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WickedWitch

Amie's mother has an irksome inability to distinguish left from right. If you ask her to turn left at the next intersection, there is just under a 50% chance she'll turn right. The missing percentage goes to whether or not she chooses to respond to you in the first place. A few times I tried asking her to turn at the next intersection. This had an enormous impact on the odds. Not always, but very consistently, she continued down the same road as though nothing had been said. So at one point I asked, "Did you hear me say, 'Turn at the next intersection'?" And she said, "Yes," adding, "You didn't say which way."

Compass directions were just as useless. She lives in the eastern most part of Los Angeles County, just south of the San Gabriel mountains, which serve as the constant feature of a somewhat featureless land. She also knows where the ocean is, and possibly where the sun sets. You can't really escape the ocean in Los Angeles, even if you never go there. So we developed the strategy of asking her to turn toward the mountains, or toward the ocean, and to our absolute surprise, she listened and responded to our every word.

Which left south and east. The solution to that problem was simplicity itself — away from the mountains and away from the ocean. She still had no idea which was left or right, and still had a tendency to listen only when she wanted to, but she carried within her an almost infallible grid based on something visible and looming, and something else that though ever present was nonetheless invisible.

When she drove to the Central Coast to visit us one year, and this is the part that constantly amazes me, we were concerned that she might get distracted and lose her way. She found that ridiculous when we told her. She knew exactly what to do. She drove toward the mountains all the way here, though the mountains she was driving towards were two hundred miles behind by the time she arrived. I have often wondered what would happen if she was somehow dropped on the eastern seaboard with a full tank of gas. If she drove toward the mountains, would she end up in Maine or Florida?

Since today is Halloween, it seemed appropriate to use Amie's picture of her mother as the Wicked Witch of the North. Actually, she's a pretty good Witch of the South. When Amie left to live with her mother, and to pursue her destiny, she left a large version of it pinned inside the closet. I'm sure there's a meaning behind this, but I'm still working on the details.
 
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Love at First Bite was a vampire movie that was also a comedy. It starred George Hamilton as Count Vladimir Dracula, Richard Benjamin as a psychiatrist and Susan Saint James as the woman comically between them. The movie is now thirty years old, though George Hamilton hasn't aged a day. Tied to Freudian analysis, it allowed for all the cute intellectual jokes one might expect, including a doctor as neurotic as his patient, left searching for closure. A movie for adults.

The Vampire's Assistant is a children's movie only thinly disguised as adult entertainment. Salma Hayek's dark eyes and protruding breasts easily satisfy the adult interest requirement. Still, it's a boy meets girl story, even if the boy is an aspiring vampier and the girl — has a tail. Details. Where in the world all the spectacular freaks come from, and why there are so many more of them is this world than in ours, is never addressed. Nor does the movie have any theological, philosophical or even sociological message. None that I could detect, unless being good to your friends and true to yourself counts. It's a kids movie.

There's not a single sick joke that you laugh at and then swear wasn't funny, but several that I still remember and chuckle at. Not the ones that involve cute little monster things — those got the biggest laughs. They sprinkle the stew of this movie with magical laughter, but once laughed at, they are immediately abandoned. There's a good boy and a bad boy, good vampires and… Well, I won't ruin it for you. Suffice it to say that someone somewhere is homing in on part three. There's a powerhouse behind this one. Some of my favorite people are responsible for it. Plus, it has really cute kids.

Juvenile is the new adult.
 
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I found something rather odd by Nora Schmidt today on Dailytonic. Designtide, a big Tokyo event, starts Friday. Hironao Tsuboi, a very clever Japanese designer with a faceless wristwatch to his credit that displays the time by way of concealed LEDs in a mysteriously abstract fashion, will be showing his "Sun" clock. A series of them can be seen in the graphic borrowed from her post. I tried to pursue him, but the path ran cold. Actually, the path turned into solid Japanese, which does seem reasonable for a series of Japanese websites.

