Monday, August 31, 2009

Notes from the Weekend


It's 5 a.m. and I'm wide awake. My back is bothering me a bit this morning -- just some muscle aches, maybe because I went running yesterday morning, or maybe because of the way I slept. Anyway, I decided to get up and write a bit. I'm at Dave's and Ernie is lying next to me on the couch, looking thoroughly puzzled about why I'm up before the sun.

Anyway, it's been a great weekend. I came out to Dave's on Friday night and we've pretty much been homebodies. Dave cooked Saturday night, making trout en papillote, in which fish fillets are cooked inside a parchment paper shell. It was a DELICIOUS meal, maybe my favorite of all the things he's made so far. (Admittedly that's a tough call, though!) Our friend Adam came over and we drank wine and watched "Top Secret!" which may be one of the funniest dumb movies ever made. It's a Val Kilmer spy farce from about 1984 -- I remember going to see it at a drive-in with my high school girlfriend. We thought it was a hoot then, too!

Yesterday, after I ran, Dave and I drove over to a neighboring town to shoot some more graffiti I saw from the train. It's always a fun challenge after seeing graffiti along the tracks to try to figure out how to get to it by car and on foot. In this case, we had to drive into an industrial area in Edison, wind back through some factories and walk along a rail spur until we got to the back wall of a shipping facility. But there it all was -- nice, bright new pieces, too. I don't have my cable to upload the photos -- that will have to wait until I get back to the city today.

Then we went to see Ang Lee's movie "Taking Woodstock," which I'm sorry to say I didn't enjoy as much as I thought I would. Ang Lee's movies are notoriously slow-paced, and sometimes that technique works ("The Ice Storm," "Brokeback Mountain"). In this case, though, it just seemed a little tedious, and it's pretty tough to make a subject like Woodstock tedious. There was a great scene where the protagonist has a psychedelic acid trip in a van, but there were also a few too many '60s cliches (burning bras, burning draft cards), some scenes that sort of went nowhere, and some characters that were seriously underdeveloped. Lee was very faithful to the music, though, and you could hear famous Woodstock performances by Richie Havens, Melanie, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin in the background as the action unfolds. (He never shows the musicians or the stage, except from afar -- the focus is all on the young people organizing and attending the concert.) Anyway, I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing it, but be prepared for potential disappointment.

Ernie is now crashed and snoring -- which makes me think I should go back to bed.

(Photo: Arabic-style calligraphy (but not really Arabic) -- a sticker on Fifth Avenue, Aug. 2009)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Hoarders


As I mentioned the other day, Dave is introducing me to the wide world of television. Dave is not an indiscriminate TV watcher, so I’m learning about pretty good shows -- I like several on the Food Network like Iron Chef (“Fukosan!”) and Barefoot Contessa, for example.

But my favorite show so far is on A&E. It’s called “Hoarders.”

This show is FASCINATING. It’s about people who amass such huge quantities of disorganized stuff that they literally are in danger of losing their homes and children. They often have bedrooms stuffed to the rafters with boxes and bags, kitchens full of decaying food, and living rooms that are so crowded there’s nowhere to sit. As for bathrooms, well, I’m not even going to go there.

These people are not merely messy. They’re ill. Their approach to possessions is often tied up with personal feelings of unhappiness or emptiness, or control issues, or fears of losing what little money and independence they have. They save everything, and they save it badly.

The show brings teams of organizers into their homes, and usually within a few days conditions are livable. But the task is never easy, and it’s always a spectacle.

Sure, the show is partly a gross-out fest. You can’t help but go “Eeeeew!” at the rotting pumpkin buried beneath debris in the woman’s kitchen, or the piles of used toilet paper on the guy’s bathroom floor. (Sorry -- I went there after all.)

But the creators go to great pains to show the audience that hoarders are afflicted with a disorder, and they are always respectful. The hoarders themselves make all the decisions about what stays and what goes, while the organizers try to help them understand the nature of their condition.

I love this show because, first of all, it’s so NOT me. I live at the opposite extreme of this spectrum -- I am preternaturally organized, a condition that, come to think of it, is symptomatic of its own mental baggage!

I am also fascinated by extremes in behavior. I'm generally a person of very even, moderate demeanor. Anything about addictions, obsessions and the like just captivates me.

I often think I would make an excellent professional organizer. Maybe if journalism goes bust, that can be my second career choice. Wonder if “Hoarders” would hire me?

