January 2010

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As I was browsing the best discount wine rack in the city, I came upon a bottle of Pinotage, and it occurred to me just how long it had been since I had enjoyed a warm, tart, fruity Pinotage.  I might call it a favorite.  So it was with a glass of amazing Pinotage that I laid myself in repose to listen to some Andrew Bird and read some Italo Calvino tonight.  A glass of red + Andrew Bird + Calvino does indeed = perfection.

I’m working my way through Difficult Loves, but only finding myself occasionally wrapt up in it.  I had a similar problem with Cosmicomics.  I just had a hard time getting into that one, and Cosmicomics is the one I tend to hear recommended most.  Not to sound like I’m speaking ill of Calvino.  Actually that Calvino is so likeable is part of my problem.

Calvino falls into that select little niche we might call “writers’ writers.”  I like writers’ writers.  Carver, Chekhov, etc.  I eat that shit up.  But with most writer’s writers, the urge to recommend them to everyone and anyone is generally staid.  The average person who does not possess an undergraduate or graduate degree in English or some other book friendly liberal art is probably not going to be that interested in the subtle plays upon convention for which these writers are known.  I mean reading Chekhov, not even that many of his stories stand out to me, but reading them I could still appreciate how profoundly new his approach to short literature was.  With Carver one gains the same thrill.  And so it is with Calvino.

The thing that I love so much about Calvino is his firm narrative presence.  Every Calvino story feels like a story above all else.  You can almost feel the narrator sitting with you as you read, his hand patting you on the shoulder and saying, “You want to hear a war story?  Oh my friend, have I got one for you.  There once lived a boy named….”

This cozy intimacy is enchanting, and so after reading a bit of Calvino one feels the impulse to share it with everyone.  But… honestly, how many of my friends who don’t have English (or Italian) literature degrees would really get into Cosmicomics?  It’s just a little too out there (that, of course, being part of the point).

For me, the best is still Invisible Cities.  But even there, the narrative approach is so unconventional that I don’t see a casual reader sticking with it.  When I open the book I’m overwhelmed at the profound beauty of Calvino’s cityscapes, and the genius layering of the iterative conversation between Kublai Kahn and Marco Polo!  It’s a book I have  a hard time putting down.

Perhaps The Nonexistent Knight and the Cloven Viscount will be a little more approachable.  They’re sitting on my shelf waiting to be read right now.  I kind of doubt it though.

Difficult Loves is good stuff though.  I’ve read this story about the pastry shop robbery before, I’m sure of it, or perhaps I’ve seen it adopted by other writers.  Anyway…

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I didn’t realize that Sanjuro meant “thirtysomething”.  That’s probably because the last time that I watched Yojimbo I wasn’t a thirtysomething, or maybe I was only thirty.  It’s been a little while.

I had some time off today, convalescing, and I realized while lounging magnificently on the couch that there are a number of Criterion Collection movies on my Netflix Instant.  The morning was spent learning that old French movies make no sense.  But the afternoon was for an old favorite:  Yojimbo.

(I feel somewhat compelled to point out the irony that while I own this on DVD, it takes Netflix to get me to watch it.  Go figure…)

There’s really not enough that can be said about this film.  Kurosawa and Mifune’s movie of a taciturn ronin turned vigilante stands the test of time with each viewing.  I could spend pages writing about Mifune’s brilliant acting or Kurusawa’s artful eye, but watching the film today I was caught up in the aspects of the film’s vigilanteism.

The two most telling characters in the film are the coffin maker and the innkeeper.  One profits from the town’s violence (the coffin maker), while the other loses.  Sanjuro allies himself with the innkeeper, but at first the innkeeper wants nothing to do with him.  Violence begets violence and all that.  The tipping point comes when Sanjuro rescues the young couple from the grips of one of the crime lords, winning the innkeeper’s undying respect.

And this is what gets me.  Neither of the neutral parties have a vested interest in the town being razed.   “This many bodies, they don’t bother with coffins,” the coffin maker moans (more or less).  And yet the innkeeper gets behind it.  He has lost his business’s livelihood as well (at least for now), but Sanjuro is a hero to him.

This I love.  This infatuation with vigilanteism.  It could easily be said that this theme that I’m riffing on is of justice, but I think the subtext is a little more subtle than that (and sublime!).

