Monday, June 30, 2008

Sharing Cremains.

Today I ask you to indulge me in entertaining a hypothetical situation. Please keep in mind that I am not suggesting the following is true. Treat it as if it were fiction, and don't try to sort out any reality from the story. This is as standard a disclaimer as I can muster, so bear with me.

What if someone threw a pinch of cremains on you without any advanced notice? Perhaps we should define terms first. Do you know what "cremains" are? Very simply, they are exactly what they sound like- the remains left behind after a body is cremated. You know... the stuff that is usually referred to as "ashes", and is either buried with ceremony or kept in an urn on a mantel. Creamins are a material usually disposed of according to formal procedures. There are laws about what you can do with it. There are also religious, spiritual, and social taboos associated with human remains. Certainly people have come up with all types of creative ideas regarding this material. It's reasonable to suppose that many of these have been acted upon.

So how would you feel if you got dusted with human ash? Imagine that you went to see a performance by a band that you were only vaguely familiar with. Maybe you had one of their CD's over a decade ago, but you haven't been paying attention since. You don't know what they've been up to in the interim, and you haven't really thought about them in years. And then your friend tells you that she has an extra ticket to one of their performances, and figures that you (of all the people she knows) is best equipped to enjoy the show. Since you were initially intrigued by the novelty and creativity of the band, you feel that there is nothing to lose by accepting her offer. Who knows but that you might have a lot of fun?

Then you find yourself at a local arts space and you settle in. The room is so crowded that you find yourself in the back, on the floor. But then your friend suggests going up front, and you are surprised to find available seats with an unobstructed view. As the two musicians on stage proceed through their repertoire, you learn that the event is only one stop along a tour meant to commemorate the memory of the duo's mentor and musical collaborator. It turns out that the man is now six months dead, and that the bulk of the songs being presented were written by him. And they are conceptually and viscerally twisted. Murder, sexual perversion and the vile nature of humanity are prominent themes. Still there is a certain genius in the music. It is startlingly original and well articulated.

As the show continues, you begin to realize that you actually like it quite a bit. It's transgressive and it pushes boundaries in markedly innovative ways. But most importantly- it is entertaining and you can identify with a lot of it. You sit watching transfixed. You laugh out loud and cringe just a bit. You are truly enjoying yourself. And then it happens... the arbitrary boundary between performer and audience is abruptly violated. A benediction is offered without explanation. One of the artists on-stage removes something from a small, ornately designed box and sifts it through his hands. He walks purposefully into the audience and throws small amounts of this dusty substance on particular individuals. Upon inquiry he answers that the stuff he's sharing is "whatever you want it to be".

It doesn't take a genius to figure out what has happened, especially as your host (who has met and shares mutual friends with the band) confirms that your initial suspicion is quite possibly accurate. Given the nature of the night's tribute, there is only one explanation that makes sense. After the show you approach the performers and allude to the gesture with the mysterious (and gritty) substance, and ask whether it had anything to do with the last wishes of their fallen associate. One of the principal players looks around furtively and then carefully confirms your speculation without an explicit admission. You're told that there was indeed conversation and an agreement regarding the remains of the soon-to-be passing partner. This was a purposeful and well-thought out ritualistic offering.

How would you process such a hypothetical situation?

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sidney Lumet, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (2007).

Did you ever step back to consider why the idea of seeing a certain movie appeals to you while the thought of another leaves you cold? I would speculate that the most obvious determinative factor is the cast. Most people with an average interest in film see the name of an actor on the marquee, or nowadays more often in the promotional material, and decide whether or not to go to the theater, rent the flick on DVD, or wait for it on cable. Once folks develop a deeper interest in film they start paying attention to the directors. They find out who "made" the film and then look for other stuff by the same filmmaker. I tend to fall into that last category. Usually I gravitate to those directors with the most consistent and articulated aesthetic.

I can't think of many times that I've chosen to see something based upon the title. But Before the Devil Knows Your Dead caught my attention as soon as I heard of it. Likewise the presence of Phillip Seymour Hoffman intrigued me, as I've recognized his talent in the past (primarily in the films of P.T. Anderson). Those clues were sufficient for me to want to see it. As if to reinforce my interest, the Onion A/V gave it an intriguing review. There is no single source that I trust like that website. So I didn't even get to the point of noticing who directed BDKYD. Had I realized that the great filmmaker Sidney Lumet made the film, it would have simply made me even more anxious to track it down.

Lumet has made some absolute classics- 12 Angry Men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1964), The Anderson Tapes (1971), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), and The Verdict (1982). Yet somehow he's often overlooked when it comes time to discuss the best filmmakers of the second half of the 20th Century. Perhaps that's because he took so many chances and was so prolific (he made more than 50 films). He actually cut his teeth directing teleplays (over 200 of them in the nascent period of the medium), and through them developed a distinctive intimacy and social realism that came to characterize much of his film work. Remarkably he is still creating work in his 80's.

Before the Devil Knows Your Dead
is a story in the tradition of neo-noir. Along with Hoffman it stars Lumet-veteran Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, and Ethan Hawke. It concerns Andy and Hank (Hoffman and Hawke), two brothers who decide to make an end run around their financial troubles by ripping off their parents' suburban jewelry store. Predictably things go horribly wrong. When the plan falls apart, it is up to Andy (who instigated and plotted the entire affair) to clean up the mess. This is going to require a lot of improvisation and a fair amount of violence. There are deep complications that poison the relationships within the entire family, and the resultant emotions are as difficult to overcome as the situational difficulties.

Lumet has crafted a relentlessly bleak film. It is notable that there isn't a single likable character within the entire film. Hoffman is spectacular as a slimy real estate accountant who is steadily deteriorating, and Hawke plays against type as an exceptionally weaselly prat. As always Finney is a singular presence as their tormented father. The cast alone justifies a viewing of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. The direction is gritty and professional, even if the dialog and plot sometimes veer toward melodrama. The disjointed narrative serves to keep the viewer engaged. While no one is likely to place this film among Lumet's classic canon, it manages to capture the nihilistic dread of our modern age. It is impressively relevant for a late career work.

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Steve Almond, "(Not that You Asked)", (2007).

For some reason, we are seeing a rash of authors that blur the line between gossip, memoir, and essay during this first decade of the Twentiy-First Century. I suppose it has something to do with the success of David Sedaris. His funny autobiographical/exaggerated tales captivated a new generation of readers, and I suppose we shouldn't complain about that. After all, not many people are reading novels anymore. Still there is something slight about this new wave of young authors. They seem particularly beholden to a transient wave of postmodern irony. I wonder how many folks really expect that these books will still be read fifty years from now. I don't see a lot of candidates for core American Lit curricula.

A few of these writers are consistently entertaining (Sedaris is a blatant example). Others are uneven and cloying. Steve Almond is an illustrative case. The young secular Jew from California claims to write both fiction and non-fiction. But he is best known for Candyfreak : A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. It documented his quest for candy bars made by small companies. While dealing with a rather insignificant topic, it drew some critical attention and popular success. Candyfreak allowed the author to garner attention from the mainstream media, and resulted in invitations to appear on television. Almond has actually written about his participation in a proposed segment of a VH1 reality show that never aired.

There's a certain narcissism involved in deconstructing one's own relationship with fame. But it's an honest approach given the nature of our society. Our worship of celebrity seems to have no bounds. We've even expanded our definition of the concept to include anyone willing to present a fabricated version of themselves for the edification of the dull masses. This is the new lens through which we view ourselves, and now it's being applied in literary form. You can't really blame Almond for capitalizing on an obvious trend. However you can implicate him for a certain level of bitchiness and a penchant for offering superficial insights on a series of clichéd themes. He seems to actually invite the criticism.

(Not that You Asked) , Almond's 2007 collection of essays, was originally supposed to be entirely focused on the author's admiration for Kurt Vonegut. That's the proposal his publishers bought. We can only speculate on why they decided that they wanted a series of rants instead. Perhaps that's just what the market demands. But I'm hard-pressed to understand why any editor would allow the inclusion of a 12-page, hate-filled screed, directed against the lit blogger Mark Sarvas, and accompanied by a simpleminded dismissal of blogging in general. The only theory I have is that Random House is planning a major release of a Sarvas title in the near future. Regardless, Almond's obsession with his own personal cyber-critic comes off as especially whiny. It also reveals a strange sexual subtext that manages to be troublesome and creepy.

Yet despite the weak points of (Not that You Asked), I feel obligated to present at least a modicum of balance in opinion. I will admit to sharing Almond's basic political perspective. I too find the Bush Administration abhorrent, and Dick Cheney especially scary. I share his enmity for right-wing hacks like Condoleeza Rice, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter. I can also relate to his experiences with his new child. I've felt just as helpless in the face of fatherhood as he describes himself. Perhaps the emotional depth and maturity that customarily attends child-rearing will have a beneficial effect on Almond's writing. Maybe (as he suggests) he'll find a character to love as much as he loves himself.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Lifestyle Matters.*

I had a strange realization this morning as I was sitting at my desk and sipping a "quad, nonfat mocha, with light ice and no whipped" from the predatory corporate retail "coffeehouse" whose product I have become sadly addicted to. Against a fair amount of conscious effort, I have adopted a consumer "lifestyle" as part of my identity. This insight came on as I was reading a book of essays by a whiny liberal author who often appears as a commentator on NPR. The truth is that this awareness is potentially accessible during most of my waking hours. At the same time it is also far from profound- anyone in America that doesn't know that such a dynamic is at work is either completely oblivious, or hopelessly naive.

