Friday, September 29, 2006

Welcome to the Jungle (Gym)

It's been a few days but I wanted to write a bit about being in St. Louis last weekend. I stayed with my friends Nic & Holly, who got married this past summer, largely just hanging around within the slightly off-kilter domestic scene in their living room: Holly knitting fingerless gloves; Nic pecking away at his laptop; Venture Bros. DVDs running persistently in the background; their cats curled up on the floor or else occupying somebody's lap (or Nic's still warmer laptop, if he wasn't using the computer just then). Both their cats are very sociable and somewhat neurotic. One's a smallish black cat with separation anxiety and the other's a big diabetic Christmas ham of a cat who demands food more or less nonstop and graduates to persistent meowing and turning in tight, agitated circles once somebody actually begins to scoop it out of the can. Both are the kind of cat who walk up to you when you're sitting on the couch and look you in the eye and meow at you, like they expect you know what they're saying. Never having had cats, I have a kind of abstract, puzzled reaction to them. These particular ones are friendly and fun to be around, though, at least once I consume a fair amount more off-brand Claritin than the outside of the box says I should.

Mainly I wanted to mention the City Museum of St. Louis, though, where Nic & Holly took me for most of Saturday evening. The name's extremely bland and inadequate -- it's a converted shoe factory and local artist's pipe dream that mashes together the sensibilities of a Friedensreich Hundertwasser building, a somewhat ad-hoc regional aquarium, and an industrial grade McDonald's PlayPlace. A lot of it's still a work in progress, especially the second floor and its collection of fish and reptiles, but what's there right now is just a neat, bizarre space to be in... What reminds me of Hundertwasser (particularly the KunstHausWien, which I lived across the street from for my semester in Vienna) is the tile-shard mosaic work and the rolling, uneven flooring, but that's almost not worth paying attention to compared to the vast network of slides and crawl spaces made out of plaster or reclaimed construction materials that runs throughout the entire facility. The pictures on the website give you a pretty good idea of what's there, especially the vast, three-story, consciously adult-sized jungle gym that climbs up one side of the building, incorporating a potpourri of steel coils, metal grates, and airplane bodies. Also great is the series of "caves" inside the building, made up of claustrophobic little passages and tight spiraling metal slides that run up and down three or four stories' worth of the old factory. It's great; you crawl around, you get all dusty and sweaty, you scuff up your clothes. (In the morning you find all these scratches and bruises on your joints; something like putting your kneecap on an inch-and-a-half width of ribbed metal cable and then putting your whole body's weight on your kneecap works better when you weigh 75 pounds than when you weigh 175.) The bulk of the crowd consisted of small children up through college-aged kids, with a couple of wedding parties thrown in. In the middle of the third floor there's a windowless bar full of campy bricabrac and red light and cigarette smoke where you can buy a beer, watch the melted ice from the beer cooler drain directly into a bucket in the middle of the floor, wonder just what the hell kind of building codes this place could possibly be subject to without breaking them. On the second floor there's a hallway with a modest collection of vintage opera posters on the walls; this area was closed off the night I was there but from the interior cave space I could just make out some of them through a window and a not-quite-shut black curtain, which is somehow a better way to look at them anyway.

What was most appealing about it to me is how it's full of sharp corners and steep dropoffs and open tanks of water -- among public areas designed to accommodate children, its willingness to be a somewhat hazardous space seems to verge on the chaotic. I can't help but suspect somebody will close it down in a few years because a small child will get a nasty laceration from some rusty metal, or a drunk seventeen-year-old will plummet four stories onto an artificial rock formation below, but hopefully that won't happen. More large-scale installation art should be like this -- something you literally crawl around inside, something that doesn't really function primarily as art, something that draws a little bit of blood. Don't try to get me to think too hard about recontextualizing my space, just hang a bunch of life preservers in a dark room and let me run through them.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


Okay, most of the positive value I've been deriving from watching The Office tonight was just dispelled by learning that Chili's is running a TV ad campaign with the slogan "Spicealicious."

ADVERTISING PEOPLE: STOP DOING THIS. This is most unsatisfectellent.

My snap judgment about The Office (having never watched it before) is that I like how deadpan it is, but that it could stand to be a little funnier.

Still Beats Reading Box Scores

There's a story in Slate today written by a guy who used to edit the material that went on the backs of baseball cards. I'm kind of fascinated by the kinds of jobs you never imagine existing, and since this one's editorial in nature I find it especially interesting.

All in all I think I'm glad my own editorial-type work involves books rather than baseball cards.

This is actually the second entertaining baseball-card article from Slate in a little over two months.

False Grammatical Idol Melt-Down

If you're going to learn anything from my continuing adventures in grammatical standards, learn these two things! Take it away, Chicago Manual of Style:

(Chapter 5, verse 169) The traditional caveat of yesteryear against ending sentences with prepositions is, for most writers, an unnecessary and pedantic restriction. . . . A sentence that ends in a preposition may sound more natural than a sentence carefully constructed to avoid a final preposition. . . . The 'rule' prohibiting terminal prepositions was an ill-founded superstition.

(Chapter 5, verse 191) There is a widespread belief — one with no historical or grammatical foundation — that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but, or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.
Hear that? Everyone's high school English teacher owes us an apology.

Bonus Fun Fact #1: Actually, the Chicago Manual of Style's grammar section is a relatively new addition to that long-authoritative volume, and its presentation is apparently regarded somewhat less highly than similar material in other grammar handbooks. I just like quoting it because it's written in chapters and verses. Amen. (Okay, they don't really call them verses. I like to call them verses, though.)

Bonus Fun Fact #2: All grammar-related "Fun Facts" are, in fact, excruciatingly dull.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Wednesday Doldrums

Gad, Wednesday doldrums have hit hard this week. Just . . . keep . . . the mental wheels
. . . turning . . .

