Friday, November 27, 2009

The Would-Be Lego Gate-Crasher

My condolences to those U.S. American readers who must endure Black Friday. Although I've occasionally queued up on opening night for a movie, gate-crashing a Wal-Mart — or Apple store — has never appealed to me. Being mildly agoraphobic has its advantages.

Mind you, if your local Lego outlet is putting these beauties on a Black Friday sale, I could see why the irrationality of the crowd might take hold:

Does Lego's Falling Water have a better insulation rating than the real thing?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"A Man's Work"

Yesterday was a banner day for finishing crucial jobs around the house. I saved the biggest job — the seasonal tire swap — for the last, not realizing just how big a job this was going to be. I'm not a gear-head; I don't have much by way of tools, and what I do have is a cheap hodge-podge scattered around the house. But so long as the tires are mounted on rims, the business of swapping and/or rotating them isn't complicated. A fitting job for a man of my abilities.

I retrieved the car jack and the lug-wrench from the trunk (the spare tire kit is one item that remains exactly where it's supposed to be), and started at the front-right side of the car. I'd chalked the tires in spring, when I'd last swapped them, so once I removed the summer tire I mounted the rear-left winter tire in its place. I was surprised by just how low the pressure in the winter tires had become over the last eight months, but no problem: I figured my trusty bicycle pump would work just as well on a car tire.

It works, alright. But it takes much, much longer to fill a car tire to 35 PSI than it takes to fill a bicycle tire to 75 PSI. After the first tire I was huffing and puffing so hard I wondered if I couldn't inflate it faster with my lungs. Remembering my grandfathers' stories of WWII deprivation and improvisation, I figured the least I could do was finish the job, so after a short rest I soldiered on.

I've pulled this mule-headed sort of stunt before. Some years ago when our largest maple split, I asked the tree removal guys to leave the wood behind for our wood-stove. They shrugged and obliged, and I had a heap of wood spread over our front yard. I moved most of the smaller stuff to the back, but left the enormous pieces where they were. It cured through the winter, then when the snow melted I considered the job ahead and took stock of my options. I figured I could rent a chainsaw and a wood-splitter for a weekend of very hard work. Or I could buy a bow saw, a sledge-hammer and a maul, and finish the job at my own rate. One quick purchase at the local hardware store, and I was ready to go.

It took me the better part of four months to get the wood cut, split and stacked. And although this tree seemed to have been designed for my personal frustration (no neat rings inside this maple: it had twisted so much over the years that splitting the wood was a fibrous struggle, with no end of “hinges”) my biggest motivation-killer was stage-fright. I was a local spectacle, apparently. Cars would slow so their occupants could watch; pedestrians stopped and asked why I didn't just get me a chainsaw.

The modern agrarian mindset is “Get 'er done”: use the most work-efficient means to finish a given job so you can move to the next task at hand. Since this approach almost always requires an internal combustion engine, my sawing and hammering didn't just look quaint or eccentric: it smelled a bit of self-indulgence. Ah, but when has anything I've done ever been free of that particular taint?

With the thought of my male forebears in mind, I picked up my tools and went to work. And I have to admit, where self-indulgence is concerned, this particular expression of it worked out quite well. We had nearly two winters' worth of fuel for our stove. And after wasting my youth in the pursuit of a muscular physique, I discovered that nothing packs it on like swinging an eight-pound sledge for 20-to-40 minutes at a time, four days a week.

So too with my ridiculous tire pump. Four tires later, my arms and chest and shoulders were similarly inflated. As for the rest of my bod, my back had developed an unfortunate spasm — or “crick” as my grandfathers would say. If there's anything sexy about the spectacle of a wheezing 45-year-old man stooped-over and limping back to his kitchen, I'm ready to hear it.