How did all of this occur to me? The author of the book I was reading mentioned self-consciously sipping on a latte. He was obviously aware of the associations commonly made with this libation. For those of you who voted for Bush in both 2000 and 2004, a "latte" is a coffee drink made with... um, coffee... and milk(!). More specifically it is made with shots of espresso- which is basically strong coffee. Now you know the truth. If you hang out with someone who drinks strong coffee with milk, then he/she is probably a "liberal"- which means that he/she hates family values, loves faggots, and wants to kill as many babies as possible. All of this especially applies if they call this concoction by a foreign name (usually chosen from a European country that hasn't won a war in centuries).

I suppose that most people can't be bothered with this type of self-realization. Yet they no doubt recognize the cues in their fellow citizens. If they didn't, how else would they be able to determine who belonged in their neighborhood, or church, or social club? They can't very well be expected to wait out in the parking lot to see what type of automobile each drives. Perhaps we can get the media to get behind a new promotion- key chain jewelry! That way you wouldn't have to subtly place your car keys in a conspicuous place on the table the next time you decide to buy a Jellybean Mojito for that attractive stranger. He/she could just look at your bling, and immediately recognize a fellow Lexus driver.

Presumably I'm not the only one who is mortified by the ubiquitous "lifestyle" categorization of modern global capitalism. Otherwise there wouldn't be any clothing without obnoxious brand advertising prominently displayed across its surface. And it would be impossible to buy flavored water in a plain container (oh right, never mind about that one). But I am certain that I'm part of a very small minority. If this were not the case, then the malls would disappear. Plus Hollywood might make something other than the next extended commercial. It doesn't seem that we are in any danger of these things happening. In fact this is the type of monoculture our society seems to be happily trying to push on the rest of the world. It's become our principal export (besides weapons, of course).

Perhaps you don't even understand why I'm complaining about this. Am I somehow against individuality? Isn't one's "lifestyle" what truly distinguishes them from the masses? Read that again and answer the question without irony. It's becoming more difficult to actually find an American that doesn't use "lifestyle" to define themselves. It's too convenient an option. Who has the time and energy to attempt an alternative. Increasingly all criticism of the paradigm vanishes. Still the question remains- what about personality as a motivating force? What about the freak that dares to be different in his/her own head, rather than just on the surface of their body. Where's their marketing demographic? Do they exist if they don't have one? This is the true 21st Century existential threat.

* Yes... I realize that this is an obvious rant, and likely completely gratuitous for anyone reading this blog, but I just happened to be truly sickened today by the fact that "freedom" is increasingly reduced to consumer choice here in the United States.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Supreme Court Decides: Guns and the Death Penalty.

It's been hard to turn on the television or radio this past week without hearing news about the recent Supreme Court decisions. Its ruling regarding the liabilities associated with the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill has turned into a relatively minor story next to the relatively Earth-shaking results of cases regarding gun ownership and the death penalty. We really shouldn't be that surprised about that. After all it's been almost twenty years since someone piloted the tanker into Bligh Reef and dumped its noxious cargo into Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. Because the federal government (under the watch of former oil baron and president George Bush) moved so slowly in response, this incident is commonly considered the worst man-made environmental disaster in history.

Unfortunately this isn't the time to rank order the blows that man has struck against Mother Nature. It appears that we have bigger fish to fry nowadays. So the Exxon corporation is officially done feeding out cash to the victims of their actions. Let's talk about guns! But before we get to the true American obsession, we can have a word or two about child rape. This past Wednesday, the nation's highest court reviewed the death penalty laws in that most gentle of all Southern states- Louisiana. There two men had been convicted of raping children, and subsequently sentenced to death. The court decision was narrow, with a 5-4 majority saying that capital punishment is not appropriate in a crime wherein the victim does not die.

In this case (a review of Kennedy vs. Louisiana) Justice Anthony Kennedy was the tipping point, and he authored the Majority Opinion. He pointed out that the possible application of the death penalty in these cases might repress the reporting of sexual abuse within families where these crimes have occurred. He also cited the unreliability of testimony from children. Ultimately it was reduced to a question regarding the 8th Amendment- and the Court came down with a judgment stating that such punishments constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" for these particular criminals. While I can understand such sentiments, I'd have to say that I'm unhappy about the ruling. Apparently both Obama and McCain are against it too, as they are both on record as having said so.

Still it is inevitable that conservatives spin this as a blanket condemnation of "liberals", as if all those categorized as such support the rape of children. It won't matter how many within that classification disagree with the ruling. Similarly the GOP and its Kool-Aid drinkers are proclaiming a huge victory in the landmark case that was decided today. For the first time in history the Supreme Court has directly addressed the issue over whether or not the Second Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right of individual citizens to "keep and bear arms". It has long been accepted that the framers of the document meant to ensure that militias have access to weaponry.

This judgment (a 5-4 ruling, falling along predictable lines) overturns a law in Washington DC that has prohibited handgun ownership within the city for 32 years. Antonin Scalia wrote the Majority Opinion, specifying that the Constitution forbids "the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home". This ultimately gives the lie to the oft-stated right-wing contention that they oppose "activist" justices who legislate from the bench. Clearly this ruling amounts to doing the very thing they claim to hate. But it is still unclear what the true impact of this decision will be, partially because these particular activists (including Thomas, Alito, Roberts, Kennedy and Alito) have overreached, thus failing to address the specific issues of gun control.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sunday Tales.

For reasons familiar to some that know me personally, I'm having a bit of difficulty embracing my job conditions this particular June. I'm ready for the freedom that I'm typically blessed with during this time of year. So to some degree I'm finding myself acting like I usually would, despite this year's peculiar circumstances. Even after spending all of Sunday at an outdoor family barbecue, I found myself wanting to continue the carefree socializing into the night. Not really feeling any strong motivation to go out to a bar, I decided instead to join a couple of friends for some mellow conversation in one of their homes. Inevitably the talk turned to our work lives, but before that we exchanged stories about artists that we've known.

My friend L. has spent time with many artists throughout her several decades of involvement in the arts scene. She's amassed quite a collection of artwork by both local and national creators, and much of it has been acquired through trade. She fell to talking about many of the pieces that were on display around us as we sat around her dining room table. As anyone who collects art knows, there is usually a story involved in every single acquisition. Her tales are usually quite interesting, as she runs in unusual circles with folks that are often quite freakish by conventional standards. In fact she owns several works by various "outsider artists"- some of whom have acquired widespread prominence.

Our informal examination turned on a specific piece created by one of these more prominent figures. Although I'm tempted to identify the artist in question, I've decided to respect his privacy because of the nature of the story L. shared with us. L. has actually been friends with this individual, and has spent time in his studio. He was once a hell-raiser, but found God and renounced his sinful ways. After his "rebirth" he devoted his life to producing a very idiosyncratic body of work that features his current obsessions with a millenarian brand of evangelical Christianity. His work is often darkly apocalyptic, and quite challenging to the largely progressive and academic paradigm of "Modern Art".

Anyway, L. says that this individual (who I'll refer to as N.) never tried to push his beliefs on her, despite the fervency of his faith. But despite this restraint, L. had a very strange experience one time when N. came to town for an exhibition. She put him up in her house, and his initial appearance on her front porch was accompanied by what she took as a foreboding omen. As he ascended the steps and had a seat on the ratty couch, a large black raven swooped down and perched on a nearby post. L. says she had never before seen such a bird on or around her property, and its presence unnerved her. In her account she had an overwhelming sense of "evil" and traced its origination to N.'s person.

This was an odd reaction for L. to have in proximity to an individual whose company she had enjoyed for a long time. When she explained this event, she expressed an astonishment for what she basically interpreted as an almost supernatural phenomenon. But as unsettling as the whole thing was for L., I didn't find her apprehension of it to be that extraordinary. In fact I've had similar interactions with a number of strangers throughout my life, as well as a few that I've been amply familiar with beforehand. It is interesting to me to see how different folks process seemingly mystical experiences. I think these incidents reveal more about the witnesses than the objects of their attention. Everyone seems to perceive these manifestations in a form that they are somehow prepared to understand.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

William Gay, "The Long Home" (1999).

As I predicted in this blog about a month ago, I have eagerly devoured another heaping portion of Southern Gothic by the talented writer William Gay. This time I chose to read his very first book, The Long Home. As I've previously mentioned, this was the first novel that Gay published after toiling in obscurity for almost forty years. Not only did it garner prizes and critical acclaim, but it ensured that the author would have additional opportunities to access a greater audience. While it's a bit of a shame he's not better-known, I feel privileged to have come across his work. I made no secret of the fact that I was impressed by Provinces of Night, and I'm happy to report that his earlier title stood up to the standard of excellence that I expected.

The Long Home begins with an enigmatic event of great magnitude- a backwoods bootlegger named Hovington is almost swallowed up by a cataclysmic pit that spontaneously forms on his land. Soon after, his homestead is invaded by a darkly malevolent character named Dallas Hardin. This interloper takes advantages of Hovington's rather steady deterioration, moving in on not just the whiskey business, but on the man's wife as well. As the original master slowly fades, Hardin consolidates his power over both the household and the community. He begins to build a small empire of vice and will let nothing and/or no man stand in his way. Even Hovington's beautiful young daughter is held in his power.

