Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Leadfield, Death Valley, California

It is often hard to discern what is before you in the desert. There is so much light that the pupils constrict and your vision becomes unreliable. I luxuriated in the southern California desert for over two years and became a devotee. One of my most consistent yearnings each springtime is to return to Death Valley for a visit and a room at the Furnace Creek Inn.

The photo above was taken in April, 2001 on my first trip to Death Valley. The area pictured is Tyson's Pass, on the northeast side of the Valley. It is high desert, dry, but green. Off in the distance and around that mountain, the elevation drops drastically to the desert floor. When you reach the basin of Death Valley you are below sea level in a serious way. I put this picture up because it is one of the most hospitable areas of the Valley. People rarely see its green and "kinder" side. Yet, even here, survival was impossible.

Tyson's pass is drop dead beautiful. The problem with these big, beautiful spaces in our country is that in order to get a shot of them you need a six-trillion dollar lens. This I do not have. So the meager shot above must suffice. And it does. It yanks me right into a deep yearning for the place and the unending narrative of the desert.

The tale of Leadfield reveals a common desert failure; the inability to grasp the excruciating heat and terrible dust of the desert environs. Also, wrapped up in this Leadfield story is the cautionary narrative about trusting your future to winning the Lottery. One who came believing in stories of fortune was, well...toast. Blind to the desert's merciless environment, the adventurer is either found crawling out on his hands and knees or dead. The dead then become part of the blowing dust of the immense, lonely place.

Death Valley provides a glimpse of an astounding natural world. There is no other place like it. You may catch the sites and feel of the desert in other parts of the USA and other countries. You can see it in the Mojave, Gobi, Sahara. But the sheer freaky, beautiful variety of the landscape of Death Valley is like no other. Knowing that I could return to the Furnace Creek Inn at high, frigging, noon and jump in the pool, made it possible to explore the gorgeous place. To me it is similar to the surprise and grandeur of the Grand Canyon (The vertical drop from Telescope Peak, highest mountain in the Valley, to the Badwater Basin is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon). But Death Valley is different from the truly, grand, Grand Canyon. It has a startling variety of landscape and it is formidable and inhospitably treacherous. These qualities add a nice edge to a trip.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Forgotten Voice

Everyone should go to iTunes Essentials and get the complete set of Laura Nyro. Yes, the complete set. I was so amazed, once again, at her accomplishments---the number of songs she wrote, the breadth of her ideas, the big fun of it all, the serious nature of her political songs, the sheer vitality of her music. Like her mother, she died young at the age of 49 of ovarian cancer. One wonders what she would be writing today. When the US attacked Iraq for the second time, I played "Save the Country" on my way to work, off and on for months---"...ain't gonna study war no more /save the country / save the children."

Nyro certainly rivals Carol King as the queen of pop. Carol King is so much more recognized for that period of time that some of Nyro's songs are frequently attributed to Carol King! A multitude of Nyro's songs were covered by other performers whose recordings were so successful that people attributed the songs to those performers. So Nyro failed to receive the popular recognition she deserves.

Stone Soul Picnic
I Met Him on a Sunday
Wedding Bell Blues
Up on the Roof
New York Tendaberry
You've Got a Hold on Me
Save the Country!
I Never Meant to Hurt You
Jimmy Mack

The list just goes on and on. And the voice must be heard. So wonderful and fresh. And you've got to love the innocence of the backups, reminding me of the simplicity of earlier pop music, as contrasted to the overproduced noise we hear today. Then of course there is the proliferation of the synthetic pop star "brand." These owned properties that are unable to hang out there without a net, a focus group, a cast of managers, an entourage, exposed flesh, a hundred and twenty recording tracks for over-dubbing and a big , big sound editing board to mix their voice into oblivion. Laura Nyro was simply making harmony and music. You can hear that vibe so clearly.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Wild Strawberries

AJ and I have been attending the Monday night Bergman retrospective at the Charles. I want to jump up and down and praise him. So far we've seen Secrets of Women, Seventh Seal and tonight, Wild Strawberries.

It is a struggle to get over the archaic quality of the film. I know this is the wrong issue to gnaw on, just look at the frame and lighting on the son and father above. I know Bergman was doing things in film that no one else had imagined. I really, really liked Seventh Seal. Who else thought of playing chess with Death? Brilliant. Aren't we all going to live forever if we just make the right moves? Aren't we always going to be here? Alive? The images of the Seventh Seal are forever in my mind. Thank you. Thank you.

But, it is hard to hang in there with these early movies. The pace, the somberness lull me towards sleep. I fought sleep tonight during Wild Strawberries. AJ lost the fight and snored softly to my left. Again, I liked the film, this simple tale of a man coming to terms with his life and finding infinite support in the happiness of his childhood memories. The three young travelers were a terrific contrast. And, there was the wise and angry daughter-in-law who helped him to begin the move toward a deeper understanding of the harm his pompous indifference has caused.

