Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pittsburgh Art Happenings: 1/30-31/09.

Due to an unusual amount of chaos in my life, I haven't been entirely accurate in my predictions for what I might do during the weekends. I have listed a number of events over the past couple weeks that I may have had the best intentions of attending, only to find myself waylaid by life's surprises. But somehow I feel grounded if I continue to identify potential highlights, so I'm going to forge ahead and mention a few places where I may be found over the next couple of days.


If you didn't go to the opening reception for "The Big Hang-Up" at the Zombo Gallery, you do get another shot to see the work at the closing (6-11PM). Michael's happy about the nice turn out and some "groovy" sales, so it's an ideal time to drop by and say "hi!". Maybe you'll even run across Jason Woolslare, who I am told has been offered a future solo on the strength of the work he contributed to this show. And if you get bored, Stinky's is across the street.

Fe Gallery has finally moved on from the rigors of planning, organizing, and executing their huge survey of local art. Now the gallery features the work of just one artist- Joshua Space. I don't know what kind of work he does, and I can't find a lot of documentation on the web, so all I can do is alert your attention to the opening on Friday night from 7-9PM. At least you heard about it somewhere...

I haven't been to the Society for Contemporary Craft (2100 Smallman Street) in awhile. That's mostly due to the fact that their last exhibition opened more than six months ago. With that kind of manufactured anticipation, the joint reception (5:30-8:00PM) for Bridge 10 (the three solo exhibitions opening this month) carries an air of heightened importance. Robert Briscoe (clay), Tom Loeser (furniture) and Christina Y. Smith (small metals) are the featured artists.

Friday and Saturday

People that know me well are aware that I don't go to see films in theaters. You can't smoke, there is always someone nearby doing something irritating, and no one will pause the movie if you have to go to the bathroom. Why not stay home and watch something on your own terms? Occasionally there is something so compelling that I have to go out to see it, and it's usually a work that I have little hope of seeing issued on DVD. Such is the case with "Fear(s) of the Dark", a collection of animated shorts focused on presenting the disturbing, the thrilling and the haunting. I don't recognize many of the creators, but Charles Burns is among them. That alone justifies the $7 ticket price at Melwood Filmmakers in Oakland (showtimes 7:30 and 9:30 both nights). As a bonus, Bill Boichel (of Copacetic Comics) will be on hand live on Saturday to introduce the production.


In these trying economic times, we can expect to see all sorts of different approaches to selling art in the Pittsburgh region. Joan Barenbregge over at Élan Gallery (427 Broad Street, Sewickley) has decided to forge ahead with a series of monthly art auctions. The first of the series occurs this weekend. Show up Saturday morning between 9-10AM to preview the work, and bid on your favorites from 10AM-3PM.

And finally... Encyclopedia Destructica is releasing their latest book: Make Your Own Truth, which contains work by Jonathan Brodsky, Juliacks, Paus Akid, Alberto Almarza, Josh Atlas, and Rick Gribenas. As a bonus they have included some prints documenting some pretty fancy powerpoint presentations. To celebrate this issuance, they have an event at the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery on the Carnegie-Mellon campus, starting at 5:30PM. Get there on time and you won't miss the presentation of their "Flying Destructucate Award" to the aforementioned Brodsky.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Absurdity of a Late Lunch.

Wednesday was the first time I ever ate cheese fries and chili dogs in an examination room at a gynecologist's office. Is that hard to believe? Maybe so, but it happened. Before you start wondering, I'll explain right off the bat that there wasn't any particular emergency. I could have stayed at home with E. (daycare was closed), but M. didn't want to drive on the icy roads, such as they were. So we all got bundled up for a cross-town jaunt to a hospital complex I had never even noticed. I can't say I was specifically enthused about going, yet it did make a certain kind of sense to have me behind the wheel. The main problem was my hunger, as I had chosen not to eat before we left. I had taken an early walk instead.

After we made it to the destination and found parking in the indoor garage, and checked in with the receptionist, I sat down and realized that I needed something to eat. The doctors were at lunch and we anticipated that it might be awhile before M. was in for her appointment. It was easily apparent that I was going to be cranky until I had something in my stomach. I got the go-ahead from M., and I didn't waste any time getting underway. I stepped outside onto Federal Street and looked for an eatery. I passed a fried fish-and-chips place, and decided quickly against stopping with the foresight that it would have been an alimentary disaster. The last thing I needed was to be sick for a couple more days.

Next I was tempted by a delectable image on an advertisement in the window of the Pizza Hut. Who knew that they now offered macaroni-and-cheese with REAL bacon? Unfortunately, after a quick surveillance, I realized that there was nowhere to sit while waiting for an order. Plus I had no idea what the hell else I could get to go along with the the mac-and-cheese. I don't like that chain pizza. My quandary deepened as I ran out of options on the "institutional" side of the street. I'd have to venture across Federal St. to the ramshackle independent "eateries" on the degraded side. Even getting over there was a bit of a hassle, with the rain and the sleet and the ice. I hit the opposite curb and skirted an open pit in the sidewalk.

There were four joints lined up in a row, as if the crumbling strip they inhabited meant to serve as a desperate bulwark against the corporate onslaught of homogenized "progress". And I felt a tiny bit guilty about my skepticism as I passed each in turn. These were the hauntings of the "Old North Side", their habitués presenting vague possibilities of danger in their poverty and "otherness". But surely employees at the hospital frequented these places as well? They looked dirty and unkempt under the gloom of the Pittsburgh winter. My appetite dictated that I make a quick choice and throw the weight of a potentially foolhardy confidence behind the search. As you already know, I chose a hot dog shop.

Ironically there were two businesses in that cluster that served hot dogs as the main attraction. My decision was based upon the way that the words "Steve's New York Style Hot Dogs" were painted on the window. They had a cleanly rendered traditional script that I found inviting. The cook was a young man of few words, and he was assisted by an older woman that spoke on the phone in alternating languages. The two worked methodically, and the food was simply prepared. How bad could it be? After what seemed like ten minutes, I grabbed my bagged lunch and went back to join M. in the waiting room. I had just set the messy conglomeration of junk on my lap when the nurse called us in. I managed to avoid spilling stuff everywhere.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Confirmation Hearings.

To say that I have completely disengaged national politics since the election would be untrue. While I certainly don't spend nearly as much time following the intricacies in the halls of federal power as I did at the beginning of last autumn, I am still trying to keep my ear to the ground for the rumblings that may kick up significant dust. Barack Obama has now been president for a week, and I'm aware that he has indeed fulfilled his promise to get off to an active start. Michael Savage was on air last night trying to make the case that our new president is abusing his right to pass executive orders. He seems to think that the six times Obama has used the tool is some kind of record. I'm not going to do his homework for him by verifying the validity of the claim.

During Bush's reign there were a number of executive orders that generated controversy. It would be interesting to see an enterprising professional journalist do a side-by-side comparison of Bush and Obama in that regard. But lately my interest has been drawn more by the ongoing discussion about the President's cabinet appointees. The big three so far, as far as I'm concerned, have been Hillary Clinton, Tim Geithner, and Eric Holder. Hillary was bound to escape much of the nasty criticism and attention she might have drawn had she not been appropriated as the Conservative pundits' poster child for opposition to Obama's candidacy last year. Remember Operation Chaos and all those silly right-wingers with their 'I heart" Clinton sock puppets?

