Sunday, December 16, 2012

Polish Ancestry?

Cholewa coat of arms
One thing that happened as a result of reading With Fire and Sword and then the rest of the Trilogy (see last post) was that I got very interested in Polish history. I had never dug much into that side of my heritage but, as I read more about Poland, I was increasingly fascinated by the country's impressive history.

While digging around, I found that - at least according to Wikipedia - this Polish coat of arms was "used by several szlachta families in the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth". The families who used it included my last name! Now, of course, I have no idea if this is a definitive connection of any kind or if my family tree even extends back that far. Still it's intriguing to think this might be a part of my history. Further, from what I understand, if I could trace my family back to Poland then the Catholic Church in the town we came from will likely have the family history going back for centuries. Could be exciting to learn about all this (although I have no doubt there are some dark pages in the recent history of the family).

Reading opens all sorts of doors to us. Maybe someday I'll walk through this one to learn more about where I came from. It's interesting how much we can learn about who we are from even the distant past.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Turning to Henryk Sienkiewicz

One of my favorite authors (if not my absolute favorite) is Henryk Sienkiewicz. He wrote what is in my opinion one of the best - if not the best - piece of literature I've ever read (The Deluge), however I love almost everything I've ever read by him. So after being run over by the nihilistic steamroller that was Celine's Journey to the End of the Night and deciding my next read had to be something by an author whose works are more on the heroic side, I turned to Henryk.

He's huge in Poland, and I am half Polish! He achieved his success largely based on three novels he wrote called 'the Trilogy'. The Trilogy is a historical saga with a highly nationalistic themes set during the Polish Commonwealth of the 1600s. The novels were written at a time when Poland had lost its independence so, in some ways, they were a bolster to the pride of the Polish people. Each of the three novels is massive. The first book of the Trilogy is With Fire and Sword which comes in at 1,135 pages. It's also the first book of his that I read. The second book in the Trilogy (The Deluge) is 1,761 pages, while the final novel (Pan Michael) is a mere 714 pages. But the page counts don't matter. All the books in the Trilogy, especially the first two, are epic adventures. Real page-turners in every sense of the word.

There are several reason his books grab me so much. First, his characters are awesome. I can't imagine anyone not falling in love with the always ready to go drinking, cowardly...rather sketchy...but when the chips are down fiercely loyal Pan Zagloba. It's impossible not to like and root for tomboy Basia. Pan Yan is the epitome of 'hero' and he's a fantastic protagonist. Not only are the characters involving, but the plots are epic in scope and fantastic reads. On top of this, Sienkiewicz creates a strong thematic backdrop for those looking for such things.

Aside from his many adventure novels, he wrote Quo Vadis about the rise of Christianity during the Roman Empire. He also penned a more interior novel in Without Dogma, earning the deep admiration of none other than the brilliant Leo Tolstoy. The quality of Sienkiewicz's work ultimately won him the 1905 Nobel Prize for Literature.

So, as I said, when I needed some fresher air after Celine. Sienkiewicz was the first author I thought to turn to. This time, I'm tackling the final major novel of his that I have not read: Children of the Soil. I have little information about the plot, so I'm flying blind here. But so far I'm enjoying it very much.

If you want to try out Sienkiewicz, I would suggest either In Desert and Wilderness (his 'children's story'), Quo Vadis, or With Fire and Sword.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Pete and Jim's Holiday Party Photos

Here are the photos from the party. This time, I made like the paparazzi at a red carpet event and went around shooting pics. The results may be a bit more posed than usual...but we look so good! Thanks to everyone who came; we're so happy you could join us!

Happy Holidays everyone!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Inertia: The Enemy Within

Sorry for the over-serious, sci-fi title to this entry!

Inertia is something that annoys me about myself. And I'm sure I'm not alone. It's that sense of wanting to do something, learn something, change something about myself...knowing that if I do it I'll be really happy, even if I just take the first step - and yet...not getting off my butt and actually doing anything.

