Friday, November 27, 2009

A Hotbed of Pontification

You know that scene in "Annie Hall," the one where Alvy's stuck in line for the movies in front of a man who's "screaming his opinions in my ear"? "It's maddening," Alvy says to Annie before turning to the man: "Aren't you ashamed to pontificate like that?" Apparently no, Alvy realizes. The man is not ashamed to pontificate like that.

And I don't think many people in New York are, either.

I recently watched "Black Narcissus," the 1947 Academy Award-winning film about nuns who go crazy in the Himalayas (it's similar to Three Cups of Tea, but instead of a burly, go-getter like Greg Mortenson trying to build a school among jagged mountain peaks, it's a gaggle of sexually repressed ladies with severe emotional problems). Anyway, Jack Cardiff, who won the Oscar for cinematography for the film, said he derived inspiration from the works of 17th Century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, whose work just happened to be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this week... just 40 minutes away from my home in Brooklyn. So, after watching the film, I went to see the paintings.

Indeed, the similarities were apparent. Both figures—Cardiff's celluloid nuns and Vermeer's oil-based milkmaids—are lit from the same angles with direct sunlight that streams in, usually through an open window within the frame. (Above: poster advertising the film "Black Narcissus"; Below: Vermeer's painting Young Woman with a Water Pitcher.) How exciting! I politely enjoyed the moment. I doubted anyone else within the hoard of curious onlookers at the Met was silently evaluating Vermeer's use of light, as imitated by Jack Cardiff, because they just so happened to see "Black Narcissus" the night before... it was certainly obvious that she wasn't.

She was a little woman, probably in her 50s, who stood at the front of the pack. She was next to an Asian kid—maybe a college student?—and it was unclear to me whether they were standing next to one another intentionally or as a stochatic byproduct of collective picture gazing, but he didn't seem to mind her.

"This was where the Renaissance started," she said while gazing at the 18" x 16" painting The Milkmaid. "These guys were masters, I mean they really were masters."

The Asian kid didn't really say much, although he briefly pointed out the fine detail of speckled light captured on the loaf of bread in the foreground. "Yes! I mean you can really feeeel the material," she said to the kid, as her shoulders came up to her ears, her eyes shrunk and the skin around them creased. She straightened up and looked back at the milkmaid. "It's really amaaazing."

It didn't help her case, as far as I was concerned, that she never smiled and carried an air of sophisticated indifference. Her salt-and-pepper hair jutted out from smack dab in the middle of her melon in rigid strands that stretched over her forehead, her ears and the nape of her neck like a star burst or an explosion that she knew was there but pretended not to notice. This rigid aura crept down to her jacket—black, military-style—which formed a canopy, like a bell, above her little legs (bound by tight black pants) and her feet (protected by clunky black clogs). It seemed appropriate that she should also be carrying a big, black messenger bag.

I eventually walked into the other room. Her voice was nauseating. (Really, it was the only one I could hear among the muffled whispers so politely supplied by everyone else in the room.)

"I mean, it's right next to this mundane thing, so it's very... impressionistic." Within seconds, the blabber mouth was behind me, staring at a picture on the opposite wall, her left arm bent with her fingers pressed against the small of her back, while her right arm floated off to the side, wire-rimmed glasses dangling from the delicate grip of her petite fingers, as if they didn't belong to her, as if she didn't care, as if the only thing that ever mattered was the art—the ART! "They didn't just INVENT something," she continued, now speaking to a woman who seemed more her age but remained just as silent as the Asian kid had been. "They used it to be extreme, not merely for an ACCENT." Good lord.

She moved on to another one, stared at it for a beat, then said: "I don't like it. He's got a deforrrmed... face. No. It's just too comical."

Of course, the scene from "Annie Hall" ends when Alvy and the man pontificating behind him bring up Marshal McLuhan, who suddenly emerges from behind a movie poster and proceeds to discredit everything the pontificating man had previously pontificated, and Alvy then turns to the camera and says: "Boy, if only life were like this!"

Unfortunately, it's not.

But that's why we have blogs.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tell Me a Story

Q: What do you get when you mix Ray Bradbury, Rod Stewart, an east-Asian porter and a Spanish tour bus, with a religious cross made out of sugar cubes, a generous shot of pepper-laced vodka, and a festering pool of watered-down cow shit?

A: You get a Moth, of course.

A Moth (or, The Moth, if you're talking about the read deal: ) is simply a gathering of people who like to tell and/or listen to stories. The event—in no way reminiscent of that bland butterfly cousin with a maniacal fluttering compulsion, though named for it (the original crew of storytellers swapped tales in humidity-ridden Georgia, to a far-reaching audience of the beastly insects)—was founded by George Dawes Green, who, after moving to New York, "missed the sense of connection he had felt sharing stories with his friends back home." So he recreated it in his living room.

That was 12 years ago. Now, The Moth stories are broadcast on radio stations throughout the nation and have featured such storytellers as: Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Gopnik, Ethan Hawke, John Cameron Mitchell, Susan Orlean and—as of last week—Claires! (Although, as we have no professional connection to the public airwaves, we acquiesced to the living room version.)