Meanwhile former president of the New York Federal Reserve Tim Geithner seemed like an incredibly cautious choice for Treasury Secretary. He was widely seen as non-partisan, and had significant support from many financial and political quarters. While he did draw some flak for his role as a key adviser in the Wall Street Meltdown Crisis, he managed to come off as an establishment guy that might just have the answers to get the nation out of the mess that had been brewing for years. No one expected anything else but a quick and uncomplicated Senate confirmation hearing that would be more ceremonial than investigative. And then information about Geithner's tax evasion in the early part of this decade came to light.

Geithner was able to weather the controversy, but he emerged into his position with more bruises than anyone really expected. Sure, it's a bit ironic to hear a bunch of Republicans whine about a guy who didn't particularly relish the idea of paying federal taxes, but this is more of an issue of strict adherence to rules than concordance of basic philosophies. Perhaps Geithner would be hailed as a hero (on the Right) for his past foibles if he were a Bush appointee? It's all a bit beside the point anyway, as he was ushered into the Obama administration officially by a 60-34 senate vote. Still he could end up being a black mark on the President's economic recovery program should things not work out in an ideal fashion (which they won't).

Now we can expect to see the Eric Holder saga taking center stage in the upcoming media cycle. Obama's nomination for Attorney General has been called on the carpet to justify his participation in the Clinton pardon of Democratic campaign contributor Mark Rich. A fact not likely to receive much media play is that Holder first attained the federal bench via appointment by former President Ronald Reagan. Similarly, conservative pundits and skeptics (like Arlen Specter) are likely to gloss over the fact that George W. Bush used Holder as the acting Attorney General in 2001, while awaiting the confirmation of super-dolt John Ashcroft. And finally, the same critics probably won't bring up Holder's encouragement of the strong independent counsel that Janet Reno set in motion, resulting in a an impeachment hearing for the last Dem president. Washington can always rely on an awfully short institutional memory.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

And Round and Round I go....

I have to step up and admit that I've lately become a bit of a slacker when it comes to the written word. In the first two years of keeping this blog, I think I missed posting on about six different days. That was in keeping with a structured goal I had in mind... I wanted to write 365 days straight. That was the sum total of my aims and ambitions with Serendipity. When I hit that standard, I felt like I had the momentum to keep it going, and I did so. It became a routine part of my daily life. There was something about the habit that grounded me to a certain way of living- call it the "examined life", if that's not too pretentious. It was a running commentary on my very existence.

Now I have accumulated something in the neighborhood of 930 posts. I'm pushing forward to a 'magical' four digit number as if it meant some kind of extraordinary achievement. But ultimately it's a completely arbitrary number. Let me just say that I have written a lot. If I had paper copies of all my entries, the sheer bulk of it would likely seem wondrous to me. And yet it's not so easy to figure out if the totality is in any way greater than the sum of the parts. It's never been particularly clear what value it all holds for either me or whatever readers have made a point of slogging through it. It has loomed over my life in some continually accruing mass. Perhaps it's become unwieldy.

If it sounds like I am mulling over the prospect of the end of Serendipity, then I guess my phrasing is doing its proper job. Nothing goes on forever. Before I even started this online stuff, I kept a written journal. Within it I kept a record of all the people I spent time with, and listed the activities that made up my day. I imagine that 90% of it would be interminably boring for a stranger to read. To be honest with you, I haven't reread much of it at all. Still I kept up that practice for years. Eventually I got to wondering about its purpose. It felt a bit like pissing in the wind. At the same time, its physical reality presented an artifact that could be picked up and read by anyone without the scruples to leave it alone.

I guess I started feeling like I wanted an audience. After I began the blog, I kept up with the journal-writing for awhile. But eventually the demands of both seemed overwhelming, and I stopped keeping a personalized account of my life. It was sad to let that go, but I was excited about the demands that writing for a public, anonymous audience entailed. I even had intentions of using this platform to publicize my artistic pursuits. Obviously the project morphed into something altogether different. Part of that had to do with the feeling that I had to protect myself by writing under a pseudonym. There are limits to this forum that sometime seem constraining.

I wanted to make every effort to avoid the kind of self-referential, introspective crap that you are reading right now. On the other hand, this is what I want to comment on. Part of me feels like I am increasingly at risk of repeating myself. The daily involvement with this blog has been an important part of the process for me. It has lent a structure and discipline to my writing that I wouldn't have acquired otherwise. Still, perhaps the process has outlived its utility. I'm really not sure yet. So why do I see a need to to incorporate these concerns into a post? One day (it could be soon, or years from now) Serendipity might just stop without warning. I hope when it does, it is with appropriate intention.


Friday, January 23, 2009

A World of Our Own Devising.

Today I woke up in a strange state fueled by staying up past my bedtime last night. For some reason my left thumb felt jammed, as if it was jutting askew somehow while I slept. No doubt my mood was enhanced by whatever remnants of a sinus infection that remained with me. And then too, the dream I actually remember having was filled with tension, and my heart was racing for a good hour after I woke. I'm not in the habit of recalling the activities of my subconscious, especially those that originate in its most unfettered condition. Yet the images and the scenario rolling through overnight lingered like the afterimage of a flash bulb smack dab at the front of my brain.

In that dream I encountered a home invasion by some large creep that seemed familiar but was still wholly unrecognizable. He meant to kill me and I knew it. Different versions of the situation played themselves out one after another. Perhaps there was a large, sharp knife involved. I can say for a fact that I had the impression that this man was singularly demented. And each time it seemed I was rid of him, I had the feeling that he would be back. Of course, the dream state is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If someone were to make one pause in the middle of the narrative, it would be no problem making an easy prediction of what would happen once back in the REM state.

Somewhere in the recesses of my youth, someone told me that if you die in your dream, then you risk doing the same in your daily life. I suspect it may have been Wes Craven who got that canard to stick. Obviously- if that were true, there would be legions of people dying nightly in their sleep for no good apparent reason. Maybe I was suspicious of this Old Wives' tale for awhile, but eventually I resolved to test the theory. I must have figured a cliche would be the safest way to find out for sure. I took a header off of some high place and fell and fell, and then made myself hit the solid surface at the bottom of whatever descent I had chosen. All it did was end the dream. I don't know if I woke up right away.

So I've experienced death on both sides in my shadow existence. Yes, I've made it a point to kill someone in a dream as well. That's probably the most appropriate and effective way to exorcise psychic demons. I recommend that you try it one day. Just prepare yourself ahead of time to compartmentalize. Whatever reverberations that emanate from that kind of violence will manifest themselves very differently in waking hours. There's no need for excessive stress or guilt. You didn't do anything wrong, because you make your own laws while you are alone with your dreams. And if you decide later on that you acted hastily or in a presumptuous manner, you can always bring your victim back.

