Saturday, October 30, 2010

Van Winkle's Micro Graphic Novel Mash-up Thingy

The part of my being "asleep" in this experiment that is most difficult for me is avoiding all news of cultural and artistic activities. This means I don't get to hear about or see new movies or listen to new music or read novels just released.

I don't have the talent or the budget to plug the gap by making my own movie. Even with all the help a computer program might offer, I'd be hopeless at composing a song, much less accompanying it with instruments, synthetic or real. But you know what? (I say to myself), I can write.

That's how it occurred to me that if I can't read someone else's new novel headed for the bestseller list, I still can my write my own and read that. So that's what I did. Just now. I wrote a novel in 15 minutes.

That comes out to a little over a minute per chapter. Whew. I almost broke a sweat.

After that I sent the manuscript to my publisher (me) and here's what he wrote back in an email:

"You know, V.W., this is different. It's sort of a literary mash-up where your writing collides with the latest CB2 catalog and we end up with a new 'mix'. It's postmodern, satirical, and quirky. I like that. Even better it's kind of dark and the themes are decidedly mature. (It would be really marketable if it had some vampires or zombies, but I suppose one can't have everything.) So what I think we ought to do is bring it out in time for Halloween."

Thus today I present my micro-mashup graphic novel in 14 easy chapters. Just in time for trick or treating pleasure.

  * * *  * * * * ** * * * * *
      The Marriage Goths     
   A Series of Unfortunate  
              Decor Decisions      
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * *  

Chapter One

The trouble began in the fall as the days grew shorter. Frankly, Penelope suspected Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Her husband of ten years, Amadeus, was behaving oddly, starting with how he’d graffitied the patriotic image of the Father of Our Country so it resembled Cyndi Lauper circa 1985 before anyone thought Cyndi was gay, then they did think Cydni was gay, but really Cyndi wasn't, she just supports LGBT rights (it was all so confusing!).

But to return to President Can Not Tell a Lie...

Was Amadeus trying to send a message? It seemed unthinkable, but Penelope had to consider the possibility. Amadeus might somehow (gasp) be unhappy with their life, their lovely home. Could that be what this art gone errant was all about?

Chapter 2

“You think I’m self-medicating?” Amadeus laughed, his voice strained and cruel like a hyena’s. Or a meerkat's. They were having Helga and Augustus and a few friends over in early October to celebrate Anne Rice’s birthday and everyone noticed. Amadeus didn’t touch the microbrew and imbibed only the straight grain alcohol filtered through a flask.

"Like drinking premium siphoned from the tank of an Aston Martin," Amadeus grinned.

Chapter 3

Penelope thought, as always, that revamping the home environment was the key to improving one’s life. She spent an entire Friday morning and half her Visa line of credit brightening the living room as well as planting a subtle visual hint about the mood she hoped Amadeus would soon start to cultivate.

But she wasn’t joking.

If things didn’t change soon, this marriage was going to end up in the worst place of all— a lawyer’s office with (shudder) wood paneling on the walls.

Chapter 4

As a shadow fell over their life together, one as dark as a poorly illuminated entryway or walk-in closet, Penelope sat rigid like a gardenia about to wilt, listening to Amadeus speak incessantly about a Black Bird. He was tormented by this idea of the Black Bird, whatever that was.

One evening, before Penelope could stop him, Amadeus found her parents' old vinyl copy of The White Album stored out in the garage. He smashed it with a ball peen hammer. He wouldn't settle down until Penelope removed the awful Sarah McLachlan cover version download on her Zune, which she did post-haste weeping in the dead of night as she did so.

Chapter 5

"I swear it’s following me everywhere," Amadeus  told Penelope as they sat in the study, arguing about whose turn it was to tilt the books the other way on the shelves. "Well, all I know," Penelope said, "is I can't see a thing. This Black Bird of yours sounds like a psychotic projection, plain and and simple."

Amadeus grunted in reply, tossed some more sunflower seeds onto the carpet as Penelope helplessly looked on and realized she would have to schedule the Molly Maids to come in before Tuesday.

Chapter 6

Nothing changed. Only Amadeus could see Black Bird. That was the problem. It even infiltrated his most private arena, his desk where he wrote notes of condolence to relatives of strangers whose names he obtained from the newspaper obituary column. He used pinpoint sharp pencils and crafted his thoughts in a combination of Latin and pidgin English (i dai pinis Deus vobiscum), interrupting himself repeatedly to play with his replica medieval thumb screw torture device.

