Sunday, December 13, 2009

A day at the shore

I became aware of the movie "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" not because of its reviews or Oprah Winfrey sponsorship, but because of its inexplicably long name, which really stands out when you're browsing

After learning that the movie has quite a high fresh rating, I decided to check it out. I knew virtually nothing about it except that, according to one Rotten Tomatoes snippet, it offers a grim but uplifting portrait of a poor black girl.

Two hours later: Wow. What a movie. Directed by Lee Daniels, it's at times terrifying, often disturbing, and ultimately, pretty reassuring. If you can stomach upsetting pictures of domestic violence, I highly recommend it.

Set in Harlem, the story follows Claireece (Gabourey Sidibe), or Precious, an obese, dark-skinned 16-year-old who looks in the mirror and imagines that she's a slim white girl. She lives in poverty with a chain-smoking mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), who occasionally emerges from a TV-watching lethargy to beat Precious, berate her, and throw things at her. As the movie opens, we learn that Precious is pregnant with her second child by her own father, who has repeatedly raped her. This fact seems to incite particular violence in Mary, who sees Precious as a conniving other woman. Precious is suspended from school, but a concerned administrator persuades her to enroll in an alternative school.

This alternative school is where Precious finds solid ground. Here, she meets Blu Rain (Paula Patton), a beautiful English teacher who exudes serenity and, among other things, teaches Precious to read (starting with an idyllic-sounding story, "A Day at the Shore"). The other girls in the class are not 100% welcoming at first, but they evolve into a family of sorts. As the story progresses, other comforting faces show up in the form of a nurse's aide (Lenny Kravitz), a tough but kind social worker (an unrecognizable, very good Mariah Carey), and the school's secretary (Sherri Shepherd).

At times the movie's happy scenes seem a bit pat, but overall the film succeeds, largely because of its strong performances and its uncompromising portrayal of the place that Precious comes from. "Precious" features scenes as scary as any I've seen on film — the movie is truly not for the faint of heart. But you have to respect a story that's willing to go in some of the places this one does. For me, a lot of credit goes to screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher and to Sidibe. Sidibe plays Precious with a gravel-voiced, unlikely strength, one infused with occasional lines of ragged poetry ("The other day I cried," she says in a voice over. "I felt stupid. But you know what? Fuck that day. That's why God or whoever makes new days.")

After watching the film, I learned a little more about the book and was slightly disappointed to learn that it wasn't penned by a "Precious" figure. I say this because there is a scene in the film, a slightly heavy-handed one, where Miss Rain vigorously urges Precious to write about her problems. I wondered whether such instruction led a real-life troubled student to create this story. Rather, the author, Sapphire, apparently was a teacher — more of a Blu Rain — who knew girls like Precious.

Whatever the source of the story, it is one that stays with you. It was heavily on my mind for some time after I watched it, especially that afternoon. When I came out of the theater, I walked for a while, then ducked out of the cold into the Finagle-A-Bagel outside Copley Square. It was only 5 p.m. but already dark outside. Perched at an upstairs window, I had a nice view of the Hancock tower and everything in its wake: the lights of the square, freshly decorated for the holidays, the crowded sidewalks, and the headlights inching along Boylston Street.

Gazing at this scene, I found myself wondering about the mood of the whole city just at that moment. I wondered: if right now I knew the mind of every single person in Boston, how much happiness would I see? How many people would be in perfect comfort, perhaps looking forward to a privileged evening — an early holiday party, or a date with an adoring partner? How many would be scared? How many disheartened? How many drifting along numbly? I guess it's not unusual to wonder things like that, but "Precious" especially made my mind move in that direction. I pass so many people in the city about whom I'll never know anything. How many nurse anguish like that of Precious? How many will find their way out? At the risk of sounding cheesy, I hope that this movie helps, by reminding people to treat others with compassion.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tom, get us out of here

Several years ago, a friend gave me a blank book that I never got around to using, probably because it's too small for writing comfortably in for long periods of time. But fortunately it was within grabbing distance a few months ago while I was watching an episode of "Star Trek: Voyager" that featured a line of dialogue so astonishingly cheesy, I had to record it right away. And so a tradition was born.

This book is now filled with only the most superlative dialogue from "Voyager" — the most melodramatic, the most pseudo-scientific, and, yes, the most actually eloquent.

I just finished watching the last season of "Voyager" and, in preparation for writing a review of the whole series to follow up on an earlier review I did, I am now going to list my favorite of these quotations.

My exercise started with "Demon" — a show from the fourth season, just a bit past the halfway mark of the series — so it won't include any gems you might have noticed from earlier episodes.

As a sidenote, you can tell from my list which characters ultimately became the focus of the series. Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) notwithstanding, the pseudo-humans were really highlighted, mainly Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), the part-cybernetic woman rescued from the Borg, and the Doctor (Robert Picardo), the hologram created in the image of a human. Vulcan Tuvok (Tim Russ), my favorite character, also had some good dialogue.

Here are the quotations:

"I'm having trouble with the nature of individuality." — Seven, to Janeway (from "Latent Image").

"Proposing the same flawed strategy over and over again will not make it more effective, Ensign." — Tuvok, to Harry Kim (from "Extreme Risk").

"With all of these new personalities floating around, it's a shame we can't find one for you." — The Doctor, to Tuvok (from "Infinite Regress").

"Remember the temporal prime directive. ... Try to avoid time travel." — Lieutenant Ducane, to Janeway (from "Relativity").

"Oh, the almighty temporal prime directive. Take my advice, it's less of a headache if you just ignore it." — Admiral Janeway, to her younger self (from "Endgame").

"I ended up stranded in the late 20th century. Have you ever been to that time frame? ... I don't recommend it." — Colonel Braxton, to Seven (from "Relativity").

"Dating is a poor means of interaction." — Seven, to the Doctor (from "Someone to Watch Over Me").

"Fortunately, I was able to create a chroniton-infused serum that brought you back into temporal alignment." — The Doctor, to Chakotay (from "Shattered").

"Like most time paradoxes, it's implausible, but not necessarily illogical." — Tuvok (from "Relativity").

"A soldier and a philosopher. Your intelligence file doesn't do you justice." — Janeway, to Chakotay (from "Shattered").

"I told Lieutenant Torres that your saxophone playing reminded me of a wounded targ. I should have put it more delicately!" — The Doctor to Harry Kim (from "Renaissance Man").

"I am familiar with human banter. Yours is crude and predictable." — Seven to Maxwell Burke (from "Equinox").

"Do you have any idea how inappropriate it is to follow your therapist on vacation?" — Deanna Troi, to Reg Barclay (from "Inside Man").

"It looks like a simple case of space sickness. ... It happens to everyone." — The Doctor, to Janeway (from "Relativity").

"Perhaps there is something to be said for assimilation after all." — Seven, on the merits of small talk and other human courtship rituals (from "Someone to Watch Over Me").

"You are an imposter. Admiral Janeway visits on Sunday. Today is Thursday. Logic dictates that you are not who you claim to be." — Tuvok, to Admiral Janeway (from "Endgame").

"As the Ferengi say, a good lie is easier to believe than the truth." — Janeway (from "Shattered").

"When you take me from the Borg, you're going to tell me that part of being human is learning to trust. Trust me, now." — Seven, to Janeway (from "Relativity").

"Did he ever stop being a doctor? ... I can't stop being a weapon." — The intelligent bomb, speaking through the Doctor's holomatrix, to Harry Kim (from "Warhead").

"My courage is insufficient." — Seven (from "Infinite Regress").

"Do what all good pragmatists do ... compromise." — The Borg Queen, to Admiral Janeway (from "Endgame").

"If you don't like the way I do things, I can leave you on the nearest habitable planet." — Janeway, to a Hirogen aboard Voyager (from "Flesh and Blood").

"Tom, get us out of here." — Janeway, to helmsman Tom Paris, in too many episodes to list!