hironao-tsuboi-sun_02

Schmidt quotes Tsuboi as saying, “A day begins with sunrise, it end up with sundown. The concept of time was originally discovered from the movement of stars like the sun.” Well, saying that the day begins with sunrise and ends with sunset is harmless enough, depending on where it leads. It leads to a very peculiar statement about the discovery of time. Did man discover time? Did he discover it only after making the equation between stars and sun? Tsuboi undoubtedly means celestial time, something far more specific. He continues, "In modern society, it has been recognized simply as numbers of clocks or measurement of the day. It is totally separated from the movement of the universe." In other words, the standard clock with hands and face is somehow connected to, or reminiscent of, the celestial motions, and we have forgotten that. Time has become arbitrary. "'Sun' is a clock that reminds us the time as dynamism of the universe by showing sunrise/down on its dial, according to passage of time." The "Sun" clock puts us back in touch with the origins of time. It does this by somehow indicating or demonstrating to us the times for sunrise and sunset. You can get that same information on the Weather Channel — there must be a Japanese version of that — or in most newspapers. "Also by using several of them, they enable us to intuitively compare day and night of the world."

I looked at these clocks for a very long time before abandoning the search for meaning. There seem to be purple, red and blue dots. I'm guessing that one color means sunrise and another sunset, so whichever color remains must represent… twilight, dusk, daytime, nightime? Those wristwatches that were so very popular for a while made it perfectly clear that dark was night, light was day, and if the moon was up it was visible, and if wasn't, it wasn't. On the very expensive watches you could follow the phases of the moon. On the cheaper ones the moon just sat there, but it still reminded you of its existence. They also had little gold stars on the face which was helpful in areas of light pollution. They did pretty much all they could within cost constraints. As for intuitively comparing day with night around the world, my intuition is completely incapable of grasping how the clock works in the first place.

If the dots actually represent sunrise and sunset, are they seasonally adjusted? You know, the sun rises at a slightly different time each and every day of the year. Those adjustments differ from place to place. Has he accounted for that or did he just take my advice and check the Weather Channel before placing the dots?

"The compact size is suitable for collection such as world clocks in hotels." I absolutely agree. It's a nice looking bunch of clocks. I especially like the rounded ends on the hands. But, what would it communicate to passersby? Would they stop and ponder the dots? Would they wonder why the cities are in the order they are? Or would they say, "Hmmm, Boston, Stockholm… Oops. Ten after. I'm almost late."

One hopes that the fault lies with the translator and not the designer, because the Great Designer had infinitely more on His plate than sunrise and sunset when He willed the Primum Mobile to action and set time itself in motion.
 
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The last time anyone brought up Max Ernst in conversation was seventeen years ago at dinner. Amie and I had a friend in her early thirties who was very interesting, quick to participate in conversations, hesitant to insist upon her own opinions. We felt oddly connected and were very pleased when she invited us. One of her dogs looked like a small female Labrador. She was Al's littermate from the same cardboard box. Her former owners had neglected her. She darted about the neighborhood, tail between her legs, looking hungrier and hungrier. Our friend enticed her onto the couch by placing a bowl of food at the front gate and then moving it a foot or so closer to the living room each day. The big move was crossing the threshold into the kitchen. From there to the living room was easy. Once she found the couch, however, the next problem was dragging her off again.

We were startled by the interior of the house. It was filled with familiar pieces — paintings, sculptures, odd bits of things that seemed strangely meaningful. It was an oasis, a gallery of sorts in a rural outpost. As the husband warmed to us, he revealed that the works were his. The words "Dada" and "Surealism" crept into his presentation. He was excited to hear that I knew what he was talking about. As it turned out, I was something of an oasis myself. Yes, I knew the bottle rack, the Great Glass, the Traveling Art Exhibition. As we were eating, something odd was revealed. The decisive influence in his life had been his high school Art teacher. I poked and prodded and pieced together the year and place. I went through it one more time before telling him that he was a classmate of my brother. We were having dinner in a different county. Ah, yes. He remembered him… as being shy and, here he hesitated, uninteresting. That was all the proof I needed. It took us most of dinner to get past that coincidence.

