Thursday, January 31, 2008

Reflections on My Birthday

Today is my 44th birthday, and my first thought this morning (after my kids had jumped on me in the bed) was a realization that I'm double my age when I graduated from college. For some reason that's a depressing thought. Twenty-two was certainly a good year, particularly the months spent at Oxford studying Tudor/Stuart history and literature. (I can't imagine a more idyllic setting to spend a lifetime.)

And I guess the natural thing to do on one's birthday - especially after 30 or 40, depending on one's thoughts about age and self-imposed milestones - is to grouse about "getting older" and "time passing so quickly," etc. I know my mother, who recently turned 73, and my grandmother, who celebrated her 94th, were lamenting the passage of time and its seemingly accelerating pace. But as my grandfather often said, "It beats the alternative."

There's a great photo in our family archives from this day in 1964 (and I'm sorry that I don't have a scanned copy of it to post). My mother is standing in a near furniture-less den, moments before going to the hospital to give birth. She has this slightly worried look on her face, and I'm sure she's thinking, "Take the damn picture, Ed." (To this day my father takes photos at a glacial pace, even with the various automatic settings on digital cameras. Having spent most of his life taking pictures with film cameras, he naturally wants to make sure that everything is going to work correctly, even if the work is largely done for him by the microchip that drives the camera.) In the 1960s husbands generally didn't accompany their wives into the delivery room as I did, sporting a surgical gown, rubber gloves, and scissors to cut the umbilical cords of my two sons. Like an old sitcom dad, my father sat in the waiting room. According to my mother, however, he didn't pace the floor or fidget or page through magazines in a nervous state. When the hospital staff came to deliver the good news, he was asleep. Too funny. I realize now, in the telling of this story, that this is just another example of my father remaining cool under pressure. (Perhaps a bit too cool under these circumstances. I could not have slept during the delivery of my kids.)

The great thing about the setting of the photograph is that my parents still live in that house, 44 years later. It gives one a solid sense of place and family within the context of a life that is beset by constant change. (My grandmother has lived in the same house since 1951, just minutes from my parents. The close proximity of my grandparents certainly made my childhood more fun.)

Reading an article in The Wilson Quarterly last week, I learned that this kind of rootedness is atypical of American society in the 20th century, particularly since 1946. Europe, not having experienced the housing boom witnessed by the U.S. after World War II, is still a society in which people tend to stay put, maintaining connections to extended family and community on a more frequent basis. Conversely, according to the article the average American moves approximately 11 times during one's adult life. It seems we're driven - literally, given our obsession with cars - to move to bigger and better homes, thinking that fulfillment of the American dream is always just one house away. (This near universal belief that all are somehow entitled to own a McMansion fueled the recent housing boom and the underlying sub-prime mortgage crisis. That crisis may yet signal the death knell of the American dream for many citizens.)

Ok, so this doesn't really have anything to do with my birthday. But it gives you an idea of how my brain is always running down these side streets to check out something new or different. And I guess that habit does say something about where I am at 44: still curious, ready to learn new things, analyze the world around me, and offer my two cents, whether it's wanted or not.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Subway Abstracts

The subway is a riot of sound and color - with the occasional rat and unwanted smells added to the mix just to remind one that this still is New York City, despite the claims of a "kinder, gentler" Big Apple. I always marvel at the aesthetics of the stations, many of which have undergone extensive restoration in the last 20 years. Many older stations - for example, those constructed before World War I - still retain their original design motifs with elaborately rendered medallions and tile work. The long-closed City Hall station, rarely opened for tours, is a beautiful example of the Art Nouveau style in its details. Even some of the recently renovated subway stops possess elaborate art installations, stained glass, or tile mosaics. My friends who eschew subway travel for whatever reason are missing one of the cheapest art shows in the city! (Still, surveying the puzzled and nervous faces of visitors trying to navigate these cacophonous spaces, I can't help wondering if some of them feel rather like the suspicious souls who populate George Tooker's famous egg tempera painting of a subway station - shown above left. Tooker had a great knack for depicting the worry and existential dread of mid-20th century urbanites. In the post 9/11 world many of his paintings seem newly relevant.)

These shots, colorful little abstracts of some of the tile work at 23rd Street on the 1 line, are the result of my experiments with the macro feature on the new camera. (I think the focus on #2 is a little off.)

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Monday, January 28, 2008

State of the Union

Tonight President Bush delivers his valedictory State of the Union address to the nation. He should use the airtime as a final opportunity to apologize to the American people for: defiling this country's reputation around the world; trampling on the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights and the explicit separation of powers; the waste of thousands of American lives in an illegal war; the loss of a budget surplus thanks to inflated defense spending and tax cuts that benefit only the wealthiest citizens; and pro-business measures that have crippled the ability of the EPA, OSHA, and other regulatory agencies. Of course, he won't admit any wrongdoing or criminal behavior, despite the bitter reality of his behavior. He should spend eight years in a federal prison to atone for his sins of the last eight years. Yet a mere eight years will not be nearly enough time to erase the damaging legacy of the Bush years.

