Sunday, August 31, 2008

Herschel Carrousel Factory Museum, North Tonawanda, NY.

When I was casting about for a place to stay during my time in Buffalo, I found a Microtel north of the city in a suburb called Tonawanda. It was relatively cheap and conveniently located, if very small. It did put me in close proximity to an attraction I wanted to see in North Tonawanda- the Herschel Carrousel Factory Museum. I definitely have a jones for old-time amusements. Whether it be traveling carnivals, fly-by-night circus companies, roadside attractions, or extinct amusement parks, I lament the passing of these traditional outlets for public play. Before the age of television and digital media, people pretty much had to engage the outside world to find their fun. Now these things are disappearing, seemingly forever.

There was a time when Western New York employed a lot of its denizens in the making of traditional carousels. Allan Herschel was a pioneer in the field. His firm originally made parts for steam engines, but on a trip to Coney Island he discovered and fell in love with a new adult diversion. He saw his very first merry-go-round. In 1873 he came back to the area north of Buffalo, and started an operation aimed at designing and manufacturing simple and elegant versions of the ride. Eventually he shipped his product throughout the United States, Canada and abroad. In 1915 he built the facility at 180 Thompson Street which currently houses a museum, as well as an original Herschel carousel from 1916.

I arrived at the place promptly at 10AM, only minutes ahead of a tour group of summer camp kids. This gave me enough time to get the lay of the land and organize my self-guided visit. I began with a quick look around the gift shop that stocks a good amount of classic memorabilia and trinkets centered (of course) around the carousel theme. I paid my $5 admission (that included a ride on the in-house classic carousel) and stepped into a room containing the Lockman collection. This exhibit documents the changes in style and manufacturing that occurred over the history of the carousel industry. It even includes an antique wooden bull, used as a strength-testing game at the now-defunct Erie Beach Amusement Park.

Then I walked around the partially-restored workshops abutting the gallery. There is a lot of information contrasting the labor-intensive production of wooden carousel horses to the modern day method that involves fiberglass. In addition, there's a section where contemporary hobbyists and craftsmen can come and use the old tools left from the factory. While I was browsing I met a retired minister from Ohio named Don Brewer. He's a former showman who once toured with the circus. We jawed for awhile about the sad decline of touring shows, and he showed me a bit of the wooden carving he was engaged in. It was great to talk to someone who was once actually part of the long-lost world that I am so enamored with.

I certainly felt like all the volunteers staffing the Museum appreciated my interest in the history of carousels and amusement parks. There will likely come a day when people forget the roots of the industry. I'm overwhelmingly grateful that there are enthusiasts willing to invest their time and energy in preserving this delightful part of our past. The opportunity to photograph an authentic operating carousel from the second decade of the 20th Century was amazing. In addition, displays describing other rides produced by Herschel and Co. were detailed and fascinating. This is another place I hope to eventually bring Baby E., once he is old enough to appreciate a ride on the carousel. I'll even cash in my wooden nickel when that time comes.

Bonus Trivia: The idea for the carousel is based upon the use of wooden horses that knights trained upon during medieval times. They even practiced with brass rings, attempting to spear them with a lance.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Few Thoughts on Sarah Palin's Noble Choices and Aspirations.

As much as I may resent what I see as some of the most exploitive politics in recent times, I can't help thinking and talking about McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. It's true that I am playing right into GOP hands by helping wipe the slate clean after this week's Democratic convention. But this is a fascinating scenario that I'm still trying to get my head around. This is Machiavellian strategy at its finest. Imagine making a decision of this magnitude, and doing it completely out of expediency. It's purely reactionary thinking on the part of the McCain campaign. Do you have any doubt that things would have gone down differently had Obama picked Hillary Clinton as his partner? I don't. Not at all.

Listening to the right wing pundits on talk radio, you'd think that this was sheer brilliance. The Christian branch of the GOP has been stroked. This woman is so "pro-life" that she had a kid that she knew was afflicted with Down's Syndrome. How wise and compassionate she must be to accept this "gift from God". She's accepted this beautiful presence in her life in such a self-sacrificing manner. It should be pointed out that anyone who makes the choice not to abort a fetus with such a severe disability is making a commitment to give of themselves in a way a parent of normally-functioning children can not ever truly understand. The amount of time and energy that the mother must invest are extraordinary*.

This Sarah Palin must truly be a noble soul, right? She's going to prioritize the sanctity of life. She's going to live up to her reputation as a crusader for "family values". She must be absolutely inexhaustible. As governor of a state of such crucial importance to the rest of the nation, she must call upon her extensive education and experience to look out for the interests of all US citizens, and not just the tens of thousands who elected her to office. And that's not all. Now she's agreed to take on a bigger role of service to our country. She's willing to accept the nomination to be our Vice President. Why is that? Well, as of the beginning of this month she didn't even know. In her own words "I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day?"

Well, in her case (should McCain win in November) she has to be prepared at any time to assume the duties of the presidency. If you're not aware of the state of John McCain's health, suffice it to say that the 72-year-old's prognosis is not especially favorable. So Palin really ought to be boning up on her prospective duties in the number 1 spot as well, because she is not what anyone could call especially well-informed when it comes to federal government (in fact she's never served in it). At the very least, she should spend some time studying Iraq. In an interview with Alaska Business Monthly in 2007, she was asked about the troop "surge" and she replied, "I've been so focused on state government, I haven't really focused much on the war in Iraq."

Of course that's a bit odd considering her oldest son is due for deployment to the Middle Eastern theater on September 11th of this year. But we've got to cut her some slack. She has a lot on her plate. I'm sure the investigation into her possibly unlawful dismissal of Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan is eating into her moose-hunting time. The results of that inquiry will be released on October 30th. Furthermore, she's going to be on the campaign trail for the next 60 odd days. In order for her to unleash her "Sarah Barracuda" persona on Joe Biden, she's going to have to receive a basic introduction to national policy and government, which should sufficiently complement her prestigious bachelor of arts degree in journalism from the University of Idaho.

And finally, the duties of motherhood never end. This will be a crucial time in the early development of her four-month-old disabled infant. And she's got four other kids to nurture. Hopefully she can carry over some of the burnished luster from her "Miss Congeniality" days that allowed her to finish second in the Alaska Beauty Pageant. Maybe she can take few a sips from John McCain's energy drink.

* Especially for a woman with four children who decides to have another at age 43, knowing that the risks of an abnormal pregnancy are dramatically heightened.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Who is Sarah Palin?

After what can only be described as a stirring Democratic National Convention, the McCain Campaign has made its bid to steal the rising thunder of the press. They have gone completely off the board, and chosen the 44-year old Governor of Alaska as the nominee for Vice President. Sarah Palin will be the first female GOP VP candidate in history, and only the second from one of the two major parties. No doubt political pundits and observers nationwide are scratching their collective head over this decision. What exact purpose does this choice serve? What subtle demographic shifts have the analysts discovered that make this a good idea? How will the public react to this unknown quantity?

As far as what this selection does for McCain, we have to look at the expectations the wannabe executive has for his electoral viability. You'd have to have your head in the sand not to have heard the ample speculation regarding the recent rift in the Democratic Party. Obviously there are quite a few discontented Clinton fanatics that the Republicans dream about plucking for the November vote. After the last few days, the big mystery is how many of those folks actually exist that could turn their disappointment into support for McCain. Perhaps (the thinking goes) Palin will appeal to women who'd like to see the glass ceiling finally shattered. But how many female voters can't see beyond gender? And what do they have in common with Palin?

The main stumbling block for any Clinton-fan is going to be Sarah Palin's strenuous opposition to choice. She is adamantly against abortion, and even knowingly birthed a son with Down's Syndrome earlier in the year. Her credentials must certainly appeal to a constituency with which McCain has a very troublesome relationship. The Christian Right must find some succor in the fact that Palin is also against gay marriage, a member in good standing of the National Rifle Association, and the former head of her alma mater's Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Still, she used the first veto of her governorship to block legislation that would have barred the state from extending same-sex partner benefits to its employees (ed. note: Or so Wikipedia said earlier in the day. The story here has since changed... and now the site says that she supported a referendum for a constitutional amendment barring benefits to same-sex couples. For whose benefit has the history changed?)

In her role of Alaskan chief executive, Palin has been associated with fighting for ethics reforms. In a state known for its widespread corruption among its Republican leadership, Palin has called politicians like former Governor Frank Murkowski and Senator Ted Stevens to task. She has consistently fought against pork-barrel spending (ed. note: whenever national media started focusing on it- see her initial support of the Gravina Island Bridge, and how she kept the federal funds after she decided it wouldn't be built) and has made efforts to underscore her "independence" (ed. note: quotes added... see comments below) from big oil (despite being betrothed to a (former?) employee of the BP Corporation). Her perceived integrity and her rigorous approach to life outside of politics (she goes on moose hunts, ice fishes, and rides a snowmobile) have increased her popularity in her home state. Her approval ratings hover in the 80-90% range.