That's particularly disconcerting to young Nathan Winer. This seventeen-year-old man has already had his share of misfortune. His father disappeared ten years ago, and his bitter mother suspects that she has been intentionally abandoned. Nathan is put off by her harsh recriminations of her long lost husband, and secretly believes that his Dad met a far worse fate than escaping his shrill harpy of a wife. But there's not much that young Winer can do about any of this. The only paternal guidance he gets is from an elderly neighbor who lives and works on a nearby plot of land. William Tell Oliver has been around a long time, and understands local secrets that he'd rather shunt aside. Still he cares a lot for Winer.

Despite the mild warnings that Oliver delivers to the boy, Winer decides to take Dallas Hardin up on an offer for a job. Hardin is expanding his operation with a large honkytonk, and he needs someone that can help with its construction. When the head carpenter on the project gets caught with his figurative pants down, Hardin decides to let Winer take his place. Even though Nathan has no formal training, he is confident that carpentry is in his blood (his father worked the trade). With a contrary resolve to mind his own business, Winer is brought inextricably into the gritty demimonde of a truly villainous character. Hardin is both devious and determined, and thinks little of destroying life for his own gain.

When Winer falls for Amber Rose Hovington (the orphaned teen who Hardin has "adopted" as his own), a brooding storm threatens to erupt. Secrets and betrayals are exchanged, and all the story's players assume their tragic roles. The violent consequences strike the reader with such force that one can only wonder whether they can be redemptive, or if they merely underscore the essential bleakness of the boneyard of life. Gay has struck a few deep chords of humor into his tale, but one suspects that they are only meant to serve as the sugar that helps the bitter medicine go down. There is a deep despair underlying the beautifully evocative descriptions in Gay's prose. I can only hope that he remains productive in his late years.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Our Decadence Will Be Our Undoing.

Carnegie Mellon University is once again in the news for its research and development of cutting edge technology. This time the story is about autonomous driving technology. For those of you challenged by tech-speak, what that means is "driver-less cars". It turns out that General Motors and the university have announced a five-year partnership, entailing $5 million in funds earmarked to make this strange sci-fi proposition into a reality. This shouldn't be much of a surprise to those of us on the local scene. We all well know CMU's obsession with everything robotic. In fact many of us even recognize that the vast bulk of their student body is made up of robots- or at least individuals with a similar capacity to relate to human beings.

Anyway, the car company and the tech school certainly see something promising in the idea of taking the driver out of the vehicle. Just consider the words of Larry Burns, GM vice president of R&D and Strategic Planning- “Imagine being virtually chauffeured safely in your car while doing your e-mail, eating breakfast and watching the news.” Naturally we would all like to see the day come when we spend so much time in our cars that we can accomplish all of these tasks in transit. Actually the solution for that type of freedom seems to be staring us in the face in today's reality- it's called public transportation. And much of that infrastructure is already in place, although it is being slowly eroded by neglect.

But as in many things in our modern society, we like to go beyond the simple answers. If there is one skill-set that humans appear to excel in, it is in their capacity to make things infinitely more complex and confusing. So we search for the proper way to set up a contrived "system", while a natural one already exists. However we first need to iron out all of the pesky details. What if the computer that pilots your self-directed machinery goes haywire? What if it blows an electrical fuse? How does the digital guidance system account for and adjust itself to the random qualities of ordinary human error? How will the driver-less car respond to an alien abduction? These are all questions that the eggheads down at CMU need to work through.

On one level I have to admit that there are elements of this idea that attract me. There is indeed something enticing about removing a bit of the American personality from our road systems. I'm sure you've noticed that the particularly aggressive nature of our citizenry seems to manifest itself most easily behind the wheel of the automobile. People automatically gain six inches of height and fifty pounds of muscle when they are encased in a couple of tons of hard plastics and metal. Surely the engineers over in Oakland will decide to keep these troublesome inclinations away from their programmed personalities. And it would be great if something would take over for those fools who already try to eat breakfast or do their business while driving.

Yet with all the potential benefits of "autonomous driving technology", I can't help but wonder whether we are truly addressing the most pressing concerns of society. Is it really appropriate in this day-and-age to be investing huge sums of cash into figuring out a way that commuters can sort through their e-mail in their SUVs? How did US car manufacturers identify this as an important objective in the current economic climate? Wouldn't it be more appropriate and useful to actually develop, build, and market American-made vehicles that get decent gas mileage? What about making cars that we will be able to afford to drive in the coming years? I think it says a lot about the personality of the nation that they have made driver-less cars a priority.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Vanishing Roadside Culture.

Inevitably when June comes around my mind starts to wander to the idea of the open road. Granted this concept is a bit naive in today's age, with the cookie-cutter homogeneous sprawl that threatens to engulf our nation. Maybe that's just the bias of a lifelong resident of the US Northeast. In theory I believe that something as free as the "open road" does exist... say, somewhere in Montana. Either way, compared to my workaday existence, a day-trip down to West Virginia seems like a little slice of heaven. So now I've started to think about how I might make something like that happen this summer. Certainly I have more obstacles to that type of carefree travel nowadays, but I have faith that I can make it work somehow.

Even if I am still contained to a 9-5 existence, I can get on the internet and daydream. One of the sites I like the best for this purpose is It is a vast collection of offbeat travel destinations categorized by state. It documents a culture that has largely vanished in our modern age. There was a time in our nation's history when people anxiously interrupted long car rides for the most minor of attractions. That's why someone thought it would be a good idea to exhibit the world's largest frying pan (Wilmington, DE), and the large kettle once used to boil the flesh off of "Mad Anthony" Wayne's bones (Erie, PA). Such oddities lured weary drivers from the claustrophobia of their family-filled automobiles.

Now folks are generally in too much of a hurry to get wherever it is that they are going. Leisurely travel seems ever increasingly to be a thing of the past. The country's highway system is based upon convenience and simplicity. You can go hundreds of miles without encountering a stoplight. Corporate fast food joints now have a monopoly, with the institutional glare of service centers offering a brief respite to the harried wayfarer. Good luck soaking up some of the local color in between your home and your ultimate target. It all looks and smells the same. Occasionally you may catch a glimpse of something interesting advertised on a road sign, but how often do you actually exit the highway to check it out?

Still some of this vanishing culture exists on the back roads and the alternate routes. I remember my family stopping at Roadside America (no relation to the aforementioned site) off of Interstate 78, near Shartlesville, PA. This is a "miniature village" model train setup complete with tunnels, mountains, bridges, farms, town squares, a mountain trolley, a grist mill, woods, and even a little zoo. Incredibly this vast tableau was largely the work of one Pennsylvania Dutch man- Laurence Gieringer. We all marveled at the lovingly crafted scenes, and the old school animations that visitors could trigger with the push-buttons along the periphery. Fortunately for all of us, the place still functions through the maintenance of Gieringer's offspring.

The magic of this traditional stop inspired what has become for me a lifelong love for such oddball attractions. These little petting zoos, family-run theme parks, cave tours, and idiosyncratic one-room museums seem like the last remaining vestiges of authentic mid-Twentieth century Americana. They are disappearing quickly with the growing dominance of our corporate monoculture. Thank god for the small group of obsessive weirdos that invest their time and money, often rehabbing and preserving the essential qualities of these treasures. If not for their efforts, freaks like me couldn't dream of experiencing the unique pleasures of stuff like the Secret Caverns (Cobblesville, NY) God's Garden (McCarthur, OH), or the One and Only Presidential Museum (Williamsfield, OH).

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Aline Kominsky-Crumb, "Need More Love: A Graphic Memoir" (2007).

Despite the relative obscurity that most art comix creators toil in, a large proportion of the literate United States has no doubt heard of R. Crumb. The cartoonist has become a sort of cultural icon, from his youthful days in the vanguard of the revolutionary 60's to his eventual embrace by the fine art world. His work has been featured in museum retrospectives and his life has been documented on film by noted director and personal friend Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, 1994). Even though such recognition has chased him to an expatriate existence in France, he remains one of the most important American social critics of our time. Virtually every corner of his psyche has been examined, but still there is a glaring gap in this analysis.

Throughout the last three-and-a-half decades, Robert Crumb has lived and worked with his current wife- Aline Ricky Goldsmith Kominsky-Crumb. This extraordinary woman has made her own significant contributions to comics, and has slowly built a modest following of fans and admirers. Perhaps the second cartoonist to portray herself in a series of autobiographical comix (after Justin Green), Kominsky-Crumb was first recognized for her work in San Francisco, when she joined with a collective of female artists who were putting out an anthology called Wimmen's Comix. As her relationship with her legendary partner developed, she became increasingly at odds with Trina Robbins, who brought a heavy strain of feminism into the the collective.

Kominsky-Crumb would eventually split off to initiate a collaboration with Diane Noomin, and thus the Twisted Sisters series was born. Through this publication, the pair would encourage a broader spectrum of possibilities and perspectives from women artists. Simultaneously the Crumbs put together and co-edited the tremendously influential Wierdo anthology- a project that (along with Art Spiegelman's Raw) carried the banner of "alt-comix" during the vacuous 1980's. The couple produced two other continuing works during this time- their daughter Sophie was born (and she continues the family tradition herself as a talented cartoonist), and they co-created an ongoing saga called Dirty Laundry, in which they play off each other to form an intriguing hybrid of their individual visions.

