Wednesday, August 12, 2009
For three years, I faked it through art school--producing nothing of merit and little of promise. After I dropped out, I never applied a brush to a canvas, a burin to a plate, or my hands to a lump of clay again.
The point is, that to produce art (and I deliberately use the broader term "produce" rather than the more limited "create"), one must burn from within, a self fueled fire, a fire that cannot restrain itself. An artist would produce art even if there were not another living soul alive, because he cannot not make art.
That is not the case with writing. It's not that writing necessarily gives me pleasure--some writing tasks are painful, and it is never easy.
But words come out of me, out of my pencil, out of my keyboard, to be recorded, perhaps to be shared, spontaneously.
So I offer these writings to you. In return for the gracious gift of your time, I promise--to try, at least--to not be trivial, to be as brief as I can, and to get to the point with dispatch.
To be true to this pledge--I say thank you, and so long.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
July 21, 2009
Some things disappear from site under the radar. You go by a street corner every week, every day even, and one day a big tree is gone, or a building. You sense something is missing, but you are only marginally aware of it—if at all.
There was this wino that haunted the neighborhood around my office; a little guy who I saw almost anytime I was on the street. I don’t think I ever saw him walking a straight line, even some mornings on my way in he was reeling, or walking out of the bodega with a bottle in a paper sack, headed for the park across the street, or that narrow space between the rear of the package store and the tracks.
One dark evening I almost tripped over him, lying asleep on a path, still astride a toppled bicycle. It was an easy rationalization to assume he was feeling no pain and not likely to freeze, and so to keep walking.
Even doing my best to avoid him, he would still approach, with that drunkard’s gait, like he was plodding through 6” of muck, elbows bent and spread wide, giddy eyed, struggling to connect some words to hit me up for money or a smoke, or maybe just to start a conversation. No matter, I’d grunt a syllable in reply, or turn away and pretend I did not hear, unable to breach the gap that seemed so vast.
And now it dawns on me he has vanished—how many months since I’ve seen him, this guy I couldn’t imagine surviving the winter at least three years ago.
For that matter, how about the old gimp, squinting through his Lions Club glasses, always with a different coolguy hat, using a putter for a cane. You’d see him, too, all the time, hobbling under the railroad tracks, or huddled in the café on a bittercold day, nursing a coffee and reading a three day old Post. Even when he’d push a broom down the sidewalk in front of the rib joint or the nail salon, there was a quiet dignity about him—where has he gone, since how many months ago I saw him last?
Why bring this up? Why can’t I sing a few bars of There But For Fortune, and move on?
This world is a world of layers, of overlays of people, cultures, societies, occupying the same space and time.
The guys in the park—a miserable salient wedged between two converging throughways, windscoured in winter, sunblasted in summer—the guys with their beverages in paper sacks; the scowling woman in rapt conversation with no one else, her bundles wrapped in plastic bags, stuffed in a little shopping cart, her finger on some passage of her bible. The vacant faced guys, sitting on the stoop outside my office, next to the alley of the glistening condom, the alley of the black escalade, tinted window vvvvipping down, the broken glassed, urine scented alley of the stealthy hand to hand exchange.
It’s slow today, I’m working alone. (Hell, it’s been slow for months.) Gotta get out and stretch my legs. Some guy approaches the stoop from the sidewalk as I reach it from the stair hall.
The guy stops in his tracks, but does not turn away.
“I jes wanna sit somewhere and eat my lunch,” he declares. “They gimme a hard time in the park.” He displays some napkins and a couple of fried egg rolls in paper tubs.
“What’s your name,” I reply.
“Darryl. I work at the club.”
“My name is Alan.”
“I’ll pickup my trash when I’m done. You see that bag in the alley? I’ll pick it up, too.”
I put a hand on his boney shoulder. I detect a faint trace of alcohol. “Make yourself at home, Darryl. I’ll be back in half an hour.”
“I can do these weeds for you, too, if you want,” gesturing to the unpaved strip along the building.
“No thanks, it’s better than bare gravel.”
“Yeah, they gonna piss there anyway, weeds or no weeds. Me, I piss inside, not outside.”
“yeah, they’re gonna piss there either way.”
When I returned Darryl is gone. The stoop is clean. The bag in the alley is gone, too.
My alley, my street, my city, my dieselbreath city. City of my birth, the city I fled so many times, the city I cannot leave. My alley, my city, my wino who I could not face—how can I not love you?