"Computer, delete audience." — Tom Paris, referring to the other people in a holographic movie theater (from "Repression").

"Fun will now commence." — Seven, to a group of children she is teaching (from "Ashes to Ashes").

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Practical feast

I recently joined a blog called Monday Artday, where the host issues a one-word challenge each week, and the participants draw an interpretation of it. This week's challenge is "feast," and my entry is below.

For the purpose of preparing for this drawing, I took my camera to the office every day this week so I could get snapshots of people eating at their desks — but it never worked out. I kept thinking I should at least take a snapshot of the back of my computer (at home I only have a laptop), but I didn't even do that!

So this was done without a model of the sort of pose I wanted, which is why she's just sort of sitting there. I kind of wanted her to be interacting more with the can of Coke or the lo mein, but I'm not good enough at drawing hands to wing it with something like that. So instead she's staring at her monitor like a really good worker. That is supposed to be a fortune cookie in her hand, at least.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The strip of light under the door

In Mary Gaitskill's most recent novel, the main character spends a lot of time reflecting on people she's known — both the nurturing and the toxic. Sometimes they are one and the same.

"Her tears splash scalding hot on her daughter's face," the story goes. "Even though they are tears cried for love, they do not bring healing; they burn and make the pain worse. My mother's tears scalded me and I hated her for it."

As you can probably surmise, this novel, called "Veronica," is a dark one. Of course, if you know anything about Gaitskill, you know that's to be expected. While I was reading it, I had mixed reactions — at times I thought the novel was overly dour — but by the end it had won me over with its odd mix of painful reflection and calm acceptance. I also enjoyed Gaitskill's incisive prose throughout.

If you're not a reader but recognize Gaitskill's name, that's probably because she wrote the short story that inspired the movie "Secretary," with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. (This is a bit ironic because, while a lot of people rave about that film, in my view it offers a Hollywood-ized, too-happy interpretation of Gaitskill's vision.)

Though it's been out a few years, I first heard about "Veronica" this spring, when I learned that Gaitskill was coming to the Brookline Booksmith for a signing. At the time, I hadn't read any of her work for quite a while, so I was curious.

While gearing up for the signing, I learned that she had also just published a new collection of stories. As part of this, I came across an excerpt from the collection, and though it's well-written, it was a little too violent for me. One of Gaitskill's strengths is her ability to see and describe cruelty, but this excerpt made me wonder if she's started taking it too far. I suppose that might mean I'm a lightweight (I admit that I'm also afraid to read "Blood Meridian"), but that was my reaction.

So, I went to the signing and bypassed the stories in favor of the novel, which I only just finished reading. While I don't think that the novel is perfect, it's an interesting, powerful read.

The story focuses on Alison, a 40-something former model whose life, by many measures, is something of a wreck.

As the novel opens, Alison is going about a typical day. She lives alone, works as a cleaning lady, and has chronic health problems that cause her worry and pain. She finds herself reflecting on the past, particularly her modeling career and its immediate aftermath, during which she befriended an older woman named Veronica — an unfashionable, slightly ridiculous individual suffering from complications brought on by AIDS. In many ways, Alison saw in Veronica, correctly, her future self.

In some regards, this tale is about coming to terms with the inevitable loss of possibilities that we all experience as time passes. Alison seems to acknowledge the vapidness of her modeling life even as she recalls the happiness it brought: the euphoria of being glamorous, of being admired, and, most important, of knowing the world was open to her.

Though the novel is slow and contemplative — most of the action takes place in the past, and we know in advance how the main plot points will be resolved — it has a payoff in Alison's realizations, what she learns from her reflections. Key among these is her appreciation for the possibilities that do still exist, and her ability to see that her pain is not unique.

The novel mostly works, but I had a few complaints about it.

First, I thought the novel had too many characters, some of whom have only barely suggested personas. For example, in one scene, Alison visits a friend who has several little girls. The girls are completely interchangeable as characters, yet throughout the lengthy scene, Gaitskill keeps mentioning one or the other by name, and it's confusing trying to figure out which girl is being referenced and whether she's supposed to be distinguishable from the others. I'm not sure what prompts this writing habit, but I found it frustrating and distracting.

My other complaint is one that I softened on somewhat by the end of the book. However, around the halfway point, I felt that the tone of the novel was simply too dreary. As the book's narrator, Alison seems to find humor in nothing. Gaitskill's view does tend to be dark, and that's OK — I like it, even — but the monotone telling of the story, for me, detracted from its credibility, at least during that first half.

This point is a bit ironic given some of Gaitskill's own comments at the signing I attended. At the event, someone asked her about Nabokov, and she mentioned that part of Nabokov's greatness is his ability to see both the tragedy and comedy in life, and in some cases even to capture both in a single passage. As I read the first half of "Veronica," I sorely wished that Gaitskill were able to see more comedy.

On this point, though, "Veronica" redeems itself somewhat. In the novel's second half, Alison does begin to see, if not humor, at least peace and beauty, often in the mundane. Consider this passage from a scene where the older Alison is riding a city bus:

"The bus stops at a light. ... We are all quiet in the warmth and the sound of the humming motor. I look outside and see a little budding tree, its slim black body shiny with rain. Joyous and intelligent, like a fresh girl, the earth all new to its slender, seeking roots. ... This moment could come to me on my deathbed. ... If it does, I will love it so much that I will take it into death with me."

Ultimately, it's this tranquil vision that brings Alison a measure of peace and makes the novel work.

At least, that is part of what makes the novel work — the other is Gaitskill's spare, graceful prose. She somehow manages to say so much with so little. A character in a movie is "oblivious as a custard." Of a boyfriend, we know all we need to when Alison says, "His friends were horrible, but I wanted to please them." Likewise when Alison remembers a friend's home: "She lived in a tiny shotgun apartment filled with dirty dishes, cat boxes, and open jars of clawed-at cold cream."

Another passage I particularly liked concerns Alison's reflections on a singer her father favors. Her observations blend the dark with the light — just as the novel, at its best points, does.

"Starvation was in her voice all along. That was the poignancy of it. A sweet voice locked in a dark place, but focused entirely on the tiny strip of light coming in under the door."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

This Is It

There's a scene midway through "Michael Jackson's This Is It" where
Michael is working with the show's musical director on a slow, sultry version of "The Way You Make Me Feel."

The musical director is tapping the melody out on a keyboard but not getting the tempo exactly like Michael wants it. Frustrations seem to be building ever so slightly when the musical director says that he'll need explicit guidance if Michael wants, for example, "more booty in it." With that, MJ cracks up, and they try again, with everything seeming to go well until Michael puts out his hands in a "stop" gesture and says, gently but firmly, "You've got to let it simmer!"

This moment epitomizes what I loved about "This Is It." The film offers an intimate glimpse into Michael Jackson's creative process, and the picture is one of wit, perfectionism that's exacting but always professional, and of course great talent.

If you want to see Michael belt it out, you might be slightly disappointed, as throughout the movie it's clear he's saving his voice for the main event that never came. Still, there's a lot to like about the movie's music and dance. You just have to be patient and take the glorious moments when they come, sometimes in surprising places: The dance he does during an extended ending of "Billie Jean" is tremendously cool (and made better by the small cluster of awestruck dancers cheering him on). The rehearsal of "Human Nature" — especially the way he says "I like lovin' this way" — is fierce. With "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," he and backup singer Judith Hill luxuriate in an exceptionally drawn-out ending that seems pretty close to perfect. (By the way, if you feel like being sad, check out her memorial tribute song to Michael.)