Water Tanks and Signs?

Over the weekend someone asked why I bother posting photos of water tanks or signs from derelict hotels. And upon reflection it really might seem an odd subject for a photograph. I might as well collect photographs of fire hydrants or traffic signs. But as I was reminded a couple of weeks ago in a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there's certainly precedent for that kind of documentary style in which ordinary objects - rather than human subjects - become the photographer's focus. In one of the museum's photography galleries they had images by Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German couple who made a career out of straightforward documentary images of industrial landscapes.

Beginning in the early 1960s the Becher's carried their large format view camera around Europe and the United States to capture images of water towers (see the first image below), cooling towers, grain elevators, blast furnaces, and more. Publishing numerous books and winning myriad awards, they showed that even industrial subjects - like these water towers - can be beautiful as architectural monuments. They also chronicled an age in which industrial design actually reflected a measure of aesthetic concern for an object's placement in the environment. Realize too that the Becher's were also conscious of the impermanence of that landscape. In the post-industrial world of Europe and the U.S. over the last 30 years, many of their subjects were razed in the name of progress and beautification.

Now I don't make any claims to possess the vision of Bernd and Hilla Becher. (Although I certainly would jump at the chance to experiment with a large format camera!) Still, I do enjoy that kind of documentary effort, capturing bits of the New York City landscape that seem threatened by either "renewal" or neglect. Indeed, the area along the Hudson River from about 18th Street down to Houston includes many older buildings - some historic - that face demolition in the wake of new condo and co-op construction. Unfortunately, most of that new development is in the form architectural nightmares of glass and metal. I will not be taking picture of those. (Obviously the last three images are mine.)

Note: While at the MOMA I learned that Bernd Becher died in 2007 at the age of 75. One wonders if his wife will continue to take pictures.
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Friday, January 25, 2008

Village Photos

Here are more photos from the neighborhood. Shots 1 and 3 are representative of the numerous early to mid-19th century townhouses which line the labyrinth of streets in the West Village. There are even a few late-18th century buildings, including the house in which Thomas Paine died, just around the corner from our apartment. Photo 2 is of a ca. 1836 pair of houses that are usually referred to as the "twin sisters." The final image captures one of the ubiquitous water tanks that adorn so many buildings in Manhattan. Ostensibly required for all buildings over six stories, most of these wooden tanks are still made on-site by a handful of family-owned companies that have been in business for generations.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

American Idol?

So my wife and I have been watching bits and pieces of the first episodes of the new American Idol season. Let me point out that we don't care who wins, don't follow the careers of past contestants, or watch the show after they move to the "Hollywood" phase. We only watch to see how god-awful horrible some of the first contestants can be. Now of course there are always a few clowns who try out with some horrible routine in an effort to have their moment on television. They know up front that the judges will never pick . . . but if they're sufficiently outrageous, maybe, just maybe, they'll end up on the broadcast. Nevertheless, there are those performers who earnestly believe they have talent. They can be tone deaf, or have no sense of rhythm and stage presence, let alone a talent for the difficult exercise of a capella vocals. Yet they step before the judges and the cameras convinced that they deserve a chance to move on to the next round. And when they are rejected they cry and stomp their feet and appear genuinely hurt that they've been sent packing. (Let me add that there are plenty of contestants who have moderately pleasant voices and will do just fine singing in their church choir, performing in community theater performances, or serenading their family in the car. Their voices, however, aren't up to belting out a ballad or sustaining the latest pop hit.)

What always amazes us is how serious the worst of the contestants can be. They often truly believe they possess some rare talent that will be obvious to the judges if they're just given a chance to sing! How did they get this far in life believing they could become professional singers or the next music sensation? Several forces could be at work here. Some of those auditioning have likely never received truthful, constructive criticism of their singing talents - or lack thereof. They've been reassured - falsely - by parents and teachers and friends that their singing is "lovely" or "beautiful" in an effort to avoid hurt feelings and bruised egos.

The more likely cause of such unrealistic aspirations, however, is the cult of celebrity that has mushroomed into a global phenomenon. Thanks to reality television, YouTube, MySpace, and similar media outlets, anyone can put himself or herself out there and, with odds equivalent to the chance of being struck by lightening, become a star and thus enjoy the trappings of life as a celebrity. Indeed, there are just enough examples of success (Lily Allen, for example) to fuel the dreams of a herd of celebrity wannabes who would trade their mortal souls to grace the cover of People or the scores of celeb-obsessed magazines that now crowd grocery store shelves. But in a society in which no-talent "celebutantes" like Paris Hilton can be famous for no logical reason, it's easy to see how ordinary people might want to escape their seemingly mundane lives. There are even those who would trade places with the trainwreck lives of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan just for the chance to be famous. It really is a sad commentary on the direction our society has taken in the last 20 years.