But one wonders how any of this will translate in the larger arena. Is America ready to put a woman (with almost no significant experience) just a malignant melanoma away from the Oval Office? No doubt her history of being a Miss Alaska runner-up, a sports reporter, and a mayor of a backwoods town of approximately 5500 people will seem charming to those who drink the Kool-Aid. Yet she seems like an awfully odd pick for a campaign that has perpetually stressed its opponent's so-called lack of meaningful experience. Perhaps they think that a little bit of her minority magic can rub off on the old man? It's hard for me to believe that she is going to make a big difference in this race. I can't wait for her debates with Joe Biden.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Pittsburgh Art Events: 8/29-31/08.

With Rick over at Pittsburgh Art and Gallery Blog following his bliss in the great outdoors (and therefore on official hiatus until the end of September), I'm sure to miss out on a few of the wonderful art events happening around the 'Burgh this weekend. But I do know of several things worth attending, and if I have any sort of energy by tomorrow I should be able to get out to enjoy them.


If you have been meaning to check out the La Vie Gallery in Lawrenceville (3609 Butler Street), but have never made it a priority- tomorrow night (7-10PM) is your last chance... forever! That's right kids, yet another great gallery has come to its unfortunate end. Thommy Conroy and Bronwyn Loughren have made a mark on the local scene that will leave its afterimage for years. Somehow they have been able to corral some of the best young artists in town, and show their best work consistently, month-after-month. The receptions have been well attended and elegantly provisioned, and the prices have always been affordable. Often the best art venues come and go quickly in this town, and leave folks reminiscing about them for a long time afterwards. Don't you want to say that you were there?

Fortunately this weekend isn't just about "farewells". It appears that Syracuse's loss is our gain. Maverick art curator Astria Suparak has hit town. She's rolling out her first locally-curated show at the Regina Miller Gallery at CMU. The NYC Pratt-institute grad has made a lot of waves over the last few years (read Bill O'Driscoll's City Paper profile of her here). Anyway, for her inaugural exhibition she has chosen to bring us Julie Christensen's Your Town, Inc. It will include 80 photos from an upcoming book documenting the reuse of properties once housing "Big Box" stores. While you can officially see the work on Friday during normal gallery hours (12-6PM), the big reception (apparently a "Hometown BBQ") isn't until September 19th.

If you are downtown, you can stop by Future Tenant for an installation by "street artist" Danny Devine. Ain't too Proud to Beg will have a "Kickass opening with food, drinks, movies, art for sale & more" from 6-9pm (or so the website says).


I'm really not in the business of making music suggestions, but I'm going to make an exception for this weekend. David Berman's Silver Jews are making their very first appearance (ever) in Pittsburgh, at the William Pitt Union Assembly Hall at 8PM. Berman is a poet and songwriter who attended college with former Pavement front-man Stephen Malkmus. For awhile he enlisted his more famous friend to play in his band. Together they made American Water, which I consider one of the best and most literate rock albums ever. For years you couldn't see the Silver Jews live because Berman's social anxiety wouldn't allow him to perform on-stage. But a few years ago he met the love of his life, and has since experienced a vivid resurgence. Don't miss this performance.


I know that I've already mentioned the Zombo events that are happening this weekend. Still I feel that they are worth another mention. "Lucky the Painproof Man" will be at the Gallery on 49th and Hatfield on Saturday from 6-9PM. He's actually looking to sell off some of his memorabilia this time around. And on Monday (September 1st) you can celebrate Labor Day at Arsenal Lanes. Art Goes Bowling is having its closing party from 6-11PM. Local band The Whips will be making their debut. If you can't make it, have a look here to see what you are missing.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Convention Tidbits.

It may come as a surprise to some, but I haven't been paying much attention at all to the Democratic National Convention. I caught bits of information leading up to the event, and have since heard a few excerpts from the speeches delivered on the floor. I heard Nancy Pelosi comparing the policies and positions of Obama and his opponent, and trying to stimulate audience participation by chanting "...McCain is wrong". I listened to the thoughts of John Warner, as he imagined a time just four month from now, when we could possibly have a presidential administration that "believes in science". And of course I heard Hillary Clinton speak about potential unity.

I have also gleaned some concerns and reactions from hack radio. There have been the standard issue claims that nothing substantive is being discussed. According to Rush Limbaugh it's all just been "re-packaging of re-packaging". He had some remarks about the surprise appearance of Ted Kennedy, but they were mostly veiled observations that the ailing Senator lacks the energy to be truly inspiring. Limbaugh did point out that he thought it was ironic that they introduced Kennedy with a video montage that began with images of water. Naturally this blowhard is capable of calling the opposing playbook "tired" while still referencing an event that happened nearly 40 years ago. He even supplied the word "Chappaquiddick" for any of his listeners that weren't following closely.

Speaking of water, Limbaugh did have an interesting concern regarding the coming Republican National Convention, to be held in Minneapolis starting on September 1st. He's been tracking the development of the Gustav storm system off the coast of Haiti. One of his sources projects Gustav to develop into a category 5 hurricane, and head straight for New Orleans. Obviously if this happened it would be an effective reminder of how the Bush administration (and by extension, the entire GOP) failed to react strongly and quickly, and left thousands of victims to meet their own fates. Since Katrina, there have been numerous accounts from affected families who report that promises made by Bush and Co. have been left unfulfilled.

Limbaugh predicts that should Gustav visit the Louisiana coast, the "drive-by media" (as he calls the press) will surely dredge up the lingering problems associated with the re-building of New Orleans. In addition, he claims that there will be no coverage of the Republican Convention if all of this happens. I find it amusing to hear him construct contingency justifications for the possible defeat of the GOP in November. It's as if he's preparing his audience to accept that fate has decreed an Obama victory. In that case it will have had nothing to do with the failed policies of the last eight years. It won't be related to the thwarted expectations of Middle America, or the breakdown of the neo/theo-con coalition.

Tonight the nation will hear from Bill Clinton and Joe Biden. Everyone will be picking closely over the words of the former president, looking for any hesistancy in his support of the offical nominee. There have been times over the last few months when I have just wanted ol' Bill to shut the hell up. In my opinion he has subverted his own legacy with his doggedly desperate attacks on Obama. Now he has a chance to redeem himself and help heal the fissures created during the primary battle. I have every reason to expect that he'll rise to the occasion. As far as Biden is concerned, I have no idea what he'll bring to the campaign. Although he seems pretty vanilla, he has a reputation for being a mouthy guy. It might be worth tuning in.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Marty Griffin vs. Joseph King.

Now that I've officially returned to my routine schedule, there's likely to be an influx of political stuff on Serendipity once again. I enjoyed having my self-imposed media blackout for a few weeks, but now that I'm back in my vehicle for extended periods of time, being informed is almost unavoidable. Yet I'm still relegated to hack conservative talk radio, as I refuse to pony up for Sirius or some other type of satellite service. I suppose that suits my temperament. Sometimes I enjoy getting riled up over the issues. Whether I've got Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck or Sean Hannity on the national airways, or some of the local dupes from KDKA... I'll always have something to scream about.

So what is it nowadays? I've heard Rush flogging the "life begins at conception" routine, what with Nancy Pelosi citing a centuries-long controversy over abortion within the Roman Catholic Church. But that's as stale as convenience store fare. It's not something that's likely to change in most people's minds. So switching over to AM 1020, I've got Marty Griffin at lunch time. I've already communicated my enmity for this guy. He's one of the most egregious pseudo-populists on the air. His claims to non-partisanship notwithstanding, he consistently advocates for the most conservative suburban politics available. Every time he identifies himself as a native-Pittsburgher (he was born in Shadyside), it makes me want to puke.

His latest anti-city agenda concerns the new collective bargaining agreement for Pittsburgh firefighters. Griffin's got a beef with union president Joseph King over residential requirements for local employees. Apparently to apply for a position in the department, one must be a current city resident in Pittsburgh. Marty Griffin finds this stipulation onerous. He claims that it is an example of the type of "old school" regulation that holds the 'Burgh back. He would like to see out-of-towners have equal access to all city jobs. His current opposition to the application process is merely an incrementalist strategy aimed at eliminating any requirements for city employees to live within the city limits.

This comes as no surprise to anyone who has listened to this idiot for any significant period of time. He's an uncompromising advocate for suburban/exurban sprawl. He chooses to live in Mt. Lebanon so as to escape the problems he has with the inner city. That's fine, but he continues to chime in on urban issues, as if he has any substantial insights grounded in personal experience. The arguments he uses to support his positions confound any reasonable definition of rationality. He's actually claiming that the lack of racial proportionality within the firefighter force is a result of limiting employment to city residents. This flies in the face of common sense, as the number of blacks outside of the city is minimal compared to inside of it.

Griffin goes on to point out that NYC has no residential requirements for its firefighting department. He claims that if that's good enough for the "Big Apple", then it should fit here as well. Meanwhile he conveniently glosses over the fact that firemen in our nation's cultural center generally cannot afford to live in the more desirable parts of the 5 boroughs on their salary. But why let reality get in the way of advocacy? Griffin's suggestions to "improve" this city (which he is constantly trashing) always entail throwing benefits to those who live outside of the city limits. KDKA claims to be the "Voice of Pittsburgh", but then continually hires talking heads from the suburbs/exurbs. They should face a class action suit for willful deception.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Who is Joe Biden?

