Thursday, January 31, 2008

"Color Swap" @ Unblurred this Friday.

I really didn't anticipate having a show of my work so soon after becoming a father. Putting together a solo ordinarily requires a lot of work, and I simply didn't think I'd be able to find the time to do it. But when Laura Jean over at the Clay Penn (5111 Penn Avenue) asked me to hang some photos as part of February's Unblurred, it was too tempting to pass up. The last time I had work at this event was all the way back in September/October 2005, at the now defunct Arrow Gallery. That was the "Works on Paper" show, and it was the first time I showed my drawings on phone-book pages. I've been attending the monthly installments of Unblurred for years, but I just haven't followed up on any opportunities to display my work there.

Another reason why I thought twice about exhibiting work is because I've been fortunate enough to be asked to participate in a number of shows over the past twelve months. I've had two solos, and I've been in multiple group shows. The last thing I want to do is to exhaust whatever small amount of interest people have in my work. I figure that I have a limited amount of occasions that I can request my friends and acquaintances to devote their limited free time to me. At some point the novelty simply wears off. Likewise I don't want to display the same images in different places over a short time span. Still, several of my friends who are accomplished artists have encouraged me to seize any chance to get my artwork into the public eye.

So anyway, I will have ten framed 11 x 14" photos on the walls of the Clay Penn this Friday night. They are part of a series that I took well over a year ago. Although I was pleased with the way they turned out at the time, they got buried in a backlog of shots that I eventually intended to show. There weren't enough of them to fill a large gallery, and yet they had to be shown in a series in order to convey their context. I waited for awhile for the right time to pull them out, but eventually I simply forgot about them. When I considered the spatial limitations of the Clay Penn, the series immediately jumped out as the most appropriate body of work to show. At the same time, I think that they fit the space itself very well, and complement the more permanent work that is always on display at the gallery.

These photos are the result of serendipity. I was at a my friend's bar in the South Side with a couple of friends, one of whom happened to have her Canon point-and-shoot camera with her. I asked to borrow it for a few minutes, and discovered a function called "color swap". To use the setting you simply get a light meter reading off of any source in your environment. Somehow the processing chip inside the camera takes the quality and color of that reading and inverts the rest of the visible scale accordingly. I took about 30 portraits and other shots over the next hour. They are vividly colored, and slightly hallucinatory. In some ways they relate to the Pop Surrealist paintings that I have been slowly accumulating over the last several years.

I'm looking forward to seeing how those familiar with my work respond to these photographic prints. I'll probably be explaining the process by which I shot them, over and over again. It's important to me to point out that I did no post-production adjustments to them at all. I've never used Photoshop or any other editing program to tweak my photos. I don't have anything against those tools... I just haven't gotten around to playing with them yet. Regardless I think these shots are fun to look at, and so they meet at least one important criteria. They represent momentary slices of neon-lit nightlife that my friends and I have shared time and again. Come out and join us for the opening reception- this Friday (Feb. 1st) from 7-9PM.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Does Bill Clinton help Hillary's chances?

A couple of weeks ago I heard one of the seemingly-interchangeable conservative talk radio pundits say that Hillary Clinton owes her presidential aspirations to her husband. I suppose that this assertion is fairly uncontroversial on its surface. Had Bill Clinton never attained the presidency, it's likely his wife wouldn't have become the senator from New York. But that's not all that anonymous hack was talking about- he was actually claiming that Hillary somehow owed her successes to Bill's infidelities. I had a hard time following the logic of this argument. I assume that this guy was suggesting that people felt sorry for Hillary during "Lewinsky-gate", and therefore were more willing to give her the benefit-of-the-doubt as a politician. This particular claim seems ridiculous, but I won't deny that Bill Clinton's actions do affect Hillary's fortunes. They have in the past, and they will continue to do so.

It's clear that Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for president on the merits of Bill's two terms in office. She's obviously hoping that people will make a comparison between the last eight years of Bush rule, and the mid to late 90's. Certainly there are many people (especially within the Democratic party) who would accept the notion that the nation looked brighter under Clinton's management. I actually think that Dubya has done more for Bill Clinton's political legacy than any other American alive, including the former president himself. Obviously most of our history's executives look better in comparison with George W. Bush. That's the main reason why none of the current candidates for the office have much in common with the man. Even many who have struggled to defend his record are ready for change. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they want to return to the Clinton years.

In fact many progressives would prefer that almost any other Democrat (besides Hillary) win the 2008 primary. For one thing, they concede that the prospect of another Clinton presidency could be the one thing that mobilizes the increasingly deteriorating Republican coalition to show up for the general election. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton isn't representative of truly progressive politics (nor was her husband). She promises no real health care reform. She has done little to challenge the aggressive foreign policy goals of the Bush administration. She doesn't seem to be much of a friend to working people. There's actually very little indication of what agenda she will actually pursue if she achieves victory. She's very much an establishment candidate.

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton is doing very little to help Hillary's chances of winning. The greatest asset he demonstrated during his presidency was his ability to come off as a diplomatic and thoughtful man. If nothing else he was moderately likable. His ability to connect with a wide range of people masked the fact that he was accomplishing little of the Democratic agenda. Still many of the faithful were willing to invest their trust in his management skills. Unfortunately for his wife, he seems to have changed dramatically in the intervening years. He has shown himself to be defensive, deceitful and petty in his support for his wife's pursuit of the presidency. His attacks on Barack Obama seem shrill and impulsive. The media, who were often charmed by his wit and patience in the 90's, has been unpredictably critical of his approach.

Additionally, I don't think that the Democratic Party machine appreciates the increasingly ugly tone with which Bill Clinton has been attacking Hillary's chief rival. The type of slash-and-burn techniques that he is employing could come back to hurt Obama's chances after the primaries are over. I think that's why we are seeing more and more respected Democratic leaders endorsing Obama. The support of Claire McCaskill, John Kerry, and Caroline Kennedy for the upstart senator from Illinois must weigh heavily on the Clinton collective mind. And when Edward Kennedy actually evokes his dead brothers' memories to back a candidate, it's clear that the tide is turning. It would be interesting to see what effect true desperation has on the Clintons.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Who Was Gordon B. Hinckley?

As one Mormon aspires to the US Presidency, the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints has passed on. Gordon B. Hinckley was the 15th president in LDS history, and served almost 13 years in that position. He was 97 years old. His grandfather actually knew and traveled with the church's founder- chief prophet Joseph Smith himself. Those kind of credentials apparently enhanced his standing from the very beginning. His father ran the LDS business college and his mother was a former English teacher. Young Gordon originally aspired to be a journalist, but fate had a different role for him to play. He would actually be chosen as a direct prophet of God instead.

The Hinckley era was noted for its missionary zeal, and the man himself began that work in England in 1933. He soon noticed that the promotional materials for the relatively young religion were insufficient for the task of conversion, and was placed in charge of updating them. He became known for producing a temple film to explain the rituals to new members, and it's reportedly still being used overseas to this day. From that success Hinckley was promoted to a high-ranking leadership group called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1961. In the early 80's, he ascended to the penultimate governing body- the First Presidency, a body that counsels the president of LDS. In 1995 he was ordained in the top position.

As president of the Mormons, Hinckley continued to devote his efforts to overseas growth. It is said that during his tenure, the faith attracted four million new members. He personally designed a template for a smaller temple that could be reproduced quickly and cheaply to provide new members with an essential place of worship. He also used his substantial P.R. experience on the ongoing struggles to redefine the LDS as a legitimate religion, as opposed to a cult. In order to do this, he attempted to clarify the association of the Mormons as a sect of Christianity. He also addressed thorny aspects of church history, such as the role of followers in the 1857 massacre of a wagon train of Western pioneer emigrants.

Life as the spiritual leader of a religious community with 12 million members did present some significant challenges. Hinckley held the line as a traditionalist when it came to the "institution" of marriage. He was active in the political fight to define the concept as the union of a man and woman. His church financed constitutional amendments and political campaigns to ban same-sex marriages at both the federal and state levels. As a prophet, Hinckley received and announced revelations that families live on together after death, and that gender is a defined characteristic prior to one's birth. He did however strike a blow to the hearts of traditionalists by condemning domestic abuse.

Overall Hinckley did a lot within his long life to spread the Mormon message, as a "good" apostle should. Unlike most previous Mormon leaders, Hinckley was not shy about representing his religion in the media. He appeared on 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace, on Larry King Live and within the pages of Time Magazine. He is probably more responsible than anyone else in history for convincing a large portion of America (including some Mormons themselves) that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is indeed a "Christian" church. Regardless of the theological details and disputes behind this assertion, Hinckley is to be credited with achieving social respectability for a long misunderstood religion.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Werner Herzog Lays an Egg.

In the scope of an entire artistic career, one is bound to "lay a couple of eggs". It doesn't matter how creative, visionary or brilliant the artist is- anyone who regularly takes chances is bound to make mistakes. Sometimes the product will be miserably bad. Or maybe it is viewed as merely uninspired. But when one looks at the works spread out over an entire lifespan, there are bound to be some that stick out as superior, and that means that (by necessity) some others will be "not-so-good". Certainly a few creators are blessed with skill, imagination, talent, and taste... and in those cases the worst of their output may be better than the the stuff coming from hacks. Still we are all limited by the finite resources of time, and therefore it makes sense to seek out the best from any individual artist.

