Monday, December 29, 2008

A Space-Aged Cigarette.

Late on Christmas Eve, after I went to my friend's restaurant for his holiday party, I went up the hill to visit a friend. There was much conversation and revelry. Everything seems a bit of a blur now, as there were many things to discuss and enjoy that night. Still there is certainly one moment that sticks out in my mind- our host noticed that one of his guests was smoking a cigarette, yet it wasn't really burning. The guy would take a pull, and its end would light up, but there was no smoke involved. The square remained its original length no matter how many hits were taken from it. Obviously this was a compelling mystery, so an explanation was requested. As more people tuned in, the room got quiet.

The enigmatic holder of the strange device began to explain its mechanics. He was "smoking"... but not really. What he was actually doing was inhaling atomized nicotine. There was no carbon involved. There was no second-hand emanation. It looked exactly like any normal cigarette, but its "burning" cherry was simply an LED light that activated whenever you brought air through. Inside the barrel (where tobacco is normally kept) there was a computer chip and a lithium battery to power the contraption. What looked like an ordinary filter was the cartridge that contained liquid nicotine. The thing vaporized the concoction and sent it into your mouth whenever you wanted a hit.

I was already amazed, and soon our emissary passed the "cigarette" around for everyone to try. One after another, our faces lit up as we enjoyed the faint chocolate taste the cartridge was flavored with. It was a very clean and smooth alternative nicotine delivery system. And it felt very satisfying. I was almost instantly sold. I did a quick cost-benefit analysis in my head. If I had such a way to get my fix without the carcinogens, tar, and various unnamed chemicals, what did I have to lose? Sure, I'd be up-taking a purer form of nicotine, which can't exactly be called a nutritional supplement... but what was the difference between that and my Winstons? The only thing different would be a distinct lack of pollution for me and any innocent bystanders.

I asked where I could find the product, and the man replied that it was only available (as far as he knew) online. He told me to Google ePuffer. He said he wasn't sure exactly how much it would cost me to get set up, but he did know that cartridges (equivalent to 20-25 cigarettes) went for around $3, and came in multiple varieties. This was an added bonus, as it worked out to at least a $1.50 savings on each "pack". I didn't need to hear anything else. I was convinced, and I ordered the "deluxe set" the next day. Now I wait with great anticipation for it to arrive in the mail. I'll get two units, 20 cartridges (tobacco and coffee flavored, mild), and all the accessories within the next couple of days.

I've written before on this blog that I am not an early adopter when it comes to most technology. However, this time I'm making an exception. I like to smoke, and I'm certainly addicted to the habit. Yet I know how exceedingly bad it is, with the risks of heart disease, lung cancer, emphysema and reduced lung capacity. No matter how many times I've thought about quitting, I never fail to come up with a reason not to. Still I'd love to be able to participate in vigorous physical activities without the inevitable ill effects of smoking. Now it looks like I may have that chance. Maybe I'll even cease my nicotine dependence altogether. After all, I'm cutting out the middle man for a change.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

The 2008 Carnegie International.

A happy congruence led to my first (and likely only) visit to Life on Mars, the 2008 Carnegie International. It so happened that the parents of the father of my newest niece were in town from Southern France, and when I brought up the prospect of making a visit to the show this afternoon, they were easily convinced. My father and his wife were also in the 'Burgh, so we were able to muster a group of nine adults and two wee ones. We even chose a meeting time that was conducive to sleeping in. We made our rendezvous at noon at the back entrance. My sister-in-law was late, which actually turned out to be a good thing since I was in sore need of some espresso. I ran across the street to acquire my usual four shots.

It used to be that the Carnegie Museum had a coffee kiosk and a few chairs in the Hall of Sculpture. I don't remember how many years ago they had that, but I swear to it no matter how many folks say that I'm mistaken. Unfortunately the only option nowadays is to sit down for table service at the swank cafe near the entrance to the art galleries. And you can't walk around the place with a drink (and I guess that makes pretty good sense). So anyway, I had to chug the coffee drink quickly while I smoked a cigarette by the fountain. It was a beautiful day, with temperatures in the sixties, and so it was no sacrifice to be stuck outside. As soon as I poured the formula down my gullet I was in a much better mood.

I'm happy I was able to achieve an amiable mood, because I ended up being the guide. We focused on the Life on Mars stuff, as it is due to close down in a mere two weeks. This exhibition is a prestigious international survey of contemporary art, and I've read that it is one of the most important in North America. We should be grateful to have it on our town, even if it only happens once every few years. This collection of work was put together by curator Doug Fogle, with the assistance of Heather Pesanti (who has recently moved on to direct the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY). I had little idea about what to expect, as I had only a brief exposure to Fogle's tastes at an Associated Artists of Pittsburgh annual in 2006.

The last International was disappointing. I only remember an extensive collection of original R. Crumb drawings that I got scolded for trying to photograph. Perhaps that restriction soured my experience. This time around I had heard mixed reviews. When the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Biennial opened on the same weekend this past Spring, some people said that they preferred it. Still I wasn't going to miss the International. Ultimately though, I might be inclined to agree with the naysayers. It's not that I didn't see anything I liked, but rather that I felt that there must be stronger work on the world stage. I could walk around Chelsea in any given month and see more stuff I'm impressed by.

The clear standout of the entire production was Cavemanman (2002) by the Swiss-born artist Thomas Hirschhorn. This installation environment, made with recycled materials such as cardboard, aluminum foil and packing tape, was a multi-chamber journey into a post-modern, consumerist hell. All of us agreed that it was our favorite piece. After that the drop-off was steep. We lingered over some Bruce Connor photograms, and M. said she'd never forget the taxidermied kitten announcing its posthumous status with a hand-held placard reading "I'm Dead" (created by David Shrigley). Finally we stumbled upon another temporary exhibition that we all consider a can't miss- (it runs through January 19th) called World's Away. Alone, it would have been worth the rather steep admission price.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

The Vagaries of Gift Exchange.

Getting presents as an adult is often a strange and complex affair. In fact, whenever I think about it with any sort of focused energy, the entire idea of gift exchange is a bit confounding. In the United States, we tend to commodify* everything, translating it into a value expressed in terms of the dollar. When considering what types of presents we will be handing out during the holiday, many of us figure out a budget that accounts for how much we can afford to spend. M. and I work out basic parameters ahead of time so that neither of us feel guilty about any exchange inequity. Perhaps its odd that we take such a pragmatic approach to the tradition. It certainly makes rational sense, but what else does it suggest?

From the very basic background in anthropology that I acquired at university, I'm aware that cultures have been participating in gift-giving for thousands of years. The quality and spirit of such transactions differ widely. Among members of indigenous American tribes, it was expected that high-ranking members of each neighboring group would preside over ceremonies during which gifts were offered. This interaction was highly-structured, and the choices that were made often affected the future relations between the tribes. There was such subtlety of interpretation that a wide spectrum of messages, ranging from honor to insult with everything in between, could be conveyed in a ritualized fashion.

Although it's often not as conscious for us as it was for the Native Americans, we still follow implicit rules when we engage in gift exchange. Sometimes the rules are spelled out explicitly. For example, my in-laws decided years ago that it made sense to have a pool of gifts, rather than for everyone to buy separately for each member of the extended family. On its surface, this appears to be an almost entirely economic choice. At the same time, it relieves a bit of pressure from harried individuals trying to prepare for the holiday experience. One need not put quite as much thought into finding appropriate material gestures for people you don't see all that often. And that can be a relief.

On the other hand, the nature of a general exchange presents its own difficulties. How do you determine who gets what? Everything goes in a big pile, and divvied up according to one method or another. In M.'s family, an additional wrinkle has been added. Along with a "real" gift (purchased for an amount agreed upon beforehand), each participant is expected to find a "gag" gift as well. Everyone brings one of each, without in any way tipping his/her hand, and identifying which is which. Then lots are drawn and distribution begins randomly. That would be fairly straightforward, but another twist is yet added. Another round of numbers are drawn, and people can choose to take desired objects away from others, leaving them with unwanted items in exchange.

At that point, the "gift exchange" becomes something altogether different. It is now a contest to see who can go home with the "best" items. Obviously tastes vary among the players, and therefore the more idiosyncratic folks have the best chance of going home with whatever thing they covet. Mercifully, there is a stipulation that everybody gets to take possession of one "real" gift. However, subjectivity naturally plays a big role in determining what that means. In the processes of exchange and appropriation, personalities reveal themselves. It's at that point that the essence of the season tends to get either distorted, or emphasized, depending upon your personal frame-of-reference.

* It's a bit ironic that the Blogger spell-check doesn't recognize this word.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sharing Movies.

One of the major pleasures I have experienced over the last several months has been sharing specific selections from my movie collection with friends. It's something that I have always enjoyed doing, and it makes accumulating a large numbers of DVDs particularly gratifying. While I don't have quite the same freedom to watch films at home anymore as I used to (given the noise considerations of a particularly light sleeper), I now have the opportunity to re-watch some of my favorite titles. It's a great litmus test to judge the true worth of any piece of art- how well does it wear on the eyes and the mind? I've been a bit surprised by some movies, and less so by others (given I've seen them multiple times already).