The most obvious example in my life is physical fitness. When I'm into something like martial arts or cycling or lifting I'm dedicated to it and I love it. Once I fall out of the habit, I feel like I need a stick of dynamite up my ass to get moving again! I'm just now getting back into lifting on a regular basis after working some horrendous hours, but I'm still forcing myself to go each morning. Other things in life are like that as well: practicing piano, drawing, meditation. Right now, everything feels that way. Inertia rules me at the moment. Unlike.  

Inertia is insidious; I always have a good excuse for being in my rut. Right now, the excuse is work. "I work so many hours, and I'm so tired when I get home that I don't want to do anything but decompress in front of the TV. Blah blah blah..." It's a legitimate excuse sure, but that's why it's so insidious. The fact is that I know when I lift or draw or practice piano or do martial arts or meditate or do anything I value that I'm much happier afterwards. It even helps me not mind the nasty thing that I'm using as an excuse as much. I just feel better about myself and my life.

So why don't I get up and just do something? Anything! Especially when I know it will make me happy? Inertia, that's why. Inertia is my resistance to that little effort required to stop being a slug. It blocks my way like a pile of dead walrus carcasses. And it self-perpetuates. Inertia creates a 'sameness' to each day in life. For example, I've been going to work and working hard and coming home and relaxing and then sleeping. That's pretty much been my day for the last several months: an unpleasantly predictable existence. That sameness breeds passivity, and this makes it harder to kill the inertia by introducing an element of change.

What shocks me out of this is destroying the sameness. That's why time off is so important or going out with friends. It breaks the monotony, even if only a little. That gets me focusing on other things or other people or some new experience or input. That can be enough to get things rolling and let me cut through the inertia. It's like when I hit a plateau in lifting weights. To get past it, I have to change my routine to shock my body into continuing to adapt. If I don't, my body gets used to the routine and I stagnate. Life is the same way.

Got a whole lot of time off let's see if I can shake this rut off. Die inertia die!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Louis-Ferdinand Celine - Journey to the End of the Night

I haven't posted much lately, but I have been reading. Just had a very challenging book on my plate. I'm fascinated by Paris in the early 20th Century: the explosion of philosophy, the unprecedented freedom of expression, the manifestos, the radicalism, all of it. It seems to be such an exciting time for a creative person to have been alive, as if the air was electric with change and genius. (I clearly romanticize the period a bit!).

Much of the literature is absurdist, existentialist, even nihilistic as writers shattered standards, social norms, and revolutionized self-expression. As a result, much of the literature is rather black in outlook. For some reason, though, I have always found this literature stimulating, even when it is downbeat, because of the questions being asked and dealt with. My latest read from the period is the infamous Journey to the End of the Night by the equally infamous Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

Celine published Journey to the End of the Night  in 1934, and I believe it was his first novel. It was a success but also shocked the critics of the time. The shock value may have faded a bit by now, but what remains shocking about Celine's writing is the unmitigated revulsion and social cruelty bleeding from every sentence of his prose.

In one sense, Journey to the End of the Night builds off the realism of Zola. It takes a detailed, semi-autobiographical approach to the 'story'. However, there is no plot, no true conflict, and no character development. What we do get is a very clear view of the narrator's reflections on his life and the people around him. The narrator - named Ferdinand Bardamu - is a directionless failure, battered by life, and moving from one negative environment to the next, always feeling alienated and alone (and even hated). Add to this a strong nihilistic streak and Celine's prose, which is very casual and colloquial, and you have something thoroughly 'modern' in purpose and style.

Celine writes with utter candor, his brutal observations and acidic black humor adding a layer of omnipresent loathing to the bleak potpourri of the novel. That said, Celine has a wonderful command of language and is able to deliver stunning turns of phrase to perfectly capture the thoughts he wants to get across. This can be thought-provoking as well as appalling. A few choice lines/images:
- "My soul was as obscene as an open fly."
- "He had always been afraid of life, and now he attached his fear to something different, to death, to his blood pressure, just as for forty years he had attached it to the peril of not being able to finish paying for the house."
- "Youth may be nothing more than a hurry to grow old."
- "The morning papers hang yellow and limp, an enormous artichoke of news going bad."
- "Good work is tolerated only when hammed up."