He was starting to suspect the worst. Black Bird wanted to peck out and devour his liver as if it were nothing more than a morsel of Genoa salami or a bit of (perish the thought) Kraft lo-fat string cheese.

Chapter 7

One day Penelope came home from shopping downtown and there they were. Little people's children’s coffins.

“Amadeus!” she barked, dropping her parcels right there in the floor, the glass balls shattering about her in a colorful shining spray of turquoise and lavender shards. “What does this mean? When will this curtain of gloom that has come over you go away?”

Amadeus yawned and asked Penelope if she’d seen his keepsake Samurai sword they had obtained on holiday last year in Saporo. He was sure he had had it not that long ago. It was when Helga and Augustus Hampton dropped by for a spot of sushi and Amadeus had personally sliced the 200 lb. ahi for everyone.

“What do you want it for?” Penelope asked.

“Oh, never mind,” Amadeus said cryptically. “There’s more than one way to skin a black cat. Or bird.”

Chapter 8

When Amadeus insisted on occupying the black chair at all meals, Penelope shrewdly observed, “I think this could be another one of your cries for help.” He responded by asking her to pass the bok choy and digging his toes deeper into the carpet and singing off-key his own version of "The Monster Mash."

Chapter 9

For the first time Penelope became afraid. It was the fuse attached to Amadeus’s bedside lamp that did it. At midnight a call was made to the Bomb Squad. "This is absurd," Amadeus shouted. "It isn't even set to go off until next month," and he stormed out of the house.

Before the men put on their Kevlar body armor suits, Penelope served them a not too serious Malbec and vegan goldfish crackers after which they settled down to do their thing. Watching across the room, she found the tall one all cool and suave, like one of the soldiers in The Hurt Locker. Was this what it had come to? Fantasizing about the quadriceps of a City Employee? Did this mean the Dark Mood and the Black Bird and "The Monster Mash" had won, that her marriage was finally over? Replaced by a man who was massively adept with wire cutters?

Chapter 10

"It’s not what it looks like," was all Amadeus would say of the new floor lamp he brought home. As for the coil of rope in the Lowe’s bag in the trunk of the car he said he was thinking of taking up sailing, although Penelope knew that he didn't have a nautical or salty dog bone in his body. In fact, back in the days  they were dating he had taken her to Hyannis Port and shown quite a contempt for the ocean, staying off the beach and confessing to her in a coffee shop far from the shore that he'd never read Moby Dick and had no plans to ever eat oysters unless it was an emergency.

Amadeus had always been so determined in his likes and dislikes, how could she not fall in love with him right then and there? He reminded her of a Kennedy. Or was it Ronald Reagan? Yes, Reagan. The Gipper was the one who had liked horses, not sailboats. And those jelly beans! A splash of irreverent color, they had looked great in a glass jar in the middle of the presidential conference table. And all the Soviets had to counter it were those silly wooden nesting dolls. Little wonder they lost the Cold War or whatever it was.

Chapter 11

Just before Halloween there was a bit of hope for a clearing of the air when Amadeus, somewhat bizarrely, suggested they hang Christmas lights early. He invited over Helga and Augustus who had proven with the sushi debacle that they were always up for anything. Amadeus stood close by, a bottle of Sparkling Schnapps in hand, and supervised the decoration of the holiday step ladder.

Penelope sighed. She was happy for Amadeus’ sudden cheeriness but deeply disturbed by this sudden turn for the worse in the décor. She had had other plans for that step ladder, the only thing she'd ever purchased from Restoration Hardware that, well, actually was hardware. She had envisioned a festive pre-May Pole that would simultaneously celebrate the birthday of novelist Philip Roth and the arrival of the Vernal Equinox. She hoped her former friends didn't damage the rungs and that those weren't (ugh!)giant non-Fair Trade peppermints they were hanging alongside the lights and ornaments.

Chapter 12

Desperate to try something, anything to lift Amadeus’s spirits, Penelope violated the Immigration Law and the IRS code by hiring for $1/hour the Little Red Elf Men (illegals all)  to create a festive, uplifting atmosphere at the anniversary party she threw for herself and Amadeus on October 31.

Amadeus remained silent, however, sucking on the lemons in the water pitcher and refusing to join Penelope in cheerful palaver about the good old days when they had gone shopping for their first piece of furniture made from reclaimed wood, argued over the merits of a chandelier made of polymer antlers, or even that time they stayed in the suite in Barcelona and Amadeus was so fascinated by the chrome and Lucite hair dryer that hung on the wall in the bathroom.