But perhaps a greater reason to appreciate seeing stuff repeatedly is to share them with others who might enjoy them. I try to dedicate a fair amount of consideration into the personal likes and dislikes of my viewing companions. This becomes more challenging when I'm accompanied by a mix of personalities, especially when I have only known them for a short period of time. If you think about it for a bit, you'll realize all that has gone into the formation of your own tastes. Perhaps you honestly believe that you "simply know when you like something", and there's no need to delve to deeply into your preferences. Maybe you feel that you are processing everything on some intuitive level that requires little analysis.

I'll concede that our likes and dislikes are often communicated more so by some "unconscious mind" then by a systematic deconstruction of the merits of a phenomenon. If it were any other way, we'd likely be insane or otherwise so dysfunctional as to make ordinary, everyday living nearly unbearable. Still, we have the capacity for introspection, and we usually apply this resource to something we care about. In my case, cinema is one of those things. When I'm playing something for someone that has never seen it before, I am attuned to their reactions. I find it absolutely fascinating to discover how others react to stimuli that I have absorbed. More than anything else, it helps me learn about myself.

Tastes are so personal that there is no way to make an exact science out of an exploration of them. This is where the nature of art comes in. Its subjective qualities keep it from being reduced to its components. There's a certain (dare I say) "magic" involved in the process of engaging art. Think of the precursors to the modern Western scientists- men of vision and learning that relied on their imaginations to devise fanciful instruments, and through alchemy tried to transmute various substances into gold. That's how I think of the creator... "man the creator", in fact. And somehow I'm thinking vaguely about these things when I sit down in front of a movie with other folks.

People have occasionally questioned my methods in sharing this stuff. I've had some buddies that couldn't understand why I wouldn't put in a movie that I had not yet seen, as evidenced by the undisturbed shrink-wrapped plastic around the jewel case. When I tried to explain why I resisted doing it, they took exception. For some, movies are a social activity. While I love that this is so, I only share that perception when I am watching others watch the movie. If I truly intend on absorbing a film, and giving over to it (whatever it contains), I have to do so in complete silence, and with no distraction. And I don't relish shushing people, especially when I'm trying to learn how they process the piece. It's as simple as that.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An Art Hotel?!

This morning on the radio I heard a segment about a hotel in Louisville, KY that features contemporary art as the bedrock of its amenities package. I resolved to check out the Internet for more information whenever I got the chance. I used to have a friend who loved to stay at a place in Toronto that had rooms customized by individual local and regional artists. I loved that idea when I first heard about it. It's difficult for art to find its way in the marketplace (especially stuff created in the last couple decades), and its integration in lodging seemed like a unique but appropriate marriage. How many times have you commented on the generic and bland wall furnishings in the rooms that you've stayed in over the years?

Instead of being surrounded by the typical designs aimed at the lowest common denominator, how would you like to sleep beneath an original painting produced by an actual struggling artist? There are plenty of places that you could patronize that make every effort to achieve complete anonymity. Why must depersonalization be such a large part of the hospitality industry? Do people really want to travel to a destination only to be sheltered in an environment that is completely interchangeable with anyplace else? Well, I know for a fact that there is a demographic that appreciates local and unique flavors. There are genuinely curious and adventuresome folk that seek experiences during their vacations that they can't find anywhere else.

Based on these criteria I thought I might like to visit the 21c Hotel/Museum in Louisville. The city is approximately 335 miles from Pittsburgh, and it's one of the few major destinations within a day's drive that I haven't yet visited. I've never even made an extended stop in Kentucky, and I'm hard-pressed to remember an occasion I had to drive through it. As far as Louisville is concerned, I only have a single association with the city- the Kentucky Derby. While I enjoy the idea of horseracing, I can't see myself traveling to that mess. But if I can find things to enjoy about Buffalo, Erie, and Cleveland, I'm sure I could find some amusement in a mid-size town in Kentucky. With a little bit of research ahead of time, I'd probably enjoy myself.

It wasn't hard to find the 21C site. As soon as I did, I realized that its offerings were on a scale that I hadn't anticipated. Apparently a non-profit entity controls the art display operations separately from the hotel. It bills itself as "North America's first museum dedicated solely to collecting and exhibiting contemporary art of the 21st century". It's not limited to American art, but rather includes work from a variety of international sources. From the website, I found it rather difficult to determine to what degree the art itself is incorporated into the accomodations. It seems as if there are galleries simply attached to the hotel, with a few pieces scattered about the public spaces of the building.

One thing that quickly becomes obvious is that the 21c is a luxury spot. Its Spring rates exceed $200 a night (and progress to $800 at the upper reaches). The 91 rooms do seem well appointed- with flatscreen television, minibars, iPods, poster art, silver mint julep cups, and "500 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets imported from Italy crowning the exquisite bedding". If that's not enough, you can avail yourself of their in-house spa, or high-priced luxury dining restaurant. "After all", as they explain in a description of their Got Art? Package, "being a starving artist is so passé". Of course that means that I probably won't ever be crashing at the 21c. Maybe I can book a night in the stables at the Churchill Downs?

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Monday, December 22, 2008

"Oh, and about gays in the miltary..."

Today there's talk that Barack Obama will make ending the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy regarding homosexuals in the services a distinct priority at the beginning of his first term. While there is much to be said about the high-mindedness of such a move, I believe it's a mistake. Bill Clinton made the same miscalculation at the beginning of his presidency, and he was pilloried for it. The former Arkansan governor could have chosen few more effective ways to mobilize his opposition on the Christian Right. He also didn't curry much favor among the brass of the armed forces. I think it would be in the President-Elect's best interest to consider moving away from this initiative before he stirs up a hornet's nest and accelerates the "Culture War".

Listen... I want to make it quite clear that I support gay rights. I can't think of a single reason why men or women that are attracted to members of the same sex should be discriminated against by the government. People need to spend more time attending to the conditions of their own houses before they start trying to impose their prejudices on others. There's nothing more bothersome than another highly flawed human being getting uppity. What people do with (or to) their partners is their business, as long as it is consensual and the terms are defined upfront among the principals. I'm not concerned about what folks choose to do in their own beds. I have plenty of things to mull over without getting into that.

But I also believe that drugs should be completely decriminalized, and for many of the same reasons. What you do unto yourself is your own problem or escape, and not for me to judge. However I wouldn't recommend that Barack Obama make that an important priority on his domestic agenda either. Not only are there plenty of more pressing issues of importance to the future of the nation, but drug policy is another issue that would generate a surplus of resistance that would be distracting. This is a pivotal moment in American history, and Obama is going to need to make significant compromises to enact the type of platform capable of addressing the difficulties we face. He's going to have to pick his battles carefully.

Since Clinton capitulated and allowed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to take effect, over 12,000 gay individuals have been ushered out of the military. In the meantime Britain and Israel have seen fit to allow soldiers who are openly gay to serve. I haven't taken the time to read any exhaustive studies of how these men and women have integrated into their organizations, and I can't say whether or not they have had a significant impact on the operations of their respective forces. I have a hard time believing that they are living in a culture wherein they'd feel comfortable coming on strongly to their heterosexual colleagues. I wouldn't expect to find that lustful urges have overwhelmed their collective ability to concentrate on the mission.

It's certainly true that the American military is in dire need of an injection of new blood. Perhaps allowing gays to join would swell the numbers. I'm not sure why anyone would be anxious to enlist in these trying times, but I guess the motivations of homosexuals are the same as anyone else in this regard. For some, this path is among the very few opportunities they have in a troubling economic climate. Ultimately it appears that Obama is committed on the issue. He's actually considering appointing an openly-gay man to the position of Secretary of the Navy (which, if you think about it, is reinforcing a long-held stereotypical perception of that branch). Whatever happens, I wish the new President well.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Deal Me In?

Once again I have a friend trying to talk me into playing poker. So far I have managed to side-step the trendy phase of its resurgence, despite several folks making every effort to let me know what I am missing out on. For some reason people think that I would enjoy taking up the game. They know that I have an interest in psychology, and emphasize the importance of that facet of poker. I expect that these would-be enablers have only the best intentions at heart. Certainly they aren't just trying to recruit fresh meat for the table, right? It's merely an opportunity for me to exercise a specific part of my personality, and a localized region of my brain. Somehow I would be ensured of fun and amusement.

For every compelling reason I am given for participating, I can almost instantly generate a handful of objections. The most generalized excuse I have for foregoing engagement is philosophically-based. When I was a boy, I learned quickly that gambling was a black hole. A couple of my buddies conspired with me to start a football betting pool in middle school. We decided that we could capitalize on our classmates' prurient tendencies, and make a buck or two for soda and comics. The first week we had a lot of participants. It seemed odd that one of our accomplices had so much foresight into what would happen on the gridiron. It was even stranger that one of us came out on top seven days later. What prognostication skills my small social circle had!