This was a rare opportunity, he said. He talked expansively about Man Ray, Max Ernst, Picabia, Tzara, whom he adored, and others, including Dali, Brancusi, Breton, whom he knew well, but was less enthusiastic about. And… Marcel Duchamp. He was stunned that I had seen so many of the works in person and seemed so knowledgeable. He overestimated my knowledge, but knowing anything at all about Duchamp was an event for him. He told us a story about a huge book by Arturo Schwarz, the Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, that by the time he was old enough to read was out of print and no longer available. He did everything. He had used book dealers advertise. He even wrote to Duchamp's widow. She replied in a very nice letter saying that she had only one copy herself and knew of no others anywhere. So, he collected a pile of lesser books that he read and reread. After dinner he brought them out. An unforgettable evening.

In 1964, my grandmother bought a book for me from the dollar table at the Broadway department store. She could no longer drive — thankfully, someone had sneezed and run off the road into her parked car — so I picked her up from time to time in a 1951 MG and took her shopping. We started with candy and tins of cookies at JC Pennys and worked our way toward lunch at the Copper Kettle inside Broadway. Obviously, the gene for diabetes comes from my paternal maternal side. We also drove with the top down, which says something else about her. She bought the book to say thank you, but also because I stared at the cover so long. It was Man Ray's Self Portrait, a first edition that had languished on the shelf for almost a year. If I made a list of all the books that have made me who I am, not just books that have provided me with thoughts and facts, but changed me in unexpected and profound ways, this book would be near the top, at the very top chronologically. Perhaps I will find time to write about that someday, but for now it will suffice to say that it provided me with background — background that lead to a long series of important experiences. One such experience was a mind altering afternoon in the outskirts of Frankfurt with what came to be, as I understand it, the core collection of the Max Ernst Museum.

After dinner, after Amie dropped me off at home, I unpacked boxes until early morning. I found the six hundred some odd pages in quarto of the Arturo Schwarz Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp that I had lugged around for a quarter of a century from house to house. It was all I could do not to mention it at dinner. I tried reading it many times, discovering each time that I just didn't know enough. They don't teach Alchemy in school. This book had also been a defining element in my life. I gathered up some exhibition catalogs, a memoir, I think, an Art magazine from the early 70s, and wrapped them in a single bundle. The next day I lugged them down the hill for the last time and gave them to his wife. "I think your husband will want these," I said. She told me later that tears ran down his cheeks.

You might think this is a story about how wonderful I am. Well, I sometimes think that. I knew as I listened speechless to the story at dinner that night that the book had always seemed like it had been meant for someone else, otherwise I might have penetrated it, formed a lasting need for it. I knew as he told the story that the book was his. I had taken wonderful care of it, unusually good care of it. It wasn't some thought I played with, it was a very clear awareness. I had thumbed through it numerous times. I enjoyed the puzzle of it, the pictures, even the weight of it. In the end, I was merely its custodian. I was now free to to do something else.

These things happened to me, so there's no reason they should affect you one way or the other. The dollar book table is etched in my memory, but no quantity of words can transfer the essence of that experience to another or describe its meaning, even to myself. Yet, individual stories form the basis for the larger one that communicates the texture of seeming coincidence and fortuitous overlay that is the hidden structure of our lives. It is the nature of that story to be infinitely long, even if the nature of each individual story seems deceptively brief. Leslie Clagett mentioned a chess set designed by Max Ernst in reply to some comments I made on her blog last week, something that amounts to conversation in the new millennium. That chess set was in the lobby of the show I chanced upon protected by a large glass box. It seemed unreal to be standing next to it. Her comment made me think.

The word "coincidence" is normally dismissive, and there are dozens of books on synchronicity that make coincidence their stock in trade. One almost expects Synchronicity for Fun and Profit. What I had hoped to communicate, what you must inevitably find for yourself, goes well beyond that. Once you have felt the movings of this hidden, indefinable structure — not in your mind, but in your life — the unexpected shapes and contours like surrealistic chessmen taking hold of your individual life, a life ultimately connected to all and everything, you are never quite the same.
 