(Photo: Lexington Avenue, Aug. 2009)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Confessions


Joni Mitchell is often thought of as a “confessional” songwriter, one who reveals details of her emotional life and experience through her music. Likewise, many poets are considered “confessional” – Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell.

I realize as I’m reading this Joni Mitchell book, “Will You Take Me As I Am” by Michelle Mercer, that I enjoy confessional writers. I’m sure that’s what appealed to me about Mitchell when I first heard her music years ago; likewise, it’s what I enjoy about Plath, who is one of my favorite poets. (And who is unfairly considered dreary and morbid because of her untimely end.)

But the term puzzles me a bit. I wonder what distinguishes “confessional” writing from any kind of first-person writing. It seems to me that whenever you write about yourself, you draw on the material of your life. Even fiction writers, working with imaginary characters, do that. What’s the line between confessing and not?

I enjoy reading about people’s inner lives, and the ways they confront the difficulties of daily experience. I think many of us do – hence the explosion in the popularity of memoirs. (And as we’ve seen in recent years, with books like James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” and Augusten Burroughs’ “Running with Scissors,” the line between fiction and memoir can also be somewhat vague.)

I’m impressed with writers who take on life’s issues honestly, and maintain a truthful tone. Mercer, in her book, points to Dan Fogelberg as an example of a songwriter who deals dishonestly with such issues, and uses his song “The Leader of the Band” as an example. She’s right – that song is pure sentimental pablum. I never liked it, and I never really thought about why I didn’t, but Mercer hit the nail on the head. It just isn’t truthful.

A lack of truthfulness is one of the flaws I detect in my own writing. I have a deeply ingrained need to maintain a fa├žade of happiness and equilibrium, an “everything’s OK” perspective. It’s so deeply ingrained that I often don’t recognize when things aren’t OK in my own life. My writing often reflects that sort of shallow happiness that comes of not examining life too closely.

I certainly have confessional tendencies, which isn’t surprising, since it’s the type of writing I enjoy. (And what blogger doesn’t, after all?) But I think I need to work on exposing more of myself, being more brave, being more truthful. Not sure how to go about it. Perhaps Joni will inspire!

(Photo: IHOP parking lot, Elizabeth, N.J., August 2009)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Learning about "Blue"


I’ve been reading Michelle Mercer’s book “Will You Take Me As I Am,” about Joni Mitchell and the years of her “Blue” period, when she recorded her best-known and most acclaimed albums.

The centerpiece of those years, stretching from the late ‘60s through 1976, is the album “Blue,” which came out in 1971. “Blue” has long been one of my favorite albums, and I’m hardly alone in this – it’s often cited as one of the best and most influential recordings of the last 50 years. (On Rolling Stone’s list of the top 500 albums of all time, it’s number 30.)

I’ve learned a lot about Joni from reading this book. For example, I knew she had polio as a child, but I didn’t know how it affected her guitar playing. Apparently she devised some of her unusual chords partly because her left hand has nerve damage, and those chords were easier for her to play.

I also learned that many of Joni’s earlier songs -- such as “The Gallery” and “That Song About the Midway” from the album “Clouds,” “Rainy Night House” and “The Priest” from “Ladies of the Canyon,” and “A Case of You” from “Blue” -- are about Leonard Cohen, with whom Joni had a brief but powerful relationship in the late 1960s.

One of my favorite songs, “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” also from “Blue,” was inspired by a conversation Joni had with a fellow folk singer named Patrick Sky. He said to her one night in a bar in New York, “Oh, Joni, you’re a hopeless romantic. There’s only one way for you to go. Hopeless cynicism.” That comment was the germ of the song.

I also learned that my favorite Led Zeppelin song, "Going to California," was inspired by Joni. The book cites the line, "To find a queen without a king, they say she plays guitar and cries and sings." Sometimes, after singing that line in concert, Robert Plant would say, "Joni." Who knew?

There’s always a risk in reading about your personal idols – you sometimes learn a little too much about them, which makes them human and thus harder to idolize. But so far I'm still in awe of Joni. It’s a fascinating book!

(Photo: Rug store in Manhattan, August 2009)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lockerbie Bomber


There’s been a lot of controversy over the compassionate release of one of the bombers of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The bomber, a Libyan who has been in prison in Scotland since his conviction, is dying of prostate cancer. The Scottish justice secretary recently decided to allow him to go home to Libya to die.