The movie also offers insightful peeks at the man behind the music — his work style and inspirations. I liked watching him work with the young blonde guitar player on "Black or White," encouraging her that "this is your time to shine." Also good is a moment during "Smooth Criminal" where director Kenny Ortega points out that the staging Michael wants to use means that he won't be able to see an important visual queue — it will be happening behind him. "Yeah," Michael says, in what seems like complete seriousness, "I gotta feel that." It's cute, too, near the end of the film when Ortega makes some big sweeping movements with his arms, looking a bit like he's pointing toward the emergency exits on a plane, and Michael enthuses, "I love when the stewardesses do that!"

A pleasant surprise was seeing some of the other artists, particularly the dancers. The movie opens with scenes of the dance auditions, and it's a great sequence — very "A Chorus Line" (Michael even says "She's the one!"). From there on, the dancers are impressive. I particularly liked the snippet of one, I think it was Travis Payne, dancing in the foreground during "Shake Your Body." I also liked Mekia Cox, who is the object of Michael's advances during "The Way You Make Me Feel." She plays that part perfectly, and it looks like she's having so much fun.

I don't want to go off on too much of a tangent, but concurrent with seeing this movie, I went back and re-read the cover story from this summer's Rolling Stone special edition on Michael, and I was surprised at how much the piece annoyed me the second time around. I still like certain things about it, but, fresh after having seen the movie, I was especially turned off by the following passage:

"That [the 1983 Motown anniversary show] was the last truly blessed moment in Michael Jackson's life. After that, everything became argument and recrimination. And in time, decay."
I don't know exactly how that dramatic statement is meant to be interpreted, but "This Is It" seems a stark contradiction to any suggestion that Michael's later years were ones of "decay." Certainly anyone who watches this movie will see that he was, up until the end, an artist in full control of his considerable gifts, someone who inspired others, not to mention a person of humor and kindness.

You really get a sense of this near the end of the film when Michael and the rest of the performers gather in a circle, and he talks about his reasons for doing the concert, how he wants to bring audiences a positive message about caring for one another and the Earth, and to convey some "love."

Judging from the cheers, singing, and spontaneous applause that burst out in the theater the two times I saw it, I'd say mission accomplished.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

When worlds collide

During my recent vacation, I spent lots of time with family and friends, but the best moment came when a complete stranger knocked me in the shoulder with a large candelabra.

The mishap occurred at the tail end of a wedding ceremony — the point at which the bossy wedding planner makes all of the guests line up behind the happy couple for a group portrait. There was lots of jostling and rearranging as the heavily hairsprayed planner tried to get us all into the frame. During the hubbub, I felt a jab in my shoulder and turned to see a tall-ish older lady carrying a candelabra that was even taller than she was. She'd been trying to move it so more people could squeeze into the picture. As the photo shoot ended, we realized that she'd actually spilled white candle wax on my wine-colored sleeve. After a brief discussion of how one removes wax from clothes, we parted ways, and I headed for the reception. I wasn't sure who she was; I had never seen her before, and I knew most everyone who had attended the small wedding, so I thought she might work at the church.

A short while later, I was getting settled at the reception with a plate of hors d'oeuvres and a glass of shiraz. At my left was a cluster of people I knew; at the right, to my suprise, was the candelabra lady. We started talking, and I learned that she was a good friend of the groom, my friend Alex, dating back to when she was his choir teacher in high school. She is also a long-time resident of the same Texas metroplex where he used to live, and where I had been a reporter for two years right out of school.

In some ways, this metroplex is like a tumbleweed in my memory. I don't know many people there anymore, and none who can reminisce with me about much of what happened when I lived there, or help me fill in the gaps.

I remember the area as a single point of urbanity in a giant Texas desert. The main city that I reported on was a place both distinctly Texan and at the same time strangely homogenized — it was both a test market for McDonald's, for example, and yet home to what was (at that time) the longest line dance ever performed to Billy Ray Cyrus's "Achey Brakey Heart." And no, I wouldn't remember these facts if certain factions hadn't been so very proud of them.

Unlike Boston, where I live now, things in Texas tended to be big and brand-new, from the state-of-the-art highway system, to the sprawling Six Flags Over Texas, to the multimillion-dollar baseball stadium being erected by George W. Bush and the other owners of the Texas Rangers. Equally big was the look of disgust worn by my then-colleague Shelby the day she returned from a tour of the new stadium. Asked to explain, Shelby, a very liberal and very pregnant woman, said sourly, "George Bush touched my stomach," then employed a string of expletives as she questioned what lapse of judgment had led her to follow her husband to Texas from South Carolina.

Though diverse by Texas standards, the area was mainly Republican, mostly Christian and, as I recall, home to a rather vocal chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. But it wasn't all like that. We had a large immigrant community, an active gay community, and a great strip of dance clubs, each named after a character from "Dallas." (For those too young to know, "Dallas" was a TV show much like "Gossip Girl," except that the characters were done with high school and living in Texas.)

I don't miss the area, but I have often wondered what had became of some of the people I worked with and covered. My friend Alex still goes to the area pretty regularly, but he refuses to read newspapers because they get ink on his hands, so he can't really help.

Enter the candelabra lady, Berta. As luck would have it, she is a close friend of a columnist at the paper where I used to work.

As the reception roared on, Berta and I toasted the columnist, and then she proceeded to relay, in what I had come to recognize as a mild Texas drawl, all she knew about the paper, the school board I used to cover, and other local goings-on. When she got to telling me about the various school board members, I could suddenly see my early-'90s self on the phone with education wonks, learning all about things like magnet schools and tax caps. At the time, I was only 22, and my personal tax experience was pretty much relegated to things like sales tax.

Finally I came up with a few questions Berta couldn't answer, so she actually rang up the columnist and put me on the phone with him. He insisted he remembered me and gave me all sorts of info on the paper and the community. When I got off the phone, I saw that Berta had ordered me a champagne, so we toasted a few more people.

We stopped chatting briefly while the cake was cut, and I thought to myself, "How amazing that I ran into this lady." Alex had been close with her in high school, so I've been hearing stories about her for 20 years, but somehow I had never managed to meet her.

Later, Berta ordered me another champagne — and not just a champagne, a delightful concoction she called a kir royale, which was made with a blackcurrant liqueur. Then she quite randomly mentioned the name of someone she knows on Martha's Vineyard, where I lived right after leaving Texas. His name rang a bell and, after comparing notes, we figured out that this friend is the owner of the first house I ever stayed in on the Vineyard — a restored fishing shack on Edgartown Harbor. I only stayed there for about a week while I was looking for my own apartment, but it looms large in my memory. It had a private dock, a view of Chappaquiddick, and the only California-king-sized bed I have ever slept in. I'm really not a total sucker for wealth, but the house was so beautiful, and it was such a respite to me that first night I saw it, fresh from my days-long car trip across the country, on my way to live on the East Coast for the first time. I remember getting there late that Friday night. It was the first time I'd ever seen the Vineyard, and everything about that house was so comfortable and welcoming, it made me feel certain I'd done the right thing by coming East. Though I haven't laid eyes on it in many years, I'm quite nostalgic about it.

As I took in this new information, I commented to Berta on how amazing it was that we'd finally met, and with such success.

"I know," she said. "And to think it all started when I spilled hot wax on you!"

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The art of mass production

Often when I'm invited to a birthday party or similar event, I feel compelled to make a card for the guest of honor. Usually this process involves carefully selecting paper, painstakingly cutting the paper to some specific dimensions that I've determined to be the exact right ones, then spending a couple of days glued to the project — agonizing over every little detail, finishing at the last minute, and inevitably wishing I had time to start the whole thing over from scratch.

This coming week presented a daunting challenge. I'm traveling to the Midwest for a birthday party for a woman who is getting married on the same day. Actually, the couple is already married, but they originally got married at city hall and now will be getting hitched in church.

So the first question was: which card is most important — birthday or wedding?

After going back and forth a bit, I decided it was the birthday card, and was therefore faced with a challenge. I actually don't know the recipient that well (I'm on the groom's side). Still, I did have one idea. She's from Dublin, and they are about to move home to Ireland after many years here in the States. So I thought a Dublin scene, drawn with my new Rapidograph pens, might work. I was pretty sure this would make a nice card.

