Thursday, November 30, 2006

Philip Roth's visit

Philip Roth visited the program to talk about his latest book, "Everyman.'' I thought his reflections on this dark book were inspiring and bleak at the same time. When asked if his vision, with every book, is getting darker, he said, "well, I know more people who've died -- colleagues, friends, family members falling off the ledge. If you're a writer, you are in tune to what is around you. I'm just trying to stay on top of my experiences. It's strange how you fail to understand things throughout your life, how you fail to understand deeply what you haven't experienced, even if you've watched somoene go through something and felt empathy toward them. Your (direct) experience piles up.'' In his book, he has the narrator 'converse,' or think he is conversing, with lost loved ones. "We do know (these conversations) take place all the time but they are imaginary,'' he said. "People push aside the fact that this is themselves talking to themselves.'' He also has a scene in which the narrator has a "moment of buoyancy'' when his best, most sensual memories flood back to him just before he goes under for an operation, and dies. One student asked if those good memories help to end the book on an 'optimistic' note. Roth said no. "The joke's on him,'' he said. Though the subject matter was bleak (because his latest book is so bleak), there were some (somewhat) lighter moments when he talked a bit about his process. For one thing, as most people know, he writes standing up, at a stand-up desk. "I walk around a lot,'' he said. "I walk a mile for a sentence. When you're a writer, you're kind of like a beggar, begging for the next sentence. You should walk around with a cup in your hand.'' He also spoke about the writers that formed him. (Henry James, ''elaborate style, ridiculous and grand,'' Faulkner ('a devastating discovery, rich, comic, and mean' ) Thomas Wolfe ('elegiac, lyrical, sometime bombastic, a great portraitist)'' and dozens of others.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Grey Gardens, loud snack eater, and Kiki Smith

Hooray. The inconsiderate bozos upstairs have stopped stomping around on our ceiling! They have stopped moving their stupid desks and chairs and dragging their big mattresses all over the place for no reason at three in the morning! In a celebratory mood after defeating the "Thump-a-linas' once and for all, my wife and I went out to see a Broadway musical called "Grey Gardens.'' We were way, way, way up in the oxygen-mask seats --- New York theaters are strange in the sense that they are often small but have ceilings that soar so high above the main floor --- but "Grey Gardens'' was still fantastic. Christine Ebersole's performance is a sleight of hand. She plays both the social-climber mom and, later on in the play, the older, decrepit daughter, making retro-flapper outfits out of curtains. The first half shows the Grey Gardens house in its East Hamptons heyday; by the second half it's a hovel, overrun by cats and raccoons. As usual there was a not-very considerate person seated near me -- in this case, a young, but by no means petite, woman who elbowed into me and kept checking the time on her cell phone, eating gloopy snacks with crinkly crankly wrappers, murmuring to herself and loudly leafing through the pages of her Playbook (!) She also spoke loudly to her pals through most of the first act. Mustering all the diplomacy I had within me, which is not much, I asked her to please stop it, and she did.
Today I also saw the incredible, if disturbing and sometimes quite disgusting, Kiki Smith exhibit at the Whitney. It is not to be missed, and makes amazing use of space and craftsmanship. Her various papier mache, glass, plaster, paper and wax creations dangle from the ceiling, crawl up the walls, crouch on the floor and make insanely clever use of space. I think it's one of the most powerful 'body as metaphor' exhibits I've ever seen, though I must admit that it freaked me out and will probably give me nightmares, with its images of wolf children, intestines rendered in ductile brass, and mounted beeswax figures in uncomfortable poses. There is a 'Little Red Riding hood' installation in which the girl herself is part wolf. When you walk past the installation, the sculpture -- equipped with a motion sensor and a hidden music box-- starts playing loud and atonal chamber music tape. See this exhibit now, even though you might need therapy afterwards.