I wasn't at all happy this weekend when it was announced that Barack Obama had chosen his running mate. Joe Biden?! I immediately thought to myself that our hero couldn't have chosen a more establishment candidate. It's not that I even knew much about the Senator from Delaware. But I was aware that he had mounted several unsuccessful campaigns for the presidential nomination in the past. There was nothing inspiring about those attempts. He came off as a fairly conservative functionary that has been in Washington way too long to affect any sort of change. And yet when people asked me how I felt about Obama's selection, I was hesitant to go into a lot of detail. I decided to do some research first.

Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. is the son of a suburban car salesman from Wilmington, DE. Although the 66-year old Biden was born in Scranton, PA, he spent his childhood in New Castle County, Delaware. He got his law degree and was elected into the US Senate in 1972, at the age of 30 (he was the sixth youngest to be elected to that political body). Shortly after assuming office, his wife and infant daughter were killed in a car accident. He was actually sworn in at the bedside of his sons, who had survived the tragedy. Instead of resigning his seat, he decided to commute to DC from Wilmington, which he still does to this day. His progeny have since found their way into politics.

Obama apparently thought long and hard about his choice for VP. Biden offers 36 years of intimate knowledge of Washington insider politics. He is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a long-standing member of the Committee on the Judiciary (he chaired it in '87 and '95) . He is also co-chairman of the Caucus on International Narcotics Control. It was in that capacity that he wrote the laws that established a national "Drug Czar". He has focused his efforts on reducing the use of ecstasy, ketamine, Rohypnol (the "date-rape" drug) and steroids. As Judiciary Chair he has been active in promoting measures to stem the tide of domestic violence, and to control the spread of violent crimes.

It is in the realm of foreign policy that Biden has a decidedly mixed record. He was very active in promoting a US military involvement in the Balkans during the mid-90's. After 9-11 he bought the administration line that Hussein was a major threat to American interests. He voted for the War on Iraq, and he has steadfastly supported every appropriations bill for that conflict. His major caveat is that he has continually insisted both on an increased troop presence and an internationalization of the conflict (sounds a lot like McCain, eh?). The major difference he has with the current strategy is that he is in favor of partitioning Iraq into separate regions for the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.

One tidbit of info that reveals Biden's true nature is his behavior after being asked to be John Kerry's running mate in 2004. He urged the wannabe president to select Senator John McCain as a VP candidate, in order to heal the "vicious rift" dividing the nation. That lends a bit of irony to my earlier suggestion that Obama and McCain should consolidate on the same ticket. Anyway, after a bit of reading I'm a bit puzzled by the Obama/Biden partnership. While it's true that a moderate Democrat with legislative experience seems to round out Barack's strengths, I don't see this pick helping Obama's chances in the November elections. Biden had only garnered 1% of the votes during the primary, and Delaware is far from being an important battleground state.

I see this move as another in a long line of concessions to the business-as-usual mentality that is so endemic in our society. If Obama was really committed to change, you'd think he'd be more adventurous in his alignments.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Toy Town Museum, East Aurora, NY.

My second stop on the way into Buffalo was inspired by nostalgia. This is an appropriate motivation now that I am a father. I may have considered going to the Toy Town Museum on the campus of the Fisher-Price Corporation even if I didn't have a kid, but in that case I may have felt a bit too self-conscious to linger there. Until about a week ago I didn't know that the headquarters of that toy-making giant was in Western New York. But once I found out it was in East Aurora, a mere twenty minutes outside of Buffalo, I knew I had to make a visit. I was actually pretty excited when I pulled up to the parking lot, because the stuff that Fisher-Price made throughout the 70's definitely enriched my childhood.

The genesis of The Toy Town Museum was the annual ToyFest started by a group of locals who recognized the importance that toy-making played in their community. The knew they wanted to work toward establishing a permanent space to house a collection of vintage stuff, and decided to produce an annual commemorative reproduction of a different Fisher-Price toy from the past in order to raise funds for the museum. In 1987, their dreams were realized and they opened their facility. ToyFest still continues at the end of every August, and draws over 75,000 folks from the US and Canada each year. Meanwhile Toy Town features both permanent and temporary exhibits celebrating the world of play.

Right away I was captivated by the displays packed within the several small rooms in the place. I was drawn first to some of the oldest objects on display- tin curiosities that represented the first wave of mass-manufactured playthings in the world. They appeared to be hand-painted and thematically tied to the circus and traveling carnival. There were also a number of faded soft toys depicting cartoon-like jesters and clowns. At the center of the front room was a fairly large diorama of a turn-of-the-century carousel, complete with riders and a detailed ticket booth. This was certainly a one-of-a-kind display that astonished me with its realism and quality of craftsmanship.

I also saw a huge erector set, a 12-room doll-house with all the trimmings, a small collection of Pez dispensers, and two miniature battlefields re-enacting famous battles from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The temporary exhibit included toys made from television and movie characters. A case of Desi and Lucy-inspired masks and dolls may have been the most intrinsically-creepy spectacle in the entire place. And there was an entire room filled (a bit incongruously perhaps) with Harley-Davidson toys and memorabilia. But the most lovingly-displayed objects were those in The Fisher-Price Archive Collection. Basically it encompassed a selection of products made by the company since its inception in 1931. Studying these things could give a cultural anthropology student enough fodder for a Master's thesis.

But my favorite elements of The Toy Town Museum were the few glass-fronted cases of the "Original" Little People sets, many of which I had when I was a tyke. Anyone in their 30's must have had at least some experience playing with these. They were a ubiquitous part of my childhood. They had the castle (complete with horse-back knight), the Sesame Street block, the gas station, the town square, the traveling circus, the suburban home, the airplane, a hospital, the farm, and several notable individual figures. I was in my glory taking macro shots of these scenes. I was simultaneously happy to see them again, and sad that they are no longer in production. Still I bet that there are enough floating around to supply a little town for E. some day.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

My visit to Lily Dale.

The path to Buffalo from Pittsburgh is simple and without traffic congestion. You get on 79N and pick up 90E around Erie. It's a fairly uneventful drive that brings you up the western border of New York state. Along the way you pass the access points to the Chataqua Institution, as well cut right through the Seneca Nation. If you look hard enough you can find places along the way that are worth making a few short detours. In my online explorations I read about Lily Dale, a spiritualist community next to the little village of Cassadaga. This assembly (also referred to as the "City of Light") , established in 1879, bills itself as the world's largest center for spiritual development. While that may or may not be true, it seems certain to concentrate the most mediums into one small lake-front settlement.

The origins of the Modern Spiritualist Movement start with the Fox sisters (Kate, Leah and Margaret). In 1848, these Hydesville, NY inhabitants reported the existence of spirits living within their house. They devised a system of knocks and raps to communicate with one presence that they referred to initially as "Mr. Splitfoot" (a nickname for the devil). Soon the neighbors got in on the act, and became convinced that someone had been murdered in the house. The youngest Fox sisters were sent to live in Rochester, and the spirits followed them. There a Quaker couple (Amy and Isaac Post) befriended them and spread the word among their people. That's how the Movement became entwined with radical social causes like abolition, equal rights, and temperance.

Anyway the Fox sisters went on to a long career of being involved with many of the important social figures of their day. They also found fame for conducting séances. There was plenty of controversy as many others began to discover their own abilities to speak with the spirit world. Ultimately the famous siblings set in to squabbling with each other, and they met ignoble ends. But to this day they serve as symbols for Spiritualism. In 1916, the cottage that first revealed its secrets to the Fox family was moved from Hydesville to Lily Dale, where the Spiritualists of America held their annual camp meetings. From that point on the community grew steadily. The Fox cottage was destroyed by fire in 1955, but Lily Dale continued to prosper.

Nowadays Lily Dale has a sort of cottage industry revolving around contact with the spirit world. They have a full program of summer workshops in topics as diverse as astrology, paranormal investigation, listening to the "inner voice", past-life regression, channeling the "higher mind", spoon bending, intuitive medicine, Reiki, Falun Dafa, using sweat lodges, and the "fourth direction". There's also a gift shop, a chapel, a forest temple, a meditation labyrinth, a museum and several eateries. Apparently people journey there from all over the world, and they have accommodations for travelers. You can also make day visits, but you must pay $10 to pass through their front gate.

To my eyes Lily Dale appeared to be like any other retirement community in the country, except for the proliferation of shingles hanging from the bungalows advertising the services of the individual mediums residing there. I didn't stick around for any of the workshops or rituals as I had a lot on my itinerary, and only a limited amount of time to look around. The grounds are peaceful and offer plenty of opportunities for contemplation. You are free to walk around unmolested. People greet you amiably, but no one proselytizes. The highlight of my short stop was the "fairy trail" in the words, wherein folks had constructed little temples incorporating small statues of angels, fairies, gnomes, and other pop culture detritus. Great photo opportunity!

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Why Buffalo?

The question certainly begs to be asked... why did I choose to go to Buffalo? That's a perfectly understandable question. Like many other Rust Belt cities (like Cleveland and our own 'Burgh), Buffalo has a bit of a bad rap. The problem is that many of the people who choose to talk shit on the city have never even visited (boy, where did I hear that one before?). What did I know about Buffalo? I knew that the Bills played there. I knew it was on Lake Erie. And I got what I thought was a representative look at the place by watching Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66. In fact that's one of my favorite films of all time. So why wouldn't I want to compare the real thing to Gallo's cinematic representation of it?