There are many film-lovers that will identify German director Werner Herzog as one of the truly great filmmakers of all time. His movies are consistently challenging, beautiful and illuminating. The films he made with Klaus Kinski during the 70's and early 80's (Aguirre, Wrath of God, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, Woyzeck, and Cobra Verde) form a core within a larger body of work that brought Herzog to the attention of international audiences. The fiery and contentious relationship between the director and his male lead may have proved untenable in the long run, but the resulting product was absolutely unforgettable. Meanwhile Herzog has a host of documentaries that he has made over a period of decades, that have largely been overlooked on this side of the Atlantic. Still, with the renaissance in film release and appreciation stimulated by the advent of DVD technology, people are now discovering this work as well. His recent feature Grizzly Man received its fair share of critical and commercial acclaim.

Even without Kinski, Herzog has been known to make idiosyncratic movies that are beyond comparison. Although they aren't all what one might call "entertaining", they are most assuredly memorable. In Heart of Glass (1976) Herzog employed an entire cast which he saw fit to have hypnotized by a mesmerist. Although I've never seen it, it is said to be akin to watching a parade of sleepwalkers. Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) features midgets and other "little people" in all the roles of the film. These anarchic diminutives overthrow a mental institution, and generally wreak havoc on anything they can get their hands on. While these works cannot be said to be "conventionally successful", they have served to enhance the director's reputation as an uncompromising iconoclast who is totally devoted to artistic integrity.

It is his public image that makes Herzog's newest feature film, Rescue Dawn (2006), so difficult to understand. Indeed the director had already made this story- in the form of a 1997 documentary entitled Little Dieter Needs To Fly. The narrative concerns a young military pilot (played by Christian Bale) whose plane crashed in the wilderness of Laos during the Vietnam Conflict. Because this fateful flight was part of "black ops" (a classified mission) , Dieter Dengler was left to his own devices to survive while his comrades surreptitiously searched for him. He was captured by a contingent of Viet Cong, and imprisoned with a motley little bunch of Americans in a make-shift prison camp. The bulk of the film deals with Dieter's plans for escape and his consequent struggle to reach safe ground and be rescued.

Rescue Dawn isn't a lousy film. It's adequately diverting for the bulk of its running length. The performances (especially those of Bale and Jeremy Davies,) are competent. Its setting is lavishly shot. What makes this movie an exception within Herzog's oeuvre is its sheer ordinariness. It's basically an action flick. The dialog and situations are presented without nuance or significant insight. It follows the conventions of the genre- even to the extent of containing the typically "inspirational" ending. Most glaring is the complete absence of Herzog's trademark "ecstatic truth". This is not a distinctive film. It could have been directed by any of 1000 filmmakers. The logical inconsistencies and glaring plot-holes would be forgivable in a "standard" Herzog film... but with nothing distinguishing Rescue Dawn from any other shoot-em-up, prisoner-or-war flick- I have a hard time figuring out the target audience. Why should his lifelong fans bother with this at all?

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky, "Manufactured Landscapes" (2006).

It was only a few months ago that I was gallery-hopping in Chelsea when I came across an exhibition of photos by Edward Burtynsky. At first the shots simply looked like details of urban ruins. But upon closer inspection I realized that they were mining sites, photographed from a great distance in order to convey the monstrous scale of those operations. Everything around us of human origin is the result of one type of extraction or another, and we rarely stop to contemplate exactly what this process entails. In fact the locations that Burtynsky chooses to portray are situated out-of-sight in inhospitable landscapes apart from mass habitation. Perhaps this is intentional, so that people don't realize the full extent of global consumerism.

If Jennifer Baichwal has anything to say about the subject, more folks will become aware of Burtynsky's project. The director took on a formidable challenge when she decided to transform Burtynsky's stills into a motion picture. The impact of his photo enlargements in a gallery setting is undeniable. It must have been extremely difficult to come up with ways to encapsulate the experience for the larger audiences of theaters. Certainly the widescreen format of the movie house lends itself to the material. In fact, it would be impressive to see a print of Manufactured Landscapes adapted for OMNIMAX. It is likely however that the messages of the film would be too confrontational for prospective funders. This is truly an indictment of modern living in all of its current forms.

The opening shot of Manufactured Landscapes is a seven-minute pan of an assembly plant in China that is almost beyond comprehension. We see row after row of workers in an industrial capacity, putting together small appliances to be shipped throughout the Western world. The sense of a monotonous and bleak workaday existence is made unflinchingly palpable. The scope of the facility is almost literally unbelievable. Next we see the workers, clad almost without exception in yellow uniform tops, mustering on a street between buildings. It is a breath-taking image. We are then transported to a series of industrial sites throughout China that reinforce our awareness of the vast impact of ecological devastation that steadily accompanies that nation's progressing economic development. Invariably the viewer must wonder if the human race can survive such destructive activity.

Baichwal usually lets the imagery speak for itself. The ninety-minute running length of the film mostly consists of a quiet exploration of Burtynsky's subject matter. There is a subtly effective soundtrack of instrumental music that underscores the awe evoked by the presentation of his landscapes. Occasionally Baichwal employs the artist's voice to provide commentary and insight into both his underpinning philosophies and methodology. We learn that Burtynsky's obsessions were born on the occasion of getting lost on the back roads of Pennsylvania. He found himself on the outskirts of the coal mining town of Frackville (in Schuylkill County), and was stricken by the post-industrial surrealism of his surroundings. He decided to follow up with explorations of similarly effected areas in Canada (his birthplace and home). After generating some exposure for his work, he was invited to photograph the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China.

The portions of Manufactured Landscapes that deal with "the largest dam ever built" incorporate information about the human impact of such a momentously-scaled project. These segments, along with the depiction of workers in a boat graveyard in Bangladesh, and of recyclers of computer board components (back again in China), underscore the immediately deleterious effects on the health and lifestyles of those living and toiling in these environments. While the viewer may feel himself fortunate not to share such a plight with these folks, it's not irrational to speculate that we all face a likewise perilous existence in the near future- if we don't adapt new ways of existing within our larger environment. Manufactured Landscapes is a demanding film in several ways. It requires patience and introspection to decode the terrible beauty of the spectacle that we've visited upon the Earth. But it's a worthwhile (and arguably necessary) investment of your time.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Art Bargains in Pittsburgh.

As I expected, my father and I had a fun time last night at the downtown gallery crawl. He was in town for a couple of days to get his first look at his new grandchild. For some odd reason my Dad enjoys just holding the baby quietly, and it doesn't seem like he needs much else to keep him content. That worked out well for M. and I, as it gave us our first opportunity to go out by ourselves for a couple of meals. The first chance we got to do that- we headed out to a local pub. It was refreshing and a bit surreal to be in that kind of environment (especially for M.). Yesterday we had lunch together. Unfortunately we ended up with a fairly terrible meal when I suggested that we try something new. With the new logistics regarding baby care, the stakes are higher every time we get some time away. It's probably good policy to stick to what we know and enjoy.

Regarding the crawl, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a few things I merely glossed over in my preview. Ladyboy's solo show down at 707 Penn Avenue is a bit of a must-see. I had no idea that "Totally Maybe" was a black-light (black-lit?) show. The artist used glow-in-the-dark and fluorescent paints to screen-print his designs on identically-sized panels of wood. In the center of the gallery space, he erected a shrine with a green plaster cat statue at its center. Surrounding this centerpiece was a pyramid of multi-colored luminescent strings, stretching from floor to ceiling. Apparently this was the part of the installation that required the most effort, as Ladyboy hadn't anticipated his initial hours-long effort failing to hold. I had no idea that this was his first solo show in the city, and I was honestly impressed by his articulation.

I was especially pleased by Ladyboy's references to the cat-portrait-painter Louis Wain. Several months ago, I included a YouTube clip about this artist in one of my blog posts. I was fascinated by several aspects of Wain's life. The idea of obsessively focusing on portraits of cats for an entire career is an adequately interesting idea in and of itself. But add in the progressive mental deterioration of schizophrenia, and you get a particularly compelling story. I'm frankly drawn to appreciating feline imagery, and so I couldn't forget many of Wain's later depictions. There was no missing the inspiration behind one specific Ladyboy painting last night- it was a psychedelic homage to the master himself. I got to share a short discussion with Ladyboy about the place Wain has had in his own formation in the arts. On a peripheral note, I also learned that Ladyboy had the unique distinction of getting two vehicles (a moped and his friend's car) impounded within a 24-hour period while setting up the show. Hopefully this won't cause a "Wain-esque" disruption in this promising creator's life.

Moving on, I'd like to point out that I enjoyed the Mattress Factory Staff show at 937 Liberty... and I'd like to draw the reader's attention to a bargain basement deal available at the gallery. Katherine Young, whose works I have been following in town for a couple of years, has two large ink drawings depicting a pair of adolescent girls walking through an idyllic natural setting. They are framed very nicely and priced at a mere $250 apiece. I consider them excellent pieces, and highly representative of what Young is capable of as an artist. If I hadn't already spent over a grand on art this past month, I would have purchased one myself. Have you been considering starting an art collection, or expanding an existing one? This is a great place to start.