He spent the afternoon in an old pair of army pants and a torn shirt, working on his stone path. The idea was to lay a long curving walk from the front door to the road, to divert visitors from coming in through the kitchen. It had seemed simple enough last weekend, when he'd started it, but now as the ground sloped off more sharply he found that flat stones wouldn't work. He had to make steps, of stones nearly as thick as they were wide, stones that had to be dislodged from the steep woods behind the house and carried on tottering legs around to the front lawn. And he had to dig a pit for each step, in ground so rocky that it took ten minutes to get a foot below the surface. It was turning into mindless, unrewarding work, the kind of work that makes you clumsy with fatigue and petulant with lack of progress, and it looked as if it would take all summer.

Even so, once the first puffing and dizziness was over, he began to like the muscular pull and the sweat of it, and the smell of the earth. At least it was a man's work.

That's from Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, and it came quite naturally to my mind. It's one of so many passages that gets me chortling. Frank Wheeler is such a tool. He's constantly fussing over his masculinity: his stated goal is to “divert visitors from coming in through the kitchen” — the woman's place in the house. To achieve this he literally needs “stones” — a metaphor which Yates, as a former army man, is at the very least unconsciously using for its value as a pun. Stones are Frank's burden and his greatest obstacle to overcome, but in the short term he is pleased to be doing “a man's work” for a change. As this passages emphasizes, the guy has stones everywhere but where it counts.

Like I say: funny. Right?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

James Wood On The Novels Of Paul Auster

Uh-oh. For what it's worth, I think Wood is just about right on the money. However, for some readers (including, at one point, me) Auster's plain-faced sincerity (which Wood finds banal with clichés) is quite charming.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Led Zeppelin IV, A 33 1/3 Book By Erik Davis (With Just A Dash Of Star Trek Thrown In)

Back at the Wilshire Pedro sits there dreaming
He’s found a book on Magic in a garbage can
He looks at the pictures and stares at the cracked ceiling
“At the count of 3,” he says, “I hope I can disappear . . .”
— Lou Reed, "Dirty Boulevard"

“Rock and roll owes its life to the power of the commodity fetish”
— Erik Davis

When I was 12 or 13 it wasn’t uncommon for me to pick up a magazine devoted to Star Trek and spend the better part of an evening simply staring at the pictures. I also bought the comic books, and pored over the newsprint until the books fell apart at the staples. Once, I even saved up money for a model kit that featured the tricorder, communicator and phaser. When I finally got it home, it proved to be far and away the crappiest model kit I’d ever purchased. I’d had snap-together kits that were more challenging — and better looking.

The dodgy comics and models could have served as a wake-up call. Instead, as I grew older the market provided ever more sophisticated items for me and my similarly smitten friends to purchase and ponder. I had a buddy who favored the blueprints and technical manuals. I preferred the photonovels — cut-and-paste comic books made from prints of actual episodes. Someone’s kid brother bought the wonky action figures, similar enough to the execution of my models that we held up them up to braying ridicule.

We gave the entire pantheon our critical consideration. When all was said and done, these items all served as a means to the same impossible end: to get us closer to The Thing Itself. Like the kid who opens Goodnight Moon to his favorite page, then sets it on the floor and stands on it, that wacky juror who walks into court in her Starfleet uniform just wants to be inside Star Trek. *Sigh*: c’est moi, mes amis. C’est moi.

Until I read Erik Davis’s inspired 33 1/3 meditation (A) on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (IV, ZOSO, what-have-you) it had never occurred to me to dub this sort of longing as “spiritual.” It certainly wasn’t sexual. Although, mind you, Uhura or Yeoman Rand in a red mini and black leather boots were admittedly stirring figures. As was Yvonne Craig, painted green and dancing sinuously in a few scraps of fabric. Then there was that robot girl with the bright, uh, eyes . . .

Alright, so it was sexual. But that wasn’t the whole of it, not by a long shot. There was the technology, the exotic environment, the bonhomie, the adventures and their physicality, the cogent possibility of experiencing genuine fulfillment at the end of a given challenge — a large, engulfing sensibility that was akin to true life, and yet Something Other than actual experience.