He is also able to deliver images to illustrate his view of life. The image that has stuck with me most is from the following passage. This sums up Journey to the End of the Night quite well and also neatly encapsulates Celine's view of life and humanity:

"The crowd was outside a butcher shop. You had to squeeze into the circle to see what was going on. It was a pig, an enormous pig. He was groaning in the middle of the circle, like a man who's being pestered, but louder. The people were tormenting him, they never stopped. They'd twist his ears just to hear him squeal. He'd tug at his rope and try to escape and squirm and wriggle his feet in the air. Other people would poke him and prod him, and he'd bellow even louder with the pain. Everyone was laughing more and more.

"The pig couldn't manage to hide...He couldn't escape from those people, and he knew it. He kept urinating the whole time, but that didn't help him either...No hope. Everybody was laughing. The butcher back in his shop was exchanging signs and jokes with his customers and gesticulating with a big knife."

No lack of clarity there. Journey to the End of the Night represents - without doubt - the bleakest view of humanity and life I have ever encountered in a serious novel. The characters careen through events and experiences which suggest that - to Celine - life (the journey to the end of the night of the title) is a meaningless gauntlet of torment to endure before we die. As a result, the vices and crimes of characters are rarely described with the dramatic flair or outrage one might encounter in the novels of Camus or Zola. The vice is natural, the crimes irrelevant. His people are too jaded to find drama in anything and too petty and/or aware of the hopelessness of life to be outraged.

As I said, I find the literature of this period stimulating despite it's sometimes black tone. However, this book was almost too much even for me. The fidelity of Celine to his pessimism and disgust for life is artistically impressive, but it makes for a very tough read. I will also say that Celine sometimes loses control of his material, with sections of the novel lacking purpose. The book could have been condensed by perhaps 50-100. At the same time, the drudgery of the book is part of the point.

As always, I like to visit these dark corners of the human psyche, so I'm glad I've read Celine. If nothing else, I've expanded my education. Will I read another book by him? I'll give an answer I think Celine would approve of: What the hell for?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

New to the Rotation

I love exploring music, having new sounds to listen to, and (sometimes) finding things off the beaten track. Here's some of the stuff I've picked up over the last six months or so.

Mirage of Deep - The Garden of Gaia
The Lemongrassmusic label has captured my imagination over the last year or two, and this release by Spanish duo Mirage of Deep is a no exception. These guys have created a beautiful piece of ambient music on this effort. It's a fairly brief listen (24 minutes), but the mixture of ambient sensibilities, natural sounds, rhythm, and production flourishes is one of the best I've heard in a long time. Great set of tracks to listen to when relaxing or to get lost in by listening with attention. Beautiful.

Aimee Mann - Charmer
I'm not much into the indie genre as a rule. For me, the gestalt of indie-rock is college-slacker-geek mentality with wimpy instrumentation and whiny vocals. Unlike. However, I've found myself perusing some of it lately (still haven't bought much though). Aimee Mann is an artist I was introduced to back in the 80s via her fantastic band Til Tuesday. The better the band got, the worse their records sold. I'd lost track of Mann during the 90s as she drifted into the indie rock arena, but this album rekindles some of her pop brilliance. Plus the tone of her mumbling, resigned vocals have always appealed to me. Good to check back in with her.

Willie Nelson - Heroes
When people say they like all kinds of music, the footnote to the comment is usually: "except country and rap". I think people dislike the genres because 95% of the music created in them is derivative crap by poseurs out to make a buck. But both genres came from people who were not represented in the dominant music of the time (e.g., poor, rural whites and poor, urban non-whites). So there are good artists out there in the morass of each genre's overpopularity. Nelson is of course a major talent, survivor, and free spirit. His voice is not what it used to be, but the clarity of the recording on Heroes and the sincerity of the performances makes up for it. Straightforward country. Plus, Nelson's duet with Snoop Dogg on an ode to pot called "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" is one of the funnest musical moment of the year.