This decision outraged politicians and many of the 270 victims' family members, who think he should have remained in prison. The images of the bomber disembarking from a plane in Libya to cheering crowds didn’t help the situation. In fact, I’m not sure the controversy would exist were it not for the fact that he received such a jubilant reception.

Here’s my take on it -- I think releasing him was the right thing to do. It showed mercy and compassion, which is ideally a strength of our Western societies and humanity as a whole. Turning away from anger and the urge for revenge, and toward compassion and kindness, is the solution that most religious leaders would endorse and that I think serves as a sound model for justice. That’s not to say there should be no punishment, but we should be able to acknowledge when punishment has been served and circumstances require a new course of action.

Where everything went wrong was in Libya’s reception of the bomber. The Libyan government should have ushered him into the country quietly, without fanfare. The fact that he got a hero’s welcome reminds us that we must continue to explore the reasons that some in the Arab world maintain such anger toward the West. We will never overcome that hatred until we understand it and learn to address it in a productive way.

(Photo: Shadows on the old Casino, Asbury Park, N.J., Aug. 2009)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Figs and Aliens


Have you seen "District 9" yet? It's a terrific movie -- definitely not for the faint-hearted, because it contains some bloody violence, but well-made and relevant. Dave and I went yesterday without knowing a thing about the plot, and we were stunned. We couldn't stop talking about it.

Briefly -- and I won't give too much away -- it's about aliens who come to earth near Johannesburg, and then can't leave. They're housed in their own district in the city, and become subject to discrimination and disenfranchisement -- drawing interesting parallels with South Africa's real political history. The film explores the interaction between the aliens and humans, and the ways they treat each other and come to identify with each other -- or not.

I had a good weekend. I spent Friday and Saturday here in the city, going to the gym, cleaning the apartment and hanging out with the cat. Then I took the train to New Jersey and Dave and I cooked dinner on Saturday. I made this fig recipe from my blog pal Barbara, and enjoyed it -- we served it as a side dish, but Dave wondered what it would be like with a protein (meat? chicken? tofu?), which is an interesting idea.

Our friend Adam came over and we spent the evening with him, watching "Project Runway," which I'd never seen before. It was pretty fun, I have to admit. Watching TV with Dave is giving me a cultural education -- I know more about the Food Network now than I ever thought I would!

I finally finished "Guns, Germs and Steel." I wouldn't say I loved it. I thought it was long and repetitive, though some of the ideas are interesting. For example, the author asserts that dominant civilizations arose in Europe not because Europeans were smarter or more innovative, but because they had better resources at their disposal -- nutritious varieties of native food crops, easily domesticated animals. That, in turn, was due partly to the positioning of the Eurasian continent, on an east-west axis where crops were more easily shared among societies than on north-south continents with many different climatic zones. It definitely provided some food for thought, but I'm glad to be done with it!

(Photo: Cyclops smiley face in Asbury Park, N.J., August 2009)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Gin in Asbury Park


I spent a wonderful afternoon with Dave on Thursday in Asbury Park, where we later met my friend Mark for dinner. Asbury Park, you may remember, is a somewhat faded but resurgent tourist town on the Jersey Shore, and Mark lives nearby.


Dave and I drove down that afternoon (I actually drove -- a rarity for this New York City boy!) and parked near the beach. Mark gave us some ideas about places to check out, so we walked along Cookman Avenue, which is lined with quaint little stores. I bought Ernie and Ruby some dog biscuits at a shop called “Asbury Bark” (how cute is THAT?) and we found some funky little antique stores full of everything from modernist furniture to feather boas. We also explored the adjacent community of Ocean Grove, which is bursting with quaint, colorful gingerbread and Victorian architecture. We walked back along the boardwalk, where kids were playing in fountains near the great looming skeleton of the old Asbury Park Casino.

We’d agreed to meet Mark for a drink before dinner, so we went to a bar near the beach. I was starving and we’d been walking in the sun for a while, but nonetheless, I ordered a martini. Dave quite sensibly ordered wine. Mark arrived, we talked some more, and eventually got another round -- which meant a second martini for me. On an empty stomach.

I’m sure you can see where this is going, and trust me, it wasn’t pretty. We eventually had to leave dinner early so I could just get home and into bed. (I did not drive back!)