You see, we had figured out that the best role to play was the "house". Unfortunately we got greedy too quickly, because if we had more moderation we would have probably been taken care of for months. Anyway, I made a decision after the others started to suspect a fix- I wasn't going to be the sucker. This naturally jigsawed with another objection I had to another honored American past-time... playing cards. As the youngest member of my family I didn't have a chance of success when the deck came out. It was frustrating that the only way I could do well was when someone started patronizing me. I spent a lot of time sitting out, and rolling Yahtzee by myself. It's not like I didn't understand the odds.

As I got older it was easy to avoid gambling because neither my friends nor I ever had any money to throw around. It wasn't an option. Any discretionary income went to beer and cigarettes. The high stake gambles had more to do with whoever you were trying to get into bed. Still I occasionally felt the pull to go to the track. There was something about the horses that tempted me. Perhaps it was something sociological... I was captivated by the milieu. And I felt like I could come out even by simply betting the minimum to show. I could suck up the atmosphere without getting caught in the loop. And for years, there was no pressure to involve myself in any other games of chance.

Now we have high stakes poker on television. You have to make it a point to remain untouched by the craze. If you decide not to get in on it, you risk giving something up socially. I understand that. My grandfather always warned me that a day would come when I would regret not learning how to play cards. I thought he was daft, but he was really quite prescient. Maybe I'll succumb to the gentle urgings of my pals. But I'd be starting at a distinct advantage, and at the mercy of the early adopters. That's something I'd have a hard time dealing with for awhile. There's an ugly side of me that finds losing completely unacceptable under any conditions. Who wants to encourage that?

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

David Hajdu, "The Ten-Cent Plague" (2008).

I was a bit surprised a week or so ago to learn that my father had bought me a "pre-Xmas present". He told me to look for a package, and explained that he sent me the gift because he thought I would be particularly interested in it. I had no idea what to expect, and so I awaited it with anticipation. When it arrived, I can honestly say I was puzzled. It was a a book by David Hadju (with whom I was completely unfamiliar), and it was entitled The Ten-Cent Plague. By scanning its jacket (which featured a great drawing by Charles Burns, one of my favorite cartoonists) I learned that it was a history of a period during the early development of the comics. It focused on the 1930's through the 50's, during which the new artform came under increasingly intense criticism.

While I am certainly a fan of (what I can only refer to as) "alt-comics", I didn't have a lot of curiosity about genre comics, with superheroes and the like. Still I resolved to plow through Hajdu's study, and hoped that it would give me some insight into the stuff I choose to read now. It started off with a fairly comprehensive look at the invention of the form, and an explanation of how a brand new industry sprouted to produce these "picture books". At the very start, comics did not necessarily focus on men in tights at all, but rather tended to reflect the existing genres of entertainment- horror, crime, war, romance, early sci-fi, and comedy. They were almost exclusively targeted to adolescents.

Hajdu did a good job at conveying the spirit and the attitude of the early comic creators. Fortunately for his book, many of the major players from the beginning were still alive for him to interview, including Will Eisner, Charles Biro, Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein, Bernie Krigstein, Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, etc. These now iconic figures spoke of their free-wheeling approaches to a brand new entertainment medium. As comics reached the end of their first decade of existence, they were so novel that the field was wide open, and for all intents and purposes without limits other than market-driven concerns. This freedom allowed sales to increase astronomically and individual creativity to flourish.

Many of the businessmen, artists, and writers that made comics were from minority groups that had nowhere else to become successful. As a result a lot of the content reflected an outsider perspective that tended to glorify facets of society that many conventionally-accepted adults found troubling. But the kids loved it! The more extreme, the better- gore, lust, perversity, violence, and general mayhem prevailed. And then the authorities noticed, and a reactionary backlash followed. The Catholic Church, professors of education, psychiatrists, and some of the more prudish politicians began to bemoan the general lack of respect for authority exhibited in comics. They began to accuse the comic companies of contributing to juvenile delinquency.

Obviously there are modern-day parallels to other forms of youthful amusement. Over the years, movies, television, cartoons, rock-and-roll, and videogames have all taken their turn at being vilified. Society is always looking for a scapegoat for the "wicked ways" of its members... especially the kids. However the level of vitriol and shrill hysteria over comics was amazing to read about. It didn't take long for the powers-that-be to work together with the cultural guardians, and crush the independence and sheer fun of comics. It took decades for the form to recover even a smidgen of its relevance and energy. Ultimately The Ten-Cent Plague tells a larger story about who we are, and who we've been, as a nation.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

In the News...Baked Goods and Dinosaur Eggs.

Today I had an idea that I might post a roundup of my favorite news stories from this past week. It's been a slow cycle due to the low profile appointments Obama has been making recently. Sure, we've had the shoe-hurler to entertain us, but other than that things have been relatively quiet. I actually had two things in mind that I wanted to follow up on. Unfortunately I completely forgot one of them. The other has to do with a clamp-down on PA nail salons that have been fronting for a slavery ring. Reportedly these shops have been masking a trade of Vietnamesee women, who are lured to America with the promise of marriage and citizenship. I'm sure this practice is more common than we'd like to admit.

Just this morning I heard about recent scientific findings that seem to suggest that male dinosaurs of some species were the primary caregivers to their offspring. Archaeologists have been puzzled for years about clutches of eggs that appeared too numerous to have been carried by the animals whose skeletons were found nearby. Apparently they've followed up with research into creatures that aren't extinct, and discovered similarities in the behaviors of emus and ostriches. These abhorrent birds also tend to place child-rearing burdens on the fathers. So now the oviraptor (which was thought to prey on eggs) seems misnamed. When its remains were first discovered on top of a nest of eggs, it was thought to have been engaging in infanticide. To the contrary, it was just providing daycare.

While we're on the topic of parenting, I feel compelled to mention a controversy that a friend alerted me to the other day. In Eastern PA (Lehigh County), a couple is complaining that a local grocery store (ShopRite) refused to decorate their child's birthday cake. No, they weren't asking for boob icing, or anything of the sort, but rather for the kid's name to be simply spelled out on its surface. In our society, it is commonly expected that businesses will cater to the desires of customers. There are even adages that suggest the infallibility of clients. Why would any self-respecting business refuse a potential sale, especially one concerning such an ordinary request? Why take away something that might mean a lot to a little boy?

Well, the mother and father of three-year-old Adolf Hitler Campbell seem to be asking themselves the same questions. In fact, the scandalized Dad himself summarized his feelings succinctly by stating, "Other kids get their cake. I get a hard time. It’s not fair to my children." And perhaps Heath Campbell has a point. Little Adolf, along with his sisters JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell , certainly deserve the benefit of a normal and wholesome lifestyle, punctuated by small pleasures like balloons and personalized baked goods. On the other hand, maybe Heath should have ceded the naming rights to someone with a clue... or maybe he should have simply sterilized himself before the controversy of offspring developed.

I could spend a lot of time writing about the mindset of the county I grew up in. Unfortunately the behavior of the Campbell elders isn't nearly as aberrant as it ought to be. Somehow they came to the conclusion that their pathetic lives (and the nation as a whole) would be improved if they just invested themselves in the pride of race. Still the level of self-delusion is astonishing to behold. Despite the presence of multiple swastikas throughout his home, Heath Campbell complains, "“[People] need to take their heads out of the cloud they’ve been in and start focusing on the future and not on the past." Fortunately for him (and his progeny), Walmart came to the rescue and decorated the baked good to his specifications. God Bless Sam Walton!

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Steppin' Out During the Holidays.

The year is coming to a close and people are starting to firm up their holiday plans. Things get strange around town during this time. First of all, you never know who you might run into. That element of surprise adds an extra touch of entertainment for those of us who have lived in the city for a long time. Folks make their annual trips to see their relatives, and cast about aimlessly whenever they get a night to themselves. If you have a favorite spot, expect its flavor to be (at least) subtly altered during the next week-and-a-half. There will likely be a lot of unfamiliar faces. Some will be a bit disconcerted by what they see as a strange invasion, but I always enjoy this time of year for its relative unpredictability.

Another phenomenon during the holidays is the urge for the Burgh's visitors to get away from family members that they find a bit difficult to connect with. Feelings such as impatience tinged with guilt and other strange ingredients can make people act especially odd once they make their temporary escape. Along with the energy many people bring to reunions with old friends, such factors can add a surreal sense to one's evening. Familial recovery seems to be a prevailing motive for venturing out in the first place. When night-crawlers get out of their comfort zone, they can act pretty weird. Expect to see a lot of effusive melodrama, along with the usual panoply of oblivious revelers.

