Saturday, September 29, 2012

NYC on a Thursday

Thursdays are tricky. They are a "normal" day workwise, but if I want to do anything Thursday nights, I must be mindful of the fact that Fridays are not "normal", they are in fact 13 hour days, from the time I leave home to the time I return.

A friend of mine asked if I wanted an extra ticket to see the Corin Tucker Band. I think he bought the tickets over the summer. September is the time when school starts, and we are often hit with unexpected changes of schedule. I did not know I'd be teaching a class. He did not know that his daughter would have an important event that evening. So, I ended up with two tickets, and no one else to go with at the last minute. On a Thursday. Which is tricky.

I am wide awake as I leave work on Thursday afternoon, and feel pretty sure that I am in for a good evening. I am reading Muriel Barbery's second novel on the train. It is short, so I want to save it, have some to read through dinner and on the way home. I put the book down, and I am immediately assailed by the snorting laughter of the idiot behind me on his cellphone, and the sounds of the couple in the seat in front of me kissing very loudly. To my right is a girl listening to her iPod, but has no awareness of volume, as I can very clearly hear the mass-produced excuse for soul music that she is listening to quite clearly from 3 seats over. The train stops for about 5 minutes--it is not late, but probably waiting for another train to pass before entering the tunnel under the Hudson River. Visions of Sartre's "No Exit" dance in my head, and I am grateful when the train lurches forward again.

Once in New York, I jump on the downtown E train. I must take the uptown train most of the time, because finding the downtown track within Penn Station proves to be far more difficult than it should be. Once on the train, a man gets on the train with a child in a stroller, around 23rd Street. He announces loudly that he has to get back to Boston, but has no money for the bus. People open their wallets to help him out, myself included. Across from me sits a homeless man, with very few teeth left. He pulls a couple of dollars out of his pocket and gives them to the man. He needs five more dollars, and someone finally gives it to him, and he is grateful. As I get up to get off the train at West 4th St., a Polish woman on the train walks over to the homeless man and gives him his 2 dollars back. "Here sir, I gave him more than enough to cover. You keep your money. That is the nicest thing I have ever seen." She looks at me and nods congenially, then looks back at the man. "You are a good person, sir--a very good person. So many people who have the money won't give anything." The homeless man is clearly touched, and smiles broadly with his crooked teeth. The woman and I step off the train, and I head over to the F train platform.

I head over to Lucien's on First and First. I was not sure that this is where I would end up. I just knew I wanted French food, and this was the first place I'd encountered. The waitstaff at the restaurant is very nice. I am seated near the window, where I can watch the people heading up and down First Avenue. I choose a Rhone Valley red, and order steak tartare. The waiter calls to me. "You know that tartare is rare, right sweetheart?" I assure him that I know that. "I don't want to insult your intelligence, but a lot of people order it who are just looking for regular steak with fries." I tell him that he's not insulted me--it's always better to ask. He asks about what I'm reading.

"It's Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery. About a French food critic who is dying, and is trying to decide on the perfect flavor that he wants before he dies." The waiter then proceeds to tell me about "Jiro Dreams of Sushi", a documentary about an 85-year-old Japanese sushi chef. "It sounds boring, but it's really fascinating." He tells me that the man's restaurant only has 10 seats, and one has to reserve a month in advance. He also spoke about the fish auctions, and the incredible back and forth of the auctioneers and the buyers.

The steak tartare is done a bit differently from what I'm used to, but I do eat all of it. The flavors were interesting, but I would probably choose something else next time. The pommes frites, which are an old comfort food classic, were excellent. It's a place I'd definitely visit again.

I walk over to Mercury Lounge, which has opened up a few minutes earlier. I pass the merchandise counter, and make eye contact with Corin Tucker herself, who is helping out. I say hello, very surprised to see her there. Not that it's necessarily so unusual.

Surprisingly, I've never been to Mercury Lounge before. It's a small venue, like a lot of the little Brooklyn music places. I get a beer and take a seat. The opening band is called "Imperfect Forms", and they are pretty good. I don't really know how to describe their sound. As the time approaches for the main band to come onstage, the venue gets more and more crowded. Soon, I cannot see the stage at all, even though I am up front, and any pictures I take with my phone come out black. Corin Tucker comes onstage with her new band. I had not heard them previously, though I am familiar with her previous work, particularly Sleater Kinney, Heavens to Betsy, and Cadallaca. The songs were impressive, intricate, a mix of psychedelia and *almost* punk, without falling definitively into either label.

I did not stay for the whole gig, as Friday was a teaching day, and I was not willing to face my students with only 3 or 4 hours of sleep. I realize that I am also not a fan of packed crowds, and the wall-to-wall stuffiness of one of autumn's last humid evenings definitely affected my senses. I kept thinking that I probably missed something good, like Carrie Brownstein coming out for an encore, or something. (Reviews show me that I did not miss such an event.) I felt like the songs were a mix of her Cadallaca work (sans farfisa organ) and the Sleater Kinney stuff, but realizing that it is not really fair to compare the songs to either project. It's another animal entirely.