I woke up this morning feeling fine, though embarrassed and self-critical. (“What kind of a lazy pathetic Buddhist am I? How mindful was that, for Pete’s sake?”) Eventually I tempered the self-criticism with the recognition that I’m a human being, and sometimes I screw up. C’est la vie.

But as you know, I've had these conversations with myself before, always prompted by a cocktail or two. So I am making a solemn vow: No more hard liquor. I was never much of a drinker, but as I get older I just can’t tolerate that stuff anymore. From now on, I’m sticking to beer or wine.

Aside from that little mishap, it was a great day!

(Top: The Asbury Park Casino, from inside. Middle: A shop on Cookman Avenue. Bottom: The Casino, from the outside on the boardwalk.)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Vacation Week


I don't have anything particularly cohesive to say today -- just some scattered stuff about my week. I'm still on vacation in New Jersey.

I mentioned going on my graffiti safari in Newark a couple of days ago. Well, I stopped off in Harrison, N.J., on Tuesday on a second graffiti run. This was yet another area where I saw lots of great pieces from the train and decided I had to shoot them up close. So I got off the PATH train, and went skulking around near the station with my camera. At one point, I think someone called the cops on me! But I got lots of good shots, which I'll be posting on Flickr.

The photo above I took at the rooftop bar of the Hudson Hotel a couple of nights ago, when Dave and I went there with Kellee. The sun was setting and the sky was a dusky blue, and this tree was lit from beneath very dramatically. Plus I'd had a gin & tonic, so it looked even MORE dramatic to me!

Today I went to the New York Sports Club gym in New Brunswick, which was a first for me -- it's swanky and clean and suburban, and I kind of missed my grubby city gym with weights all over the floor, I must admit. But it's nice to have a gym so close by that I can get into with my city membership.

I spent the afternoon reading "Guns, Germs and Steel," which I'm about halfway through. Dave and I drove over to Princeton tonight for dinner -- we found a cute wine bar and I had pizza with fig paste, mozzarella and scallions. Terrific!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tinkering


My brother wrote a post on his blog recently about how much he enjoyed hanging out in our grandfather’s garage, among its coffee cans full of washers and myriad odds and ends. Grandfather was indeed a tinkerer, as my brother says -- he was a ham radio operator and engineer who also fixed things around the house in bizarrely creative ways. He died in 1977, but his home repairs were evident for years afterwards.

I liked hanging out in my grandparent’s house, too. But unlike my brother, I never took to the garage. All those oily parts just didn’t do anything for me. I preferred the basement, with its nooks and crannies containing household items, and my grandmother’s kitchen and upstairs bedrooms, which were packed with old, collectible china and glass, as well as books and intriguing family documents.

(I retrieved my Roseville vases, which I showed off in this post, from beneath the stairs in my grandmother’s basement.)


My grandparents were frugal Presbyterians, and they saved everything. When my grandmother died, one of her kitchen drawers contained a rubber-banded collection of plastic spoons from Tastee-Freeze, which I guess she thought might someday be useful. She saved bread bags, too. People often ridicule this kind of hoarding, but I find it admirable.

My brother mentions his own hatred for waste, and I have the same tendency. I don’t save bread bags, but I am scrupulously careful to eat all my food and not to throw away what could reasonably be used again. I donate everything to charity, knowing full well that some of what I give them might ultimately get tossed -- I suspect charity shops are groaning under an oversupply of khaki pants -- but I want to give such items a chance at being reused or recycled.

This is one area where I differ from my brother. He admits he’s something of a pack rat, and that’s fueled by his hatred of waste. I, on the other hand, give things away in the hopes that others can and will use them -- but I don’t feel the need to keep them myself. If others throw them away, well, I can’t help it. I did my part!

(Photos: Elizabeth, N.J., August 2009)

Sapien, Drafter and Genocide


Today I came back to New York from Dave's, to spend time with the cat and prepare for a doctor's appointment in the morning. I'm on vacation this week, but because I'm an idiot, I managed to schedule the doc during my time off. Good thing I'm not going anywhere, I guess!

Anyway, on the way back from New Brunswick, I got off the train in Elizabeth, N.J., because I'd seen some good graffiti in that area and I wanted to try to shoot it. I walked the streets near the railroad tracks from Elizabeth into Newark, and I found lots of interesting stuff. It was in the low 90's today, so I got bloody hot, and I had to go through big holes in a few fences to get the good stuff. But I managed!