Ultimately it's a matter of perspective. People don't realize the extent of control that they actually have. Remember that you have the prerogative to define backwards. History is always a retrospective, and there is no compelling reason to constrain yourself with narrow definitions. There's no way to get around the fact that we don't get to construct all of our own rules in our consensual reality. However, that doesn't mean that you have to let anyone else dictate your experiences during that one third (or so) of your life when you are asleep. The monsters will inevitably visit you... they may take any disturbing form you are able to imagine, but remember that they are of your own creation.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pittsbugh Art Happenings: 1/23-24/09

We're going to get a bit of a break in the weather, if we are to believe local weather forecasters. Perhaps the warmer temperatures will even stretch into Friday night. That would be ideal for those of you who have intentions of heading downtown tomorrow night for the seasonal Downtown Gallery Crawl. This time Cultural Trust organizers had the good sense not to plan their event to conflict with other First Friday activities around town. As a result, art appreciators don't have to make too many hard choices about what to miss. Naturally there are a few options that don't involve having to deal with the Golden Triangle- but if you plan it right, you may be able to hit them as well.


The Miller Gallery at CMU (Purnell Center for the Arts, 5000 Forbes Ave) hosts a "Winter Harvest Reception" (6-8PM) for Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s, a collection of "posters, photographs, moving images, audio clips, and ephemera" documenting various international social movements spanning four decades. The exhibition is guest curated by Dara Greenwald + Josh MacPhee. In keeping with the spirit of the content, Artists Image Resource and the Andy Warhol Museum will be demonstrating live screen printing.

Downtown Gallery Crawl

During the last Crawl, Wood Street Galleries (601 Wood Street, above the "T") featured a line of people waiting outside the transit station for the elevator that provides the only access into the space. Despite the recommendations of several friends that said the work inside was "not to be missed", I refused to spend half of my night at one destination. Perhaps Chico MacMurtrie's 16 Birds and Inflatable Architectural Body won't present the same logistical nightmare. Having a look at his site, I kind of doubt it. Still, the images there do suggest that it would be worth a little bit of trouble to experience it in person.

Meanwhile, you can check out a survey of architectural images presented by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) at SPACE (812 Liberty Avenue). Those folks are encouraging visitors to come on down and vote for their favorite Pittsburgh buildings. 707 Penn has a sound installation comprised of remixes of Ramones tunes, and 709 Penn is offering Puppets, Wood Cuts, and Installation by Amy Trompetter. 937 Liberty has stuff on all three of its floors, including the Brew House Distillery Artists: A Sense of Place, photography by Tim Fabian and Bryan Conley, and a celebration of Latin American Culture (read: food! art! music!).

As always, there is lots of other stuff to stumble upon... much of which I have no comment on. I do want to mention ArtUp @820 Liberty, which is featuring Gritty 250: the Art of Work in Pittsburgh- ostensibly a recognition of this town's labor heritage.

Friday and Saturday

There's a relatively new venue in East Liberty that I have yet to attend. Art Dimensions Gallery (6000 Penn Avenue) has invited local artists to use vinyl records to create works for a juried show. Unlike most open calls for submissions, this solicitation included the prospect of winning prizes in two categories- paintings applied directly to the records and 3D or "multidimensional" creations incorporating vinyl. Festivities start tomorrow (from 3-8PM), including comedy, spoken word, and live musical performances. On Saturday evening (7PM-2AM) the prizes will be awarded, and there will be another full program of entertainment.


Come on down to the Double Wide (2339 East Carson Street) at 9:30PM, to witness the postponed screening of Race with the Devil. I assure you... you don't want to miss this one.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Woe is Me.

Last November I wrote a post about my experience staying home with Baby E. during the day. I noted how difficult it could be trying to figure out what he needs and when. If I was his full-time caretaker, I expect I would have already developed a kind of sixth sense for individualized maintenance. Perhaps I'd know how to decode his vocalizations, so that I could tell when he was hungry, tired, wet, or in pain. As it is, I'm confined mostly to a clumsy guesswork and my limited powers of perception. I can muddle through with process of elimination, and usually get him to stop crying about half the time. Otherwise he eventually gets so exhausted that he poops out. That's a very shallow victory.

As hard as it was several months ago to assume responsibility for E., it's been even harder during the last couple days. Because this time around I'm just as much (or more) sick than he is. Over this past weekend he developed nasty ear infections in both of his ears, and these afflictions caused him obvious pain that could only be addressed with baby Motrin. For those not familiar, this version of Ibuprofen is administered with an oral syringe. It must taste fairly good, because it's been extraordinarily easy to get E. to swallow it. The only real problem with the product is determining how much to give him. There is a chart on the packaging that lists doses for age and weight. Unfortunately our kid has already far outstripped the weight limitations.

Still, to some extent, this over-the-counter medication has been our salvation. Not only does it seem to take the edge off of E.'s suffering, but it also controls the fever spikes that he is vulnerable to with ear infections. No matter how many times a parent hears that he/she need not worry too much until baby's temperature hovers at 104 degrees, that's a hard number for us to process. I've had that high a reading when I was in college, and it meant that I was close to death. It seems like one more nasty trick devised to keep breeders anxious about their progeny. I'm not the type to necessarily get caught up in the "miracle of life", but I do find it amazing what these little beings can take.

If there's a single issue that has become particularly pressing, now that I have seen over a full year of my child's life, it is the daycare issue. The strains it places on child-rearing can be formidable in a number of ways. Obviously, first and foremost, there is the potentially prohibitive monetary cost. People have to make an assessment of their income streams to decide whether or not it makes more sense to have one parent stay at home, rather than spend around eight hundred dollars per month to have strangers look after their child in a group setting fraught with bacteria and resistant forms of virus. Given the state of the current economy, and projections for its future, stay-at-home parenthood is likely to experience a decline in frequency.

However, even once an adequate facility can be identified that meets minimum standards and falls within one's budget, parents still need to arrange some sort of backup for the occasion when their child is too sick to attend daycare. M. and I are both fortunate and unlucky when it comes to this requirement. Our sick days do accrue, and carry over from year-to-year. Although M. used all of her store after E. was first born, I still have a surplus left (meaning that I have now become the go-to nursemaid). But neither of us have family available locally to fill in the gaps when we can't take off, or are too sick to do a proper job ourselves. I can only imagine what single parents must go through trying to raise a kid in this day-and-age.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Day in the Life of a Nation.

By the time you read this, there will be a new President of the United States. It seems almost absurdly surreal to type that sentence and read it as it appears on the monitor. Personally, this fact alone would be cause for much satisfaction. I've made it pretty clear over the life of this blog that I've been no fan of George W. Bush. Just like the man himself said about a week ago, there have been disappointments during his two terms in office. That's a particularly egregious understatement- actually Bush's "disappointments" have helped foment this nation's impending depression. There is no way to encapsulate all that has happened over the last eight years. I'm sure all readers can make a list if they are so inclined.

Despite the administration's string of missteps staggered along this first decade of the Twentieth century, I have managed to advance my own life. The individualist strain of the American character certainly suggests that this is possible regardless of anything happening on the national stage. We're not supposed to make excuses for the trajectory of our own existences. I have been lucky enough to be able to take responsibility for my own outcomes. Yet while it is true that everyone has a degree of opportunity to chart his/her own course, I think it would be a mistake to imagine that all US citizens have been blessed equally. A cursory look through our country's history should clearly indicate otherwise.

