Monday, July 31, 2006

Howard Bone, “Side Show”

Considering my recent obsession with all things “carnival”, this slim tome was a no-brainer purchase when I found it at Half-Priced Books. Weighing in at a scant 137 pages, it would have been a difficult sell at the cover price. Of course I sat down and read it front-to-back in a single sitting.

Bone was a multi-decade vet of the outdoor show circuit. He served as a ticket-taker, a talker, a magician and a fighter in the “athletic show”. His book is a product of a recovered manuscript that survived his own penchant for tearing up similar material. He relates some entertaining anecdotes about the carnies he worked with, the rubes he provoked, and the dangers he brushed up against while helping out animal handlers.

Bone describes some of the tricks he pulled as a performer in the sideshow. His trademark bit was “The Man Who Can’t Be Hung!” (Yes… I know this is not proper English, but this is how he tells it). For this spectacle, he began by choosing two strapping members of his audience, and had them each pull on one end of a rope that was looped around his neck. He gives a “shout-out” to the strength of the Pittsburgh steelworkers who he remembers as having pulled the hardest (Yay, team!). The trick commenced when he fell down and passed out, only to spring up a second later smiling. He admonishes us repeatedly not to try this, or any of his maneuvers, at home. But the rub is that there is no danger of that happening… Bone NEVER tells us how any of it was done. I guess he is just exercising professional courtesy, but it is frustrating. He’s constantly building his tip, but he never really lets us in the tent.

No sooner do we meet a particular character, or learn about an intriguing situation, and Bone is wrapping up his story abruptly and moving on to the next tantalizing tidbit. He seems to have difficulty letting any of us rubes into the real lifestyle of those who ply the carny trade. Some things are just not for outsiders. I might be more indulgent if I were sitting in front of Bone and “cutting up jackpots”. But hell, I paid my money for the damn book, and I want my just reward. He may be treating us to the “blow-off”, but it’s too obvious that we have been gaffed.

“Side Show” is not a total waste of time. If you haven’t read much literature about life on the road in a carnival, then this might be a proper introduction for you. It even comes with a proper glossary. You can read it on the “donniker” after you are done with your “Possum Belly Queen”. Just don’t assume that doing so is going to make you “with it”.

If you really want to the explore the carnival in depth, I recommend:

James Taylor & Kathleen Kutcher, James Taylor’s Shocked and Amazed: ON and Off the Midway

Peter Fenton, Eyeing the Flash: The Making of a Carnival Con Artist

Carnivale, the HBO television series on DVD

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Augusten Burroughs, "Magical Thinking"

I really had no intention of ever reading Burroughs. I'm naturally skeptical about "the hottest thing" on the New York Times Bestseller list. If I had to hear another NPR commentator tout the author's breakthrough book (Running with Scissors), I was just going to switch to the vast wasteland of AM radio. I really don't need to hear the story of yet another obsessive-compulsive with a litany of difficult childhood tales, and the accompanying story of how they have overcome it with dark humor and chutzpah. But events conspired to place this (other) book in my hands despite my best efforts to avoid it... this book that was obviously written to piggyback off his bestseller and extend the author's alloted 15 minutes of literary fame.

To its credit I have to admit that it was a fast read. I would assume this applies to the majority of recent entries in the inexplicably trendy "memoir" category. The attention span of the American public demands this. So what we find in "Magical Thinking" is a series of short pieces surrounding amusing events and anecdotes in Burroughs life- or to be more precise... whatever was left of marginal interest that he didn't include when he blew his magical load on his "masterpiece".

A few things you should know about the author: He is gay and proud. He is caustic. He doesn't like children. He's a dog-lover. He's spent a lot of time in the NYC advertising world. He is a recovering alcoholic. And he is consumed with himself.

Even the major characters in his life receive pithy nicknames as reward for their contributions to Burroughs' story. But I suppose self-absorption is also very trendy in the United States. And that bodes well for the author's goal of becoming wildly famous. Yet it also presents problems that Burroughs is hardly properly equipped to deal with. Now he has to deal with all those pesky fans approaching him on the streets of Manhattan. The upside of this dilemma is that he now has fodder for yet another book about the petty annoyances of exposure to a larger circle of humanity.

I did learn a few things from this book... and with these realizations I will leave you.

1. Hip gay men are flocking to their primary physicians seeking prescriptions of illicit steroids, so that they can grow man-booby-like biceps and actual firm man-boobies. This practice leads to mood swings and testosterone rages, just like in straight men.

2. Hip gay couples are flocking to adoption agencies to acquire children with the same zeal that they pursued Shar-pei dog-breeders in the eighties.

3. The Barbizon modeling schools of the 80's were a rip-off scam.

4. Not all gay men were born with facilities to properly design and maintain a hip urban space. Some of them are just as piggish as straight men.

5. A gay man wearing an Abercrombie and Fitch hoodie can be just as reprehensible as a fratboy wearing the same brand. In fact it may be worse, because it is a breach of one of the few positive stereotypes commonly attributed to gay men in our society... that they dress well. Burroughs does the gay community an obvious disservice in his dust-jacket photo.

6. Augusten Burroughs knows how to spend your money with taste and discretion, so don't borrow the book from the library, like I did.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Vagaries of Fashion

My niece (C.) is turning 11 this Friday (she happens to have the same birthday as me). This year she has made a change to her annual routine- in addition to her standard trip w/friend to Kennywood, C is going to get the chance to be a model in my friend Marci Gehring's fashion show at the Clay Penn. C. is a natural choice, with her innate dramatic qualities. And Marci, who is an immensely talented and prolific painter, has a stunning line of corsets that she will debut for the event.

I may not have chosen to focus my night on a fashion show, but it's going to be a family affair with my wife and sister-in-law participating. Today we drove up north to Marci's residence in the country- the Rainbow Castle. This is a site to behold, with lavish decor and original artwork scattered about and actually integrated into the structure of the house and its environs. There is no point in trying to accurately convey the experience of a visit... it simply has to be seen to be believed. In fact, every time I visit I notice something different.

With all this beauty, and in the company of a tribe of womensfolk hammering out the details of the fashion show... I have had the occasion to ponder the nature of the object. You see, my niece is having difficulty with not being the sole kid participant of the event. Her friend, who is younger than her, will be included... and C. fears that somehow she will be upstaged. Her concern is not a surprise, with the amount of social conditioning that this society vists upon girls from a very early age. Competition is just so much more insidious among American females.

My experience of competition is much more direct. I had an older brother and I was constantly measuring myself against his accomplishments, as well as those of other boys among my peer group. This is quite natural among American males. Who is the best, the smartest, the fastest, the strongest...etc.? Tests are administered and contests are held... and these delineate an objectively defined winner. It's not the same with girls. Their measure of superiority is dictated by the attentions lavished upon them. The winner is the girl to whom the most eyes are directed. How does this inform her psyche? It's not bolstered with performance, but rather with perception. This is inherently subjective. Who sets the standard? Clearly it's the American mass media with its perverse obsession with objectification.

So C. struggles to be her own little archetype of the perfect object. This is what a fashion show is about. Object meets object... object wears object. And even in the most enlightened circles with strong female figures, this objectification gets reinforced. In this case the girl is transformed into an objet d'art, but an object nonetheless. How should she feel about that? If she compels the most attention, then evidently she is a success. The only way out of this is to become the artist herself, using her own body (or a surrogate) as the medium.

To an extent, all artists find their reflection in their work. But with the work of male artists, there is a clear separation between the work and their identity as creators. The objectification of women in our society seems to present a significant impediment to this individuation. But women are supposed to reflect symbiosis, so many observers ignore or discount the exceptions. Many aren't even aware that this could even be a problem.

So what do I do with my niece, so disconsolate over the prospect of being measured against an object that she perceives as being "the competition"? Do I work against prevailing attitudes and centuries of objectification, and insist that she measure herself against standards of her own making? Or do I smile and tell her how pretty she looks?

Friday, July 28, 2006

Remembering Dave H.

There is no specific reason that I should be writing about Dave H. today, other than a post I made on Scribbler's Debris a couple of days ago. I had drawn the topic "Death of a Friend", and had written about my friend Eric. If you read that entry, then you know that Eric killed himself around Easter time. The very next year, after Easter, I learned that my friend Dave H. from college had killed himself by means of carbon monoxide poisoning in his parents' garage. It was a morbid anniversary of Eric's death, and for a few years after I wondered who would be next whenever the celebration of the sacrifice came due.

Dave H. had the kind of manic genius that you encounter in about one in a thousand people. He was constantly looking for the next extreme with which to completely engage life. Of course that would make his ultimate fate all the more ironic. I met him in undergraduate school at Pitt, and we quickly became friends. We talked about books, music, and film and chased girls together. He was in the Honor's college in the school of philosophy. It didn't seem that Dave ever slept, as he was constantly searching for the next exciting stimulus. After a period of six months (a long period in the halcyon college days), we saw less of each other due to circumstances that had nothing to do with our friendship. But whenever I ran into him, we would continue as if we had seen each other the day before.