Finally, I want to express my excitement in discovering the work of another talented young artist who is new to exhibiting in the city. As soon as I walked into La Vie last night I was drawn to a group of smaller-scale paintings prominently featured on the wall. They were of an exceedingly-skilled illustrative quality, with subconsciously realized elements of fantasy and bright fields of color. Suffice it to say that they were quite extraordinarily consistent with my aesthetics and taste. When I consulted the gallery guide and saw the prices attached to them, I was amazed. Gabe Felice is a Greensburg artist and amiable conversationalist, who has done a great service by offering his work at an almost obscenely low cost. Not only did I walk out of the opening with two new pieces for my walls, but Felice also sent me on my way with a VHS copy of Eye of the Tiger, with Gary Busey. Anyone who appreciates that prince-among-men is one to watch, very closely. Luckily for you, I left some great pieces unpurchased. Get your ass down there and get in on that action while you can.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

See Some Art, January 25th.

If you have any interest, there's a full schedule of art to be appreciated this evening in the city. The seasonal downtown gallery crawl is tonight, and many of places will be featuring opening receptions for new work. If you are a regular visitor to these events, then you know that it's important to get down there as close to 6:00PM as possible. Obviously street parking is pretty limited, but things open up quite a bit when the rush hour restrictions expire. Even then it can be frustrating- there are always the garages as a fall-back, and many of them have reduced rates during non-business hours. Sometimes it's worth it to avoid the hassle of driving through the masses of pedestrians, and just spending the extra bucks for convenience. Generally the closer you are to Liberty and Wood Streets, the better off you are.

Anyway, as far as this installment is concerned, the crawl has a few intriguing possibilities. Given the current fashion of encouraging urban living in the "Golden Triangle", it's fitting that Wood Street Galleries would be presenting a show based upon the promise of new alternatives in downtown habitation. Unfortunately, given the lack of information on their website, I have no way of telling you what this entails. They haven't even posted biographical information for the included artists, so I don't know whether the perspectives they present are locally-based or just indicative of broader national trends. On the other hand, there are several decidedly local artists showing their work at the nearby SPACE gallery. Rick Bach, Ed Parrish, Pete Lambert and Tim Kaulen are among the creators who are showing off their facility with "hot metal".

Continuing up the Avenue (at 820 Liberty), you can see Art-iculate's version of fostering an online arts scene. They are giving live demonstrations on how to post and purchase art over the net. I don't have any personal experience with the hosting organization, but they are starting to get some name recognition and traction. 937 Liberty (3rd Floor) has an exhibition of work by the staff of the Mattress Factory. The internationally-recognized museum continuously presents some of the most challenging and timely installation art in the world. It should be interesting to see how those who make it their business process those influences. Over on Penn Avenue, Future Tenant is getting comfortable in their relatively new digs (819 Penn). Robert Raczka has curated a show of found art, entitled "Taste Matters".

I had the opportunity to stop by Future Tenant last week for the opening of this collection of pieces from regional thrift stores. Altogether there are 50 works (mostly paintings) by anonymous and unheralded creators who toiled in obscurity only to have their output housed alongside beta video recorders, used novelty mugs, and bad 80's home furnishings. The selection and quality is much what one might expect it to be- there are dog portraits, amateurish landscapes, and at least one homage to Walt Disney. What makes the show particularly worth attending are the curator-statement cards accompanying each piece. Because of the source of the material, Raczka had free reign to impose his own analysis and conjecture at will. I'm not sure whether he meant for the result to be highly satirical, but that's how I interpreted it. It's definitely worth a look-see.

After you've made the rounds downtown (including more environmental artwork at 937 Liberty 2nd Floor, and Ladyboy at the 707 Penn Gallery), you can conclude your cultural explorations at La Vie Gallery (3609 Butler Street in Lawrenceville). I know I repeat the virtues of this gallery ad nauseum on this blog- but it is truly one of the most exciting art-related sites in the city. Come and get to know the artists that represent the vanguard of visual delight. Have some tasty whiskey punch, and BUY some art. It's affordable and damn good. This months brings us Painting the Roses Red, and includes the visionary ceramic work of Laura Jean McGlaughlin (along with four others). Don't worry if you are running late- the opening lasts until 11PM.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Genius of Rick Geary.

Yesterday I had a chance to stop by my favorite local comics store in the area (Copacetic- in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood). My main reason for visiting was to pick up the new issue of Mome, a Fantagraphics seasonal anthology of comics that features some of the best young cartoonists working today- including Jonathan Bennett, Martin Cendreda, Gabrielle Bell, David Heatley, Sophie Crumb, and Anders Nilsen. Of course I got tempted by some other fine products as well. I picked up a back issue of The Ganzfeld, a Wild at Heart DVD, and Rick Geary's J. Edgar Hoover. It just so happened that my trip to the store coincided with the arrival of a shipment which included that last book.

As far as I'm concerned, the discovery of a new graphic novel by Geary is always an occasion for celebration. His series of little books, chronicling some of the most famous Victorian-era crimes, demonstrates the high level of artistry, style and professionalism that Geary is known for. Had I not initially discovered them at my local library (which has an outstanding selection of graphic novels), I'd likely own everything he has ever put out. As it is, titles focused on the Lizzie Borden murders, the Garfield Assassination, and the Beast of Chicago (H.H. Holmes) have lingered in my mind long after I've finished reading them. The amount of research he invests in order to capture the historical accuracy of the events, and the period details of the settings, is absolutely striking.

I'll admit that Geary was a bit of an acquired taste. I wasn't initially attracted to his drawing style. A Geary character is unmistakable- with its pinched face, flat expression, and meticulous cross-hatching. The look of his page is extraordinarily clean, and can be superficially mistaken for being almost uptight. The all-capital lettering of his copious narration boxes are almost mechanical in appearance. His approach is straight-forward and informative. But the more I looked at his work, the more I began to appreciate his attention to craft. It is nearly impossible to spot an incongruous or sloppy portrayal. His writing style avoids melodrama and flashiness, and begins to carry you away into the depths of his story. Rick Geary definitely has a way of creeping up on you.

It's gotten to the point that I will immediately buy anything new that he releases. It doesn't even matter if I think it's a good deal or if I'm particularly interested in the subject matter. I have complete confidence that, by the end of the book, I will have been transported fully to another time and place, and in the meantime- I'll have actually learned something. These are educational comics that are extremely entertaining. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them to a teenager or a senior citizen. Geary's J. Edgar Hoover biography is no exception. He presents an unbiased survey of the controversial man's life and times. I can't say that I've ever been exceptionally interested in studying the career of the man that defined the FBI for the first several decades of its existence... but still I made my way through this 100-page volume effortlessly.

Unlike the other examples of Geary comics in my collection, the J. Edgar Hoover book is a hardback edition. It's published under the Hill and Wang division of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. The production values are impressive... just as I would expect from any Geary work. His output demands that special care be invested in its presentation. I wouldn't be surprised if the cartoonist is called on to illustrate more historical figures. I can't think of an artist with better skills for that purpose than Geary.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Extreme Motherhood.

Due to the absence of a decent independent coffeehouse in my neighborhood, I am forced to sate my caffeine jones at a corporate shop. Luckily the people that work the counter are sticklers for detail. They really seem to make a commitment to serving quality product. They are helpful, courteous, and make an effort to remember what each and every regular prefers. Every day they affix a daily horoscope to the mini-counter from which you pick up your finished drink. Another added touch is the daily trivia question. The stakes aren't very high, but it's a nice extra. If you answer correctly you get ten cents off your order. I have a weakness for trivia, and I can often elicit a laugh with an irreverent answer. Occasionally I take away something to think about for awhile after I leave.

Such was the case today. The query was, "What is the record for the most children born to a mother?" Of course this was a timely question for me. I'm aware of women who have had more than ten screaming whelps over the course of a lifetime. I figured that the typical human female has about 30-40 years to deliver kids. With this in mind, I gave an irrationally low number for my answer. I guess I was affected by the empathy I have accumulated for M. while going through this process together for the first time. It's easy to want a few children, but altogether a different reality when you consider the work that goes into bearing them. Anyway I guessed that eighteen was an inordinately high number, and was (therefore) probably a reasonable assumption.

I was actually a bit amazed to learn just how far off the correct answer I was. The barista told me that a woman had actually borne 69 offspring. I immediately wondered how this was possible, given the the limitations of individual fertility. Obviously I figured there must have been multiple births. Well, they didn't have more details for me at the shop, and so I resolved to Google the case when I got home. Indeed, between the years of 1725 and 1765, the first wife of Russian Feodor Vassilyev got pregnant 27 times. There were 16 pairs of twins, seven groups of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets. Amazingly, 67 of these children survived past infancy. The striking thing about this feat is that her first name is nowhere on record. If that's not an example of the crassest sort of gender injustice, then I truly don't understand sexism.

Naturally I view this little factoid with a bit of skepticism. Surely the story is apocryphal? This couple was said to be among the peasant population of a little town called Shuya. How is it that such humble people were able to afford to feed that large a brood? Shouldn't there have been folktales and songs written about that woman? The only thing I could find out about her, besides the location and number of her children, is that she was the first wife of Feodor Vassilyev. I don't know for sure, but I would assume that she likely died from the strain on her body. Anyway, she certainly left a legacy. Imagine facing the prospect of marrying into that obligation. Perhaps our man Feodor felt a bit overwhelmed. But how was he able to convince his second wife to share his burden? And then... did the new couple have more kids? The logistics of such a family are mind-boggling.