Beautiful night, though. Morton Feldman on the stereo, occasionally obscured by State Street motorcycles. Crickets in the background. Sweet sweet glacial atonality. (From the Feldman, I mean. I guess the crickets too, when you think about it.)

I changed the blog settings so that people other than us can leave comments, by the way. I'll moderate these if they turn out to appear.

Here's a Fun Fact from linguistics class: did you know the Eskimos do not, in fact, have a fascinatingly large number of words for snow? Nope, just as many word-roots and variations on them as you'd find in any other language.

I guess that Fact is actually substantially less Fun than the false fact it replaces. Well, enjoy it anyway.

Monday, September 25, 2006


"Tomorrow is my sixty-second birthday. At such an age, people are apt to reply coquettishly to questions such as 'If you could be born over again, would you live your sixty-two years in the same way?' 'Yes,' they say, 'not everything was perfect of course, there were some disappointments, but on the whole I would do much the same again.'

"If I were ever to be asked this question, my reply would be: 'No! A thousand times no!'"

--Dmitri Shostakovich in a letter to Isaak Glikman, September 24, 1968.

Shostakovich, born September 25, 1906; died August 9, 1975.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Best Sunset All Year

One of the best parts of having a third-story deck is that you get a great vantage point on sunsets. Today it was overcast and gray the entire day, and then around 6 pm whatever front we were experiencing finally passed over: and here you had a band of huge cumulous clouds, big old Hudson River School numbers, pushing east over the city while the sun was going down. The clouds brought with them a soft, heavy rain that only lingered a few minutes.

So for a brief bit I stood out on the deck, getting drenched by big raindrops, watching the sunlight go golden and light up the west side of the clouds in orange, while the bronze-tinged green treetops were cast in further orange glow. Meanwhile the sky to the west was deep and clear beautiful blue; the overcast part of the sky to the east was all soggy gray with a thin, long-arching curve of rainbow applied to it. For a little while you could watch individual raindrops falling, illuminated, from way up high. The rain was incredibly refreshing at the perfect temperature; getting showered was like swimming in a lake. It was a remarkable fusion of sunset and rain shower.

I was wearing a pair of jeans and no shirt; the feeling of privacy afforded by a third-story deck is also excellent. My roommate Dave, through the glass deck doors, pretended not to pay attention to me, which I'll interpret as a friendly gesture. He was inside on the couch, watching the fourth quarter of a football game the Giants were losing by more than thirty points.

Later in the sunset the rain stopped, and the receding edge of the clouds flamed up in pink and orange. The further-off clouds were billowy and white, and then gray. And now it's dark blue out, and I'm inside, and I've got a single distant lightpoint, either a planet or a very slow-moving airplane, through my window. I guess I didn't get around to putting the curtains up, but that feels okay.

Whimsy and Cynicism

Here’s a Medium Unified Theory about various works of art I like. That’s "Medium" as opposed to "Grand" – it unifies a bunch of things I like but far from all of them.

(Here I am, as an aside, typing in a coffeeshop and drowning out their uninteresting stereo soundtrack with the original cast recording of Merrily We Roll Along on my laptop. Hooray headphones. This musical keeps elbowing its way into a perpetual soundtrack role in my life: see also March, April, half of May, most of July, parts of August. It lost some ground while I had the Green Car because the CD player in there didn’t like my bootleg copy of it. I haven't been listening to something this obsessively since Honegger's "Joan of Arc at the Stake," back in the summer of '03. I stand by my odd musical tastes.)

Anyway, Whimsy and Cynicism. A good chunk of what I like artwise, writing-wise, movie-wise, or music-wise seems to combine these two elements. Moreover, the kind of enjoyment I get out of Whimsical-Cynical art seems to resonate with unusual sympathy to some part of my personality.

A definition of terms, or rather what exactly I mean by them here. Cynicism, I guess I’d put it, is a belief that the world in general (or your little world in particular) is frighteningly neutral to good or bad events. Note that this isn’t quite the same as "even if things are good where you are, they’re awful elsewhere and therefore things in general are awful." Things aren’t always awful; there’s always just a potential for things to go bad, wherever you are, and you can’t escape it, transcend it, or be whisked away from it by some benevolent deity.

Shorter cynicism: pessimistic, unhappy undertow.

Whimsy I guess pertains more specifically to creative products: a condition of lightheartedness, good-natured flippancy, and willingness to be unselfconsciously goofy or odd in the service of being entertaining. Note that this isn’t the same as just taking on a cute or innocent aspect: it has to be effortless and uncommercial. Inauthentic whimsy is awful stuff, manipulative, cloying; it's like corn syrup.

Shorter whimsy: unselfconscious lightness.

So, Whimsy and Cynicism together: not an obvious combination, but they don’t undermine each other or cancel out. In fact, it’s an incredibly satisfying mixture, as Whimsy replaces the dour irony that usually affixes to Cynicism, and Cynicism strips out the preciousness that often comes along with Whimsy.

George Saunders, whom we were just talking about, hits a Whimsy-Cynicism sweet spot, I think. The whimsy gives his stories an imaginative poof, and it keeps the satire from being too abrasive. David Sedaris knows how to draw from both wells, too.

"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and any number of other Beatles songs cut their whimsy with a small but potent dose of cynicism. The first movement of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony is bitter cynicism and toyshop whimsy codependent; the last movement of Sibelius’s Fourth is dreamy whimsy with a kind of weary cynicism dragging it down.

Most of the tunes in Merrily We Roll Along are basically whimsical (unselfconscious, peppy) with cynicism leaching out just enough brightness to keep it constantly addictive.

"Little Miss Sunshine" is pretty clearly a Whimsical-Cynical movie; I’d even say something like Dr. Strangelove fits into the category, with more-whimsical-than-usual satire. Arrested Development blends enough Whimsical Cynicism into its Sitcom Cynicism to stand out from your usual TV series. The Muppet Show was fantastically whimsical, with a flavorful dash of cynicism.