--what I discovered or, better, rediscovered, is that when we build green, we are responding directly to nature.
And the responses are very profound, very sensual and very spiritual.
To me that's sufficient reason to build green.
#4 The Careless Perfection of Nature
“I don’t imitate nature; nature is so far superior. I try to imitate the process of nature.” So reveals Fu-Tung Cheng, our keynote speaker and cleanup slot seminar presenter, of the methodology that guides his designs.
I carried that philosophy with me on a hike to the
The garden is an extraordinarily ambitious exhibit, an encyclopedia of features drawn from a diverse range of classical Japanese landscape styles. From a hypernaturalized waterfall, to wood architecture, and ponds lined with iris—to a rectangular courtyard where seven lonely rocks contemplate an upright boulder in a bed of sand—it’s all there, including a gift shop and restrooms—packed into 5 acres.
It’s unfair to fault the designer of the garden for not having the resources of Disney. By the same token, it is
One element of a Japanese garden is lacking: tranquility. How could it exist, however, in a such popular public setting? So its very essence is compromised by its purpose.
And how!—on this fair Saturday, the place is teeming with young lovers, doddering seniors, antsy toddlers—and tourists with several other sites to take in during their short visits—not to mention this solitary observer. A lowflying aircraft trumpets overhead, a truck growls up an incline, and the amplified conductor cries ALL ABOARD the Zoo Train that skirts the site.
By deliberate refusal to preview the garden plan—and otherwise by happy accident—the finest feature of the park revealed itself to me in the way I think it was intended. I came upon the main garden pavilion from the rear. Walking along its engawa, and studying the bands of sliding panels and carpentry details, then proceeding around the side—I was halfway along the front of the building before turning to look outward.
I gasped audibly. Before me was the expanse of the ocean garden (“Flat” garden in the guide book). This space, occupied by a bed of sand, calligraphically raked with concentric rings—perhaps the size of a baseball diamond—seemed vast. Two small islands of moss in the foreground, and the layered rim of dwarf willows and weeping cherries, manicured cutleaf maples, and sculpted mugo pines, backed with towering cedar and cypress, intimated infinity—to the point, where for a few moments, the hubbub and distraction died away, and tranquility descended on me.
The walk back down from the garden drove home the question: How do you improve on nature? In descent, that shear wall of verdure mentioned above confronted me—lush ferns cascaded down its entire slope, and a great dawn redwood sprung perpendicular to its shoulder to ascend 100 feet. How could a waterfall, with the artful, selfconscious randomness of its transported boulders, and its whirring recirculating pump, ever compete with the careless perfection of nature?
For me, it was the ocean garden that accomplished that task, unashamed of its artifice, reducing nature to its essential geometry, texture, and color.
Cheng was right.
#3 Bronze and Stone, Fir and Ashes
A crumpled, upturned steamer trunk lies at the head of a black cobble path. Across the path is a toddler's shoe. I must squat to touch the strap of the trunk—no, it’s not leather, it’s bronze, like the shoe—and the smashed violin, mangled eyeglasses, and trampled prayer book--strewn along the cobbles that leads to a semicircular black granite wall.
A rock, under which is buried ashes from Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, anchors the right end of the wall.
Nearby stands a fir tree whose trunk I cannot span with outstretched arms. I am beyond weeping.
At first glance, the fairhaired woman is attractive. On approach, the hollow eyes become apparent, and the missing teeth when she bursts into strained laughter. She sits crosslegged on the grass with two companions—a scrawny man with a hardmile face, also on haunches, and a darkhaired woman, supine, resting on her elbows. Close by is a shopping cart, partially covered with a tarp, and some tattered, nondescript paraphernalia.
We are somewhere in the upper end of the urban park system that runs like a string of green beads, north and south, through downtown Portland. To the east is the US Custom House, a compact Renaissance inspired building with a stone piano nobile, and 3 roman brick stories above. Old Glory flutters on a pole, high above the roof. Across the park to the west is a row of semichic shops, terminating in Urban Fauna.
Members of the trio laugh wildly, mostly at their own remarks. They sway, and gesture with broad sweeps of their arms. Their voices rise and sway with their gestures.
On a nearby bench, a portly man with at least three days of white stubble snuggles against a tall backpack, sound asleep. Another, drawn by these affordable accommodations, stirs and shifts the motley bundle that is his pillow--then resumes his rest. A middleaged man lumbers by a second time, grinning gamely. It is time to move on.