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I saw Bruce Willis in Surrogates the Monday after it came out. In terms of pure escapism and raw entertainment, I've never been let down by a Bruce Willis movie. Always worth the price of admission. A few of them caught me by surprise — they were deeply thought-provoking and delivered lasting messages. I'll let you decide which ones those were. The current film, based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, is not one of those. If you're short on time and money, I'll sum it up for you. Live your life. After you've seen it, if you do, you can embroider on that, but there it is.

Although this sounds like a movie review, it's really an attempted commentary on something else, on society, perhaps, the force of programmed expectations and where our minds are. Movies are a form of visual, auditory entertainment in which the real or imagined world is presented to us as a spectacle of light and sound, a moving picture story that for a brief moment takes the place of the world we live in. Graphic novels are a kind of reading without the need to form pictures of our own, or to delve too deeply into thoughts and words. Yes, if you wish, I'm wrong on all that, but not completely wrong.

When we sit down in a darkened room with the smell of popcorn and the murmur of conversation, we activate a body of expectations to be met. We know what movies are. We know what it means to pay and be entertained. But, what do we actually know, what do we really expect? There's a point in Surrogates where all the robotic people stop functioning. In a few seconds, a crowded city, streets running off in all directions, comes to a halt. Hundred, thousands of surrogates tumble to the ground with clunks and clanks, and at precisely that moment the young man behind me, gripped by the excitement of the moment, blurts out, "And then planes start crash-landing and flying into buildings, and cars explode..." As if he was telling the story out loud that was supposed to happen — while it was still happening. The movie triggered a response. We had reached the point where disaster takes place.

Are we ready and waiting? It occurred to me that having people (young people?) so thoroughly programmed — is it movies, is it television, is it computer games? — is itself a potential disaster.
 
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I've had a friend today. Last night I sat propped up in bed while a fly zigzaged through the room buzzing frantically. He darted between my nose and the book. He banged into the lampshade. He banged once or twice into the bookshelf, and at one point banged with a zip and thud directly into my forehead. I watched and listened to him as he did figure eights through the room with side trips in and suddenly out of the bathroom. I tried my best to ignore him — or it. I tried opening the outside door for a while, hoping he would zig or zag into the back yard and lose his way. I convinced myself that if he just followed my lead he would find a nice female fly and live happily ever after. If he would just follow my lead. If he would just leave me alone. But he was relentless. I grabbed the fly swatter from the kitchen. His motions were so grand and predictable that I made midair contact several times. I knocked him to the carpet. Once he careened off the wall just missing the lamp. And yet, each time he picked himself up and buzzed just as loudly.

I landed a perfect, dead center hit and he disappeared. I hid the swatter behind the refrigerator, fluffed up the pillows, leaned back with my book, and listened to faint, almost imperceptible buzz of tires along HWY 1.

This morning, as I listened to the coffee gurgling and dripping into the pot and the more insistent sound of rain and wind in the trees outside, a fly landed softly on my arm. I moved and it flew away. It circled a moment and landed on the edge of my sleeve. It did not buzz. Nor did it crash dive into my ears or inspect my eyelashes. When I sat down for breakfast it landed on the table next to me, but showed no interest in the edge of my coffee cup or the temperature of my oatmeal. It did not follow the spoon toward my face. When I clicked through the news it sat on the outer edge of the computer screen. It walked on the bedspread when I stretched out to read and was there again after I showered. It's been here and there all day on the edge of my activities, on the periphery of my existence. I opened both doors and turned the fan on thinking I could lure it thoughtfully outside, but it simply hid out until the doors were closed and the fan was off and then rejoined me.

I'd like to think it's a repentant incarnation of the fly from last night, but it's hard to decide who was bothering whom and who was most worthy of repentance. After all, it was I who had the fly swatter, I who followed his every move bent on flicking where he was about to be. So, perhaps a quieter more gentle cousin is reminding me about long-suffering, about kindness and understanding. But the damned thing just wouldn't stop.

It's late now and I'm a bit concerned. I haven't seen my friend since I began typing this.
 