Peanuts comic strips are a self-evident case.

Art is less direct since the content is more abstract, but I’d argue that Miro paintings are a kind of Whimsical-Cynical, with those perky cartoonish figures carrying a subtly disturbing surrealist kick. Maybe Calder mobiles too, in their own quiet way. Paul Klee, maybe – he draws out some kind of darker expressionism through humorous surfaces, but I don’t think it’s pessimistic enough to really be called cynical.

Anyway, that’s my Medium Unified Theory. Use it responsibly.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Laundry Day Internet Music Mix Collection

Beaker singing Feelings: unforgettable! Walk of Life by the Dire Straits: bizarrely fixated on sports bloopers! Amish Paradise: still hilarious! The interjection song from Schoolhouse Rock: surprisingly poignant! Title song from Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" in, I think, Catalan: classy! Varese's Poeme Electronique: weird, just really weird.

Laundry has finished drying: hopefully!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Two Quick Notes About Work

1. The guy who had my job before I did apparently used to sign all his emails with bizarre made-up names. For example, the sendoff email he sent around the department when he left was signed "Effervescently, Broadway Joe." I noted this to my boss, who said "Yeah, when you started working I thought, Hey! This guy uses his actual name! How refreshing."

No matter how weird your own weird habits might be, other people's weird habits always appear even weirder.

2. I've been doing some of my first actual editing work, on a couple of new prefaces to reprinting literary criticism books. (This is decidedly not my field.) One of the writers referred at one point in his preface to the "linguisticity of language." As far as I can tell this doesn't actually mean anything; if it does, then literary criticism might be even further out in the woods than I thought it was.

That is all. Happy weekend,

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Word Antics and Word Tactics

Woo hoo! Gimme some of that sweet sweet free-of-charge Ivy League book-learnin'.

I wanted to audit a course this semester, and very fortunately one of the available options — "available" meaning "taught around lunchtime" — happened to be a course about the psychology & cognitive science of linguistics. The classroom is in a building just up the street from the office; I've shifted my schedule to accommodate long Tuesday & Thursday lunch breaks.

The topic — what language is made up of, how words and concepts interact — is something I've been increasingly wishing that I'd gotten around to studying in college, so I'm excited for the opportunity now. And honestly, it's kind of comforting to have reading assignments again. Sad? I don't necessarily think so.

The current nut to crack concerns syntax and semantics: how the syntactic and semantic information encased in words are separate, and how they interact. (Syntax relates to "grammar" categories, basically — noun vs. verb vs. adjective — and semantics relates to "meaning" categories — thing vs. event vs. property.)

If I learn anything I'll try to report it. For now I'll just note that my brain keeps trying to force the words "syntax" and "semantics" into a more similar-sounding pair, such as "semantics and syntactics" or "syntax and semantx." (That second word should end with the sound of a grinding bike gear.) I doubt there's a good linguistic reason my brain would try to do this.

In any case, this is all a nice counterpoint to my day job. Good to get some intellectual perspective on the whole language thing, rather than just enforcing comma rules all the time.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Among other very smart type folks, short storyist (?) George Saunders has won himself a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant this year. Hooray for him: Pastoralia is a fantastic read, and I've enjoyed the bits of other things I've seen him write in the New Yorker and so forth. I should get around to reading more.

Saunders creates these fantastic side characters who speak in mealy-mouthed bureaucratic gobbeldygook, which succeeds both as language-type slapstick humor and moral-cowardice-type satire. It comes to mind now if I ever read transcripts of President Bush at press conferences.

To the Book Depository!

The library room I work in is just absolutely lovely, and I finally got a couple of pictures. I'm up on the balcony level, at the upper right of the first picture. The second picture is the view across the library from the railing near my desk.

Two Shutouts

Okay, the Steelers–Jacksonville game: not such a great thing to watch.

Late in the game ESPN showed a dispiriting shot of Roethlisberger clutching his abdomen after an incomplete pass and a hit — after I described this to Nate on the phone (Nate having not watched the game, but rather having listened to it on the radio) he immediately suggested the appropriate Simpsons reference, "Oooohh! My ovaries!" Which is not, I guess, really funny when you think about it, but still somehow spot-on.

In seriousness, I really hope all of Big Ben's internal organs are OK.

I'd invited some coworkers to watch the game with me at a local sports bar, and several came. It was a blessing, I think, that few of them were actually invested at all in football. When a game swings from a 0-0 tie at halftime to dispiriting ovary-clutching in the final minutes, you'd rather have more generic conversation. And that much was really fun.

One of them, Karen, showed up a bit late and asked "Who are you rooting for, the green men or the yellow men?" Something in the Y chromosome makes people not say this even if they're thinking it. Meanwhile, my friend Carmel is proving extraordinarily stalwart, not only by driving me to Home Depot last week but by sticking out the last minutes of the game after everyone else left.

Incidentally, wings at aforementioned sports bar: very good! Ambience: not particularly good. If ambience is the right word for a sports bar in the first place, anyway.

On the other hand, I managed to watch my first and last complete Pirates game of the season on Sunday, since the Mets broadcasts reach into mid-Connecticut. The game fell conveniently in between two bouts of painting my room in a lovely shade of Behr brand Satisficient Off-White #330-C1. (That comes off as much less pink and much more beige in real life.) I plunked on the couch with some cold pizza and wasabi peas. Zach Duke pitched eight shutout innings and the Bucs won, 3-0: a fairly uneventful but fine game to watch.