Obviously social inequities have not been limited to factors such as race, gender, and ethnicity. I am a white man born of Christian extraction. That puts me within a demographic that has been historically most likely to reach the upper echelons of the power structure of the United States. However that doesn't mean that everyone with similar circumstances has the same potential. Some of the nation's poorest are to be found among those of Scots-Irish extraction living in the Appalachian region. I've driven through areas that feature tar paper shacks and outhouses. To see things like that is to doubt one's place in time. It's a mistake to draw conslusions about others simply based upon externally visible characteristics.

Still I can't help but acknowledge what Barack Hussein Obama's inauguration will mean to largely disenfranchised segments of the population. Walk into any public school history class, and you are likely to see a series of portraits representing every person ever to hold the presidency. It's hard to miss the homogeneity in their collective appearance. There are no women, no Latinos, no Asians, no Native Americans... nor are there any blacks. As strange as it may seem to those of us adults who sat in classrooms adorned with such images, the basic picture is going to change. And if an African-American can be added to the ranks of this club, then it seems to expand the range of possibility for everyone.

For me, today is probably not going to be substantially different than any other ordinary Tuesday. I'll follow my customary routine, and mark the passing of another workday. Unlike more than a million of my fellow countrymen/women, I'm not going to journey to DC to see the swearing in of our new Commander-in-Chief. I'm not going to join the crowds that are swelling the Capitol to witness this historical event. But like legions of folks dotting the American landscape, I'm going to devote some time to reflect upon this moment in our story. We are living through a time of extraordinary upheaval and challenge. Without succumbing to melodrama, it's possible to say that President Obama will have an unprecedented chance to make a difference.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Because I don't have enough to do...

If you checked into Serendipity this past weekend hoping to see a post, I heartily apologize. And I'm almost (but not quite) embarrassed to explain to you the reason for that neglect. I joined a rather infamous "social networking" site early Friday morning (and by morning I mean Thursday night). I was gifted with a block of free time that I had not expected, and going out on "The-Day-That-Wasn't-a-Day-Until-It-Was"- Eve just wasn't compelling. So I found myself in front of the computer wondering what to kill some time with. Several of my friends had recently told me about their involvement with the aforementioned time-suck, and although I was warned against it, I gave into my lesser Gods and registered my own page.

I don't know if I opened Pandora's Box or plugged into a nodal web of useful and fun association, and I'm sure I won't be able to make that call for some unspecified period- but I can report having been drawn in by its novelty. Like most other people who have found themselves on this particular site, I never realized I had so many "friends". Don't get me wrong... I'm pleased. After all, I am a bit of an egoist. Let me bathe in a wave of validation at high tide. I recognize the forces that exist that make it recede in due course. I also realize that this process leaves all sorts of detritus washed up along the shoreline. It makes me think of folks bringing that shit home with them and trying to hear the sounds of the surf.

Anyway, enough of the flowery pseudo-poetics... the truth is that I have gotten the chance to touch base with people I haven't seen or talked to in years. That's worth something. Now if it actually results in a face-to-face with one of my old friends, then the effort will have been worth it. I've never bought into this kind of thing before. My eminently wise friend refers to this platform as "trite-book", and I can understand why. One part of me doesn't give a fuck what you are having for dinner. On the other hand maybe I can get you to send me some leftovers. I also believe this could be an effective way to get the word out about local events. We'll see. I'm not sure that people have realized the full capabilities of this crazy machine.

What I haven't given much thought to is what kind of information is being sold to sponsors of this operation. I don't understand the income streams with these online applications. No doubt the individual who invented this specific network is now very wealthy. But by what means? Alternatively, I get a kick out of imagining government agents trying to get useful data out of analyzing who is connected with who. There's no obvious ranking system to identify those relationships that are deeper or more meaningful than others. The guy you used to see at the corner bar fifteen years ago is interchangeable with your bestest friend. What does it actually mean that someone is on your list?

Ultimately this is one more tool with which to negotiate our increasingly complex existences. The purpose we attribute to it is internally generated. All the technology and access in the world will not be wholly sufficient in providing the depth and creativity necessary to make the difference in our lives. It can be the writing on the wall, or the piss in the pot, depending on our orientation. And finally, maybe it's nothing so novel at all. Perhaps this is just one more effort at tribalism... not that it's necessarily a "bad" thing. Sometimes it's nice to know who is on our "side", even if it such a superficial gesture.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Pittsburgh Art Events 1/16-17/09.

Cold, cold, cold. But that doesn't mean you can't get in your car and engage the city. Personally, I know I'll develop a nagging sense of cabin fever before the day is out. I'm going to eschew my daily walk due to the inclement weather. I've finally met my lower limit in terms of temperature. So if you're like me, and need your fix of external stimuli... here are just a few ideas for you. I apologize that this is a bit late. I've been distracted.

Friday (tonight)

Laurie Mancuso is back on the scene curating a show at the CMU-affiliated downtown space, Future Tenant (819 Penn Avenue). I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Mancuso's productions, given that she gave my drawings their first proper showing at the long-defunct Arrow Gallery back in the day. Anyway, the opening tonight (6PM) is called "Sworn In", and I'll give you two guesses what the theme of the show is. The featured artists include folks based in Baltimore, New York, Rhode Island, and Braddock. Make politics personal with a jaunt to the Golden Triangle.

If the abstract is more to your taste, local guild (?) Group A is having a group show at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, and a reception lasts from 6-9 PM tonight. A close source tells me that photographer Mark Panza is an invited guest. Meanwhile Paper Radian Jacob Ciocci is the "guest curator". I was a bit surprised to see that particular name come up in this context, and it makes me want to make a special effort to see what's on offer. Expect to see work by Tim Fabian, Connie Cantor, Jill Larson, etc.

Maybe you have the energy to frequent the South Side on a Friday? The weather should keep some of the numb-nuts ensconced in their suburban sanctuaries. The Brew House (the corner of 21st and Mary Street) is opening "Yes, Thank You". Its organizers are using the rampant sense of contemporary millenarianism to entice visitors to this event, and at the same time claiming that it represents "An affirmation in a time of crisis". It should be interesting to see how they untie that Gordian Knot. Tom Eslack put it together. IUP graduate Aimee Manion is participating.


As any artist living in Pittsburgh knows, there are few collectors worth their salt around town. In my experience, Nathan Nissim ranks up there with the more open-minded and thoughtful of this group. Tomorrow (5PM) at Trinity Gallery (4747 Hatfield Street, Lawrenceville), Nissim demonstrates his creativity and sense of humor with a collection of assemblage pieces entitled "Guns, Women, Phalluses". I'll be looking forward to seeing the choices Nissim makes as a creator.

Yeah...yeah, I know. I don't usually blog music events. It's not that I have anything particularly against the medium, but it's not where my attentions are usually directed. Still I'll give a quick shout-out to a classic rock band tribute happening at Howler's on Saturday. I've never attended this kind of thing in my life... yet still, something tells me this might just possible be worth seeing. No... it's not a Menudo reunion... but rather "Maximum Who-Phoria". What can I say about this, other than Amoeba Knievel is on the bill?


No movie tonight. Come next week at 9:30PM for "Race with the Devil" You know what I'm talkin' 'bout.