As shocking as that whole tale is, it doesn't compare to another case I read about while researching "extreme motherhood". This one is particularly disturbing. On May 14th, 1939, the Peruvian Lina Medina gave birth to to a six pound boy named Gerardo (after the doctor that delivered him). Lina was five years, seven months old at the time. When she first started showing her pregnancy, it was believed that she had an abdominal tumor. She was seven months into term before they diagnosed her true condition. As one might expect, the new born was delivered via c-section. Apparently her period came first at 8 months of age, and she had prominently developed breasts at age four (signs of "precocious puberty"). Although her father was initially arrested for rape and incest, and later released for lack of evidence, the biological source of the sperm that impregnated Lina was never identified.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Obama's outbreak of "foot-in-mouth" disease.

I'll freely admit that I was taken aback by the recent comments that Barack Obama made about former president Ronald Reagan. I came home from wherever I was, only to have M. tell me that the presidential candidate praised the Republican icon. Naturally I wondered what he had actually said, and what type of spin the media was putting on his comments. The idea that a Democrat seeking the nomination for the nation's highest office would speak positively about Reagan goes against virtually everything I know about modern party politics. Has the reputation of the most egregious labor-hater in American history been rehabilitated?

What did Obama really say about Mr. Reagan?

"Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it."

While I agree that Reagan "changed the trajectory of America", I wouldn't say that the fact works to his credit. It is true that with the help of tax cuts, he put more money back into the hands of the wealthiest Americans than virtually any federal executive in our history. This was part of his "trickle-down theory"- give money to the rich and it will eventually find its way into the hands of the poor. Of course that turned out to be a scam. Reagan presided over two of the very worst recessions in American history. Ironically, it was Dubya's pappy himself who branded this economic theory "Voodoo Economics" during the 1980 presidential campaign. He knew that a generation later we would still be confronting a national debt accelerated by these ideas.

Reagan oversaw some of the largest spending increases ever. Many conservative pundits insist that their hero was responsible for crushing "The Evil Empire". But the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapsing under its own bloated self-importance and corruption when Reagan first entered office. We would have seen Gorbachev and glastnost even if Ralph Nadar had been president. The reality is that "the Gipper" continued a reactionary campaign of trying to out-spend the Russians in the arms race. Despite the fact that the "Reds" has ceased to be any threat to the West, Reagan authorized the expenditure of ridiculous sums of taxpayer dollars in pursuit of building pie-in-the-sky weapons systems such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or "Star Wars"). The idea behind that program was that we could have a protective umbrella over the nation that would shield us from a barrage of nuclear missiles. It was thought that the capability would enable us to launch a first strike nuclear war.

The association Obama makes between Clinton and Nixon is simple and dirty politics. He's aware that Hillary is for all-intents-and-purposes running on the record of her husband. It is not at all clear that Mrs. Clinton will have the same priorities and agenda almost a decade later, but that seems to be the prevailing assumption. By attacking Bill's record, Hillary's opponents smear her. It's a page taken out of the tired play-book of the GOP, but the Obama camp is not above appropriating such tactics. It should be noted that if Nixon were a major player in today's political scene, he would be branded more liberal than Obama and/or both Clintons.

Obama did go on to say the following, which should illuminate his true intentions regarding his evocation of Reagan:

"We’re bogged down in the same arguments that we’ve been having, and they’re not useful. And, you know, the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out. I think it’s fair to say the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last ten, fifteen years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom."

Yes, it's true... for a long time the GOP was in the minority. Until Reagan came along with his "Morning in America" bullshit, the Democrats had dominated the federal government for decades. Ronnie managed to bring together a broad coalition of fiscal and social conservatives. Make no mistake- George W. Bush was the apotheosis of that movement. The moment of happy partnership between seemingly disparate constituencies is now past. The experiment is commonly recognized as being a failure, regardless of what Rush Limbaugh and other hacks claim. Obama appears to be asking the media and the American public about what comes next. He is attempting to position himself as the new figure of hope- an approximation of what Ronald Reagan once symbolized to a large segment of the citizenry.

It would be a significant error to believe that Obama has any kinship with Reagan when it comes to political philosophy or beliefs. They are almost diametrically opposed. If his commentary on Reagan's import sways a few in the middle, then Obama could muster the support to overtake Hillary. I'm sure his words were welcome in California, a state with a sizable proportion of citizens who consider former Governor sacred. A little decoding is in order for the rest of us, who despise Reagan as the scourge of the late Twentieth Century.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

David Lynch, "Fire Walk With Me" (1992).

My viewing of the Twin Peaks series really wouldn't have been complete without seeing the follow-up feature, Fire Walk With Me. The film traces the last seven days in the life of Laura Palmer, the young woman whose body is discovered in the series pilot. Technically FWWM is a prologue, but I wouldn't recommend watching it first if you've never seen the show. As I wrote yesterday, the mystery surrounding Laura's death is what drives Twin Peaks. Once you know who the perpetrator was, the story loses a lot of steam. The topic of the second season came up in a conversation today, and the person I was talking to was adamant about disliking it.

So why the hell did Lynch shoot a follow-up, a year after the conclusion of the series? Apparently he believed that there was still some tale left untold. If you watched the 29 episodes of the television run, then you already have some vague outline of Laura's final days. The movie fills in some of the details. You could make the case that the depiction of the back-story is best made in the viewer's imagination. That may have been why the film was booed so vigorously when it played the Cannes film festival. It had a similarly negative reception in the States. Critics panned it. The audience was naturally limited to those fans who still loved the original series. Obviously, it was completely impenetrable to anyone who hadn't watched the show previously. Therefore it did quite poorly at the box office.

There are also reports that people resented the lack of humor that was so evident in the series. On the other hand, the silliness of the back half of the second season was a sticking point for many of its detractors. FWWM is almost relentlessly dark. Unfettered by the limitations of network television, Lynch pulled no punches in the portrayal of the disturbing relationship that underpins the narrative. He also expands upon the imagery originally presented in the "Red Room"- the dreamworld sequences that illuminate the core nightmare behind Twin Peaks. The "Man From Another Place" (Michael Anderson), "The One Armed Man" (Al Strobel), and "BOB" (Frank Silva) are all back, and they are joined by others. Minor characters Mrs. Chalfont and her grandson also return, and play more prominent roles. All these characters add to the general surrealist tone of FWWM.

Some star power was added for a bit of extra marquee glitz. Chris Isaak, Kiefer Sutherland and David Bowie all appear as FBI agents. They figure in a story that predates the events surrounding Laura Palmer. Kyle McGlaughlin (the heart of the series) plays a limited role, as he was reluctant to reappear in his original role. Absent altogether is Lara Flynn Boyle, who is replaced in the role of Donna Heyward by Moira Kelly. In addition, many of the main players from Twin Peaks were peripheral to Palmer's death, and are therefore omitted as well. There is no doubt at all that this is Laura's story. Of course this means that characters like the Palmer parents, Leo Johnson, James Hurley, Jacques Renault and Bobby Briggs are indispensable.

Sheryl Lee (who was an inexperienced local actress originally picked by Lynch merely to play the dead girl) ends up being given a lot of work in her role as Laura Palmer. It is fascinating to get to know the personality that affected so many of the players in the television series. She is confused, possessed, sexy, and dynamic in turn. And she could have been a major disappointment if she hadn't been able to deliver the goods. But in my opinion she did quite well. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about the cursory attempts Lynch made to clear up some of the lingering mysteries of the series. For example, we see a brief appearance by Agent Cooper's love interest about half way through the film. It seems like nothing more than an afterthought, and serves only to disrupt the continuity of the particular scene. Perhaps the talented director could have left well enough alone, and kept his eye on the main thread. Regardless FWWM was still enjoyable, and constitutes essential viewing for any Twin Peaks enthusiast.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

David Lynch and Mark Frost, "Twin Peaks" (1990).

After watching the complete offerings of several television programs that I had always wanted to see (Oz, Carnivale, The Prisoner), I finally decided to take a stab at seeing the entire Twin Peaks series. The show was created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, and was first aired starting in 1990 on ABC. It was tremendously original, and took millions of viewers by surprise. Lynch had made a string of extremely idiosyncratic features, including Eraserhead (1977), Dune (1984), and Blue Velvet (1986) . In short, he was already known as one of the strangest filmmakers in American history. I remember when Twin Peaks first came out because it got an astonishing amount of critical and commercial acclaim. It caught media observers off guard, because it was put up against Cheers (one of the most popular sitcoms in history) on Thursday nights. Everyone involved with the project was taken aback by its tremendous reception. Viewers were captivated by the show, and anxiously waited out the intervening days between episodes, wondering what would happen next.