The man who plays the part of the professor is so vulnerable and fragile by virtue of his age, this viewer could feel only sympathy for him. Here he was on this epiphanic car trip to receive his scholarly award. Each time the old man dozes off, a nightmare awaits him. Each nightmare shocks him into a deeper encounter with consequences of his actions. We should all be so lucky, earlier!

The 79th Oscars

I don't know why I let myself get sucked into the Oscars. Ok, Ellen Degeneres was hosting. That really is reason enough. OMG it is boring. Only Ellen was novel and entertaining. Really, what can you do with these synthetic humans who are now referred to as "brands"? Faggeddabowdum.

The good part was dinner and libations before the event, with friends and, er, three Labrador Retrievers. We are family! Ravioli, salad, antipasto, foccacia and lots of red wine. You would think that the tub of red wine would have helped improve the event. No luck. It sucks. Oh, and the whole thing with Al Gore, holding an Oscar, too goofy. And the buzz about Gore's big announcement---as if!

BSO Multimedia

We slogged through a snow storm on Sunday to hear the the East Coast Premier of the Fanz Lanting and Philip Glass multimedia concert, Life: A Journey Through Time. The hall was only one-third full, but you knew that the music lovers were there, come rain or snow.

The concert was proceeded by the Capital Quartet, an amazing four musicians---one clarinet and three saxophones. They were an exciting surprise. Their sound and liveliness was very engaging. Great energy, good musical piece. Maestra Alsop was really swinging to the music. I would like to hear them again.

Then the great premier began. Three screens, each about 18' high and 20' wide hung over the stage, a huge triptych of canvases. I always love being in the concert hall. I don't think I have yet heard something I really disliked, except some rare chamber music piece that just doesn't activate the pleasure gene. My education in music is thin, so I am just a lover of music. I don't know why. I can say that this evening was wonderful, moving, and the music gorgeous. It seems, pictorially, a triumph in breadth and the expression of themes: Elements, Into the Air and Beginnings, Out of the Sea, On Land, Out of the Dark, Planet of Life. I was wondering what a Christianist would have to say about this "science" of the beginnings that was visualized in such detail, miniscule detail.

My problem with the presentation was that it seemed like so much old technology. Lanting's photos scanned across screens in all directions, choreographed to the Glass music. But somehow, the pictures were so National Geographic, so expected that there was no sense of surprise for me. It was as if I was watching one huge screen saver. There I was in the concert hall watching my iMac desktop screen saver! The photos were just so saturated and unsurprising. So perfect. It was soothing and beautiful and the music was lush and wonderful; But, it seemed to me even the Maestra lost energy in her conducting.

The movies and technology of animation are so spectacular today, that in contrast, the concert film looked dated. I must say it was nice to have things slowed down. It has its merit. And, too, the journey taken was a powerful one. I had a deep sense of the beginnings of life that I haven't had before. Just watching those acid green pools of genetic stew was very expanding. I feel very lucky to have seen the concert.

And I must say it was quite a contrast to my evening before at Port in the Storm!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Port in the Storm

Port in the Storm use to be an ordinary bar in an ordinary working class neighborhood. It lost the ordinary quality long ago. Now it has advanced to exotic. It is a straight-gay-lesbian-bi-black-white-poor-rich-seedy-smoke filled, splendid place. Five of us, three of whom had had a really rotten day, crashed into the Port late last night to renew our acquaintance with the bar. Of the five of us, I am the only one who dances. I float around the floor and have the best view---a view full of surprises. That's what makes the Port so alluring to me.

There was the woman dressed head to foot in pink and white camo. And there, on the east end of the bar, under the Bud Light sign, next to the Lil' Angles cookie tin, a nice assortment of crock pots. I wondered if the Port offered a crock pot cooking class during the daytime hours? I counted five crock pots from small to huge.

Coupling at the Port defies any common understanding of the word "couple" and the racial mix is infinite. Everyone is included at the Port, in any combination, especially if that combination can move to the music. Personally, I had an eye for the DJ, a sparkling burnette with great moves, but an awful taste for music. She lip-synced to every tune with the precision of an experienced rock star in MTV mode. I noticed that most in the crowd were also orally in sync to the music. Watching the whole room lyp-syncing to the songs, I realized that there was some alternate world of music unknown to me---one that would remain so.

I have to admit that I feel the new dance style that includes the movements of sexual intercourse, choreographed into the hip-hop dance style, is ghastly, except at the Port. Here, the orgiastic movements are perfectly counter-balanced by the crock pots. There is only one Port in the Storm.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

What Is This Thing Called Own?

On the morning of the 2006 winter solstice, I bought my first house, ever---a tiny, 650/sf Baltimore row house secreted away on an alley, off an alley. It is two-storys high and a very slim, ten feet wide. The inside has been remodeled by a former owner who apparently did not have a level. Nothing is plumb. The place must be gutted and improved.

These tasks require money, which, for the first time in my life, I am borrowing from a bank. This is called: the mortgage / construction loan. Friends insist that I must have a mortgage so I can build equity. You must have equity! So, I have assumed the burden of a mortgage, which, when the "mortgage interest tax deduction" is applied, computes to about the same amount I was paying for rent.