"You kept saying that if a person used it they might get electrocuted. Do you remember?" Penelope pressed. Amadeus just kept picking silently at his vegan slider accented with hearts of dandelion.

She could not tell if these memories warmed his cold soul or not. The Little Red Elf Men likewise kept their counsel and never budged, but of course, they couldn't even speak English except for a bit of pidgin.

Chapter 13

As the party ended, Amadeus unveiled his surprise for Penelope—fifteen miniature sarcophagi of deceased family members and high school classmates killed in car wrecks, fetchingly displayed on the wall with memorial flowers.

Penelope exploded, but not literally (she had called the Bomb Squad again the day previous).

"I can’t live anymore with this constant morbidness. Did I get married in a black wedding dress? Do I listen to Metallica? Do I even like Anne Rice or Interview With a Vampire or was it just Tom Cruise without his shirt on that did it for me? (I'm talking about the movie, of course.) I mean, seriously, Amadeus, do you even know who I am anymore? Or is it just about you? Just tell me, has every day become like Halloween for you!"

There was a long silence... Somewhere in the distance a bird shrieked, sounding just like a wilted dandelion.

Chapter 14

"As a mater of fact, yes," Amadeus replied to Penelope. "For me every day is Halloween."

And then he sat down at his black place setting and bid Penelope do the same and there was that fierce look in his eye she had not seen in such a very long time. It was at that moment she realized. Her love lived to die and by dying  he lived. But the key here was he would continue to live! So maybe if they got a brighter couch or something to balance the color palette this relationship might still work out.

It was then she raised her glass of Petite Syrah and said, "Well, then Happy Halloween, dear!"

And Amadeus said, "I have one more little surprise for you, but please promise me."


"You won't call the Bomb Squad this time."

She promised and she never thought about The Hurt Locker again, except to remain very happy for Kathryn Bigelow because it was about time a woman came out on top at the Academy Awards and she had so admired that pearl gray Yves Saint Laurent gown with lace bodice she wore and it would be very surprising if Ms. Bigelow didn't also have excellent taste in interior design, like the lovely objects Amadeus was handing her. So odd, so unique. Astro-balls from CB2. So both of us.

- V.W.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mystery in S, M, L, and XL

The "news," the way I've broadly defined it for this project, represents an open window on the world of human thought, activity, and cultural conversation. Once that window closes, as it has for me, there arises a very real danger.

I could slink off into a corner and start digging through my own dirty laundry and become...a navel gazer.

Actually, that's what about to happen here. Literally. I must confess that the other day I was gazing southward and my eye fell upon something and, as is my habit, I started asking that most tiresome of questions. Why, oh, why?

But this dirty laundry/navel gazing is not about the discovery of lint.

Private Investigations

It has been said about the world of blogging that "Never have so many written so much about so little for so few." Aware that, sans news of real import, I could fall into a blogger's trap of writing about my head cold or the dog's accumulated hair on the couch (and helpful tips on how to remove it), I decided to poll some of my students to see if I should write about the following. I asked:

- Are you aware of this problem? Yes! they said.

- Has there been a YouTube treatment of this problem? No, they said.

- Has there been a TV or movie episode where characters discuss the problem? No, once more.

Well, if you google what I'm about to discuss you will find many discussion threads and blog sites that have taken up the subject. [Example 1, Example 2,] However, I trust that this material is not yet exhausted and totally cliche or else my students would have yawned before my eyes or even laughed at my late discovery. And, it is important to note, that in my investigations I have yet to find anyone who has truly solved...

The mystery of the tiny hole appearing in the T-shirt or polo.

We Have a Situation...

Even though plenty of people have already been talking about this problem, therein lies one of my points. This is actually, in terms of scope, a BIG DEAL.

If the sheer quantity of an occurrence were a criteria to make the news, then we should have heard long ago in the media about an epidemic. Or about a conspiracy. Or about the need for a massive recall of defective apparel. But the powers that be ignore what seems to be a major problem for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

I want to know why with so many people out there in cyberspace writing about, speculating about, blogging about mystery holes in their cotton shirts no one as yet has begun a Congressional investigation? Why are no lawyers lining up for a class action lawsuit? Where are the National Science Foundation grants to allow people in white lab coats to peer over microscopes at the minute mayhem? And how come poets are failing to capitalize upon the opportunity to write best-selling chapbooks about the dazzling bizareness of it?

And bizarre it is.

Hard Evidence

Mama Bear has one...
On the day I broached this topic my wife said, "You mean a hole like this?" She pulled forward the lower edge of her T-shirt. She showed me. Very tiny. But plainly visible.