#1 AWhole Nuther Trip
What was it in those two or three lines of the tourist’s brochure that caught my eye? Words like “funky,” or “bohemian,” or “counter culture...”
...regardless, after 10 hours of taxis, planes, and airports, my long legs needed limbering, so I let the both of them carry me across an ancient trestle bridge, and thirty and forty blocks east, along a straightarrow boulevard rising gently toward Mount Tabor, to the “not to be missed” Hawthorne District.
Nor was I disappointed. I started with a breakfast at JAM, scarfing free range chicken eggs, splendid wholegrain bread, and some savory vegan chorizo—which gave up nothing but a little grease to the real thing. The wait staff would have blended seamlessly with the coffee house folk I hung with before Dylan went electric. (I did pass on the Breakfast Mary, with rosemary infused vodka...)
Thus sustained, I ventured along the avenue, festooned with shops and businesses for every imaginable need—aromatherapy, tattoos, hookahs, and beads; counseling, therapy, and body piercing. There were raingardens, and gaily painted vintage homes converted into professional offices—like the turn-of-the-century four square with five practioners of arts I had never heard of, but likely involved the manipulation of body parts.
I came upon a building next to a parking lot—on its the sidewall a 70’ mural featured portraits of Tennessee Williams, Sylvia Plath, Dostoyevsky and other luminaries—with pithy quotes, and illustrated vignettes from their works. I was fascinated, and worked my way all the way to the end, where Oscar Wilde’s portrait faced a life sized rendition of Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome admiring the severed, goredripping head of John the Baptist. What manner of business could this wall enclose? A bookshop, a theater? I walked to the front, to discover that it was a second (or third, or fourth) hand store, a humungous garage sale from the Truman administration.
On past the rollicking Bagdad Café, past Belly Timber and The Third Eye Shoppe: Incense, Crystals, and Hemp Products—We Smoke the Competition! A handscrawled sign on the door of a knife store threatened mayhem to anyone sneezing, coughing, wheezing or dribbling, or entertaining a host of other disagreeable attributes, or belonging to a frighteningly long list of ethnicities and nationalities. I’m afraid I passed it by, fearing I might not be One Of Us.
A visit the ‘hood would not be complete without dropping into a satellite branch of Powell’s—but wait—this shop only had books on cooking and gardening. A passageway led to the adjacent store—a magnificent array of gourmet produce, meats, and wines. Two separate ownerships, but united in a common cause. (A few doors down was a vast, diversified Powell’s, but no where near as vast as the Entire City Block Powell’s.)
The sidestreets were equally compelling. The neighborhood was populated with bungalows large and small, some almost touch eaves with one another, others set deep on double lots. It was as though they all were in a competition for the most imaginative detailing—carved barges and brackets, porch rails, and that kind of paint job that would be lurid if it were not for the counter balance that only the lushest gardens can provide.
Talk about lush—one home with vacant sideyard was planted entirely with towering perennials, dwarf fruit trees, and every size, color, and shape of blossom and bush. Rainchains led to rainbarrells. Along the sidewalk strip, the full width of the property, was a light frame structure clad with plastic sheeting; tomato plants within were almost bursting out. I saw a man in a straw hat, Gandalf beard, and granny glasses puttering about.
“You have a wonderful garden,” I told him.
“It’s theirs,” he replied, gesturing with his chin over his shoulder.
I thought at first he was indicating the house across the street until he continued, “It belongs to all of them who are in it,” and I realized he was referring to the grateful flora that he dutifully served.
Soon it was approaching time for the board meeting; time to move on. Halfway back to the hotel I hopped on the #14, and sat down on a jumpseat on the curbside of the bus. A couple of stops later, the driver came back and asked me to move. Momentarily puzzled, I got up, as the driver flips up the seat.In trundles a gritty greybeard riding a scooter chair. He had spiky hair and a black tee shirt with a savage looking goth device across the front, tummy hanging out the bottom. Standing on the foot rest facing him was a sort of cocker spaniel, curly brown, with sad, rheumy eyes. The dog rode with her front paws in the man's lap, and gazed at me mournfully as he chattered away on his cell phone.
By then, the flashback effect started to wear off. Time for a shower, and on to the board meeting—which as you may know, is a whole nuther trip...