One of the most memorable days I ever spent with him was during a trip we took together to Washington DC. It was during the first Gulf War, and there was a huge protest march. Dave had heard about van transport that we could take for ten dollars, and he asked me if I wanted to go along. It didn't take much convincing for me to decide to skip classes for the day and join him. The drive itself was memorable because the van was chock full of Lyndon Larouche drones, and we were a captive audience. A woman who must have trained to be a cult programmer tried to brainwash us for the entire four and a half hour ride. We tried to be polite in our responses as we were counting on the same van for the ride back. Dave was pretty wound up by the time we got to our nation's capital. After some time spent watching the marchers, we decided to walk around the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. All Dave could talk about was wanting to find some acid and vandalize something. By the time we were ready to meet up with the cultists for the return trip, we had a plan. This time the tables were turned, and we used everything we could come up with to deconstruct the woman programmer. It proved to be less of a challenge than expected... our harsh methods proved to be overkill... it was too easy for us to bring her to a state of tears. But we weren't much inclined to mercy. We kept at it until she broke down. For the last hour into Pittsburgh she refused to utter a word to anyone. We left her alone to weep in silence. When we stepped from the van back onto campus, she pretended that we weren't even there, and we never saw or spoke with her again.

It wasn't long after that roadtrip that Dave H. was kicked off campus for trying to light his dorm on fire. I never got the full story about why he did that, and I didn't see him for several years. Eventually he got my phone number from a mutual friend, and he came out and stayed with me in Pittsburgh. He had been staying in Philly in the interim, after a stint in the merchant marines. He was currently employed as an ambulance driver in the city. He spoke of the horrors of his job, and his dalliances with hard drugs. He never slept more than three hours at a time during the days he was visiting. He seemed excited by everything, and was newly infatuated by the music of the Doors. His favorite song was "Break on Through", and I suppose I should have seen that as portentous. But to me he wasn't much different than the Dave I had known in college. He seemed about as manic as ever. There was no reason to suspect that I would never see him again after he left. Several months before he killed himself, I groggily received a late night phone call. Dave seemed pretty stressed out, but I was half asleep and couldn't follow much of what he was saying. He told me that he would call back, but we never spoke to each other again.

News of his death hit me hard, but I didn't give much voice to my grief as I was called upon to give emotional support to one of our mutual friends. I didn't go to his funeral, but I did have a mini-wake for him as I did with Eric. Sometimes I'm reminded of him, and I wonder what he would have gone on to if he had not made his final choice.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

My Camera, the Imperfect Translator.

My Canon G6 is starting to show its age. I'm now in the position of having to decide whether to abandon this model for something slicker and more technologically advanced. I have to give it credit for serving me well over the last few years. It's been a useful, if imperfect, translator.

I read (or heard) years ago a very simple way of categorizing artists. I apologize for not remembering its source. Its conceit was that there are only two approaches that artists take to their work... they either engage in a process of addition or subtraction. Within this perspective, everyone engaged in art has made a commitment to one or the other process. Installation artists, many painters, and most musicians take a constructive (or additive) approach to their work. The painter who applies layer upon layer of color to his/her canvas is the archetypal example. Sculptors, on the other hand, traditionally employ subtraction. They acquire a chunk of their chosen material and whittle it down into the form that fits their vision.

I would make the argument that the essential process of photography belongs to the subtractive category. In our day-to-day existence we have access to a field of visual stimulus that exceeds 180 degrees. We choose to focus on a portion of this field depending on our thoughts, emotions and subconscious impulses. When we employ the use of a camera as a medium, we consciously deconstruct our environment. This is (in my opinion) where the art of photography manifests itself. What have we chosen to focus on? We delineate our own limitations.

I'm not saying a contrary strategy can't be employed. Indeed we can devise an internal subjective vision, and construct its approximation in external reality. In this case, the photographer builds his/her image in as controlled a manner as possible. The devil's advocate might still point out that the artist must eliminate all external factors that do not support his/her vision... but this seems to evade the essential nature of the artist's strategy. Cindy Sherman's work is a great example of this kind of photography.

When deciding what we want to accomplish, we have to consider the nature of the tools we are using. In the case of photography, the image is the product and the camera is the medium. Our decison to take an addititive or subtractive approach is going to dictate the nature of the equipment required. The technological limitations of the camera itself is going to inform our dialogue. Those characteristics, I would propose, are less at issue in a subtractive approach.

For example, my Canon G6 is going to impose its flaws on the process itself. It will be an imperfect translator. The artistry lies in the manner in which the artist engages these limitations with respect to the external stimulus. It's a three-way... with the subject, the camera and the artist all collaborating to make the image. In a constructive approach, we are imposing our will onto the subject through our camera... which in this case is going to act as our slave. Our success is determined by our ability to master the camera. In this case technological limitations are merely to be overcome.

Using the G6, I have learned to make my art with a respect for the camera's limitations. I would assert that this strategy has often led to a serendipitous product. In allowing the camera itself to have a voice in the final outcome, I have discovered ways of viewing that I would have discarded if my aim was constructive. Therefore the purchase and use of a new camera will fundamentally effect my artistic process. The translator itself will be more silent in its accuracy. It will be liberating my artistic will, and most folks would consider this an ultimate good. But I will miss the voice of the G6, and its peculiarities of vision. Maybe it's all just an illusion of animism, but there is no doubt that it has informed my work.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Elijah Wald, "Riding with Strangers"

As usual my reading has really slowed down this summer. But I finally finished my first book of the season, and it was particularly apt. Elijah Wald's Riding with Strangers is a chronicle of a croos-country hitchhiking tour that he completed in his 40's. The publication date is listed as 2006, so I can only speculate that he wrote it over the last couple of years.

Wald has been a hitchhiker since he was a teen, and laments the perception that his cherished hobby is dangerous in today's age. His contention is that the country has gotten ever more paranoid and insulatory, but his experiences go a long way toward restoring his faith in the fundamental decency of his fellow citizens. He completed his entire excursion in less time than it would take riding Greyhound... and he wasn't propositioned, robbed, raped or murdered. Throughout the book the author describes his desire that more young people take to the road in this time-honored tradition. He details the history of hitchhiking in America, and outlines his studied approach for getting rides. Wald even teaches us the difference between a hobo (travels and works), a tramp (travels, but does not work), and a bum (neither travels nor works). But this is a digression, for this terminology arises from the train-hopping culture that, while sometimes arbitrarily clumped with that of hitchers, has a unique set of values and indicators.

Riding with Strangers is a pleasant, if not compelling, read. Nothing particularly dramatic happens during his latest travels. The book therefore focuses on the small moments of appreciation that make a pocket of liberation worth a struggle through minor inconveniences. Wald's constant companion is his guitar, which serves him both as a diversion to get him through the slow times, and a prop to defang his appearance. It seems to work well for him, because he is rarely stranded.

I have to admit that I have never really picked up a hitchiker. One time, as I was making a short drive home, a woman approached my car as a thunderclap foretold a flash storm. I took pity on her and drove her several blocks to her friend's house. This incident contributed very little to the world that Wald writes about- a world that I have never seriously considered engaging on either side. To me the romance of the road lies in hurtling solo through the vast expanse at the wheel of my own conveyance. But I must say that reading Wald's book might be enough stimulus to make me reflect upon the next time I pass by an entreating roadside thumb.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

How to deal with cops.

I haven't done anything wrong. I swear it! I'm innocent. I haven't had any interaction with the cops in years. This is all just inspired by a conversation I had with... um... a friend. When you read my thoughts about these most delicate interactions, please remember that it's all based on theory. I didn't do anything. (Not me. I'm good.)


1. If you broke the law and you have been busted, consider facing the consequences with grace.

The last thing anyone wants to admit is that they have made a mistake. It's an acknowledgement that one is a flawed human being . Facing up to the consequences of your actions takes a lot of courage. I'm not necessarily saying that you have to burst out in a full confession... in general it is better to simply let the policeman talk. The less you say, the better off you will probably be. But if you commited some summary offense, it might work in your favor if you own up to it. If you refute the cop's account of what happened, then yoou are accusing them of being wrong and of not performing their duties with integrity ... and that's not something they are going to react well to... especially in their conviction that they are right.

I have a... um... friend who acquired approximately 18 traffic violation points in about two and a half years. He adopted the strategy of never arguing with his interlocuters, and being eminently agreeable. He was rewarded every time that he appeared in court to plead for mercy. And thus I... I mean he...after a few years... now has zero points on his record, and is out of the inimical PennDot points system (not me!).

2. Be deferential.

Look... no matter how much it's going to eat away at you later, it's going to hurt a lot more if you take a confrontation stance. "Yes Sir" and "No Sir" go a long way with folks in authority positions. Think about how many people, when confronted with the accusation that they are wrong, defensively try to argue with the police. You can never win this argument. The interaction you are having is not based in an equality of positions. Yes, you have rights as a citizen... but it's much better to save them for the back end, if/when you have to appear in court.

3. Remember that policemen are hired with tax money to do a job dictated by your representatives in government, whom you have elected to that office.