As far as specific tips, I don't have much to offer you for this weekend. A band called "Paramount Styles" is playing down at the 31st Pub (Friday @ 9PM, $8). Apparently it features the frontman from the now defunct 90's indie-grunge/post-punk outfit Girls vs. Boys. I saw that band on the second stage of some long-past Lollapallooza. I enjoyed them as well as the other acts that performed that day (which included the Flaming Lips). Opening up for this new outfit are the Karl Hendrick Trio and something called Broughtons Rules (a group that reportedly combines former members of both Don Caballero and Blunderbuss). Overall this seems like an interesting bill. I don't go see much live music anymore, but I'm considering this event.

Meanwhile, the Zombo Gallery is rolling out its opening reception (Friday, from 6-11PM) for a "Ukulele Show". Not only will there be live entertainment from the region's greatest players of this seemingly silly little instrument, but Pittsburgh visual artists have actually customized their own undersized string objects as well. Perhaps you aren't acquainted with the extraordinary range of music styles that can emanate from the ukulele. If so, you and I are in the same boat. Still I can tell you that I have seen local musician Liz Hammond strut her stuff with one in hand, and I don't mind suggesting that it was worth the trouble. God only knows what others are capable of with these things.

On Saturday, the only art-related event I can recommend is an opening reception at Panza Gallery (6-9PM, 115 Sedgwick Street in Millvale) for painter Jack Baker and his new series, entitled RoBodyCa. I got a recent sneak preview of some of the artist's work while waiting for one of the establishment's weekly figure drawing sessions to begin. This stuff is alien and faintly disturbing, employing an odd amalgamation of cubism and sci-fi illustration to portray disjointed naked women. Baker's palette is exceptionally cold, adding to the discomfort invoked in the viewer. It's not necessarily in the spirit of Xmas, but it certainly is seasonal. Temper the joy and then go have a drink.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

They Love Me, They Love Me Not...

A few days ago, when I first heard about the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George W. Bush during a press conference, I really wanted to post about the incident. I'd be lying if I didn't admit I got a big kick (no pun intended) out of it. I just had too many other things on my mind to delve into the subject. It's not like there is an overwhelming amount of news on the national political scene. Things have finally calmed down with the President-Elect. He's made most of his major cabinet appointments and is now busy filling the remaining slots, which include positions overseeing stuff like the White House bathrooms and tennis courts. Obama simply doesn't appear to be able to generate as much controversy as his predecessor (yet).

As far as Dubya is concerned, I'm forced to concede that I have developed the slightest hint of sympathy for the guy. This is inconvenient and even a bit painful, as he has been the figurehead overlooking eight years of almost unmitigated disaster. Yes, I've heard all the arguments about how safe he has kept the country over the last eight years. But to buy that premise you have to overlook 9-11, and believe that he could have done nothing to stop it. You also have to come to the conclusion that the War in Iraq has made the world (and thus the homefront) more secure. And you might even have to get over any qualms you have about how his administration has responded to domestic disasters.

Add to all of this the power his master Cheney has seized for his "unitary executive branch", and the terrible leadership he has extended over the economy, and I understand why anyone would be resistant to feeling sorry for Bush. Still I can't help it, and I suppose that the reason for that has something to do with the irrationality of feelings. I've always had an eye for the underdogs in life, and despite his natural advantages, George W. Bush has perpetually managed to force himself into that category. He's been a singular failure at every endeavor he's ever undertaken. That takes some mad determination, especially considering the family he was born into. His level of incompetence makes you want to cheer him on to a single victory.

But it seems all too clear that his redemption will not be forthcoming during his last month in office. Even Oliver Stone, with his reportedly sycophantic biopic and tradition of historical revisionism, couldn't rehabilitate this guy's reputation. Bush sits at favorable odds to be remembered as the worst president in US history... worse even than Herbert Hoover, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson. That's sordid company indeed. And now he wants to portray his adventurism in Iraq as a positive story, with a happy ending (a sadly fitting description, if you apply this term's more obscure meaning). However, he can't get everyone to play along. This isn't the Special Olympics, and he doesn't get points just for surviving his presidency.

If we want to properly place our warm sentiments, perhaps we should direct them at the hurler himself- journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi, who was employed by the Egypt-based al-Baghdadia television network. He even flung an accompanying insult, shouting "It is the farewell kiss, you dog." That, of course, referred to the soles of his footwear, which he certainly meant to come into contact with the President's smug face. While the meaning may be lost on some Americans, this gesture was the ultimate indictment, and an action conveying the deepest disrespect from an Arabian point-of-view. For his indiscretion, al -Zaidi now faces a likely two-year stint in an Iraqi prison for "insulting a foreign head of state"*. Yikes! No doubt Iraqis are enjoying their new "free society".

* al-Zaida also suffered a broken arm and several cracked ribs as a "result of the incident".

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Pittsburgh Media's Trial of Christine Korbe.

About a month ago, an FBI agent named Samuel Hicks was shot and killed during a raid on a house in the Pittsburgh area. On November 19th, Hicks and seven other agents staged an operation to roust Robert Korbe at his house in Glenshaw. Mr. Korbe was alleged to be participating in a drug trafficking ring, and warrants had been issued for his arrest. It was early in the morning when Hicks and his colleagues apparently banged loudly on Korbe's front door, announcing their presence and intentions to take custody of Robert. Reportedly, the wanted man decided to turn fugitive, rushing to dispose of drugs located within the house before attempting a stealthy getaway through his back door.

While her husband was trying to escape, bullets were fired somewhere in the front interior of the house, and Agent Hicks was struck with what turned out to be a fatal wound. He had a protective vest on, but the slug glanced off his collarbone and caused irrevocable damage to his internal organs. The shot had been delivered by Christine Korbe, Robert's wife. According to her testimony, she believed she was protecting her two young children from a home invasion. Despite the FBI's account of the incident which had its agents loudly proclaiming their presence, Mrs. Korbe says that she had no idea who they were. Still she has been charged with murder. Hicks died shortly after being taken to the hospital.

We'll never know for sure what happened in the Korbe household on that November day. Chrissy Korbe claims that she fired her 38-caliber revolver blindly around a corner and down the steps leading to the second floor. She then ran back to her bedroom and dialed 9-11, while the agents tried to administer emergency medical attention to Hicks. Robert Korbe was apprehended trying to exit through the back door. Instead of celebrating the successful capture of a drug dealer, Western Pennsylvania authorities now prepared themselves for a trial concerning the shooting death of a federal employee. Christine Korbe, who had no criminal record before the incident, now faces the death penalty.

Local media reaction to the story was immediately polarized. The hack talk-show hosts on radio station KDKA 1020 proclaimed Christine Korbe guilty of intentionally killing Agent Hicks. Her husband's reported involvement in the illicit trade of narcotics was used as circumstantial evidence to condemn her in the court of public opinion. Eager listeners called in to voice their own opinions, many of which were delivered with unjustified confidence and the presumption of guilt. It was amazing just how many folks seemed to think they had infallible insight into the circumstances of Hick's death. Agent Hicks became an instant martyr struck down in the crusade against the evils of drugs.

Samuel Hicks was a young man with a promising career, a wife, and a two-year-old child. The fact that he died while attempting to serve the public in the capacity of law enforcement is an undeniable tragedy. Still, society's best interests cannot be served with assumptions and unqualified judgements. Whether or not the Korbes are a couple of "scumbags" has no bearing on the case that is about to appear before the bench. Pittsburgh hasn't been the frontier for well over 175 years, and there is no reason why its citizens should resort to a vigilante mentality aimed at swift and unquestioning justice. There will be plenty of time and opportunity to establish the details of this incident... so why are so many impatiently insisting on blood-for-blood?

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Lawrence Weschler, "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder" (1995).

I'm a sucker for arcana. There's something gratifying about being able to tell people things that they have never heard. That's why I spend my vacations seeking out the strangest and most obscure destinations. It's the reason why I am constantly researching strange DVD titles that the majority of society would write off as "too weird". If I am only processing entertainment that is basically reinforcing my previously-held ideas and belief system, I tend to get bored quickly. The thought of having to revisit words, sights, and sounds that I am already familiar with, again and again throughout time, leaves me cold. I want to experience the anomalies and the unexpected. So I make a point of seeking it out.

But if I really want to get off-track, I usually have to put myself in a situation with company that I'm not used to. Last week I mentioned that I took a rare Sunday dinner with some people I haven't seen in while. One of the things I left out of that post is that I was sent home with a book that I hadn't even asked to borrow. My host assumed that I would have already read Lawrence Weschler's Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. To her mind, it was a title that I should have come across. Still, in today's vast media environment, we sometimes miss the obvious. After finishing this quick read, it's easy to understand why someone would assume I had already encountered it. Right away I was intrigued by its themes.

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder starts with a serendipitous visit to an odd little spot in Culver City, CA. While waiting for a bus, Weschler decided to poke his head into the improbably-named Museum of Jurassic Technology. Once inside he was caught up in a world of wonder. Such a collection of oddities awaited him that he ended up spending hours inside. In a way, it was like entering a time warp. The exhibits were jumbled together and oddly documented. As he walked among the vitrines, Weschler had the suspicion that he was being had. Was there really a South American species of ant that inhales a fungus that makes it climb high into a tree and attach itself via mandible to a stalk, only to be consumed from within ?