Afterwards I stopped into a Popeye's Fried Chicken and had a large iced tea, and then a second large iced tea. When I say tea I use the term loosely -- high fructose corn syrup would be more like it. But it was the best tea I ever drank!

This Popeye's was in Newark, and I saw something there I've never seen before: fast food cashiers behind bullet-proof glass. Interesting.


Anyway, here's some of the graffiti I wanted to shoot. I've been seeing these three boxcar-sized pieces for weeks from the train, so it was nice to get them up close!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Recovery


I'm spending Sunday morning at Dave's, recovering from a dinner party we had last night for Dave's friend Kellee, who's visiting from Michigan. Our friends Adam and Stephanie came too, and the kitchen was a whirlwind of gourmet activity -- gazpacho to start, chicken paillard, celery root gratin, and chocolate mousse for dessert. I made my special broccoli rabe side dish, which seemed to go over well, though it needed some salt.

The chicken paillard no doubt annoyed the neighbors -- it involved pounding chicken with the back of a frying pan. I'm sure they thought we were building a new wall in the apartment!

Just taking it easy today. I'm not sure whether I'm going back to the city today or tomorrow. (Again, my compelling reason to get back is the cat.) I have this coming week off from work, which is a GREAT feeling, and I'll be spending it partly in "Joisey" and partly in the Big Apple.

(Photo: Fluffy's Laundromat, Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, March 2009)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Humanities


There's an excellent article in this month's Harper's magazine about the approach we take to education in our society. It questions the emphasis we place on math and science at the expense of the humanities, and asserts that this emphasis stems from the misguided belief that education exists primarily to train people for jobs.

It questions the way our educational institutions bring in people from the business world to help direct educational policy. Thinking of education merely as job training impoverishes us, and measuring our successes solely by economic output, the money we make and national productivity is limiting and even dangerous.

"In our time, orthodoxy is economic. Popular culture fetishizes it, our entertainments salaam to it (how many millions for sinking that putt, accepting that trade?), our artists are ranked and revered for it. There is no institution wholly apart. Everything submits; everything must, sooner or later, pay fealty to the market; thus cost-benefit analyses on raising children, on cancer medications, on clean water, on the survival of species, including -- in the last analysis -- our own."

The author, Mark Slouka, points out that Democracy and the richness of our humanity stem from subjects other than science and math. Not only that, but all the "danger," the areas in which we push the boundaries of society, is in the humanities.

"By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we're well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe."

And later:

"The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be."

This article struck home for me for several reasons. When I was in college, I remember my fellow students making decisions about what to study based solely on job prospects. Majors in business, accounting, marketing and other similar fields abounded, while it was a rare student who chose philosophy or music. It seemed a bleak way to make decisions about one's future. (In fact, when I chose to study mass communications, some of my friends made fun of me for picking a study course that would never lead to a very substantial salary.)

The fact that my boyfriend is a music teacher adds a dimension to my appreciation of this issue. As Slouka said:

"To put it simply, science addresses the outer world; the humanities, the inner one. Science explains how the material world is now for all men; the humanities, in their indirect, slippery way, offer the raw materials from which the individual constructs a self -- a self distinct from others. The sciences, to push the point a bit, produce people who study things, and who can therefore, presumably, make or fix or improve those things. The humanities don't."

(Photo: Columbus Circle, August 2009)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Represent Egghead


A few random notes:

-- My friend Reya pointed out a Web site that will create an anagram of your name. When I entered my full name, Stephen Gager Reed, it came up with "REPRESENT EGGHEAD" -- which is more brilliant than you could ever imagine, given that one of my childhood nicknames was "Egghead." (Not a particularly complimentary nickname, but hey, I own it.)

-- I saw "Moon" last night, a movie starring Sam Rockwell about an astronaut living by himself on a mining colony on the lunar surface. It was good and well produced, with excellent effects depicting the bleakness of an industrial facility on the moon, but it was emotionally pretty dark. Definitely not a happy film.

-- Went to dinner last night with my friend David at an Italian place, where I had seared tuna with broccoli rabe. Broccoli rabe is probably my favorite vegetable, and it's sadly underappreciated.

-- Ran into Stuart again on the sidewalk as I was walking to the movie. It's so funny that I would see him that way just a day after having lunch with him (see previous entry), and after having not seen him in months. The world is so strange sometimes, isn't it?