It's clear to the serious observer of comics history that Kominsky-Crumb would garner serious critical attention even without her association with her illustrious husband. Those who have consistently underrated her influence would do well to check out her 2007 graphic memoir, Need More Love. This nearly 400-page book chronicles her life in detail, incorporating comics, interviews, photos and illuminating self-commentary. Her Long Island-born Jewish obsessiveness, along with her self-deprecating humor, makes this a wonderful introduction to the phenomenon that is Aline Kominsky-Crumb. She is absolutely without shame, and details both the various strengths and embarrassing aspects of her own character.

One need not be a student of Kominsky-Crumb's interests (fashion, physical fitness, dolls, etc.) to enjoy this book. You don't even have to appreciate the raw aesthetic that she brings to her cartooning. If you are at all curious about the life of a trail-blazing artist during the tumultuous years of post WWII America, then you owe it to yourself to check this out. Even if you are merely another R. Crumb "camp follower", there is much information to be mined from Need More Love. Kominsky -Crumb no doubt owes some debt to her intimate association with genius, but the opposite must also be acknowledged. Either way the past fifty years in art comics would have been noticeably weaker without the contributions of this ebullient woman.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Scott Phillips, "Cottonwood" (2003).

You could be forgiven for never having heard of Scott Phillips. The sad fact is that most contemporary American authors languish in almost total obscurity. The few that do break out into a broader public consciousness (like Cormac McCarthy, for instance) never quite reach the status of celebrity. That's likely because of the increasing illiteracy of this country. But it also has to with the predominance of other forms of popular culture. Most of the drones across this wide land can identify even the most untalented actors who appear in mainstream movies. Even so, not everyone in Hollywood gets name recognition. Only the top three or four directors would be recognized by the average citizen. Screenwriters are even more anonymous.

So it should be no surprise that the release of The Ice Harvest (2005) did little or nothing to advance the fame of Scott Phillips. After all, he was only the author of the book by the same name. And to add a further factor of remove, he generally writes about Kansas. Middle America has never been particularly sexy as far as the media is concerned. Still Phillips is not necessarily writing inaccessible stories. Among the literary cognoscenti, he is known for writing darkly comic neo-noir crime fiction. Much of his writings have been set in the mid-20th Century and before, but as with most material dealing with betrayal, thievery, and violence- Phillips' themes are easily transportable to the modern mind.

His third novel is titled Cottonwood, and it is his only book that I have read. It takes place in a small Kansan town at the end of the 19th Century. Like many other places located in that geography during that time, Cottonwood is portrayed as a settlement on the cusp of major changes. A stranger from Chicago (Marc Leval) and his wife have recently come to town, and they are building the most elaborate household ever seen in the territory. Leval employs many of the long-time inhabitants in the construction trade, and therefore garners plenty of popularity from the start. He successfully predicts the imminent arrival of the railroad, and therefore inspires confidence in his tale of a new cattle drive route through town.

Leval quickly consolidates his influence by befriending the local barkeep, Bill Ogden. A former farmer and gravedigger, Ogden is at a sort of crossroads in his life. He has left his Dutch immigrant wife Ninna on the margins of civilization, snugly in the arms of the farmhand that he himself hired to till his fields. Oddly this doesn't bother Ogden much, as whatever affection had once characterized his marriage is long gone. So he's pretty much free to pursue his own devices, which includes running his saloon and sleeping with whomever he can wrangle an invitation from. Naturally this is a growing source of conflict between Ogden and Leval as they cement their new business partnership. Mrs. Leval is quite beautiful and equipped with a wandering eye.

There are other troubles brewing on the outskirts of Cottonwood. People have been disappearing during their journeys into the wilderness. It soon becomes clear that a German family called the Benders may have something to do with the waylaid travelers. They run a sort of bed-and-breakfast alongside their freakishly thriving apple orchard, and it seems that many who decide to spend the night end up sleeping there for an eternity. This doesn't bode well for Leval's plans to build a new metropolis, and so he and Ogden set out to confront the situation. Phillips shows a deft touch in integrating regional historical figures (the Benders) into an otherwise fictional narrative. His prose is simple and straightforward, and moves at a brisk pace.
While I wouldn't be tempted to call Cottonwood a "future classic", I can understand why Hollywood has come a'calling to the Phillips homestead.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Things to Do This Weekend. (6/20-22/08)

It's a bit odd to find so much to do in the middle of the month in Pittsburgh, especially in the arts scene. But for some reason this weekend has a few things you might want to consider attending. That should be good news to those of you without travel plans. Now you can tell all the naysayers- "Y'see... the 'Burgh is just as exciting as anywhere else during the summer. Mild climate... lots to do... who could want anything more?" Or you could stay at home basking in the cool of your A/C unit, and cry in your beer while daydreaming about the seashore.

Friday night features an opening for the Group A artists collective at the Fe Gallery in Lawrenceville. I'm happy to report that I am now receiving snail mail hot-cards from Jill and Co. alerting me of events at this spot. This particular group show promises to address political promises (presumedly of the unfulfilled variety). Come see what this shadowy little cabal is up to. The reception runs from 7-9PM. Expect the gallery staff to be a bit distracted as they are laboring to put together the catalog for "In the Making: 250 Years/250 Artists"- an exhibition that will be in place by September. But as far as I am aware, this is the main art attraction tomorrow night.

On the other hand, Saturday is going to demand a bit of prioritization. If you get an early start, you should probably make Artists Image Resource (AIR) your very first destination. They are throwing down with their Annual Summer Bash. From noon until midnight there will be art, music, performances, and refreshments. All you have to do is pay a one-time $10 entrance fee, and you can come-and-go as you please. You can watch local superstar poster-boy Mike Budai do his thing live and in person... Or take a chance on the Artist-Made T-shirt Raffle. The Burndowns and Power Pill Fist will be playing for the hipsters, and I'm told there will be cupcakes and beer from East End Brewery!

Later in the evening you might want to make your way to Market Square for the last (?) Art Olympic Theater. Of course it will be hosted by its creator Tom Sarver (late of the Tom Museum). If you haven't seen any of this series of events, you have to grab the opportunity while you can. Sarver is off to Yonkers (or France?) in the Fall. Come see local and regional artists stumble all over themselves competing to make a sculpture out of random materials in the space of two hours. The contest is to be decided by Jeffry Inscho (Mattress factory), Kurt Shaw (Tribune Review), Al Hoff (City Paper), and Laura Domencic (PCA). Get there at 6PM to see local jazz favorites OPEK open for the event. It's all free and Penn Brewery is providing the suds.

Before you give in to the bars for the night, you should stop by the Wizard of Oddities (4314 Butler Street) in Lawrenceville. This is a relatively new gallery opened by some newly transplanted farmers. The owners are gracious on their occasional forays back into the city, and feature an eclectic mix of local and national artists. Saturday night's opening (@ 7PM) features the watercolors and collage of Bill Ireland and Chris Ingham. Just look for the neon naked-lady silhouette in the front window. If you stayed at AIR all day instead, head a few blocks over to Moxie Dada (1416 Arch Street) for the first installment of their new Summer Music Series (featuring the jazz fusion of "So Say We").

After a couple of busy nights in a row, you probably just want to take it easy with a nice Sunday morning church service. But if you are inclined more toward elitist, black-separatist, Socialist, Muslim, flag-hating, messianic figures (and their villainous associates)- make sure to stop by Zombo Gallery (4900 Hatfield St., Lawrenceville) between noon and 4PM for some baked goods. Sales benefit Barack Obama's campaign and

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

McCain's Bold Strategy for Saving America.

Here's a good indication of the type of longterm vision we should expect if John McCain gets elected- he proposes to end the ban on offshore drilling. Obviously this very issue has not originated with John McCain. In fact, in the 2000 election McCain was clear in his stance that he opposed an extension of drilling. He actually stood up to Bush and a previous Republican Congress to help thwart such a move previously. Nonetheless it is no longer politically expedient for John McCain to exercise any kind of consistency in his energy policy. Right now it is all about oil prices. The American citizenry (by-and-large) doesn't give a shit about a continuing dependency on foreign oil. They only want to see prices decrease at the pump. It's in their immediate interest to have more of the crude extracted from the Earth, no matter where it happens.

So why shouldn't we go ahead and do it? Well, for starters, it's simply a short term solution to the biggest global crisis we face in the 21st Century. The United States has been putting its trust in the oil industry for more than four decades. Its representatives have reached the zenith of their power in the George W. Bush Administration. The entire executive branch is determined to hold on to the fossil fuel energy paradigm as long as they can continue to increase their wealth. They simply don't care what happens to the rest of us. We've been investing obscene amounts of taxpayer dollars into military adventurism and government subsidies paid out to the oil companies- and the current situation is a direct result of this mismanagement of the nation's resources.

Obviously it is time to wake up and re-evaluate our approach. Is offshore drilling going to lead to immediate relief at the pump? Absolutely not. By the time those platforms are online and producing (estimates range from 7-10 years for their optimization), gasoline will have gone up exponentially. It won't make a dent in world oil prices. And unfortunately, American oil companies are not going to reduce their prices just for the USA. This is strictly international business. Meanwhile they will continue to pollute our environment and distract us from the ultimate task at hand- developing and utilizing alternate energy. Until we make a concerted and organized effort to exploit the technology that is already available to us, we will continue to see economic hardships and anxiety.