As we move into the third month of a writers strike in Hollywood, "reality" programming, already epidemic on many networks, only strengthens its presence. Sadly, however, there's very little that's "real" in these shows. Indeed, at best they offer only a parody of reality, whether one is watching The Bachelor or American Idol. At times like this, one is reminded of Newton Minow, chair of the FCC during the Kennedy administration, whom I've mentioned before on this blog. In a famous 1961 address, Mr. Minow observed:

"When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or
newspapers -- nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I
invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on
the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss
sheet or rating book to distract you -- and keep your eyes glued to that set
until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast
To our discredit as a society, those words ring true nearly half a century later. Of course, the average person cares nothing about such arguments. And I'm happy to admit that I tend to be a cultural elitist, if not an outright snob. So bring on the off-key singers and celebrity wannabes. If we're lucky, a few gold nuggets will emerge from the dross; the rest will retire to their mundane lives and join the ranks of consumers, rather than the consumed.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009

One year from the past Sunday, a new President-elect will take the oath of office before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and millions of Americans watching on their televisions. If we are lucky, it will usher in a new era for this country, an era punctuated by a return to justice, respect for the Constitution, respect for basic human rights, and an understanding of the limits of presidential power. I believe George W. Bush will ultimately be judged as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. Even accounting for the ineffectual presidencies of the Gilded Age and the stain of corruption attached to the two terms served by Ulysses S. Grant, the Bush administration must be regarded as an even worse failure, both in terms of domestic and foreign policies. Even the Nixon administration, which we remember primarily for its demise in the Watergate scandal, can be remembered for some positive accomplishments, most notably the warming of relations between the U.S. and China. Reagan, whom I've always regarded as one of the most intellectually limited of our Chief Executives, looks comparatively benign next to the idiocy of Bush. Indeed, when Reagan was in office I always thought, "Well, we can't do any worse." I was so wrong.

What can we expect for 2009 and beyond? Regardless of the new president's party affiliation, we should demand an end to this illegal war and expect a strenuous effort to restore the nation's reputation within the worldwide community. Americans should also expect the next president to uphold the oath of office, unlike President Bush, who regularly trampled on the system of "checks and balances" established by the Constitution.

Among the current Republican candidates, several are particularly troubling. Huckabee should have been disqualified after the first debate for declaring that he did not believe in evolution, preferring the Genesis creation mythology as the source for his belief. He also too closely reflects the dangerous vision of the Republican party's religious fascists who labor constantly to bring down the constitutional wall that separates church and state. (The "Religious Right's" misreading of our early history and the Constitution is one of the gravest threats to this nation.) Giuliani too closely resembles Bush in temperament. (Thankfully, Rudy's numbers are declining in the polls.) McCain has a record of occasional moderation, but one wonders if he'll compromise his often maverick stance on critical issues just to secure votes. Romney, his controversial Mormonism aside, just seems so lacking in charisma and intellectual "oomph." He's fast becoming the John Kerry of the 2008 campaign.

Unfortunately, even the current Democratic front-runners haven't attracted my support at this point. Although I like Hillary Clinton (and still like Bill), I don't think she's electable in a national contest. Fudge-brained conservatives in the South and Midwest will do everything in their power to combat her candidacy and bring out the Republican minions to vote. I like Obama's optimism and think he represents a welcome challenge to the status quo, but believe he would make a more viable candidate in 2012. I just don't think he has sufficient experience in government yet to navigate the murky political waters of Washington.

From the beginning, I had hoped Al Gore would run. He's clearly the most qualified to do the job, and he possesses a gravitas and intellectual curiosity that smug George Bush doesn't carry even on his best days. (And as I've said before, we'll all be better off when Bush sits isolated and out of touch on his Texas ranch, condemned to obscurity, the harsh judgment of scholars, and the dustbin of American history. One hopes that in the future he'll come to recognize the tragedy of his two terms in office. One suspects, however, that he doesn't possess the requisite humility, since he's been trumpeting his own infallibility since taking office.) Alas, Gore will not run, and I will have a hard time making up my mind in November. (Of course, I will NOT be voting Republican in November and could not, with a clear conscience, cast a vote for any Republican candidate.) Nevertheless, I'm sustained by the thought that in 363 days, Bush will no longer be President of the United States.


Chatting with a friend yesterday, I ended up on the subject of dreams and we were soon comparing the colorful products of our subconscious minds. Dream analysis has become something of a fad in recent years, with a proliferation of books and internet sites devoted to interpretation, some of it so programmatic and superficial that one can imagine the Old Testament figure of Joseph spinning in his grave. (My sons recently watched a Veggie Tales version of the Joseph story, retold as a western in "The Ballad of Little Joe." Very entertaining and thought-provoking for little boys who are just now starting to remember their dreams.) But back to my conversation . . . Naturally, we tried to find the veiled meanings in this eclectic dreamscape.