Another indie band. I heard about this UK duo in the pages of The Advocate (or Out, can't recall but they seem to be largely the same magazine). They were also Vogue's Band of the Week at one point. So, okay, they have some pretentious pubs touting them, but I have to say that their hypnotic, ominous sound appeals to me on a gut level. The best way to describe it is if you imagine the sound of the Byrds updated to the 21st Century and then given a make-over by goth chicks. Just digging into this CD, but it's my go-to disk on dark, stormy days.

Amorphous Androgynous - the Peppermint Tree & the Seeds of Superconsciousness
Amorphous Androgynous - Alice in Ultraland
In an earlier post, I mentioned how I had rediscovered my love for the Future Sound of London and learned to appreciate their 2003 disk The Isness. Amorphous Androgynous is a FSOL side project (or maybe FSOL is the side project at this point?).  I picked up these two CDs to catch-up with the band's output. Both are recordings made using the same neo-psychedelic, hippie art rock ethos that drove The Isness. Good for getting into when I want something acoustic/organic and creative in a somewhat twee sense. Again, I have yet to deeply delve into these two recordings as yet but the first listen was enjoyable.

Daughn Gibson - All Hell
Learned about this indie artist in the pages of BOMB magazine. The sound is so unique that I just had to have it. Definitely an album to stretch your ears. I can't figure out where to classify this on my iPod. It's acoustic core and vaguely country feel made me place it under my Roots category, but the production and overall sound leans much closer to trip-hop. Gibson's vocals add a whole other layer of genre-shattering to the mix. His phrasing can suggest Nebraska-era Springsteen, but his delivery also tends to evoke the gloom of brands like Depeche Mode. Knowing he's a dark-haired, manly hunk of man makes listening to his deep voice especially niiiiiiice. Thirty minute length is perfect for something this odd to my ears.

Vanessa Daou - Love Among the Shadowed Things
This thirty minute recording is a bit like a spoken word, prose poem, sound-effects collage, rather than a piece of music. Vanessa Daou's sultry voice always creates an intellectual exotica that you won't hear anywhere else. I've listened to the four tracks several times, but because this is a digital download there is no access to lyrics. I really need to go online and pick them up as Daou's work is as much about the lyrics as about the music. I'm sure I'll get more out of it with a better feel for the prose poem at the core of this work. Side note: I'm really liking some of these short releases. You can listen to the whole thing over and over without a huge commitment of time. The CD introduced longer play time for releases, but for a smaller price I'd forego the extra music in exchange for sharper focus.

Bengt Eklund's Baroque Ensemble - Courtly Trumpet Music
Continuing to scratch my unending itch for old music. This recording of trumpet processional music brings to mind kings and queens riding horses, surrounded by knights, as they make their way to their castle through an old European city with crowds of common people watching. However, the mood and tone of these pieces has a good variety. Some are triumphant and courtly, while others have a minor tone to them that makes them almost wistful. For me, it also doesn't hurt that four of the pieces are composed by Diabelli.

Queerboi Playlist Additions
I created a category on my iPod call Queerboi that contains all songs fitting a guilty musical pleasure of mine: silly, frothy dance music about sex. You know, stuff like "Rocket to Uranus' by the Vengaboys, "Best Friend' by Toy-Box, or "Boys" by Smile. It's not deep. It's not challenging. At best, the lyrics are doggerel, with rhymes straight out of Dr. Seuss. It's silly and fun (and it's about sex). It's also really good to work out to! There's a very specific sound and feel I'm looking for in songs I buy for the Queerboi playlist. Some recent adds:
- "Addiction" - Medina
- "Freak" - The True Star
- "Gimme More" - Bodybangers f/ Victoria Kern
Check some of this out!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Election 2012

It's over!

Despite all the drama, what I will remember most about this election were the lines of people waiting to vote in states like Ohio and, especially, Florida. People waiting in line for as much as seven hours to exercise their right as citizens in a democracy. Too often we see evidence of people - most often, unfortunately, politicians - abusing or undermining our system of government. It's images like this that helps me believe maybe things aren't totally going to hell in a hand basket.