Listen, I had two nights that I could spend going anywhere I so chose. M. was perfectly alright with letting me get away for a couple of days. I wanted to pick a place within easy driving distance. I've already spent time in Erie, Cleveland, Wheeling, Philly, NYC, Baltimore, DC, and Columbus. There was only one city of any significant size within five hours that I hadn't been to, and I couldn't give a good reason for that omission. Was I going to let Buffalo's reputation as a dreary, depressed area keep me from experiencing it for myself? Hell, no. So the day before I left, I got on the internet to try to make a list of destinations in the area. I realized quickly enough that there would be plenty to see.

I was also a bit puzzled as to why Carnegie Museum of Art Assistant Curator Heather Pesanti would choose to make the Albright-Knox Art Gallery her follow-up to the time she has spent working on the 2008 Carnegie International. I'm aware that the exhibition carries a fair amount of international clout, and is billed by some to be the best contemporary art survey in North America. What did Buffalo have to compare to that? It turns out that there is quite a lot to recommend Albright-Knox to the rising art administrator. Who would have known? Well, actually John Morris (curator for the now defunct Digging Pitt Gallery) was aware of the standard of excellence set by Albright-Knox. And he's my trusted source when it comes to anything in the modern-day art world.

But I probably wouldn't have been excited to go to Western New York if I hadn't identified some additional attractions. I learned about the Herschel Carousel Museum and the Fisher Price factory campus. I discovered the existence of an arts organization founded by a bunch of Buffalo students that included Cindy Sherman. I did a search for used book stores of note. I read up on the trendy neighborhoods of Elmwood and Allentown. I devoured information on the unwholesome foods that Buffalo is famous for. At one point I wondered if I had allotted myself ample time to see everything there was to see. It turned out that I hadn't, so I had to prioritize right from the start.

My initial impressions upon arriving in Buffalo were favorable. Even though I entered the city during rush hour, there was very little traffic. I suppose that is due in part to the decline in population that the once bustling trade center has experienced over the last several decades. There are now less than 300,000 people within its official limits, and about a million in its metropolitan area. Much of the action is focused on the long streets that split Buffalo vertically- Delaware and Elmwood. It was refreshing to see the type of commercial density that occurs in a city with a grid pattern, few hills, and no rivers. I had no problem getting around. Unlike Pittsburgh, it is a bit difficult to get lost.

More Details to Follow...

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Pittsburgh Art Events: 8/22-23/08.

Sorry that I'm getting a bit of a late start on this one. I just got back from my very first trip to Buffalo, which had a lot more going on than one might expect. I'll post a bit about that during the next few days on Serendipity. Meanwhile, back home in the jewel of the Rust Belt, I'm gearing up for a couple of can't-miss art events this weekend.


Yes, indeed. This is the very first art exhibition I will have ever attended at a bowling alley. Simultaneously this will also be the first time I have ever shown one of my own works at a bowling alley. On Friday night, between 6 and 9PM, you can witness the "First Showing" of Art Goes Bowling at Arsenal Lanes in Lawrenceville. Curator and gadfly Zombo asked 100 artists to transform 100 beat-up bowling pins, and the results will be displayed to the musical accompaniment of "The Whips". This will be the group's debut performance, and Zombo claims they sound like the Velvet Underground meets the Cramps. That actually sounds enticing.

I don't know what the others have done to their pins, but I promise that my creation will be one of the most low-rent spectacles available for viewing (and for sale- all pins are $25 each). Truth be told, I have seen a couple of pieces by Eric Luden... very nice indeed! I got a glimpse of them (and a few more) at Lucky, the Painproof Man's performance last weekend. If you weren't there for it, you really missed out. It turns out that Lucky has spent time with The Coney Island Circus Sideshow, and the experience is evident in the rapport he develops with his audience. He had the free funnel cakes and popcorn he gave out earlier churning in bystander stomachs. He's reprising his schtick on August 30th, at 6PM at the Zombo Gallery.


Have you gotten your tickets to Pittsburgh's annual premiere art party? The Sprout Fund's Hothouse has steadily earned the reputation as one of the best events of the year. This installment brings a full bill of entertainment. Musical acts include Ben Opie's "The Braxton Project", River City 6 brass band, J. Malls, Lucid Music, Harangue, Hands Down, Assembly, Joy Ike, the Grackles, Keeb $, Pandemic and DJ Selecta. There's also a vaudeville carnival production by the Zafira Dance Company... and lots of great food and drinks provided by local establishments like brillobox, Double Wide Grill, Dozen, East End Food Co-op, Enrico Biscotti, The Pennsylvania Brewing Co., big Catering, etc.

But you don't go to Hothouse for the refreshments. The reason for the Sprout Fund's existence is its support of many local entities that work to make our city a better place. Hothouse showcases all of the stuff that the organization has helped to fund over the year. This includes such a diverse range of products and activities that I hesitate to even choose highlights. Suffice it to say, the following featured displays are personal priorities for me this Saturday night: Fe Gallery's preview for In the Making: 250 Years, 250 Artists, the Dr. Sketchy drawing session, the unveiling for the models of the Industrial Arts Co-op sculpture, the life-sized issue of The Original, Unsmoke System's multimedia show, large-scale Gigapan prints of previous Sprout Fund public art, and the sustainability games of Creative Reuse.

Don't forget that Hothouse is a fundraiser. General Admission is $50 at the door (which admits you from 9PM-Midnight). But if you have some extra cash ($150), you can also attend the VIP reception that runs from 7-9PM. And there's a silent auction offering up objects donated by the likes of Bricolage, the Carnegie Museum of Art, City Theater, Dance Alloy, Encyclopedia Destructica, Quantum Theater, WYEP 91.3, and artists like Mike Budai, David Montano, Josh Tonies and yours truly. The location for this year's Hothouse is the upper floors of The Union Trust Building at 501 Grant Street in Downtown Pittsburgh.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dash Shaw, "Bottomless Belly Button" (2008).

Dash Shaw is one of the youngest rising stars of alternative comics, and of course that means that you've never heard of him. You won't be able to find his graphic novels at the large corporate chain of your nearest strip mall. In fact you'll likely have difficulty getting your hands on his just-published Bottomless Belly Button, regardless of where you do your shopping. But if you want a substantial work of art in book form, you'll go to Amazon today and order your own copy. I had a hard time getting mine. It took several stops to my reliable local indie comics store. Fortunately for me I'm a valued repeat customer, because this title seems to have quickly sold out of its first edition. I'm sure there will be more on the way, but I can't say when.

What's particularly shocking about the commercial success of Bottomless Belly Button is that it carries a retail price of $29.95. That's a hefty price for a graphic novel by any cartoonist. But for a relatively unknown quantity, it's almost unheard of. The truth is that before this publication few (even among alt comix fans) had even heard of Dash Shaw. Still, reviews of BBB's quality have passed by word-of-mouth within my little subsection of the underground consumer demographic. This is a 720-page epic detailing six days in the life of the Loony family. However, don't let the surname throw you- this isn't a wacky brood. These aren't the Simpsons or the Bundys. They are fully fleshed-out characters with complex personalities and real-life concerns.

David and Maggie Loony are the eldest members of the clan, and they are the reason why this mostly estranged group comes together at the book's beach house setting. After 40 years of marriage they are getting a divorce. Their three children (Claire, Dennis, and Peter) all have their own ways of dealing with the shake-up. Dennis, who is accompanied by his wife (Aki) and baby son, is driven to seek out a buried reason for the impending separation. Claire (who has teenage daughter Jill in tow) has already been through her own divorce, and is trying her best to be supportive. And then there's Peter, who alone among all of Shaw's characters is anthropomorphized, and (almost) exclusively portrayed with a frog's head.

In more than one way, Peter seems the black sheep of the family. He's a would-be filmmaker who is floating through the confusion of young adulthood with the aid of chronic masturbation and beer. It's clear that at 26 he lacks experience with the ladies, but Peter gets his chance to address that deficit when he meets a youth counselor (Kat) on the beach. While each of his relatives go through their own personal dramas back at the house, Peter stumbles on to what appears to be his first love. The emphasis on the nature of relationships, both old and new, underscores the entire tale that Shaw shares with the reader. There is much to be said for his deft and subtle touch in showing personal dynamics, rather than feeling some need to explicate every inner detail.

Shaw accomplishes his achievement with a tremendous facility for conveying inner emotional states through movement and facial expression. He adds to those skills an eye for telling details and skewed perspectives. All of this is filtered through a loose and slightly-quivering line style that somehow lends a fragile and wistful tone to the story (I thought alternatively of John Porcellino and Jeffrey Brown). Bottomless Belly Button is a series of moments chained together to form a gestalt that coalesces only gradually through accumulation. Shaw wants you to take time with his creation, which only seems fair as it must have taken an inordinate amount of hours to complete. It is broken up into three parts, and he asks the reader to take a break in between each. I respected his wishes and was rewarded with a genuinely moving experience.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mark Jacobson, "American Gangster" (2007).

I'll admit being a recent convert to the idea that one can be a bit more self-indulgent in one's reading habits during the summer months. The truth is that over the last several years I have tended to devour a lot fewer books during July and August. There's just too much to do, and I generally lack the patience to sit in the heat for long periods. Movies tend to suit my mood a lot more during the "dog days". But this year has been different. I've definitely slowed down, but I am maintaining reasonable progress toward my annual goal. Part of this transformation is due to my selection criteria. I have embraced a form of "light reading". There will be no post-modern epics until it gets colder outside. I won't strain myself with footnotes.