In a marginally Democratic society (such as the one we live in) the people actually have a voice in the laws employed to maintain order. Those laws require enforcement if they are to have any meaning or practical utility. The police are the body that we employ to give authority to those laws. Without them, society would revert to the law of might, and we'd be in some Hobbesian netherworld. The police are human beings that have very specific duties. The quality of the job they do (as individuals) varies, just like in any other profession. Some of them no doubt were motivated to pursue this line of work out of some vaguely-defined power trip. But to many it is simply the way they get money to live. It helps to keep this in mind when you are dealing with them. Like anybody else they have good days and bad days on the job. It's better for you (and everyone else by extension) if you don't contribute to their bad day.


1. Don't call cops names.

This should be an obvious one. But you'd be surprised just how many people violate this essential dictum. I myself had a good friend who, when caught pissing in an alley during a South Side night of debauchery, addressed the cop as "You Barney-Phife motherf**ker!" His night didn't conclude in the desired fashion. He left the county (the following morning) with a black eye from a "mysterious fall" that was no doubt attested to (by him) as a way to avoid facing charges of resisting arrest. You can't expect humans in authority positions to exercise the proper restraint when you are making bacon-sizzling sounds at them. Remember that you will be at their mercy, with no witnesses inclined to favor someone accused of bad behavior.

2. Don't try to evade a cop.

No matter what you have done, this will merely compound the problem. Enforcement technology gives modern-day law officers so much of an advantage that your chances of successful evasion have decreased dramatically. Also... trying to run from the police makes you look guilty, and allows their imagination free-range to transpose all kinds of suspicions on to you. You don't need that. You aren't Bo Duke, you don't drive the General Lee, and you aren't dealing with television-style country rubes. Caveat: If you are guilty of a capital crime and you can flee the country, your risk analysis might change dramatically.

3. Don't resist arrest.

I know that I risk sounding redundant, but the importance of this point cannot be stressed enough. When you are in the custody of the 5-0, you are completely at their mercy. It doesn't matter at that point what protections the Bill of Rights entitles you- we are in an era with an obssessive law-and-order mentality. All kinds of abuses of power are being justified under the current political climate. And as I pointed out earlier, there will be times that you will be alone with the cops, with no witnesses to report bad actors. Try to keep your wits about you. Be compliant and pay attention. If someone steps over the line, you can tell it to your lawyer later.

I don't put policemen on a pedestal even though that seems to be fashionable in the post 9-11 United States. In my view, they are not America's "heroes", but simply humans struggling to perform a tough job under difficult circumstances. It's an occupation that usually entails seeing the very worst of human behavior. Few folks are honestly happy to see a policeman, and I believe this accounts for the surly demeanor of many in the profession. Because of this I recognize that there is a certain approach to use while dealing with them that is in my best interest. In my few interactions with police, this evolving approach seems to have brought the best results.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The 'Burgh blogosphere.

Do you want an afternoon of masochistic amusement? Do a search for "Pittsburgh Bloggers" (THIS will do nicely if you are feeling lazy) and sift through some of it. If you are even lazier, I will give you a synopsis... you will find a few gems of entertainment and enlightenment in a vast rough of dreary complaint. And I am going to hazard a guess that a majority of the negative spinners are natives of the greater Pittsburgh area. You would be hard-pressed to find a more self-hating group anywhere else. They are like little indulged kids that only want to play with their toys when someone wants to share them. People move here from out of town and try to contribute their energies to building something around fresh ideas, and they are informed by the natives (many of whom have given up and moved out to the 'burbs) that they don't know enough about the town to warrant any influence. But meanwhile it's just business as usual... and that reserves for them the mental resources to condemn the next plan of action.

is an example that is particularly representative of what I'm talking about. The author explains his residency within the Pittsburgh area as having been "forced back". One can only speculate why this would be so... maybe his brain will explode Scanners-style if he strays outside of the "werstern suburbs" (where he no doubt resides- the biggest "urban" critics ALWAYS live in the suburbs, from where they no doubt think they have the best view). From reading his blog I fear for the safety of his housemates if he ever quits venting on to his site- he's liable to whine until they have no defense but to become psychosomatically deaf. I have to suggest he quit watching bad TV and actually venture into Pittsburgh, so he will know enough to have a qualified opinion.

Look... I'm not saying everyone's got to be a cheerleader, and take a pollyannaish view of our city. It's not that a discussion of problems in Pittsburgh is unnecessary...but for a dialogue to have any utility it needs to have substance. Simply pointing out obvious weaknesses is only a baby step. It's even worse when the commentator has no direct experience with what he/she is talking about. Take a step back, and look at the whole picture. You have to be able to see what is working well (in addition to what is not) to formulate an educated opinion about possibilities.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Embracing the enemy.

Today I find myself in the peculiar position of having to decide between two very unlikely subjects for this blog. I realize that the small base of readers that come here have come to expect a certain perspective from me, and I fear that in making this choice I will alienate people. It's a no-win situation, but I feel like I'd be letting myself off the hook if I avoided it. So my options as I see them are either to write an entry about Christian conversion or an apologia for Starbuck's. I've chosen the latter.

I would assume that it doesn't take long for people that meet me to discern that I am politically progressive. Along with this flavor of belief, I mix in a hearty portion of anti-corporate rhetoric. I am no fan of the attack on regionalism that our homogenized corporate culture presents. That has been a decisive factor in my long-standing refusal to reconcile my taste for Starbucks' product with my contempt for their predatory business model. I've had friends who have struggled to create independent coffee shops, carving a niche in their respective communities through their efforts and creativity. Each one of these shops has had to contend with a Starbucks franchise opening up in the markets they have worked so diligently to develop. To be truthful, I have to point out that my friends' stores have not suffered greatly due to the increased competition represented by these Starbucks cafes. In fact my favorite coffeeshop has increased to three times its original size in the interim. To some extent that enables me to hold my current views on the Starbucks chain.

I began stopping at these franchises out of necessity. I can't drink ordinary brewed coffee due to its acidic qualities. But I can drink espresso. I have subjected multiple baristas to my drink of choice: a large iced mocha with caramel drizzle, skim milk, and half the amount of ice (no whipped cream). Anyone that has ever traversed the PA turnpike knows well the stranglehold Starbucks has on the wary traveler seeking a much-needed caffeine energy-burst. So I had no choice. Really... I didn't.

I always felt guilty for feeding the corporate behemoth. I saw every dollar that I spent as fuel for a viral infection. But over the last few years I have learned some things that have modified my perspective. I learned that Starbucks contibutes 100% of its campaign donations to Democratic candidates (reference: Buy Blue) . I've heard that the company considers its employees to be "partners", and offers them health insurance. In addition they seem to be making an effort to adopt farmer-friendly practices, and integrate "green power" into their operations. They have made promises (yet unfilled) to sincerely promote the use of free-trade coffee.

Indeed many of my friends would find these efforts to be minimal, and a cynical attempt to effectively employ demographic marketing. And they may have a point. The news about this company isn't all positive... their corporate management has tried to discourage their employees from wearing union pins in the workplace, and they have been accused of other activities that could be viewed as anti-union. Of course this is no surprise in the contemporary political climate... less than 14% of the nation's workers are represented by unions (reference: the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel). Unfortunately the overall corporate standard is so miserable as to make Starbucks seem downright liberal. Shall I continue to villify a company that does anything (no matter how minimal) that exceeds giving mere lip service to progressive causes? That's a fair question.

But what motivated me to write about this corporation during this most pleasant summer? Why would I want to taint my day this way?

Well... Friday night at 10PM I needed some caffeine to enhance my evening reveries. There was a regional chain accessible and open, but I have had mediocre experiences there in the past. I knew that if there were more than two people in line I would be facing a long wait for my drink. I also had reservations concerning the consistency of the product. In my experience these issues have not been a problem at Starbucks. When I reached the store I noted that it was due to close at 10PM. Checking my watch and seeing that it was 10:05, I fully expected to be turned away... or (at best) served in an impatient and sour manner. This wasn't the case at all. I felt welcome and the servers greeted me as if they were truly happy to see me. This despite the fact that they were in the midst of making labor-intensive slushy drinks for the grumbling patrons ahead of me. My drink was exactly how I anticipated it, and I walked away satisfied with the experience. Today I did something I have never done before... I wrote a letter to the store manager commending the performance of her employees. Does that make me a sell-out? Am I merely getting soft in my advancing years?

I know I risk my credibility as a progressive by writing this. Yet I have to give credit where it is due. I will still choose the locally-owned coffee-shop over Starbucks "nine-times-out-of-ten". But on the rare occasion that I don't... I might not feel quite so shamed.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Dixmont State Hospital

This past Wednesday I went to the Heinz History Center for the opening of Kay Guerrero's "The Dixmont State Hospital: A Historical Documentary". I got word of the event earlier in the day (thanks Mark) , and I wasn't going to miss it.

In the early 90's I occasionally heard about an abandoned insane asylum west of Pittsburgh along route 65. I didn't own a car at the time, so I had to wait patiently until I met someone who was willing to drive out to the site and break all manner of trespassing laws to explore it. Finally I got my chance... with JR, who worked for the Pittsburgh Film Office as a location scout. Not only did I have the opportunity I was looking for, but I had a sheen of legitimacy conferred upon me indirectly by my friend's position. So we went.