-- Meeting up with my Dave and his friend Kellee today for some fun in the city. We may try to have lunch, and we'll definitely get together tonight. Then it's off to Jersey for the weekend!

(Photo: Evening on Ninth Avenue, August 2009)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

No Opinion


I just finished a long, impassioned entry about Obama and health care reform…and then decided not to post it. It drives me crazy that I can’t write about political subjects here without endangering my job, but such is the life of a journalist. Suffice to say that I have very strong opinions, but you’ll never get them out of me in writing.

Dave said the other day he thought I should be more opinionated in my blog -- that it would gain me more readers. I know I probably come across pretty blandly, but I just can’t be opinionated about matters of public policy. And I don’t want to be too snarky, because I think snarkiness hurts people.

So, gee…what about this weather?

I’m going to New Jersey tonight to hang out with Dave and his friend Kellee, who’s visiting from Michigan. And I had lunch today with my friend Stuart -- of the Sag Harbor house. I hadn’t seen him in months, so it was nice to catch up.

(Photo: Trash day in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, March 2009)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Summer


I went outside yesterday afternoon and finally experienced the hot, bright intensity of summer. Here in New York we've had a very damp, cool season so far -- but that ended yesterday, when we finally broke 90 degrees in Central Park. I'd forgotten what it's like to be outside under that white, relentless sun. I was glad to get inside again!

I had to go out for a doctor's appointment -- I'm seeing a gastroenterologist partly because of my recurrent gastritis. We're going to do a few tests over the coming month to make sure nothing is seriously amiss. My nightmare is that he's going to ask me to give up coffee or alcohol -- or both!

(Photo: Bedroom chair, August 2009)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Surreal Saturday, and Julia too


So here's a brief summary of our Surreal Saturday: Dave and I got an 80-minute massage in the early afternoon, and then -- perhaps slightly woozy from over-relaxation -- set out for a pool party at a friend's house in Pennsylvania. We drove and talked, talked and drove, and only after a considerable distance realized the trip was taking far too long. Consulting a map brought us to the horrible realization that we were on the wrong road entirely, and were south of Camden, New Jersey, which was considerably out of our way.

So we pulled over and made a brief detour through beautiful scenic Camden, which wasn't nearly as fearsome as I thought it might be, and took the Ben Franklin Bridge into downtown Philadelphia to head back north again. Then we realized we were almost out of gas, so we pulled over in north Philly and began cruising side streets for a gas station. We asked directions from some guys hoisting car parts in the street, and eventually made our way to the only readily visible gas station for miles around, where we became victims of what I'm told is a common Philly scam -- a man unaffiliated with the gas station pumps your gas and then demands a tip. (We didn't completely become victims, because I refused to tip him.) We were also assailed by a tattooed, narcotized woman -- wearing Daisy Dukes and a rhinestone choker that said "sexy" -- who wanted $5 to fill her tank. (I would have given it to her if I'd had change.)

Finally we made it to the party, which mostly entailed eating Dave's wonderfully light grilled salmon dinner and drinking lots of wine. (I did swim briefly, but that pool was DARN cold.) Late that night Dave and I headed back home again and stopped at a Wawa, which is sort of a fancy 7-Eleven, to get some ice cream. We grabbed some pints of Ben & Jerry's, went to the cash register and had a hilarious exchange in line with a girl who claimed to be a beauty pageant contestant. She showed us a photo of her dress -- an amputated black prom gown with rhinestone trim. Dave gave her extensive fashion advice, but speculated afterward that her lazy eye might detract from her overall score.

We came home and ate our pints of ice cream, and I confess I felt a little guilty about it -- it's been ages since I've just snarfed down a pint of Ben & Jerry's in front of the television. (But it was great!)

Then, today, Dave and I went to see "Julie and Julia," the new movie about Julia Child and a blogger who cooked her way through Julia's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." It was a terrific movie. I came away with a powerful message about couples and the ways they can support and inspire each other. Of course, part of that feeling came from seeing it with Dave. I saw so much of what I feel for him in the way the couples in the movie interacted. I also appreciated the way Julia Child loved good food, and it made me realize I was silly to feel guilty about a pint of ice cream -- why not eat ice cream, for Pete's sake? Meryl Streep does an amazing job as Julia, and I identified with Julie's compulsion for blogging, so I didn't feel -- as some have said -- that the modern storyline detracted from the Julia Child biography.