I feel that I've earned some latitude. I don't necessarily need to challenge myself. Yet I'm not tempted to pick up the stereotypical "beach reads" that many folks drool over. There will be no Wally Lamb or Dean Koontz for me. Instead I have chosen to read salacious true crime stories and gossipy essays by contemporary authors. Mark Jacobson's American Gangster certainly fits the bill. C'mon really... Ridley Scott made a film adaptation from one small part of this book. It's a collection of pieces that Jacobson wrote for a such venerable publications as New York magazine and The Village Voice. In totality they express the author's love affair with much of the seamier side of Gotham. In that way, Jacobson is a bit like a pulpy Luc Sante.

The title work is based upon Jacobson's interactions with Frank Lucas, who is perhaps the gamiest thug ever to haunt the pimpin' streets of 70's-era Harlem. This is a guy that actually smuggled kilos of pure heroin in secret compartments of the coffins transporting dead American soldiers home from Vietnam. While now an old man and languishing in the bosom of the Witness Protection Program, Lucas is still a menacing character according to Jacobson's accounts. In fact, the elderly gangster actually threatened to disenfranchise the writer that helped bring his story to Hollywood's attention. Still, in Lucas' own words- "People like the fuck out of me"- and Jacobson appears to be no exception.

It's fairly evident that Jacobson finds a place in his heart for all of his subjects, no matter how coarse or brutal. Peep his account of the rise and fall of Jason Itzler, one-time owner of NY Confidential- a fine purveyor of high-priced "escorts". This Jewish kid sprung from money, and clawed his way into the sex-for-hire-marketplace, eventually becoming a multimillionaire owner of a chic Manhattan penthouse/harem, before landing with a prominent thud in Riker's Island. Many journalists would feel obligated to write him off as an exploitive brat, yet Jacobson allows him to tell his own story. In this day and age, the lack of moralizing is not only notable, but nearly non-existent. Imagine a writer allowing his readership to form their own conclusions.

Perhaps it's because Jacobson is so familiar with his chosen milieu that he can get away with his overt stance of moral relativism. After all, there are enough armchair quarterbacks to pass holy judgment. The essays in American Gangster are concerned with providing vistas into airtight rooms and closed societies. How else is he going to get these ne'er-do-wells to reveal themselves without maintaining a value-neutral approach? I don't want my summer reading seasoned with salt-and-pepper ethical pronouncements, whether the subjects are heroes like Wynton Marsalis or comedy kingpin George Schultz... or shady characters like Chinatown gang-leader Nicky Louie. After all, I'm after escapism.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

John Ewing III, "Life After Death" (2007).

It's rare that I'll take the chance on a DVD without reading a single consumer review beforehand. But there was something about the packaging of Life After Death that inspired me to overlook the complete absence of critical attention. It didn't hurt that I was able to buy a copy of it from an Amazon independent seller for about $5 + shipping and handling. I probably wouldn't have chosen to order it alone, but since I was basically indulging myself in a mass purchase, I figured I'd assume the minimal risk. Now after watching it, I can't say that I'm overwhelmingly satisfied. While it wouldn't be entirely correct that it was a waste of time, I will admit to being misled into believing it would be something that it wasn't.

Basically what John Ewing III delivered with this movie is a series of interviews with black men and women who have spent significant time in the nation's prison system. Before I get into the content, I feel it necessary to comment on its form. This is one of the most poorly produced documentaries I have ever seen. It appears that very little money was wasted on things like sound mastering or professional editing. The former is especially problematic since many of the interviews are delivered in a garbled, heavily slang-inflected manner. If you are used to the cadences of urban inner-city accents, then you may have an easier time with this. Even so, the volume levels vary wildly throughout the film.

As far as editing is concerned, what we have here is a series of full frontal segments with former prisoners. All throughout there is an undercurrent of gangster rap that can be subtly distracting. To top it off, some of the footage is simply repeated or interjected in a seemingly random fashion. At other points interviewees are cut off in mid-sentence, or seem to be responding to questions that are only barely audible or consistent with the delivered answers. In between clips, we get to see shots of anonymous prison interiors, with no hint of where they were taken or who took them. I suppose they were included to provide the proper Mise-en-scène. At any rate they are only partially effective.

Yet all this criticism is tempered by the authenticity of Life After Death. Many of the stories related by the ex-cons are both compelling and effective. For the most part the inquiries made elicit frank and descriptive talk of life inside our penal institutions. Much of it will probably come as no surprise to students of the subject. But for those with only minimal exposure to information about our nation's prisons, this should be an enlightening viewing experience. Obviously the viewer should keep in mind that the participants are capable of exaggeration. This indeed is endemic among the incarcerated population. However I'd be shocked if the spirit of their accounts wasn't true, especially given the nature of some of their admissions.

Ultimately I'm not sorry I ordered this. There are multiple opportunities for folks to view or read objective accounts by so-called "experts" presenting outsider views of prison life. On the other hand, it's relatively rare to encounter unvarnished commentary by those who have 'walked the walk'. Even firsthand memoirs are often delivered by non-traditional inmates, who are blessed with ample skills of articulation. The men and women in Life After Death seem generally representative of the African-American population currently housed in federal and state prisons. They are a cross-section of people caught up in a depersonalized and controversial system. I'm glad someone made a document of their voices.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Why We Will Never Just Get Along.

It must suck being old. You might wonder how I can form such a conclusion, and that's understandable. I believe that this must be the case because certain old people are so difficult to be around. My personal plight is to be sandwiched in between elderly neighbors. On our right we have the most bitter and crusty man that I have ever met. Everything out of his mouth turns to shit as soon as it hits the air. It doesn't matter what subject he gets on; he is always hateful and resentful. Meanwhile he's married to what must be one of the longest-suffering women in America. Granted she's no plum herself, but I am compelled to feel sympathy for her lot in life. She's joined to an asshole, and I can only imagine how much that stinks.

Not that she's immune to transforming into a monster at the slightest pretext. I've written about such an episode in another post. But regardless of her lapses in sanity, I'd prefer to deal with her than her cretinous husband. In fact I recently made the mistake of crossing the white line at the front of their handicapped parking space. I was absolutely in the wrong, and ready to admit it when it was pointed out. Instead I had to fire back when the decrepit fool started yelling at me over the shoulder of his wife. Later I made a point of telling the woman that she should come to me alone with any problems she has, and that I'd make sure to resolve them quickly and courteously. I also reinforced my position that I will never deal with her mate.

So on that side of my homestead, all I can do is wait for the glue factory to come and take my neighbor away forever. One of these days he'll be screaming at his poor unfortunate subject/wife, and he'll have a massive coronary and die on the spot. In response the entire block will throw a week-long celebration to honor his absence. Until then I'll simply try to ignore him. I have my hands plenty full with the old lady on our left. At least she makes the occasional effort to be the solid citizen. I know she has great affection for Baby E. Even so, she is doddering and addled, both in her expression and her decisions. She once tried to give E. an old abandoned shoe she had found in the street... just tried to pitch it next to him in his stroller.

Our relationship (such as it is) has actually improved a bit over the years. One time we went on a trip for a week, making sure to provide for someone to come by and check on our cats every other day. When we got back the old dotty hen told us that our cat had been mewing out the window whenever it saw her. Besides wondering why our nosy neighbor was peeking in our windows, we were stumped about her point. Our cat likes people, so what? Then the lady told us that she was tempted to call the ASPCA on us for "neglect". M. absolutely loved that one, and she made sure to dress the old woman down. Apparently M.'s language was strong enough, as things immediately cooled down and a détente was quickly struck.

Now ol' dotty hen has to direct her energies elsewhere. This evening I was amused to see her jawing with a middle-aged man who was visiting his daughter a few doors down. It seemed that he had taken our neighbor's handicapped space, and she was trying to exert some sort of territorial imperative. Even after the man pointed out that he had "disabled person" plates on front and back, she continued to insist that she could call the police. Her reasoning (evidently) was that they were Maryland plates, and somehow not valid in front of her house. But the funniest thing of all was that she didn't need the spot, and would not have parked there even if it was empty. Tomorrow is street cleaning, and she never forgets to remind us several days ahead of time. Her car is across the street and will stay there throughout Monday.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Gathering of the Faithful.

After rereading yesterday's post, it occurred to me to explain how I ended up at a Bigfoot Convention in the first place. I would guess that a majority of people would never consider spending a Saturday afternoon engaging such an event. But I've always been intrigued by strange sociological niches, and I also have a healthy regard for the necessity of mystery in life. Going out to Jeannette, PA to observe a bunch of folks discussing the phenomena of Sasquatch seemed to appeal to both of these interests. I had no idea what to expect. What type of human being would consider devoting a significant amount of time to studying the supposed existence of this legendary creature? In the face of modern science, what would inspire hope that this thing truly exists?