Baby Bear has one...
Our son walked into the room looked down at his polo. "Hey, Dad. I've got one, too."

My own shirt was fine, so I consulted my closet. Fourth T-shirt that I inspected, bingo!
And Daddy Bear makes three!

Some Common Theories  (see Internet for the raging debate)

- Laundering does it
- Tiny bugs in the laundry hamper eat cotton
- Belt buckles poke right at that point
- Bumping one's belly against kitchen counter wears a hole
- Hitting belly at end of a dumbbell rep at the gym is responsible
- Car seat belt rubs that exact spot and creates hole

My Alternate Theory

Each of the above theories has flaws, not the least of which is why does this hole, the way many of us have received it, appear down low and centered? The seat belt or belt buckle is a nice supposition, but what about those who don't wear belts often (some women) or who don't wear their seat belts (shame, shame) , but still have holes they can point to?

And my belly in its current state (thank heavens for weight lifting even though I don't work out with dumbbells) never bumps the kitchen counter.

I would like to propose a new theory.

First there was the infinity sign: ¥ .  It is deployed as a visible symbol of how vast the universe and time are. They are, as a non-poet might say, like forever.

Today there has come to the human race the entropy sign. Yes, I think this is what each hole is. It is a visible sign/symbol, as useful as ¥ , and it's given to us gratis by a higher power to remind us of the reality of entropy.

The best definition I ever heard of entropy came from Paul Simon who said on a tune on his first solo album a long, long time ago, "Everything put together sooner or later falls apart."

Including us.

So I'd like to posit that the these holes in shirts are a necessary reminder of the nature of reality. It's not all that pleasant to think of your things, including yourself and your loved ones, "falling apart," but at least I am thankful for the subtlety of the entropy sign. Because it's so small, it's merely a gentle nudge as opposed to confronting us with a yawning,  frightening abyss. A single T-shirt hole is enough, though, to make me remember that no one can stop all sorts of "holes" from eventually appearing in his or her life. Not me, not Donald Trump. I can keep replacing shirts, but that doesn't change the rather harsh rules of this game.

Everything put together, sooner or later falls apart.

And that's the hole truth, bad pun and all. - V.W.


Monday, October 25, 2010

A Termite War Recalled

Don't forget. On June 2, 1886 Grover Cleveland wed,
the only President to marry while in the White House.
That was 124 years ago!
Anniversaries are important to us personally. We remember birthdays, weddings, even the date we lost loved ones.

The news media loves anniversaries perhaps as much as we do. It's a way of making what is old new and generating fresh headlines. "On this day in history...."

In the west we particularly focus on the first year, the fifth year, and thereafter the decades (sometimes combined with a five, like "25th or 35th anniversary"). The event we revisit may or may not have changed the course of history, but that's not necessarily the point. Just this year we've been reminded that it's been...

- One year since Michael Jackson died.
- Five years since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
- Twenty years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
- Thirty years since Mount St. Helens blew up.
- Forty years since the Rolling Stones released their classic double album Exile on Main Street and forty years since the Beatles broke up.
- Fifty years ago bubble wrap was invented.

What are we to do with this information? Relive it perhaps as an exercise in nostalgia? Maybe learn some lessons? Or, it may be appropriate to take comfort in how we've moved on and humanity continues to endure.

Another possibility is that we're supposed to get excited all over again about such matters. For example, did you know that 95 years ago Ovaltine was introduced to the U.S. market (from England)? Perhaps you'd like to buy some and mix up a hot cup right now. You can sip it while you listen to the newly remastered Exile on Main Street with unreleased bonus tracks included...

Seeking to Commemorate
Today it seems like a Van Winkle thing to do, in lieu of looking at real news, to dig into my datebook and find out what I was doing at this time last year or thereabouts.

I've kept datebooks for around twenty years now. Besides writing down appointments in them I use each year's installment as a bare bones diary to note things I've done or experienced. This includes weather notes (rained 1/2"), runs I've made (25:23), and movies watched (Coco Before Chanel). It's not a very complete record of my life, but it is enough to provide footholds as I walk my memory along the treacherous ledge of recalling something or tumbling into the canyon of its being completely forgotten.

One Year Ago - An Invasion
On a Saturday one year ago, I looked up at the top of the guest bathroom wall and noticed two small holes with delicate out-thrusts of sawdust clinging to them. This was odd. I hadn't drilled any holes. I sighed. House issues seem to always arise on the weekend. I had to wait until Tuesday for the friendly pest control man to come out and confirm what I expected.