The quickly deteriorating complex was situated on many acres of wooded land. The roof of the main building was in the middle of a process of complete collapse, the windows were broken, and plant growth was wending its way into every nook and cranny. As the sun went down, an eerie pall seemed to settle over us, and we sought shelter in the crumbling halls themselves. The once florid wallpaper was peeling in layers all around us, and we stepped cautiously so as not to descend to the lower floors unintentionally. We spent a couple of hours poking about, and realized that we would have to come back again to fully satiate our curiosity.

A few months later I helped JR and his friend film a student short on the grounds of Dixmont. We had full permission from the owner of the site to be there, and having signed waivers of liability, we felt free to roam throughout... including the many outbuildings. We stooped through the tunnel system, through which supplies were originally brought from the river and the nearby rail tracks. That was a dark creepy place with crevices hiding the worst that our imaginations could conjure. Following a dirt road we found a simple but significant cemetary on a wooded hillside. The cracked identical stones were marked only with an "M" or an "F", and a number. These numbers ranged through the hundreds to four full digits. Our educated guess was later confirmed... these were the patients that died in the hospital that went unclaimed by loved ones. Nearby there were several more ornate headstones commemorating the dead pets of the superintendants. Those included names.

The film itself wasn't very good, but we had some amazing locations. We even shot a pivotal scene in the basement morgue of a newer building. The meat locker drawers were forever destined to remain half ajar... or so we thought. One night as the director and JR were taking down the lights, one of the drawers slammed shut, seemingly of its own accord. The shoot was thus concluded on an abbreviated schedule.

I will always remember the few days and nights I spent on those grounds. Doors would slam shut during windless evenings. There was a warm, fetid breeze coming OUT of the entrance of one building. The expectation of seeing the spirits of the tormented souls trapped in the asylum in years past was never that far from our minds.

One regret I have had over the years since my time at Dixmont is that I never had my own camera to document the place in that condition. I have no idea how to get a copy of the film we made. In the first years of this century the entire remains were torn down, to be replaced by a shiny new Walmart. The stories untold seemed to be lost from me forever, save for what I could dig up on the Internet. And then Wednesday I found out there was a documentary...

To be fair to the director, the sense of mystery I have built around the now vanished Dixmont built unreasonable expectations in my mind. There is no way to satiate my vast desire to learn about the place. The narrator of the documentary conveyed a wealth of factual information that traced the hospital's history. It integrated the context of the developing field of psychology and the treatment of mental disorders. There were still photos taken of its interior and exterior... and the patients on the immaculately kept grounds. Still I felt at a loss to truly understand the totality of what occured there. No straight forward presentation of factoids can encapsulate the well-intentioned horrors that generations of patients experienced. No recitation of New Testament quotations can frame the depths of Dixmont. I am glad that Guerrero built a superstructure on which to hang a rudimentary understanding of the institution... it's a good start... but a definintive documentary is still waiting to be made.

Friday, July 21, 2006

My day-trip to Cleveland.

I didn't get enough of Slim Cessna's Auto Club on Saturday, so I put the word out to find like-minded folk to accompany me to the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland. Cleveland is only a two-and-a-half hour drive from Pittsburgh, and it didn't take much reflection for me to realize that seeing the best live act in the US merited that minimal jaunt. (By the way: when I use the superlative you have just read, people assume I am employing hyperbole or that I am merely tossing about descriptors off-handedly... I assure you that I am not. I do realize that personal tastes differ... but I have seen George Clinton's P-Funk, Pavement, Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion, The Beastie Boys, Jesus Lizard, Nashville Pussy, The Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo, The Shins, etc... all great shows- but Slim and the boys top them all) An old friend took me up on the offer of a ride, and we set out. Our anticipation and the conversation it stimulated made the trip pass quickly.

We drove into "Ohio City" and visited the Great Lakes brewery for dinner. I enjoy their beer, but I recommend that you pass on their brew-pub experience unless you want to pay too much for small portions of merely decent food. I spent $6 for about four ounces of cheese soup. The atmosphere was fairly typical of brewery storefronts. The experience wasn't bad, but it didn't meet my expectations. The area itself seems to be up-and-coming. There are other restaurants nearby that I have been told are much superior to Great Lakes. We also found time to poke around a used bookstore that was officially closed, but open to us because the owner had gotten a large shipment in that needed to be processed. I didn't catch the name of the shop, but it is near the Market House. It is worth stopping in to sift through the mountains of reasonably-priced treasures. I bought a Josef Skvorecky paperback, and we set off for Collingwood on the East Side.

Driving through Cleveland makes me appreciate both its own urbanity, and alternatively, the beauty of Pittsburgh. I can't get used to the grid-system and flat terrain of many other cities. But Cleveland certainly has its share of promising and eclectic neighborhoods, and I wouldn't be averse to alloting more of my time to exploring it deeply. There is at least enough to see to occupy a weekend trip.

Beachland Ballroom is more intimate than its name would suggest. It doesn't look like a place that could comfortably hold 300 people, but I have never been a great judge of capacity. Astoundingly, only about 50 of Cleveland's finest attended the show. I'll never understand how Slim can end up playing to that small of an audience. He has said that Cleveland has always been a tough draw, but c'mon good people... awaken and rise! They drew over 300 in Ottawa on Wednesday... and that ain't exactly Slim's neighborhood. Even with the disappointing turnout, the band put in another stellar, energy-filled and transcendant performance. Despite a lack of sleep, a tour van that is on its last legs, and being in the midst of a tour that is 2/3rds of a nation away from most of the band members' homes... they gave everything they had to make sure that their words and music will be carried through the minds and souls of the lucky audience. Until they come again.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Scribbler's Debris - A New Blog.

A couple of years ago a few friends and I had a writing group. Each week we would meet at one of our houses and share whatever work we had accomplished in the time between sessions. We decided to pick a topic to focus ourselves. It was an effective way to structure writing as a regular activity into our lives. We would drink coffee and read each other's work out loud. Each person would have a chance to respond to what they heard. Some memorable discussions resulted. I was disappointed when the group fell away. I missed the pressure of a deadline that made me write regardless of my feelings or circumstances. It was somehow comforting to live within that commitment, and I knew that I would have something to do weekly that I would feel good about.

Over time we had just lost momentum. Personal feelings began to impinge on the comfort folks had while sharing the sort of deep thoughts and emotions embedded in their work. Eventually the work itself became a medium of communication, and the entire experience became self-referential. Still... when it was over, I missed it.

Well... a form of this activity is now back. And it's with some of the original participants of the previous writing group, that I bring you... Scribbler's Debris.

How did this start? Don't I already have enough commitments in my life?

A few weeks ago I ran into L., my friend from the defunct writer's group. As we caught up on each other's lives, the subject of blogs came up. I discovered that L. has also been working on her own personal blog. We exchanged thoughts on the medium and our own approaches. Since then we've kept up better, and have seen each other out more often. Two weeks ago she sent me an e-mail that proposed the formation of a new collaborative blog. The concept is that each of the contributers will draw topics at random from a list constructed by L. With this (somewhat nebulous) directive in hand, we will write for less than twenty minutes. There are no other parameters. The time limitation is intended to inspire a free flow of ideas, unencumbered by too much reflection or meticulous artifice. Hell... the grammar might suck. But I find something liberating in the whole idea.

Yesterday, I completed my first submission... I drew the topic of "kickball"... it can be found HERE...

For you cut-and-pasters:

If you have any thoughts... come back here and tell me, or leave them on the comment page on that board. I do plan on posting new entries semi-regularly, and I'll probably let you know about them on this blog. Please check out the pieces that the other contributors have posted as well.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

At the Coffeeshop in the Summer.

There's something about sitting in a familiar coffeeshop and passing the day in conversation with a bunch of folks you've known for years. Having the summers off has been one of the joys of my chosen profession. I like nothing better than getting up before noon with no obligations, and being able to go wherever the day takes me. Consequently over the past five years I have found myself visiting the Beehive in the South Side several times a week.

Of course many of my friends and family have the hardest time understanding why I would want to spend hours at a coffee shop. For better or for worse it's not a typical destination for most Americans, beyond the quick stop for the necessary fuel that enables a supercharged work ethic. It's much more likely that folks will spend hours at a bar, getting obliterated and dropping their inhibitions. As far as I'm concerned, I don't find being surrounded by a mob of over-stressed and overworked "revelers", actively working to drop their repressions and personality checks, to be that stimulating anymore. By God I used to. But no more. I prefer the neurotic and obsessive discretion of the coffee-drinker.

The joys of my chosen coffeehouse are many. Within the last five years, the Beehive has tripled in floor space. They have smoking and non-smoking sections, healthy and fresh foods, a variety of reasonably priced drinks, computers with internet access, free wireless, local artwork hanging on the walls, and a diverse staff and clientele. One can find musicians, goth kids, millionaires, artists, intellectuals, chess-players, bicycle punks, academics, craftsmen, foreigners, tradesmen, professionals, service-industry employees, and folks that fit no discernible category. It's a great place to sit down and watch what's going down in the lives of many different folks.