The simple fact is that our entire foreign policy is wrapped around the "stabilization" of oil markets. The Republicans are driving the federal government into financial insolvency in order to profit an increasingly shrinking upper class. The neocons (and theocons) have been multiplying our enemies worldwide with their efforts to control politics in the oil-rich regions. But those that benefit from the current perilous conditions couldn't care less about what is happening to the middle and lower classes. As long as there is a market somewhere in the world for them to exploit, they are well satisfied. If Americans can't afford rising gas prices, they will sell the oil to China or India. If the oppressed in oil-producing nations rise up, they will be bombed into submission. And we (the citizenry) will pay the price.

The current legislation under consideration by Congress is a very cynical strategy put in place by the GOP to narrow Obama's current campaign advantage. Who is spearheading this proposal? Simply identify those characters that are loudest in their support of the bill- John McCain and George W. Bush. McCain has taken great pains in the past to separate himself from his would-be predecessor's failed policies. He has tried to curry favor with environmentalists, but what is his revolutionary plan to change the direction that the country is heading in? Bomb Iran, maintain a permanent military presence in Iraq, increase offshore drilling, and promote nuclear and coal energy... all misguided extensions of activities that have helped put the United States where it is today- slipping into a third-rate, former-superpower status.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Gay Marriage and Non-Profit Status.

For some odd reason, I've found myself thinking a lot about non-profit organizations recently. I suppose that it's been indirectly caused by the California Supreme Court Case regarding same-sex marriage. If you're not familiar with the ruling, that government body decided that a ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional. Obviously this has been the source of a lot of celebration in some quarters. The decision made California only the second state in the union to provide this benefit to a much maligned subgroup of the population. But for as much happiness as this caused, it's arguably been responsible for nearly equal provocation. The Christian Right was mortified by this action, and its leaders have intensified their complaints about "activist judges".

I've written on this particular subject at some length, and have made no secret that I unreservedly support the rights of homosexuals to commemorate their unions in any way offered to heterosexuals. Those who insist that the parameters of marriage are solely defined by the Christian bible are either naive or willfully obtuse. Regardless of fundamentalist claims to the contrary, Christians have not proved themselves more successful at marriage than any other segment of the population. The "institution" is circumscribed by law, and thus the status of those united in such a ceremony is by definition legalistic. Any spiritual component to such a union is the private business of the individuals involved.

So what does this have to do with non-profit organizations? It's a fact that religious bodies have been vested by the state with the power of performing marriage ceremonies. It's also well-known that churches are granted non-profit status. In my view, as long as these circumstances remain, people should not be making distinctions that are (at their very heart) unconstitutional. Ultimately the status of marriage is recognized by the federal and state governments. The conditions of matrimony include tax breaks, as well as other civilly-defined privileges. These benefits should not be withheld on the basis of religious discrimination. If they are, the offending organization should be stripped of their non-profit classification.

I want to be clear that I am specifically talking only about non-profits. Private businesses also discriminate based on sexual orientation. In many cases they are sued by those they refuse to serve. This past week I heard about a lesbian couple who contacted wedding photographers, and was told that the business did not document same-sex marriages. The dissatisfied parties ended up in civil court, arguing the merits of their respective positions. I'd like to see such lawsuits eliminated as well. Private contractors should have a right to pick-and-choose their clients based upon self-selecting criteria. Whether or not their biases are absurd is not the point. If they aren't getting breaks from the government they should be free to pursue their enterprise in any manner that they see fit.

Don't get me wrong... I realize that this proposal will be unpopular among progressives. There is indeed something inherently troublesome about limiting your commerce to those that agree with you and your values. But I think that this option should be protected by the Constitution. Business owners should be allowed to reserve the right to set the terms of their services. Government shouldn't be in the practice of dictating the activities of citizens who are merely exercising their right to choose their own associates. However, such entities should be refused any public subsidies, including tax exemption. Such rewards should be democratically administered and in agreement with the spirit of the Constitution.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Chris Ballard, "The Butterfly Hunter" (2006).

When did you first decide what you wanted to be when you grew up? I remember considering a few things, based upon what I thought I was good at and how interesting different jobs seemed. Even so I did very little in preparation to act on those vague ideas. I knew I was going to college, and I figured the matter would be resolved during the four years of undergraduate school. That wasn't how it worked out. Half way through my junior year, I still didn't know what I wanted to major in. So I got out a sheet of lined paper and added up all of the credits I had in each content area. The winner was 'psychology', so I declared that my field of study. I graduated on time, but had no clue what the next step was. I ended up going for a master's degree in Psychology in Education.

With the tightening of the US labor markets, it's becoming increasingly imperative to consider this career question at a very early age. The competition for quality jobs is intensifying. You need to figure out what direction you are going in, and then figure out the prerequisites and requirements. The stakes are high, so you'd better seize your first chance, as it could end up being your only one. I've often envied people that know what they will be doing from childhood. Apparently some people are "called". Others have to strike out blindly for years before they see the signs. A good number of folks end up merely working whatever jobs allow them to attain their chosen lifestyles. How many people truly enjoy their work?

Chris Ballard knows that's an extremely hard question to answer. Instead of trying to quantify worker satisfaction, this frequent contributor to Sports Illustrated decided to identify and interview a few of these select individuals. A couple of them said they received their "calling" at an early age, while others seemed to stumble into it through something akin to divine intervention. The common thread running through their lives was the fact that they would be doing what they are doing even if they weren't getting paid for it. That's how much they love their work. And their stories are collected in Ballard's The Butterfly Hunter. They are an eccentric bunch of characters engaged in odd pursuits.

While these men and women are not really famous, you have no doubt heard one of them (and no, that's not a typo). Don LaFontaine has been called "the voice of God". If you have seen a movie in the theater during the last few decades, chances are great that you've listened to his narration during a promo trailer. He's the guy that came up with the now ubiquitous "In a world where (so-and-so happens)" introduction. And he's a very wealthy man. Still it's obvious that he has put a lot of energy into his work. The same goes for the guy who makes eyeball prosthetics, the lumberjill who competes on ESPN, the mother and daughter team that analyze handwriting, a pair of nature-lovers that collect mushrooms and butterflies, and the rest of Ballard's subjects.

The problem is that there really isn't a whole lot else that these people share, besides toiling in weird niches that intrigued the author. Ballard may attempt to draw some overarching, generalized conclusions by comparison, but he isn't altogether convincing. Each of these stories is so idiosyncratic that it seems silly to try to manufacture arbitrary trends. Yet even if Ballard fails to draw a greater whole, the parts are themselves often entertaining. He is able to put these strangers at their ease, and he collects a few damn fine anecdotes in the process. Whenever he manages to avoid becoming bored, Ballard's curiosity is able to elicit interesting insights. Read The Butterfly Hunter as a collection of separate essays depicting a few peculiar obsessives, and you'll enjoy yourself.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

My "First" Father's Day.

As many readers may be aware, this is the first Father's Day I am celebrating as an honoree, as well as observing my own Dad's role in my life. It was a bit surreal (but meaningful) to be wished happiness on this holiday by my direct forbear. Obviously I've never been in the position to process it in just this way. One would be forgiven for thinking that people have been commemorating fatherhood in June for centuries, but it's not true. In fact it was Richard Nixon that made this an official holiday in the United States. That was on the official recommendation of his predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson. However, the very first Father's Day in this nation was in Fairmont, West Virginia on July 5th, 1908.

A woman named Grace Golden Clayton made the suggestion to her Methodist pastor that they should have a special service to remember the 361 men who died in a mine explosion in nearby Monongah the previous December. Two years later (in Creston, Washington), a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd was instrumental in creating a Father's Day inspired by her own Dad- a Civil War veteran who had raised her and her five siblings singlehandedly after the tragic death of their mother. This was the first such observance held in the month of June. Some of its early supporters included William Jennings Bryan and Calvin Coolidge (who was the first president to recommend it as a national holiday).

If you go further back on a different continent you might find mention of Männertagen (Men's Day), or gentlemen's day (Herrentag). This regional German celebration involves clannish activities whereby men hike through the woods, pulling a wagon-load of beer and wine. Apparently it devolves into a drunken feast featuring traditional foods such as blood sausage and liverwurst. I'm reasonably sure that such a tradition would be heartily embraced by menfolk throughout the Americas. Still I suspect that Father's Day is a much more sedate affair for most fathers in the US. No doubt it typically involves doing a lot of sitting on the couch while one's offspring do the chores routinely relegated to Dads.

As for myself, I've had a pleasant start to the day. Five-month-old Baby E. was decked out in a Ralph Lauren onesie that had been updated with a hand-drawn heart obscuring the ridiculously prominent polo player logo. It read "I love Daddy". My favorite drink from the chain store coffee shop was waiting for me when I awoke, and I was given PiMs as a special breakfast treat. I also received a nice necktie and a handmade card with a tracing of E.'s little hand. It was all extraordinarily touching, and I had to admire my infant's exquisite tastes. After M. visits her own father, we will be going out to lunch at the restaurant of my own choosing. And then I will take E. for a walk while M. changes the kitty litter. I am truly spoiled.