Upon comparison, we quickly learned that both of us had experienced some pretty standard types, dreams that affect most people: dreams about falling or being chased, for example. During times of stress I also have dreams in which I'm back at the Virginia Military Institute, getting ready for a parade or inspection. Invariably, I'm running late and can't find all of the pieces of my uniform. So I'm running about looking for shoes, or belts, or pieces of brass, in a panic that I won't make the upcoming formation. Over the years I've talked to a number of VMI graduates, including alumni from the 50s and 60s, and we all have the same kind of dreams under stress. Whether we graduated five years ago or 40 years ago, we all find ourselves back at the Institute in the same situations. Funny how the experience affected us - down to our subconscious selves - in such a similar fashion. (Oddly, I don't recall having had nightmares in which I've revisited the traumatic experiences of that first year, a subject which would seem fair game for a subconscious reaction to fear and stress.)

Several months ago in this blog I talked about the recurring dream that I've had intermittently - and unpredictably - over at least two decades, in which I'm stuck in a multi-story house. These houses - smaller and simpler in the early years, and incredibly large and complex in the last decade - always have a dark, locked upper level, in which there's something menacing and malevolent. I never actually make it onto this level, but sometimes approach the door, with the feeling of malevolence growing as I get closer. I've been told that the house represents me and my life, which like the dream-house, has grown and become more complex over the years. The dark attic represents the darker aspects of my personality - anger, for example - which I don't want to let out into the open. A friend well versed in Jungian dream analysis almost salivated over this scenario because it so closely reflected the Jungian interest in the "shadow" aspects of our subconscious selves.

More recently, my dreams have returned to the house imagery, but without the darker aspects of my old nightmare. For example, in one recent dream I was trying to go on vacation with my family but we couldn't find all of the things we needed to leave. Much of the dream was spent searching through my "house" - a fantasy residence with a rabbit warren of rooms and no relation to my current housing situation.

Two weeks ago I dreamed that I had found a house for sale on Virginia's Eastern Shore - a ramshackle, white clapboard Victorian home - that was being offered for the unbelievably cheap price of $22,000. The exterior and interior of the house needed considerable work, and I recall the elderly woman who owned the place showed me through rooms that were stuffed full of curio cabinets containing "depression glass" and countless examples of cheap pottery and ceramic items. Ironically, many of the items tucked away in the curio cabinets were pieces that I've collected over the years, but are now in storage! (I'm still not sure what to make of this one!)

Finally, over the weekend I dreamed that while visiting family I attended some amorphously-defined fair or fundraiser and won a contest in which the prize was a house. I can still remember from the dream how my name was announced loudly on a speaker system . . . with my wife and I running to see what we had won. Weird . . . but interesting how houses have become a dominant symbol in many of my recent dreams. I'm not sure what the underlying meaning is in all this, but I welcome any thoughts, whether Freudian, Jungian, or your own personal take. I'd also love to hear about any recurring dreams you've experienced.

Friday, January 18, 2008

"Messenger" Passes Mercury

Funny - I still have the same child-like enthusiasm for the space program that I had when the Apollo missions delivered 12 astronauts to the moon during the 1970s. I can still name the crews of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions and tell you what each of those missions accomplished. Chalk it up to obsessive reading of books on astronomy and the NASA programs of the 60s and 70s.

So this week that enthusiasm was reawakened by the news that NASA's "Messenger" spacecraft had flown by Mercury on Monday, the first of several fly-bys before it slows down and settles into orbit around the planet in 2011. Launched in 2004, its camera and instruments doubtless surpass those of Mariner 10, which photographed Mercury in 1974/75, and was the last NASA craft to reach the planet.

The first photos, which started showing up on the internet in the last two days, are amazing in their clarity, and illustrate what NASA can accomplish given competent leadership and adequate funding. Unfortunately, popular interest in space exploration has waned considerably over the last 30 years. Moreover, Washington's lack of commitment to visionary programs, measured in their failure to fund properly the development of new technologies, has limited NASA's effectiveness and left us with an outdated launch vehicle that, from the standpoint of budgets and bureaucracies, flies along as if negotiating an asteroid field. China is on the verge of significant breakthroughs in its efforts to develop a viable space program and has set long-term goals that, if realized, promise to overshadow the United States' role as a leader in space science.

For now, enjoy this latest good news from NASA, and check out the official "Messenger" website!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

More Weekend Photos

As I continue to learn how to use this new camera, I'll continue to post regular examples of the results. This batch includes: the sign from a derelict hotel near the waterfront, near Christopher Street (shot in sepia); a doorway on a historic West Village home; a 19th century stable, in the Village, converted to apartments; and an impromptu meeting of pigeons at the corner of Bleecker and 10th Streets. These aren't anything special, just the results of playing with exposures and settings. Funny, when I'm carrying around a digital camera, I don't really think like an "art photographer" in the way that I do when carrying around a TLR loaded with black and white film. Perhaps that will change with time.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tossing Out the Tree

Walking around the West Village on December 26th, I noticed the first Christmas trees tossed to the curb - the day after Christmas!! I'm always shocked by this, but it's the same story every year. Within a day or two of Christmas, discarded trees start appearing, some still dressed in their lights and tinsel. Tinsel I can understand. But lights? How lazy does one have to be to leave the lights on the tree when it's headed for the curb? This only complicates the job of the trucks that collect most of these trees for delivery to one of the city's mulching facilities. (Are they simply adding shredded wire, plastic, and glass to the mix of mulch?)