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Kept in by the rain is infinitely more pleasant than feeling trapped. It's an invitation to relax and listen, to hear the wind lashing through the bay tree, laden with green, and the branches of an old oak slowly encroaching upon the house. The clatter of rain drops on the window. A slice of pie and a cup of coffee that has just bubbled itself done. For the past year, maybe it has something to do with inverted pressure zones or being nestled against the hills, there has been one day after another of 60% change of rain when the only hint of moisture scudded by in billowing clouds, and days of 100% chance of rain when the clouds pressed themselves together in dark, ominous masses, but no rain. Today we have rain that can be called rain. Mud and rivlets, doors that stick, towels that refuse to dry, welcome mats that have turned to mush. How I have missed the rain.
 
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My comment on the post Hot Stuff at kbculture about the Kenwood Cooking Chef mixer that has an induction cooking element under the bowl which allows you to brown meat and then have the Cooking Chef stir the stew while it cooks — all in the same pot or bowl. Of course, it can also be used to mix and possibly bake cakes.

Until William Blatty painted himself dark with the The Exorcist he was a comedy writer — all horror is ultimately based on comedy — and a very clever one. His book John Goldfarb, Please Come Home, made into a movie with Peter Ustinov, Shirley MacLaine and Richard Crenna as John Goldfarb, poked fun at almost every pretension then afflicting America. One of the characters who did not make it to the movie was Rick Dixon, a would-be politician who slept his afternoons away on a leather couch as President of a private Southern California university. The campus was effectively run by the SMEDLEY IV computer, a machine that hummed lovingly to itself, gave occasional wrong answers out of sheer obstinancy and had a distinct sense of humor all its own. In a school rife with patriotism, it piped the national anthem into every toilet stall, so the moment anyone sat down they had to immediately stand up again. My point is that when your mixer becomes your frying pan, when the chef becomes overly mechanized and thoroughly computerized, you run the risk of being laughed at. Other than that, it's a stunning appliance.
 
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Leslie Clagett writes a wonderful blog (kbculture) on the, perhaps, unlikely theme of kitchens and bathrooms. Her posts are cleverly titled, terse, often thought-provoking. She adds unexpected layers of insight to the people and products she shares. She is the author of several books, recently The Smart Approach to the Organized Home. Yesterday, she posted a 1956 Westinghouse advertisement featuring fifty color versions of the same refrigerator asking what it says about us that we have come to settle for white-black-stainless. The following are my comments, somewhat modified. They were involved enough that I decided to make a post of them.

I'm sure there's a university department somewhere devoted to the hermeneutics of color in contemporary society. It's an enormous and esoteric subject. Without knowing it, we juggle the meanings of a vast array of colors in our heads almost every moment of the day. Chuck mentions Pantone. [Chuck comments that even car colors are simple and safe, and then says that TurboChef now offers Pantone colors for an upcharge.] Pantone's site is worth joining and spending some time at. An entire industry exists — Pantone is only the tip of the iceberg — to establish the colors for each season, occasion, individual, and to differentiate them from past seasons, other occasions and different individuals.

A wonderful example of this is the encounter between Maranda Priestly and Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada where Andy says that both belts look exactly the same and then adds, "Y'know, I'm still learning about this stuff." "This... 'stuff'?" Maranda begins.
Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.
We expect color and discussions of color in clothing, perhaps not so intense as Maranda's discussion, because we seldom take clothing for granted. By nature, we judge all books by their cover, denying vehemently that we do so.

If Chuck were right about car colors being simple and safe, the automotive world would be as dull as Henry Ford's dictum suggests. [Paint them any color you want, as long as it's black.] The fact that colors fall within ranges — those ranges are the historical result of enormous trial and error — does not mean that minute variations within them are not the fiercely contested battlefield of manufacturers and marketers. This sounds ridiculous on the face of it, but hotrodders can tell at a glance when a Ford has been painted a Chevy color — it stand out like a sore thumb — and God knows if the next Maserati Quattroporte or Bentley show car is released in cerulean or celadon, all hell will break loose. Every pricey new car will end up with colors that lean ever so slightly in their direction.