The bottom of the seventh was a thing of beauty. With the Pirates up 2-0, Duffy singled and stole second; Jack Wilson grounded out to first on a 1-2 pitch to push him to third; and then Sanchez hit a solid sacrifice fly to center. Hearing the Pittsburgh crowd cheering so hard for this manufactured insurance run was great, especially the swell of applause when Wilson hustled out this easy grounder (to first base! not a chance!) and almost beat the play.

In a perfect world, you'd have a scrappy team putting together small-ball runs late in the game, always.

I like the lingering camera shots on the Pittsburgh skyline, and the Mets broadcasters (including, these days, Keith Hernandez) making a lot of hay out of Primanti Brothers sandwiches, and the inevitable discussion of what a great ballpark Pittsburgh has.

You wouldn't expect the Pirates to redeem a weekend's worth of Pittsburgh pro sports action, but there you have it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

_____ Capital of the USA

Portland, Oregon markets itself as the microbrew capital of the country, but after spending four days wading through pint after pint of mediocre craft brew, and I would recommend that in your own considerations of the city of Portland, you instead think of it as the breakfast capital of the country instead. I had the four of the five best breakfasts I've had in recent memory in Portland.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Some Possibly Instructive Tips Regarding Word Usage

Well, with the exception of Nate's friend getting married, I think we're wrapping up the most boring week we've had on the blog so far. Any help from those having exciting things going on? . . . Pete's in Portland now, I guess, but without consistent computer access.

Mike? Any news of relief pitching or R.A.'ing?

In the meantime, I'm going for the gold and recounting some things I learned recently about word usage. It's either this or blogging about buying paint at Home Depot.

equivocal. This word is not supposed to be "equivocable." Duly noted.

vicious. I never realized this before, but "vicious" pertains to "vice" as "virtuous" pertains to "virtue," just no one uses it in this sense anymore. Note that this explains why vicious circles and virtuous circles are cleanly opposite concepts. Nonetheless, the phrase "vicious circle" will continue to create in my mind's eye the image of a feral Pac-Man.

nonplussed. For years I've figured this word means like it sounds, i.e. "unimpressed." It turns out that it really means "baffled." Even better, you can use the term "nonplus" as a noun, meaning "a state of bafflement."

Note that if someone emails you after a kinda-sorta date evening and admits to feeling "nonplussed" about it, it doesn't mean they're unimpressed; just perplexed. That's slightly less disheartening. However, it still means you're going to need to find someone else to spend kinda-sorta date evenings with.

quasi. I've always pronounced this to rhyme with Fozzie, but more often it's pronounced to slant-rhyme with wayside. Duly noted. Meanwhile, note that the hyphenation pattern differs according to whether this modifies an adjective or a noun — compare:
  1. Purchasing these bedroom curtains will decrease the likelihood of unintentional quasi-public nudity.

  2. Purchasing this thong bathing suit will increase the likelihood of intentional public quasi nudity.

Bonus points if you can identify which of these sentences more accurately represents my recent shopping activity.

There's actually a much broader base of hyphenation rules for compound terms underlying that example, but that's a party I'll have to start some other time.

Anyhow, happy weekend: hopefully after a jazz concert, a movie, and hopefully some other weekend goings-on, I'll have something snazzier to write about.

Even if not, I should be able to get some painting done, and once it starts to dry you'll be the first to know.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Slightly Stale Internet Pickings

A couple of brief articles that caught my eye over the past week: The New York Times writes up the return of Holst's The Planets to astronomical completeness, while noting the now superfluous status of a "Pluto" add-on commissioned from British composer Colin Matthews a few years back... Reuters passes along the Met's announcement that it will broadcast six live Sunday matinees in movie theaters next year. If people barely go to movie theaters to see movies these days I'm not sure how many new fans operas will draw that way, but I'm intrigued -- I'm a big fan of visuals in opera recordings, even though filmed stage productions almost always end up static and boring to look at, what the Onion once mocked as "One Camera in the Balcony of La Traviata"... In the world of non-classical-music-related culture, Slate details the pleasures of deconstructing your friends' cultural habits and personalities via Netflix, through their ratings of movies they've watched but more so through their queues. Just from my own ever-larger Netflix queue -- I don't creepily overanalyze the lists of my own couple of Netflix buddies -- I'm familiar with the emergent narrative of movies one is watching, movies one plans to watch, movies one thinks one should watch, movies one perpetually puts off watching...

Google News

A New York Times story on Google Inc.'s new for-profit philanthropy wing makes note of the man they've hired to direct it:
Dr. Brilliant, a 61-year-old physician and public health expert, has studied under a Hindu guru in a monastery at the foothills of the Himalayas and worked as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
Okay, cynical caveat: it's a business-page puff piece, the whole thing's orchestrated to make a splash, etc. Still, you have to admit that's an awesome sentence. Hopefully they fact-checked this guy's resume.

On the actual idea of for-profit philanthropic activity, my knee-jerk response is that it makes sense, considering how everything's conglomerating across industries now. It's a broader analog to a publisher supporting relatively low-profit parts of a catalog with sales from a higher-profit area. I don't think this should be called philanthropy, though.

All this is better than other recent Google news. Several weeks back they were sending letters to media outlets (scroll halfway down) demanding that writers not use the word "google" as a generic verb. My theory is they're not actually overreacting to the actual trademark issue, but rather trying to browbeat their way to more overt company references in news articles. Come on: just let the good people verb your fake word.

And "google" is a great fake word, hovering as it does between "goggle" and "googol." Especially good, I think, since the word googol itself still feels like a fake word.

Meanwhile, Josh Marshall relates the news that Google Inc. has hired a particularly sleazy batch of Republican lobbyists to promote their cause in DC. I have no real interest in poking any deeper into sausage-factory lobbyist politics beyond that: just, duly noted.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Lunch Lull Link-Lending

The two funniest pieces of humor writing I've read in calendar year 2006 so far: Jack Handey's Ideas for Paintings from a March issue of the New Yorker, and a hilarious riff on guilty pleasures (scroll halfway down the page) by a critic named Chris Norris in the New York Observer, from January.