Unfortunately, while having Greek food with a couple of co-workers, both of whom have been to Dublin, I mentioned this idea and got a less-than-enthusiastic response. "Sasha, Dublin really isn't that pretty," my co-worker Liam insisted.

But... what about "The Dead"? I always pictured that story as taking place in a neighborhood of stately brick row houses, with tall iron streetlamps gently casting light on the falling snow, while Gretta dreamt of her lost love and her husband's heart broke. In other words, a lot like Boston's Back Bay, but better because James Joyce lived there.

Well, after a frustrating afternoon with Google Images, I concluded that Dublin doesn't look too much like I thought it did. It was very disillusioning. My next idea, a sketch of an Irish country scene, started out OK, but I couldn't get inspired by it. After spending an afternoon on the illustration, I set it aside and couldn't get motivated to go back to it.

With my travel day (tomorrow) creeping up on me, yesterday I made myself go to the Paper Source to buy cards. However, I couldn't do it! The selection that day was crummy, and I figured that even if I do a half-assed rush job, the results would have to be better than any of those Paper Source cards.

So today I sat down and made two cards faster than any I have in my entire life. They are definitely not my best work, but I think they'll do.

I started with the wedding card: Both I and my friend Alex (the groom) have always preferred champagne "bows" to flutes, so I sketched two bows, and placed what I think of as art-deco rays of fabulousness behind them. I drew the glasses using my .18 Rapidograph and added accents with Prismacolors. For the champagne in the glasses, I sprinkled on flax- and gold-colored glitter.

The scanned version didn't come out great, partly because the USB cord was propping the scanner door open slightly (I'm such a pro!) and partly because you can't see the glitter, but I have added the image here anyway.

On the inside of the card, to the lower left of the message, I sketched a small bottle with glittery champagne spouting of it and, to the upper right of the message, a few jewel-like bubbles of the headache-inducing drink.

I made the card in about two hours — for me, that's break-neck speed, but it was nothing compared to how fast I did the birthday card. I'd promised myself I would be all done with the cards and packed for my trip before going out for Vietnamese food with my friend Steve, which we had planned to do for a while. When he phoned me 45 minutes before we were supposed to meet, I realized how behind I was. I kicked everything up a notch and very quickly began a sketch of a birthday cake on a pre-cut blue card. I did not actually finish before dinner, but I got most of the way through. I used my .18 Rapidograph on this one, too.

I actually like a lot of things about this cake, though the plate the cake is sitting on looks kind of goofy.

On the inside, to the left of the message, I sketched a slice of cake on a plate with a fork.

Someone asked me recently whether people appreciate the hours I pour into the cards I make. The answer is, often they do, though I guess not always. I think the worst case was a birthday card I made for someone who I don't think realized that I'd actually made the card. That was somewhat awful, because that card had been a lot of work. With that one, I had used an X-acto to cut out a genie lantern from gold origami paper (just obtaining that paper was an odyssey in itself). I'd then affixed the lantern to paper that was a medium-colored blue, a sort of dusty cerulean blue; the gold and blue together were very beautiful, I thought. The lantern sat at the bottom of a tall (probably about 10 inches tall) panel. To complete the image, I'd used several different shades of blue and gold glitter, along with varying shades of green and silver glitter, to create intertwining streams of magic that emanated from the lantern and flowed upward to the top of the card. To bind the illustrated panel to the second "page" of the card, I'd used a small amount of blue binding tape. I'd wrapped the whole thing in gold tissue paper and placed it in a box with a gift certificate to one of the birthday girl's favorite places. The recipient, a very nice person, didn't seem to notice the card but was thrilled with the gift certificate.

Sadly, I have no picture of that card. If you want to see it, first imagine that Dublin is the prettiest city on Earth, then imagine the card.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The two Republicans in Massachusetts

Since President Obama was in Boston today, staying at a hotel just a block away from my office, my co-workers and I chose a lunch spot that took us right past the "October White House," in hopes of catching a glimpse of Obama — or something presidential, anyway.

Sadly, we did not see the president, but we had a laugh at the sight of an endearingly small handful of protesters — or, as my co-worker Liam called them, "the two Republicans who live in Massachusetts." One of them carried a sign that said "Fox News and talk radio equals truth" and then some derogatory text about the president, though I can't recall exactly what that was, as my co-workers and I were too busy laughing about the Fox News statement to process the rest of the message.

I'm sorry if it sounds like I'm intolerant of conservative views. I really am not, but I think that Fox News is pretty much the definition of a joke.

After lunch, as we headed back to the office, there was a significantly larger crowd outside the Westin Copley (where Obama stayed), one that included both well-wishers and Fox News advocates. I was slightly tempted to hang out a bit and see if we could catch a glimpse of the motorcade, but it was my last afternoon at work before going on vacation for a week, plus my co-workers and I had been subjected to unbelieveably slow service at the Back Bay Fire and Ice. So I think we all wanted to get back to the office. For that reason we skirted the crowd and headed back to our tower by way of Boylston Street — normally the longer method, but not so today, with the Secret Service all around Huntington Ave.

The detour meant we had to do without any further insights on the right-wing media, which was rather sad, since, as Liam put it, "I was just trying to recall whether or not Fox News actually equals truth."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

One day in your life

On Sunday, I woke up with the idea that I should draw something to submit for possible inclusion in the Kraken Opus book on Michael Jackson. The deadline was the next day, so that meant I had to act quickly.

Most of the submissions, as you can see from the Flickr group devoted to the contest, are portraits of Michael. I get the impression that Kraken likes this sort of straightforward image — still, I wanted to do something slightly different. I've always loved drawing cityscapes, so I decided to draw something based on the fantasy scenery of the "Billie Jean" video.

You may remember from the video that there is a scene where Michael dances on an isolated sidewalk while two haughty models look down on him from a billboard. At first they are unaware of him; then they look at him; then they smile. None of their movements are presented in live action — they move in a series of stills, which makes their appearance more surreal.

Later in the video, Michael disappears down this same walkway — at this point, he is invisible, the only sign of him the stones that light up as his feet touch them. During this scene, the billboard is gone, replaced by Billie Jean's bed.

As I was thinking of a proper tribute to Michael, it occurred to me that the scene of him leaving this city was quite affecting. I decided to sketch this closing scene, but in doing so, remove the image of the bed and replace it with the billboard. Only now the models would have lost their haughty compusure and would instead be weeping at the thought of him leaving.

I'm not very good at drawing faces, so I started by drawing several sketches of the models. Then I looked for images of women crying and tried my hand at those. At first I had trouble finding the sort of facial expressions that I wanted, so I re-watched the memorial video of the MJ song "One Day In Your Life," which I first saw on one of my favorite blogs, MJ365: A year-long Michael Jackson online scrapbook project. Then I started trying to morph the two, giving the models the expressions of grief. Since I had only one day to do the whole thing, I did only a bare minimum of this exercise, then sat down to do the primary drawing of the walkway, distant cityscape, and billboard, onto which I imposed the models' faces.

The result was only passable, though as someone who has never been good at drawing faces, I was pleased that it came out at all recognizable.

My initial idea was that I would color the sketch in, but as soon as I started doing that, I regretted it, feeling that the pen-and-ink-only piece looked better. As soon as I realized this, I scanned the piece in and then painstakingly used SnagIt to erase the small amount of color I had added, with slightly degraded but acceptable results. Then, working on the original piece of paper, I colored in only those parts that I thought were critical to emphasize — the stones that Michael's feet were touching, the tears running down the models' faces, and the puddle formed by the models' tears.

In a slightly later version, I decided it would be a good idea to color in the puddle more.