Termites, some of the most capable insects around, had crawled beneath the house slab, found ingress via the plumbing pipes, then made their way up into the attic. What followed was a regimen of shooting poison foam into the walls, digging trenches around the house and pouring poison into them, and putting over $2000 on my credit card.

The woodpile whence they came?
A year later, if not for the datebook and the fact that I'm scheduled for a termite re-inspection, I would have forgotten about the anguish of that day. How I blamed myself for a wood pile we inherited when we bought the house that I should have had removed long ago, how I suspected that when I finally had the wood hauled off it was already infested. After that the termites, I'll say it again, some of the most capable insects around, dealt with the foreclosure and loss of their home in their own fashion. By moving into a larger one. Ours.

And a Horror Took Place in the Woods
The other thing I have on my calendar for this time in 2009 was that the following Monday I substituted for a professor who was at a conference. Per his request I taught the extraordinary Japanese film Rashomon to a World Lit Class.

Many of the students in the class were non-English majors. They were not much used to reading literary classics, much less watching foreign films. And here was one from 1950, shot in black in white, and with subtitles. Even more challenging, Rashomon is a work of genuius that is as densely layered with meaning and nuance as a novel by William Faulkner or James Joyce.

Evil bandit assaults virtuous woman,
while husband (tied up) looks on.
Or is that what really happened?
The story revolves around trying to figure out what exactly occurs when a violent crime is committed: a rich man and his wife are ambushed in the woods by a bandit who kills the man and rapes the wife.

The film is deliberately redundant. We see the plot unfold four times--only each time it is from a different character's point of view (including the dead man's!). So it's not always quite the same story. Somebody's lying. Or they exaggerate to make themselves look better. Or they lie to themselves. Or their information is incomplete.

This means the blame for the tragedy keeps shifting depending on who is the teller of the tale. Which leaves us wondering by movie's end, What really happened? Is there any way to know for sure?

Of course, this is a perpetual human question. People can occupy the same space, go through the same experience there, and yet have wildly divergent accounts of what happened and what it means. This has been called the "Rashomon effect."

Second Thoughts from the "Victor"
From my perspective the termites were defeated a year ago and then I forgot about it. Their chance to chew wood to their heart's content was foiled. I protected the value of the investment in my home and that was the main thing. But it is interesting to ponder if there could be an insect perspective on the event. If so, it might go like this...

        A year ago a Mount St. Helens of poison foam engulfed our termite colony,
       a Katrina-like tidal blast of noxious chemicals spilled into our tunnels
       and drowned us. If one or more  of us were more talented than the rest,
       we lost our equivalent of Michael Jackson. As far as the termites of the world
       are concerned, it is the owner of this house who is the villain. He made the
       phone call that brought the exterminator who raped and killed us in the
       innocent eaved woods of the attic.

All this is a tale of classic competition.

     "This place isn't big enough for the both of us."

     "What you have, I want."

     "I'm more worthy than you."

There are always many reasons to seek the final solution, the one that always means "I win, you lose."

Honestly, I don't feel bad about eliminating the bugs who, if left alone, would have eventually brought down the roof upon our family. But I still find Rashomon disquieting. The film reminds me how it's so easy to assume that I'm always in the right or to feel justified in my opinions about what life means or how I believe the best way is for me to get my way.

That's why at this one-year anniversary of the Termite War I'm thinking it would be good if I backed off a bit. Stop worshipping my own certainty and the assumed purity of my motives. See if I can give other people space to be who they need to be. And maybe if I didn't go around over-turning their wood piles, some of these problems could be avoided in the first place. - V.W.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review of a Concrete Cherub

Meet Reginald, the putto
Well, he's not one. Not if you want to get technical about it.

This silent statue out back on our patio is no "cherub" in the sense of having bonafides that link him to the angels called "cherubim." Which means somewhere along the line someone either got confused or conflated things when they started calling these fellows "cherubs" as if they were winged messengers sent by the Judeo-Christian God.

So let's be precise at this time. What our friend, with his G-rated loin cloth, is is a putto. That's Italian for "little boy" or "child."

Confusing, eh?

I think, despite his stony expression of muted contentment, this knee-high personage I've named Reginald may have a bit of an identity crisis.

Who are you, my lovely concrete, half-winged putto? Where did you come from? Let me help you by sitting down beside you and telling a little story about your kind.