I suppose cynics will say that it really doesn't matter who you vote for in elections in terms of who's 'running things' in this country, but I disagree. Not only did people step up the plate when it would have been a lot easier to go home and watch Glee on TiVo, but we also found that money may but a lot in America but it can't guarantee you an election win. There were so many races where candidates were outspent by out of state donors by obscene ratios. And yet in so many of those races, the big money lost. That says something to me.

Not saying I support all the underdog candidates who won, but it's good to know people are making choices and an effort to take part in the process. As long as that's happening, I say: "Way to go, USA!"

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Final 22?

Been away from blogging for a while. Jim and I did another 22 miles, but it's been a lot colder lately. It may be the 465 becomes the season total.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Onward and Upward

Another bike ride today. 26 miles. Season total 443. 500 is looking very possible!

9/11: Never Forget, But Stop Dwelling

from The Onion
I never expect to get much love for the position I've taken over the last several years on the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Let's make it clear: I believe we should never forget (as if anyone could). However, I also believe there's a difference between dignified remembrance and spineless, self-indulgent emotionalism (which The Onion brilliantly spoofs in the picture here).

As I have mentioned in previous posts (often with plenty of vitriol), I believe that 11 years, a million memorials, and two wars should have sated our need to sentimentalize the attacks. By now, we should be able to look at them in a far more rational manner and bring a shred of dignity to our feelings about them.

This kind of shift in viewing tragedy of any kind is how we learn from tragedy. I have found that when I look back on the attacks I have a change of mind about some of the decisions we made as a country. While I was never in favor of the war on Iraq and never believed there were weapons of mass destruction there, I was completely gung-ho about attacking Afghanistan. I did have some questions about whether an all-out invasion was the right route, but I wholeheartedly supported Bush in his plans. Looking back now, with a more rational mindset, I think it's hard to think I was right. It's hard to justify the invasion. Of course, I don't blame Bush and I still believe taking the Taliban out was the right thing to do. My rethinking here is that - in retrospect - the full-scale invasion as the means of taking out the Taliban was clearly about a sensible and effective as using a baseball bat to swat a fly in a china shop.

Naturally, I can't make any point of this kind around the anniversary of the attacks without provoking a flood of outraged emotion. Nevertheless, I still believe that rather than continuing to enshrine 9-11 and its aftermath in a halo of immaculate holiness we should step back and learn from it. What have I learned? Rash emotional responses are rarely the best ones. Examples: the invasion we used to eliminate the Taliban, the ridiculous war in Iraq which ballooned our debt, and the way many people gleefully supported the Patriot Act even though it blatantly pissed on the fundamental American rights our founding fathers fought and died for. These were all terrible mistakes that cannot be justified by anything. No, not even the 9-11 attacks. And we made them by shutting off our brains and letting emotion and anger carry us away (of course, many US citizens' brains are pretty much in the power-off position as a rule, but that's another post).

To illustrate this, I would point to the group of loonies in the Mideast who are over-reacting to a video made by a bigoted US citizen. Many US citizens who are appalled at this disgustingly emotional and irrational response should take a much closer look at it, because it's exactly the same mindset many of them had (and unfortunately still have) to 9-11. It's a sort of 'anything goes as long as it's in the name of 9-11' mentality. Just change one word and you have 'anything goes as long as long as it's in the name of Allah'. Just as this mentality is leading some misguided people in other countries to acts of violence, it led the US into two disastrous wars while abandoning the principles that supposedly made the US better than the terrorists who attacked us.

But maybe there's hope. This past week, NBC broke from the herd in a very important - and potentially constructive - way. While every other network mechanically catered to the rank sentimentality of their viewers by once again re-airing footage from 9-11, NBC did not. In fact, they went way over to the other side and aired an interview with one of the reliably air-headed Kardashian tramps. While I will never celebrate the promotion of such non-entities, I applaud NBC's decision to get off the treadmill of wallowing in an incredibly tragic moment in our history. Of course, they took a lot of flack for it, just as anyone does who dares to suggest we stop wallowing in 9-11. My hope is that NBC's decision will inspire the other networks to stop milking this when the time comes next year.