Last week, more than a dozen people crowded into our Brooklyn apartment to hear stories based on the night's theme, "I Had it Bad," and nearly 10 people spoke. While most of the stories featured awkward encounters, physical ailments or some sort of heartbreak, one centered on the hilarious embarrassment of public nudity (and, no, this was not the tale of the pepper-laced vodka).

From what I could tell, the night was a success. And if we can generate another theme with the power to inspire such diverse topics as sugar cube crosses and festering cow shit, I think the Moth will have to make a comeback.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Awkward Pose!

While Claire W. trudged up the hill, past the "stupid people," in Prospect Park, I soaked myself in my own sweat. Face flushed, heart beating, and sweat beading down my back I slowly and methodically made my way through the 26 poses that make up Bikram yoga.
Now, I am not a particularly profuse sweater, but Bikram promises to leave you slick and somewhat light-headed depending on your level of experience. I've taken about 5 classes now, and I'm hooked--I often find myself wandering over to the 105 F studio at 27th and 6th after work.
I've tried Vinyasa yoga before (not heated) and was somewhat ambivalent. I took a few classes, but didn't get the same amount of satisfaction. I've tried to pin down what it is about Bikram that makes me come back for more.
Perhaps it is the physical manifestation of my efforts--a large amount of sweat--that I can wring out of my towel and clothes.
It might be because it is so much more regimented than Vinyasa. All teachers (as far as I have experienced) are created equal, simply because there is no time for personality. All 26 poses are done twice, for a given amount of time, that amounts to 90 minutes. Bikram does not deviate from that regimen.
It could also be the rhythm. I respond well to rhythm. Many of the instructors I've had count during the breathing exercises, or during the poses, so that you know exactly how long you need to be where you are. Or how slowly to exhale, so that you don't spend precious seconds without air in your lungs.
Also, unlike Claire W.'s running exercises, there are no pedestrians or strollers to deal with (that would make for something completely different, I imagine).
Regardless of the reasons, I feel fantastic. Everyday. I might hate the practice while I'm in the middle of it--a big, hot, sweaty mess--but I'm always glad to have put myself through it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Valhalla, I am coming!"

Claire W:

Earlier this evening, while Claire B. was sweating out half her body's water content doing bikram yoga, I decided to strap on my iPod and my water belt—why am I the only dorky runner in New York who seems to have one?—and take a jog around Prospect Park. (Alas, I'm too stingy for $7 yoga.)

I've run the inside loop so many times it's become routine. So, I decided to run on the sidewalk around the park, a path that begins with an uphill climb...

Now, I'm not good with hills, but I've become accustomed to the gradient on this route. What I'm not accustomed to, however, are urban obstacles. Ironic, right? But New York parks accommodate runners; they insulate them from the perils of city life by giving them their own lanes: white lines painted on the concrete to delineate exactly where you can and can't go. Bikers have their own lanes, too, and pedestrians (in addition to the giant field in the middle of the park and the numerous surrounding hillsides) have their own paved walkways, which snake through the foliage.

On the sidewalk, all rules are off.

As I started my ascent, I not only kept a good eye out for cracks in the sidewalk (I've tripped and fallen way too many times in my life, now, to ever claim another dignified downfall), but I kept my eye out for—yes—stupid people. Of course, said stupid people predictably materialize when you're walking down any given sidewalk in New York City, but when you're running up one, their stupidity seems to increase exponentially.

For example, here's a taste of what I encountered:

1. A man (presumably drunk) walking aimlessly on the sidewalk. You'd think, given his stunted motor reflex skills, that I would be able to judge his position on the sidewalk and sidestep him accordingly... unbelievably not so. As he wandered slowly right, I made my way left, only to find myself gradually nearing the curb as he suddenly decided he needed to go left, too.

2. Strollers. To clarify, I have no problem with the actual device—it's the person behind the wheel that can become very irksome. Listen, if you're pushing around a relatively large contraption in addition to your person, you might as well just think of the two as one... do not push the stroller to one side or the other without first looking behind you to make sure no one's coming. (For god's sake, there's a baby in there!)

3. Groups. People have a natural tendency to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, which I can understand because who wants to talk to the back of someone's head. But it should go without saying that this configuration is not ok on narrow sidewalks, especially when you're standing five people abreast. No one—not your fellow walkers, not even the ladies with strollers—wants to deal with having to bypass a human barricade.

So there I was, breathing heavily and sweating profusely, as if exposed to the 100+ degree heat of a bikram yoga class—except that I was just working extra hard to make it past all the stupid people that stood in between me and the top of the hill. I had been listening to Led Zeppelin, and as I approached the top, the stupid people dissipated and I finally looked up: there was the dominating presence of Grand Army Plaza, an 80 ft. high arch, topped with the sculptures of men, horses, eagles and flags all designed to be waving in the wind for dramatic effect. Then, as if on cue, "Immigrant Song" came on.

"We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow. Hammer of the Gods will drive our ship to new lands, to fight the hordes, singing and crying: Valhalla I am coming!"