How little Christmas spirit must one have to trash the tree on December 26th? My wife has observed that perhaps these are people who will be traveling for the remainder of the holiday period. But I think there are just too many on the curbs to give that hypothesis credibility. We didn't get our tree down until last week, several days after Epiphany, signaling the end of the Christmas season (if one follows liturgical calendars). As a child, I remember our family tree always came down on January 1st or 2nd, but no later. When my brother and I visited my grandmother in the hospital on her 94th birthday, December 31st, she asked us to remind my mother to drop by the house and remove all Christmas decorations, including the wreath on the front door, by the end of New Year's Day. She was lying in the Intensive Care Unit, attached to IVs and oxygen, but she was still worried that her decorations might be up past January 1st, thus inviting bad luck for the coming year. (By the way, she's out of the hospital and improving. And my mother took down my grandmother's decorations on January 1st. Why tempt the gods who control luck?)

On the opposite side of the spectrum from those Scrooges who can't wait to reclaim the space taken up by the Christmas tree are those who can't bring themselves to haul out the boxes and repack the decorations for another year. I still see plenty of apartments and businesses sporting the mantle of holiday cheer, with lights and wreaths and miniature snowy villages on display well into January. One can't blame them, given the pall of melancholy that so often shrouds the weeks of January and February. A part of me wants to keep the tree up longer because it reminds me of the fun of Christmas day and the memories of Christmases now hidden away in photo albums and reels of Super-8 movies.

Nevertheless, I know it has to go - in our case, taken apart and folded into a box, bound for storage until next December. By Epiphany, we're no longer turning on the lights or adjusting the angel on top. Ornaments have dropped to the tree skirt below and no one has bothered to replace them on the tree. The skirt itself has become a wrinkled mess, where just a couple of weeks before, we were vigilant in keeping it neatly arranged beneath the tree. Although it's the season of Epiphany, which lasts until Shrove Tuesday on February 5th, one might observe that we're already looking ahead - albeit symbolically - to the season of Lent. Indeed, it's no accident that some of the symbols we associate with Christmas actually presage the events commemorated in Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.

Even without the religious iconography manifest in the Christmas tree and its decorations, the act of throwing out the tree (or packing it away, for those of us with artificial trees) can also symbolize a discarding of the previous year. While we're cleaning up and reclaiming that space in our living rooms and dens, we're facing a new year and, we hope, starting with a clean slate for the next twelve months. (Yet I can't help wondering - still - about the motivation behind throwing out the tree only a day after Christmas. I guess the practice is so antithetical to my own notions about Christmas, that I can't grasp the rationale behind it. In the end, I can only guess that it's the act of a melancholy heart.)

Monday, January 14, 2008

♫ Soundtrack - Atonement - Elegy for Dunkirk (full length)

Here's that piece from the "Atonement" soundtrack, "Elegy for Dunkirk." There are several versions of the hymn on YouTube, including a lovely clip from Westminster Abbey that provides the subtitled lyrics. A very typical Anglican hymn - and among my favorites.


I saw the film version of Atonement on Friday night. Wow! Although reviews for the film have been mixed, I really think that's rather typical of most movie adaptations of popular novels, made all the more problematic by this book's high profile and the numerous awards it has won since its 2001 publication. Under the best of circumstances (a-list stars and a competent director, good screenplay, etc.) it's very difficult to visualize the full scope of 300-400 pages of an author's musings. Even multi-part adaptations - take, for example, "Masterpiece Theatre's" numerous interpretations of classic literary works, some of them stretching to eight and ten episodes - manage to shave details from novels that some readers will doubtless miss and deem critical to understanding a story. So given the complexity of Ian McEwan's novel, it's no surprise that some critics have failed to appreciate Joe Wright's directorial handiwork.

Atonement immediately reminded me of the works of E. M. Forster (long a favorite of mine, both novels and films), particularly in its depiction of class tensions and life on an English country estate. Indeed, the cinematography of this film reminded me of the lush Merchant\Ivory productions of several Forster novels (including Howard's End, Maurice, and A Room with a View). Keira Knightley and James McAvoy turned in wonderful performances, enhanced by an obvious chemistry between them. I was also mesmerized by the score and have already downloaded two selections from iTunes (the main theme, "Atonement"; and "Elegy for Dunkirk," which is built around a stirring Anglican hymn, "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind").