Of course tradition dictates that I still call my own Dad. This is always a painless affair because I actually like him. He's a good man who has taught me some important virtues about how to treat others without judging them. That quality has made our relationship run pretty smoothly over the years. He's now enjoying the fruits of retirement, doing a lot of travel, and taking lots of photographs. Like me, he enjoys sharing his images with others. If you get a chance, check out his photos at the Flickr site.

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Baby's Got a Bug.

The last couple of days have been instructive in the art of parenting. Baby E. has contracted some type of viral infection, and the days and nights have become especially long for M. The big question is, "how and where did he acquire the nasty bug?" Unfortunately there is no obvious answer. He could have gotten it from a number of places, and one of the only clues is that his two-week-old cousin had to make a trip to the emergency room last Saturday with similar symptoms. It started with a bit of a cough, and then we noticed that he was puking more than usual. There was just something about the outpouring of partially digested breast milk that seemed to be a red flag. Perhaps it was the frequency and amount of vomit.

Really though, it's kind of tough to decide what is 'normal' and what needs to be closely attended to. After all, babies are (to a large extent) simply spit-up machines. It could come out like a cottage cheese dribble, and still be considered healthy. The same thing would apply to the quality of the bowel movement. Should we be taking into account its color? It's often yellow, and sometimes brownish. What about that earthy forest green tone? Is that something to worry about? I've had that type of thing myself at times when I wasn't particularly sick. If you've ever kept track, certain types of kid's cereals can result in such discoloration. Have you ever eaten half a box of Boo Berry in a single setting?

Then there's the question of consistency. One of the signs of a viral infection is diarrhea. How the hell am I supposed to know what distinguishes that affliction from the ordinary watery stuff coming out of his butt? When M. took E.'s temperature and found it above 100 degrees, she promptly called the doctor for instructions. The mild fever likely would have been of little concern had not E. had other symptoms. It was suggested that E. pay a visit to Children's Hospital. At some point the good doctor examined his stool, and determined that he had "the runs". Now I'm not going to claim that I closely examine Baby E.'s shit every time he drops a load in his organic diapers... but I'm frankly mystified how one can make such an assessment.

Either way there was no confusing the fact that E. was sick. And naturally this was extremely worrisome for both M. and I. Our son would have intermittent bouts of melancholia, and would lapse into crying fits whenever he couldn't sleep. Occasionally he would get smiley and lead us into the false hope that he was getting better, only to relapse into another round of regurgitation. I made my first trip to the store for Pedialyte. E. seemed to like that OK. He even drank it out of a little plastic cup. Interestingly, despite the mess he was making, E. rarely lost his appetite. We just had to go very slow with him. The worst part of it all is that he started spitting back the medicine he takes to fight his acid reflux. That made him more uncomfortable at bedtime.

All of this time M. has been confined (basically) to a single room on the second floor. She hasn't been able to get anything else done. Of course that has provoked an intense cabin fever. That, along with the sleep deprivation, makes for a very edgy Mommy. It's lucky for all three of us that she isn't working now. It's possible that he contracted this thing during the single day we had to use daycare last week. Babies are certainly susceptible to all kind of maladies under those conditions. That's why the daycare staff prohibits parents from bringing their sick kids in until after the obvious symptoms have cleared up. We can't help but wonder how many days we'll need to take off next year to care for E. I don't know how anybody does this alone.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

"Artists and Models of 2008" @ Panza Gallery, Saturday, June 14th.

Slowly, slowly I'm creeping my way toward the completion of my Book of Life project. I've now been at it for two years, and I'm most of the way through the business section. This may not be especially meaningful for those of you who haven't seen this work-in-progress, but rest assured that it means that I have made much progress and I am finally seeing the end in clear sight. I've never sustained this kind of effort for this long on any work of art. I used to keep a journal, and I continued writing in it for years- but that was an indefinite pursuit not meant for the eyes of others. This blog was meant to have specific parameters, yet (as you've no doubt figured out) it has taken on a nebulous quality.

So now that I'm approaching completion, I've begun to think about how I might eventually display the finished piece. There has been some interest from a couple of gallery owners, and I'll have to be very deliberate about making a choice. In the meantime I've found a couple of opportunities to preview very small segments of the whole. As I've previously mentioned, the next Unicorn Mountain (to be titled The Black Forest) will eventually be released. And it will include a number of Book of Life drawings within the selection of great artwork, from a variety of seasoned artists. I'm proud to have been asked to be a part of that. In fact I would have considered it sufficient exposure for the time being. But it turns out that it won't be the first sneak peek.

Tomorrow night (Saturday the 14th) there is an opening reception for a show at the Panza Gallery (115 Sedgewick Street in Millvale) called Artists and Models of 2008. It features the work of a wide variety of artists that draw at the weekly sessions at the gallery. For almost as long as I've been working on the Book of Life I've been showing up every Thursday to sketch live models. There have been old men, young women, and everything in between. Generally I complete 5-7 pages during each session. I've gotten comfortable being around the ever evolving mix of artists that choose to participate in this time-honored activity. During the breaks we have discussions about art, politics, sex, religion and other miscellaneous topics. It's a community I feel fortunate to be able to participate in.

Most of us have submitted drawings and/or paintings for this show. There is a wide range of styles and media represented, but the content remains the same- the human figure. One might expect a collection of such images to be mundane. After all, literally thousands of people have honed their skills via the "live nude". Everyone is familiar with the human body from a lifetime of observation. What could possibly be exciting or new about such an exhibition? Haven't we seen all of this before? The answer might surprise you. Certainly everything on the walls of the gallery will be recognizable as a human being, but each piece in turn will reveal a specific set of presumptions and proclivities that make up an individual perspective.

As I was walking around before this past week's session, I was pleasantly surprised and delighted by the array of interpretation on display. It was good to be reminded that art is not always about pure form, but rather often deals with the idiosyncratic approaches possible within the artistic imagination. Such well-trodden subject matter is still capable of enlightening the viewer. I began to see these works as representations of the creators rather than simple portrayals of the external stimuli being conveyed. I hope that those who choose to see this show will have a similar experience. These are all windows offering glimpses of greater vistas. Don't just come for the naked bodies.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Art Events For Friday, June 13th.

Just as expected (given the amount of art events and other things happening around town last weekend) we are about to enter a rather slow weekend. Perhaps everybody really does need to wind down from the rash of frenzied activity of the Spring season. But before you decide to stay in with a glass or two of chilled white wine and the complete run of Freaks and Geeks on DVD, let me tell you about a thing or two that IS going on.

The Mattress Factory is having its annual "Urban Garden Party". Since this year's event falls on a very special day, the organizers have decided to run with a likewise special theme. As their website explains- "To honor Friday the 13’s superstitious origin in 18th century France, this year’s fête will feature guillotines, powdered wigs, bustiers and extravagant, over-the-top decor. Let them eat cake!" That last part is ironically appropriate as none of the peasants that I know can afford the $85 'ticket-for-the-masses-fee', let alone the $200 VIP ticket for the hour-long pre-party with a special performance by local chanteuse Phat Man Dee. Keep in mind that this is a fund-raiser, and so the high admission fees are understandable and vital to the operation of this first class institution. Oh, to be a true supporter of the arts!

On the exact opposite end of the spectrum is the Tattoo Artist's Freak Show over at Zombo Gallery on 49th and Hatfield Streets in Lawrenceville. Michael Devine (co-owner, namesake, and curator) has adopted the mission of bringing art to ordinary folks who are often intimidated by the prospect of high-falutin' art receptions. Over the last year he has shared his version of what he refers to as "lowbrow art". The stuff he shows is consistently accessible and fun. And the best thing is that most of it is priced under $200, as Zombo himself would love to see you actually buy a piece of it to hang on your wall. The 'Burgh is chock full of quality skin artists, and this Friday night will be a great opportunity to get a look at some of their work.

If you are looking for something in between the aforementioned events, I'd heartily recommend your presence Friday evening at the official opening reception of Sylvania at the 709 Penn Gallery (6-8PM). The title indicates the theme, and reflects the woodsy nature of the art. This show features the work of a bunch of artists involved in the loose arts collective called Unicorn Mountain. The group has published a number of art/comics-based books over the last several years. Their next publication is (tentatively) called Black Forest and is said to be forthcoming this Fall. It will feature a great lineup of local artists, some of which have gone on to national acclaim, and will be accompanied by a CD containing music by local bands.

At the risk of seeming personally biased (I am involved with the collective, have a piece in this show, and will be included in Black Forest), I have to say that there are a number of excellent artists contributing to this themed-project. You should really come to the "soft opening" tomorrow night, but if you can't make it- it will be available for viewing through July 12th. That includes Friday, July 11th, which is the date of the Summer Downtown Gallery Crawl. Artists exhibiting work include Matthew Thurber, Austin English, Ally Reeves, Katherine Young, Ian Finch, Thad Kellstadt, Beano, Tom Hall, Elina Malkin, David Grim, Thee Coyote, Michael Budai, Ben Hernstrom, Amy Conroy, Chris Cornwell, Kathleen Lolley, and Tugboat Printshop.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Life In Space.