For me the attractions extend into a personal realm. I myself am an alumni of the Beehive. While I was pursuing my master's degree I worked at the now defunct Beehive coffehouse/theater in Oakland. In addition to all the charms the original location had, the Oakland store showed a variety of independent and foreign films. They also booked cutting edge music. And a few years in, they even opened a fairly hip bar called the Pollinator. I made some close friendships during my relatively short employment stints there. The employees were treated to after-parties in the theater that included sneak previews of the new films and kegs of beer. Ultimately I respected my employers enough to spare their business my inconsistent service approach, and I moved on. Years later I moved to the South Side and re-established my roots with this institution. As I now viewed the place from a customer perspective, I developed a whole new appreciation for the place.

I have had many great friendships as a result of spending time at the Beehive. I have talked to folks I would have never anticipated having contact with. I improved my chess and scrabble games. And I've always looked forward to running into unexpected patrons. I never know who I might run into there. It could be someone I haven't seen in years- a reminder of a long lost period of my life here in Pittsburgh. I am almost assured of running in to one or another of my close friends, whose lives still find their center in the South Side. Hell... in the summer I may even be inspired to cross the street for a dose of the dropping inhibitions of the imbibers. When it comes right down to it, the Beehive is one of those crucial things that makes Pittsburgh my home. I'm grateful for the staff, the owners (who have become personal friends), and the customers who have made it a very special place for me.

*Addendum: Jeez, how could I forget this... I had my first two shows at the Hive. The first was with a talented local sculptor named Mike McFadden, and the second was a solo show of 30 photos. What a great entry into the "world of art". Many thanks to Bob Ziller, who still curates the work on the walls of the Beehive, for the opportunities.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Film Kitchen Tonight.

Pssst... hey you...I wanna let you in on a little well-kept secret that not many in the 'burgh are aware of...

Once a month City Paper and Filmmakers (located in Oakland) team up to present an event called Film Kitchen. This series collects and exhibits local, regional, and sometimes national films of all types. The curator, Bill O'Driscoll, has set up an open submission policy, which means that anyone who sends a film for consideration will at least receive the gratification of having his/her film viewed by Bill. The program lasts (approximately) the length of a feature length film, so there is time for a few shorts and one or two longer pieces. Because there is no set criteria for inclusion, the films range widely in quality, subject matter, and format. To be honest with you I have walked out a couple of times, telling myself and any companions that I am simply going for a cigarette. But I can usually find something in each work worth paying attention to... and sometimes I am honestly enthralled.

One particularly satisfying feature of Film Kitchen is the inclusion, after every film, of a Q and A session. Here you get your opportunity to grill the creator, or otherwise voice your complaints, observations, frustration or praise. Typically manners and discretion rule the day, but once in awhile the kid gloves come off and an argument ensues... and believe me, this is bonus entertainment at its finest. You'll be reminded just how arbitrary so many personal tastes can be.

In addition to the films themselves, there are other treats on offering. Pittsburgh Brewing Company usually donates a couple of cases of beer, so even if you find the film being shown particularly onerous, at least you can console yourself with free alcohol. The Pittsburgh Deli Co. provides sandwich rings or wraps, nacho chips, and spinach-artichoke dip to nosh on. As if all of this wasn't enough, there are usually prizes given away as well... tickets to local events, etc. And how much is all this going to set you back? Either $4 or $5, depending upon whether their is a special program that night. You simply won't be able to find a better entertainment deal in all of Pittsburgh.

**Note: This event is usually held the second Tuesday of the month, but occasionally there are deviations in the schedule. This month (July) it is being held tonight, the 18th. Get there at 7PM to make the most of the reception beforehand.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The joy of air travel.

Two of my closest friends left for their honeymoon in Florida today. They are taking a plane and renting a car when they arrive. While visualizing them driving to the airport and going through whatever hoops are now required to board their flight, I realized that I haven't been on a plane since before 9-11.

I can't really say my ongoing choice to not fly is a conscious one. There is no place that compels me to visit that necessitates air travel. I could make a long list of preferred destinations that would take less than ten hours by car. Once I run out of these targets, I will consider flying once again.

But maybe this is simply begging the question... exactly why haven't I flown? Do I honestly think that the specific flight that I choose will be highjacked by terrorists? Of course not. The main reason I dread boarding an airplane is the discomfort that is likely to result. I am 6'5", and a member of the American middle class. I can't afford to fly first class. So I'm stuck hoping that I can acquire a spot in a row that accesses the emergency exit. And of course this is the area of the plane most likely to inspire thoughts of impending doom.

The last time I flew I didn't have to worry about dread. I couldn't think of anything at all because I spent the entire transit in the fetal position, next to an obese wheezing lady who chewed her Cheetos with her mouth open. Had I imagined a radical fundamentalist with a box-cutter, I might have planned to draw his ire just so he would have to hack through my neighbor on the way to shred me.

So if you plan to move away from Pittsburgh, and still anticipate visits from me, you might want to consider staying within a radius of about 500 miles. Otherwise I'll be seeing you when (and if) you decide to come back to town.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Pittsburgh, town of niches.

Tonight I went to dinner at a friend's house in Manchester (North Side), and spending time there reminded me of how many special niches there are throughout the diverse neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. It should go without saying, but I feel compelled to note that you don't have to be a millionaire to find an extraordinary living arrangement in this city.

The North Side is a mixed income part of town, with housing options ranging from low income projects to magificent restored Victorian-style homes. My friend, who works as an engineer in the high-tech sector, lives in an apartment in a refurbished paint company building. His place would fit naturally in the pages of Home and Garden. It was redone (probably) in the late 80's or early 90's, and has a multi-tiered sprawling layout with efficiency and simplicity worked into its design. It has at least two separate bedrooms, with other areas that could be used as such. There is an outdoor patio accessible from the kitchen/dining area that is surrounded on three sides by other living areas, including an exposed bath and separate two-head shower. The remaining side has large windows cut from the original brick of the exterior of the house, and it is all open air above. Accessible by spiral stairwell from this patio is a rooftop deck, with a full 360 degree view of downtown, the river, multiple neighborhoods and the surrounding hills . It is an incredible rarity in a town with this topography to have this kind of view. In addition there is an elevator, reserved solely for the private use of this apartment, that leads to an indoor two-car garage and private driveway.

All of this comes for a price that would get you a tiny, rundown, one room hovel in the worst part of Manhattan. Although this is certainly a special living space, I have seen others that, while clearly different, were certainly as extraordinary. I have a friend who used to rent very cheaply a riverside dwelling with its own dock. Another lives a short drive from the city in a castle, with a private pond, acres of trees and several large meadows. She works as an artist. I have been to many parties of acquaintances in refurbished industrial buildings that have left me in awe. Friends and family have purchased large stately homes in transitional neighborhoods for eminently reasonable prices.

The upside about living in a city that has passed its manufacturing peak is all the unique locations for living, work and play. These things are available (for purchase) in this city for middle and upper middle level income brackets. If you are willing to put some time and patience into the search, you too can find a space to buy or rent that will astound people from out of town.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Slim Cessna TONIGHT!!!

I'm finally back in the 'burgh after a grueling ten-hour drive from the most southeastern part of Virginia. It shouldn't have taken me ten hours, but I decided I wanted to skip the mess with the Capitol Beltway (route 495) around Washington DC. Maps CAN be misleading. There's just no way to tell how one path compares to another unless you add up all the individual mileage notations. I added a full 80 miles on to my journey just to skip some tricky congestion. Use Mapquest, and take their advice. One more hint: If you get hungry on the road in the South, don't eat at a place called "Buffet"... the minimalism of the title probably reflects the effort put into the food.

Anyways... it's probably too late for all y'alls Pittsburgher folk, but the best band in the country is playing at 31st St. Pub tonight- Slim Cessna's Auto Club. Their music and performance defy description, but let me give it a try... Death-grass Americana, with tent revival-shadings, two frontmen working hard to out-fire-and-brimstone each other, and a punk aesthetic with a message for all the "good people". Nah, forget it... impossible. Just go see 'em. YOU OWE it to yourself. Check out their website too...

Hell, why don't you just ride along with me to Beachland in Cleveland on Thursday, July 20th. You will never be able to get enough of this band.

Friday, July 14, 2006

My impressions of VA Beach

Ok... tomorrow I travel that long road back to Pittsburgh. I want to leave early enough in the morning to avoid the massive exodus from Sandbridge at the end of the standard rental week. One must contend with approximately seven miles of one-lane roadway to leave the area.

I wanted to post a few thoughts about Virginia Beach before I got on the road.

Being a Southern destination, I noted a distinct difference in the way people here approach strangers. A passing smile is way more common here than in the beach towns of New Jersey. Up there that kind of greeting is going to be viewed with suspicion. People will extend a protective arm around their children and/or spouse, and scowl in return. Here though, I am aware of the true charm of southern society... I don't know what they say about me after I proceed on my way, but they sure seem happy to see me as I pass. Maybe they are visualizing a long-haired Yankee hanging from their favorite elm tree... I don't know.