Umm...yes. In fact I had heard of that one before in another strange book of natural monsters called Parasite Rex. After completing that compendium of horrors, I had nightmares for several days. But evidently this particular phenomenon was so alien to Weschler that he was compelled to start fact-checking some of the more credibility-defying exhibits in the MJT. And his explorations led him to accounts of the original Wunderkammers- those odd jumbles of wondrous objects found in collections throughout Western Europe before the Age of Reason. Before science prevailed, expanded exploration brought mysteries from far-flung lands, stimulating wildly magical reveries in those that viewed these cabinets of curiosity.

Such is the reader's experience with Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, and its titular character David Wilson, creator of the MJT. It flits from one historical anecdote to another, leading the narrator and his audience from one point to the next, always with the underlying question of whether or not someone's leg is being pulled. Wilson himself is a singular enigma- a man suspected of such a discreet sense of irony that he seems wholly sincere. And perhaps that's the point. Why shouldn't the contemporary observer examine his/her own capacity to be drawn away into the land of the fabulous without the typically postmodern sense of being sold a false bill of goods? Or have we irrevocably lost that possibility with the advent of modern science?

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Making the Nut.

Back in the days when traveling carnivals toured the land, smaller independent outfits would often talk about the difficulty of "making the nut". This phrase referred to the necessity of covering the daily costs of the operation. I'm enamored with the colorful slang associated with that milieu, and I'm vulnerable to employing such language whenever I can justify it. So when people ask me how my show went this weekend, my answer has been given relative to the possibility that I might achieve my essential goal. Have I "made the nut?" Well, the truth is more complicated in the realm of "art". It's not necessarily a "pay-to-play" proposition. And while I can understand the resistance to thinking about and discussing it on these terms, it's still ultimately a form of willful denial to beg the question.

It is a bit crude to think in terms of getting your money back when you're engaged in something as nebulous as "art". I think it's an unspoken rule that all participants (artists, curators, gallery owners, and those that "patronize" the work) are required to approach the subject of the market with subtlety and circumspection. Because when all the artifice and pretensions are pealed away, art simply isn't necessary. Sure, it uplifts the human spirit (and all of that flowery jazz), but you can't eat it, wear it, or huddle underneath it for physical warmth. It is a luxury in the truest sense of the word. When times get hard, it's the first thing sacrificed. Not only that, but a lot of people seem to feel entitled to it for free.

That's the nasty secret for a lot of people that work to put on shows. There is something undeniably gratifying about getting an exhibition of art together. It is beyond utility, and not easy to put into a standard of dollars-and-cents. Certainly I get a sense of satisfaction from doing something that I enjoy that results in a tangible product. And it's enjoyable to get people together in an environment that one has created, and communicate an idiosyncratic vision. However it all costs quite a bit of money, and not many of the participants are aware of the total expense. Obviously the physical space itself has value, and inhabiting it requires an allocation of wealth. This is usually transmitted to the artist in the form of an upfront hanging fee, and/or a percentage of any sales from the event.

Meanwhile the individual creator must pay for materials, promotion, presentation, and refreshments for the opening. Obviously these costs can accrue, and become prohibitive for someone wanting to actually generate income from selling his/her artwork. Fortunately I have a job/career that minimizes the need for me to acquire profits through the pursuit of my passions. At the same time this isn't a vanity enterprise for me, and I feel some compulsion to make my activities pay off. At the very least, I want to get back the money I put into making and showing my art... thus my obsession with "the nut". Maybe by this point you are impatiently expecting a straight answer regarding this, my latest show.

In addition to generating what I believe to be a healthy amount of goodwill, I see the possibility of bringing the balance sheet into the "black". That's not to say that I have all of the money in hand. I have an armful of promises as well that don't weigh quite as much. They feel pretty good though, and perhaps that's the main point. It is a serious tribute when someone pays a price for a piece of art that is commensurate with the amount one might spend to finance a nice night on the town for him/herself, and a date. But there are rewards that are less quantifiable, and that doesn't invalidate them. I did have a good time, and I'm confident that the vast majority of those who shared the experience with me would be able to say the same thing. It can be about that if it needs to be.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Watching Serials.

Two nights ago M. and I watched the series finale of Jericho. We completed all 29 episodes in about a month. That sounds like we tore through it, but the truth is that before we had Baby E. we might have seen it all within a week. We used to push our bedtimes back a lot, and egg each other on to watch "just one more episode". It's strange to think that, although most people reading can likely relate to what I'm talking about, the phenomena of watching an entire television series at one's own speed is relatively new in human history. Hell, the same thing can be said about TV in general. Now there is very little I like better in the realm of entertainment than to burn through the run of a series.

We liked Jericho. Neither the acting nor the writing was especially exceptional, but we were captivated by the premise of the show (remarked upon here). The narrative and the themes were particularly suited to the serial form. I can hardly imagine being a kid in the 50's and going to the theater to watch something similar. You'd actually have to wait weeks until the next installment in the chain of cliffhangers came out. That would be excruciating. I don't even think we'd have enough patience to wait for it on Netflix. We need to have all the episodes on hand so that we can pop it in whenever we anticipate having an hour of relative freedom. It's not just about our inability to delay gratification.

We're becoming old hands at considering market exigencies when it comes to television programming. If a show doesn't quickly garner a large audience, then it is gone without much hesitation. It doesn't usually matter whether the critics deem it a "quality" series. We internalized that lesson when Carnivale (which I still think is the best serial of all-time, followed closely by Twin Peaks) was cancelled. And I know we are not alone. So it wasn't devastating to see Jericho wrapped up in a slightly arbitrary way. It was less painful because we knew what was coming. I feel bad for those who invested themselves in watching it on network television. They had to face the disappointment of its unnatural death, as well as confront whatever dreck replaced it in its time slot.

What was interesting about the DVD package was that they included two versions of the last episode- one that was aired on broadcast television, and one that was meant to leave viewers wanting more. In this case the differences were subtle. M. and I differ in our requirements regarding resolution. Most of the major plot threads must be tied up, or otherwise M. feels a bit unsatisfied. On the other hand, I don't mind filling in the gaps on my own. Jericho met both of our requirements on that count. There was no feeling of being left hanging. Yet we did get the chance to imagine what a Season 3 could have looked like. It would have been nice to have been able to form a reasonable guess about where Carnivale was going when HBO pulled the plug.

Now we have to figure out what's next. We definitely plan to order the 4th season of Lost. That's a given. We are fully invested already. Aside from that I have a few ideas. There are some unresolved shows from the 90's that I missed and intend to order- FOX's Profit, CBS's American Gothic, and UPN's Nowhere Man. For most people, I believe these flew completely under the radar. As far as more contemporary viewing is concerned, I've already mentally committed to watching AMC's Mad Men. And Showtime's Dexter is calling out to me louder and louder. Finally, I have been convinced to give HBO's The Wire a try. There are just too many folks claiming that it's the best television drama ever produced. We'll see about that.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Rod Blagojevich, "America's Least Popular Governor".

If you were under the mistaken impression (and I honestly don't understand how you possibly could be) that the GOP has a monopoly on graft and corruption, then you ought to tune in to one of the numerous and timely stories about Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. He's recently come under fire for a few missteps, including an attempt to auction Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. Democrats have been having a pretty good time slamming their opponents for their moral turpitude, and while Republicans have demonstrated much of it over the past few decades, it should be noted that party affiliation does not necessarily determine one's integrity (or lack of it).

One need only take a cursory look at Chicago politics to reinforce the belief that Democrats know how to get their hands dirty. In some ways Blagojevich can be looked at as the quintessential Chicago lawmaker. Born in 1956 to Serbian immigrants and raised in the northwestern part of the city, he knows what it is like to be on the lowest rung of society. Growing up he worked odd jobs (shoeshine boy, pizza delivery, meat-packer, etc.) to help support his family. He attained an undergraduate certificate at Northeastern and got a law degree from Pepperdine. He entered politics by winning a seat in the Illinois legislature, and then successfully insinuated himself into the US House of Representatives.

Ironically Blagojevich concentrated on legislation dealing with crime and law enforcement. After a couple of relatively inactive terms in Congress, he went on to make a bid for Governor in 2002. He ran on a platform of "ending business-as-usual" in state government. This was a reference to the former Governor George Ryan, who served time in prison for ethics scandals arising from his stint in office. Although he was able to win re-election in 2006, he quickly found himself under investigation by both the Illinois Attorney General (Lisa Madigan) and the FBI. Through it all, he has been able to oversee a progressive agenda facilitated by Democratic control of the state. As a result he is particularly favored by African-Americans and labor leaders.