Color has meaning, even if we don't have words for it, even if it seems so vastly complicated that no one could possibly understand it. Cars and clothing are things worn in public. People judge us by them, even if they say they don't, and their judgments are deep and complicated.

Kitchens were once adornments for housewives, and housewives adornments for husbands. Of course, the word "housewife" now has a demeaning sound to it. Kitchens formed family identity. In societies where servants are usual, the kitchen's appearance, the quality of pots and pans, even the need for comfort and workability is of little or no concern. The dining room, the place of consumption, rather than the place of preparation, becomes central.

Obviously, Leslie and the people who read this blog love kitchens — and bathrooms. The modern Americanized world, however, has left the old meaning of kitchen far behind. Wonderful kitchens have become, oddly enough, like fine mechanical watches — anachronisms. They are nostalgic, like fountain pens or Tuscan fantasies. They seek to restore something, to imitate something imaginary, or to preserve something increasingly unnecessary.

R.M. Schindler designed houses in the 40s and 50s with postage stamp kitchens. He thought that his modern clients would be far more involved in living their lives than in cooking or preparing food. He seems like a prophet today, but he was wrong for a long time. The people who owned his houses surreptitiously upgraded their kitchens. They added burners and increased the size of their refrigerators. Sometimes the dining area (the food consumption area?) was gobbled up by the new kitchen. Since then, the production of fast food has dwarfed the production of actual meals prepared in actual kitchens. We are approaching Schindler's dream, where a refrigerator and a microwave, some disposable flatware, and a roll of paper towels can speed us through the process of nourishing ourselves. Or, perhaps, poisoning ourselves. And the time we have left?

The time we have left we can spend with our iPod, iMac, iPhone, plasma TV, and GameBoy. Not what Schindler had in mind, but still, things that can be lived with canned drinks and prepackaged foods.

If the decline of color in the kitchen means anything at all, it means we no longer judge people by their kitchens. If kitchens were central to our lives, not merely central to this readership, fifty color combinations would be hundreds too few. We upgrade microwaves, but we do so without having to worry about their color. They come in white, black and stainless, just like the predictable background of our kitchen appliances. The thing that manufacturers have learned to focus on is getting one of each (stove, oven, sink, dishwasher, etc.) into every kitchen without calling too much attention to the process. We now measure homes in diagonal inches, by the number of videos they contain and by how many cars and trucks they come with. Ask the poor what they would wish for and they are likely to say, "A big house with a huge driveway and ten cars. And the biggest TV in the whole world." To which we should probably add — home delivery.

There's a wonderful line in the movie Pleasantville (Tagline: Nothing Is As Simple As Black And White) where the paragons of the town are huddled together against the inevitable encroachment of rain and color, when Big Bob says, "Well, we're safe for now. Thank goodness we're in a bowling alley."

I just put the kettle on for tea. Perhaps this kitchen will be safe for a few more years.
 
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The unlikely and over-esteemed provenance of the Nobel Peace Price is a paltry six former members of the Norwegian Parliament. Except for brief overlappings, members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee are not allowed to serve simultaneously on the Committee and in Parliament. The prize is thought to be something like God's seal of approval. Is there a higher honor? If the Pope gave the President a gold medal for helping to bring peace to a troubled world while waging two unnecessary wars — maybe he already has — that incidental fact might be skipped in the nightly news to allow more coverage of the First Lady's outfit. The amount of money that goes with the prize — tax free I'm told — and its interesting history have a lot to do with its brief but immense popularity. Of course, the Emmys and the Oscars will always outrank the Nobel, at least in raw viewership. Strangely, while it offers considerable cachet, it seems never once to have interfered with a peaceful Latte at Starbucks. So, when the dust finally settles, perhaps we will see the Nobel Peace Prize for what it actually is — the opinion, the desire, the intent of six Norwegian politicians. In fact, were it not for the prize itself, the long winters and its complete lack of strategic importance, we might long ago have occupied Norway.
 
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