Virginia Beach has the clubs, shops, and activities of any other populist beach destination, yet there are a few things that stand out. For one, there are multiple "no @$*%!" signs... which indicate either that profanity is not allowed, or that they aren't much into symbols around these parts.

Also, all the shops and typical boardwalk institutions are located on the street that runs parallel to the beachfront. In between this street (Atlantic Ave.) and the ocean is a walk that is fronted on the land-side by huge hotels. Instead of a boardwalk, it is a concrete promenade with a separate lane for surreys and bikes. Look both ways or be run down by a wild-wheeled Grandpa.

Every night of the week there are musical performers playing their non-offensive tunes on Beachstreet USA (Atlantic Ave., again). We saw a capella groups, Jimmy Buffet wannabees, middle-aged classic rockers, and blues acts. There was also a magic show, and a skinny German guy plying the juggler's act with acerbic running commentary and off-color jokes. Notably, tipping these performers is not allowed, and there are signs admonishing passersby not to do it. Evidently these guys get their compensation directly from the city. That legitimizes them, and I suppose gives the city some measure of control over the atmosphere.

There are several "dark ride" attractions. I tried to shoot the Pirate Adventure, but I fumbled with my camera settings, and then ran out of space on my compact flash card. The haunted houses use live actors but prohibit photography, so I skipped them. There is also a 3D funhouse where I hesitated paying the $5 admission fee. These attractions almost invariably suck. But not this one. The promises of "Eye-Boggling!" fun were fulfilled. There were multiple rooms painted with flourescent, trippy designs that got even more psychedelic when viewed through the paper 3D glasses. Each room had a theme (Star Wars, Beatles- "Lucy in the Sky...") and included reasonably-volumed background music that accentuated the experience. I was allowed to take my time and photograph all I wanted. The strange thing was that I exited onto a rusty steel staircase that overlooked a parking lot in the back of the building. The garbage stench from the dumpsters next to the stairs was overwhelming. Nevertheless, if this type of thing appeals to you at all, I recommend the 3D funhouse.

I completed my VA Beach experience at the Upper Deck restaurant, that bills itself as the "Original all-you-can-eat seafood buffet". It has been under the same management since 1964, and the old-fashioned decor and Frank Sinatra music reflected this fact. The food was marginal and the price was purely for tourists, but I wasn't unhappy I chose to eat there. Hell, if I'm going to be at this place I might as well get a taste of the traditional sucker's experience.

Edgar Cayce in Virginia Beach

One of the places I really wanted to see in Virginia Beach was Edgar Cayce’s A.R.E. – the Association for Research and Enlightenment. I didn’t know much about him other than that he was a psychic and a bit of a controversial figure at the turn of the twentieth century.

The story goes that Cayce received visitations from an angel, and began having dreams that corresponded with things that were happening in reality. It seems Cayce came from a Christian background, for awhile he was leery about what was happening. Eventually he embraced his gift, and started using it to help people. Besides dealing with specific requests from individuals seeking his help, he also gave trance “readings” on topics as diverse as proper diet, the power of dreams, and the hidden histories of ancient civilizations. He dictated these revelations to his wife and other assistants, and they were compiled into a huge body of literature. He went on to form his own hospital based upon holistic medical practices such as massage and nutrition, and is rightly given credit for being on the vanguard of such practices.

Every weekday, the visitor’s center at the Cayce Institute offers a free lecture to anyone who has enough interest to show up. I got to attend two of these on successive days.

The first was about dreams, and how to use them as a tool for self-actualization. The woman who talked seemed fairly grounded as she talked of chakras, Kundalini, glands, dream journals, and Christ consciousness. I had the feeling she was keeping it kind of basic, for the benefit of the uninitiated. Once in awhile I would catch an allusion that seemed to be code for those audience members who were “in the know”. There were also some thinly veiled jabs at the church and other power structures. But for the most part she was merging a bunch of information that, broken up into disparate bits, consisted of verified facts and common sense. This seemed to add validity to her entire presentation… at least for me… enough to make me return for more.

Today’s topic was “Ancient Civilizations”, and it required a good sight more suspension of disbelief. The speaker told us of the long lost civilizations of Atlantis and Lemuria. Lemuria (also known as “Mu”, so I’m told) was a collection of scattered islands in the Pacific Ocean. The inhabitants of the culture were pacifistic and skilled in visual representation. They were also blessed with excellent maritime skills. These folks were very in touch with their spirituality, and foretold their own destruction… therefore they were able to disperse to places as far-flung as Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tibet and South America. That’s why all these places have similar cultural attributes! (I’m not certain what those attributes are.)

Atlantis (called by Cayce’s people “Og”) was a militaristic, technology- savvy, materialistic culture. Cayce tells us that they powered flying vehicles with crystal power! Being an imperialistic society, they weren’t as spiritually attuned as the Lemurians, and therefore got wiped out all at once. But before they did, they used genetic engineering to create a slave class that was a hybrid of humans and animals. Cayce imaginatively called these slaves “things”. Here I lose the thread a bit… but somehow two groups of priests end up in Egypt fighting for control and interbreeding with the natives. The Children of the Law of One defeat the Sons of Belial, and usher Egypt into a golden age. They ingeniously use their crystal power to levitate stones and build the pyramids. If we can only find the Hall of Records… located by Cayce’s account between the Sphinx and some other place… then we to can harness age-old powers to advance the human race once again. As our guide informed us, we haven’t been able to locate the papers- not through any error in Cayce’s “readings”, but simply because we “are not yet ready”.

Maybe you too, dear reader, can get in touch with A.R.E. and solve these mysteries before IT’S TOO LATE.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Chrysler Museum

We took the opportunity of Wednesday late hours to visit the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, and received the added bonus of the Kraft Corporation picking up our admission fees. It’s a great idea to have extended access to a museum at least once a week, and I wish the Carnegie in Pittsburgh would adopt the practice.

Shortly after we entered the museum, a jazz outfit began performing covers of mediocre easy rock tunes from the 80’s. They had tables set up in the great main entrance hall, and they were selling beer and soft drinks. Once again, I think it’s nice for the museum to make a special evening for folks, but I have to say that the warbling sounds filtering through the exhibit spaces distracted me from appreciating the art. Imagine trying to process a Gustave Dore masterpiece to the groovy vibe of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend”... it’s really not the best way to experience the Western canon.

As I walked through the first floor galleries I was struck by the immense amount of priceless pieces Walter Chrysler collected. I stood aghast in front of artifacts that ranged from hundreds to THOUSANDS of years old… stuff pillaged from tombs and wrested from the holy grounds of ancient tribes. In a conversation with a docent, I was reminded of the sort of machinations by which these acquisitions were gathered. Some poverty-stricken treasure seeker in a third world country digs through archaeological sites, and steals these objects. They then sell it to a dealer for a paltry amount of US currency. These middlemen in turn approach museum directors and broker huge deals to acquire the plunder. And of course, with our access to these great American institutions (remember- FREE, thanks to Kraft), we are the ones that benefit.

After awhile all this booty seems to meld into some total abstraction… one symbol in totality of a single individual’s obsessive pursuit to collect every beautiful thing in the world. Where did he put all this stuff before it was bequeathed to this institution? Was it warehoused carefully in crates, out of the sight of most, except for a few other wealthy individuals… to briefly glimpse and covet? Did the Chryslers have beach houses throughout the world with antiquities serving the utility of the inhabitants? How many irreplaceable objects were jostled from their resting places by little Chryslers?

One thing I can tell given the evidence… Chrysler and his handlers didn’t have much eye for modern art. Some of the biggest names of the twentieth century are represented… but only by minor works. I guess even a car magnate of the most prosperous years this country has ever seen can’t have everything.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Vacation styles and interactions.

It’s a cliché that vacations are a time to relax. I don’t find this to be the case with all people. As I mentioned in another post, I feel the urge to see as much as I can in the time I have in a foreign place. I have to assume that I may never make it back to an area, and that I should soak it for all it’s worth. Before leaving I exhaust whatever resources I have available to find out what there is to see and do. As a teacher, with summers off, I have all the time I need to sit around and do little.

All this becomes a bit of an issue when you are with a group of people who find themselves in different circumstances. With only two weeks away from work a year, a lot of people want to take it easy. They don’t want any pressure or expectations. They tend to be happy to go with the flow, and take their time doing it.

People have all types of strategies to employ when they fall away from their routine. Some indulge themselves in activities that they withhold from themselves most of the year. Others keep a baseline of structure to make them comfortable. These habits have the habit of colliding as well. In close quarters, without the conditions that people make for themselves at home, frustrations and irritations can be magnified.

I find myself reminded of just how stubborn and selfish I am. I can love the people I’m with, but as soon as I have difficulty in finding the space I need, I become defensive and preoccupied with myself. It illuminates some of the weakest aspects of my character exactly at the time I should be kicking back with no worries.