I then did several additional versions that used more color. I have never been very good with color, and I generally liked these versions less. I'm not happy at all with how the models look colored in. However, the one thing I do like about some of these later versions is that, compositionally, the purple sky and distant buildings extend the path of the sidewalk up into the upper portion of the drawing, which I think makes for a nice line. Still, I prefer the spare look of the earlier versions.

I would be shocked if any of these drawings were chosen for the Opus, but I'm glad that the contest spurred me to work on it. If I had it to do over, I would spend more time working on the models' faces. I think that's the weakest part of the sketch, especially the one on the right. She came out better in some of my practice sketches. I also am not thrilled with the water circles in the puddle.

If I were to attempt using color again, I think it would be interesting to give the piece a darker feeling, perhaps with the use of more and bolder background color. The dark colors of the video suggest paint or an oil-based pastel (I used Prismacolors — all I had on hand).

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The fine art of managing one's Netflix queue

Someone really should come up with a word for that awful thing that happens when you fail to properly manage your Netflix queue and end up with a disc that's completely wrong for your current mindset.

Last night, I vigorously ripped open one of those cunning red Netflix envelopes, happy in the certainty that it contained the conclusion of a "Star Trek" two-parter I had started the night before. Imagine my shock at finding a disc I'd saved to my queue 18 months ago: the ultra-paranoid documentary "Loose Change 9/11," a provocative — some might say offensive — treatise on how the U.S. government was allegedly complicit in the worst terrorist attack in American history.

At least, that's what I think it's about. I haven't yet watched it, not having been able, last night, to make the mental shift from my planned agenda to one focused on mass murder and allegedly evil right-wing politicos. It sounded just a bit too far from all that Starfleet optimism.

Bottom line, manage that queue....

Thursday, September 24, 2009

September breezes

Since fall really seems about to descend, I and two colleagues decided that this week would be a good time for one last summer outting. So after wrapping up work last night, we headed for an outdoor patio in the financial district.

If you don't know Boston, the financial district is close to the harbor, and it's very pretty, with lots of art deco buildings, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which is lovely in the evening.

Sadly, we couldn't get a seat on the patio we'd been aiming for — I guess everyone had the same idea — but that was OK. We ended up in a cozy booth in a pub with lots of windows and doors that propped open so you could see the sky. We weren't anywhere with a water view, but you could smell the salt in the air, and the evening was the perfect crisp cool of September.

The pub we visited is known for its chowder, but I ordered popcorn shrimp and a watermelon martini. Just as exciting, the establishment had a jukebox well stocked with Michael Jackson tunes, both the popular and somewhat obscure. I played 10, concentrating on "Off the Wall" and "Thriller," but with a few "Dangerous" and "Bad" selections mixed in. Fantastic.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I dreamed I destroyed the sun

Occasionally, on "Star Trek," the captain is faced with the prospect of having to sacrifice himself, the ship, and its crew in order to avoid some greater disaster. A dream I had last night borrowed this theme, though I wasn't on a starship or anything like that. I was right here in my living room.

In my dream, there was some sort of cataclysmic event that was about to occur, the sort of thing that could destroy the entire galaxy. I had colleagues who were working to avert it. But if their efforts failed, we would have to contain the damage by destroying our own solar system. That would be pretty bad, obviously, but not as bad as the alternative — letting the cataclysm snuff out both our solar system and the rest of the galaxy.

The way we would destroy the solar system, in this worst-case scenario, would be by launching a missile at the sun. I was the one in charge of this.

Things had to be timed exactly right. My colleagues needed to be given as much time as possible before we gave up and launched the missile. But if they were unsuccessful and the missile were launched too late, everything would be lost.

I was sitting here on my sofa, staring at information on their progress that I was streaming onto this laptop. I realized that they probably were going to fail. Still, I waited. Finally I realized that I was waiting too long. I entered the instructions for the launch — using some sort of Google mapping app, of course; what else? The countdown began, displayed in dark blue numbers in a yellow box.

I was so stressed over whether I had waited too long that I almost forgot to be sad and scared about what was happening. As I watched the animation of the missile's progress, I wondered how it would feel and look when the sun exploded, how quickly people would die, and whether it would hurt. It felt strange to think about these things while also hoping desperately that I hadn't failed in my mission.

While watching the image of the moving missile on my laptop, for a horrible moment I thought the missile would miss its target. Then it righted itself. I saw it enter the sun, and my computer told me that it had detonated.

I looked up toward my bay windows and saw the sky go dark. On the interior of the windows, I saw words illuminated: "Goodbye to everyone I ever knew." It got very hot. I wondered if the world would explode, and I waited, and waited.

Then I woke up. My space heater was set too high. I turned it off and made breakfast. Later I worked on a drawing, baked cranberry muffins, and watched an episode of "Star Trek." No one died.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Vinyl — it's the new crack

While IMing a co-worker yesterday, I typed the following question: "Do you think I should pick up the 'picture' vinyl version of 'Thriller'?" His response: "You're out of control."

"Here's some advice: create a record budget, and only spend that," my helpful co-worker told me. "We may need to detox you."

Yes, people are trying to intervene. Ever since I bought my turntable, I can't stop buying records.

The context of the above convo is that a few of us had just gone for an innocent lunch at a Greek place around the corner from the office. Afterward, one of my co-workers suggested a stop at Newbury Comics. (For those not of New England: that's a music/comic book store — these days, mainly music.)

Things started out pretty harmlessly. I picked out and paid for a relatively cheap ($13) 45 of two "Billie Jean" remixes (the Dirty Funker remixes). But while my friends were browsing in books, I drifted back to those tempting vinyl bins.

If only I hadn't come to the "W"s. There I succumbed to the siren call of two irresistable discs: Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black," and the White Stripes' "Elephant," one of my all-time favorites. At $18 and $40, these buys kicked the cost of the afternoon up a significant notch.

Later on, someone pointed out that I already had "Back to Black" and "Elephant" on my iPod.

"Yes," I said, "but I only have them as MP3s." After receiving a blank stare, I explained, "MP3s are OK, but CDs sound better, and at the top is vinyl." Another blank stare and my friend dryly asked, "Where do tapes fit in?" Ah, I know such wits!

So how are my Newbury purchases? Pretty good. The "Billie Jean" remixes are awesome, and both Amy and the White Stripes sound fantastic in vinyl form.

My one slight complaint: "Back to Black" and "Elephant" are probably the first albums I've ever bought that were not recorded with vinyl in mind. As such, the song arrangements don't fit quite as nicely onto sides A and B (and, in the case of "Elephant," C and D) as well as compositions that were conceived of with vinyl in mind. Particularly with "Elephant," I think the album probably plays better start to finish with no breaks. Still, the vinyl sound quality is unmatchable.

The album art is also beautiful, especially on "Elephant." Some of the same art also appears in the CD liner notes, but the colors and effects are different there. For example, the cover of the record is a much darker red than you see on the CD liner notes.

Just to explain, the reason I have the "Elephant" liner notes but not the CD is because, at my last job, the disc disappeared one night from the CD player in my cube — whether by a case of theft or irresponsible borrowing, I never found out.

Anyway, I also love the picture of Jack and Meg dancing. In the CD notes, this is a black-and-white shot.

Exciting as these purchases were, I've decide to lay off for a while. Luckily, I still have one more hit coming before I go cold turkey; about a week ago, I ordered some remixes of the MJ tunes "Bad" and "Blood on the Dance Floor" from a British web site that specializes in "classic, rare, and deleted dance music."

I love the "deleted" specialty. How could I possibly resist great dance music that's sitting in someone's Recycle Bin, about to disappear forever!?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Chaotic space

There is an episode of "Star Trek: Voyager" in which the crew enters a region known as "chaotic space" — where sensors don't work, space shimmers, and unknown forces communicate using words plucked from the mouths of random individuals.

When I was in New York last weekend, I stumbled across an art installation that reminds me a bit of that episode.

