Archive for March, 2009

My Kind Of Town

March 27, 2009


  Next time you stay overnight in Chicago and get up for your morning run, make sure to go south along the lake a bit, past the Shedd Aquarium, and then east out the Solidarity Drive peninsula to the Adler Planetarium.  Then turn around and look back. 

  You will see why the Economist called it “…architecturally the most interesting city in America”.  And a better point of vantage could not be had.  If done just as I described you’ll already be on an endorphin high and with your first look, your breath will be taken away as it was just after first hearing the major movement of some great piece of music.  You will agree with (Chicagoan) Frank Lloyd Wright that “architecture is nothing more than frozen music”.

  With each repeat of this experience, I get the feeling that the final reverberation ended just the second before I turned.  Instruments are at rest.  Orchestra standing about to bow.  Remember – this is far removed from the sounds of the city.  In the early AM there is near silence out there.

  When I noticed a nearby statue I figured it must be of a great composer, seated, listening to a performance of his finest work.  Upon closer inspection however, it turned out to be of Copernicus which in a sense is just as appropriate.

  Chicago’s architecture would not be nearly so moving and dramatic had it not been for the great fire of 1871 which burned a wide swath to the ground.  From the ashes arose what is there now there to be seen.  A big bang of sorts.  It thus makes sense to have that important early cosmologist looking upon what hath been wrought.

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  It is especially fulfilling to consider this particular measure of the built environment as of a whole rather than of its pieces.  It is a nearly perfect oeuvre of quite large scale and, in comforting contrast to the terror and turmoil about these days, shows what can be achieved through harmonious collaboration. 

  Iris Murdoch wrote: “Good art, whatever its style, has qualities of hardness, firmness, realism, clarity, detachment, justice, truth.  It is the work of a free, unfettered, uncorrupted imagination.  Whereas bad art is the soft, messy self-indulgent work of an enslaved fantasy.  Pornography is at one end of that scale, great art at the other end.”*   Hardness, firmness, realism; doesn’t that sound like Chicago?

  It is incredible to learn that the city was built upon a swamp; that its name relates to the onions found therein by Native Americans; and that the land from Michigan Avenue to the lake was reclaimed and filled with the conflagration’s remains;

  As Carl Sandburg wrote in his Chicago Poems:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning


By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars
and has a soul

  My kind of town.


Could It Have Been Her Perfume?

March 20, 2009

  Most don’t realize it, but there is more involved with a rich experience of a perfume than simple inhalation.  If you rush it or force it, all is lost.  In fact, it is best not to inhale at all.  To maximize the olfactory uptake, especially of a really fine subtle sent, you let it flow through your nostrils of its own accord.  Allow it to linger.  Then maybe draw in more very gently and slowly.  While keeping an eye on she off whom it floated.

  The very old part of your brain that manages the sense of smell will conjure something up for you to combine with the view.  Unfortunately the process often ends up feeling like inhaling screen or something out of Bosch. Get what you pay for, tart. 

  But sometimes when my wife walks past I’m left in a special sort of ethereal reverie.  An unexpected existential elevation – transitory to be sure, but all the more effective for the fact.  Oh yaaa.  Wow!  That’s who she is…

  One’s sense of smell can be  incredibly generative.  The briefest waft can catalyze memories by the torrent.  I remember once when my kids were very young I picked up a crayon and smelled it.  A hallucination ensued of me in my youth with coloring books and my brothers at our kitchen table.  Proust began his novel In Search Of Lost Time with the protagonist sniffing a small French cake called a Madeline which act brought forth such cerebration that seven volumes were required to get to the denouement.

  Remember in Silence of the Lambs when Lecter first meets Clarice and says: “You use Evyan cream and sometimes you wear L’Air du Temps, but not today…”?  It was a crucial part of the flic for a variety of reasons.  We already knew that he was a beast, but then in that dungeon we learn that he was cultured and preternaturally discerning.

  The choice of that particular scent was prescient. The name translates as “the air of the time” or zeitgeist in other words.  The film went on to win five Academy Awards and could thus be said to have been at the leading edge of consciousness back then in the early nineties. 

  What in Lord’s name does that say about us?  That millions around the world would pay good money (and still do) to watch a horrible cannibalistic psychopath?  Does it numb or sensitize?  It’s interesting to juxtapose Dr. Lecter and Hanna Schmitz (cf March 6 below).  Few would find Lecter banal.  Should that be reassuring in some way?

  In the end, after his gruesome escape when he called Clarice from calm repose, how was it that his feelings toward her would have him say: “I have no plans to call on you, Clarice, the world being more interesting with you in it”?

  Could it have been her perfume?


March 13, 2009


         mid-light                                        retro-bustier1

  Hi girls!  Well, I said I’d get to fashion tips one day…  Such a steady and deep stream of women’s clothing catalogues flows through our mailbox that it would be impossible for me not to have honed a related set of skills.  Read what follows, but don’t tell your mother what I’m up to.  I’m pretty sure that she wouldn’t be interested.  Your brother will understand.

  The girl on the right (Victoria’s Secret – ‘Beach Sexy’ Collection) is real nice, I’m sure.  And I too would do just about anything within reason for the bucket of shekels she probably takes away for her efforts.  Nonetheless, she looks like something you’d see in a window in Amsterdam.  Why else would the company sell their undergarments in multiples?  The only point that comes across has to do with something one is born knowing how to do even if it does take some number of years to rev up.