It was surprisingly easy to round up a few companions to join me for this day-trip out of the city. It didn't require advanced forms of persuasion. There is something about Bigfoot that resonates with the inner child, and god knows I have a lot of friends that harbor deep reserves of youthful spirit and imagination. In an era when skepticism about everything rules the day, it's comforting to believe in the unknown. It's actually a guilty little secret among the masses- individuals hide their faith in UFO's, secret societies, ghosts, and honest politicians all the time. The modern urban sophisticate is apt to bury these affinities deep within him/herself, and you'd likely be shocked to discover what lurks in the hearts of those you are close to.

So I drove out to Pitzer's, the bar that hosts this annual meeting on behalf of the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society. I was immediately struck by the homogeneity of the attendees. They were almost exclusively rural white folk- the kind that you'd be likely to find at a NASCAR or Toby Keith concert. There was lots of beer and unhealthy foods available for purchase at an affordable price. There were booths selling T-shirts, bumper stickers and pins. And there was a cavalcade of self-appointed experts on all types of supernatural topics. You could tell who the major players in this little world were almost immediately. They were the ones hawking their books and signing autographs. Where there is money to be made, there is someone willing to receive it.

Actually, the multi-varied nature of subjects represented by these peripheral academics took me a bit off-guard. As one speaker after another got up to make presentations, I learned that multi-dimensionality is a valued unifying theory within this circle. Apparently knowing something can pop in and out of our sensory experience proves the existence of all manner of odd and elusive monsters. It was suggested that Bigfoot may actually be a specter or alien life-form. That goes a long way in explaining why scientifically verifiable remains have never been found. On one hand, I had to admire the mental dexterity that allows someone to form such a conclusion. But alternatively, I also felt that this was a bit of a cop-out.

I guess that there isn't enough national Bigfoot trade to support specialists. Financial difficulties require diversification. So some of the same researchers that pen tomes about our beloved Yeti also collect tales of real-life hauntings and extraterrestrial conspiracies. To be sure it makes for some lively cross-disciplinary interactions. It also serves to tamp down the wacky adherents of more idiosyncratic explanations. One farmer posited that the Bigfoot was the result of the post-Civil War need for cheap agricultural labor. His hypothesis involved a rather unenlightened theory of cross-breeding. Another was hell-bent on proclaiming that Bigfoot variations are the results of nuclear wastes stored in local mines. I guess we can assume that every movement contains its orthodoxies.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Bigfoot Found in Southern Freezer!

Y'know, I think it might be worthwhile to take a few minutes and clear up a matter of increasing confusion. Many people who know me appear to be under a mistaken impression, and in the interest of frank exposition, I feel I should set them straight. Just because I attended a Bigfoot Convention a few years back does not mean I am a true believer. It doesn't even mean that I am convinced of the possibility that this large hairy humanoid creature exists. Furthermore, when I wear my t-shirt advertising the PA Bigfoot Society, I'm not trying to reinforce any particular position. This animal may or may not be stalking our backwoods. I've never seen one myself, so it would be disingenuous for me to attempt to claim any authority on the matter.

I guess wearing the shirt has contributed to the perception that I am some kind of fanatic on the topic. Perhaps I resemble a number of distinguished cryptozoologists. But the truth is that I have no more affinity for Bigfoot than I do for Chupacabra, the Jersey Devil, or the Loch Ness Monster. I love the possibility of them equally. Yet I've been singled out by a number of my friends. I have received a plethora of e-mail messages linking to the latest news regarding a correctional officer and a cop who claim to have discovered the corpse of a Bigfoot. Rick Dyer and Matthew Whitton reportedly stumbled on their find while on a hunting trip in Georgia some time ago. They tried to garner press attention immediately after, but were unsuccessful.

Now Whitton and Dyer have hooked up with Tom Biscardi and Searching for Bigfoot. Biscardi is a former Las Vegas promoter who has appeared as an "expert" with George Noory on Coast to Coast. He knows his audience and he's rolled out such finds before, only to later admit that he had been scammed. Still he plunges on, organizing expeditions to trap and capture a live Bigfoot in Northern California. He's been doing this since 1971, inspired by a 1967 viewing of the infamous Roger Patterson footage on the Johnny Carson show. Regardless of how much skepticism he inspires, his attitude seems irrepressible. I found the following Biscardi quote on his web page:

"There are two types of people, one finds a way,... one finds an excuse. I am the type of person who goes over, under, and around or through any obstacle that stands in my way!!! I can.. I will... I am going to!!! When the going gets tough, the tough get going! Every day and every way by the grace of God I am getting better and better!! I feel happy... I feel healthy... I feel terrific! After all, the mark of a person is not how far he runs from his problems, but how well he meets, faces and deals with those problems. That is truly the mark of a real human being. I can... I will... and I am going to succeed today!!!"

In the face of such enthusiasm, can we really afford to doubt such a man? After all, he has at least 5 confirmed sightings of Bigfoot to his credit. And he seems to be taking Whitton and Dyer pretty seriously. We can only imagine what his thoughts were when the erstwhile adventurers opened their outdoor freezer to expose the hulking carcass of a (decapitated?) 7 foot, 7 inch monster. Maybe he felt that his forbearance in the face of mockery and derision had finally paid off. Or perhaps columns of figures representing potential profits from the find ran through his head. Either way Biscardi and company promise that they will be presenting the results of DNA analysis soon. They've got several Russian scientists working on the case as I write. Long live the legend!

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pittsburgh Art Events: 8/15-16/08.

Argh... summer is almost over (for me) and it will be time to get my ass back to work. This is a truly upsetting annual condition for which I somehow have difficulty eliciting sympathy. Nonetheless things have entered high gear as I try to make the most out of my last few days of unfettered free time. When I take stock of what I achieved during the last couple months, I only give myself a partially satisfactory grade. I've participated in some group shows (keep an eye out for information regarding an exhibition of bowling pins at Arsenal Lanes next Friday) and kept up this blog. I've also gotten a jump on restocking my catalog of show-worthy photos. But I'm way behind of where I wanted to be in my creation of drawings for my solo at Zombo in December.

Enough about me, right? What is there to do this weekend? Well, while we're on the subject of Zombo Gallery (4900 Hatfield Street in Lawrenceville), you absolutely must stop by there tomorrow night. From 6PM until around 11PM, Lucky Swartz ("The Painproof Man") will be presenting Dr. Josef Furdek's Cabinet of Curiosities. If Mikey D. is to be trusted, this guy is absolutely obsessed with the now defunct world of the carnival sideshow. Obviously that's something that gets my attention, as I share his interests. Curating Carnivalesque at the Digging Pitt a couple of summers ago was a personal highlight. I even got my buddies Phat Mandee and Andrew the Impaled to perform.

But it looks like Lucky has a full bill of fun planned. He's advertising a purported Chupacabra, conjoined fetuses, Bigfoot's toe (which is especially timely, don't you think?), crystal skulls, shrunken heads, and even "the mummy of a demon boy". If he even delivers on half of this, it will be a crazy success. Plus there will be live performances and carnival games. Apparently Lucky laments the great old show days. In his own words:

"There was something magical about the American Sideshow, something that made the people want to spend a dime for the chance to see something out of the ordinary, when a dime was worth something. This work is pure Fluxist. It lies not within the physical manifestation of the sideshow itself, but rather the experience that the viewer takes away with them, and the story they tell others of what they've seen. Professor Josef's Cabinet of Curiosities is a chance for people to experience something that will soon disappear from existence."

Well said. Ladies and gentlemen, don't act like a pack of rubes. Get out your piggy bank, extract a shiny dime, and come see the wonders. This is indeed a vanished art.

Once you've gotten an eyeful over on Hatfield, you can take a ride up to The Wizard of Oddities at 4314 Butler Street. Lauren Toohey is offering a candlelight reception featuring her paintings. If you haven't visited this gallery yet, I recommend you check it out. It's one of the "swinging-est" venues in town. The neon naked lady in the front window ain't no sham. The proprietors are truly committed to bringing you a unique take on the art world. Meanwhile Toohey is a young up-and-comer who's been working overtime to get some exposure for her work. Make sure to give her a bit of reinforcement for all her efforts.

Saturday brings us the "Grand Opening" (from 6:30-10PM) of the Park Place Arts Center at 207 Franklin Avenue in Wilkinsburg. This is not to be confused with the same spot's "Inaugural Opening" that happened earlier this month. At this event, installation art by East Ridge Arts Revival members Engines, Truce Canyon, Darrell Kinsel, Snake Money and John White will be featured. There are also some bands, and the admission fee is a mere $5. It's always exciting to see the efforts of arts organizations assisting in the revitalization of 'neighborhoods-in-transition'. If you make an effort now you can catch the vibe before the yuppies follow.

And if you haven't gotten your fill of urban redevelopment, you could also take a short ride over to Braddock for Unsmoke Systems "The Still Image/Moving Pictures Festival". These guys have paired up artists working in both video and static arts, and the results will be revealed between 7 and 10PM. More information can be found HERE.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Choose Someone Already!

Recently a buddy and I found ourselves discussing the looming presidential election, and sharing our concerns about the directions the respective campaigns are taking. On one hand there is a lot to be thankful for. I almost can't believe that our long national nightmare with the George W. Bush administration is only a few months from being concluded. That fact alone is reason for optimism. I don't know for sure whether or not history will judge him as the worst national executive in history, but he is a strong contender for that distinction. Although I have serious reservations about saying so, I do indeed think that we will be better off regardless of the outcome of the November election. Even John McCain is preferable to what we have been subjected to.