Chubby winged cherubs became popular during the Renaissance and the Baroque period. Donatello carved some on pots and Raphael (neither artist to be confused with his Ninja Turtle namesake) painted lush and arresting versions of these plump cheek creatures.
Raphael's famous Sistine cherubs in Dresden

The inspiration for putti actually came from images on second century child sarcophagi. The decorations, designed presumably to ease the pain of parents saying good-bye to little ones they had lost, showed the putti dancing, fighting, and playing sports.

Ancient child sarcophagus with putti around vine, the latter symbolic of life

Truly, it gives me pause to think that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of humans over the centuries have felt some connection to the putti. And it goes on. One of them ends up on my patio. Another is on a postage stamp or on an embroidered pillow in an old aunt's house. They're following us?

Perhaps not, but a legacy of human thought, hope and belief certainly shadows all of us. Like dragons, like vampires, some things are too appealing to our imaginations for us to ever abandon them.

Biography of a Winged One
It's worth mentioning how Reginald came into the family. Eight years ago our son was still at the age where everything was a wonder. His mom was scraping raw her fingertips at a computer keyboard as she worked on writing her Master's thesis. It was summer.

With my wife out of town for a few days I undertook to create a surprise for her. Our son thought this was a fine idea and he even helped me name the little patch of earth I worked over. It became The Thesis Garden. The idea was that my wife could sit at her desk, plugging away at her manuscript, but take occasional eye breaks by turning her head and looking out the window at flowers I'd planted outside the office window. In the midst of my nine square foot Eden, I placed the ornament our son and I picked out: Reginald.

The little concrete guy became the heart of The Thesis Garden.

Over the years Reginald toppled once and one of his wings broke off. Once a rare snow storm came along and he was placed in the middle of the back yard because our son thought he looked excellent next to the lop-sided snowman. Most of the time, Reginald has quietly carried out his duties of doing what? I'm not sure what. He reminds me of the statuary we saw all over the city of Rome this summer. The power of those stones is not to be underestimated since through wars and plagues they habitually survive every generation of humans that come along. They may have broken off limbs and cracks in their bodies and the elements treat them with disrespect, but nothing can stop them from keeping their places. I find them reassuring.

And Reginald is the best. I once tried to glue on his wing. After a while it fell off again. I took this as a sign. Reginald is not going to fly away.

Our son is as tall as his mother now; his mom has her Masters and is teaching full-time. We live in a different house and I have no idea if back in the old one the owners still keep up The Thesis Garden. But nothing is ever new with Reginald. He stays the same. Come to think of it, his permanent condition is one of being Van Winkled. But at some point the comparison between Reginald and me falls apart.

For the remainder of this project I may be "asleep" to the bustle and news of this world.  I may be spending more time in simple gazing and quiet observation than ever before. But I don't want to turn to stone and replace all feeling with a concrete, stoic pose. If anything, I perceive a challenge in trying to feel more intensely than ever before, especially when faced with what's right in front of me.

Like Reginald.

Reginald, I don't think I've ever told you. How fond I am of you. How much I appreciate you.

He's a bit beat up, which in the world of images that are supposed to fake an essence of antiquity is a good thing. He also appeals to children and sentimental types and he costs under $25. Pure kitsch? Almost as bad as those concrete lawn trolls? You bet! Subtract a star for that. I'll still give Reginald a ***1/2 - V.W.

Thoreau Unplugged

Reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in the 21st century feels to me like this.

I get up just as dawn is about to arrive. I open the back door and walk barefoot onto the concrete patio slab. Behind the house I can make out dew fringing the grass. I sigh and do what I know I have to do. I bend over a tin bucket filled to the brim with water. Cold water. I begin splashing the water on my face. My skin tightens and I almost shout at the shock. I do a little dance as cold droplets fall on my already cold feet. And it is at this moment I realize what a man shouting across the expanse of more than 150 years wants me to know.

I am alive and living on an amazing planet.

There's more to it, actually. Much more. So this morning while I sip my coffee and the sun is inking the sky with patches of tangerine and coral I take my time and dip into Walden. I've planned this for some time. (See Gaze Into the Gender Mirror post.) I want to see if Thoreau can instruct me in how to live in my Van Winkled state.

Paper Houses
Thoreau came to mind a few years ago when our son was going through a paper craft phase. First, our son found a model of Bill Gates’ house he could build in miniature. I mean small. The $45 million, 27,000 sf house belonging to practically the world’s richest man ended up being no more than 2 x 3 inches in size and perfectly amenable to tiny fingers manipulating toothpicks and Elmer’s Glue. One hopes Mr. Gates, if he knew, would feel sufficiently humbled.