Further required humor reading includes Handey's The Voices in My Head, also from the New Yorker but a few years back.

I tracked these down while having trouble falling asleep the other night. Unlike many things that you remember being funny, these are all still funny.

OK, time to go knock down the second half of Wednesday now.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Bonus Screenshot

A belated tribute to the defending Super Bowl victors' win at their home opener last Thursday. Go you Steelers. I'm happy that it's apparently much easier to win with Charlie Batch at quarterback than it is with 1991 Tecmo Bubby Brister.

Hour of Misc

Some assorted notes from the past few days...

I spent most of this past weekend in Sandy Lake, near the junction of I-79 and I-80 north of Pittsburgh, to see my friends Clinton and Dawn get married. It was a pleasant and down-to-Earth wedding held on a small beach on the eponymous Lake: A peak of about 100 guests; cooking and decorating by Dawn and a small battery of her friends and relatives; a brief, unofficiated Quaker ceremony with homemade vows read at sunset. After sundown, the requisite dancing on the sand, and some karaoke (I helped Clint do a grave disservice both to Frank Sinatra and to the city of New York) the party, mostly winnowed down to the exhausted core of people who had been around all day setting up, trailed off into casual conversation and clean-up fairly quickly. Also jumping in the lake and heading out to the diving platform, for those who had bathing suits and/or enough drinks in them for swimming to seem like a good idea. My bathing suit and towel, regrettably, had stayed behind in my suitcase in Grove City. There's something bracing, though, about jumping some 15 feet into 60-degree lake water when you're wearing soaked-through cotton boxer-briefs (the preteen girls present eliminated another option here), it's dark outside, and you're not wearing your glasses. It felt like about 3 in the morning when I left but the clock on my car dash said 11:30; 25 more cold-and-wet minutes of driving through fog and I was asleep in my well-enough appointed room at the Super 8.

Early to bed meant early to rise, so fairly early on Sunday I drove down to visit Mom and Dad, where I did some remedial napping before helping Dad close the pool for the season and eating a tastier, more vegetable-rich dinner than I can seem to prepare for myself. Then it was onward to Arlington, easy driving on the PA Turnpike but often torrential rain on I-70 through Maryland. Despite the weather I managed to keep an ear on the Manning-on-Manning Sunday night game on the Giants' AM radio affiliate, whose broadcast started slipping into interference patterns and religious-sounding singing whenever I drove down a hill and whose play-by-play man made a whole lot of less-specific-than-usual references to "Manning under center"...

Weather in the D.C. area since I got back has been suddenly Octoberish, slate-gray and intermittently rainy with seemingly chilly temperatures that in fact range from the high 60s to low 70s. It's a sudden shift from the usual late summer fare, and one that made me just get under a blanket and go to sleep starting at about 7 o'clock yesterday after work. Overall it's close to the nicest part of the year, though, without the swampy heat of July and August or the oppressive pollen counts of the spring. If you're musically programming your commutes, Philip Glass' fifth string quartet will be ideal in just a couple of weeks -- it has an uncharacteristic, autumnal warmth and a chugging middle movement reminiscent of steam locomotives that somehow sets the perfect tone when the leaves start to fall...

The most puzzling vanity license plate I've seen on I-66 in the past week: GODSCAB, on a white sedan. Based on the older women in the back of the car I assume it means "God's Cab", for a vehicle that's used by a church organization to shuttle people around. Parse it as "God Scab" as I did on my first reading, though, and it sounds like a name a couple of 17-year-olds would pick for their metal band...

The internal time-tracking system we use at work includes a catch-all "Misc." task for miscellaneous activities that don't really constitute forward progress on any of our targeted goals -- installing software, dealing with IT problems, using the internal time-tracking system, etc. So "hour of misc", pronounced with a hard 'c', is slipping into my internal vocabulary, defined as a unit of time not particularly well spent.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Dept. of Healthy-Type Bachelor Chow

Tonight's incremental step towards foodwise self-sufficiency is brought to you by "glop," which is the affectionate nickname Mandy & I gave to a genera of dinner food characterized by chick peas, spinach, and diced tomatoes. When whirled together in a food processor, these ingredients achieve a healthy brown color & chunkily saucelike texture: thus "glop." However, glop can be left happily unwhirled.

In any condition, it may be served over rice or pasta, or with toasted pita bread on the side. I made up some fusilli with it tonight, and that goes well with it. It's good to have some parmesan cheese to put over it too.

Making glop is extremely easy and requires little cleanup. Obviously, it's vegetarian, too, if that's your bag. There might be a better-worked-out recipe for this in the Moosewood Cookbook; I can't recall if that's where this came from, or if Mandy just had it in her general repertoire already.

  • a few cloves of garlic
  • 1 onion
  • 1 can chick peas
  • 1 can diced tomatoes, or similar quantity of diced fresh tomato
  • 1 package frozen spinach (thawed in microwave)

Sautee the garlic & then the onion in olive oil. Add the chick peas once the onions go transparent; then the tomatoes in a few minutes; then the spinach in another few minutes. Stew until the texture is as good as you're going to get it. Doing all of this over medium heat seems to work just fine.

With rice or pasta, this will give you enough for three medium-sized meals or a couple of large meals.

Voila! Now that's good eatin'.

And if you don't mind my continued harping on the atmospheric effects of John Adams's orchestral music, I'll note that putting The Chairman Dances on the stereo will inflect dishwashing with the whimsically nocturnal sense of ritual it's supposed to have, and lasts almost exactly the right amount of time for cleaning up.

Architectural Digest

I was pleasantly surprised today to finally notice the window side of the Yale Art Gallery, which is located on a corner I've been on many times, but somehow without noticing the Gallery.