  The girl on the left (Patagonia Spring 2009) is nearly atop the most famous boulder problem in the whole world.  It’s called Midnight Lightening and is in Yosemite National Park.  It was attempted many times when I was hanging out in the Valley, but was not climbed until the year after my last serious visit (1978).  Once she presses up, she will be past the crux of the extremely difficult (5.13b) forty foot route.  Gently holding both lips between her teeth (opposite of the pout on right) and not setting her jaw, she makes it look easy.

  That photo and shots like it in other catalogues and depicting other sports make me remember stuff like: the fact that your mother could throw the softball farther than I could in grade school and still is a much better skier; the girls state tennis tournaments; the Big 10 Women’s Soccer Tournament; climbing with you; and climbing in Yosemite myself.  

  Only after all that does it dawn on me that the girl is cute.  Uh, for her age.  And realize that since she’s obviously not a hack (to the contrary, world class) she must be particular about the quality of her gear.  It has to be comfortable and move with her.  She’s not getting paid so it’s gotta last.

  The cover of the Title Nine catalogue sitting on the kitchen table just now has an attractive woman in a bathing suit holding her surfboard and young son.  Thus we can see that she was able to convey a thought similar to that on the mind the young lady above right without, well, having to resort to skankitude.

  Finally, in the spring Athleta catalogue there are some attractive running outfits.  The caption for one reads: “Turn Every One of Your Runs INTO A SPECTATOR SPORT”.  The getup looks great and is not risqué, but that intent compels me to advise you to take care.

  You know that I never wear a shirt if it is anywhere near warm enough and certainly wouldn’t begrudge women any opportunity for ventilation and vitamin D.  Furthermore, I won’t ask you to consider a habit or burqua.   However, in the case of clothing, less is not necessarily more*.  Unless you’re chumming for sharks and ok with the ensuing mindless frenzy, remember that form should follow function*. 

* I paraphrased architects Mies van der Rohe and Louis Sullivan so that your brother wouldn’t feel left out of the discussion.

**Left photo by Rich Wheater:  Check out his site.

Can’t Read It Out Of A Book

March 6, 2009


  In the New Yorker Anthony Lane called the film version of The Reader “dramatic roughage”.  Rex Read, in an advert pull quote, used the phrase “one of the most uplifting films of the year”.  Wikipedia holds that the main theme has to do with how Germans have struggled to come to terms with the holocaust and what it did to postwar intergenerational tension. 

  That’s not what I got out of it. At all.  Or rather, I guess I buy the above, but was nearly overwhelmed by something else.

  For me it was a deeply troubling personification of Hannah Arendt’s observation that the perpetrators of the holocaust were in no way special.  She called it the “banality of evil”. In fact, by either deliberate allusion or fortuitous coincidence, the main protagonist’s name is Hanna(h).  Hanna Schmitz. Late in the book one even learns that Frau Schmitz became familiar with Arendt’s reportage of the Eichmann trial which led to the coining of that chilling phrase.

  Frau Schmitz was a simple person who could not read and was ashamed of that fact.  The shame led her to quit good jobs twice so as to avoid promotions and discovery.  The first led her to take work as a guard for the SS at a concentration camp.  The second to recall the first and leave her then current circumstance and the life of a young lover.

  From the moment we meet her (which in story sequence is 1958) Schmitz appears to be a joyless working woman.  Her apartment is quite spare and she works as a conductress on a streetcar.  The highly publicized eroticism of her chance encounter and subsequent affair with fifteen year old Michael Berg is diversionary. Years later the mature man, our narrator, looks back and realizes that she’d had a “seductiveness that had nothing to do with breasts and hips and legs, but was an invitation to forget the world in the recesses of her body”.

  The story takes its name from her perusal of literature by a variety of means for first, other attempts at escape, but later for insight. She becomes absorbed, as do we… 

  Several years after her disappearance, Michael learned that her (literary and then physical) departures were not from the workaday world but instead from the memory of her complicity in the deaths of 300 innocents in the camps.  There could though be no real escape.  “…escape involves not just running away, but arriving somewhere”.

  During her trial we watch as she, lone among her group of defendants,  subconsciously struggles to understand why she did not unlock the doors of a burning church in which women and girls were penned.  She had been instructed to keep order and that was what she had done.  It had been her job.  “What would you have done?” she asks the judge who did not respond.  For himself or us.

  One can only say what one thinks one would have done in a hypothetical situation.  It is easy to be heroic from several points of remove.  Look only to Cambodia and Rwanda and Srebrenitca for subsequent episodes of horror in which multitudes of common people chose not to break rank. 

  Just before her scheduled release from prison, Schmitz tells Michael that “no one understood me…and when no one understands you then no one can call you to account… Not even the court…But the dead can. They understand.  Here in prison they were with me a lot.  They came every night, whether I wanted them or not.  Before the trial I could still chase them away when they wanted to come.”

  By that time she had taught herself to read and as indicated above had read the likes of Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Arendt.  She learned that the dead were many more than 300 and decided that if they understood she would join them to finally thus enable her own understanding.  She hanged herself. 

  Only the film could be called uplifting and then only in the narrowest of senses.  At the end of the movie (not the book) Michael begins to attempt to remove some of the distance between his daughter and himself by taking her to Hanna Schmitz’ grave and initiating a cathartic dialogue.

  So, for his daughter there could perhaps be some measure of understanding.  But not for us.  It has happened again.  And again.  And again.