All of this is not to say I’m not enjoying myself, because in truth this is all a time to gather memories that will sustain me in the cold of the next Pittsburgh winter. But it is a constant opportunity for learning about my self and others.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Sandbridge, VA

The place we are staying at is a suburb (of sorts) of Virginia Beach. Sandbridge is surprisingly free of commercialization for an east coast beach town. There is a restaurant, and a condominium complex at each end, sandwiching about four miles of vacation homes. Actually, the complex at the end of the road is under construction. It is painted in gaudy pastels, and doesn’t seem to fit the relatively modest architecture that distinguishes the rest of the place. It does make me wonder what kind of development awaits this sleepy little resort. Will it one day join the majority of other ocean front communities, building a succession of overpriced high rises and slowly segregating itself from anyone but the wealthiest?

After the behemoth-in-waiting at the farthest end is the Back Bay National Wildlife Preserve. It’s got dunes that are covered by scrub vegetation, and looks like what one might imagine the entire coast must have looked like in the 1700’s. This area is at least nine miles long, the vast majority of which is inaccessible to anything but bikers and hikers. There are purported to be black bears and wild horses… weasels and all kinds of avian exotica. I didn’t get to see any of this stuff though. I did get some nice photos of dragonflies and spiders…and walked off a bunch of calories in jeans and boots. The federal government earnestly implores you to protect yourself from chiggers, ticks and mosquitoes. It even suggests the unlucky traveler may stumble upon a copperhead if he/she is not alert.

I had the opportunity to visit Virginia Beach at night. That’s for another time.

Monday, July 10, 2006

On the Southern Road

The bulk of my day consisted of a 460-mile drive to Virginia Beach. Despite the fact that today was a Sunday, and the traffic should have been light, it took us almost nine hours to get there. Of course I had to make a pit stop for a crappy fast-food breakfast sandwich, and another for a large Iced Mocha (skim, caramel drizzle, half ice) from the predatory corporation whose name I shall not mention. And then there were the requisite piss stops. I broke out a bunch of old CDs I haven’t listened to in ages, and M. insisted on putting in some of hers as well. We got to Sandbridge without any mishaps.

As I drove, I was impressed by just how many of the towns and cities along the way carry names familiar to me from Civil War studies. First I saw Antietam and Harper’s Ferry. John Brown’s limp body sways in front of my inner eye. Gettysburg is just a short jaunt up the road. George Pickett’s ghost wanders up and down the hills on the outskirts of town. Manassas is next, marking a battle known as Bull Run by the Yankees. Aristocrats from the new capital trailed the advancing Union troops, with picnic baskets at the ready for a day of amusement at the expense of Johnny Reb. Thomas Jackson had other plans. Stonewall himself has a monument that I assume is either nearby the spot where he was shot by his own troops or where he later died from pneumonia. We whisk by it along the highway.

Spotsylvania, Yorktown, and of course Richmond (the confederate capital) soon appear… So many stories, tragedy, death… spring from the words on these green highway signs. How many others, in the cars that pass us on their way to their urgent business, note the history that is marked out for them on this path? Are these just the places they work and live… struggling through their everyday existence… worried about their kids’ grades, or an argument they have had with their boss or spouse? For that matter, how much living history do we pass by obliviously in our day-to-day routines? Is it merely the stuff of textbooks, now and in the future?

Saturday, July 08, 2006

"Let's shake some dust."- The carnival moves on.

Carnivalesqe: A Grim Guignol is officially closed. I have to consider my first experience with curating to have been a success. No one got hurt, none of the art was damaged, I helped generate publicity for the gallery, we sold some stuff, and both the opening and the closing were well attended. From beginning to end I have felt satisfied with the efforts of all involved. And most importantly, despite the large amount of work, I didn't procrastinate at all. There is still magic afoot.

I was a bit nervous giving my first gallery spiel. Sus, who hung the show so well, tried to relax me by noting that she hadn't seen such a well attended artist's talk. I had a bottle in hand and I started a mostly improvised monologue about Guignol and traveling dust-bowl depression era carnival outfits, and was interrupted by a well-meaning attendee's interjection about the French monarchy in the late 1700's. Having regained the thread of the story, I was stalled by my friend Al, who approached me mid-sentence to get my car keys so he could grab his bag and take off. That added a touch of carny color certainly. John related a story of his buff stock broker, and Florence Barry helped me get everything back on track. I fielded a couple of questions, received a generous shill-inspired hand, and ducked outside for a cigarette. No one threw shit at me. I felt alright.

I feel blessed that I was able to involve the efforts of so many great people during this show. Old friends, new friends, the artists, gallery attendees, John, Sus, etc. ... Everyone worked so well together to bring this off. That's really all I can come up with at this late hour. It just amazes me.

First Friday revisited

Well, as I expected... I made it to about half the stuff I wanted to see last night. I had not been to the galleries in Shadyside in years (since the Laura Jean Mclaughlin/Bob Ziller show at Gallery Chiz), and I wanted to see some John Morris works in person, so I started at the Mendelson Gallery. The show consists of comtemporary abstracts... a type of work I have never truly connected with. The John Morris drawings were small, but give an indication of the meticulous efforts that go into his work. I appreciated them, and the other artists' pieces, with some element of detachment. It's work that the uninitiated would assess for its decorative possibilities... "gee, honey... do you think it will match the drapes?" But I know there's a lot more to it than that. Without going into the depth of the work, it's easy to appreciate the craftsmanship and emotion that the work entails. Having said that, it is awfully hard to write about without a skeleton key and a sheaf full of interviews. It's work that needs to be witnessed in person, and in silence.

I had more personal obligations than freedom to see exactly what I wanted, and so I didn't get downtown at all. Evidently someone is doing "hydroponics art" down at Wood Street. But it looks like I'm not going to get the chance to see it. I headed to Penn Avenue in Garfield to meet up with a friend who is visiting from England.

There's a new gallery next to Garfield Artworks. All the surfaces are immaculate and shiny. They have a wonderful deck that they had laid out with an elaborately presented spread. The work was well-executed, black-and- white, infrared(?) shots of plant life. There was also a series of artful male nudes looking ever-so punk rawk. The owners seemed a bit uneasy in their new skin... I heard them awkwardly tell a small gang of anarchist biker youth that they had to leave because they didn't look like they were going to buy anything. Meanwhile those kids could be the collectors of the future, or the next wave of talented Pittsburgh artists, and what are they going to remember about this gallery? The funny thing is that they could have well been friends with the male nude being exhibited on the walls.

The highlight of my night occurred at Modern Formations. Months ago I attended a show there that enlisted the viewers in choosing an artist who would have a future solo at the gallery. There was one work that clearly stood out to me above everything else. I voted about three times, and made my case to my friends... this work by Katherine Young should be the winner. Inexplicably (as I found out last night), she didn't win the viewer's choice award. But the owners were impressed by her, and she got her solo anyway. She certainly deserves it. The gallery is overflowing with her startling images. Shocking, confrontational and precise... her work references pagan mythology and employs bold sexual gesturing... she incorporates gold leaf and unusual textural objects to complete her vision. And I'm simply blown away by it. She's a Pittsburgh native, young and with a bright future. I couldn't choose between my two favorites, so I bought them both. The show is up until August 18th, so come see it for yourself.

Friday, July 07, 2006

First Friday: Critical mass, doldrums.

What is it about gallery owners that makes them want to schedule their openings on the same day as every other gallery in town? I can understand, and even enjoy, the idea of a First Friday- where all the galleries and other businesses along a certain street or in a specific neighborhood have extended hours or events. But why are these all planned for the same day of the month?

Tonight there is a gallery crawl downtown. There are 16 venues participating as part of "All-Star Week". Unblurred, a Penn avenue corridor tradition, is also happening tonight with their 13 venues listed. At least three galleries in Shadyside are unveiling their stuff for their own little swank version of First Friday. In addition there is an open house for the grand opening of a Vitamin Emporium!! There are "art parties" with music at the Warhol in the North Side, the Brillo Box in Bloomfield, and at AIR (Artists Image Resource). At the Frick they have their installment in the First Friday concert series. Finally... Oakland, Mt. Lebanon, Bellevue, and West End are hosting isolated gallery openings.

It's taken me 45 minutes just to comb through the events I've mentioned. Who wants to spend their entire lunch hour sifting through this? Choices have to be made. Routes need to be charted. Itineraries must be constructed with Excel-generated charts displaying priority pie-charts. Whose benefit is this madness serving?

Sure, if you just happen to arrive on this single day of the month, it will make Pittsburgh look as happening as NYC. Site seers have options. And the benefit for them is that they will have no idea what all else they will be inevitably missing. For there is no possible way all of this stuff can be seen by any single individual. If you want to see several of thes events, forget substance. You have about as much time as it will take you to throw down that free glass of box wine, and then it's off to the next neighborhood. There will be plenty of meaningful and critical conversations tonight... at the checkpoints and pullovers where our local law enforcement representatives will find out our grand plans for seeing everything in four hours. But yeah... you have choices.

Subsequently, the rest of the month will be bone dry for the art scene. There will be no one in the galleries, and no one strolling the cultural district. Once again, I ask- whose purpose does this serve?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

“Comics: Not Just For Kids” should be a cliché.

One thing that has bothered me for a long time is the perception that comics are not a valid art form. I’m not talking about superhero books. I agree that much of the work in that genre is juvenile, and perpetuates a naïve worldview that includes “good guys” and “villains” while eschewing any hint of moral ambiguity.