Despite a few loyal constituencies, Rasmussen Reports found Blagojevich to be "America's Least Popular Governor" (his ratings have been below those of George W. Bush). He has been rejected by Illinois Democrats due to his purportedly dictatorial leadership style, and a refusal to engage in productive communication. Various officials have called him a "a madman", "a 10-year old child", "insane", "disengaged", and "cuckoo". His own Lieutenant Governor (Pat Quinn) has reportedly not spoken to him in over a year. No doubt there are a lot of public figures that would like to distance themselves from Blagojevich, as well as his infamous campaign fundraiser Tony Rezko. Shady associations, along with multiple accusations of hiring fraud, have plagued the Governor for years.

Even a brief summary of the crimes and misdemeanors that Blagojevich has been suspected of perpetrating is beyond the scope of this post. His alleged desire to sell the US Senate seat to the highest bidder seems to be the tip of a vast Illinois iceberg. If he refuses to resign despite the increasing pressures of the local media, national press, and various politicians within and without his party, he could actually be in the position to appoint someone to fill the Congressional vacancy. Impeachment proceedings are likely, but they could stretch out over months. Meanwhile, rightwing hacks are attempting to tie the President-Elect to this ne'er-do-well despite their historically strained relationship. The FBI has recordings of Blagojevich referring to Obama as a "motherf--ker" because the future Chief Executive refused to offer the Governor anything in trade for the appointment of his choice for the empty Senate seat (other than "appreciation").

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

My Show (w/ Dave English and Special Guests) @ Zombo this Weekend.

Last night I got my work on the walls for this weekend's show. I am exhibiting more drawings (prints) than I ever have at one time, and the vast majority were completed in the last two months. I always dread set-up for some reason, but it's rarely as onerous as I anticipate. Fortunately I was able to talk two of my friends into meeting me at the gallery to help. Both of those guys have plenty of experience in hanging artwork, so I knew I was in good hands. The owner of the space was good about getting out of the way and letting us do our thing. I'd have to say that it was the smoothest hang I have ever experienced. We were in-and-out in under 45 minutes. That was a relief given the fact that I thought I might have to return tonight to finish up.

I can't express how grateful I am to have people willing to assist me in the display of my work- especially guys that are (for all intents and purposes) professionals. The two gentlemen in question are artists themselves, they pay attention to the details, and they can rely on intuition to get everything right. We put up 20 pieces, and I would have probably just thought to hang them in a straight line. Getting them plumb would have been a time-consuming task without a laser level. Instead they were installed at marginally different heights, creating a staggered effect. It really was the perfect strategy given the uneven brick walls and rods we were dealing with. And it didn't take a lot of deliberation for my friends to decide upon that strategy.

In addition I was able to get my prints made by a meticulous artist and framesmith, who values precision and clean aspect. He has complete mastery over every aspect of appearance. The scans were right on, the papers and inks of the highest quality, and the attitude was informal and helpful. That same craftsman also devised a way to frame the work that was simple and elegant. When I went to pick up the stuff, it was boxed neatly and efficiently in a single container. Its transport could not have been easier. From four previous solos I realize just how much can go wrong from start-to-finish. All the unexpected hassles can take the enjoyment out of having a show. But it's refreshing when it all comes together.

This particular event is limited to this weekend, Friday and Saturday, from 6-10:30 PM. It's at Pittsburgh's only "lowbrow art" venue- the Zombo Gallery in Lawrenceville (4900 Hatfield St). I'm showing my work along with Dave English, who is a local puppeteer with an affiliation with the annual Black Sheep Puppet Festival. It's entitled "Phone Books and Wine Corks", which expresses the primacy of the materials used to make our art. Tomorrow night is sort of "below-the-radar", as my friend Slim Cessna has generously agreed to perform an hour-long set with his son George and Rob Levkulich (another buddy of mine) on bass guitar. Their participation further reinforces how blessed I am to be part of such a supportive community.

If you don't already have plans, you really shouldn't miss this. The official reception is on Saturday evening, but since you read my blog, I'm happy to let you know about the aforementioned special musical treat. If you haven't seen Slim (or his Denver-based band The Auto Club), you don't realize the sheer joy you've been missing out on. But if you can't make it for that, allow me to suggest that a visit the next day is in order. I feel confident that you'll find something to appreciate about the artwork we are presenting. Dave English and I have tried to cut through some of the artifice, and I think the results are rewarding. Still you won't know if that's true unless you show up. We hope you will.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Frederic Baumgartner, "Longing for the End" (1999).

Last week I mentioned that I was reading a book about millenialism (or millenarianism, which is a synonym), called Longing for the End. Frankly, I often found myself in sympathy with the book's title- not because I wasn't interested in its subject, but rather because of the author's exceedingly dry style. Frederic Baumgartner knows his stuff, however I wouldn't characterize him as a particularly adept storyteller. While that wasn't enough to make me put his work down before I finished it, I was certainly tempted to do so on a few occasions. In Baumgartner's defense, I had a lot on my plate while making my way through this modestly-sized book. Still, with the nature of the subject, it could have been a lot more captivating.

Longing for the End starts with a glossary (this probably should have been a red flag) that lists all kinds of words having to do with apocalyptic end-times. Some of my favorites were "parousia" (a Greek word meaning "coming", specifically referring to Christ's return) and "chiliasm" (Greek for "one thousand", used to denote the belief that the savior's thousand year reign on earth is imminent, and that violence is necessary to expedite his arrival). These were appropriate words to seize upon, as Baumgartner's chosen task was to detail the history of eschatology within Western civilization. Obviously the "end of the world" is closely tied to the future activities of God and Jesus within our society.

I was amazed by the length and breadth of this tradition. Since the beginning of recorded history, the faithful have been busy anticipating the wholesale destruction of life as they knew it. This makes an odd sort of sense, because religious adherents are drawn to the idea that the world should be made over in the image of their god(s). If they were satisfied with the status quo, they likely would not be drawn to worship the heavens. In order to get there, some process must be put into play that brings about the massive changes required. There's a quality of desperation in the fanatical that prohibits an embrace of incrementalism. It's really an all-or-nothing proposition. These folks do not work within the system.

I find it interesting that believers invest much more time imagining the exact qualities of the period leading up to salvation than the conditions they expect to be rewarded with once it has passed. Most millennial thinkers are vague about what "paradise" will look like once all the sinners have been removed by fire. Perhaps there is just something infinitely more compelling about suffering. After all, it isn't that interesting to describe complete satisfaction and bliss. Humans are more interested in the horrific specifics of revenge and hell. The tribulations that many predict to precede the savior (as outlined most notably in the Biblical book of Revelations, with its accompanying wars and holocausts) are often lovingly described. I guess it's like staring at a fatal accident- one can't look away.

There were plenty of formulations and figures within Longing for the End that I'd be interested in learning more about. Baumgartner's volume is a survey, and many of the passionate personalities he wrote about were sketched briefly and with little detail. I'd like to explore the story of John Nelson Darby, who the author identifies as the founder of the modern fundamentalist evangelical millenarian movement. It would also be interesting to hear more about the human scale of these influences. What was it like to be a follower of a prophet that turned out to be essentially mistaken? How did devotees process their disappointments? I'm feeling a further compulsion to dig deeper into modern-day parallels. Perhaps I'll have time before the apocalypse arrives.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Know Thy Enemy (and Know Thyself).

You know, I never thought I'd be the kind of guy that pines after the old ways of doing things. I guess I've always fancied myself a bit of a renegade when it came to social conventions. Certainly there have been others more extreme in that position than me. I was fortunate enough to have the good sense to skip the "anarchy" phase of youth, at least in any organized sense. I'm not going to insist that I never broke the rules just for the sheer fun of it, but I didn't form a general philosophy to justify doing so. I've been the kind of person that needs to learn for himself. If you had, in the spirit of generosity, tried to advise me about the best way of doing something, I was likely to deliberately try something different first. Maybe you'd say I was "obstinate".

Nowadays I don't have the energy to seek firsthand knowledge of everything I consider doing. I've gotten a lot better at sussing out qualified sources, and trusting their own experience with the matter at hand. I'm by no means a micromanager. I realize that others are in a better position to achieve certain objectives that I have a stake in. If someone is willing to assume the responsibility, than I am more than happy to relinquish it. I try to look for quid pro quo whenever possible. Our society has grown so complex that we shouldn't expect ourselves to be able to do everything that needs to be done. That's why we have specialization. We're past the hunter-and-gatherer stage.

Anyway, I now have a healthy respect for earned authority. I may not necessarily regard the office itself as sufficient validation, but I've gotten fairly adept at recognizing expertise. Apparently though, there are plenty among us that find themselves incapable of trusting anyone to do anything with competence and skill. Specifically I'm finding a lot of people that simply think that they are experts on any topic, regardless of life experience, education, or other qualifications. And they are not too shy to let you know exactly what you are doing wrong, and/or how you might do it differently (in order to meet their particularly self-interested expectations). And they feel completely entitled to be taken seriously.