The discovery was accidental: With an hour to kill before catching a bus at Port Authority, I decided to walk over to The New York Times building, which is right across the street from the terminal. I had never seen The Times building (which I have since learned is new), and I wondered whether they ever offer tours. After a nice security guard informed me that they do not, I wandered around the lobby a bit and spied a long orange passageway lined with what I thought were little plaques.

I went over for a closer look and was surprised to see that, though there were dozens and dozens of them, they were blank.

Then, without warning, they snapped to life, spitting out all kinds of seemingly random words.

This installation is called "Moveable Type 2007." Created by UCLA statistics professor Mark Hansen and New York-based artist Ben Rubin, it is composed of "vaccuum fluorescent displays, copper and steel cable, custom software, [and] two grids," according to a sign at the site.

The grids are situated on two long walls that face each other, each holding, I would guess, about 250 panels. Every minute or so, the panels update with information culled from The Times.

Sometimes each panel displays a question.

Other times, each panel shows a statement.

I found it easy to get transfixed by these panels, wondering who uttered such statements as "I was a rodent at the time, dying to be human," and "We have a few white people, not so many, but they're very nice."

Also provocative are the questions. I would like to know the answers to, and context of, queries like "Isn't there something nice, a lot cheaper, on Lake Michigan?" not to mention "Had there been a purpose?" More obvious (but no less fun) was one that popped up a couple of times while I was there: "A little tacky and vulgar, but would you want your steamy tangos and cha-chas any other way?"

The panels tend to go dark all at once, then they start lighting up in different ways. Sometimes the ones at the bottom light up first, and the content migrates gradually to the upper panels, creating a cool rolling effect.

Other times, each panel ignites with a dot of light that begins drawing a map. It's fun to try to identify as many of them as you can before they dissipate.

There are moments where all panels feature a line from an obituary. Other times, all panels display a number, along with a partial explanation of it (like this: "4-pound sea bass" and "1 stand devoted completely to watercress").

There are also crossword puzzle effects.

After writing most of this post, I dug up The Times' own article about the installation. Apparently, it was commissioned concurrent with The Times' move to its current location from its former one on West 43rd Street. It wasn't clear to me whether most of the text on the panels comes from the current day's paper, or whether an equal part comes from The Times' database of older stories, but I guess it doesn't really matter. Interestingly, the installaton also draws on search terms that users enter at The Times' web site,

The Times piece reminded me that there is an auditory element to the exhibit as well. If you had asked me before, I would have guessed that the sound was some nonintrusive music that falls silent a lot but chimes in when the panels begin lighting up. Other than, I couldn't really remember. The Times article identifies the sound as that of typewriter keys, "the lost music of newsrooms." According to an interesting interview the artists did with NPR's "On the Media," the sounds of rotary phones and teletype machines may also lend themselves to the score on occasion.

All in all, if you're wandering around the area in need of diversion, this is a fun one. NY has no shortage of diversions, of course, but "Moveable Type" was one of the more pleasant surprises I had during my short stay.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

You spin me right round, baby!

Recently I got an exciting e-mail from a friend. He knew I'd been wanting a record player, and he'd seen one on sale for a limited time at Adding an extra dash of enticement, he mentioned that this turntable came with a USB connector — letting one rip vinyl to mp3. My friend's advice was that I snatch the item up "if you've got $50 to drop on something like this."

I did pony up $50 for that marginal piece of equipment. It's the homeliest, lowest-frill device I've ever laid eyes on, but it's given me reason to liberate my gorgeous LPs from their dusty cardboard prisons and, for that reason alone, I love this
ugly turntable.

These days, a lot of people don't quite get the point of a record player. And admittedly, much as I've always loved vinyl, my last turntable died about six years ago, so I'd kind of forgotten, too. But as I started playing LPs on my new Ion Audio USB device, I immediately recalled how much better it feels to play a record. It's not just that the sound is warmer. There's something reassuring about glancing across the room and seeing the record spin. (Like when you watch someone perform live, the idea that you can see something happening for you is kind of cool.) The format pretty much forces you to appreciate the sequence of the songs, which generally were arranged as they were for good reason. And if you're so inclined, you can even pick up the disc and examine the grooves of your favorite tracks. To me, all this is immeasurably superior to handling a plastic disc or, worse, an electronic file.

Then of course, there's the cover art. In these modern times, there's almost no point to cover art, but back in the day, man, was that a big part of buying a record. You tend to forget that until you actually look at those 12-inch beauties again. Recently, I was reading a reminiscence by a Bosnian War survivor about her fondness for Michael Jackson; while reviewing her blog entry, I couldn't help but covet the "Bad" vinyl in the accompanying photo. I never even thought of that as great cover art, but now I'm on a quest to find a copy of my own.

Along these lines, I've been having a rather frustrating time trying to find the album with my favorite cover shot of all time: Sade's "Love Deluxe." I mentioned this to my friend Scott the other day, and he said something along the lines of, "the one of Sade naked?" Typical guy response. Yes, she's naked! But that's not what makes it great cover art: First, I love the colors of the photo; she's so dark — darker than she is in reality — which looks really striking against the white background. Plus, the way the light hits her suggests that she's basking in something warm or amazing. That sense is heightened by her posture, which to me indicates not just bliss, but also dreaminess, and a sort of unapologetic romance that is totally backed up by the fantastic music on the album.

Unfortunately, the record is not so easy to find, and it tends to be pricey. I recently saw a "near mint" version on Discogs for something like 45 euros, a bit high for me. A better deal cropped up on eBay, and let me tell you I was sure I was going to win that auction. For days, no one seemed interested in countering my bid of 20 pounds, but at the last minute the album slipped through my fingers as I obliviously surfed the web. Worse, I had to suffer, as my co-worker Jackie would say, the "indignity" of seeing I lost by only a minuscule amount.

Of course, a slight disadvantage of records is their breakability. I have a dog who's fond of tossing her toys into the air and, about a week after I set up the Ion record player, my "1999" single almost met a cruel end. Right as the Purple One was really getting into the whole "I'd rather dance my life away" bit, my dog's much-chewed stuffed duck was flung through the stratosphere of my living room with great force, crash-landing on the vinyl but skidding off harmlessly, thank God. My dog was even able to fish the duck out from behind the sound system quickly and with no help from me, so it all ended well.

As for the turntable itself, it has some shortcomings. The Ion player is the only one I've ever had whose arm doesn't automatically return when it reaches the end of the disc. You actually have to get up and go lift the arm off the record — kind of a pain. The device didn't come with a cover either. But, you know, given the low $50 price tag, I can't complain too much. The mp3 conversion process is pretty easy too, though I wish the player had come with a longer USB cable.

The actual recording process is surprisingly nostalgic, in a slightly frustrating way. I'd almost forgotten about the stress of trying to make sure you hit the record button at just the right time, or realizing you'd overlooked a bit of stylus-tripping dust on the record. Ah, the hours I spent making tapes — agonizing both over the recording itself and the lettering on the labels. Those were the days.

In any event, it's definitely cool knowing I won't have to go out and re-buy some of my obscure (and in some cases slightly embarrassing) '70s and '80s tunes; with this device I can easily load such treasures as Kiss's "Shout It Out Loud," and the Cybill Shepherd/Maddie Hayes rendition of "Blue Moon" right onto my iPod for hours of enjoyment at my gym and elsewhere. But the greatest enjoyment will be here at home, where I can carefully wipe the dust off those luscious discs, lower the needle, and revel in the sounds of snaps and pops.

And though many people don't understand the allure, it's fun to bump into those who do. The other day I picked up the jazz classic "A Love Supreme" before proceeding to Shaw's for groceries. At Shaw's, the guy behind the fish counter queried me on my Newbury Comics shopping bag and, when I told him what it contained, he was enthusiastic. "Nothing sounds better than vinyl," he said, with great conviction, as he handed me my wild-salmon fillets. "Enjoy those with your John Coltrane." I certainly did.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Can you feel it in your bones?