Is Jim Rettinger having a 2D exhibition on Martin Luther King's Day at the Rex Theater
(1602 E Carson St)? That's what he says...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fun-and-games at the Grocery Store.

M. has decided that it's a big help for me to accompany her and Baby E. when they go to the grocery store. It just so happened that this past Saturday's weather forecast seemed to suggest treacherous road conditions, and cabin fever looked to be a distinct possibility. Ordinarily I would have no interest in going to the local strip mall during a weekend afternoon, but I knew that it made sense in our circumscribed world. We bundled up the tyke and set off, me driving at about half the speed I would normally attain due to passengers and ice. Naturally there was a hint of slip on the road and people were already driving like idiots. I don't get drivers who think panic makes them more adept behind the wheel.

When we got to the store I realized that everyone had anticipated the types of difficulties that we had. Perhaps the weather forecast is sponsored by Giant Eagle (I really don't know). There were a lot of folks in the aisles that seemed as oblivious as they probably had been on the streets outside. I'll be forthcoming and admit that whatever attitude I had when I walked through the sliding automatic doors was accentuated by the fact that I had only slept about four hours. I quickly made an executive decision to follow M. around blindly and not try to make any tough decisions. Through hindsight I have determined that this was wise. I would have been completely dazed and over-stimulated otherwise.

My main objective was to find a way to make the trip fun for E. and I. The first thing I focused on was his vocalizations. For some reason, he was especially happy I was along. He kept beaming up at me from his metal bench at the front of the cart. I guess he wanted to let me know about his good mood, as he was shouting out some funny stuff of his own devise. So I thought it was only right to return the favor at an enhanced volume. Perhaps it annoyed some particularly stressed patrons. If so i wasn't aware of it, and I wouldn't have cared regardless. In my condition I felt like E. was speaking my language, and I wanted to make sure there was a dialogue. I know that he appreciated it because we both got progressively louder.

Then I realized that certain customers were actually paying attention to us. Of course I had to start clowning around. In an exaggeratedly solicitous voice I kept asking E. what kind of dog food he wanted. I explained to him that the nuances of flavored mixes, and that he might prefer something with fish in it. Again I knew that he was entertained because he was laughing maniacally by that point. Meanwhile we started getting some strange stares from people. I pointedly asked him if we were all out of Robitussin, and if he had finished the last of it, as I had been too blitzed the night before to remember. The exchange was especially amusing because he had a prominent bruise on his head from daycare that was easy to notice.

Having scandalized the joint already, I decided to mimic stealing stuff off the shelves, hoping E. would take my cue. I even took off his mittens to facilitate the learning process. He was all kicked back with a gangster lean, hand dangling innocuously over the side. We went through the cookie aisle several times. E.'s got the kind of face that makes others love him almost immediately, so our developing scam is especially effective. I just have to figure out how to identify my favorite products for him, and he needs to learn how to hide the more valuable items where no one will look. I figure that we have plenty of time to work on the act. He'll get more wily as he continues to grow into his cuteness. He does indeed make the supermarket fun.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

George Bush's Final Press Conference.

President George W. Bush gave his very last press conference this past Monday. Throughout his time in office, Dubya has made a point of showing his disdain for the national media by giving it few opportunities to substantially question him about national policy. Even when he did appear in front of the press, he was evasive and cocky. Now that he is in his last week as the national executive, he is obviously thinking about his legacy. So he apparently decided to give a handful of reporters an opportunity to help him get a head start in rehabilitating his record. I stumbled across the live coverage by accident. The Q-and-A session was held during lunchtime on a workday. I have no doubt the White House communications director insisted on that.

If you went from being a major world leader with a near-record-high approval rating in the first year of your presidency, to a documented record-low by your last year- would you be eager to stand up and face the nation in prime time? This guy is literally slinking away under the weight of his own failure. He doesn't have much wiggle room to make himself look good. What could he possibly say that would make the average American feel better after the last eight years (besides an acknowledgment that he is leaving)? Certainly there was a bit more than a hint of bloodthirsty anticipation apparent in the tone of some of the journalists lobbing their queries. It was clear that a lot of them felt they deserved a shot or two after two frustrating Bush terms.

Yet I have to give him credit for having a sense of humor. Bush knows how much many of the Washington correspondents dislike him and his administration. And naturally he has a response for that, filled with a complicated mix of hubris and unreflective comedy. In fact this was one of the highlights of the entire press conference as far as I'm concerned- he actually compared himself to Abraham Lincoln, pointing out that the 16th president had plenty of critics too (just like the 43rd). But the funniest thing is that he said that he came about this revelation from reading a lot about Lincoln's presidency. It makes me wonder about the authorship of the literature that passes through Bush's hands.

Still, when the POTUS says that the press often "misunderestimated" me, it does show a certain cognizance of the general level of respect many Americans have for him. No doubt the average citizen could come up with a laundry list of mistakes he/she believes that Mr. Bush has made. And one wouldn't even need to necessarily read books to compile items for that list. That reality makes it especially difficult to understand George Bush's demonstrated inability to assess his own record. At least he has finally come around to identifying the "Mission Accomplished" carrier landing as a "mistake". To wit- "It sent the wrong message. We were trying to say something differently, but nevertheless, it conveyed a different message. Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake.

When it comes to talking about "the enemy', George W. Bush has never had any trouble in using the broadest and most sensational terminology. Yet when it comes to his own actions, he can be a master of understatement. The debacle of Abu Ghraib... the response to Katrina,.. starting a "pe-emptive war on the pretext of WMD that never turned up- these were things (in Dubya's words) that "didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way." Give him credit for realizing that some folks viewed these issues as serious. During the majority of his presidency it was often hard to figure out just what the hell was going through his mind. Some people will insist that he was just plain stupid, but I'm not sure I agree. Either way, I'll leave you with a few other choice cuts from his "ultimate exit interview":

"I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged. It may be damaged amongst some of the elite, but people still understand America stands for freedom, that America is a country that provides such great hope."

"And in terms of the decisions that I had made to protect the homeland, I wouldn't worry about popularity. What I would worry about is the Constitution of the United States, and putting plans in place that makes it easier to find out what the enemy is thinking, because all these debates will matter not if there's another attack on the homeland."

"We had a -- people -- we -- I had a fabulous team around me of highly dedicated, smart, capable people, and we had fun. I tell people that, you know, some days happy, some days not so happy, every day has been joyous."

"And I thank you for giving me a chance to defend a record that I am going to continue to defend, because I think it's a good, strong record."

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

These are the People in My Neighborhood...

It's been about five years since I first moved into my neighborhood, and I am still having difficulties fully engaging it. My (mostly) daily walks have helped a bit, but sometimes they make me feel more alienated than when I first started taking them. I guess I had certain preconceptions about how the place would (or might) develop, and these ideas look more and more naïve with my growing familiarity. Occasionally I'll catch a glimpse of what appears to be a young urbane couple, but for the most part it's mostly peopled with the type that I don't want to spend any of my free time around. This is a real shame because otherwise it has an awful lot to offer as a community.