This is no news for seasoned homeowners. But, I am still not quite a believer in the fabled "mortgage interest tax deduction." Next tax year I should become a believer. We shall see.

What I am interested in is my desire for a home. I would not be able to do this if the house was not a steal. The most recent owners sold it off-market, at a reasonable profit, because they wanted to reduce their capital gains exposure. They wanted to sell it to a person they liked and they decided that they liked me. So, for $107,000, I purchased a house with an appraised, unimproved value of $149,000. This is a rare coup in Baltimore, where prices only go up and a mid-range home in the city is selling for $240,000.

I will invest some construction dollars in it and I shall, god willing, move into the house in a few months. I work for an architectural firm which will do the drawings for me. I need a capable, honest, frugal contractor. With luck there will be no big problems revealed under the skin of the structure and its bones will be sound. I am on the way.

Why am I doing this? The reason seems to be two-fold. First, as my friends insist, equity. I feel foolish pooring my money into the rental black hole. It makes no financial sense, if I can pull off the mortgage. This is the first time in my life that so many means for doing this have converged. Second, an urgency for "home" emerged.

I had not wanted a home before. I made "home" wherever I landed. Those days are passing though and, as I grow older now, I continue to bump into the idea of the security of place. Even if I don't live in this house for long and I rent it to others, it will be there. Just imagining this space and this firmness of place fills me with relief.

So the narrative in my head is telling me this---to have a home is to be protected and surer in the world and that having a home will also strengthen my ties to friends, and a partner, if that's in the cards. They will come into my home and participate in a life of place. And somehow, I think this kind of home is deeply personal in a way my rental housing has not been, though I have had wonderful apartments. An owned home also means I am grounded in a place, even though I may travel, or even live, in other places. I am no longer a transient. When I fill out a form that asks: rent or own, I will be checking the box that says "own." I have not filled out that form yet, but it is coming. My pen is already in the air.

So I will follow this narrative of home/ own and see where it goes. Will there be a difference between the reality of home and my mental narrative of home that I am (emotionally) responding to? How will the owned home feel in comparison to the rented space. Will friendships and relationships be different? I'm going to be thinking and writing about this narrative.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Roast Pork

Few things please me more than cooking. It is a process that is almost entirely intuitive and physical. Living in the city of Baltimore, there is a predisposition to crabs. I am not so disposed. Crab is good. Very good. But is it just crab and it should not be compromised by additional ingredients, or the assumptions of an irreverent chef du jour full of desire to add stuff to the crab. Leave it alone. Just plain crab is enough.

I am more drawn to the pleasure of fresh herbs, reductions, searing, sauteing, braising. I like dishes that are cooked slowly for hours. I like a slow process. The building to a fine result of fragrances, textures, color. I like the look of the food, the feel of the food. I like to mix salads with my hands and peer at tomato sauces bubbling.

I especially love the movement of cooking. Lifting pots, swinging them onto a stove. It like the splash of water into a steamer, the sound of the water coming to a boil. That ping. I like bubbling pots and sizzling frying pans. I like moving from sink to stove, from oven to counter, refrigerator to cutting board. I like the knife blade rocking on wood.

I love the fragrance of herbs being dry toasted in a pan. Ou. Ou. I like to think about cooking, looking through the spice cabinet contemplating the combination of seasonings. I like the spice tray twirling. I like the mortar and pestle, the crushing of herbs and the wild fragrance that emerges. I like onions. I love garlic. I love garlic.

I like soft boiled eggs with green onion shards and Braggs and salt and pepper on a Sunday morning. I like the yolk running brilliant yellow. I like the process of cooking as much as I like living.

In cooking, there is the integration of rules with desire. I think it is like playing an instrument. You must learn the scales before you can improvise. You must know the basics and you must first grasp them intellectually. You must then deeply appreciate the significance of knowing the basics intimately---the lemon, thyme, cardamom, garlic, salt, cream, red wine. How and when do they engage? What melds with another? When does rice wine yearn for avocado? You must know ingredients simply, like a musical scale. Unlike the scale, however, you must know the physical quality of the note on the tongue. (If I could taste music, I would be additionally happy.)

Cooking is like loving. You must give yourself to it fully, you must be fully present in the process and sensitive to the slightest nuances of the ingredients, textures, the flush of colors. You must balance giving and receiving, chaos and order, joy and fear. Cooking is loving, garlic.

A Year of Confusion

The journey this year is brutal for me. The path continues to move, counter to my intentions, making me unsure of my place in my own narrative. Could it be that I had it so wrong? Could it be that I am so off? So off?

I am a lapsed writer who is intrigued by the narrative that we all create to explain our moment-to-moment existence. Arising continually in our heads are thoughts of love, friendship, revenge, happiness, guilt, sadness. These emotional scenarios are all mixed up with shopping lists, childhood memories, office schedules and the color of the sky. There is a lot going on and nothing at all of much importance. So it is.