Midmorning today I had a coffee emergency and left my desk in search of a triple-shot latte. As I was exiting my office tower's elevator bank, one of our security guards, Jamie, said to me: "Sup? No Mike today?"

I paused and briefly wondered what he meant. I sometimes go for lunch or after-work drinks with a small group that includes a Mike, but I didn't think Jamie knew all their names. "Jamie, what are you talking about?" I said.

He responded, "You've usually got your iPod and you're listening to Mike."

Whoa. I would never have guessed that my iPod is sometimes cranked so loudly that others can enjoy the sounds of "Thriller," "Off the Wall," and, of course, "The Essential Jacksons." Not that that's all I listen to!

"You can HEAR my iPod?" I queried.

He assured me that it's not that loud — he can only hear it when he's the one checking our security badges. (I guess it's good to know the staff behind the security desk 30 feet away can't hear it.) As he explained, occasionally when badge-checking me, he thinks, "Wait a minute, I know that song!'"

Well, the iPod was expensive; I guess it's somewhat fitting it's not just me who gets to enjoy it. Shamone, Jamie!

Friday, August 21, 2009

You think I'm planning on being careless?

When the emergency PA system in my office building begins blaring, the message usually communicates nothing of interest and yet still projects far too loudly to be ignored. This morning it informed us repeatedly of a water leak on the second floor (well below my office), and I was forced to crank my iPod volume to unusually loud levels in an effort to drown out the missive.

This technique was apparently more successful than I at first realized, because I was surprised when my co-worker Jon wandered into my cube and said, "Sasha, am I going to have to do my Shelley Winters impression and swim across the lobby?" Apparently, by this point they were evacuating the first 10 floors of the building (but still not ours).

We both had a good laugh, but only about 45 minutes later we would discover that he was slightly more on target than we had at first guessed. The whole building was evacuated, which meant that a few thousand of us were forced to descend many tens of flights inside a hot, dark stairwell. On the way down, we tiptoed through murky brown water and had another chuckle at Shelley Winters' expense (after rounding a corner and seeing a big red crank like the one she so valiantly turned in that modern film classic — you know you know which one I'm talking about!).

The stop-and-go foot traffic was significantly slower and more claustrophobic from what I recall of the one fire drill I participated in a year ago in this tower. And with so many people crammed into the stairwell, Jon, I and our co-worker Camille were somehow separated from the rest of our group. Finally, after about 30 minutes of descent, the three of us were liberated into the sauna-like atmosphere of the Christian Science Plaza, where clusters of frustrated office workers made calls and worried about how they'd get their cars out, while others planned leisurely afternoons. We went to our company's rendezvous point but were unsuccessful in locating anyone we knew. I can only assume that they all wound up at the Pour House.

Myself, I was rather tempted to join the kids playing in the fountain, but I headed home instead, where I settled for ice cream, AC, and the joys of the remote workplace.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Slip me a slug from that wonderful mug

When I woke this morning, it was with the devastating realization that there was no coffee in the house.

As quickly as I could, I grabbed my wallet and high-tailed it to a nearby market that I know to carry very strong, good coffee. Sadly, I was confronted with this sign.

This winter-oriented sign is "sad" because its display could almost not be a careless oversight, given that summer didn't start here in Boston until about five minutes ago. And I have the wind-ravaged umbrellas and destroyed jeans to prove it.

Also sad because it was 7:45 a.m. and I had to trek further for my joe....

Monday, August 17, 2009

As they knew him

When "A blanket in the clover" launched, it was with a sidebar that included links to newspaper articles and other content published in the immediate aftermath of Michael Jackson's death. These items focused mainly on his musical legacy, though some dealt with
other topics.

Today I am taking this sidebar down, but I thought it would be a good idea to embed the links in this post so that I (and my thousands of readers, of course!) can still have them for easy reference.

  • Album reviews (Los Angeles Times) — This LA Times blog item is a convenient reference of contemporary reviews of MJ's solo albums. I don't agree with all of them, but it's kind of cool to look back and see a sampling of what the Times' critics thought of these works at the times they were released.

  • "Bad" concert review (Guardian) — I loved this 1988 review by John Peel of a stop on the "Bad" tour. He conveys a sense both of the quality of the show and the texture of the event.

  • "Off the Wall" retrospective (New York Times) — This was an editorial board item (the only one I saw on MJ in the Times) published the day after he died. It's a nice spare review of the album, one that emphasizes the great departure the record marked from MJ's previous works.

  • On "Off the Wall," "Thriller" (Wall Street Journal) — This piece describes the amazing collaboration that went on in support of these two albums. My only gripe is that I thought the author de-emphasized MJ's role as songwriter of some key songs. Still, an interesting look back. Minor warning: Journal stories are dreadfully slow to load. Thank you, Rupert Murdoch.

  • Tina Brown's recollections (NPR) — This is a short interview, but a good one. She recounts the "bicycle" story about Billie Jean (he was riding a bike when he came up with the bass line). I'd read that before quite a long time ago, but I'd never seen it repeated or been able to find it online until now.

  • "Remembering Michael: Help me sing it" ( — I stumbled across this piece by accident while googling the lyric "Help me sing it," which I was thinking of using (and did use) as the title of one of my own blog entries. The author of this well-written tribute says, "His celebrity seemed a miserable burden, and no small number of critics jeered while he carried it." It's so true.

  • Robert Hillburn on MJ's loneliness (Los Angeles Times) — This is one of the most depressing things I've ever read. Hillburn, the Times' long-time pop music critic, talks about meeting Michael when he was 11, then again 12 years later, by which time all happiness and confidence seemed gone from the singer.

  • Wesley Morris on MJ's changing appearance (Boston Globe) — This piece offers a look at how African-Americans viewed Michael's radical reworking of his physical self. I'm not black, so I can't speak to the accuracy of the article, but I thought it was really interesting and well-written.

  • Lisa Marie Presley's blog — In the first few days after Michael's death, most major publications were quoting this post by Lisa Marie. The excerpts were painful, and the full text of the entry is even more so. Anyone who thinks that MJ and Lisa Marie weren't a real couple might think twice after reading this anguished account, parts of which may sound familiar to those who have been hung up on an emotionally unavailable guy at one time or another.

  • "Life in the Magical Kingdom" (Rolling Stone) — This 1983 interview with MJ describes the disparity between the man and the performer. Sadly, this online version does not include an intro that appeared in a recent RS re-print. In that intro, the writer described MJ as a "touchingly inept" host who refilled her empty lemonade glass with warm Hawaiian Punch.

Note: The title of this post was ruthlessly stolen from David Gallen's fantastic book by the same name on Malcolm X. No comparison between Michael and Malcolm is intended; I just liked the phrase and hope that Mr. Gallen would not object to my borrowing it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

All hands brace for impact

As our president suggested recently, sometimes it's good for folks to convene for "a drink at the end of the day." In that spirit, my friend Janet and I met the other night for some decadent after-work cocktails. When we got the bill two hours later, I wondered if we shouldn't have followed Obama's lead and stayed home with a Bud Light.

Our outting — at Stephi's, a moderate-to-upscale spot in the South End — lasted approximately two hours and my share, with tip, was roughly $80. That's nearly 70 cents a minute! And it got me thinking about this expensive city life.

Certainly you can go out in Boston for less. Just last night, I met up with some people for a modestly priced evening that included cheap drinks and snacks at a Back Bay watering hole followed by even cheaper ones at the ultra-divey Tam in Chinatown. The cost of that outting was probably closer to $12 an hour, much more reasonable. Of course, there was no lobster pie.

So, cheap outtings are possible, but living and working in the Back Bay area thrusts many temptations in one's face.

The retail alone can be enticing. My walk to work sometimes takes me through the Copley mall, and occasionally I and my co-worker/neighbor Jon do a little window shopping on our way out, or during our lunch break. Last week, while pausing at the Karen Millen window, we spied a beautiful almond-and-black trench coat.

