Archive for November, 2008

Very, Very, Very Fine House

November 28, 2008
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Our house, is a very, very, very fine house
With two cats in the yard
Life used to be so hard,
Now everything is easy ’cause of you. 

      Graham Nash wrote “Our House” in 1969 when Sally and I were in high school dating (though she in Massachusetts and I in Iowa).  While certainly a CSN fan, I was not particularly fond of that song. It thus came as quite a surprise when its lyrics began to run through my mind some thirty-five years later.

      We were on Cape Cod in an isolated one-room shack that was perched upon a sand dune.  It looked as in and out of place as a piece of driftwood – one that had been part of a tree, gone through the hands of man, and back to those of nature over the course of many many years.

      While not exactly alone, it was hundreds of yards from its closest neighbor, which was similarly bereft of electricity or running water.

      My wife was one of several, out of hundreds of artist applicants, to have an opportunity to live in the cabin for two weeks alone (or almost) with their thoughts and work.  I was only able to visit for three days, but even so they were several of the best of my life.

      The shacks were originally built in the 1800s to serve as life saving stations offering aid to the victims of shipwrecks just off the coast.  Thousands have occurred since the Mayflower first furled her sails nearby.  They fell into disuse after 1914 with the construction of a strategic canal that obviated the dangerous passage.

      The then empty gray boxes were discovered by those who had already made nearby Provincetown a dynamic and vibrant artists community.  Maybe America’s first.  Thoreau spent time there.  Eugene O’Neil was living in one when he learned of his first Pulitzer Prize.  Kurt Vonnegut wrote Player Piano there. Norman Mailer had a place.  Painters such as Hans Hoffman, Mark Rothko, and Helen Frankenthaler have lived and worked in these parts.

      Jackson Pollack visited the area several times and apparently had even stayed in the shack in which we found ourselves. He was thereabouts heard to have said that “he fucked Mrs Benton” (Mrs Thomas Hart…) which episode though must have taken place in town – not in the shack.  It’s too far from anywhere for an illicit tryst.  Not the place for a quickie.  Wrong juju.

      The hike in sets the tone emotionally and otherwise.  You park your car just outside of Ptown at the intersection of Snail Road and US Highway 6, pack your things and enter a natural archway through a thick wood. 

The trees end suddenly though, leaving one to face the steep slope of a fifty-foot sand dune.  A one-hour trudge up down over and across hot sand leads to the north coast. The two steps forward and one back routine make it much tougher going than most mountain trails. 

      And a horse of a different color at night.  Once, after a wild time in Ptown we made it back to a quiet fogbound trailhead at 10:00 PM.  We nonchalantly chattered about the evening for an hour or so until we realized that we’d lost our way.  Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, I always carry a compass and with a few course corrections soon found ourselves home.

      Upon awakening the first morning there, I turned slightly to look through the screen door to watch Sally on the deck intent upon her clay.  The ocean rolled in the distance and fishing vessels bobbed about.  She hadn’t always worn glasses, but looked great in them.  Her long honed mode of concentration was at its peak. 

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      Other mornings were similar.  After watching her work a bit, I’d make a pot of filtered coffee, we’d eat a bit of breakfast, and then walk on the beach.  Sometimes for hours without seeing another soul.  Only twenty miles from Boston and the whole eastern seaboard! 

     We were lucky though.  During most of the year vehicular traffic is apparently allowed on the shore, but through the course of our sojourn the endangered piping plovers were breeding.  The National Park Service makes certain that their relationships are allowed to flower.

      Ya, during our walks over those few days we did talk about our kids, folks, work, world events, etc, but they somehow seemed far away and ok.  Life used to be so hard.

      Upon conclusion of our strolls we’d disrobe and swim.  Not an original thought. Thomas Hart Benton wrote in 1937 “once or twice I’ve seen a young Venus come naked out of the Martha’s Vineyard sea, but generally it’s something to make you wish you hadn’t lived so long.”  Well, I’m still aiming for 100.

      Then lunch, after which Sally would put in several more hours of work at her clay or watercolors.  I’d usually take a well-deserved nap.  Just before dinner we’d bathe in water we’d drawn from the well several hours before and allowed to warm in a galvanized tub out front.

      Once home – without her – the song continued to play in my head and I was somehow compelled to locate and read letters that Sally had written to me back in high school.  The nature of the relationship manifest therein was, well, syncopated, but the tone, the sparkle of their author was clearly recognizable and fresh.

      Déjà vu.

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November 21, 2008

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  I once had a wilderness experience in which I was all by my lonesome for four days.  It is amazing how thought patterns change in the absence of human interaction.  For me at least ‘monkey mind’ – jumping from one thought to the next haphazardly – disappears and is replaced with much longer cycle time.

  The days were filled with physical intensity and focus.  The nights were filled with stars and cerebration.  (“Stars, stars, stars!”  I wrote in my journal.*)  I can still recall the seeds of a cucumber sliding over my tongue down my parched throat and somehow making a connection between them and Orion’s belt.  I dunno.

  When I made it back to the Mirror Lake bus stop the only others there were a mother and young son.  Son looked at me and moved closer to his mother.  She looked at me and held him tightly.

  I said hello and hoped that they’d ask what I’d been up to so I could regale them with my tale of glory.  No response.  I suppose the Mom subscribed to a corollary of the theory I frequently repeat to my daughters: the only decent boy they’ll ever meet is their brother, myself included.