It just seems such an American infatuation to me, so I guess it strikes me so much seeing it in a foreign film.  And not just seeing it, but seeing an archetype born so full, beautiful, and fully formed.  (This film will always be remade, and yet the original will always stand.)

When I saw Michael C Hall, of Dexter fame, in San Diego last summer, he told this little anecdote that went like this:

“So we recently sold Dexter in about a dozen countries, and so I’ve been trekking across Europe for the last several months promoting it.  And there’s this thing that I noticed.  I tell people that the show is about a serial killer.  And people kind of say, ‘Oh…’  But then I say that, well he’s a serial killer that only kills other killers.  And Americans always respond with, ‘Oh, okay.  Alright.’  But in Europe they just kind of look at me and say, ‘…yeah, but he’s still killing people.'”

It makes me wonder, I guess.  Are the Japanese as infatuated with this as we are?  I’m a little behind on my Japanese and Asian cinema these days, so I’m not really sure.

I think what’s so remarkable about the character of the innkeeper is how his attitude so captures the inevitable attitude of the audience.  Yes destruction has been wrought, but justice has been done and those who have paid have been the deserving.  What I think nails it is Mifune’s performance.  He never really seems entirely approving of his actions.  His hand almost seems forced, as if there is a duty to be done and he simply has been chosen to carry it out.  I could remind viewers of Mifune’s introduction in the film:  a wandering ronin at a crossroads casts a stick into the air, following in whatever direction it lands.  Sanjuro is but a fatalistic instrument.  The wily innkeeper, though, he gets to throw up the thumbs up or thumbs down.  It would be a completely different film without him.


That’s enough film critique for now.  I am now convinced that as a “thirtysomething” I should adopt Sanjuro as an occasional nickname.  Perhaps if I run into any wily innkeepers they will give me a discounted rate out of deference to such a great film.

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Apologies for the lack of posts.  I got wrapped up in some things.  Things are good, actually really good.  There are just certain things I don’t write about here.  Anyway…

I added this blog to my feed reader just sort of randomly, and now and again the dudes who post on here write something very worth reading.  This semi-random but very sensible post about Don Draper is very much on the mark.  Besides, I’ve a weak spot for Gertrude Stein quotes (Valentine’s Day is coming up, which of course reminds me of that poem of hers…).  I should probably get around to reading the book quoted.  In either case, here is the link.

I’ve been getting into my John Cheever stories a great deal this past week, and it’s interesting to see how many of them were taken as templates for Madmen episodes.  The Drapers even live in Ossining, NY, where Cheever himself lived.  I haven’t even gotten to Cheever’s good stories yet, only the early ones.  For a sampling about Cheever and how batshit crazy he was–what with the sexual identity crisis and that suburban ennui zeitgeist thing–you can follow this link here.

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Alright, I officially need to start working on my Spanish.

I was at Rosa’s grill over in the market at lunch today, and the girl who was helping me at the counter didn’t speak hardly any English.  It didn’t annoy me or anything, that’s not where I’m going with this.  No, what happened was I started ordering in Spanish without even really thinking about it.  And as soon as I started speaking spanish to a Latino, I was reminded with a crushing sense of embarrassment just how bad my Spanish sucks.

I know enough Spanish to follow along with really basic things, and I mean I should be able to order off of a menu.  The problem is that as soon as I try, I become extremely self conscious.  I feel like the whitest of white white guys ever.  And most of the time when I’m in this situation Latinos who’ve come up north here kinda give me this look.  Not like a dirty look, more of an apprehensive look.  Like, “Oh god, he thinks he can speak Spanish, I’m pretty sure this asshole is about to get bossy.”  Which is not me at all, though I’m guessing that that sort of thing probably happens to immigrants here (maybe a lot).

Anyway.  The girl at Rosa’s was super sweet about it.  She actually seemed relieved that I knew a bit of Spanish.  Even if their food weren’t super awesome and super cheap, they would get the win for that.

But still.  I eat Mexican food like I was raised in Texas or something.  I’ve even gotten to cooking it lately, which means that I’ve been frequenting the Mexican grocery stores.  I always have these strange encounters there.  Like, there’s this cheese, it’s the most amazing god damn cheese ever, it’s like Mexican string cheese basically, and you order it at the deli counter and the dude pulls off a giant rope of it from this huge cheese knot.  The dudes always call it “fajita cheese”.  This not being good enough for me, a foodie, I ask what kind of cheese is it?  “Fajita cheese!” they say.  And I press again, and the dude realizes that I’m asking where it’s from or if it has another name, and he just kind of mutters it under his breath, way too fast for my whitest of white guy ears to pick up, and we end up just keeping with the fajita cheese thing.  (Btw, it turns out the cheese comes from Oaxaca–you can find it in some Latino grocery stores as queso de Oaxaca.   It’s fresher at the deli counter, though.)