But one thing my pal and I find troublesome is that neither McCain nor Obama has yet to choose their running mates. What gives? According to my limited recollection, VP candidates have been picked many months before the general elections. Yet as of mid-August of 2008, the mystery remains. In May of this year I began to speculate on who might be chosen to round out the tickets. I feel no increased confidence in predicting outcomes at this late date. The handlers of our presidential hopefuls seem to be exceptionally secretive on this matter. It even crossed my mind that they might announce their decision to run as a bipartisan joint ticket, however ridiculous that possibility sounds.

What's ironic is that McCain and Obama have a history of working together in the Senate. In fact they collaborated over ethics reform. If you think about political prudence, the profiles of these opponents seem to fit the needs of their respective search committees. Obama would like someone with a strong record on foreign policy, and appeal with the older folks. McCain needs an injection of youth and spirit in his campaign; he would benefit from someone that can inject some sexiness into the ticket. Of course it's not going to happen, but the two of them would make for some compelling partners. From the tone of the campaign so far, it seems like they have respect for one another.

Will these guys pick surrogates for each other? If Barack Obama selects Jim Webb from Virginia, I'll be pretty suspicious. However Webb doesn't appear on the current shortlist being bandied about the media. Instead we see names like Sen. Evan Bayh (IN), Sen. Joe Biden (DE), Gov. Tim Kaine (VA), and Gov. Kathleen Subelius (KS). And still Hillary Clinton is in the mix. Of those names, only Biden seems to fit the profile of the conservative selection. If I had to guess, I would say that Obama would lose much of the enthusiasm from his fervid base if he went with a "safe choice". Regardless of perceived shortcomings, it is Barack's promise of substantial change that truly inflames his constituency.

As for McCain, he also seems to be distancing himself from the appearance of moderation. The Republican rank-and-file is pining for Mitt Romney. His conservative positions on social issues (like abortion and gay marriage) appeal to the Religious Right, no matter how politically expedient and disingenuous his convictions are. Reportedly he's also seriously considering former PA Governor and Homeland Security Czar Tom Ridge (Gasp!), failed Bush acolyte Condoleeza Rice (Oh, c'mon!), and little-known Minnesota Governor Tom Pawlenty. Aside from the latter (whom I'm completely unfamiliar with) these candidates frighten me, especially with McCain's advanced age and arguably perilous health.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Why I Had to Watch "Blades of Glory", and Will Look Upon My Friends' Recommendations as Forever Suspect From Now On.

So my birthday was last week, and I met up with a couple of friends* a few days later. They are well aware of my disdain for Hollywood comedies, and they continue to insist that I'm missing out by not giving in to the charms of their favorites. I meanwhile remain steadfastly committed to avoid wasting my time. But my pals are insidious and manipulative. Knowing that I'd be obligated to watch if they slipped it in with the original art they blessed me with, they included a copy of Blades of Glory in my gift bag. I was honestly crestfallen and immediately resigned to viewing this dreck. And I promised that I'd review the thing on my blog. Well, here it is folks. I can only hope that by giving in I have finally earned the right not to be subjected to this crap in the future.

There was trouble right off the bat, as soon as I popped the DVD in. The previews were all CGI, explosions, and kiddie films. Nothing I'd ever be tempted to see. I understood immediately that the intended demographic was the group of regressed adults who would be excited by a live action version of Transformers, presented through the filters of Michael Bay. I'm talking about the type of audience that considers Shrek a multi-layered viewing experience. There was even a promo for a Will Ferrell mega-pack, the consumption of which looked akin to being subjected to waterboarding. Trailers are supposed to contain the funniest bits of the movies they promote, right? You'd think after making six (or so) flicks that Ferrell could cobble together three minutes of diverting highlights. But you'd be wrong.

The next red flag was the revelation that Blades of Glory was released under the MTV Films imprint. Uh-oh. And produced by Ben Stiller. It figures. Then within the first six minutes the viewer is assaulted with totally arbitrary product placements for Bud Lite and Skittles. There's the clichéd setup to launch the story- we get to see one half of the stellar comic duo (played by Jon Heder) as the golden haired effeminate orphan (named Jimmie MacElroy) being targeted for future stardom. That's the character development- a series of mildly amusing set pieces delivered in a few brief minutes. The filmmakers don't want to lose the audience with any depth. Then flash-forward to MacElroy's present success, and introduce the ridiculous black-and-white "conflict". We meet the hypermasculine Yang to Jimmnie's Ying- Chazz Michael Michaels, who's portrayed by Will Ferrell in his inimitably wry style. Oh yeah... and there's a Capri Sun ad at 14 minutes, just as we are bludgeoned with foreshadowing indicating that Heder and Farrell will eventually become a (gasp!) same-sex figure skating pair.

You might think that all of the crass marketing is merely incidental. After all, folks do consume the products that appear on screen. Maybe it's just a coincidence that the paid sponsors all have their products featured with their labels clearly centered and inescapable. When Ferrell breaks that bottle of Captain Morgan, it might be just a lucky break for the corporate powers that the glass shatters immediately above the clearly identifiable sticker. Yet later there's a scene with Jimmie working in a sporting goods store, and throughout the run of it not a single brand name is shown. Not one. Apparently those companies didn't pay to play. When was the last time you were at a sporting goods store? In case it's been awhile, I'll remind you that the manufacturers' logos are EVERYWHERE. Same goes when our heroes eat out at a fast food joint. I've never been at a single one that didn't have every wall plastered with ads. Maybe they have no sense of humor either.

Anyway, I'm not going to get into the merits of the story or the writing. I've already offended fans of this movie. There's everything I expected- juvenile surface humor and inane physical gags. I had a hard time seeing it through. But I have to say that I am more troubled than I expected to be after watching it. Perhaps there's nothing particularly devious about the encouragement of rampant consumerism. Still, movie-watchers are paying to see these feature length commercials. Make no mistake- in between the sophomoric jokes and the homoeroticism, Blades of Glory is pushing product.

While the easily amused are yucking it up, these messages enter their subconscious. Obviously they want you to buy their shit, just as the film's producers believe you will buy into their canned jokes. The state of laughter makes the viewer particularly open to suggestion. Nationwide, Trojan, XBox, Dunkin Donuts, Crest White Strips, Subway, Orbitz... these are paraded before our eyes throughout the movie, with no pretext of naturalism and very little appropriate relationship to the story. I guess I should just be thankful that I didn't laugh.

*Please note that I have chosen to protect the identities of those involved.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Dissapointment in Aliquippa.

When I attended the Dance of the Giglio in Brooklyn last year, John Morris (who went with me to that festival) hipped me to the local feast of San Rocco in the modest town of Aliquippa, which lies twenty-some miles northwest of Pittsburgh. He told me that there was a culminating event that involved people wearing large costumes on their heads. This year he posted about it on the Digging Pitt blog, and that reminded me that I wanted to go see it. He even included a video clip portraying the spectacle, and I heartily recommend viewing it for yourself. Tell me that you aren't at least a little bit intrigued... I knew right away that I wanted to head out there to take some photos. So I did what I always do in such circumstances- I found the official website and the schedule.

It turns out that is a fairly comprehensive site, detailing the history and media coverage of the festa throughout the years. I'm not going to get into a lengthy recap of its origins. I'll leave that to the official sponsors. But suffice it to say that I wanted to be sure to be present for the 2008 "Dance of the Baby Doll", which incorporates an 8-foot statue of an Italian lady doing the tarantella (tarantula). This is a traditional folk dance that depicts the story of a woman who is somehow bitten, and decides to spin around at an increasing speed in order to rid herself of the poisonous venom. Supposedly the only real cure for this unfortunate was "finding true love".

Representing the salvation of this afflicted lady are the fireworks that are attached to the long bar extensions coming off the statue's arms. This pyrotechnic display is certainly a crowd-pleaser, as demonstrated in the video clip provided in the above link. I don't know if it eclipses the awe inspired by Zambelli's various shows around town, but it seems a shame for the average local not to check out the San Rocco Feast at least once during a lifetime. Plus I discovered that Franki Capri was performing on the last evening of the festival, and I haven't seen him in years. That phenomena deserves an entirely separate post. Far be it for me to try to encapsulate Capri's act in a single paragraph.

The problem was that I had a going away party to attend during the afternoon (for local artist Tom Sarver). I knew that the celebration extended until 9PM, and Franki was supposed to go on at 6PM. As the day proceeded I found myself increasingly less compelled to make an early exit, and I resigned myself to missing Capri's act. My buddy and I agreed to make the drive out to Aliquippa around 9PM, so we could arrive just in time for the Traditional Italian Doll Dance. As we made our pilgrimage we were only moderately concerned with the intermittent precipitation that eventually threaten our fun. When we found Lefty Cepull field (where the proceedings are held), we were surprised at the scale of the event.

We arrived just in time... to hear the announcement that the Baby Doll Dance would be canceled due to the inclement weather and possibility of lightning strikes. Watching the faces of the gathered observers was illustrative of the importance of this annual ritual. People looked absolutely heart-broken. We were bummed too. Fortunately Franki Capri agreed to come on for another set to compensate for the loss. I took a few trippy photos, and then we strolled around looking for some authentic Italian food to distract us from our disappointment. The ride home was pleasant, and we resolved to return next year to see what we had missed. Maybe you'll come with us next summer?