And with that, I suddenly felt pretty badass for running against all those stupid obstacles.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Moving Day: Part I

Claire W.

Last Sunday, Aug. 30, Claire B. and I moved all our earthly possessions from the 4th floor walk-up in Hoboken, NJ, which Claire B. had shared with her roommate and I had littered with my possessions / self for the past month, to our 4th floor apartment in Brooklyn, NY, in a building with an elevator (a major luxury, when moving heavy objects against Earth’s gravitational force).

The move was relatively seamless—I mean, I had recently moved from CA, so I only had two suitcases and a large backpack to transport. And while Claire B. had a nice accumulation of furniture and full-size bed to think about, my meager collection of things (however illogically) allowed me to approach the move with comfort and ease, knowing that my personal contribution to the hassles of the move was relatively nil. Of course, I did my part to move furniture and such—I’ve never been one to let my beefy muscles lay idle—but lifting heavy objects was really the worst of it.

After we loaded the moving truck and Claire B. headed out to Brooklyn—nudged in between her parents and with all our possessions in tow—I hopped in a car with a friend of ours and zipped across Manhattan, and ultimately into my new neighborhood: Ditmas Park.

Making the Move Out East: a four-step plan

Claire W.

For anyone else planning a move from CA to NY, I highly suggest following a plan similar to mine:

  1. Meet a girl/boy with the same name as you.
  2. Become co-editors in chief of the school newspaper together (this will allow you to build a solid dynamic early on, crucial for near-effortless co-habitation).
  3. Make sure this person with the same name as yours has family in New York, or the surrounding area.
  4. Make sure that the family of this person with the same name as yours is, in a word: phenomenal. (We’re talking Mom, Dad, step-mom, sister and close friend who will collectively provide a moving truck, heavy-lifting, furniture, kitchen supplies and—now here’s the kicker—a bed for you, because otherwise you will be sleeping on the cold, hard floor.)
This will take some patience on your part, but, trust me, it's well worth it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Land of Wild Steeds and Miniature Men

Yesterday, Claire B. and I were told to dress-up: we were going to the races.

You see, Claire B's grandparents own three horses, which they keep and frequently race at Monmouth Park, NJ. They were heading to the Park that day (despite the fact that their horse had actually been pulled from the race) and invited us to tag along. How could we not? Horse racing is associated with so much popular imagery: binoculars, parasols, suit jackets and bow ties. There's Audrey Hepburn, sitting in the stands in her ostentatious black and white ball gown in "My Fair Lady"; there's Nicely Nicely who so famously bets on Paul Revere in "Guys and Dolls"; there's the alluring draw of the betting tables that propels the action in "The Sting"; there's the legend that was Seabiscuit and the legend that will one day be Barbaro; and, of course, there's the beautifully muscled steeds, captured mid-run by Degas and his quick-moving paintbrush. So there we were. Dressed in our Sunday best, Claire B. and I were at the races.

It was what I expected, at first: large white buildings, people in elegant straw hats, well-manicured greens and signs above the betting tables that boasted "cigars, snacks and air conditioning." The park had a very traditional feel to it.

Though, as we walked between rows of brightly colored lawn jockeys—those 12" statues featuring little white men in riding boots with fabulous posture—I couldn't help but think of an episode of "The Simpsons." It featured evil jockeys who resembled the Keebler elves... I couldn't get their chant out of my head: We are the jockeys, jockeys are we, we live underground in a fiberglass tree... The mythic prestige of going to the races was beginning to fade. By the time we sat down in our box above the crowd, it was nearly gone.

While somehow grand and illustrious, horse racing was also somewhat absurd. Each person in attendance was given a pamphlet, which detailed the ranking, age, gender, family lineage and genetic make-up of creatures with names that sounded like cheesey romance novels—"True Love," "Little Dovefeather," "Meadow Blue"—and names that were just ridiculous in nature—"Essence of Time," "Hanna Banana," "Indian War Dance." Then, of course, there were the names that were just plain obscure: "Thenputitback," "Hobbitinthehole," "Myprincesssallyson." Imagine men in panama hats, holding thick cigars, and saying in deep raspy voices, "I've got $200 on 'Little Dovefeather,'" or the announcer yelling, "'Hobbitinthehole' falls back and 'Myprincesssallyson' takes the lead!" What a mouth full. (Meanwhile, I couldn't stop the jockey anthem from replaying in my head... We live underground in a fiberglass tree...)

Oddly enough, it wasn't until I stared down into the arena that the obscurity of the whole experience really set in. When you see a Degas, you see the horse at eye-level, in the midst of intense action, and you see a fiercely determined jockey hunched over on top. When you see a horse race from up in the stands, you see the horses and jockeys in action for about two minutes, but most of the time you see the interim; you see wild, chestnut-colored beasts unsaddled, walking among little teeney men in shiny florescent uniforms. The contrast is surprising. It seems completely irrational.

I found it hard to make sense of such a strange confluence of dissimilar things: bombastic gamblers, sissy horse names, Eliza Doolittle, Keebler elves, wild steeds and miniature men... but, in the end, I think that's what's most fun about going to the races.