I also bought a copy of "Will You Take Me as I Am," Michelle Mercer's book about Joni Mitchell's "Blue" period, when she wrote what is surely one of the best albums ever recorded. I can't wait to read it!

(Photo: Graffiti by Tri, New Brunswick, N.J., August 2009)

Friday, August 7, 2009

John Hughes


Hearing about the surprising death of John Hughes, the director responsible for many of the so-called “Brat Pack” films of the 1980s, made me think specifically of “The Breakfast Club.” I’ve mentioned my affinity for that movie before -- it was a real coming-of-age tale for people in my generation, and I remember taking everyone I knew to see it in the theater. I think I saw it at least ten times.

The presence of Emilio Estevez in his blue tank top was 98 percent responsible for the movie’s appeal, as far as I was concerned -- but I also liked Molly Ringwald’s precise princess and Ally Sheedy’s deranged loner. By the end of the movie, they all felt like friends. Having just come out of high school myself, I was still sensitive to the class structure and social barriers of that world, and I loved the idea that they were essentially false -- that everyone shared the same insecurities underneath.

(And yet the movie respected those barriers -- the saddest moment comes when the students realize they’ll all fall back into their social strata when school resumes on Monday.)

Hughes’s other earlier movies were all landmarks for people my age: the brilliant “Sixteen Candles,” which I don’t think I saw in the theater; “Pretty in Pink”; “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

But then Hughes started making a bunch of movies that I never even bothered to see. I didn’t appreciate John Candy as a comedian, so I skipped “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” and let’s not even mention “Curly Sue.” Maybe it’s because I was getting older by then and his style of comedy didn’t appeal to me as much.

Last night I tried to watch “The Breakfast Club” via streaming video on Netflix, which I’ve never done before. Turns out my system won’t support the player, and they don’t stream that particular movie anyway. But I was in an ‘80s mindset, so I watched my favorite episodes of “Miami Vice” on Hulu instead.

(Photo: Frog in a puddle beside the train tracks in Edison, N.J., August 2009)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

All the Lonely People


The story of George Sodini, the gunman in the Pittsburgh gym shooting that killed three women and injured nine more, is really a story about the sickness of our society.

I suppose there have always been loners, even back in the days of the Neanderthals. But Sodini clearly didn’t want to be a loner. He longed to connect to people, specifically women. He just didn’t know how.

“A man needs a woman for confidence,” he wrote. “He gets a boost on the job, career, with other men, and everywhere else when he knows inside he has someone to spend the night with and who is also a friend.”

What a heart-wrenching sentence! Sodini was 48, and by his own admission hadn't had a girlfriend since 1984. I imagine him passing the years, knowing he was getting older, his prime slipping away with his potential for marriage or fatherhood.

I don’t mean to excuse what he did. Lots of people are lonely, and they don't go on shooting sprees. By all accounts Sodini planned his crime over a period of months -- time he could have better spent learning how to socialize, or at least seeing a therapist.

But I can’t help but be touched by the depth of his loneliness. How does someone who apparently looked reasonably normal, owned a home and held a professional job become so alienated, so lost? Where was his family?

His neighbor said he was friendly but largely kept to himself. I suspect he was scared of socializing, crippled by his own insecurities. Clearly the desire was there.

This is what I mean by the sickness of our society -- how can someone live in such isolation? Why didn’t George Sodini have some kind of support network?

The Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby” comes to mind:

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?


(Photo: Edison, New Jersey, August 2009)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Plans vs. Reality


I’m in an unusual position at work this year -- I have more vacation time than ever, and no plans for a vacation!

Until yesterday, I had a couple of potential trips on the horizon. Dave and I talked recently about going down to Cape May, N.J., for a couple of days, and my mom and I talked about flying out to San Francisco and the northwest for a couple of weeks.

I’ve always wanted to check out Cape May, a town known for its ornate Victorian architecture and birding at the mouth of the Delaware River in southern New Jersey. But Dave has the dogs, and we have a very tight window of time to make a trip before school starts and he begins teaching. By the time I got on the phone yesterday to find some accommodations, none could be had -- at least, none that would allow two dogs. So we’re postponing Cape May.

Then I called my mom last night, and she expressed doubts about going to San Francisco. She thinks it's too far and she doesn’t have much time -- she and I both need to work around several obstacles in September and October. So it looks like San Fran is kaput too.