We chose to move to our area because of the school system... or more precisely because we wanted to avoid sending any of our future kids to the public facilities that reigned in our favorite neighborhood. There's no way we would have moved out of the city proper otherwise. The most desirable sections of the 'burgh are expensive (obviously), and even in those parts the charter and magnet schools seem more desirable than the standard options. So we found the most gritty section of one of the best public school districts in Western PA. M. knew a lot more about it than I did, because her family had once lived there. She knew what we were getting ourselves into, and felt comfortable with it.

I'm moved to reconsider all of this due to an experience I had on my rounds the other night. A friend who lives in the next neighborhood over is looking to rent a space for a studio/collective project. She asked if I could look around and find a suitable place. I really had no idea how to start that search. I figured I could stroll about and look for signs in windows, etc. There are a host of properties that seem enticing, and they also seem to be empty. However there aren't many indications of who owns them, or how I can get in touch with whoever is responsible for managing them. I decided that I would have to ask around to see if anyone had any useful leads.

Unfortunately I don't have current phone numbers for the few folks who might be able to help. So I'm left to strike out blindly and figure out what bystanders might be able to provide assistance. On a whim, I stepped into a bar I had never been in before to get some local expertise. As soon as I entered, I knew I wouldn't get what I was looking for. There were about five guys and a torn-up looking woman at the bar, and everybody swiveled around on their stools to look at me directly. The closest dude started interrogating me before I could even let anyone know why I had interrupted their Monday night "revelries". I can't accurately reconstruct our short conversation, but I will say that he turned out to be the type with no love for the arts.

By the end of our exchange he started making primate gestures in an attempt to assert his alpha male status. To me he was just a fat slab of hick with an unrealistic image of his own potency and a loud mouth, yet that didn't keep him from shaking a bit as he pretended to prepare for a fight. His buddies were much more amiable and tried to calm him. That probably wasn't even necessary, as he was coming off like a melodramatic tweenie preparing for his role in West Side Story. If he truly wanted to fight he would have simply attacked without the show pony antics. Still I had no desire to escalate the situation, so I thanked everybody and walked out. It was absolutely the right move, but I was pissed off enough to imagine coming back with my aluminum bat to remove one virulent stain from my neighborhood.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Dubya's legacy of Peace (?!)

In late 2006 George W. Bush made headlines in Israeli newspapers by publicly stating that he "would understand" if Israel launched attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. It didn't get major play in US media outlets at the time, but hardliners (on both sides) in the Midde East took notice. Even though Condolleeza Rice tried to downplay the comment, Bush's words were interpreted by some as a not-so-subtle approval of opening up a third front on the "War on Terror" (or was that "Axis of Evil"?). Speculation suggested that Bush would "go along" with an initiation of aggression in a preemptive strike to degrade Iran's ability to become a regional power. Obviously it didn't do much for US diplomacy with the Mullahs.

There were some in America that were perversely satisfied with the president's "hardline stance". Many on the Christian Right applauded their hero's willingness to encourage Armageddon. Zionists on the North American continent may have been a bit more circumspect about communicating their pleasure, but the signs indicated their favorable reaction. Certain civilian "thinkers" in the Defense Department licked their lips in anticipation. The war drums beat a trance-like rhythm that made forward momentum almost unavoidable. Yet bad news from the Iraqi front seemed to dampen the spirit, if only among the general population. Soon after the expression of "understanding", the political landscape changed through that year's election.

Now fast-forward to this past Fall, and the presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain. The Fourth Estate finally started doing its job, empowered somehow by Tina Fey and Katie Couric. The subject of possible strikes against Iran became an actual issue that inspired actual questions in an actual debate. Obama expressed his willingness to sit down and talk with the actual leadership of Iran (HINT: he wasn't talking about Ahmadinejad). For this he was mercilessly attacked by both his opponent and the Rightwing echo chamber. Meanwhile he wasn't getting much support from within his own party. No political figure wanted to risk alienating an important constituency capable of helping finance a successful campaign.

While YouTube footage of McCain's version of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" continued to circulate among the discontents, NPR aired an interview between Terry Gross and Robert Baer. I happened to tune in that day and had all my assumptions about power politics in the Middle East challenged. So when McCain tried to batter Obama for his advocacy of "sitting down with our enemies", I paid very close attention. I tried to sort through the bullshit and figure out exactly what the candidates believed about the "threat" of Iran and the structure of influence in the Muslim world. I became acutely afraid that Bush would give the green light to Israel, and a conflagration would erupt. I slept fitfully until I distracted myself with other concerns.

Fortunately for Western civilization, we made it through one alluring window of opportunity for an Israeli raid on Iran. We still have a major issue to confront, but I feel better about our foreign policy direction. However, there's another piece of information that I have to absorb now. This week NPR and NYT are reporting that George W. Bush refused an Israeli request for "bunker busters" that they intended to drop on Iran. I find it ironic that the single greatest possible chance that Bush has for a positive legacy is the result of an inaction. The only way he could have topped that was not to run for the office in the first place. Our outgoing leader is fond of saying that history will be his judge, but I'd like to suggest that he's wrong... the consequences of his actions will stretch well into the future.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Don't Know Much About Afghanistan...

When Russia first invaded Afghanistan I was about 9 years old. I couldn't have told you where the nation was, nor could I have explained its importance to the US or any other country. I didn't even know much about the Soviet Union, other than the fact that they were our "enemy" in something called the "Cold War". That latter term itself was a bit confounding. Did soldiers square off against each other across a great ice field? Was it the manifestation of what our elders warned us about when they referred to Hell freezing over? And what was its opposite? Desert warfare? Now I understand only minimally more about the conflict than I did way back when. I trust that others have done our homework for us.

We (I mean the United States under Barack Obama) are about to refocus our military efforts on this far-flung land. In some ways it seems like we've just left after expelling the Taliban in the wake of 9-11. Yet I know that we never did pull out completely. We've been there for over six years now. That's an abstracted reality, but it's true nonetheless. When the Bush administration was making the case to overthrow the Hussein regime, we were already in Afghanistan. In 2003, when the president touched down on the aircraft carrier for his "Mission Accomplished" press conference, the troops were still there. When everything started going bad in Iraq, the US military maintained its presence in that "other war" quietly.

Do you think that you have any idea what is going on in Afghanistan? I don't. It's a great far Eastern mystery as far as I'm concerned. I know what I'm told. The Taliban is regrouping. People are growing poppies and synthesizing it into opium and heroin. There are warlords, and plenty of children running around with missing limbs. Once in awhile we hear about American soldiers dying there. NFL player Pat Tillman was killed in a shady incident a few years back. We are at war in that country. But what's the mission? What's the objective? Are we building and protecting an oil pipeline? Are we staging operations into Pakistan? Are we still looking for Osama Bin Laden?

Interestingly, a lot of historians identify the first theater of the so-called "War on Terror" as Afghanistan. Bin Laden himself, scion of a wealthy Saudi family of contractors, made a name for himself there resisting the Soviet invasion. The US knows a lot about that, as the intelligence community was active in supporting the Muhajideen, of which Bin Laden was an early bagman. There are still plenty of rusted out old Russian tanks littering the landscape of the Afghan mountains. We've been "successful" in the country several times (or so the story goes). So why do we keep meddling with their affairs? It seems that whatever we achieve must be paid back threefold in pain and sufering.