Then I ran across this paper craft (above) of Thoreau’s cabin that he lived in for two years and two months at Walden Pond in Massachusetts. I urged our son to build it. Which he did. Which gave me an opportunity to explain about this important figure from American history.

Who Was This Man?
Though Henry David Thoreau had little use for the ways of society, he was far from a misanthropic crank. In Walden he confesses that he loves to talk with farmers as he makes the rounds looking for a piece of land to settle on. On July 4, 1845, when he began his project to live alongside Walden Pond, he chose 14.5 acres within hailing distance of humanity. True, Thoreau lived alone in his cabin, but he was only 1.5 miles from the home of his good friends the Emersons. He states in Walden that he can see through the trees the roofs of the nearby village of Concord. Frequently he entertained visitors at the cabin and then he went visiting himself.

As sociable as he was, we need not make Thoreau out to be a smooth character. Encountered up close I think he may have had been like the homely unplastered, unchinked planks of his cabin. Planed mostly smooth, but still with some splinters and knotholes and lots of air leaking through. He was what we’d call a “character.”

The man was opinionated. To say the least.

A Thoreau-going Dislike of the News
About the news I think it fair to portray Thoreau as loathing it. He couldn’t understand why people were so avid to know what was happening to others, especially those who lived in faraway countries. The news seemed to Thoreau some kind of gossipy spectacle which he compared to everyone running to a fire when they heard the church bell peal in the middle of the night. It didn’t matter if the building was saved or burned to the ground. They just wanted to see it or hear about it.

Reconstructed Interior of Thoreau's Cabin
 Worse, according to Thoreau, all news amounts to the same predictables in play. All that changes are the names, dates and locales. In the end, paying attention to the news is hardly a harmless pursuit. The news leads people astray.

"Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous . . . By closing eyes and slumbering, and consenting to be deceived by shows, men establish and confirm their daily life of routine and habit every where, which still is built on purely illusory foundations."

I can’t help wondering what Thoreau would have to say about our large screens, 3D movies, books that arrive via pixels on an e-reader, or conversations with disembodied voices as we walk along talking on cell phones; in other words, our conscious cultivation of something other than physical, sensual, wrap-your-hand-around-it reality.

He might ask someone like me to add up the costs, the way he totaled precisely his expenses in constructing his cabin--$28.12, including 14 cents for hinges and screws and one cent for chalk.

The cost of my following the news and lapping up the latest greatest entertainment can't be expressed in dollars, though. The cost comes in the amount of reality I subtract from my own life.

And what is reality?

Consider the following episode. Thoreau awakens and hears something in his cabin.

“I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame.” 

In Thoreau's world the person attune to reality not only makes room to notice the mosquito, he or she actually celebrates its presence as a vital part of nature worthy of admiration. Thoreau in essence gives the mosquito its own headline and a glowing musical review.

R.I.P. H.D.T.
Thoreau died in 1862 at age 45. He’d suffered for years from tuberculosis. His health worsened after a trip into the woods in 1859 when he sought to count tree rings on stumps during a rain storm. His last full set of words were, “Now comes good sailing.”

This satisfying prediction was followed by two more words.



It’s possible heresy, but I like to imagine that if Thoreau had lived today he would have blogged while his Walden experiment unfolded day by day. As someone who felt called to announce humanity’s follies, he would have found the Internet the best way of communicating his message to the world. Slow down. Study at the feet of nature. Use nature wisely. Tread lightly wherever you go out of respect for all life. Get to know yourself deep down at the level of the soul.

As for his final utterance of “Moose” and “Indian,” Thoreau was such a realist I have to think he was not suffering from a death bed fantasy. Could it be he was knowingly speaking to the ones who stood ready to welcome him as he sailed off on his new adventure? I can see them now. Side by side the three of them move deep into the tall woods, crunching leaves and pine needles. Moose, Henry, Indian. Then at last, they are swallowed up by shadows. - V.W.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Gutter Talk

I was just past the 6 kilometer mark of my daily 8 kilometer run through the neighborhood and its environs. That's about 3 miles for the less metrically inclined.

Suddenly, in the gutter, I spied something. It looked like it was a colorful medallion that had fallen off a car.

I ran a bit further thinking about it. How it was bright and blatant. How exactly it might have come loose and then wound up resting  in the gutter. How I'd be foolish to defer further investigation until my evening walk.

What if it was gone by then?

I paused my stopwatch, turned around, went back. I pocketed it. Then I ran home.