Jon guessed that it cost $285. I guessed $400, putting me much closer to the actual price of $425. Still, Jon teased that I should buy it. "Come on Sasha," he said. "It's only five dinners at Stephi's!"

Working so close to this mall is interesting. Luckily, everything is so expensive that I'm usually not truly tempted to buy anything. Copley has a Louis Vuitton, a Coach, an Armani — so, you know, very high-end stuff. I often pass the Tiffany & Co. right as they are starting to open for the day, and it's funny because there's usually a small group of people clustered around the giant gray fortress-like doors, waiting for them to creak open and reveal the store's bowels. These people obviously work there, but I think it's fun to imagine that they are privileged Bostonians who just can't wait to start buying jewels.

About a quarter mile from this spot, I did discover quite a bargain recently. On a whim last spring I decided to go to the symphony and found out about a promotion that offered $20 tickets to people under 40. The idea behind the campaign was to start getting young people interested in classical music before all of the orchestra's patrons, you know, die. This was actually a really great deal. The Boston Symphony Orchestra is one of the best in the world, and Symphony Hall is one of the most beautiful buildings in Boston — it's a great way to spend an evening. Normal pricing for the tickets is generally between $30 and $125, and these $20 tickets sometimes included very good seats that must have been on the expensive side of that range. I went several times and was quite sad when the season ended. Of course, because the tickets were so cheap, I went much more frequently than I would have otherwise and so in the end probably didn't save any money, but it was really fun! There's no word yet on whether the BSO will offer this program again next season, sadly.

My current financial dilemma has to do with a trip: I'll be spending Labor Day weekend with my cousin in the Catskills, and right afterword I'm taking a detour into the city to have dinner with an old friend I haven't seen in years. The last time we met, she was pregnant for the first time; now she has two little ones and an infant. She invited me to crash at her apartment, which she assures me is very comfortable except that "the wake-up time is on the early side." Initially I thought I would spring for a hotel, but then I started feeling guilty about the expense. I relayed this story to my friend Maria the other day. I told her that I would probably just stay with my friend and deal with waking up early, possibly to the sound of a crying baby, and forgo the hotel idea. She looked at me as if I'd just said I might vote for Mayor Menino. "Sasha," she said. "Put it on a credit card."

Tempting, yet while walking through Crate & Barrel at lunchtime today, I wondered if I should try to target more of my spending toward my apartment. On the store's third floor, I spotted the perfect easy chair for my living room. It only costs 15 dinners at Stephi's.

As I contemplate all of these possible expenditures, I'm reminded of lyrics by the great Stevie Wonder, from his song "I Wish."

Even though we sometimes
Would not get a thing
We were happy with the
Joy the day would bring

Listening to this song the other day, I wondered, Should I try to be more like this? Of course, when I googled the lyrics just now, I realized that Stevie also says:

Mama gives you money for Sunday school
You trade yours for candy after church is through

Hmmm. Now, this is a little more like it! Though I would have also skipped church.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Help me sing it!

I saw a poll the other day asking people to name their favorite Michael Jackson songs, and it got me thinking about whether I have one of my own. I'm not sure I do. How does one choose between the taut dread of "Billie Jean" and the delirious fun of "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"? Between the relish of "Human Nature" and the pain of "Will You Be There"? Some of these songs, as Newsweek recently pointed out, are "so perfect of their kind that they'll never sound dated."

Still, there's one song for which I have a particular affection. I'm not sure I can explain why, because there's no big dramatic story, but I'll try.

We moved around a lot when I was a kid, because my dad was in the Air Force. I usually adapted pretty well, but one move was kind of overwhelming — when we went from Spain, where we'd been for four years, to a small town in Oklahoma. I had just turned 13 when we came stateside, and I didn't know what to make of anything. I really missed my old life. I'd loved the Spanish architecture, the Spanish countryside, and the Spanish food. Moreover, the military community had been inclusive and welcoming. We'd had a nice house with a backyard, from which I rode my bike all over. We hadn't had things like current American TV, so we'd apparently missed a few cultural phenomena including "Who shot J.R.?," but I was
fine with that.

By contrast, Oklahoma seemed small, and the people in our town homo-
goneous. It felt like we were the only new ones, and for some reason we lived in an apartment with no windows. It's hard to believe now that the fire codes allowed that, but apparently they did. The apartment had two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen, all weirdly dark. We took to clustering around the TV.

Life outside the apartment wasn't so hot, either. I thought the area was desolate, and I missed my friends. It didn't get better when my mother took me to register at the middle school. I remember that weekday afternoon quite clearly; she and the assistant principal got into a long, boring conversation that didn't grab my attention until my mother asked when I should start class. My brain desperately screamed "not today," while the administrator said, "Might as well jump right in." I was reluctantly led to a classroom.

I never fit in at the school. I thought the other kids were cliquey, and I was horrified to find that the Oklahomans were way ahead of me in math.

My fondest memories of the first few weeks are of holing up in my room, writing in my journal, and occasionally walking to the Arby's next door. And of course, visiting the record store. Back then, I listened to ELO, Billy Joel, and the Beatles, along with a healthy smattering of Eighties froth. I had a wonderful stereo, a Christmas gift from the year before that had been carefully selected for me by my dad. It was a silver mini-component set. Most of the components were Fisher, but the piece that sat on the bottom was a little Pioneer turntable. You just pushed a button and the turntable slid out magically from its enclave below the tuner.

We hadn't been there long when the 20-something daughter of family friends left her home a couple of states away to come stay with us for a while. I liked Sarah, though she made me self-conscious. She was self-assured and beautiful, whereas I was clumsy and wore glasses. I remember watching some sort of music show with her on TV, and talking about which were the best John Cougar songs — I was thrilled I could hold up my end of the conversation. Initially neither she nor anyone else told me the real reason she was there, but after she left I found out why: her boyfriend had been beating her up, and after she'd left him, he'd stalked her. She'd come to our home to disappear for a while. In my memory, those facts make the shadowy apartment seem even more like a bunker than it might otherwise.

Eventually Sarah went home, and life started going really well for her (as it has ever since). I found I was sorry to see her go. In her absence, I spent more time angsting over various things, some real, others not so much.

Left to my own devices, one of my favorite distractions was listening to Casey Kasem. I heard the first few "Thriller" singles that way. As I wrote in a previous post, I resisted the album at first, but the snippets I heard won me over. Making the decision to buy the record got me kind of psyched, in a way. No one in my family liked Michael Jackson, so buying the record, even though it was so popular, felt in some ways like a private thing, just for me. I remember bringing it home to my darkened room and sitting on my bed to unwrap it. I put the record on, heard "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" for the first time, and it was like someone turned the lights on.

I don't know what exactly happened. Maybe the song inspired me while I was feeling a bit off my game. Maybe it reminded me that there was a world outside Oklahoma. Or maybe it's just a really kick-ass song. With its urgent beat and that glorious, high-octane African chant, it was like nothing I'd ever heard. And yet, I also had the strong sense that the song couldn't be new. I know now that the chant is a riff on the one from Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa," but if you've heard that song, you know it sounds nothing like Michael's, so that doesn't account for my aural déjà vu — how in a very strange way, I felt like I'd always known "Startin' Somethin'." I was sure the song must have been years old. I put this to people many times over the coming weeks. For some reason, they all insisted the song was new. Eventually I accepted that. I concluded it was just some peculiar magic that made the song seem special, timeless. That song, and the whole album, felt like a gift.

Like I said at the top of this post, I don't really have a favorite Michael Jackson song, but the sheer power of that one — the way it instantly brightened everything like no single song had before or has since — will always give it a special place in my heart and mind. Perhaps that's an overly sentimental notion about a song that really couldn't be less so itself, but there you have it.

Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.