The other habit that a lot of these same folks have adopted is to immediately seek out the "person-in-charge". Once they have a problem, they decide that their plight takes precedence over anything else that is happening in the entire world. Then they commit to grabbing the ear of "the boss". The difficulty is that "the boss" rarely has direct experience of the situation that the demanding individual is inquiring about. Therefore "the boss" has to figure out who has immediate responsibility for the outcomes of the situation in question, and engage in a from of indirect communication. This can be frustrating for all involved. Obviously "the boss" has a lot on his plate, and is liable to express impatience- yet that won't always be directed at its source.

Meanwhile, the presumptuous tool who has skipped several levels in the chain of command has compounded whatever problems originally existed. He/she has failed to acknowledge that there is a proper protocol to observe when issuing a complaint. In fact, he/she has unintentionally subverted the entire system, which has been made to function efficiently only whenever people act appropriately within its structure. Because of such actions, others who have invested themselves within this system will be distracted from their roles. Things have developed as they are for a reason, and I wish people would make every effort to take this reality into account. Unfortunately too many will always feel that they know better.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Sunday Dinner.

Yesterday I took part in a venerable American tradition that I've been aware of for decades. I don't recall the first time I heard of the "Sunday Dinner", but I imagine I must have been told about it from one of my schoolmates. We didn't do it at my house. It's not like we didn't eat on the Sabbath, but it wasn't any big deal. There was nothing special about that meal. I guess because I've never really experienced it, I find the idea rather charming. To get together once every week with extended family and friends seems like a valuable habit. It can be the linchpin for a close-knit community of support and camaraderie. I think it could be something that I would look forward to throughout the rest of the week.

As it is, my side of the family has been scattered by our individual temperaments. I don't remember there being any kind of pressures or expectations regarding staying in the place where I grew up. That's a bit strange because my patriarchal line has lived in Eastern Pennsylvania for about 280 years. It occurs to me to wonder why and how we lost our ties to the land. Maybe things like "Sunday Dinners" are the brick-and-mortar of stable and sustained association. I can only speculate how these things work. I wasn't born in a small town... I don't live in a small town. I don't particularly relate to the songs of John Mellencamp. I've conditioned myself to avoid the type of sentiment that trades in "quaint virtues".

One major impediment to building a template for a regular event like a "Sunday Dinner" is my own (and my wife's) relative indifference to preparing food. I hate to think of the type of fare that would be provided if I was in charge of the table. The gracious host that welcomed my friends and I yesterday put out homemade vegetable lasagna, mushroom-barley cream soup, and fresh bread. Her son made a pumpkin pie with a brandy sauce from scratch. There was even unpasteurized whole milk fresh from a local farm. Now that's good eating, and something I rarely get. But it was really the company that ultimately made the evening. We sat around a big wooden table across from each other.

My typical supper consists of a cold-cut sandwich or something I pop into the microwave directly from the freezer. Occasionally I cook up some spaghetti, but use all processed ingredients. I wouldn't feel right about serving up that kind of stuff for the rest of my little family, let alone other guests. Yet it would be extremely satisfying to gather in the domestic bosom and "break bread". I wouldn't be downing my food while surfing the computer, or watching television. There would be real conversation, like last night. It happened to be the case that I knew everyone our host had invited to her place, yet my interactions with each of them had been in separate circumstances. That added another dimension to the discussion.

After we were done eating, no one rush off right away to meet other obligations. We lingered and continued talking. We relaxed and enjoyed a smoke or two. I think that's a necessary component for doing the "Sunday Dinner" properly (not the combustibles, but the pause from the everyday hustle-and-bustle). I'm not a particularly religious man, but there is something to be said for a "day of rest". That doesn't mean nursing a Saturday-night hangover, half-dazed on the sofa in front of some bad programming. Instead it's akin to a considered reappraisal of priorities and attitudes. There's something inherently beneficial in this sort of interaction. Folks tend to come into better focus.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Failure of Compassion.

This is the time of year to think about the better qualities of humanity, such as charity and compassion. The problem is that some of us tend to get pretty depressed when we make an objective assessment of ourselves regarding these traits. I have extended family that I would rate very high on these factors. They are conscientious people who make significant efforts to consider the plights of those less fortunate than them. They organize benefits to address social ills, and invite people to their houses to participate in doing something good. These affairs not only bring local folks together, but they also contribute to meeting the vast needs of the poor and downtrodden. Mostly I admire them for doing something to help.

With Christmas coming, my in-laws are now trying to rethink traditions. Every year we have a gift exchange, and each person goes home with something that someone else brought. We set a money limit and even run a concurrent gag trade. This is not an uncommon practice, and saves us from having to buy presents for each individual separately. It also gives us something to do on the 24th of December. But this time around, my sister-in-law came up with an alternative suggestion. She sent out an e-mail documenting some of the terrible conditions that others face in third world countries. Her idea was that we skip the exchange this year, and donate the money we would have spent to the charity of our choice.

Obviously the birth of Christ should be celebrated with actions that run deeper than a consumerist orgy of spending. If we were truly honest in our faith and respect for the Son-of-God, we might strive to follow his philosophy and give to the less unfortunate. However this threatens to take the fun out of Xmas. Let's face it- we get a charge from taking home luxury items that we didn't buy ourselves, especially when we didn't even ask for them. Why would we give up these time-honored activities? Sure, there are people starving somewhere, but is that our problem? Don't we have enough to concern ourselves with during this period of economic downturn? Don't we have a responsibility to go out and shop in order to "save our nation"?

I'll freely admit that I'm not particularly charitable. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the destitute and disease-afflicted in far flung lands. I won't even give pocket change to homeless Americans nowadays. At some level my perspective can be distilled to "better them than me". I'm not proud of that, yet I can't defend self-deception. I've said it before and I'll repeat it... humans aren't that special. They have no innate right to survival at the expense of other living creatures. And we perpetuate our survival by exploiting the Earth and all of its inhabitants. That's just the way it is. If I participate in sending food to a region that can't support its current population, who exactly am I serving?

And yet... my lack of so-called "humanity" occasionally gnaws at me. That's why, against my better instincts, I never bitch about paying taxes. I realize that a lot of that money goes into the pockets of corrupt and greedy politicians, and more of it feeds monolithic corporate interests, but at least there's a minimal amount being diverted to assist fellow citizens. I'm glad that there are people willing to sacrifice their time, resources, and energy to improve the lives of others. That type of self-abnegation is truly noble. I'm not going to fool myself- if I wasn't forced into this secular tithing (or is it more appropriately trithing?), I'd be more than happy to sock that money away. But when it comes to the holidays, I'm more likely to defend the status quo.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Faithful, The Damned, and The Hip.

Are you stumped about what to get that idiosyncratic relative for the holidays? Do you know someone who has everything, and therefore leaves you puzzling over an appropriate gift every year? Maybe you should consider the spirit of the season and buy a bible. Sure, it's likely that everyone who wants one already has his/her needs covered. But how about the folks who have never seen the need? Remember, this famous book isn't just about personal faith, but also about lifestyle, politics, and history. You wouldn't be the first person in America to believe that the Bible is irrelevant, only to find that it snuck up behind you and bit your ass. Its words lurk in some truly odd places, including courthouses throughout the Deep South.

Why should you be the one person taken by surprise when the holy word rears its awesome head? Perhaps you've tried and cannot find any personal connection to it. After all, it was ostensibly written a couple thousand years ago (more or less). Who's to say that it isn't completely outdated? It could be that you've already tried to read it, and got stuck in that infamous early section where it starts tracing the lineage from Adam and Eve. That's understandable. Only a fanatic would be compelled to keep scanning those lines. In today's world, it seems that we only have time to devote to pursuits that directly affect us, or we're simply looking for mindless escapism. What's a truth seeker to do?

Fortunately for us modern sophisticates, others have anticipated our difficulty relating to the Old and New Testaments. King James got the ball rolling for many a contemporary reader, and other sects have since published their own versions. I've heard that you can even find an edition written in inner city slang. And why not? In this day and age you have to consider marketing demographics. Take for instance The Green Bible. After a hard day pounding metal chips into trees in our great forests, or ripping apart those plastic rings that hold together our six packs of Pabst, some among us may feel the need for some spiritual sustenance. But we want it in our language. Thus the need for an environmentally aware scripture.

The folks responsible for The Green Bible put it quite succinctly- "With over 1,000 references to the earth in the Bible, compared to 490 references to heaven and 530 references to love, the Bible carries a powerful message for the earth." After all, it is a numbers game, isn't it? This effort is dedicated to facilitating the growing "creation care" segment of evangelicals. Its editors have taken the helpful measure of highlighting (in green) the passages that may tie into environmentalism. While it may seem like an invitation to strange bedfellows, I'm happy to see publishers branch out. Anymore, one need not be a pagan to care about the biosystem. If you're not going to turn to science, what other options do you have?