The central puzzle in Twin Peaks dealt with the question, "Who killed Laura Palmer?" The teenage character was everything a girl would want to be- popular, beautiful, smart and talented. She had what appeared to be a loving family and many friends. Yet in the wake of her death, it was revealed that she had a hidden life that no one truly knew about. The unraveling of that story is the focus of the series pilot and its first season of seven episodes. Surrounding that main narrative was a full cast of quirky and odd characters. Kyle MacLachlan played FBI agent Dale Cooper, who was called in to help sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) investigate the killing of Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee). Meanwhile there was a devious hotel owner (Richard Beymer), a black widow (Joan Chen), the manager of a saw mill (Lynch-favorite, Jack Nance), and a community doctor (Warren Frost). Surrounding these prominent figures was a bevy of young and attractive actors including Sherilyn Fenn, Lara Flynn Boyle, Madchen Amick, James Marshall, and Dana Ashbrook. And this was but a mere sampling of the major players.

There were certainly a lot of folks to keep track of. In fact it might have been an overwhelming prospect had it not been for the genius of Lynch and Frost. The dark atmospheric beauty and the enigmatic qualities of the main setting made watching Twin Peaks particularly compelling. The rustic little Northwestern town and its surrounding forests provided a suitable tableau for the type of mysteries that its creators had in store. Charming details like Cooper's love of cherry pie, and the inordinate donut consumption in the sheriff's office seized its obsessive audience, and inspired parties organized around each episode. Tantalizing glimpses of a surreal dreamworld, and appearances by a giant, a dwarf, and a woman carrying a log for a companion hooked the collective imagination of all who watched.

By the time the first season was concluded, Twin Peaks had been promised a second one. It took nine more episodes to get to the revelation of Laura Palmer's killer. Some were satisfied, and others were left cold by the explanations. Still there were thirteen installments yet to come. Many felt that the show lost its tension and genius with the solution of Palmer's death. Naturally people had been clamoring for the answer for as long as it was dangling on the edge of events. Yet its eventual disclosure somehow removed an essential aspect of what had made the story so irresistible. Indeed neither Lynch nor Frost had ever planned on resolving the main question in the first place. They had correctly identified that device as the element that made the series work. But the network financiers believed that the audience needed resolution, and forced it upon Lynch and Frost. The remaining 13 episodes meandered through a range of fantastic and unlikely narrative threads. The back end of Twin Peaks was still quirky, but vaguely anticlimactic.

Despite the relatively disappointing nature of the second half of the series, I found a wealth of enjoyment in watching Twin Peaks in its entirety. More than fifteen years after it originally came out, its excellence is still obvious. There is a good reason that this show forever changed the standard for quality serial television. I noticed more possibilities for development that ultimately went unexplored in Twin Peaks than most shows have offered altogether. Any loose ends it left by its conclusion should be forgiven- as it delivered more in its two seasons than 99% of all television, before or since its appearance. In fact there is a whole new generation of viewers just now discovering its brilliance, with the recent complete series release on DVD. If like me you missed it the first time around, make sure to grab this opportunity to see Twin Peaks. It's more than just entertaining... it's an education in the possibilities of the form.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Baby E. christens my night before "Gestures" @ Mattress Factory.

This weekend has been dramatically different from the previous ten days. I've actually had a chance to go out and see stuff, without having to worry too much about rushing home. My job is mostly to make sure that M. has everything she needs in order to get through the day. Fortunately my Dad sent a DVD that provided some useful hints for soothing a crying baby. It's a bit humorous in retrospect that we've been telling people that Little E. is a particularly fussy baby. The fact is that's he's not... not really. We just weren't doing the right things. It turns out that babies actually have a sort of "soothing reflex". The tiny tyke could be losing his shit, but he is always vulnerable to a step-by-step method of calming. The DVD explains that the first three months of a new-born's life is like a fourth trimester. The best thing you can do to keep a baby happy is to simulate the experience of being in the womb. That actually makes a lot of sense.

I was privy to a very special milestone yesterday. M. gave me E. to hold for awhile so she could get things done. I propped him upright against my legs on my lap, facing me. He was wide awake and in a pretty good mood. At one point he looked at me and made a nice burp. A milky air bubble was on his tongue. I had never seen that before, and thought- "Look at that. It's a little bubble. How cute!" The next thing he did was glance at me again and projectile vomit a foot long continuous stream, like a cherubic fountain. The barf was smooth and creamy, and bright yellow. There were no chunks at all. He paused for a moment, and then let out another burst. Whenever I had imagined my kid "spitting up", I didn't picture that. It seemed like he expelled six ounces of liquid. Then he promptly flopped his head down and fell immediately and contentedly asleep. How sweet he is!

Anyway after I got cleaned up (and wiped off the sofa), I got ready for my night out. I planned my itinerary very methodically, and knew that I could hit three of the five galleries I had earlier identified as priorities. I really wanted to see the Gestures show at the Mattress Factory, so I started in the North Side. This is the annual opportunity for this excellent installation museum to roll out a little of the local flavor. The name of this year's exhibition is Illustrations of Catastrophe and Remote Times. It was curated by the assistant curator for the Carnegie Museum of Art, Heather Pesanti. All participating artists were asked to respond to an essay by Robert Smithson and Mel Bochner (no... I've never read it). Of course the range of responses varied greatly, and employed many different mediums and materials.

I was excited to find myself arriving before the crowds that I knew would show up as the night wore on. I got a great parking space and walked by a huddle of what looked like down-on-their-luck medieval reenactors, and into the satellite gallery on Monterrey Street. For the first time in my recollection, they were charging an admission ($10) to see the opening. I finagled the student discount and went in with great anticipation. I knew several of the artists- Renee Ickees, Christiane Leach, Laurie Mancuso, Jen Howison, etc, and was familiar with quite a few of the others. As expected I enjoyed several of the pieces. Particular standouts included a UFO visitation by Matthew Barton and Jacob Ciocci, as well as a meditation on the declining industry of the region by the aforementioned Mancuso.

Not surprisingly the place quickly became more crowded than I could bear. I said "hello" to a few friends and acquaintances, enjoyed another drink, and went out front for a smoke. I took a moment to watch the K-mart-outfitted knights, who turned out to be the subject of a music video by some post-punky band that I had minimal interest in. They did add a bit of lowbrow flavor to the event. Overall, I felt the show was certainly strong enough to recommend to others. Pesanti gave enough space to each artist, allowing their respective works to breathe in a way that I haven't seen at previous "Gestures" shows. As one might expect, the lineup of creators mirrored the social circle of the creator... but this seemed to work in the favor of this particular show. It's a talented group, and well worth at least one visit. I certainly felt like it gave my evening the patina it deserved. In short- it was better than baby puke.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Charles Willeford, "The Shark-Infested Custard"

Over the years I've spent a lot of time sifting through, looking for stuff that I might enjoy. In the process I've discovered innumerable items that I have enjoyed. Without this resource there are no doubt many things that I never would have discovered. If you' haven't played around on this site, I recommend trying it out some time. It's the best way to figure out whether or not you'd enjoy a particular CD, DVD or book. All you have to do is search for a product you like a lot, and take in the numerous recommendations that the Amazon search engine, or its many users, have in store for you. I've constructed a lengthy wish list by doing this very thing. The best part of it is that you can buy selections from independent marketplace sellers, often for less than the retail price.

While my experiences with Amazon have been overwhelmingly positive, once in awhile I am led to something I don't like. Obviously no system of recommendations is infallible. In addition one doesn't always know exactly what he/she likes. You have to take the time with the reviews and the various lists to make the best decisions. Over time your tastes may even change. Perhaps that's what happened between the time I identified Charles Willeford as an author worth checking out, and the time I finally broke down and ordered one of his books. I was excited by the prospect of reading The Shark-Infested Custard, and cracked it open soon after receiving it in the mail.

I had actually looked around for a Willeford title for years. For some odd reason I could never find any of his stuff at the Half-Priced Books stores that I frequent. I knew he was prolific, so I kept waiting and searching. It's quite possible that I never saw any of his books because I don't shop in the sections where he is shelved. He is usually categorized as a hard boiled crime/mystery writer. I don't have a whole lot of experience with that genre. Maybe Amazon recommended Willeford because I had reported liking a Jim Thompson book. Or maybe they seized upon my positive rating of Cockfighter- a movie for which Willeford wrote the screenplay.

All I can say with complete conviction is that this was a misfire. I wasn't even minimally impressed by The Shark-Infested Custard. The story (as it is) is told from the perspectives of four young men, who meet each other while living in an apartment complex for singles. They are like caricatures of the typical 70's-era professional American male, and (as such) I had a hard time relating with them from the start. They are shallow and blunt, without any type of sophistication or depth to keep the reader interested. These cartoonish boors display about as much emotional development and insight as the average adolescent frat-boy. I'm not sure whether they were created intentionally to be this baldly regressive or whether their portrayal reflects the personality of Willeford himself.

To make matters even more dire, the writing is poor- with obvious grammatical errors and a half-baked narrative device that seeks to tell the story through each character's perspective in turn. There is no cohesive thread that ties the events of the book together. Without creating any tension, and absent compelling motivation and/or social analysis, reading The Shark-Infested Custard was flat-out boring. That's probably the most grievous sin a writer can commit within this genre. Without pace or interesting interaction... without intriguing circumstances or settings... without the semblance of engaging dialog... there's just no reason to continue reading. I finished this book merely because I wanted to count it on my "reading project" list. I was also curious to see if it would redeem itself toward the end. Unfortunately, it didn't.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Asleep at the Wheel.

