe I should pin a star on your hat?" I offer.

"Right, that's the ticket," Virgil winks at me. Then he quickly looks down at his lotus toes, which are even more erotic than he had imagined. Once or twice a week, when Virgil is lonesome, he draws silk ribbons between his toes, an unusual method of meditation. Virgil needs his meditation, because like any true warrior clown, he is prone to worrying about demons in the blood and insects near his ears. Besides, there are those moments when he will suddenly lose his connection with tribal alligator time. This can be difficult, because, for instance, when Virgil comes to see me, he believes he is an alligator, but I would lay it down cautiously, as if with tongs, that in truth, he is really a mind monkey. Or maybe one of those legendary lamas who used to climb mountains but still knows how to make things clear. Sometimes, though, he'll fake it, pretending to be one of those students at the Nankai Middle School with Zhou Enlai, speaking a rather formal and footsore language. Mostly, however, when you scrutinize the plots more closely in this hero's career, Virgil really thinks of himself as a stunt pilot, waving his arms in the air all day and all night while thinking up mad projects, such as becoming a friend of that millionaire alumnus, God.

During the solstice season, however ("It brings out the artist in me"), Virgil avows his real name is Santa, and so he'll be traveling over the silk roads with reindeer shamans, back to the golden ruins, the peaches and the lapis lazuli, roving the borders and doing the late-night shows, appearing at holiday parties dressed in bone bits, ribbons, and braids, while reciting to himself over and over agaim:

"A Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

Monday, December 8, 2008

Walking Across Borneo

If you are the kind of reader who wants to make the world around you disappear, this is the book for you: travel writer Eric Hansen's "Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo." It's high on my Christmas list this year--at least ten friends will find copies in their Christmas stocking. It belongs to my favorite genre of writing: tales of extreme experiences, recounted by people who have survived them, and who have emerged from impossibly grueling situations with a heightened sense of life and of their own physical and spiritual powers. For some years now, I have been collecting and reading such books. Of all the wonderful things I own, they are perhaps my most prized possessions, offering inspiration and sustenance in the matter of what is humanly possible, at times when the sky is falling and the lions are charging.

In "Stranger in the Forest," Hansen describes how his extraordinarily low tolerance for boredom and routine, combined with his craving for unique experiences, made him seek "something so far beyond my comprehension that I would have to step completely out of my skin to understand and become a part of my surroundings." It led him to leave his familiar routines in San Francisco and set himself the task of walking across the island of Borneo. "The challenge," he writes, "was to do it alone, to make myself completely vulnerable, and to be changed by the environment." The narrative that results from this endeavor does not disappoint. I promise you it will race all your engines.

Hansen does end up with two Penan guides--decorated with blue-black tattoos of flowers and leaves on their legs--whom he paid to hunt, cook, cut a path through the jungle, build nightly shelters, and accompany him on what proves to be nothing less than a journey back into the Stone Age. It took only a week spent in their company to realize how helpless and dependent he was. "I had no jungle skills," he writes. Like a fish out of water, he didn't know how to blend in. But for his guides, he undoubtedly would have perished.

"Despite total concentration," he declares early on, "I managed to stumble and fall heavily on my face and backside at least ten times each day. My shins, knees, elbows, and shoulders soon became battered from many falls...I slid down muddy trails, hands grabbing the air, as long trailing vines reached out to trip and choke me as well as to rip my clothing and skin with one-way barbs that acted like fish hooks." The lack of sun (which barely penetrated the rain-forest canopy) and any distant views, were completely disorienting, and made printed maps useless, so he was forced to surrender all control to his guides, and after a while, he no longer minded being lost. "It was a relief to unburden myself from the problems of destination, time, and direction," and just surrender to the experience of being in such alien and intense circumstances, with people to whom he was "a slightly amusing stranger who had some shotgun shells that they needed....I spent much of my time thinking; they spent theirs looking for food and a place to sleep."

Then there were the fuzzy red caterpillars that, if stepped on, would bore a hole through your foot. And the soup, made from bee larvae, which gripped him with longing for English afternoon tea and scones, laced with whipped cream and thick strawberry jam. And the excruciating, incessant hum of insects, like "a deranged orchestra [that] played on without need for a conductor or audience," drowning out any possibility of conversation.

"I was hearing courtship calls, declarations of feeding territories, threats, warnings, and startled shrieks of terror as unseen prey was torn to pieces by silent predators." One day they happened on a giant red-rock python, coiled on a river rock, iridescent and shimmering. One of the guides hacked the creature's head off during its midday nap and fastened the writhing, headless, ten-foot-long snake to his rattan backpack.

Four months later, on the journey back, Hansen sums up what he what he is feeling: "Apart from my feet, I was in excellent health. My stomach had flattened, and I had developed an acute sense of smell and hearing...More significantly, I had shed my Western concepts of time, comfort, and privacy.
When I first entered the jungle and let go of my margins of safety to become vulnerable to a place I didn't understand, it was terrifying. I had slowly learned, however, to live with fear and uncertainty...My day dream of crossing the Borneo rain forest was going to come true; that knowledge gave me an incredible sense of power and self-assurance...Behind me lay four months and one thousand five hundred miles of jungle travel." When he finally does get home, he has a hard time readjusting.