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Summer Sales Coming to an End.

This summer I decided to make a special effort to attend as many community sales, flea markets, and estate sales as possible. It's been a good opportunity to spend Saturday mornings with my family, and pick up some nice stuff on the cheap. We've certainly been able to put together a great library for Baby E., which I am sure he will enjoy as he gets older. Given the amount of second hand children's books available out there, it seems foolish to buy them new. And you don't have to settle for grimy, beat up versions either. It appears that many parents who get kiddie lit end up letting it rest on their shelves. I have seen tons of stuff in mint condition available for anywhere from a dime to a dollar.

Last year we only really attended two or three neighborhood-wide sales. The Aspinwall community day was especially memorable, as I found someone willing to part with a bunch of obscure books and DVDs for virtually nothing. I looked hard to find his house once again this year, but he was nowhere to be found. However, it was relaxing having the opportunity to browse around a neighboring area. Still the only real tradition we've established over a long period is our annual attendance of the Regent Square sales. This continues to be the most extensive collection of yard and garage sales in Pittsburgh. While you can certainly commit to walking, there is no way you can see everything available without a car.

In this summer of 2008, we kept a sharp lookout for similar events (I spent a lot of time on Craigslist). I was quite impressed by the Highland Park sales. In fact, I was surprised to see just how nice that part of the city gets. Owing to circumstances, I never really spent much time there. I have a couple of friends that live on a somewhat sketchy street, and I was under the impression that their block was generally representative of the whole. That turned out not to be the case at all. We found tons of loot worth taking home. Meanwhile attendance was surpassed only (perhaps) by the crowds at Regent Square. I also benefited from a visit to Friendship's community sale. While there wasn't as much participation, I scored big on an inside tip and came home with a paper bag worth of goodies from an aging hipster.

I know that the season is concluding, but I'm still working off the high of my big score- the Bukowski limited edition book from 1963. Besides providing a great tale that has inspired a lot of daydreaming on the part of my friends, the find constitutes an object I'll likely treasure for years. While I dare not expect a repeat of such a find, I cannot help but continue to hope to find another prize. So every Saturday morning I drag myself out of bed around 8AM and schlep off any weariness that I accumulated the night before. Obviously I've had my share of disappointments, and discovered that people can be quite deceptive in our modern era of marketing consciousness. I've seen plenty of junk.

Today I thought an extensive trip might pay off, as National Garage Sales Day is said to be this weekend (accounts differ on the actual day). With a bit of anticipation I planned a detailed itinerary. I guess it figures that my efforts were ultimately in vain. It started out with minimal success in Bloomfield (I picked up a couple of "Thomas the Tank Engine" books), and it was all downhill from there. Trips to the "Green Flea Market" at the Carnegie Science Center parking lot and the advertised sales in Manchester (in the North Side) yielded absolutely nothing. Hoping to redeem the wasted time, I stopped off at a Friendship sale, only to find out that I had been there a month ago. I don't know if I missed something, but the offerings were exhausted and forlorn. Perhaps its time to start looking toward next spring.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

They Know You'll Like It.

I know I've written on the topic of humor before, but I believe that a lot of what I said in that earlier post bears repeating. The problem is that people tend not to believe me when I say I'm not going to appreciate their particular favorite. "Why don't you just give it a chance? How can you say you won't like it if you aren't willing to give it a try?" The answers to these questions are fairly basic because I provide them so often. The one thing in our existence that is absolutely finite is time. We've only got so many hours to spend, and many of them are used for sleeping and working. I value my leisure time as much as just about anything in my life. It's crucially important that I spend it with forethought and reflection.

So no... I'm not ever going to see Blades of Glory. You can keep your copy to yourself. I'm not going to see the new Seth Rogan or Judd Apatow flicks. Watching The 40 Year Old Virgin is not part of my plan. I know that you think it's funny, and that you are convinced that I'm "missing out". I'm willing to live with that. No matter how hard you try to persuade me that I'll find that wacky decapitation scene funny, I have to assure you that I won't. You can also keep your dick-caught-in-zipper, turd in the swimming pool, latent homosexual, masturbatory humor, etc. Please accept my assertion that I am not judging you or your tastes. I am no better or more discriminate a viewer... we simply have different preferences when it comes to comedy.

I don't appreciate being told that the reason I prefer not to see these movies is because I am an "elitist". My aesthetic has almost nothing to do with what groups of people feel about a specific item. There are lots of folks who found Borat hilarious, and I agree with them. But on the other hand there were a host of viewers who felt that Dumb and Dumber was a comic masterpiece. Not me... no thanks. Maybe if I smoked pot I would understand why that was such a popular movie. However, I am not going to start doing drugs just so I can groove on that vibe. Again- your life is your own, and you are welcome to it. There will be plenty of common ground for us to share, so don't get offended.

I've come to the conclusion that humor is one of the most arbitrary and personal amusements in existence. Try asking someone why they think one thing is funny, and yet another is not. You'll quickly come to discover that few people have a vocabulary to describe the process. If you don't feel the same way, they will simply repeat a quote or two and stare at you in befuddlement if you don't laugh. Still I've analyzed my own sense of humor at length. I don't like physical comedy. I've never enjoyed the Three Stooges and I find early Woody Allen flicks boring. I don't like frat boy jokes, or juvenile hijinks. I can't find any pleasure in watching pratfalls. And I can do without the bleary stoner stuff that so many embrace nowadays.

On the other hand, I do enjoy surreality in everyday life. I am tickled by caustic and sarcastic wit. Give me "dark humor" any day of the week... the more transgressive the better. I also like dense, thickly layered, multileveled, and subtle comedy. If I am in a light mood, I can get into watching awkward social situations play out. Along those lines, I've recently gotten into Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm and anything with Ricky Gervais. When I first saw The Office (the original British version) I was struck dumb. Since then I get more out of each repeated viewing. Now I'm loving Extras. Maybe you could characterize it as "sociological humor". But whatever it is, it just so happens to resonate with me.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Pittsburgh Art Events 8/8-9/08..

As one might expect, the middle of August is a dead period for openings in the Pittsburgh arts scene. But with just a bit of digging, and help from local media sites like Pittsburgh Art and Gallery Info and, you can usually find something to do around town. I did find a few things that sound like they'd be worth checking out, so bear with me as I make some personal recommendations for your weekend.


Downtown at the Three Rivers Art Gallery (937 Liberty Avenue) there is an opening (5-9PM) for "Interior Spaces", featuring work by Aasta Deth. There is also an MFA exhibition for Kati Fishbein, entitled "Miss-Handled". This is one of those spaces that doesn't go out of its way to promote events, and so it's been a bit difficult to find specific information about these shows. (Both of these artists do seem to have connections to Indiana University of PA). It should be noted that often such venues merely offer space for artists and curators to do their own things, and the responsibilities for promotion are passed along. I'm not sure whether or not that's the case here. Ultimately we should be thankful that there are so many organizations willing to work to provide opportunities for public exposure.

On the other side of the art world, the Sunroom Gallery is getting ready to kick off their grand opening. It's located "across from the James Gallery" over on the West End (apparently somewhere on South Main Street). This is Pittsburgh photographer and painter Tom Jefferson's new venue, after making his break from John Ross' Meter Room. The aforementioned Pittsburgh Art and Gallery Info is reporting that the work of Jefferson, Ian Green and Michelle Gregio will be included in the show, and will be accompanied by TJ's band, The Major Toms. Unfortunately specific information about hours is still unavailable.

Also on Friday night comes an appearance by Bob Log III down at the 31st Street Pub (10PM, $12 at the door). I've never seen Log perform, but he is said to play an f'd up and distorted version of the Blues, and he wears a motorcycle helmet on-stage. Needless to say he's come highly recommended.


Moxie Dada (1416 Arch Street in the North Side) is rolling out yet another solo by photographer Corey LaChat. He's been known locally for years for showing a series of fuzzed-out and impressionistic macro enlargements of old fashioned toys. This time around he's showing astronaut-themed shots. Perhaps the best reason to attend this reception (which runs from 7-10PM) is for his musical performance on the theremin. It should be an utterly surreal experience.

And speaking of unreality... did you know that it would have been Andy Warhol's 80th birthday yesterday, if not for his mysterious death? Well, the Warhol Museum is certainly aware of that. That's why they are offering admission for 80 cents this Saturday afternoon. They'll be screening some episodes from his 1983 TV show, and (yes) they will be handing out cupcakes. That ought to be the kicker that packs the place. Anyway it's a good chance to see what you missed at the cramped Associated Artists of Pittsburgh annual last weekend.

If plain old drinking is more your speed, you might want to stumble down to the Brew Festival at the Millvale Riverfront Park Pavilion. The borough is still recovering from 2004's Hurricane Ivan, which devastated it with flood waters. They are running two sessions (from 1-4 and 5-8 PM) and you get entertainment, beer and food for the price of $35. Proceeds go to Millvale Borough Development Corporation and Millvale MainStreet- two organizations devoted to the long-term health of the neighborhood. Before you go, you can make the trip "art-related" by stopping in to say "Hi" to Mark over at Panza Frame and Gallery on Sedgwick Street. Sid Kweller's show is coming down this Sunday, and is worth seeing.

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