I'm now into the second week of my son's life, and I'm trying to get adjusted to the new paradigm. Understandably my home has been reorganized to suit his needs. There is baby paraphernalia situated throughout the house. Everything is aimed toward keeping him content- which means that he's not screaming his head off. He's definitely got a "fussy time" during the evening, as we were led to expect. This usually corresponds with M.'s breaking point, as she is used to winding down during that period of the day. While I can keep an eye on him, I'm (obviously) not built to meet his ultimate needs. So I mostly linger about helplessly, trying to figure out what I can contribute to his mother's happiness.

Despite the fact that I'm getting nearly my usual amount of sleep, the stress of the situation is taking a weird toll on me. Last night on my way home from work, I fell asleep at the wheel. I had just gone through one green light and nodded off within the forty feet before the next stoplight. I jerked my head up just in time to experience hitting the bumper of the car ahead of me. Luckily I was only going about 3-5 mph at most. I jumped out of my car and went to see if the people ahead of me were alright. It was a middle-aged woman with her grandson in the back seat. Naturally she got out of her car complaining about being jerked about. I noticed that neither her nor her boy had been wearing their seat belts, but I refrained from commenting on that oversight.

The woman was understandably quite upset, and she was looking for injury where none existed. It was easy to see that there was no damage to her car, other than a bit of chipped paint on her back end. Inexplicably, she insisted that her entire bumper was cracked. There was no point in arguing with her- she was already worked up as it was. I asked her what she wanted to do and she said I should follow her and pull off on the side of the road. But when I got back in my car, I saw that she had reconsidered. She wanted to exchange information right where we were, blocking traffic and all. I had no problem with that. Maybe she thought I was going to blow by her, making a hasty escape? For some reason she kept lamenting the lack of visible police, as if they had nothing better to do than wait around for minor bumper busters.

When she got back in her car and drove off, I followed her. I wasn't sure if that was what she intended, so I played it safe and pulled behind her when she parked illegally off to the side of the road. I wanted to make sure she didn't try to pin a hit-and-run on me. She exited her car again and looked at me inquisitively. Did I want to call the cops? No, I was just making sure she had everything she needed. She stated that she was going to call in a claim. I was resigned to that, as there was nothing else I could do in the situation that would be appropriate. If she does call this in to her insurance company, they will likely get a hearty laugh out of the incident. They will collect their deductible and raise her insurance. Pennsylvania is a "no-fault" state.

As I said before, the only damage on her end was a barely noticeable break in her paint. If she takes her car into a body shop, they will likely be stupefied by the connection between her perception and reality. Although she'd be foolish to file a claim, I have a suspicion that she might. She was obviously affronted by what happened, and she will want to get some type of immediate satisfaction. Even though she has every right to do so, I hope she doesn't. Every involvement, no matter how insignificant, is used by insurance companies to jack up premiums. I spend too much time in my car, and it seems like I get into these minor accidents about once a year. As scary as it is to nod off while driving, I'm thankful that it didn't happen on the highway. That could have been ugly.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why Not Krishna?

After repeated visits to New Vrindaban (and despite learning some disturbing tales about the community) I was compelled to find out more about Hinduism. There are a lot of ideas in Vedic philosophy that either appeal to me personally, or make a lot of sense regardless of the way I feel about them. Even though I am an avowed meat eater, I can see the wisdom in eschewing the flesh of animals and focusing a diet on the nutrients of vegetables. After a long discussion with N.V. chief agriculturalist Tapahpunja, I came away resolved to limit my intake of beef. While the eating habits of Krishnas may initially seem unappetizing (no meat, caffeine, alcohol, onions, garlic, mushrooms, etc.), there is no doubt that following their restrictions would lead to an extremely healthy lifestyle.

The Hindu concept of offering every action up to God is intriguing, if very demanding. In contrast, many Western religions seem to ask little of adherents. Hinduism requires a constant awareness of the quality of one's actions, no matter how routine. It is a highly structured religion with rigid strictures for everyday living. The belief that Krishna is physically present on our lips when we chant His name sounds foreign until one considers the Eucharist in Christianity. It's easy to critique other religions from a perspective confined by the blinders of one's faith. Only by stepping back from one's own position can a measure of objectivity be attained. If the practices of devotees at New Vrindaban seem "weird", it is mostly because of the spiritual homogeneity throughout the United States . Additionally, most citizens are conditioned to subjugate their religious identity in order to fully enter consumerist society.

In this nation, materialism is elevated to a holy pursuit. It's not difficult to understand why so many within the counterculture turned to Eastern philosophies and religions in the 60's and early 70's. Those years constituted a short concentrated era in which people questioned the assumptions that they had been conditioned to accept without reflection. I don't think the Krishna Consciousness Movement could have arrived in the West during a more auspicious time. It capitalized on the general disillusion that people had with modern capitalism and traditional authority. No doubt many of those who found themselves at New Vrindaban were bringing personal instabilities along with them. But at the same time, I'm certain that there were plenty of folks who were genuine in their search to embrace something deeper and more meaningful than conventional society had offered them.

According to Hinduism, the stakes are high. We are trapped in a cycle of material existence, whereby we accumulate "karma"for all the suffering we cause in our lives. This baggage is carried over when we are reincarnated into subsequent lives. If we don't surrender to Krishna and devote our efforts to Him, we will never transcend to the Godhead. For many rationalists, this is a major stumbling block. Personally I think this formulation is poetic and resonant. In some strange way, it mirrors my understanding of evolution itself. According to this world view, spiritual progression leads to salvation. This is what Krishnas mean when they suggest that you can "Stay High All the Time". If nothing else, this admonition demonstrated an adept approach to marketing during the Hippie Era.

There are a few principles in Krishna Consciousness that simply prohibit me from embracing it wholesale. The main precept that I have difficulty with is the characterization of the divine as "essentialist". The attribution of definite and absolute qualities to the Godhead seems extraordinarily limited to me. I've never been able to accept the personification of God. The consequences of this belief lead to (at least) two troubling aspects in Hinduism. One I've mentioned in a recent post- it creates a master-disciple relationship that is ripe for exploitation. In this setup, the guru is to be followed as an infallible representative of God. I simply don't believe that is possible. Secondly, Krishna is irrefutably male and thus Hindus accept a hierarchy in which women are absolutely subjugated to men. This is irreconcilable with my perspective, and prohibits me from considering Krishna Consciousness (or Hinduism) a viable option.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What's Up with Michigan?

Today is the day for the Michigan primaries. This is the first presidential election in which the state has moved its primary date into January. The decision has yielded decidedly mixed results. While the GOP seems to be taking the new setup in stride, the Democratic party has resisted the move. In fact the Dem candidates for the presidency agreed not to campaign at all in the state. Of the three front runners, only Hillary Clinton has allowed her name to remain on the ballot. According to Democratic Party rules, only four states can hold their primaries before February 5th. In addition to the states that have already voted, only Nevada and South Carolina get this unique privilege.

While the Dems have shut the Michigan delegates completely out of the process, the Republicans have only withdrawn half of the state's representatives to their national convention. This is a mild punishment for a significant step toward primary anarchy. Apparently both parties will extend these consequences respectively to Florida- where party leaders also saw fit to vault themselves into national prominence. The growing controversy over timing for the primaries has become a bit of a media circus. Certainly Clinton has only exacerbated the issue by remaining in the contest. She was likely to win anyway if no one campaigned, so her continued presence is simple political expedience.

It will be interesting to see what happens if the race for the Democratic nomination remains close after February. Will Hillary Clinton insist that her Michigan victory counts? In fact it's a bit difficult to figure out just whose motivations are pure in this little debacle. Edwards and Obama can claim to have taken the high road, congratulating themselves for being loyal to the Democratic National Committee. But since they weren't going to sink money into a potential victory, they had little at stake in resting on principle. On the other hand, why should Clinton willingly give up the delegates she would have received from a sure victory?

The Republicans are now engaged in a heated three-way battle to reach the top of their diminishing heap of candidates. Mitt Romney has attained the penultimate position in both of the previous two state primaries, and he hopes to finally achieve a victory to build upon. The possibility exists that he will finish strong, since Michigan is his home state. Meanwhile John McCain believes that he can continue the momentum from his New Hampshire win if he can only pull out a victory in this beleaguered state. This would be a huge coup for McCain, whose campaign seemed to collapse under its own weight last year. There's still not much noise coming from the Giuliani camp, which is a bit surprising considering the widespread perception that he is an "electable" candidate.

I have to admit that I'm happy for the asterix that will be attached to today's electoral results. The entire concept of primaries bothers me because I don't believe in party politics- especially in a two-party system like we currently have. We have invested too much time, trust, energy, and money into what appears to be a fixed and closed establishment that demands fealty and conformity from anyone who desires a place in federal government. The arbitrary order of state primaries exposes the inherent inequity of the system. The more people disagree about the primary process, the more likely people are to find the entire structure illegitimate. I'd personally like to see primaries eliminated altogether. We need to find a more "fair and balanced" way to narrow the field of candidates.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Hubner and Gruson, "Monkey on a Stick" (1988)

I've written on a few occasions about the Hare Krishna farm community in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. I have visited New Vrindaban four times. It is an impressive retreat located in the wild hills near Moundsville. Its central focus is Prabhupada's Palace of Gold, a grand edifice built to honor the founder and spiritual master of the Krishna Consciousness Movement. The place has a storied history, and has weathered a lot of controversy over the years. I learned a lot about its development by watching a documentary called Holy Cow Swami- a documentary film made by West Virginian filmmaker Jacob Young. I thought that Young's examination and portrayal of New Vrindaban was fairly balanced, and that his appreciation for his subject was sincere.