There's been some recent news about activity surrounding the International Space Station. Apparently the Japanese have been working with NASA for a couple of years with the intention of attaching a lab to the ISS. The operation has made me think about life in space. One of the recent tidbits of news to come out in the media regarding the ISS is that it is equipped with just one bathroom. To make matters especially dire, this sole facility was 'out-of-order' for awhile. This has to make life inconvenient for the three longterm residents of the station. You'd figure that an object that is reputed to be the most expensive man-made item in history (at an estimated cost of $158 billion) would include more than one place to take a crap.

Eventually it is going to require additional facilities to accomodate the full six-man crew that will be working at the ISS in the future. After all, it's a joint venture between the US, Russia, Japan, and the European Space Agency (with Brazil and Italy being limited partners). It's clearly a rare project in its scope of international cooperation. Indeed it makes a lot of sense for these nations to have combined their separate plans for space stations, considering the astronomical individual costs. So far the vast majority of the astronauts staffing the ISS have been citizens of Cold War opponents Russia and the US. The German Thomas Reiter became the first resident from a third country, although many have visited.

Perhaps in the coming years the ISS won't be the only option for folks that want to spend a bit of time in space. A company called Bigelow Aerospace has already launched a test inflatable habitat module, and plans to put up a prototype space station as early as the end of this year. By 2010 they believe that they can launch and successfully operate the first commercially viable space station (tentatively named the Nautilus). They have launched a contest called "America's Space Prize", which promises $50 million to any company able to create a reusable craft with the capability of shuttling tourists to and from the proposed Nautilus. As fanciful as this sounds, there are companies with even grander plans.

There is an organization called Space Island Group which predicts that it can build and maintain a "Space Island" with a capacity of 20,000 people by the year 2020. Of course this sounds unlikely with the economy in the toilet and gas prices on the rise. Who would be able to afford a leisure trip to space? Believe it or not, there have already been five space tourists- four Americans and one Brit. All of them were separately conveyed to the ISS on board the Russian spacecraft Soyuz. They arranged this through the Space Adventures travel agency, and each paid in the neighborhood of 25 million bucks. That's an exorbitant amount of cash for a "vacation". Not to worry- opportunities for suborbital space flights are ever-expanding.

If you have a lot of disposable income, your opportunities to play 'spaceman' are only going to increase (barring a global catastrophe, of course) throughout this century. Perhaps one of your friends or family members will experience microgravity conditions within your very lifetime. As for me, I'm not that interested in space travel. I can't think of a compelling reason why I would spend exorbitant amounts of money to be stuffed in a small, cramped metal hulk... only to be vaulted outside of the Earth's atmosphere, with no guarantee that I will be returning safely. I'm sure the view is quite spectacular. Additionally it might be both liberating and/or terrifying to do a spacewalk, but I wouldn't want to have to wait to take a piss.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Truly Mixed Message.

There was some interesting news coming out of England over this past weekend- the World Health Organization has concluded that the threat of an AIDS pandemic among heterosexuals is over. In fact its experts now predict that there won't even be an epidemic affecting straight individuals in any continent other than Africa. I'd expect this to be comforting to some people. In 2006, it was declared that Russia was on the brink of an AIDS catastrophe. Researchers also feared that China, with its massive overpopulation, was also at risk of being overcome by the disease. But apparently everyone was wrong, and folks (hetero guys) need not be quite as paranoid when engaging a new sexual partner. It's natural to wonder what kind of effect this will have in the developing world.

Still wild celebration might be a bit presumptuous. AIDS kills more adults than all wars and conflicts combined. In 2007, there were 33 million recorded cases of people living with HIV. There were 2.4 million who became newly infected. And 2.1 million died from the disease. These aren't the kind of numbers that should inspire the confidence to take the condoms off and screw with abandon. While some people are no doubt going to interpret this latest message as an admission that AIDS will simply go away, it is still a prominent global challenge to public health. If you are a gay man, or an IV drug user, or you frequently patronize sex workers- then it is still just as dangerous as it was last week. And if you are a straight woman, you need to be just as careful as ever.

Meanwhile researchers are still puzzled as to why AIDS is transmitted at such an increased rate in Sub-Saharan Africa. Low rates of circumcision are one key to the problem, as the procedure reduces the risk of infection by 60%. Donated blood is not screened the way it is elsewhere. Additionally, high rates of ulcerative STD's such as herpes aggravate the chances that blood can be exchanged during 'regular' heterosexual sexual intercourse. Add in the effect of a generally younger and more promiscuous population, and a vague picture of the situation begins to coalesce. In a country like Swaziland, such factors have resulted in an infection rate of 40% nationally. Compounding the issue is the fact that many of those who have AIDS on the African continent are living without any treatment.

I remember when I first learned that someone I knew had HIV. It was the early 90's, and it was still considered a death sentence in America. I was dating a woman who had a lot of gay friends, and I was informed that a couple of them had the disease. This was a devastating realization, as these men were so young. Fortunately they also benefited from their youth. They were in relatively good physical health, and they were already monitoring their cell counts. Their positive attitudes, along with the rapidly improving drug cocktails, kept them from feeling inescapably doomed. While many who contracted HIV in the 80's slid quickly into full-blown AIDS that swiftly brought a nasty and painful death, those afflicted in the 90's eventually came to see the virus as something that could be lived with for decades.

Now I know several folks who have had HIV for many years, and you would never know about their conditions unless they chose to share that information. They live outwardly normal lives, and are only encumbered by a huge number of prescription medications. I am sure that they are heartened by the WHO's proclamation, as they certainly wouldn't wish their fate on anyone (other than a few particularly abhorrent politicians). But at the same time they would be justly offended at some of the gloating I have noticed floating through the World Wide Web. Sadly, the latest news will be used as validation for the ignorant beliefs of intolerant hate-mongers. This will surely encourage them in their mission to label HIV "God's curse on homos".

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Jim Thompson, "Pop. 1280" (1964).

One major advantage of going to the library is that the selection is generally so broad that I can get the best books of any single author that I am interested in. All I have to do is a quick internet search to find out what works are most recommended. This is especially helpful in cases where a writer is prolific and has an uneven output. It's too easy to pick up something just because it's convenient, only to find that it doesn't suit your interests. I had been in the habit of going to Half Priced Books. I'd scan the shelves for books written by someone I'd heard good things about, and grab whatever was available. It was a cheap method of putting together a reading list, but unfortunately the stuff in stock was not often the best representation of the author.

Such was the case with Jim Thompson. I first discovered his work when a friend lent me The Killer Inside Me (1952). Although this title is often listed among his best books, I found it sort of juvenile and cliche. Perhaps I would have felt differently had I read it around the time of its original release. Nevertheless I don't think it held up very well, and I felt justified in ignoring Thompson for awhile. So I hadn't considered returning to his work until I saw a film dramatization of one of his memoirs. I decided to give the source material a try, and was moderately impressed. I thought that maybe I had simply gotten an unsatisfying introduction to Thompson. Recently I compiled a short list of his fiction to track down.

Pop. 1280 introduces the reader to sheriff Nick Corey, who seems like a nice enough guy, if a bit of a rube. His job is to keep tabs on the small population (see title) of Pottsville County, the most modest territory in the (unidentified Southern) state. Although crime in his jurisdiction is minimal, Nick has his hands full. There are two pimps down by the river "sassin' him". He's got to stand for re-election. And he has domestic issues. In order to resolve the first situation, he decides to pay a visit with a neighboring lawman that he considers a friend. Unfortunately Ken Lacey has the tendency to dole out just as much abuse as advice to his "friends". It's hard to understand why Nick suffers him with such patience. Of course all will be revealed in time.

Meanwhile Nick has got to find a way to make an end run around his harpy of a wife (Myra) and her idiot brother (Lenny). Our hero is a bit of a ladies' man, and he's cookin' up a few dishes on the side. One of his regular bedmates is "best friends" with Myra, and has a truculent husband to boot. That needs dealin' with. And then there's Amy, who Nick had planned to marry before he got bamboozled into connubial hell with Myra. Amy is about the only honest character in the whole book, and that quality presents its own set of problems for good ol' Nick. As "aw shucks" as Nick seems, it turns out that he's not nearly as easy going as the town-folks imagine. Hell, that's the very reason he's been able to hold on to his position as long as he has.

At the very core of his being, Nick is a lot different than he appears. His exterior is precisely cultivated to make him appear innocuous. The best way to beat your enemy is to get him to underestimate you, and Nick is an expert at this. This penchant for subtle irony is the source of much dark humor in the book. Thompson brings the reader along at his own Southern-born pace. It takes awhile for you to get your bearings, and only then do you know what you are really looking at. I was genuinely shocked at the depth lurking beneath Nick and his story. Pop. 1280
excellently illustrates why the often overlooked Thompson garnered such admiration from other authors. Like Nick Corey himself, there's a lot more there than one would ever expect.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Political Myth Busters.

There are some things that I hear repeated time and again that frustrate me to almost ridiculous lengths. I realize that I am setting myself up for this by choosing to listen to partisan hacks, but I think it's important to expose myself to perspectives and views that I find objectionable. The reality is that many people form their political beliefs by listening to pundits who consider themselves expert analysts. Generally the strategy is to utilize repetition until certain core assertions are accepted as fact regardless of how ludicrous they really are. We have certainly gotten our fill of this approach over the last seven plus years with the Bush administration. Their talking points have been well distributed and utilized.

So anyway, I've decided to mention a few of the more egregious ones. These are examples of claims that really get under my skin and annoy me to no end. They cause me to yell at the radio when there is no one else in the car with me. Sometimes they give me short bursts of energy that get me through an especially sluggish day.