That's why I posted this pic from The Onion. It does a great job of satirizing the ridiculous level of hysterical emotion that still surrounds this tragic event in US history. Unfortunately, the real tragedy at this point is that until the US stops engaging in self-indulgent pity parties every September 11th, we'll be incapable of remembering 9-11 - and those who died on that day - in a dignified manner. Worse, we won't learn any of the important lessons 9-11 has to teach us.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Staycation Success

To sum up: I kept very busy the first several days of this third Pete Retreat, but then I took it easy on the last day. After all, time off is supposed to be a mental break!

On Wednesday, I went into the city and had fun. Went shopping at an independent record store and spent an hour exploring the dusty shelves of a used book dealer. Then took the el to River North for gallery hopping. Gretchen joined me here. Unfortunately, the artist whose work I went to view turned out to be much less impressive 'in the flesh'. I often find that photos of art often do not accurately represent them. There is always some distortion. Perhaps an impasto technique the camera can't capture or the colors are faded compared to the actual piece. There's always something.

In this case, the artist in question uses metallic paint sparingly on his canvases. This did not show up in the photos I had seen. Personal taste: I dislike metallic paints, as I it makes a work look glitzy in a cheap way (sort of on a par with black velvet art). There was another artist at the gallery whose work I liked, but it doesn't fit with my sense of what I want to buy. So there seems little point in doing more than just appreciating it.

We ended up going to another gallery, that was about 'crafts' rather than painting. Here I found some really exciting work. In fact, there were five artists that jumped out at me and none of them were painters. One worked in fiber/paper, while the others worked in ceramics to fashion vessels, vases, and wall decorations. Although they had very different approaches, what they had in common was an element of nature as basic inspiration yet, despite this starting point, they abstract the inspiration rather than directly reproduce it.

Positively, it wasn't until after I had homed in on which works I liked on a gut level that I realized it was all part of the same aesthetic I respond to when I look at paintings. Also positive was that this aesthetic spoke to me in forms of art beyond painting. This taught me that I can have a much more varied and rich collection by including pieces from multiple traditions. I'm definitely figuring things out!

After gallery hopping, Gretchen and I sat outside and drank too much while people watching. We also got a chance to talk tons and peruse the free Chicago art scene magazines we had picked up. It was a beautiful day, and we just relaxed until it was time to head up north for dinner with Gretchen's partner Camilo. Then Gretchen gave me the tour of the commune she lives in, providing encouraging feedback on my vase picture, and showed me her reel. A long, busy, and fun day.

After all this activity, I decided to have a slowed down kind of day yesterday. I did a 22 mile bike ride (see prior post), practiced piano, did a little writing, and shopped for art supplies and music. At the art supply store, I got extra oil pastels. I never knew this, but the crayons also come in a large size, and I realized these would be useful for the same reason I bought extra large tubes of white and black oils when I was painting. You know you're going to use it, so buying the small tubes is just inefficient. So, now, I'm equipped for more work!

I had lunch with my friend Paul, but he had to beat the rush hour so I wasn't able to get him to sit for me. (Maybe the fact I told him I had no idea whether the output was going to be any good scared him off!). Then Jimmy returned and we went out for dinner to celebrate his homecoming. I got to show him the photos I took of the works I was interested in.

All in all, I feel rested but also that I accomplished something meaningful in this time off. Best part is...I still have three more days to play!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Past 400!

22 mile ride this morning, which takes me to 417 for the season. There were oceans of wildflowers on one stretch of the trail, especially goldenrod. Took a few pics. You can click either picture to make it bigger, but the second one is especially large.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Deja Vu

I could not get my blue-ray of Shaolin (the movie I started to watch two nights ago) to work. Concerning! So, on a whim, I decided to rewatch this old favorite. I'm not big on romance movies, but Deja Vu overcame all my objections to the genre the first time I saw it at the (sadly gone) Fine Arts theatre in Chicago.