The train home was unusually quiet. I am not used to NJ Transit without loud cell phone conversations, obnoxious drunks, or giggling teenagers on their first New York excursion. I can see myself perfectly in the train windows, and it occurs to me that I cannot see myself when the light shines brightly; only when it is dark outside. I drive home, with no particular thoughts of anything, except my 10 am class.

My New York excursions have only been samples. To have a full experience of the city, I really need to have a hotel room for the night. NJ Transit hours are not the city hours. The real night life begins well after 9 pm, long after others have shut everything down.

Sunday, September 09, 2012


I have to say, this is a morning I've been waiting for. It is September, and Fall-like weather has finally come in. It is a Sunday morning, and I ought to be sleeping in, but you know, the cat and all. I got tired of him biting my elbows. I was supposed to meet a friend for early-morning breakfast, but now she's postponed til later this afternoon. I also plan to pick my Fall stash of apples with another friend this afternoon, and I'm trying to envision exactly when I'm going to fit in my yardwork. There are far too many leaves on the ground for the second week of September. Even my neighbor, who very beautifully and meticulously tended to her yard yesterday, now has a huge mess of leaves and sticks from yesterday evening's storm. Near my kitchen door, there has been a yellow spider trying to look inconspicuous in a corner. Upon closer examination, I now think there are two yellow spiders there, and that they are attempting to create more yellow spiders. I hate to spoil the romance of their liaison, but if they think I will tolerate a gazillion yellow spider babies in my house, they have another thing coming. The last time I encountered yellow spider babies--in my car, while driving--I got a bite from one that swelled up and left me hyperventilating. Obviously I'm still here, so it wasn't fatal, but if there's any thought that I'm going to allow for a repeat's the old "fool me once" cliche.

I had the misfortune to wake up with a Bon Jovi song in my head. Lest you think I listen to Bon Jovi, it was a song I heard while buying groceries yesterday morning. There should be stiff penalties for any shopping facility that plays crappy music. Jon Bon Jovi is a Jersey boy, and anyone who doesn't live in New Jersey (and some who do) seem to think that we have a moral obligation to listen to Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen. I am not a fan of either one of them, though I will give Springsteen credit for being a talented songwriter. I like maybe 3 or 4 of his songs. Bon Jovi, as far as I can tell, is a genuinely decent human being--he's done a lot of charitable things, and I don't think it's just for media show or tax purposes. But I can't stand his music. At first, it was just more hair metal, that I was unfortunately exposed to in high school. Then Bon Jovi fell in love, and started churning out sentimental crap. At least that's the story I recall.

I have decided that love is bad for creativity. When you are in love and in a new relationship, you are as high as a kite, and sound like an idiot most of the time. If I look over my writings over the years, the worst crap I have ever written has been written when I was in love. It takes a broken heart, disappointment, or just plain old-fashioned psychosis to write well, or at least write interesting stuff. If I look at all my favorite artists, writers, and musicians, they are either a. on drugs/were on drugs, b. clinically mentally ill, or c. had some kind of life crisis or heartache that really kicked them in the teeth.

Of course, the life crisis bit can work in reverse, in some cases, especially if the person in question then decides to "find religion". The only artist I know of who produced great music after finding religion was George Harrison, and that's likely because it was genuine and not crisis-driven."Finding religion" is similar to falling in love in this case. There is an unbalanced optimism, and the sense that you can now "fix" the broken world. The method of "fixing" is entirely a projection of this delusional state, so it really does nothing but irritate others, who would prefer you keep your delusions to yourself, thank you. People in love tend to sound like stoned hippies ; people who have "found" religion tend to sound smug and self-righteous. And they pity that you are not like them. I prefer to listen to someone in love over someone who has "found religion" (especially if they have "found Jesus") any day.

"Finding religion" after a severe crisis is not usually a victory, though it is perceived this way by the victim. The script may go like this: "I was a prostitute who shot heroin every day and killed people, but now I've found Jesus, and I'm saved." Er, not really. You've taken all the things of your life that you can't come to terms with, and thrown them in a closet. You then declare they are no longer in your closet, they are now personified as a being called "Satan". "You" are not really "like that", the "Devil" made you do those things. In typical patriarchal fashion, this has become a war, and you feel you have "conquered" your personal Satan via Jesus, not realizing that the so-called "Satan" hasn't really gone anywhere, and has more control over you than ever. Just because you choose not to see "him" doesn't mean "he" isn't there. In fact, you're better off psychologically acknowledging that "he" is there. Integration is always better than repression. It's the real meaning of C.S. Lewis's statement (paraphrased)--the thing the Devil wants the most is for you to believe he doesn't exist. Or, quite simply, yes, you ARE really like that. As is everyone else, potentially, when we are out of balance. There are many complex reasons why this might be the case. But denying that part of oneself only creates self-hatred, and therefore a judgmental hatred of others. The new life will constantly need to be validated by others, because it isn't authentic. Hence, this need to "convert" others, and to proselytize.