What I’m talking about can be found (in participating stores near you) shelved under the “alternative comics” category. This is a nebulous collection of diverse works that includes luminaries such as R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman, and artists at their peak like Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, Seth, Chester Brown, and Julie Doucet. These should be household names, yet they get short shrift. Are Americans really so simpleminded as to freely direct their attention to American Idol and make Stephen King the richest author in the world, while being at the same time dismissive of creators toiling to bring a small audience complex and rewarding stories merging fine writing and excellent draftsmanship? I’m proposing that the short answer to this long-winded, convoluted question is “Hell, yes!”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to engage free-thinking, open-minded artistic types in a discussion of such work. The majority of time I am simply met with a blank stare in return. Sometimes people respond that they are “just not interested in comic books.” Can you imagine saying that you “aren’t interested in film”? Or, that you “don’t care for paintings”? If so, then I’m not talking to you, and you can skip the rest of this entry.

If you are still reading, I’m curious whether you knew that Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, which is the story of the artist’s grandfather’s life as a Polish Jew during WWII. Did you know that R. Crumb has had retrospectives in the Carnegie Internationale and on the Guardian UK website? Are you aware that Chris Ware publishes a comic in the New York Times? Did you know that films such as Ghost World and Art School Confidential were based on the comic work of Daniel Clowes?

The comics form includes such a wide range of work that it requires sub-classification. There’s the surrealism of Jim Woodring, Gary Panter and Ron Rege, Jr. There is the literate autobiographical work of Carole Tyler, Jessica Abel, Jeffrey Brown, Marjorie Satrapi and Harvey Pekar. Political journalism by Joe Sacco and Peter Kuper is not to be missed. And this is merely scratching the surface. Yet still the form labors under the perception that it is confined to men-in-tights and the Sunday funnies.

Recent attempts to curry legitimacy for the comic art form have led to euphemisms such as “graphic novel” and “sequential art”. Is this really necessary? Must this work be reduced to pretentious jargon for it to gain serious attention and academic criticism? Look at the Comics Journal message board, and you can see to what lengths folks are willing to go to prove their intellectual mettle on the subject.

Believe me, if you haven’t given comics a chance, then you are missing out on some of the most vital and edifying artwork and literature being produced today. Find an independent comics shop near you, and ask for some of the creators I mentioned in this post. If you live in Pittsburgh, check out the Copacetic store off of Northumberland Street in Squirrel Hill. Bill (the proprietor) is an expert, and generous with his knowledge. If you aren’t in the area, check out the Copacetic Comics Company’s website. ( ) Heck, simply go to your local public library and demand to see their “graphic novel” section. Simply do whatever you need to do to expose yourself to a world that you didn’t even know existed. And then… most importantly… read them, even in public. Ignore the smirks and the ridicule that inevitably result, secure in the knowledge that you are plugged into a substrata of a truly American Art that should be finally getting its due.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Answering questions about Carnivalesque

I have posted some more thoughts about my "Artist's talk" on the Digging Pitt blog. I took a stab at answering the two most common questions I've been asked as a result of the show. Have a look if you are interested... Here's the link

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Our country's birthday (?)

It's July 4th. Independence Day. Do you know where your flag is?

Truth be told, we don't own one. While I'm committed to the ideals that were written into our constitution and its amendments, I can't find any compelling reason to wave our nation's flag in this modern era. I don't see any evidence that our federal government is sincere in promoting the values that I hold dear. George Washington notably warned against certain activities during his farewell address: 1. Don't form entangling alliances. 2. Beware of party divisions. 3. Do not run up a national debt. Ladies and gentlemen, we are zero for three.

If we really want to commemorate something about July 4th, we need look no further than John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Two of our nation's founding elite, their relationship with each other had its highs and lows. Alexander Hamilton worked through back channels to increase the acrimony that existed between the two over federalism. JA and TJ became the respective heads of the first two major political parties: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Thomas Jefferson was John Adam's Vice President, but this was before the two top administrators of the executive branch ran on the same ticket. While in high office, they had many disagreements. The conflict between the two, once comrades in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, escalated to the point that they stopped talking to each other until they were very old men. They started a written correspondance that lasted until their deaths, and that's how we return to this very special day. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the day we picked to commemorate the founding of our nation.

By the way, July 4th is an arbitrary date to celebrate the United States. Independence was declared unanimously, but secretly by Congress on July 2nd. John Adams himself believed that July 2nd would be the day marked by the birth of a nation. In his own words...

"The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."

The wording on the Declaration was adopted by Congress on July 4th, and the document itself was actually dated July 4th. John Hancock, president of Congress, signed it on July 4th, and sent it to the printers. However, a final copy was only signed by all who appear on August 2nd, and this was kept secret to avoid reprisal by British authorities. (Thanks Wikipedia)

** Post revised with thanks to Chris with his comment below. Thank you for pointing out the lack of clarity in my original post.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Weird NJ Magazine/ Action Park

While I was at the beach last week, I found a bunch of issues of an interesting magazine that had been on my radar for awhile. It's called Weird NJ (their website) , and it's a compendium of strange hauntings, odd architectural spaces, crazy eccentrics and general peculiarity. The periodical jigsaws nicely with my interests in offbeat travel and unexplainable phenomena. Of course, since the bulk of the stories are reader-submitted, much of it is no doubt apocryphal. But urban legends are another topic of diversion, so I'm no worse off by getting my head filled with this stuff.

Issue # 25 had an article of particular interest. When I was a mere lad I was bombarded with commercials for an exciting amusement park in Vernon, NJ called Action Park. This establishment lasted twenty years- between 1978-1998. Of course the images of kids hurtling through the air in speed boats, souped-up go-karts and low-rent ATVs captured my adolescent attention, and so for my 16th birthday I asked for a visit. I had my license, my sleeveless T, and my Jamz, and I felt the Need for Speed.

It wasn't long into my day at the park that I learned why it was nicknamed "Traction Park". Have you ever rode on (or seen) an alpine slide? You get on a little plastic cart and pilot your exposed body down a half-pipe made of fiberglass. It's kinda like a low-rent version of the luge from the Winter Olympics. There are beginner and advanced routes, but the warning signs at the entrance of the ride tell the real story. Had I paid closer attention, I may not have been as reckless as I was. I got on and depressed the plastic speed lever as much as I could, ignoring the design of the slide. Going around a tight turn, the wheels on one side slipped over the lip of the track, and I flipped the thing. Several layers of skin on my arm and leg were sheered from my body. For the rest of the day I walked around with my trophy bruises- a bloody, pus-filled mess. In a communal spirit, I did share the product of my wounds with the other revelers- I wasn't going to miss my chance at the water slides. One of these was called the cannonball, and included a narrow enclosed tube of hard plastic, that made sharp turns underground and deposited the rider into a freefall into a freezing cold man-made pond. I loved it. Thank god I wasn't a portly kid at that age. There were numerous stories of kids getting stuck, and twisting themselves into painful contortions. Of course, with these kinds of attractions there were many injuries, and some deaths. In fact the giant state-of-the-art pool was given the clever name, "Grave Pool". I'm sure that when attendance fell, and the numerous alcohol stations were opened, it got much worse. The stoner kids that staffed the park were certainly no help. They pretty much left you to your own devices. Anyway, I'm not looking to reiterate the whole article. If you are interested, they will ship back issues to you.

It's a bit of a shame that litigation ended the operation of the nation's most dangerous amusement park. Now at most places they won't even let you poop without fussing with toilet seat liners. Where are the thrills of my childhood? Gone, gone.

Anyway, the magazine is so fun it makes me a bit jealous that we don't have a similar rag for Pennsylvania (as far as I know). I did however learn that this exists. It's a book, so the information is not as current as I would like. But I'll probably still be shelling out a couple of ten-spots for it.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

My very first "artist's talk"

This Saturday is the closing of the very first show I ever curated- Carnivalesque: A Grim Guignol. It's at the Digging Pitt this Saturday from 6-9PM. There's also going to be a crafter's fair from 12-9PM. There are tons of talented regional artists whose work will be displayed, and if you are anywhere near Pittsburgh, I think you owe it to yourself to be there for the festivities.

Also, at 7PM I will be giving my very first ever "artist's talk". What the hell am I going to talk about? Will it be mostly extemperaneous?

I've only been to a few of these talks in my life... not because I have tried to deliberately avoid them, but rather because I never made it a point to seek them out. Admittedly, I have often said that I think much of the stated rationale for art work is art-school jargon- pompous, pretentious, and so generalized that it could be used interchangeably, or pulled off a database of whatever terms are trendy in the scene today.

Obviously, that's not what I want to do. And being a teacher in my work-a-day life, I also want to make it a point to avoid being pedantic. My ideal scenario looks something like this: People actually show up. The small but interested audience listens attentively to fascinating meanderings on the joy of the artistic process. Then people engage the artist in a lively question and answer session that morphs into a wide-ranging, but spirited discussion about how art affects all of our lives.

But really, I'll be quite satisfied if people show up. And restrain themselves from throwing rotten fruit at me.

Regardless, there's only one way to find out what ACTUALLY happens... see ya there! (?)