Before today I'd only looked at the side of the building made up of a mostly blank brick wall, as seen from a little further up the block, and so I'd been nonplussed unimpressed.

But aha! Now I understand why this building is considered a touchstone piece of modern architecture: those are some handsome windows. I do like architecture with clean classical geometry and shiny windows.

The wall, considered in totality with the windows, is itself much more pleasing, its initial blankness reading instead as an appealing sense of reserve.

Obvious lesson: look at all sides of a building before judging its aesthetic merit.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Odds "and" Ends

Hooray for Friday! This felt like an unduly long short week . . . Did anyone figure the first big Steelers play of the year would be a Batch to Washington hookup? I think the game-sealing late interceptions are the most fun plays to see in general, though . . . Ben Roethlisberger really should take a couple of months off to make sure all his internal organs are okay. Seriously! . . . I cooked something decent for the first time in several months this week. One small step for stir-fry, one similarly small step for functioning adulthood . . . Bright Lights, Big City is a quick and readable book but not very satisfying as literature . . . Once I have a tape measure, I can work on getting a rug and curtains . . . I've quietly acquired a brand loyalty for sandwich bread, of all things. If I can't find the Arnold "Health Nut" wheat or whatever it is, I actually feel kind of agitated . . . There's a magnificent sculpture by Alexander Liberman (of, to me, Storm King fame) behind the Federal Courthouse in town, but since the courthouse is behind it, they'll just make you delete your photos, and then take down your driver's license info. And suddenly the world's that much safer!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

An Obsessed Outcast, Whose Dark Visions Drag Us to the Edge

While I'm hammering on the subject of Vertigo I may as well pass along this David Haglund piece in Slate about how Jimmy Stewart's darker film roles stand at odds with his public persona. If nothing else it reproduces a good-sized chunk of a funny Sprockets skit from SNL's late-80s resurgence.

Worst to... Not Quite Worst

After 139 games, the Pirates are out of last place in the bottom-feeding NL Central for the first time this season.

Paging Mr. Herrmann

Since I've been watching a lot of Alfred Hitchcock movies on DVD recently, I picked up a copy of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Hitchcock-heavy recording of Bernard Herrmann film score selections with the L.A. Philharmonic. The short version of my impression of it is: This is a great album, and a relative bargain as a mid-priced Sony CD reissue (it's a choice offering in their "Great Performances" series, which I haven't visited since I was in the market for Wagner excerpts in high school). The long, close to track-by-track version follows, so if you're bored already you might want to skip the next several paragraphs.


The disc opens with Herrmann's thunderous fanfare to The Man Who Knew Too Much, which Salonen provides admirably dramatic and punchy direction for, then settles into what may be the best film music ever composed: the Suite for Strings extracted from Psycho. The L.A. Philharmonic's string sections give Herrmann's orchestral textures their full and serious due, from the obsessively pulsing music that underscores Janet Leigh's drive through the rain to the iconic shrieking of the shower scene. (Salonen's deliberately paced but primal take on the murder music is one of the few non-cartoonish forms of that cue you're likely to find outside of the movie itself; it should immediately make you want to throw away any Cincinnati Pops recordings of the same material that you may still have from your teenage years.) The strongest material in the suite, though, comes in "The Swamp", where high and slowly rising figures in the violins give the music a gaseous, expressionistic cast. The suite definitely sounds like a suite -- the selections don't preserve any of the movie's narrative shape -- but it's twenty minutes of finely crafted musical dread; I'd love to see a concert programmer willing to offer this alongside Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen, or one of Shostakovich's quartets transcribed for string orchestra. It doesn't reach for those compositions' depths but it deserves to be taken as seriously as any of the 19th-century comic opera overtures in the standard repertoire.

(True fact: If your neighbor in the adjacent apartment starts hammering a nail into the other side of your shared bedroom wall while you're listening to the soundtrack from Psycho, it will seriously freak you out.)

At the pole opposite Herrmann's bare, exposed string Psycho orchestration is his luscious "Scene D'Amour" from Vertigo -- if you've ever wanted to open-mouth kiss an impossibly beautiful woman while waves crash against rocks in the background, this is your scene. Salonen's finely detailed, almost time-slowing treatment of the harmonies early in the track recalls Debussy's Nocturnes, though the swelling climaxes are too broad to smolder like Herrmann's own takes in the original soundtrack. "The Nightmare" is more easily pulled off, a likeably extrovert Spanish dance that's slightly heavy-footed and campy around the edges, but the gem of the Vertigo suite is the "Prelude": It opens with glassy, hypnotic musical clockwork before broadening into a dark musical vortex on a cosmic scale, spiraling around the gravitational center of the film's aching, descending main theme. Decoupled from Hitchcock's extreme close-ups of Kim Novak it sounds like music for spiritually probing science fiction -- it would have been a perfect score for Steven Soderbergh's adaptation of Solaris, if that movie had gotten Lem's story right.

As with Vertigo's love scene, Salonen sweeps too much in the sweeping Prelude to Hitchcock's technically virtuosic but distractingly Freudian Marnie: The conductor downplays the theme's tunefulness, which would otherwise leaven Herrmann's romantic excess a little. The music from "The Hunt" sounds more than anything else on the album like an exposed underscore -- the track's dramatic shifts sound somewhat arbitrary when they're disconnected from Hitchcock's nimble beats in the film. Still, it's rich and charismatic stuff. It's also easily the most luxuriant music for a drama built on completely implausible female psychosexuality since Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten.

In contrast to his interpretations of the Marnie and Vertigo themes, Salonen's take on the North By Northwest overture whips by too fast for the melody to take hold. It's an invigorating, percussive whirlwind of a read, though, and if it wouldn't raise the curtain on the film as well as Herrmann's more deliberate pace on the original soundtrack it makes for a bracing mid-album selection. If you're in the mood for musical games, start the track at the 1:30 mark and for half a minute pretend you're listening to a Third Fanfare for Orchestra by John Adams, circa 1986.