Most movies I see are fun for a couple of hours but are forgotten pretty quickly thereafter, filed away for future reference in games of Trivial Pursuit. But Atonement is one of those films that I'll remember - and doubtless purchase when it reaches DVD. The ending was a shock - but I shan't give it away with spoilers. Just go see it. (And since writing this, I've learned that the film won a Golden Globe yesterday for Best Drama.)

Friday, January 11, 2008


My friend Isabel at A Room of One's Own has reminded me of how much I miss poetry, finding that I've rarely taken the time to read it in recent years. Yet in the past few months I've stepped gingerly back into the measured currents of verse, reacquainting myself with Emily Dickinson, e e cummings, and Allen Ginsberg, who represent just a trickle of what I once swam through. Mind you, I've always enjoyed poetry, and even wrote a great deal of verse in my teens and 20s, some of it shockingly naive . . . which I guess is fairly typical for angst-laden youth. At my peak I could fill volumes of notebooks in mere months, as poems popped into my head at the oddest times. (As I mentioned last week, the shower seemed to be an environment peculiarly fertile for these little epiphanies.) But why did I stop? I think grad school chased the muse away, replacing her with a scholarly rigidity that eschews the loose verse and wayward lexicon of the e e cummings and Allen Ginsbergs of the world.

The best poetry - whether formulaic sonnets, sing-songy couplets, or the unstructured musings of more modern authors - ultimately reveals something about universal truths and one's own sense of self. (At least that's my rather uninformed opinion.) So I think now, in my 40s, having encountered - and endured - some life-changing events in the last decade, I'm better equipped to appreciate some of those stanzas that once grabbed my attention, their intonation and meter sounding a bit different filtered through 20 years of experience.

So one of my resolutions for 2008 is to read more poetry. And if I'm lucky, perhaps the muse will speak to me again, as in this haiku that I plucked from the ether today:

Stumble-down verse songs
Asleep in winter-dark dens
Await the new grass

Thursday, January 10, 2008

More photos: Walking home

Still experimenting with the new camera, this time taking some shots during my walk home through Madison Square Park. The first two are of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, constructed between 1907 and 1909. At 700 ft., it was the tallest building in the world until 1913, when the Woolworth Building downtown surpassed it. At night, the top of the tower, including the clock faces on each side, are brightly lit in either white or colors appropriate to the season/holiday. (I can see it from the roof garden of my building in the West Village.) It's still considered one of the most significant buildings in Manhattan and is now on the National Register as a historic property. I believe it was sold in mid-2007 and reportedly will be converted into either condos or a high-end hotel. Oh, and that last picture . . . I love how the Flatiron Building looks like the prow of a ship, making its way between Broadway and Fifth Avenue.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Reduplications, or an "eency-weency" literary lesson

I was reading William Holloway's General Dictionary of Provincialisms, published in London in 1840, and ran across a new word that I had to share: frobly-mobly. It's a reduplicative word meaning one is "indifferently well." (Reduplicative words, common in many languages, are still used regularly in English . . . although I suspect frobly-mobly is now extinct in the lexicon of daily usage. There are three different kinds of reduplicative words: the rhyming variety, with examples like hocus-pocus, hanky-panky, higgledy-piggledy (a personal favorite), and razzle-dazzle; exact reduplications, like bye-bye and choo-choo; and ablaut reduplications with their contrasting vowels sounds, like wishy-washy, chit-chat, and zig-zag.) So the next time someone asks how you're doing, reply with an earnest "frobly-mobly."

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

More Photos: Stained Glass

I'm still experimenting with the new camera, this time going for colorful stained glass under low light conditions. These images - Mary Magdalene, an angel at the Annunciation, the hem of Christ's robe, and Christ's hand - were taken in a historic Manhattan parish. The windows were made in Munich and installed in 1887. I've been fortunate over the last several years to work in religious non-profit organizations that have had beautiful stained glass. It's often a challenge to capture these images, both in terms of the unique lighting conditions and difficulty in gaining access to some of these vertical spaces. These windows were reached pretty easily, a welcome change from the clerestory windows I photographed several years ago. They required hauling cameras up narrow iron ladders through two passages near the nave's high ceiling. All that effort to take photos for the parish Christmas card! I'm usually nervous about open heights, and dislike climbing ladders, but for stained glass windows, I'm willing to set that fear aside.

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Weekend photos

Just a few photos from the weekend. Soccer restarted, so we spent several hours on both Saturday and Sunday watching the boys play. The top two photos show Ben watching Sam's game. The bottom photos are of Sam shooting some hoops at a playground in the West Village. They got a new junior-sized basketball for Christmas - after I braved the NBA Store in midtown - and have enjoyed shooting baskets for the last 2 weeks, even in the cold. Their Junior Knicks program at the neighborhood YMCA restarts on February 1st, so they're anxious about "being ready." These photos were taken with a new camera, a Canon A570, with which I've been experimenting. The photos of Ben were taken without flash under low light. I think the camera had set the ISO at 1600, aperture f/2.6, and shutter 1/50, hence the graininess of the images.