Did you know that folks within the Afghan communist government actually pleaded with the USSR to send troops into their country? Leonid Brezhnev, who was dying and realized the poor economic state of his nation, didn't like the idea initially but eventually gave in. But first the Soviet Union tried to have the leader* of Afghanistan assassinated. They slipped poison into his favorite beverage, not realizing that Coca-Cola would counter the effects of the lethal juice. Then they tried to taint his soup. That worked, but doctors at the Russian ambassy weren't aware of the plan, and so delivered medical attention that saved his life. Finally the soldiers came and completed the task with a few choice rounds. And then they stuck around for years afterward not knowing what to do next.

*President Hafizullah Amin.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Driving is Exciting!

Isn't driving exciting? Really... isn't the entire idea of owning and operating a machine that weighs thousands of pounds, and is capable of hurtling forward at over 100 miles per hour, compelling? Sometimes I wonder what the hell we are thinking. Obviously we need to "get there now". This need requires devices that present one of the biggest threats to our well-being. Yet at the same time, it would be difficult to give automobiles up now that we understand their benefits. Don't get me wrong- I love the convenience that cars afford me. There are plenty of places I would have never seen without them. I don't plan on giving mine up, so don't even ask me for it.

Most of the time I tend to take the reliability and capabilities of my vehicle for granted. Anyone that has owned a car for any significant length of time knows that this is a bad idea. We may bitch about living in a state that requires an annual inspection, but the truth is that it's a good idea for those of us that don't give proper consideration to the maintenance of our conveyances. Hell, I don't even get my oil changed as often as I should. I'm sure that there are a number of issues developing with my five-year old Hyundai that require looking into. No doubt I will become aware of those things when they reach the point that I can't possibly ignore them anymore. That's the nature of the beast, as far as I'm concerned.

I do a lot of highway driving in my long daily commute. This practice presents a specific set of problems that I am slowly coming to terms with. The first hurdle I experienced was learning how to properly regulate my speed. I accumulated something along the order of 20+ points during my first couple of years on the job. Once I got the hang of that, I had to confront the particular hazards that accompany chugging along at a moderately high speed. I try to pay specific attention to the condition of my tire treads. That's an obvious concern. I've also had to give some thought to the risks involved with having a cracked windshield. Following the big rigs results in kicked-up stones that can be devastating to reinforced glass.

This December I finally had my windshield replaced (at a cost of over $250). I did that because the pockmark that marred its surface over ten months ago expanded to a crack that spanned the entire width of the screen. Actually (to be quite honest with you) there were two fissures running in opposite directions. I still had full visibility, but there was no way it would have been certified legal. Yet for some reason, I experienced no imminent sense that it needed to be repaired expeditiously. Finally a friend convinced me that it would be a bad thing if the entire windshield shattered in my face at a high speed. I saw some logic in his note of caution. It was rational from a purely speculative viewpoint.

Today I experienced a different sort of issue that came on so quickly that it was impossible to ignore in the moment. The salt on the road surface was kicked up into my face by a tractor trailer. This wouldn't have been a serious issue had my fluid lines not been frozen. Instead I had a milky coating obscuring my vision, and I was moving at about 70 mph. My wipers were useless, and (if anything) simply compounded my difficulties. I concentrated on the lines demarcating my lane and followed the car lights ahead of me until I reached the next exit. Now this is a lesson I should have already absorbed- they make windshield wiper fluid that resists freezing. You'd think I would have already bought some, right? Driving IS exciting.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Pittsburgh Art Happenings: 1/9-10/09.

A new year always brings the promise of an interesting and diverse selection of Pittsburgh art. It may take a couple of months for things to really get going (with the cold weather keeping people hunkered down at home), but sooner or later folks start itching to roll out their latest work. There are indeed a few events worth seeing this weekend, but some of them have been around for so long that you may have taken them for granted, and now you're in danger of missing them altogether. This weekend marks your last chance to see Life On Mars (the International) at the Carnegie Art Museum, In The Making: 250 Years / 250 Artists at Fe Gallery, and Inner and Outer Space at the Mattress factory.

If your tastes run more toward openings, you will have a few opportunities to get out and about to catch some receptions.


Check out Tim Menees ("You Still Can't Get There From Here") and Joan Iverson Goswell ("Journeys") at Gallerie Chiz in Shadyside (5831 Ellsworth Avenue), from 6-9PM. Menees uses acrylics and graphite to create imaginary travel posters and Goswell makes cool-looking books with a clear political slant.

Or perhaps you have the means to get to Sewickley? Mark Panza is having a one-man show at the Élan Fine Art Gallery (427 Broad Street). I've actually never been in the space, but I have met Joan, the proprietor. She seems passionate about showing art that she personally respects and enjoys. Obviously our tastes overlap, as I am increasingly a fan of Panza's photos and presentation. Get there between 6 and 9PM for "Structure Meets Nature".

But maybe you want to avoid "swellsville" this weekend? If so, just pop down to gritty Lawrenceville (4900 Hatfield Street) for the Zombo Gallery's 2nd Annual "Big Hang Up". It's Michael Devine's version of "Art All Night", and gives all creators a chance to show off their skills, regardless of whether or not they've ever shown before. That kind of format is always interesting because you never know what you'll see, and there is the potential for some very odd juxtapositions. It should bring in an eclectic crowd too.


Boxheart (on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield) is having their 8th annual Art Inter/National Exhibition, with a reception from 5-8PM. This series explores the way that physical space affects the way artists create their work. Twenty lucky selections were chosen from among 220 applicants this year- all asked to "respond visually to the Hegelian Dialectic". Basically, this means that there were a couple hundred people who presumed to claim to understand what the fuck that actually means (you can read more about that here). Anyway I'm sure there will be lots of great things to look at, and I'm not likely to risk missing any of them.

Finally, I want to mention an opening (6-9PM) featuring the work of Bart De Paepe at the Morning Glory Coffeehouse in Morningside (1806 Chislett Street). I'm always interested in checking out new places to get my espresso fix, and this one isn't all that far from my house. They seem to have some nice things going on there, and I'm a bit surprised I haven't heard about it previously. Check out their site.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

If it Sounds too Good to be True...

On Monday afternoon I reached home, baby in hand, to find that I had finally received what I had been waiting in anticipation for since shortly after Christmas. A small package had arrived in the mail, bringing me what I thought would be the means to give up my worst habit. Frankly I've been getting rather sick and tired of smoking cigarettes. There are a number of reasons why this vice has become tiresome. It's expensive, stinky, and seriously degrades my health. These characteristics should be sufficient for me to want to give it all up permanently. Unfortunately I still enjoy puffing away. I'm in a bind that many others can relate to. Slowly though, I find myself in rarer company.

Last year Allegheny County made smoking in most public places illegal. It's no longer possible to sip on a coffee drink at a local cafe while leisurely basking in the joy of a cigarette. There's no such thing as an after-dinner smoke at the restaurant. Not too long ago I was even scolded for getting my fix within ten feet of the entrance to a bar/eatery. Times have changed, and I suspect that they have done so for the better. Slowly any situation where I am tempted to light up is being removed. This will some day make quitting altogether a lot easier. I wish I could say that I was ready for that ultimate step. But the fact is that I am not. Perhaps I never will be. Still it's possible to imagine an end to it that doesn't involve a hospital stay.