No spoilers! Deja Vu is a love story through and through, but it's really about how we make big choices in life. The story concerns a woman named Dana who's in a lukewarm, comfortable engagement. While in Jerusalem on business, she crosses paths with an older woman who relates a fascinating, but sad, tale of how decades ago she met the love of her life but that they did not act on their immediate awareness of their connection. She hands Dana a ruby pin her long-lost love had made for her. After they part, Dana realizes she still has the woman's pin. She tries to locate the woman in Paris without success and ends up - on a whim - in Dover. There she meets a stranger (Sean) with whom she has an instant, unexplainable, and overpowering attraction. Like the woman Dana met, she knows Sean is the love of her life. Even odder, he feels the exact same way about her. The rest of the movie is about how Dana and Sean decide whether to give into this amazing connection or to remain in their comfortable lives.

I was swept into and off with this movie in a way that rarely happens anymore, largely thanks to the absolutely phenomenal acting. I also enjoyed the cinema verite approach, where the actors seem to be improvising their rather deep conversations about life and love, passed up chances, and lost connections. One of the other strengths of the movie is that the story does not obsess about the attraction between the two leads. Are they or aren't they in love? Does he want her as much as she want him? All that neurotic nonsense is bypassed as the film quickly establishes the love is real and reciprocated. This leaves the movie to focus on the implications of acting on such emotions. Through the conversations the characters have with each other, we see relationships that represent the warmth and happiness of long-term commitment and others that embody the freedom and adventure of following the moment. The downsides of both lifestyles are also presented.

And there are no easy answers. This isn't a movie about cutesy Reese Witherspoon who just don't realize she's in love with a douchebag when sweet little Luke/Owen Wilson is right there in front of her (or vice versa with some other himbo and American sweetheart of the moment). Dana and Sean are not the 'good guys' stuck in lives with obviously bad partners. They are in committed adult lives, and it's easy to see why they like those lives and people. However, it's clear that those lives fall woefully short of the connection they have found with each other.

This is the most powerful choice the writers/director made in Deja Vu: there is no easy answers here...and, more importantly, no guarantees. This creates a great deal of suspense, because there is no feeling from the movie that if Dana and Sean end up together that they must be happy or that they will not regret the choice. The film certainly sets us up to want these two characters to be together, but this is because we are caught up in the romance and connection that seem to be pushing them together. Jaglom and his wife (and lead actress) wrote this film to never give us any sense of security. Deja Vu promises no 'happy ever after'; there is a choice to be made and no guarantees that what the characters choose will outweigh what they must give up by choosing it. The only certain thing is that whatever choice they make will affect them for the rest of their lives. Even at the very end of the movie, when Dana has a conversation with her father (such conversations usually providing the audience with permission to expect a 'happy ever after'), his last words to her are charged with double meaning.

Aside from the fantastic story, acting, and direction (be prepared to look past some rough editing likely necessitated by the cinema verite approach), Deja Vu appeals to me because the characters are all very intelligent, successful people who are past their twenties. These are adults: established, with deep connections to the people in their lives, a firm sense of themselves, and solid direction. This exponentially increases the gravity of Dana and Sean's choice and the risks they run by 'jumping into life'. This isn't about the right prom date or 'do I get the guy/girl'. This about being faced with the pain and excitement of a life-altering experience, and having to decide whether to embrace or reject it.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Staycation: Day 1 Results

Day 1 was definitely a success; I was relaxed and happy without turning into a slothful heap.  I'm up to item 9 on my list from the prior post. However, since I've checked off the majority of the list I think I'm free to blow off the rest and do whatever I want. Clearly I spent more than ten minutes in a rational manner, and I must give myself props for completing the heinous task of cleaning my desk

What I'm most happy about, though, is that I finally started drawing again! I set myself very low goals: I was just going to do some contour drawings to get back into it. I was not trying to create anything 'good'. So I just took a newsprint pad, a black wax pastel crayon, and wandered around the house drawing any random subject matter.  Since I was just retraining my eye, the actual subject matter was beside the point. I drew a candlestick, then a dish hanging on the wall, and then a bit of drape. I even drew it all on one sheet, creating an interesting - if odd - still life of sorts. I drew my cat (and the less said about that the better). Then I wandered into the entry way and drew a plant in the garden. It was so process-oriented that it hardly felt creative, but it was what I needed to do.