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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Happy Blog Anniversary

I almost forgot to note the first anniversary of this blog, which passed on January 2nd. When I started this endeavour a year ago I wasn't sure how this project would fare, although I had some obvious goals set out in that first post, "Start Your Engines." Now, 243 entries later, I've been pleasantly surprised at the response. Thank you to those who have been regular readers and commentors. Indeed, nearly all of the comments have been positive and insightful, and for many of you, I look forward to your consistent input. (And I still have to laugh at the one guy who called me an "idiot" after I referred to Billy Joel walking his pug in the neighborhood.) As I had hoped, this blog has proved therapeutic, and has allowed me to organize some of my ideas and memories more clearly over the last 12 months. Yes, on occasion I've been a bit "rabid" (my mother's description) in my attacks on the Bush administration, conservatives, and the "religious right." But that zeal is a product of my conviction that these individuals and their organizations constitute an insidious threat to our personal liberties and national security. (In the 1964 presidential campaign, Barry Goldwater scared Americans by uttering the now-famous phrase, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." At the height of Cold War paranoia, it's easy to see how those words might worry voters apprehensive about a possible nuclear holocaust. Unfortunately, we now live in a country in which those words seem to be the guiding principle for the president and his minions.)

In the second year of "My Tears Spoiled My Aim" I hope to continue with the same volume of entries, while increasing the proportion devoted to painting and photography. And as my younger son becomes more engaged in his drawing and painting, I may take the route of the typical proud parent and post some of his art on this virtual refrigerator.

Again, thanks for your input and encouragement, particularly in terms of my painting. 2007 constituted a turning point in this hobby, and I hope 2008 will afford opportunities to make it a more serious avocation.

Friday, January 4, 2008


My friend Nina over at Ornamental commented yesterday on how some of her best inspirations materialize while standing under a hot shower. I couldn't agree more. I've always found that some of my best ideas are delivered as I stand in the shower . . . as if the falling water is a conduit for wet epiphanies. Maybe the water pouring over us is akin to a baptismal experience, through which we're ideally washing away our sins and anxieties, while achieving some sense of heightened clarity about ourselves and our souls.

Whether or not one believes in the idea of spiritual baptism in the Christian sense - a practice with roots in pre-Christian, pagan ritual - there's something to be said for the power of that cleansing water. Years ago, when I still wrote poetry, I would have poems pop into my head, nearly fully formed, without that arduous period of gestation and self-editing that could define some moments of literary creation. Under those circumstances, I'd dash from the shower and grab paper and pen to record the words before other thoughts crowded out this latest revelation. Even now I find that my mind clears in the shower and the synapses seem to fire a bit more smoothly.

For the liturgically minded, this is the season of epiphanies, by the way. And this Sunday, churches around the world will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, ostensibly the symbolic moment of Christ's divinity being revealed to Gentiles, represented by the Magi. Parishes will parade likenesses of the Magi, "Three Kings" or "Wise Men" through their sanctuaries or the streets of small towns, or children will dress up in beards and plastic crowns to process into their church bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But like so many of these "feasts" in the liturgical calendar, its 4th century origins are convoluted and represent one of those focal points of disagreement between churches in the east and west. For example, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, January 6th marks the day of Christ's baptism in the river Jordan. And at one time, even Christ's birth was celebrated on this day as well, before December 25th and the feast of Christmas became a separate celebration.

Growing up in a Southern Baptist church I never heard of Epiphany - or Advent and Lent, for that matter. It was as disconnected from liturgy and western christian ritual as one could possibly be. Anything remotely liturgical or ritualistic was deemed "Catholic" in nature and thus suspect. I believe some of that has changed now, however, with more Baptist churches embracing the concepts of Lent and Advent as means of organizing and structuring the worship and educational experiences. It also allows these churches to employ the familiar idiom of Catholicism and its adjuncts as a way to appeal to potential converts with experience in those liturgically oriented traditions. As an Episcopalian - and occasional congregant in a Lutheran parish - I always found these moments in the liturgical calendar a way to connect with Christian traditions that, in some cases, stretch back over the millenia. They also remind one of the fluid nature of Christian belief over the centuries - a quicksand-like reality to be avoided by the more dogmatic denominations that prefer ignorance over an informed faith.

I tend to avoid making New Year's resolutions, realizing that they'll most likely be cast aside in a short time. (Authoring this blog was actually borne of a resolution last January, and is thus one of the few New Year's promises I've ever kept.) Yet instead of dwelling on promises and resolutions - or things "done and left undone" in the language of the prayer book, here's hoping that 2008 is a year of epiphanies, whether divined in the shower, while walking down the street, or engaged in prayer.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Another nail in the coffin . . .