So too with Zep’s fourth album. As Davis makes abundantly clear, you can click over to iTunes and download the songs, but listening to those music files through a pair of earbuds doesn’t even begin to evoke the experience of that album’s power in its particular time and place. The music is about noise and sex, sure. But there was a time when the gatefold art, the mysterious symbols, the off-puttingly ambiguous lyrics — even the vinyl itself — combined to conjure an experience that wasn’t just provocative, or even evocative. To paraphrase Coppola’s early enthusiasm for Apocalypse Now, this album wasn't a rock 'n' roll album. This album was rock 'n' roll.

I find Davis’s treatment of the subject matter delightfully adept. He’s quick to identify and brush away the manifold silliness that accompanied (and was frequently generated by) the band and the album. But he’s also fundamentally serious about the group and the musing (and muses) that produced this deeply appealing and inescapable monument of Rock. He performs a fabulous balancing act between critical thought — that post-spiritual apple that finally removed me from my Trekkie Eden — and a suitable receptivity to the possible.

Now that I've finished the book, I want more. I want the LP, I want to read Davis' other work, I want to re-read this book, I want Davis to write a sequel, I want . . . I want!

Wait a sec: how'd I wind up back in the Garden?

Post-script: if this is a little too much
Trek for you, blame it on Joel.

Another Family "Star Trek" Discussion

Me: Girls, we've gone and seen the movie four times. Surely we don't need the DVD?

Daughter 1: Dad. Wait: are you kidding?

Daughter 2:
Bonus material, Dad. Bonus material.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

The “novel of ideas” is highly feted by the smarty-pants set, but I’ve usually had trouble finishing one. Those few that I’ve read to completion fall considerably short of my “desert island” list. Paul Auster, whose Moon Palace still resides near the top of said list, failed to impress me with his New York Trilogy (A) — City Of Glass was, I thought, especially tedious and self-indulgent. Nevertheless, since I was still young and passionate enough to collect the complete works of a beloved author, I picked up David Mazzucchelli's adaptation of City (A).

This seemed a curious pairing of talents: prior to this I only knew Mazzucchelli as the artist who fleshed out Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One (A).

In retrospect, the pairing of Miller to Mazzucchelli was no less unusual. Miller’s aesthetic, while certainly the product of a virtuoso, remains resolutely moored to muscular guys/curvaceous babes. Where Miller habitually defies gravity, Mazzucchelli brought a sagging realism. Batman might be a superhero, but his outfit was a little baggy in spots; Commissioner Gordon had posture troubles, and Gotham seemed choked with grit and litter.

With City Of Glass, Mazzucchelli was relieved of industry parameters and the generic expectations of an adolescent, predominantly male, readership. This proved to provide a very a fertile canvas for Mazzucchelli. To my delight, the characters that had read as aloof abstractions in Auster’s hands were now transformed into emotionally compelling people.

Surprise, surprise: comic book artists can breathe life into the arid Novel Of Ideas.

This preamble is just about as much as I care to say about Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp (A). There are any number of dazzling abstractions set off with pyrotechnic flair in the course of this story — consider the panel below, where Asterios meets Hana, the love of his life:

The setting is a gallery party, populated by various fledgling artists. As Hana sits in solitude, feeling self-conscious and inferior, the others, including Asterios, mill about in their perfectly realized modalities. Once he starts talking to her, however, their own modalities merge to the point of nearly fleshing out — a gorgeous evocation of falling in love.

The rest of the novel's abundant pleasures should remain unspoiled for the new reader. It is fun, it is moving, and it begs to be read again and again: Asterios Polyp is a profound, emotionally resonant graphic novel — of ideas — that has landed on my desert island list.

this person is especially fond of what Mazzucchelli did with Batman.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Feasting On Bonbons: Katherine Penfold, Jesse Palter & The Alter Ego

Katherine Penfold's Journals came recommended to me by her guitarist, a guy I've known for almost 30 years. I don't often hear from him, but when I do I make a point of listening. His ear is attuned not just to the “wow” factor, but to depth as well. And Katherine Penfold has both, in spades.