Still there are plenty of crazy and dark tales to tell about both New Vrindaban and the Krishna movement throughout the West. During further research on these topics I became aware of a book by John Hubner and Lindsry Gruson entitled Monkey on a Stick. It was written in the midst of the media frenzy that followed the trials of Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada (Keith Ham), and the shocking tales being told by disgruntled devotees and fringies* across America and beyond. People had viewed the Movement with suspicion ever since the New York Times covered the activities of the very first temple in Manhattan in the mid-60's. Despite this nation's professed respect for freedom of religion- if you are not a conventional Christian, a lot of folks will view you with distrust and confusion. Certainly some of the harsh criticism leveled against the Krishnas in the 80's was a result of such attitudes.

But if you dig a little deeper, you can find plenty of salacious details originating from within the Movement itself. Hubner and Gruson did a thorough job of cataloging the negative perspectives of both current and ex-devotees, along with those of independent observers, law enforcement figures, and peripheral adherents. Before reading Monkey on a Stick, I could have outlined a basic overview of some of the difficulties that New Vrindaban has faced over the years, but I was missing a lot of the background details that would explain some of the complexities involved in the community. This book filled in the gaps. Even more helpfully, the authors put the local problems in a wider frame by examining the conflict between the Governing Body Council of ISKCON (that was supposed to manage the Movement) and the initiating gurus who viewed themselves as individual succesers to Prabhupada himself.

Kirtanananda wasn't the only swami who ran afoul of the law after Prabhupada's death. A California-based guru named Hansadutta (Hans Kary) collected an arsenal of weapons near San Francisco to confront what he thought would be a massive invasion of Karmis**. He fortified himself with illicit drugs and sex with his female devotees. Jayatirtha (James Immel, the London guru ) used LSD to connect with Krishna, and decided to likewise avail himself of the flesh of his disciples. He was later killed and beheaded by his most ardent follower, who had decided he was a modern-day Rasputin. Bhagavan (William Ehrlichman) ruled over multiple European temples with an imperious approach. He had an overwhelming weakness for luxury that earned him the nickname "The Sun King". He lived a lavish life in a mansion and drank out of a $10,000 goblet made from pure gold.

Ultimately Monkey on a Stick makes a pretty convincing case that the downfall of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness followed quickly upon Prabhupada's passing in 1977. He gave instructions from his deathbed for succession. He designated 11 of his disciples rittvik representatives, and gave them the power to act as his deputies in initiating future devotees. Unfortunately the chosen ones viewed themselves as divine acharyas- or as the infallible representatives of God on Earth. They became trapped in Maya (the sensory world of the ego) and misused their perceived authority to further their insatiable desires for power. The danger of a religion based upon a master-devotee relationship is that it is particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Luckily for Krishna Consciousness there have been 'reformers' in the Movement like Ravindra Svurupa (William Deadwyler, Philadelphia) and Bahudaka (Peter Chatterton, Vancouver) who have arisen to keep ISKCON 'Honest'.

*"Fringies" are those that generally follow the teachings, philosophy and faith-based beliefs of Prabhupada and Krishna Consciousness, but do not adhere rigidly to the strictures of devotees.

** "Karmies" are the meat-eating heathens who have yet to embrace Krishna Consciousness. They are doomed to a cycle of reincarnation on the "material platform" until they surrender fully to God and work off their accumulated karma.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Living in Babyland.

My first weekend as a father is almost complete. Tomorrow it's back to the everyday grind of work, and it's not as severe a prospect as it has been for years. Unlike during my long period of relative freedom, I'm not sacrificing much by getting back into the routine of the week. For the first time since E. was born, I'm feeling a sense of relative normalcy again. Last night M. and I decided that she would use her single daily allowance of stair use at night, so that she and the baby can sleep in his room. This will give her an opportunity to change her environment a bit so she won't go completely mad being confined to the same room 24-7. The new strategy paid immediate dividends as they got a new peaceful place to rest. He actually slept in his crib. This gave M. a chance to get some more needed sleep.

The flood of visitors has slowed to a trickle. Our friends and family have all been wonderfully supportive. It's nice to know that so many folks are willing to lend a hand. We are constantly getting offers from people who would be willing to help out even more. We're not the type of couple that accepts support from others very easily, but the knowledge that it's out there should we need it is reassuring. These visits have been great for me, as it pulls me out of "babyland" for a glimpse of the outside world. All in all, it's not been nearly as oppressive as I expected it to be. Only time will tell if I can say the same thing a month from now. I guess it depends upon the habits that E. eventually develops. It's still too early to get a true gauge of his developing personality.

There are times when our boy is extremely cranky. When he gets really upset he sounds like something possessed- a la The Exorcist. Has the Antichrist joined our family? If so, we will do everything to make him feel welcome and try not to judge. He's going to be his own little person regardless. Maybe we can take the edge off for humanity's sake. We've noticed that he doesn't have the sort of infinite patience we might have hoped for. Of course if he had, it would have been an aberration, considering our own individual temperaments. M. has repeatedly commented that I had a sort or evilly retarded look as an infant. Meanwhile I've always felt when looking at M.'s childhood photos that she was no plum fairy herself. E. looks a bit angelic, and then he opens up that quivering mouth and lets loose with a barrage of insistent complaint.

So it is pleasant once in while to get away. Last night I received exactly one and a half hours of social leave. I used it to run out and see three gallery openings. I called a friend and he was able to accompany me in my whirlwind tour of the Pittsburgh art offerings. Zombo Gallery had a "bring your own art" show. Apparently (although I didn't really get any exact details) they provided wall space for any artists that wanted to display a piece or two. As one might expect, all the available space was used, and there were plenty of people milling about. The proprietors typically make sure to have some decent beer and wine on hand, and last tonight it was a quarter keg of Church Brew Works craft ale. I waited for the foam to settle and had a look around.

Knowing that I was on a tight schedule definitely affected my enjoyment. Whenever I ran into someone I knew, I was self-conscious about not spending too much time with small talk. I'm sure I appeared as if I was distracted, and indeed I was. But I wanted to make sure I took enough time with the work itself. Unfortunately, nothing I saw at any of the galleries stood out enough to make me pause for awhile. Still I'm not sure whether that was because of the intrinsic quality of the work, or due to the fact that I felt hurried. I wanted to milk every single minute for maximum pleasure. That's a lot to expect from entries in a group show. My other outside excitement from this weekend entailed buying the wrong diapers at Giant Eagle, and consequently being sent out to the Dollar Store. I remedied the first mistake with another- buying a generic brand which M. would never put on E. Oh well.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Big Welcome Home.

Yesterday when I came home from work, M. and E. were waiting there in the living room for me. Because M. won't be able to make it up and down the stairs for awhile, we decided it would be best to set up her entire life in that single room for the next three weeks. That may sound like an awfully dreary existence, but M. seems to be bearing up well under the pressure. No matter what small sacrifices I find myself making, her lot is a thousand times harder. It feels good to have them both back home after their stint in the hospital. There's the understandably cozy idea of the domestic scene, and a feeling of compartmentalized life. Still the concept of home has irrevocably changed, and it's going to take a lot of adjustment.

For the first time in recent memory, I came home from work on a Friday and stayed in the night. There was certainly time for me to sit at the computer and construct a blog post, but I was completely exhausted from the strain of this week. To make matters a bit more stressful, E. cried intermittently through the evening and far into the night. The tough part about being the father to a newborn is knowing that there's not a whole lot you can do to make things the way you want them. There's a profound feeling of helplessness when your child is crying and you can't get him to stop.

I knew I'd experience a lot of frustration trying to figure out what the baby is communicating when he cries. Does he have a poopy diaper? Is he hungry? Does he have gas from nursing? Is he cold? Does his circumcision still bother him? Or is he merely tired from lack of sleep? He doesn't even know sign language yet, let alone proper English. Sometimes the only way to get him to settle down is to pick him up and hold him. We've already learned a couple of surefire soothing positions that don't entail him sucking on a nipple. As I mentioned earlier, he didn't really sleep at all last night. Of course that means that M. didn't either. However, for some reason, he slept in my arms for two hours straight this morning while I watched episodes of Mr. Show.

During the time he was crashed out, M. got to get up and put stuff in the laundry. She ate and took care of stuff she hadn't had the opportunity to address in days. She couldn't sleep because I had made a trip for coffee and she had requested some- anticipating that it would be a long time before E. was settled down. We have to get a grip on these rhythms, so that M. can seize any chance to get some shut-eye. She's even talking about swearing off coffee altogether. Fortunately I know there are some things I can do to make her burden just a little bit easier. Someone recently told me that the first year of a child's life is all about the mother's relationship with her kid. All the father can really do is to be on call for whatever mom needs.