This is a wonderful book, and I hope that anyone who reads it because of me will find it as invigorating as I did.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Reading Books

In my last blog I was intending to write about reading--and the pleasure it gives me--but then Virgil unexpectedly intervened and my thoughts got suspended. So now it's back to business. Coincidentally, I happened to read this morning, in the New Yorker, that Hitler was a voracious reader (for whatever that's worth), finishing a book every night (!), either at his desk or in his armchair, always with a cup of tea. Timothy Ryback is the purveyor of these exotic tidbits, to be found in his recently published book called "Hitler's Private Library." Unfortunately the short review of it that I read offers no clues as to the titles on Hitler's list, so I cannot share any actual information about Hitler's reading--only about my own.

In his book, Ryback, it seems, relies heavily on Walter Benjamin's idea of the private library as a map of its owner's character; so make of this (to-be-continued) list of mine whatever you will, knowing in advance that it will in all likelihood need to advance through several more blogs.

The first book I recommend highly is one I recently ordered for a friend as a Christmas present. After unpacking it from its Amazon box, I couldn't resist a tiny sneak-preview, and once I'd stuck my snout inside those pages, I couldn't put the book down. I ended up having to read it from cover to cover. That particular thrill, of utter absorption and abandoned delight, is precisely the aphrodisiac every reader craves, but not all books provide. This one really does deliver the goods.

Entitled "Seven Days in the Art World," it offers a complete, immersive experience into the inner workings of the art world, a universe of ineffable gaudiness and theatrical excitement, which the author, Sarah Thornton, who has a B.A, in art history and a PhD in cultural sociology, manages to probe deeply, in an engaging narrative that is enlivening more than it is sobering. Although there is poison in this chalice, Thornton (whose writing reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert's, the author of the fabulous "Eat Pray Love," ) manages to capture the soul of this extravagant, ambitious world without the remotest taste of iron in her mouth.

So what, besides glyphic hierarchies of status and reputation, makes the art world the art world? Most certainly, it is it's power to define art. But besides that, the art world is where the professionals hang out.

Hanging out, interacting, socializing around the globe, and interviewing high-profile artists, dealers, curators, critics, collectors, and auction-house experts for several years from 2004-2007, Thornton filled a total of forty-seven blue notebooks during her five years of participatory research. Each of the book's chapters is an iconic study in how the great pinball game of the art world works, the "seven days" being a temporal structure for seven subcultures that she separately enters and examines--as a "participant observer"--and then weaves together: an auction sale at Christie's in Manhattan; an art "crit" class (that lasts all-day and half-the-night at CalArts in Los Angeles, with the crit's straight man, Michael Asher, presiding with quiet precision over his students); the Basel Art Fair; the art prize (a gala awarding of the prestigious Turner Prize in the UK); the magazine (Artforum); a Studio Visit (with Japanese Pop artist Takashi Murakami); and the Venice Biennale. Each of these subcultures is a world in its own right, and Thornton's narrative puts you right there.

Meanwhile, I am now reading another book about art, which I was sent to me for review by Resurgence magazine in England; it's called "Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World's Frontiers," written by William Cleveland. It's the polar opposite of Thornton's, being all about artists responding to scenes of tragedy and challenge in the world's dangerous "hot spots," often in the face of "vicious politics."

Cleveland's focus is on exploring the creative powers called up by extreme crises and trauma--six narratives from six communities on five continents: Northern Ireland, Cambodia, South Africa, Watts, CA, Maralinga, Australia, and the former Yugoslavia. His eight years of journeying have lead him to a very different picture of the human potential of art--its ability to heal human grief and bring people back to life again. This book is not so much a survey of artists working in places in turmoil, but a study in how and why the creative impulse rises up in situations of upheaval and tragedy. At times that can mean poetry readings conducted at the barrel of a gun, artists helping homeless children in Rio's favelas tell their story, or responding to trauma victims in the aftermath of the Columbine school shootings. Cleveland likes to say: "Imagine knowing that your art making could get you killed, but doing it anyway."

In his book, somehow the moral demands of the moment seem more pressing than the pull of that "umbilical cord of gold"--a phrase coined by the critic Clement Greenberg to describe entrepreneurship, affiliated buzz, and meritocracy in the art world. For Cleveland's artists, art has to have a purpose beyond the purely aesthetic, whether political, spiritual, or environmental. Otherwise its risks seem meaningless. On the other hand, you are not likely to compare anything these artists have done with the work of Rembrandt or Picasso, or even Andy Warhol. That I should find myself reading these two books back-to-back seems one of postmodernism's more radical acts: today we no longer aspire to a totalizing view of art. It can arise in different contexts that bear no causal relationship to one another. Art is no longer like some enormous room with a stable and knowable center.