Friday, November 17, 2006

More about historic cannibals

On the other hand, if I was in the same situation as the aforementioned pioneers, (i.e. the Donners from last month's blog) I can't say for sure what I'd do. At the International Studies library, I found a hair-raising book called the "Cannibal Within,'' which claims that cannibalism is "evolutionarily sound'' and that "everyone has cannibal potential." The book also makes the case that Americans, in particular, are preoccupied with cannibalism. In America, there are cannibal-themed rock bands, a one-hit wonder band from the eighties (Toto Coelo) with a stupid song on the subject ("I eat cannibals'' -- remember it from KROQ?) and thousands of zombie or cannibal movies (Silence of the Lambs, Soylent Green (famous line: "Soylent Green is PEOPLE!!'', Cannibal Holocaust, Shawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead, etc.) There are at least half a dozen cannibal-related episodes of "Gilligan's Island,'' and at least one movie -- the not very good "Ravenous'' -- that is directly inspired by the Donners. So it's possible that I'm being unfair about the Donners when I say they are "not true pioneers." Maybe they were pioneers in terms of pop culture.

Grey Gardens nosebleed seats and imploded rat

Every once in a while I get to take advantage of "hot'' events at NYC, though usually I need to sneak in, get a student discount or wait in the rain for rush tickets. This time I am going to see "Grey Gardens,'' about eccentric Kennedy in-laws living in a hovel with cats (did I get that right? I hope so.) The theater is small but the ceiling is very high -- and we will be up near the ceiling, with binoculars, and wearing oxygen masks. I'm also hoping to see the new "Spain'' exhibit at the Guggenheim (the one that's been in the news; one of the Goyas was stolen en route to the museum!) The city is its usual combination of incredible opportunities and stomach-churning squalor. Just as I was walking home with the New York Times, its 'events' page crammed with amazing gallery shows and performances, I almost stepped on an imploded rat with its innards strung out in the street -- easily the most disgusting thing I've seen in months.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Thumpo-Lena Hell

In case both of you readers were wondering, the Thumpo-Lena problem (new arrival in my apartment building moving chairs, furniture, etc., at 3 a.m. above our heads, shoving things around, banging, pounding, ) continues. It's just like "What's He Building In There'' by Tom Waits, but in an urban environment. One night at 1 a.m. I went upstairs and knocked on the door. I non-giant -- actually a petite woman --- answered. I asked if she was moving furniture around. Meekly, she said yes and apologized profusely. The next evening at 11 it sounded like a couple of rhinocerouses were consummating their relationship upstairs. Thump stomp crash kick stomp stomp crash. I went upstairs and this time it a defensive, but, fortunately for me, a thin and not very tall man, answered. He said he was "quite frankly surprised'' that I was hearing so many noises. "Really, I truly am surprised,'' he said. "i mean, what could be making the noise? Us dragging a chair around? It just doesn't make any sense.'' He was taken aback and wondering if the sounds ''were coming from the floor above me and somehow reverbertating downstairs,'' which strikes me as Voodoo Physics --- if that is true, why wouldn't he hear the thumping -- but finally he said, "Sorry, guy. We'll work this out, man. If we make a noise, just thump us with a broom handle.''' I love that sort of reassuring language, and the problem was solved -- for a few minutes. Last night the stomping and banging woke up my wife at 1:30 a.m. Indeed, we got out the broomhandle and thumped their floor pretty good and the banging stomping etc. stopped for a while. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Some guy, probably a big, dumb, hulking giant, moved into the apartment right above our heads. Every night he stomps around so hard up there that our whole bedroom shakes and dust falls out of the ceiling. It sounds like he's up there crushing grapes with his feet. The problem is that NYC is not designed for neighborly communication --- or any kind of interpersonal communication whatsoever. No one talks to anyone for any reason in this city. I plan to knock on the door and talk to the guy but it worries me; there is no context for this around here. This is not California, where people dump their personal issues and encounter-group stories on complete strangers. Last year I knocked on someone's door just to borrow a half-cup of sugar and he looked stunned, as if no one had spoken to him for the last 20 years. But it's gotten to the point when the thumper is waking us up. Stay tuned. If you read in the newspaper this week that some guy on Morningside Heights got stomped by a big, stupid giant, look for my photo next to the article.