I could write for days about the multiple strains that I feel with this fussy little addition to the family. Yet (as I said) my life is comparatively easy. I don't have to be the tyke's eternal tap. I've actually felt guilty going upstairs to get some sleep. Last night I languished in a terrible series of nightmares. I woke up in the middle of the night and made a zombie-walk downstairs to see the restless pair. They were still wide awake and trying to find the happy medium of routine. It's looking more and more like this kid is like his father- a nocturnal rambler who would much rather lay down during the day, and make endless forays into the mysteries of the night.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

A.M. Homes, "This Book Will Save Your Life" (2006)

After reading Music for Torching, I was resolved to seek out more work by A.M. Homes. I knew that she had a few novels and short story collections, and I was anxious to read what were said to be her most important books. Frankly I was expecting to find some rather dark material, as I had seen an interview with her that highlighted the edgy quality of her writing. It wasn't difficult to track down a few of her titles- Half Priced Books was well-stocked, and a fellow bibliophile encouraged me to borrow her copy of This Book Will Save Your Life (2006). She seemed to think that I would particularly enjoy Homes' newest book. I began reading TBWSYL with the confidence that I was launching on another great literary adventure.

The protagonist of this novel is Richard- a middle-aged divorcee who spends most of his time staring at his computer at home, and trying to stay healthy. Although his surroundings are extremely ordered, his emotional life is so repressed that he has no awareness of the disorder lurking beneath. All he can experience of inner life is an intense and spreading pain of indeterminate origin. Because of his physical habits, he decides that if he waits it out, it will probably just disappear in time. But instead it intensifies throughout the day until he feels compelled to call 911 for assistance.

This is the start of TBWSYL. Homes is obviously in no hurry to waste time on a lot of direct exposition. There is plenty of room for the reader to get lost in the building scenario. The way to confront the material is just to jump right in with the expectation that all will eventually be explained. And for the most part it is. Richard reveals himself slowly as he is examined by the medical professionals in the hospital, and later by a new physician at his regular doctor's office. This unfamiliar doctor is actually an interesting concept- he's a strange mix of psychologist and M.D. and provides Richard with the opportunity to begin his journey of self-exploration. Perhaps his malaise originates with some existential crisis. Our hero is definitely willing to explore the possibilities.

Along the way, we meet a variety of cleverly idiosyncratic characters and see Richard through a series of surreal experiences. His multi-million dollar house in the canyon begins to sink into a hole in the ground. He enlists the assistance of a neighboring movie star to rescue a horse from its center. Later he attends a week long retreat of silence hosted by a loopy new age prophet. He even gets to rescue an abductee from the trunk of her captor's car. Throughout all the chaos he continues to search for meaning through his attempts to reconnect with humanity. He meets a housewife crying in the produce section of a grocery store, and decides to adopt her. He befriends the immigrant owner of a donut shop. He rents a beach house next door to a slovenly enigma who claims to be merely a hack screenwriter.

But if there is an emotional center to TBWSYL, it is to be found in Richard's efforts to address his estranged relationship with his seventeen-year old son. It is through this plot thread that our protagonist finally gets clear of his sense of alienation. These are the scenes in the book that resonate most effectively with me. There is one father-son conflict in particular that blindsides the reader with such force that he/she is knocked back into the messy murk and essential fallibility of familial bonds. It's too bad that so much of TBWSYL is only pleasantly diverting. Ultimately I felt that the meandering nature of the writing would have better lent itself to a short story collection. There are many interesting ideas and situations- they just needed to be fleshed out more and not forced together in what seems like an arbitrary manner. Don't get me wrong- this was entertaining... it just wasn't cohesive.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

To Cut, Or Not to Cut...

I wonder when a baby is no longer a newborn. E. has completed his first day on Earth. He seems to be quite a bit better adjusted than yesterday. I guess that's to be expected. It's fun to see his eyes open, and scanning his environment for anything at all that makes sense. I'd love to see through his eyes for about thirty seconds (and then of course recover my own imperfect eyesight). I don't believe he'll ever have any conscious memory about what he's seeing, but in some ways he's laying some important foundations for his ultimate life perspective. That's an intense idea. It's easy to want the very best for him, but hard to figure out just how to give it to him. I'm not sure at all what he wants when he cries, and that can be frustrating.

I think I can say with some confidence that he probably didn't want his foreskin clipped. Yet that was exactly what happened today. I have to say that neither of us really considered doing anything but going ahead with the procedure. Whatever controversy exists over the idea of routine circumcision has been so far on the periphery of our lives that it hasn't even registered with us. Bumper stickers like "100% of babies oppose circumcision" strike me as inane and a bit annoying. We have heard too much about respecting nature's way when it comes to childbirth and rearing. The reality is that humans have developed many health practices that seem counter to what "nature" or "god" intended. To me that entire approach is simplistic.

A major argument against circumcision goes something like this- "My baby is born perfect, and why should I alter it in any way?" Besides being arguably naive and idealistic, there's simply not a lot of substance behind it. More galling is the contention that male circumcision is akin to female circumcision. For contrary evidence, just consult the pornography industry. I can speak to this point from personal experience- I am circumcised and I have had no deficit of sensory pleasure throughout my life. In fact, I think more feeling might possibly be a bad thing. Other people don't seem to have the stomach for "hurting" little boys... as if any and all pain should be avoided at all costs. Well... immunization is neither natural nor pain-free, but science suggests that it is often beneficial.

The skeptical reader may oppose my comparison between circumcision and immunization. But the latest research is very interesting, and directly applicable to this dialog. It turns out that studies have shown that circumcision reduces the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS from heterosexual sex by 50 percent. Similarly, it decreases by half the chance of getting other STDs. Men with foreskins also get significantly more urinary tract infections and suffer higher rates of penile cancer. When confronted with such dangers, the "flappers" suggest that many of those problems can be staved off with condoms (which also happen to decrease sexual pleasure- the supposed advantage of not being clipped in the first place). Sure- precautions, rigorous hygiene, and antibiotics can make living with a foreskin safer- but why take that chance at all?

Maybe when men roamed the Earth on all fours, the foreskin played an important protective role. But now that moist enclosure is nothing more than a snug Petri dish waiting to house all types of bacteria. If we apply the logic of the "intactivists" (which is the self-selected title for those who believe parents DO NOT have a right to make the decision to circumcise), we should hesitate to remove the vestigial tails that some babies are born with. The same concept should apply to tonsils, suspicious moles, unwanted hair, the appendix and long toenails. How dare human society ever remove these sacred birthrights?

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Day at the Baby Mill.

Well now... I'm officially a father. I can't explain how strange that is to say for the first time in my late thirties. The whole thing happened quite smoothly. Say what you want about c-section births, but the kids come out looking ready to go. No pointy head or garishly twisted limbs. On the other hand, we could tell that ours would have liked to stay in there for a couple more days. He sure can scream. M. said that he was pissed off when he got pulled out of his cozy little pocket. It will probably take a day or two for him to get used to the idea of being out in the world. I guess it's a useful lesson for him to learn right away- things don't always go according to your schedule.

Overall (like I said before) things proceeded without a hitch. Still, one thing did happen that angered me. We were told a few days ago that only one person would be allowed to accompany M. into the operating room. Her mother has been with her for every one of her surgeries before, and she knows M.'s reactions to anesthesia. She was also a nurse, so she has a lot more knowledge than I do about the entire process. It seemed to make sense for her to be the one to go in. So I decided to curb my emotions and ego, and cede my place along M. in the birthing room. I was a bit sad, as everyone I told about the decision seemed to think that I would later regret it. After awhile I felt resolved about the situation.

If you think about it from an anthropological perspective, the historical norm is to have only the women present for birth. They huddle around the expectant mother, muttering whatever incantations seem appropriate at the time. The men stay outside the tent and hope for the best. I figured if it was good enough for millions before me, than I would have to accept the situation for myself. Besides the nurse promised that they would bring the kid by the postpartum recovery room before they wheeled him to the nursery. That way I would get to see him. My plan was to go get some lunch and a smoke in the meantime. The anesthesiologist suggested that I would have plenty of time. But then the nurse told me to wait, or I would miss my chance.

I decided to play it safe and wait in the room. It was a bit tedious, and I mostly spent the time watching the clock. The door to the room was open, and so I felt like there was no way they would sneak by without me noticing. I thumbed through the channels on television, and halfheartedly watched coverage of the New Hampshire primaries. I really couldn't do much else. The minutes passed by very slowly. But finally M.'s mom came in and started removing her hygienic blue paper suit. I asked if the kid was on his way, and she replied that they had already taken him down to the nursery. I immediately boiled over and started using the type of language I'm not used to uttering around my in-laws.

I went to the nursing station and tried to explain my plight without yelling at anyone who wasn't responsible for (what I considered to be) an extreme act of neglect. They got me a wristband which was supposed to allow me in to the nursery, and then someone led me there. My guide went in to check out the status inside, and came out after a few minutes with the message that I would be allowed to see my son through the window. I wondered why the hell I needed a wristband to do what anyone loitering in the hallway could do. I stood there steaming as I got the first glimpse of my boy. He was being washed and he was not happy. Neither was I. And I wasn't very pleasant with the doctor who had come to see how I was feeling as a new father. Still I knew that things could only get better from that moment on.

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