Penfold's métier is pop, as the CD cover for “Journals” evinces: she's pictured leafing through milk-crates of vinyl, while the sleeves of unnamed crooners lie on the floor beside her. She smiles, and seems ready to stand up and move. This is her aural moment, and she grasps it with confidence and aplomb.

Journals pointedly hearkens back to modes that are familiar and easy on the ear, and although its production isn't credited* I was wowed not just by its surface sheen but by the manifold layers beneath it. But it is Penfold's voice that takes command: she shifts easily from the misted-asphalt stylings of Avril Lavigne to the deep R&B of Lisa Stansfield, using emotional heft, vulnerability and a sense of play to hook and hold the listener from beginning to end. This album doesn't just go down easily, it stirs corners of the heart I thought were the exclusive province of a younger man.

The curious are encouraged to start with “Ain't No Good” and “What A Heart” (married tracks on the disc), then follow that up with the sassy “Please Forgive Me.” But really, if you're already at iTunes it's worth your nickel to hit “Download Album,” just to give the girl some incentive to get her next collection together. If Journals is any indication, Penfold's considerable range as a singer has only begun to be explored. Available at Katherine's website, and iTunes.

*Juno Award winner Jordan Jackiew engineered, produced, mixed and mastered — and played the keys for — Journals, I am told.

And since I'm already dishing on pop confections: be sure to check out Jesse Palter & The Alter Ego's “Limited Edition EP” (at their website or iTunes). Palter is a remarked-upon performer in the Detroit/NYC/Chicago jazz scene, shifting gears (for the moment?) to ride Sam Barsh's sensibility of what pop ought to sound like. Jim DeRogatis says, “Lady Gaga, watch out!” but I'm reminded of a younger Mary Margaret O'Hare — which (if you don't know it) is very high praise.

Monday, November 09, 2009

"Wall? What Wall?"

As my wife and I pointedly reminisce about the events of 20 years ago, our children look at us with expressions of dim comprehension. My 12-year-old can no more envision a modern city divided by a wall than I, as a 12-year-old, could envision that wall ever coming down. The temptation is to impart all sorts of "lessons" during this moment, but where does one even begin?

So far the only summary we can muster is, the world is in a constant state of flux, often moving in ways we can't even begin to predict. So many changes are violent and lamentable, but there are also momentous changes that are welcome, and to be celebrated. Here's hoping our children live to see -- and generate -- more of the latter.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Gretzky's Tears: Hockey, Canada, and the Day Everything Changed By Stephen Brunt

For Gretzky's Tears: Hockey, Canada, and the Day Everything Changed (A) Stephen Brunt takes a wide brush and paints the personalities that cooked up the NHL's most momentous (and expensive) trade deal. Subtlety isn't necessary: most of these guys were loud-mouthed fat-heads who kept an eye out for the biggest cash cow on the horizon, with a complete disregard for the health of the corporation, never mind the sport. The only quiet ones who kept their cards close to their chests were Wayne and Walter Gretzky, who, in Brunt's account, come to embody the best and the worst of Canadian enterprise. Brunt doesn't just argue that Gretzky's trade to Los Angeles paved the way for Gary Bettman's disastrous expansion of the league, he suggests that Wayne Gretzky's best interests (and no-one guards those interests like father and son) have lead to inevitable catastrophe for the league.

Although I've followed Brunt as a columnist, I hadn't yet read any of his books. As a columnist his prose is measured and to the point; as a book writer, he likes to turn up the heat, and not always to good effect. Also, the concluding chapter outlining the forehead-smacking deal Phoenix made to hire "The Great One" as coach is clearly rushed. The recent Bettman vs. Balsillie dust-up is only touched upon (in interviews Brunt admits he could have devoted an entire book to this), but we don't need a book to tell us who the obvious losers are: the Phoenix tax-payers, the National Hockey League, and the fans. As for Bettman, he may regard the Balsillie shut-out as a personal victory, but with the southern franchises hemorrhaging money faster than the Fed, Bettman's day of reckoning is most certainly coming down the pike.