Music from Herrmann's rejected score for Torn Curtain provides some brief and enjoyable out-thereness. This one apparently broke off Hitchcock's collaboration with Herrmann, after the director requested more hummable, conventionally marketable music but received a score that's by turns brooding and angular/edgy, with an off-balance orchestration about midway between Bruckner's 4th and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms.

I've never seen Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, though the suite extracted from Herrmann's score for strings, harps, and percussion is fine enough, if lacking in as many big moments as the other selections. The mallet percussion provides a hauntingly crystalline touch, particularly in the "Prelude", which could out-Elfman the opening themes of most Tim Burton productions featuring both stop-motion puppets and snowfall. The track for "The Road" is gorgeous as well, though it owes enough to Samuel Barber that it could be cross-listed under Elephant Man and Platoon.

The richly satisfying and stylistically farther-away finale to the disc is seven minutes of music drawn from Herrmann's final score, for Scorsese's Taxi Driver. I wish the L.A. Philharmonic's alto sax soloist were less bright and more attuned to the music's loungy, almost somnambulent style, but otherwise Salonen and the ensemble get the sonorities just right: The music perfectly mirrors Travis Bickle's murky, color-saturated nighttime monologues. (Note: This album not recommended as accompaniment to non-psychotic night driving.) If Herrmann ever heard Ned Rorem's tone poem "Lions (A Dream)" then I think he borrowed liberally from that piece's sensibility, but it's likelier they both independently struck on the same kind of velvety, smoky soundscape, smooth jazz verging on dream verging on nightmare...

I'm listening to Adams' Harmonielehre as I type this (Note: Harmonielehre not recommended as accompaniment to non-psychotic bus riding) and it strikes me how much that piece sounds like an extension of Herrmann's tonal sonorities, orchestral lushness, distantly poppy sense of momentum. (Credit to Salonen, too, for pointing Herrmann's compositions further inward than they can probably go when they're directly supporting images on the screen.) The very skimpy blurb inside the liner of the Sony reissue, rendered down from a probably already slender Alex Ross essay, asserts that "what distinguishes Herrmann from most Hollywood composers is that his work can be heard very much on its own terms"; listening through it all I find it hard to disagree.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Too Much Purple and You Don't Tend to Live in This World

All right, I found the rest of that set of bizarro color-coordination tips. See, the problem is that they're not meant so much for home decorating, as they are for crystal-based color healing.

This explains a lot. Actually, it explains a lot more than I want it to explain.

I'm, um, done doing color research now.

Take Me on a Sea Cruise . . . to Unforgettable Opera-tainment!

Ahoy there, opera lovers! Batten down the hatches as we set sail for hijinks on the high seas! Will freewheeling foretopman Billy "shape up" before the always-by-the-book Captain Vere forces him to "ship out?" When this oceangoing odd couple mans the deck, only one thing's for certain: this boat's charting a course . . .
for hilarity!

Now featuring the lovely ladies of the Sadler's Wells Hippy-Shake Kickline Revue!
Original music by Herman's Hermits, Benjamin Britten, and The Monkees.

Monday, September 04, 2006

A Little Bit of the Old Benjy Brit

During my annual Internet troll for concerts to go to this season I saw that the Pittsburgh Opera is doing Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd in the spring. I think this is great -- I've never seen all that many of the company's productions but I'm glad they're continuing their effort of the past couple of years to shake up their previously musty programming.

One thing that kind of throws me, though, is the graphic they're using to advertise the show:

Now, they're using this style to advertise all four of their productions this season, and while only The Magic Flute features few enough stabbings, bludgeonings, and/or suicides for that kind of graphical jauntiness to be thematically appropriate (some anti-Masonic characters do get destroyed by the sun at the end, but it's done in good cheer), at least most casual opera fans know at the outset of I Pagliacci or Romeo and Juliet that despite the candy-colored veneer of the season subscription booklet there are some stabbings and suicides on the way.

With Billy Budd, however, I'd be more concerned about the audience knowing what to expect. And when I see this ad, I don't expect a psychologically fraught moral drama played against the backdrop of the brutality of the early 19th-century Royal Navy. What I expect is more along the lines of a nautically themed Cool Cat short. And while that would be awesome in its own way, there's little in the actual opera that recalls the angular, shoddy Warner Bros. animation of the late sixties. Thus does the ad strike me as a recipe for confusion and disappointment.

Promotional quibbles aside, though, Billy Budd is one of my favorite operas and I'm happy the hometown opera company is staging it. The Herman Melville story of the same name that the opera's based on is worth reading too, along with the similarly philosophical but way more hilarious "Bartleby the Scrivener" that it's inevitably anthologized with.

The Awesome and Vibratory Power of Color

Three days to football season! Dude, let's talk about interior design.

I've mostly finished cleaning up my room now, and it's nice to see it with the furniture basically in the right place. And with the boxes all moved out from the middle of the room, and without clothes strewn everywhere. Of course, it now appears vast and very bland: I will need some kind of area rug, and plants, and I think I do need to paint at least a couple of these walls.

The question is, What Color? And even though the answer iwill inevitably be Beige, I thought I would conduct some online research about environmental color influences on affect.

Conducting online research about environmental color influences on affect, by which I mean googling "room color effect on mood" and skimming the first two pages of links, steers you towards more of a home-design-related body of knowledge than a cognitive-science-related body of knowledge. This is fine, since it's relevant, and you get a good sense of conventional wisdom backed up with softly phrased pseudoscience.

Better Homes and Gardens has the richest vein of info, and their gently undulating writing style is surprisingly soothing. True fact: color works magic by communicating with our emotions!

They also introduce the color wheel, which offers the one suggestion you'd expect a color wheel to provide you. Thanks for the tip, little guy!