I'm sure I will get into trouble with someone for that last paragraph. Perhaps it is my recent delving into the Iron Age religious and mythical transition that has made me think more about the notion of "salvation". Salvation is an Iron Age concept, that comes from warring patriarchal tribes. For all the good it does (giving hope about existence after death), it also has created a psychological disaster, in that it has left Western civilization in this moral struggle between "good" and "evil" that is exploited by governments and media everywhere, and ever present in culture. We are split, and unable to see the value of integrating. You can be a wonderful, charitable, divine person, and you can also be the worst sonofabitch. There is the potential to be a Mother Teresa, and there is the potential to be a serial killer. We all have it. We just don't like to acknowledge the second part. The irony is that not acknowledging it makes it more of a danger. We see it in others, and decide those others therefore need to be "controlled" or "destroyed", not realizing it is us as well. Maybe "serial killer" is extreme, but people are often harmed in the name of "their own good". There's often little or no need to save someone from themselves. When someone feels the urge, they should look at themselves first.

In any case, we sometimes reach a euphoric state where we think we "know", where we think we've "arrived", and other things cease to have meaning. But any life path lived with awareness will have these wonderful "moments" that don't last. And when you consider how much about existence is simply unknowable, it's best to be careful when you assert that you "know". The best you can say is that you "know" what's good for yourself. And that may change.

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Look

Autumn seems to be arriving early this year. We have not had huge amounts of rain, and so far (knock wood loudly) we have avoided the wrath of any hurricanes or tropical storms. Still, it is a bit windy and rainy. My back yard, which was leaf-free after my efforts on Sunday morning, is now covered in a blanket of yellow and brown leaves, all from an apparently dying chestnut tree on the property behind mine. Maybe it is because I am prepping a class in Greek and Roman mythology that I am reminded of the myth of Sisyphus.

Today is Labor Day, and true to American tradition, I have spent much of my weekend at picnics. Many of you who read this blog are not believers in astrology. However, I considered this weekend to be an education in the Aries/Taurus cusp personality. I am an Aries/Taurus cusp; so is my mother, and so is one of my friends, the one whose house I happened to visit on Sunday.

At the Sunday picnic, my friend had a ton of excellent food--some wonderful Italian specialities, every conceivable meat on the grill, and loads of good desserts. She was constantly running around, taking things out of the oven, preparing things, running here and there to do things. Whenever anyone asked if they could help her, she said, "Nope, got it under control." Similarly, when I was at my mother's house today, there are some things she will let me help with, but with others she will say, "Nope--leave that for me, I have my own system."

At my mother's house, one particular dish she was cooking did not turn out properly, and she was very vexed throughout the entire meal. I said to her, "It's fine, it tastes fine, it's not the end of the world. " And of course I know that if this happened at an event I was giving at MY house, I'd want to pull out the knives for hari kiri. I tell my mother and my friend not to worry so much about having everything perfect, and I know damn well that I will criticize myself for years afterward if I screw up the same thing. It's the case of the pot and the kettle. I have had friends stay at my house, and I think they sometimes get vexed with me, because I usually don't let them do anything, and I'm adamant about it. I've tried to be more relaxed, but I have a real thing about my own house and kitchen--I know where everything is, and I have a system for putting everything away, doing dishes in the proper order, etc. We tend to be the same way about our jobs--we know what we're doing, and we don't like others messing up our system, even if it's well intended. As my mother put it, "it throws you out of your rhythm." I totally get that.

My mother is a rather tiny woman; we are the same height, but she has a considerably smaller frame. Still, there are people who find my mother intimidating. "I have no idea why," she says. She's not openly aggressive. But she told me a recent story that illustrates why she is feared, or at least respected. My mother has been the head of the shelving department at a large public library for about 30 years. Recently, in the children's room, a couple of kids were diving off the ledge by the bay windows. One of her shelvers approached the mother, concerned that one of the kids might go through the window. "I wouldn't want that to happen," said the mother, who did not move from her computer to see what the kids were doing. So, the shelver went over to speak to my Mom. The kids must have heard, because they temporarily quieted down. Then they started up again. My mother came out from the stacks, and approached them, shaking her head, and wagging her finger. And she gave them The Look. The kids stopped immediately and sat down.

The Look has been my mother's weapon of choice since we were children. It is far more effective than yelling or physical violence. All she has to do is give you The Look, and you will wither instantly into submission. It's really a superpower, and I told her she should handle it as such.

As an adult, I don't have the mastery of The Look, though I'm more immune to it now if my mother gives it to me. I prefer honest, face-to-face verbally calling someone out rather than just giving them The Look. But I don't think I do it as effectively. This is probably why my mother prefers I be silent in conflict, rather than speak up. But her battle weapon is different from mine.

When it comes to personalities, we know we're not always right, but we know what we think is right for ourselves. And if anyone tries to talk us out of what we think, openly argue, or belittle our points of view, we get like agitated cobras ready to spit venom. Which is why when we have family arguments, it's so much worse; we are equally stubborn and entrenched in our viewpoints, and neither side will budge. Over the years I have learned to use humor to break such impasses. And I know I'm not going to change her way of thinking (nor she mine), so I go out of my way to avoid arguments. Neutrality is far better than war in such cases.