1. The media is controlled by the Left.

Is there anyone who sincerely believes this chestnut nowadays? Simply put, the media is a corporate-run industry. The vast majority of media outlets are owned by huge multinationals who will ultimately manipulate the news to serve themselves. Naturally different sources skew their coverage to relative degrees. But I don't understand why anyone would still insist that the US has a "liberal media"- especially in an age when more people watch FOX News than the other networks, and when it's impossible to find a progressive voice on the radio. Our mainstream choices range from "moderate" to reactionary conservative.

2. The Democrats want to take away guns from lawfully-acting citizens.

This claim is particularly insidious in Western Pennsylvania, due to the high proportion of its inhabitants that are members of the National Rifle Association. Believe me when I tell you that there are a lot of people around here that will consistently vote Republican merely based on the false premise that the GOP will protect their rights to arm themselves with whatever weapons that they so desire. I don't remember the last national Democratic leader that seriously suggested that we curtail gun rights. Yes... once in awhile they will devise some proposal aimed at a half-hearted measure of regulation (usually having to do with assault rifles), but this is almost always lip service, and meant to appeal to an urban population that is legitimately worried about gang violence.

3. Republicans hate homosexuals and have deep convictions regarding social issues that are based in religious faith and family values.

If the conservative leadership truly wanted to outlaw gays and abortion it would have already happened. The GOP put together tremendous consolidated power in the wake of 9-11. They controlled all three branches of the federal government and the majority of the states. The Constitution has never before stopped them from doing things that curtail our civil rights. We are living in a time when our liberties are slowly being eroded. Faith-based conservatism is a sham. Abortion and gay marriage are only national issues because they can be used to manipulate the masses. They are used to muster voter turnout and increase divisiveness. If these issues were resolved, they would no longer be useful for the Republican leadership.

4. The Democrats are causing our reliance on foreign energy by blocking drilling in ANWAR.

This is another cynical smokescreen. Believe me- if we had significant oil resources left in America, we would have already tapped them. Anyone with any true power- the oil industry, energy companies, national politicians, foreign policy experts- knows that ANWAR would (at best) take care of our fuel needs for 3-6 months. It's not worth the investment. This is simply used as a distraction from the real problem- a dependence on fossil fuels, and the effect it has on our foreign policy. The discussion needs to go far beyond domestic expansion of drilling... we need to confront our government's destructive resistance to embracing a new energy paradigm. The only way to do this is to elect leaders that have little or no connection to the oil industry. Good luck with that.

5. George Bush's War in Iraq has been a failure.

This all depends upon your personal perspective. If you mean that the five plus years of occupation and invasion are an immense drain on the public resources, and a distraction from the truly pressing and urgent issues of our times- then you are entirely correct. But if you look at it from the point-of-view of Dubya and his cronies... well, it's worked out exactly as they have planned. The NeoCons have achieved their goal of having a radically-increased military presence in the Middle East for an indefinite period. The energy companies and military-industrial complex are reaping insane profits off of subsidies and no-bid contracts, and all of that money has been taxpayer dollars redistributed from social programs that the Far Right has been trying to eliminate for years. How is that not an unqualified success? Dubya has served his only true constituency in an exemplary fashion.

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

A Swelterin' Good Time.

OK... so turns out I was a bit dismissive about the heat this weekend. It is freakin' hot and humid. Granted it's June, so this isn't completely unexpected. But it certainly took me by surprise this year. Like I suggested in an earlier post, I have indeed spent most of the time out-of-doors. I am sure to have lost significant water weight. It has been worth it so far, as last night's Unblurred was everything I thought it might be and more. Driving by the Sprout Fund building on Penn, I was taken aback to see plenty of people already milling about in the adjacent lot. There was even a deejay set up. I thought that I'd stop by 'early' and take in the scene, and quickly learned that they had a name tag waiting for me at the front desk, and the happenings had started two hours previously. I surmised that I was supposed to stay awhile.

Truthfully it wasn't like I felt trapped, what with the free beer and entertainment and plenty of interesting folks catching up with each other. I actually had to pull myself away to see what else was going on down the street. Even with all the competing events going on last night, Penn Avenue was kickin'. I never once felt like I hadn't made the right choice as to where to be. The art itself was generally solid, but the main attraction was the amount of participants of all kinds. Everyone seemed to put out extravagant spreads too, which meant that revelers were feeling especially catered to. My friend even pointed out a few "sold" markings under some of the work. That was only mildly shocking because things were priced so low. I guess recession prices have officially settled in.

It was nice to see Christine and Matt from Moxie Dada in their home setting. Nicole and Josh from Boxheart were also present when I stopped by. It required a visit for it to sink in how good an idea these two galleries have developed with their "Open House" idea. If you are interested in having art hung temporarily in your home, they will come and interview you about your tastes, friends, interests and hobbies. Then they will select specific local art to match your answers, and hang it in your house for a party. If some work sells, the service is paid for that way. I like the fact that they are thinking outside the box with this concept. Pittsburgh definitely requires creative innovation in art marketing. Hopefully this project will succeed.

This morning there was no rest for the weary, as the Aspinwall annual community sale was going on. I was there last year with M., who was newly pregnant. She nostalgically remembered one guy who helpfully provided a plastic bag so that she didn't have to puke in the street. But you see, that's just the way the folks in that neighborhood are- accommodating. We got an early start, and with Baby E. in tow this year, we relied on the car to get us around. I blasted the air conditioning, and we took turns getting out to check out each household's offerings. We actually covered a lot of ground quickly that way. And E. was remarkably patient, sitting in his car seat and playing with his favorite Hawaiian-shirt-wearing stuffed monkey.

It's appropriate for E. to be forbearing of his parents' obsessive search for bargains- because he made out like the little bandit he no doubt will someday be. His library is expanding in great chunks this Spring. Children's books apparently don't have a whole lot of utility for people with adult offspring. The most either of us have paid for a single title is $1.50, and that felt like an obscene extravagance in the face of prevailing market prices. The vast majority of the 'little lit' we see at garage sales is priced between 25 and 50 cents. I don't understand why anyone would pay retail price for this stuff. And we also scored some cool-assed Playmobil pirates from some yuppie family in Fox Chapel. I thought at the time that half a dollar per figure was a bit expensive, but it turns out that a lot of adults obsess over these toys. Who woulda figured?!

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Act as if you wanted to stay forever.

Like most people, I generally find myself socializing with people that are interested in the same things as me. For that reason it's easy to lose perspective on the broader issues around town. I had a chance to sit down with a couple of work colleagues the other night after seeing a great music performance. We got talking about the cultural strengths and weaknesses of Pittsburgh. We all agreed that there's a certain provincialism that prevails in town. Anybody who has lived here for more than a year realizes just how insulated 'Burghers get within their own neighborhoods. You'd think that crossing a bridge was a death-defying act. It's easy to believe that you have the finger on the city's pulse without even leaving your block. But that's a mistake.

As much whining as I hear among my artist friends, there's very little understanding of what other folks in Pittsburgh go through. We may lament that there are only 50-100 collectors in the entire city, yet we gloss over the fact that art events are generally well attended. This point was brought home to me in my discussion with my colleagues. One of them is a musician in a band that has been playing around town for years. As he is also involved in the visual arts, he is in a good position to compare and contrast milieus. He estimates that the art community is a full four years ahead of the music community in terms of involvement and promotion. Simply go out to almost any local band's show, and you'll confirm his contention.

It's really a shame that we can't get our act together and build a broader cultural scene. I'm as much to blame as anyone else, as I rarely socialize with musicians (let alone dancers, theater actors, etc.). Hell, I hardly ever go out to see local music anymore. I'm not exempting myself from criticism. But I'd be likely to do so if an event married local artists to musicians. Remember how much fun the FLUX series was? That was the best example of what I'm talking about. What happened to that? Was it only last year that they returned with a FLUX in Braddock, and plans to hold three each year? I haven't heard anything lately from the organizers. If anyone has any information on it, please chime in with a comment.

We still have the Three Rivers Arts Festival. Yet that mostly appeals to mainstream suburban tourists. They want to come downtown, buy a hot dog and a Coors Light draft, look at crafts, and see a national act. How many of them even know that there's a juried show of regional artists? How many of them care? No... I'm talking about more grassroots efforts. As much as I slag the Cultural Trust, I have to give them credit- at least for the SPACE Gallery downtown. Not only do they show Pittsburgh artists, but they often have a local band or deejay playing at their openings. There are also a few bars and venues that make an effort- check out the Garfield Artworks and the Brillo Box along Penn Avenue, for example. These places seem to "get it".

Maybe there aren't a lot of people in Western Pennsylvania that know that culture extends beyond sports. There's no lack of enthusiasm for the Steelers, the Penguins, and the Pirates (well, perhaps I'm stretching the case a bit with the Bucs). Still, what are we supposed to do, as fans of music and the arts? We can continue to sit around and complain about how Pittsburgh is a third rate city. Or we can get involved. You don't have to join a band, or make artwork yourself. It's a good start just to go out and participate in enjoying it. Tell your friends about cool things that are going on. Start a blog to publicize happenings. After awhile you might be inspired to organize something yourself. If you are going to stay in Pittsburgh, you might as well try to make it a place where you'd want to live.

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