What I Had
So someone had lost a piece of their Mercedes. I turned the medallion over and noticed that the plastic tabs were broken off. Plastic? On a Mercedes?

I once owned a car made in Sweden. It had beautiful medallions fore and aft. Eventually the one on the trunk became all silver. The enamel image of a royal looking lion on the metal disk had cracked and crumbled off. It cost me $40 to replace it.

The Mercedes medallion, belonging to a car worth at least one-third more than my old Swedish trooper, was worth about forty cents.

All About Gutters
Oscar Wilde said, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." (Lady Windemere's Fan, Act III) I suppose an archaeologist trying to understand American life could do worse than undertake an examination of our gutters. What we leave behind there does give an indication of what has momentarily been important to us. Then we used it up or changed our minds.

Gutter debris particularly fascinated me as a child. Years later I realized that some of my favorites have gone away forever.

    Remember this fine technology?
  • The long snarled trail of magnetic tape that leads eventually to a smashed cassette shell. When is the last time anyone has seen that?
  • The rejected CD, famous for appearing in shiny fragments against asphalt, is a rare find these days, replaced by the MP3 and iPod mode of musical playback.
  • A crushed can. Aluminum is valuable. It doesn't stay on the ground long. Collected, recycled.
  • String. What has happened to string?
  • Pennies. I don't think people carry change like they used to. So they don't drop it by accident.

What I'm left with is gutter classics. I suppose they'll never leave us.

  • Dried earthworms who avoided drowning in the last rain only to become elongated brittle pasta noodles in the sun.
  • Clumps of lawn clippings.
  • Mounds of mud.
  • Fast food wrappers.
  • Cigarette butts.
  • Used condoms.
  • Doggie doo-doo

My Best Gutter Story
Recently my son and I were going for an evening walk around the neighborhood. We were immersed in conversation about technology, especially how Macs compare to PCs, a discussion that has the potential to ignite into the same kind of unfortunate back and forth as two people discussing politics or how people used to debate Ford vs. Chevy. It's rather ridiculous arguing about computers, like wanting to settle once and for all who has the better toaster.

I had just made a particular pronouncement about Mr. Jobs and the latest iteration of Apple products for computing when we came to something lying in the gutter. It was a magazine. I reached down and picked it up.

It was a copy of Macworld.

At this point I hummed the Twilight Zone theme music...woo-de-woo-dew/woo-de-woo-dew

Shaking off our disbelief, we looked at the address label and realized that the magazine was supposed to have been delivered to a mailbox just steps away from us. Apparently the mail carrier had fumbled it out of his truck without noticing . We put the Macworld in the Mac Person's Mail Box (or is it iBox?) and carried on with our walk.

All of us are in the gutter. Some of us are looking at computers and the ornaments on our cars. But most days, honestly, I prefer stars and the attendant mysteries that pour out of the cosmos.- V.W.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Tribute to Catalog Living - Part 2 of 2

Inspired by the web site Catalog Living, I have continued to leaf through my old, pre-Van Winkle catalogs with new eyes.

The peculiar and gifted insight of Molly Erdman, an actor, writer and comedienne in L.A and the genius behind Catalog Living, has led me to discover a truth.

If one begins to imagine actual people living in some of these rooms so carefully curated by designers (here available to us from CB2 and, final two visions, Pottery Barn), it seems inevitable that bizarre back stories and episodes are going to emerge...

Reflecting upon these colorful images becomes a way of creating my own news in the absence of the real thing.

Here is my final tribute - V.W.

Cecil, the pug-huahua, was known for crashing the weekly meeting of Penelope's Round Posterior Support Group.

Amadeus has promised Penelope that once he completes his original screenplay about the life of Tony Robbins and sells it to Dreamworks Studio he will change out the artwork over the sectional. A Monet? A Matisse perhaps?

When Helga and Augustus shop for furniture, they're well aware that all dimensions have helpfully been increased by manufacturers in order to satisfy the needs of Americans who are larger than ever before in history...

After Augustus and Helga married, her grandmother's giant spoons, once used for ladling lard back in the old country, came with her as well as her grandfather's hippo basting brush. It was a sentimental nod, she told Augustus, to a simpler life, a simpler time, and hearty feasts under the harvest moon.

Amadeus totaled the motorbike in the spring when he went for baguettes and thought the Panera had a drive-through (but it was a brick wall). Penelope, pretending no ire, nursed his injuries and suggested he come up with alternative wheeled transport they could enjoy together--vicariously and safely.