The most enlightening bit of info from BHG is that "warm colors advance," and "cool colors recede." This makes me feel kind of paranoid, unfortunately; I don't want my colors going anywhere. Do they advance when your back is turned to them? If you stare at them hard enough, will they stop?

Of the off-whites of my destiny: "They neither activate nor pacify; they blend, combine, and cooperate." That sounds about right. Notice how the use of transitive verbs without objects lends a creamy neutrality to the language: well done. reiterates mostly the same information but adds the baffling tip, "Be careful not to overdo and paint everything standing still." I want to know what they think the less desirable alternative is.

Homier advice from The Budget Decorator suggests taking inspiration from nature, where "God has created some of the most beautiful colors!" I'm not sure I like this turn of phrase: shouldn't God have created either all of the beautiful colors, or else none of them?

If there are, in fact, beautiful colors that God has not created, you should probably just avoid using them anyway: I haven't read the Old Testament in a while, but that sort of thing usually seems to end badly.

By far the most helpful tip is from, though a broken link unfortunately limits her wisdom to the color red:
RED: is the color of energy, vitality and power. It is used for burning out cancer, drying up weeping sores or wounds, etc., it will warm cold areas to reduce pain. . . . Red is not to be used on people with high blood pressure or anxiety. If you stay under the red ray too long or are exposed to red for a considerable time it will make you very agitated or even aggressive.
You heard it here first: think twice before installing the Red Ray in a bedroom or den. Consider one instead over the dining table, where it will promote appetite and sexual passion. IMPORTANT NOTE: MAKE SURE RED RAY IS SET TO "LOW" BEFORE DOMESTIC USE OF ANY KIND.

Most of the rest of that website is devoted to financial advice, which you might want to take with a grain of salt.

So yeah: I'm thinking Beige. Applying any more interesting color is much more likely to go horribly wrong, leaving my place of rest, renewal, and emotional growth looking depressingly like some kind of elementary school classroom.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Summer Reading in Memoriam

Well, suddenly there seems to be not a lot happening in my neck of the woods — I mean, not literally nothing, but nothing to write home about, so to speak. It does seem to be fall all of a sudden, weather-wise at least, so I may as well catch up on recommending various summer reading I did.

For my twenty-third birthday (as the handwritten note on the first page attests) a friend of mine in NYC gave me a copy of Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, his midlife autobiography. I proceeded then to not read it until this August, basically due to a snap judgement back in '03 that it wouldn't make good subway reading. Happily, I was really wrong on that count — perhaps not literally, as I don't ride subways anymore, but it's certainly a good read.

Most of the book takes place in the prerevolutionary Russia of Nabokov's youth, where he grew up in a progressive-minded noble family, and his writing unwinds remembered scenes in lyrical detail. Chapters are arranged more thematically than chronologically, though they do proceed generally forward in time; Nabokov clips in and out of the time at hand freely, maintaining a sense of a faded present tense, viewed from some distance.

Nabokov states that he is trading only in actual things remembered, and despite Nabokov's voice being fairly frequently attached, in fiction at least, and such as I understand it, to the phrase Unreliable Narrator, I prefer to take him at his word here. His butterfly-mania expresses itself through a liberal speckling of butterfly and moth memories throughout; this is a deft touch.

Reading Nabokov is just a joy, too — that brilliant fluidity with language that runs deep, into a fluidity with the ideas behind the language. (He wrote Speak, Memory in English.)

Back when I was in East Haven I spent a week of bedtimes taking in a chapter of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home before falling asleep. This is beautiful and sad, complex and very rewarding. And kind of unclassifiable: "cartoon memoir" might do it — "graphic" strikes me as the wrong word for Bechdel's sensitive & lively drawing style — her own subtitle for the work, "A Family Tragicomic," seems to say it right, and also gives an idea of the melancholy wit in it.

Bechdel has for twenty-or-so years been drawing a weekly comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For, which doesn't appear in your Sunday paper for reasons that probably don't have to be explained. Mandy had a few compilation books kicking around, and I'll be the first to attest that you don't have to be a lesbian with scathing hard-left political views to enjoy them. The strips are serial, and Bechdel has an extremely talented way with creating realistic characters in small doses. She also intertwines humor, poignancy, and scathing hard-left political commentary better than you'd think possible. (In the most recent book this was getting a bit talky, but, these are trying times. If you want to sample DTWOF, try something from the late nineties, before Bush was elected.) She also draws really, really well.

In Fun Home, Bechdel turns this sensitive cartooning skill to her own life, fixing on the event of her father's death while she was in college. He was killed in a roadside highway accident near their home in central Pennsylvania; Bechdel believes this was a suicide, prompted by her own emphatic coming out a couple of weeks prior. Family life had always been strained — "Fun Home" is a bitter incarnation of a play on words her family had used for the family business, a funeral home passed from grandfather to father — and Bechdel centers her father's death in a wide-ranging evocation of her youth and her family.

Compared to the other cartoon/graphic/what-have-you memoir pieces I've read, Fun Home is much more organic — like Speak, Memory, it maintains a feeling of things being remembered from the present, as opposed to being recounted from an standpoint in the past. It's also intellectually saturated, with Bechdel drawing comparisons between her father and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Proust, and Joycean characters, among a few others. This takes a little getting used to, but it's not a stylization and it's not as pretentious as it sounds. Bechdel states at one point that, her relationship with her father what it was, this is the closest communion she can draw with him.

The intellectual charge also has an emotionally astringent effect, which neatly tempers the washes of blue ink that provide the pages' only color. Visually the book is gorgeous, and the loving detail that goes into Bechdel's drawings is something else. Here and there Bechdel creates a tableau that really packs a punch, too: the final page in particular is visually surprising, and transfixing, and moving.

Read 'em both! That's what I say.