And then there's Dag Söderberg, "project leader" for the glossy Swedish periodical, “Bible Illuminated, Gamla Testament: The Book.” He's created a magazine, aimed at the masses who are more likely to flip through a monthly left lying open on the coffee table. Söderberg and company have "sexed up" the Bible, breaking it up into easily-digested parts, and placing provocative images throughout. Luckily for those of us who are constrained to the English language, there are plans for a translation. There's even going to be a sequel... the New Testament is due to come out soon as well. Who says hipsters can't get down with the Holy Spirit? The Bible is not just for hypocritical fundamentalists anymore!

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Saxby Chambliss Allowed to Continue Poisoning DC.

I'm sure that you've heard by now that Saxby Chambliss won his Georgian run-off election to retain his US Senate seat. He actually beat his rival Jim Martin by 15 points- a much larger win than during the general election, when he failed to achieve the necessary 50% of the vote to avoid the "do-over". With that victory, the Republicans have finally achieved what they fought so hard for during this past voting cycle. The GOP has been able to avoid a supermajority of Democrats in the Upper House. That means that the filibuster is still in play for these obstructionists. Now their opponents will need to sway someone from their side in order to attain cloture, and force votes on controversial legislation.

I can't say that this was particularly unexpected. It was quite clear before November 4th that the Dems had a long road to 60 seats. Still I can't help being a little disappointed. It looked for a minute like they had a shot. Franken and Coleman have been running neck-and-neck in the Minnesotan recount, and the party seemed to have resources to sink into the Georgian race. The ironic thing is that if the Democrats could have foreseen that they were going to get this close to complete dominance, they might have looked a lot harder for a stronger candidate than Jim Martin. Apparently the best thing he had going for him was that he wasn't Saxby Chambliss. Obviously that wasn't enough without Obama's long coattails.

The thing is that I really wanted Chambliss to lose for reasons quite apart from the larger partisan politics. The guy is clearly an asshole. He only occupies his place in Washington because he smeared Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland in 2002. What's so galling is that Chambliss is just another chicken hawk within the "Patriot Party". He scored five deferments to stay out of Southeast Asia, and still had the nerve to attack Cleland for voting against a homeland security bill. His campaign actually produced an ad that associated Cleland with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Even John McCain stepped forward to criticize the spot, saying "It's worse than disgraceful, it's reprehensible."

Still that didn't stop McCain from flying down to Georgia to support Chambliss' re-election bid. Apparently the former US congressman is quite connected. Chambliss is one of several GOP lawmakers to publicly return money he received from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He was one of the only senators in history to gain a chairmanship on a full standing committee within his first two years of assuming office. That position (head of Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry) seemed to present a conflict of interest, as his son Bo Chambliss is a lobbyist for a commodities firm in Chicago that is under its legislative jurisdiction. I guess that it's just "all in the family" for this notorious southern clan.

Chambliss is fairly typical of many of the Republican politicians that swept into DC in 1994 under Newt Gingrich's congressional leadership. He's a social conservative, and he's corrupt. The ACLU gave him a 17% rating on civil rights. The National Educational Association gave him an "F". On organized labor issues, he has earned a score of 11%. He's terrible on the environment... a fact that likely explains why the GOP wants him working on our nation's forests. All of this makes him a natural for the Deep South. It's just too bad that the Democrats couldn't capitalize on the unique congruence of factors that prevailed in the recently concluded election. Perhaps Georgia would have actually enjoyed a change in their national representation. It will be many years before they see another such opportunity.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

December 2008 Unblurred.

The first Friday of the month is just about here, and you know what that means... free drinks! Actually, there are quite a lot of folks that exert great effort to put together local art events, and they deserve more than for you to just show up and cadge their alcohol. Remember- someone had to pay for it. Take the time and enjoy the work while you're stuffing your face.


December Unblurred is upon us, and it looks like just about every available venue is planning something. As always I'm just going to hit upon the highlights as I see them, but I encourage you to check out everything. Personal aesthetics differ wildly, and you may find a favorite that I don't even mention.

I'm personally excited to see that Laura Jean McLaughlin is returning with a group show at Clay Penn (5111 PENN AVE). She's been busy the last several months, and I've missed using her gallery/work space as a home base for these events. I'm not sure who will be involved (besides the very talented painter Victoria Cessna), but I like a lot of the artists she shows. At the other side of the street Carolyn Wenning is opening her SPACE (4823 PENN AVE) after a stint of public inactivity. She's billing the evening as an "open studio", and promising "music, food, and fun".

Garfield Artworks (4931 PENN AVE) is featuring two old hands- figurative painter Evan Knauer, and post-hippie photographer David Harris. To say that these vets are seasoned is an understatement. This is a must-see exhibit for the night. Together these artists represent decades of experience in the local arts scene. As they are both rather "old school", neither of them have much of an internet presence, so you have to come and see the work in person.

Meanwhile Modern Formations (4919 PENN AVE) is offering up Kathryn Cole's “Bits and Pieces of a Place”. Cole was the winner of the gallery's annual juried salon show, during which scenesters got to choose a contributor that should be offered a solo. Over the years a lot of quality artists have been introduced through these exhibitions, and I have no reason to suspect this will be any exception. Cole uses found scraps of metal to construct unique assemblages.

Finally I want to highlight this excerpt from Grace Morrow and Ronn Akins' joint statement about their show at Imagebox (4933 PENN AVE) : "Through various mediums, simple and complex patterning, they search for that connection, that spark that holds us one to another and tells us: we are not alone; we are part of each other; we are part of everything that is; WE ARE!" Can you really afford to miss that?


You can get a jump on your holiday shopping by making a visit to Moxie Dada on the North Side (1416 Arch Street). The Firehouse Studios (the group of artists who do their work above the gallery itself) have a wide assortment of ceramics and jewelry for sale. The reception for "We've been Good" runs from 6-9PM.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"Kramer's Ergot #7" Book Tour @ Brillobox.

In terms of traveling performers, Pittsburgh has long been sort of a flyover town (or perhaps more appropriately a drive-by destination). For regional and national bands, this has largely been the result of a prohibitive entertainment tax that makes it a bit more difficult for smaller acts to make a stop. Various fanatics have had to travel to Cleveland, DC, and/or Philly to catch their favorites live. While it can be fun to make a road trip, this situation is a bit of a black mark on the city's cultural scene. Considering the relatively low cost of living in town, it's also incongruous. It's hard to make an exact assessment of how this affects local artists, but I'd guess it dampens interest in general.

Fortunately not everybody makes a wide berth around the 'Burgh. Apparently some entertainers wouldn't even consider skipping the Steel City. Such is the case with a small group of rather obscure comics artists who will be appearing at the Brillobox (4104 Penn Ave) tomorrow night. The visit marks the release of a collection of work called Kramer's Ergot 7, the latest in a series of annual publications that showcases the cutting edge of alt comics. A varying selection of creators will be appearing to promote the new book. They are making a limited tour of eight American cities, including L.A., NYC, Baltimore, Toronto, Chicago, Providence, and Montreal. Certainly our hometown is in rarefied company.

I imagine that the significance of this event will elude most people. After all, there are still some among us that believe that the comics form is limited to men in tights and newspaper strips. But the fact is that if you are interested in drawing, the place to see the best modern practitioners is probably at your local neighborhood independent comics store. In our case that is the Copacetic Comics Company (1505 Asbury Place, 15217), the Squirrel Hill establishment that is sponsoring tomorrow's activities. Proprietor Bill Boichel has been providing our area with the finest comic product for a couple of decades, and it is a tribute to his knowledge and good taste that the Kramer's Ergot folks have graced us with their presence.

Truly some of the best cartoonists of the modern age will be around to promote KE7. Naturally series editor Sammy Harkham will be present. Without his tireless efforts, this showcase wouldn't even exist. But he has somehow convinced a number of outstanding contributors to join him, including Kevin Huizenga, John Pham, Ron Regé, Jr., Frank Santoro, and Matthew Thurber. If you are not familiar with these guys, you really ought to do some net surfing. In a way, I envy you, because I realize the stimulating discoveries that you are about to make. On the other hand, if you are already a fan of alt comics, then you know the incredible quality that these artists deliver. These are not minor players.

So what's the occasion? If there have been six Kramer's Ergot collections previously, why is this the first national tour featuring an impressive lineup? Well, this edition dwarfs the previous books in the series... literally. Its size is 16" x 21", and intended to reference the Sunday paper comic sections that are so reverentially remembered by connoisseurs of the medium. It includes a spectrum of the best artists working today, including luminaries like Matt Groening, Dan Clowes, Kim Deitch, Seth, Adrian Tomine, and Chris Ware. And it's virtually all-new, with individual pieces specifically created for the unusual format size. As Bill says, "The equally amazing renaissance that comics is currently undergoing will likely come to be symbolized in some fashion by this very volume of Kramers Ergot." You don't want to miss this event.

*This stop on the KE7 National Book Tour is open to all ages this Thursday, December 4th, 2008, from 5pm - 9pm @ Brillobox (4104 Penn Avenue). There will be additional local creators and products available at the event, including items from Unicorn Mountain and Encyclopedia Destructica. So bring your cash, suckas.

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