What I could have said to the deli counter dude is, “De donde es eso?”  Which I think is the right way to say, “Where is this from?”  But I’m not really sure.  And it’s that hesitation that is killing me and making me feel like the whitest white guy ever.  I need to own it.  My accent will probably always suck, but at least I can speak with confidence and not sound like an idiot.

So maybe I should get on this.  I really don’t have time for it right now, but I should look into taking a class.  Preferably one that ends in a trip down south or something, or at least has some sort of interactive component to it.  This is something that I’ve been putting off for way, way too long.

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I’ve been trying to find a moment to do a “favorite music of ’09” post, but it keeps escaping me.  I spent today trying to be productive through the fog of readjusting to nine to five life.  During my vacation I slept past noon almost every day.  My body just does not know what’s going on right now.  What time is it?  Should we be somewhere?  When I’m awake, it feels like I should be asleep, and when asleep it feels I should be awake.

In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to head over to NPR to catch a first listen of Vampire Weekend’s new album.  You can stream the whole thing here.  My first reaction is that it’s not quite as catchy as the first album, but still pretty catchy.  There’s more of those 80’s-ish afro-pop sounding beats so far, the ones that seem to remind me of Peter Gabriel.  I don’t really feel like listening to any Peter Gabriel to verify if that’s actually what it should be reminding me of, but if you yourself would like to pursue that then I would salute you for doing so.  Let me know how those old Peter Gabriel albums are doing these days.

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Looking around, I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one.  People just going about their business.  Buying their groceries.  Going to and fro.  Or people hanging out, drinking a beer at the bar.  Friends even, doing the same.  A nagging impulse tugs at you:  how do these people feel about it?  It, of course, being their life.  And it keeps nagging at you:  don’t they want something better?  Don’t they want to be their best?

But of course there’s no way to know.  You pass some stranger, going about his business, as you go about yours.  How is he doing?  Is he doing everything right?  Maybe, who knows.  You look at your friend as you’re tossing back beers at the bar, and of course you’re a palindrome.  You match exactly, except for your outfits (hopefully!).  At that point one begins to question the element of judgment, and once the element of judgment has been questioned it is immediately thrown out.  No, we’re not judging anyone.  But we’ve got a devil (or an angel?) riding our shoulder, and we’re so engrossed in finding this in ourselves that we look for it in the eyes, expressions, and demeanor of others.

We are, of course, entertaining a selfish thought.  And that’s really what this is about.

I’ve always had this bug up my ass to be a better version of myself, and yet I’ve soooo many times completely failed to hit the mark.  It becomes an ongoing cycle.  I guess this is probably how it works for most people.  Or those who care to try anyway.

I’ve been slow to get myself into a motivated, productive mode here.  That’s what I’m getting at.  I need to be more selfish.

After getting wa-hay-ay-sted on New Year’s Eve (and after losing a day to the ensuing hangover), I went out and partied until four in the morning last night.  This is not me being my selfish best.  I had an awesome time.  I mean, it was a fucking blast.  But I need to be better at practicing that art of “no”.  A friend texts you, “come meet me at this bar” and you need to be better about saying, “sorry, man, next time.”

I’ve always admired that selfishness in others, actually.  I remember I dated this grad student awhile back, and sometimes we’d be out on a Friday or something, and we’d be making the rounds through our cell phones, looking for playmates.  Many of her colleagues would decline the festive invitations, instead spending the time cloistered away, hard at work on their intellectual toils.  Part of that is just the grad student’s life–really the opposite of the nine-to-fiver’s life (which I was obviously living)–but still I admired that about them.  It’s a book I should take a page out of right now.

Selfishness can be a beautiful thing.  Or a productive thing, anyway.

I didn’t get much done today.  Mostly rested and got myself ready for a month of twelve hour days with almost no breaks.  I have some very simple but difficult goals lined up for the next few months.  But I have loftier notions for what may come later in the year.  I’ll be 33 this year, and I’m tired of being beholden to my past.  It is time to dig in and shed some ties so that I can move forward unfettered.

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