So, are there any winners? Only one: Wayne Gretzky, by an enormous bank account.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Dogtown & Z-Boys

The familiar whack and clatter of kids on skateboards is a racket I make every effort to ignore. I figure he (not too many girls on boards — although that is changing, thank God) is out-of-doors, engaging in physical activity, possibly testing a few personal limits. If it's a choice between slouching in front of the family television immersed in the latest military industrial virtual reality or spending an hour skateboarding, well . . . let 'im skate.

My patience, however, is severely tested whenever I rouse myself to actually witness the proceedings. So much work, so much clattering failure (“WHACK!! Bah-TACK-a-tah!”), all in pursuit of such a paltry and banal skill-set. And when the hell did boards get so damn noisy?! When I was a kid skateboards were quiet. Everything was made of polyurethane. The wheels were fat — I'm talking three, four inches wide — and absorbed road hum into near silence. If you wiped out, the only sound you heard was the cracking of your clavicle, followed by snippets of your mother's tirade as she drove you to emergency.

Whatever happened to fat wheels and poly-boards? I remember them as being perilously fast. Is “fast” no longer a desirable quality in skateboards? Perhaps wooden boards with tiny wheels are faster, but I couldn't say. I've done a little internet searching and have yet to turn up a satisfactory answer to any of my questions.

I have, however, watched Dogtown & Z-Boys (A) the skateboarding documentary by Stacy Peralta. It's an engaging look backward at the scene that generated the current scene: a surprisingly decrepit portion of California coastline that stretched from Venice Beach to the Santa Monica Pier. As dangerous as the wreckage-strewn shoreline was, the punks who surfed there were still game to beat up any noob foolish enough to venture into the water. When the water calmed down for the afternoon, the punks moved inland and applied surfing skills to their skateboards.

The movie was a full-immersion flashback for me. The mid-70s water drought that emptied pools in California extended to Colorado as well. In '77 there was a small fountain gone dry behind the Iliff School of Theology. A group of skateboarders laid claim to it. These guys could spend the day rolling up and down its walls, adroitly flipping their boards at the rim. It never occurred to me, even after I'd witnessed surfing first-hand, that these moves were imported directly from a point break west of the Santa Monica Pier.

The Denver skaters were ten-cent imitators of the Z-Boys, whose style really is breathtaking to behold. Peralta charts the development of this style, the athleticism and the adolescent transgressive urge integral to its thrill. When the Z-Boys finally emerged from the ruined swimming pools of Del Mar to compete in public events, their élan (as photographed by Craig Stecyk) took hold of the public imagination. Suddenly the fringe skateboarding scene exploded, then morphed into the “sk8ter culture” which surrounds us today.

There was one aspect of the Z-Boys that the Denver skaters had down: they were narcissistic jerks. They craved an audience, if only to enlarge their enfilade of contempt. My purple dress socks and discount sneakers were ripe for their derision, but they saved their choicest torments for the Texan kid who lived down the hall from us. The poor guy was too young to shake the accent or control his temper; the bruises and bloody noses were inevitable. No doubt these middle-class pugilists, with their uniformly innocuous accent, pricey decks, Vans and knee-high tube socks, felt, as did the Z-Boys, like “outsiders” but there were beat-up kids on the periphery of their spectacular clique who would have begged to differ.

The footage of this 90-minute movie is worth about 60 minutes, but is sensational enough to entertain and provoke further thought. I was reminded of another California fringe that erupted into a near-global scene that finally bore only traces of its origins: the Beats. Then it occurred to me that this cycle of self-aware-poverty-turned-style-turned-global-commercial-product is a uniquely American trajectory. You can lament it, or you can celebrate it — anyone over 17 certainly ought to deconstruct it.

Or, if you're like me, you can also take a deep breath and simply make a mental note of it, while the kid beneath your office window dogs on with his artless racket.

Post-script: D&ZB has a terrific soundtrack. You won't find it for sale, but any white North American male in his mid-40s already has most of the music in his library. If you want a dandy two-hour playlist for your next trip into the city, go here. Hook up your portable player and arrange these songs in any order you choose, or just hit “random.” Then sit back, and enjoy the ride.