. . . that holds the "American Dream." Check out this story in the New York Times. It's rather ironic that the company that gave us the modern, postwar suburb in the form of Levittown is now one of the first large building companies to declare bankruptcy as a result of the recent sub-prime mortgage crisis. Enhancing this sense of irony is the company's recent practice of showing movies of happy homeowners, circa 1950, standing proudly in front of their newly finished Levittown, NJ, homes. (In fairness to the memory of William Levitt, one should note that the current incarnation of the company has no direct connection to the family which shepherded the postwar revolution in American housing.)

Until now, the crisis has affected only the financial institutions which had engaged in predatory loan practices to entice home buyers. But now, as the market for new homes has dwindled, builders - as well as the subcontractors and suppliers who support them - are facing the trickle-down effects of the crisis. One suspects that Levitt & Sons will not be the last major builder to close its doors.

Of course, the real victims in all of this are those buyers who didn't understand fully the intricacies of what they were signing when they joyfully accepted the loan terms. And by many accounts, the loan companies didn't want buyers to understand the dangers of adjustable mortgages and dramatically rising payments. Representing the 21st century equivalents of 1950s and 60s suburbanites who escaped cities and apartment living, these new homeowners - many of them immigrants and minorities - thought they had achieved the "American Dream." Now they face foreclosure and, potentially, homelessness. Why haven't we heard any of the presidential candidates, Republican or Democrat, addressing this issue with more than tacit acknowledgement that there's a problem?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Dark Ages

"Happy New Year." I say that without exclamation, because the start of a new year is rarely a happy experience for most of us. We're feeling fat and bloated, sleep deprived and cranky, and, after spending little time in the office over the last two weeks, doubtless unhappy to be back at work. Riding the bus and subway to work this morning, I couldn't help but notice the somber faces of the crowds trudging Park Avenue, bent against the cold wind like beggars under their sacks. It's certainly easy to understand why so many animals hibernate through this season. But we humans, ostensibly masters of our environment, able to combat extremes of heat and cold, labor on through the seasons, bundled against winter's cold.

But apparently this flurry of activity during winter's coldest months is a modern development. I was recently reading a new historical geography of France - The Discovery of France - and learned that in the coldest areas of western Europe many communities essentially hibernated until the spring thaw. There would be little or no commercial activity, no travel, and only meager time spent outside. Families would huddle together with their animals - including sheep, cows, goats, etc. - and spend much of their time sleeping. While this might seem surprising, realize that winters were generally colder and of longer duration until the early 20th century. (Chalk that difference up to the climate change wrought by global warming.) Also understand that for many Europeans, fuel supplies were quite limited and expensive when available. But enough science and history.

When I was a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in the early 80s, we called this time between the Christmas holiday and Spring break the "Dark Ages." Tucked under red comforters in our folding beds, we'd awake each morning to the clang of the warming steam radiators and a lone bugler blowing reveille in the darkened barracks. We would line up outside barracks in our company formations and march off to breakfast in the dark. And, after a day of classes we'd change into our grey wool blouses and march off to supper - again, in the dark.

For Rats (VMI's term for freshmen) this was a time of fear and depression. Having enjoyed the liberation of home and family for the holidays, we would spend the ensuing winter months praying for the arrival of Spring and the end of the period of torture and humiliation known as the "Ratline." Laboring under a heavy course load, we struggled through months of physical and emotional torment. When friends ask what it was like, I compare it to the first half of the movie Full Metal Jacket - plus 18 credit hours. (This was the period during which so many Rats reached the breaking point and quit, abandoning VMI for the relative ease of regular college life.)

On a warm spring day, with flags fluttering and the parade ground covered by cadets on parade, VMI could seem a magical place . . . proud parents taking pictures of their sons (and now daughters) arrayed in coatees and shakos, with freshly polished brass and steel sabers glinting in the mountain sunlight. Under those conditions, with the statues of Stonewall Jackson and George C. Marshall surveying the field of neat formations, it was easy to get caught up in the romance and history of a place like VMI, the "West Point of the South," as it is nicknamed. But in cold January and February, under grey clouds that matched our grey uniforms, the place seemed a prison. (Indeed, while visiting VMI as a senior in high school, my father remarked during a tour of the campus, surrounded by other parents and prospective cadets, "It reminds me of Alcatraz.")

By the winter of my senior year, the romance of VMI had faded, the naivete of an 18-year-old freshman having been replaced by the realization that the quaint 19th century uniforms and flashing sabers were just window dressing to cover up the harsh reality of military life. Rather than marvel at the history and pageantry, I was more apt to contemplate the final line of Wilfred Owens' great poem from the trenches of the First World War: "Dulce et decorum est/ pro patria mori."

Like VMI, New York City can exhibit that polar contrast between its mythic, beautiful face and the grey reality of urban squalor. And today that reality seems just a bit harsher as used Christmas trees are tossed to the curb throughout the City and the Christmas decorations come down, only to be replaced by the garish displays of Valentine's Day wares. Here's hoping the "Dark Ages" are mercifully short and Spring arrives a little early this year.