When I learned that there was a new alternative to combustion, my interest was piqued. I ordered the ePuffer from Canada, and prepared to have my life altered for the better. I was excited when it came in the mail, and quickly got the contraption set up. And you know what? My expectations were disappointed. I had worked myself into a lather for what I thought might be an "easy answer". However there are some very real problems with my new e-Cigarette. The first among many is that the cartridges (which cost over $3 each) do not last nearly as long as advertised. The company promised the equivalent of 20-25 cigarettes, but the truth is that each unit delivers (at most) a little over a third of that.

I've since learned that you can actually refill the cartridges with formula that you buy in a bottle. This solution is truly inexpensive, but has its own problems. Nicotine in its pure liquid form is tremendously toxic. An amount somewhere between 40 and 60 milligrams can prove fatal to a full-grown adult. More troublesome is the fact that it can be absorbed through the skin. No doubt one can take special precautions in recharging containers with this fluid, and thus make it relatively safe. Still I don't feel especially comfortable with keeping one more poison around the house for my son to potentially discover. I have to wonder whether that would be worth the hassle and anxiety.

So now I've paid almost $200 for this new alternative nicotine delivery system, and it appears that it's going to be more frustrating than satisfying. I really got my hopes up too. The thought of recovering my full lung capacity and avoiding the carcinogens produced in burning tobacco appealed to me. But unless I'm willing to pay the premium for the factory-made cartridges, I'm never going to have enough product to keep me away from the "analogues" (normal, paper-rolled cigarettes). Of course the obvious answer would be to break the dependence once and for all. Unfortunately I just don't thionk I'm ready for that. I guess I'll be searching for some sort of compromise over the next few weeks. I'll keep you all updated.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Senator Al Franken !?

I'd like to extend congratulations to my friends in Minnesota who have the pleasure of welcoming their new US Senator Al Franken. It seems that you people have gained a tirelessly determined warrior. I think very few political observers would have predicted his victory with any level of confidence in early November. In fact when the canvassing board reconvened to declare Franken the winner over incumbent Norm Coleman yesterday, there were no doubt many observers watching in stunned disbelief. The margin of victory was indeed minuscule, and the race was decided by a mere 225 (or so) votes. I'd imagine there are a lot of Minnesotans marveling over the fact that their votes actually counted.

Of course Coleman and his campaign have vowed to fight on in the courts. Still it seems that perception counts for more than anything else in politics, and the declaration of a victor seems to be almost unimpeachable. I can't see any authority being willing to retract this outcome. It would be a significant subversion of the American political process. In some ways it's reminiscent of the 2000 presidential election, in which that other "Al" was vanquished in our highest federal courts. Congress will return to DC today and there will be an empty seat, as Minnesota law necessitates a week delay before the declaration of an official winner. But very few question who will be occupying that seat during the next six years.

Interestingly, the GOP does have recourse to block Franken from the Upper House. Certification of the election results lies in the hands of Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who came very close to becoming John McCain's running mate this past August. And while the Democratic Senate majority and its Rules Committee ordered Norm Coleman's offices closed at the Capitol building, there is some noise about the Republicans taking the matter to the federal courts. If they do, it could delay the seating of Franken for weeks, or even months. It will be interesting to see how patient the citizens of Minnesota will be with their representation cut in half by continued legal wrangling. I doubt it will make Coleman any more popular.

Indeed Norm Coleman risks looking like a hypocrite if he drags this out any further. When Franken refused to concede in the wake of the November election, while citing the need for an official recount, Coleman accused his challenger of wasting taxpayer money. Now this former Democratic mayor of St. Paul is threatening to do the same thing. By hook-or-by-crook, it seems like the Brooklyn-native is committed to retaining his power. Coleman has a tradition of being willing to sacrifice his principles to achieve position. He changed party affiliations in 1997 in a bid to attain statewide office. Now he's a long way from his roots as an anti-War progressive Democrat in the Woodstock-era counterculture.

Regardless of Coleman's odd persistence, it now appears that the Democrats will be a single vote away from ensuring cloture in the US Senate. With 59 votes, they only need to ensure the cooperation of one member from across the aisle to advance any particular piece of legislation. But there are certainly some kinks to be worked out. No one quite knows how to handle the situation in Illinois, with Blogojevich-appointee Roland Burris appearing set on claiming the President-elect's vacated seat. Meanwhile in New York, the brewing controversy over the possible ascension of Caroline Kennedy is playing out (pending Hillary Clinton's approval as Secretary of State). There is a lot to be determined, and Franken is only part of the picture.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

A Comment About "Going Dark".

One thing I have tried to avoid on Serendipity is self-referential navel-gazing. After all, that path leads to a morass of post-modern ennui and irony. Yet after a long absence that has been the longest in the entire history of this blog, I feel a bit of an obligation to comment on the break. For an extended time I have been jarred from my everyday routine. Please don't imagine that this was a result of some tragedy or anxious upheaval. Actually it's been a lot of fun. But about a week ago I decided that it was more important to limit my obligations and impositions, and simply concentrate on direct experience for a bit. It took a lot for me to break my everyday pattern of writing and posting.

I still believe in the "examined life". As each night and day passed, there were plenty of topics and subjects I could have written about. I felt like I was letting people down by not stopping to put my reflections into words, but the truth is that such a feeling would never have compelled me to break my silence. Ultimately I do all of this for myself. So I had to decide to make the conscious effort to let things go. I even stopped taking my daily walks Whenever I felt pulled by caprice to redirect my attentions, I did so. It was a bit surprising to discover how much I resisted doing it. My habits have become so interwoven into my life that I often had the sensation of becoming completely unmoored.

Somehow the structure of this project has been simultaneously empowering and constricting. On one hand, I believe the organization of my thoughts has made me much more effective in accomplishing my goals. Yet I know that I have chosen to limit my opportunities for "serendipity" by making myself sit in front of the computer and type these signifying symbols in a five-paragraph framework. When I'm scratching this shit out on my keyboard, I'm closing myself off to outside experience- however temporary my self-imposed removal from the present may be. There must be a limit to the benefits I get from the process. And unless I step away for a bit, I'll never see them clearly.

So in every way I can imagine, I was on vacation for awhile. I went more places and talked to more people than I would have thought possible had I made a point of adhering to my regular schedule. Meanwhile, I know for a fact that some regular readers of this blog wondered if I was alright. My answer is unequivocal- I was doing great. I grabbed at the chance to see my carefully constructed perspective unravel just a bit, and I'm happy with having made that decision. But at the same time I realized the great benefit of participating in this activity. No doubt there were worthwhile topics and questions I could have focused on that will be lost to the erosion of memory.

However, if I hadn't prioritized direct experience, I wouldn't have been exposed to a lot of these thoughts at all. The reality is that we spend a lot of time balancing our external lives with our internal perspectives. We often don't realize we're engaged in that eternal conundrum, so we do things that make no real sense at all... to anybody. I suppose that's the great meaning we can all find in the holidays. They break up our regular rhythms, and give us a different mirror to stare into. It's exceptionally easy to think that we are the sum of our parts, but I suspect that they don't really convey the totality of ourselves. I hope you had a similar chance to step outside yourself, and if you didn't... that you will soon.

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