Now my plan is to spend my week off in August here in New York, and in New Jersey with Dave. We’ll make some day trips and keep things simple.

Then, later this year, I’ll go down to Florida again and maybe my mom and I can make some local road trips there. I also might go to D.C. and visit friends. And I’m going to a convention in Montreal in September, so at least I'll get to visit someplace new.

Plans are what we make, while life is what happens -- right?

(Photo: Giants stadium, East Rutherford, N.J., August 2009)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Nothing Special on Tuesday


I finally got back to the Zendo last night, which felt a bit like coming home after a long absence. Even though many people are at our upstate retreat at this time of year, and much of our equipment is there as well, the space feels just as soothing as ever.

I hadn’t been to the Zendo for about two months, and the last few weeks have been particularly intense, so I really needed to sit. It was nice to just rest my mind and watch the world go by in each breath. I also served as the jikido, or timekeeper, and it was encouraging to see that my skills on the bells and han haven’t slipped! (Kinda like riding a bicycle, I guess.)

Other than that, looks like it’s going to be just another week on E. 29th Street. I’m still plowing my way through DVDs of “Arrested Development,” which is a hoot, and I’ve just started reading Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” and it’s already fascinating. Armenia is doing well despite my frequent absences in New Jersey -- she’s lying on my stomach now, purring.

One unfortunate note: My garlic died. I think the soil where I planted it was too wet. It rotted before it could really grow. I went out to check on it one day and it was like a horror movie, surrounded by black worms. Aack!

(Photo: Commuter train to New Jersey, July 2009)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Drum Corps


I was introduced to a new art form last night when I went to a competition sponsored by Drum Corps International at Giants Stadium. It's kind of like watching a series of stadium half-time shows on steroids, and I don't mean that in a bad way. The bands participating are incredibly well trained and outfitted, and have perfect timing and movement, with elaborate flag-waving-and-throwing groups known as Color Guards. It was spectacular!

It seemed from my untrained perspective to be a uniquely American art form -- a combination of ballet, Broadway stage spectaculars and athletics. So many people think of marching bands merely as support for the football team, and this showed what bands can do on their own, propelled by nothing more than a desire for excellence in music and showmanship.

It was also interesting that the Color Guard groups work with artificial rifles and sabers, twirling them like batons and throwing them high in the air. I guess this is an outgrowth of the military traditions behind marching bands, and to me it's kind of funny that they're throwing around fake guns -- but Dave said he doesn't even really think of them as guns anymore, but as their own unique props in the show.

Anyway, it was a really terrific evening. I had a great time, and it's yet another example of how Dave and I are showing each other things that we wouldn't have experienced otherwise.

(Photo: Bushwick, Brooklyn, May 2009)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Fireflies


There's a huge open field behind Dave's apartment complex, with rich green grass and scattered fruit trees. It looks like it may have been an old orchard at some point, or maybe it's just a neighborhood park. Neither of us can figure out who owns it, but no one seems to mind when we walk the dogs there.

Last night, as dusk was falling, we took Ernie and Ruby out to the field. There were fireflies everywhere, hovering just over the grass, flashing on and off. It was like someone was holding a huge sparkler over the field, letting the sparks shower down. Even after Dave and Ernie and Ruby turned around to go inside, I crouched down to watch the fireflies skim the surface of the damp grass.

I can understand how the English concocted tales of fairies and other nymph-like creatures in the Victorian era, when such tales were popular. It was easy to believe something mystical was going on in that field. Nature is amazing!

(Photo: Angel in New Brunswick, New Jersey, July 2009)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Night Out


I met up with my friend Dan on Thursday for an after-work drink. We went to Splash, a popular gay bar and dance club in Chelsea with a pretty lively happy hour. And, imagine, our after-work drink turned into a crazy night of dancing. We were out until midnight, with no dinner, grooving on the dance floor! (Do people still groove, or am I showing my age?)

I had a ball! I haven't been dancing for years, and yesterday morning after I got to work my legs were aching something terrible. Apparently Stairmaster does not fully prepare the muscles for dance-floor grooving, because they didn't know what hit them.

I'm back in East Brunswick this weekend -- Dave and I took the dogs over to our bagel place this morning and now we're off to find some street art downtown!

(Photo: Bushwick, Brooklyn, May 2009.)