  Wife’s gone again and all this was running through my head last night.   Certainly, it is not the same at all just to be at home alone for several evenings in a row complete with any number of phone conversations.  But, still, one’s mind finds a different gear. 

  I agree with the French philosopher Pascal: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”  If one cannot be comfortable alone with one’s own thoughts, how can he/she possibly have honest interaction with another?

  Even a dog. Know how you can talk to someone and be thinking about something completely different? Staring into the eyes of mine last night it dawned on me that a dog, at least a smart one, knows if you’re day dreaming or not.  With a dog you must commit.  They wait for engagement.

  How’s that for deep thinking?

  I also agree with Donne that “No man is an island”, but one is unable to really deeply understand that without an experience of real solitude. 

*While looking back in my journal I saw that I had been wondering how I measured up to others my girlfriend/future wife had been dating.   I was pretty much of a bum at the time.  In retrospect it is funny to have been concerned.  The ones I saw were all weasels.

From The Heart

November 14, 2008

  The clip is the opening spectacular from the Bollywood flic Dil Se.  It neatly launches the story about an All-India radio reporter who becomes so infatuated with a mysterious and beautiful woman that he doesn’t realize that she’s a terrorist until it is too late.  Way too late.

  The film is dark, foreboding, and does not attempt to  convey optimism about the potential for peaceful coexistence between and among India’s many ethnic and religious groups.  The interwoven bits of romance lighten up the political part of the narrative in the same way that the fantasy of Tralfamadore does the story of the WWII firebombing of Dresden in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.

  Dil Se was controversial when it came out in 1998 because it had only been a few years since a female suicide bomber had taken the life of Rajiv Ghandi.  It failed at the box office in India.  Since then it has been shown at many international film festivals and has drawn praise and a following. 

  I’m sure you’ll agree that the video is incredible on many levels.  The music alone is wonderful and has become wildly popular around the world.  It was employed by Spike Lee – to provocative effect – on the soundtrack of his Inside Man. 

  The music combined with the position of its performance – atop a train moving through rugged topography – makes what could be a dream sequence for a lyrical thrill seeker as well a poetic look at love.

He whose head is in the shadow of love
will have heaven beneath his feet.
Whose head is in the shadow of love..
Walk in the shadow.
Walk in heaven, walk in the shadow. 

  Culturally, it brings several things to mind.  First, it would not seem odd or staged or maybe not even dangerous to Indians or people in much of the third world that passengers would be allowed to ride on the top of a train.  Makes one aware of the existence of a spectrum of personal responsibility with abdication on one (our) end and self reliance on the other.

  Secondly, it interesting to know that while Richard Gere was threatened with jail for kissing an Indian actress on the lips on stage at an AIDs awareness rally, it is apparently not there found unacceptably erotic that the dancer at the beginning of this movie initially lends her chest to the surrounding landscape and then sets her hips to swaying like, well, uh, if I went into the kitchen at home and my wife was moving thus I’d know what was on the menu.  And my silverware would be ready.

    

November 7, 2008

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  The two main types of Japanese garden design are almost perfectly complementary.  The first, “shakkei” or “borrowed scenery” involves the incorporation of distant scenery into the experience of the visit.  For example, shrubs may be trimmed and limbs of a maple tree pruned so that a distant mountain is perfectly framed.

  The other garden type, the courtyard, employs its elements – rocks, water, flowers, bushes, etc – to “create the illusion of more than can be seen”*.  Descendents of special gardens carefully arranged to enhance and facilitate tea ceremonies, the more modern urban courtyard gardens often include steppingstones, lanterns, and a ritual water basin in addition to raked gravel and greenery.

  In both cases nature is viewed as an ally – not something to be wrestled into submission.  All elements of each were (are) considered to be alive and importantly to remain alive.  They’d obviously change with the seasons and would impact the visitor differently with each turn.

  It may seem obvious (and should be obvious to an architect), but one of many formal techniques used to “borrow” scenery is called “capturing with window”.  It is far from the most subtle of methods, but effective nonetheless. 

  Once, in 16th century Japan the respected leader of early Edo culture Kobori Enshu criticized the garden of a powerful territorial lord for being cramped and confining.  Infuriated, the daimyo ordered an artificial hill removed and a window cut in the guesthouse to perfectly frame two mountains and a lakeshore.

  The small ravine behind our house can certainly not be said to have been cultivated exactly, but as you can see above the presence of the latter upon the former has been salubrious.  Especially during these few days of fall.

  The maple tree is on the west side of our house, just behind our second floor bedroom.  Was it not there, the tree’s leaves would bear the brunt of the full force of the sun every day.  The juxtaposition that does exist however serves to shield the leaves from most of the day’s direct sunlight.  Thus, once the photosynthetic pigments are drained for the season, those that remain are able to luxuriate.

  A fortuitous circumstance I’m sure all will agree.  At its peak, the quality of the light infuses one with an incredible spiritual tumescence.  As the days progress and familiarity is bred, the mind is led from one happy memory to another. School in New England, expansive western hillsides covered with Aspen, and oh ya, Maine just a couple weeks ago…

  “Although this house may lack solutions to a great many of its occupants’ ills, its rooms nevertheless give evidence of a happiness to which architecture has made its distinctive contribution.”  Alain de Botton  The Architecture of Happiness 

*Space and Illusion in the Japanese Garden by Teiji Itoh