Blue Vase, 2012 Peter Cholewinski
Oil pastel on newsprint, 9 x 12"
Then I started drawing a blue glass vase on a table in the entryway and...for some reason I suddenly got really into what I was doing! The light reflecting on the glass, the different shades of blue, the curves of the all just sparked something in me. I completed the picture and ran to my study to get my oil pastels so I could add color. I did a foreground, the background, and made a full-on picture. The whole thing took maybe twenty minutes and...I'm happy with it! Here it is (click the picture if you want to see it bigger).

Now, I'm not posting this because it's brilliant. The composition is totally off (no space at the top and too much at the bottom). The treatment of the vase is not accurate enough to be representational, yet it's not abstract enough to provide any psychological depth. The line separating the background from the table the vase is sitting on is way too harsh (even after I softened it) and distracts from the vase itself. The foreground is too flat (another color and technique in there would have broken it up nicely). Even so, I'm happy with this picture. I like that it just sorta 'happened'. I like the roughness and looseness of the approach (largely a result of the fact that it was too spontaneous for me to realize I was actually doing something creative). Best of all, I like the colors and the layering of tones.

I have little to no experience using pastel crayons, nor did I 'follow the rules' while doing the contour drawing that started this. However, that's not relevant. What matters is that I'm learning and, if I keep at it, I will only improve from here. The main things I learned are that subject matter with color is what fires me up and that I like pastel crayons as a tool. They allow a degree of immediacy I haven't experienced even in oil painting.

I hope I stick with this; the feeling of release I had when I was done and my hands were smeared with color was almost euphoric.

Staycation: 'Ten Minutes in a Rational Manner'

As the official start of my third Pete Retreat (the Staycation), I allowed myself to veg most of the day. I watched Dynasty on YouTube (Alexis is plotting with Rashid Ahmed to ruin Blake's China Seas oil deal!), caught up on Facebook, did a mini chest work-out, and generally wasted time around the house. Not very productive, but it was good to mellow out.

Later, I went to dinner with a fairly new friend. We drove there in his Thunderbird convertible. It was a beautiful sunny day, and it felt fantastic to fly down back roads from Sugar Grove to Geneva with the top down! Especially important bit of enjoyment since summer is winding down; won't be too many more days like this to revel in.

Dinner was great. Good food, good cocktails, and a long conversation about nothing ordinary, just about life and what matters in it. It definitely helped that we're just starting to become better friends. This means that all my favorite 'stories' - which my longer term friends have already heard - are brand spanking new! Sweeeeet!

Came back home and called Jim to find he'd arrived safe and sound at the hotel. Then I ate microwaved Matt's chocolate chip cookies and tried to watch a movie. Unfortunately, I selected a movie with subtitles (I can't stand dubbing), and I was way too tired for that. So I went to bed, feeling like I'd kicked off this rather unconventional Pete Retreat in good form. Not bad!

But this morning, I decided I needed to ensure I was making good use of my time off. In Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, after a very serious scandal almost ruins the family, Mr. Bennet admonishes one of his 'very silly' younger daughters: "No, Kitty, I have at last learnt to be cautious, and you will feel the effects of it...You are never to stir out of doors till you can prove that you have spent ten minutes of every day in a rational manner." To make sure I exceed Mr. Bennet's rather low bar of spending ten minutes of each day in a rational manner, I put together a list daily activities that should help me keep focused on the things I wanted to enjoy doing during this Staycation:
  1. feed Fermi
  2. blog
  3. watch Dynasty
  4. clean desk, pay bills (ugh! what could be more rational than this?)
  5. bike
  6. work out or practice martial arts
  7. drawing
  8. piano
  9. writing or reading
  10. whatever else I want to do
  11. meditate
Hopefully this will do the trick. As you can see it is only 8AM, and I am already at point 2 on the list. Not bad.

Now I have to post this so I can watch more Dynasty...I think this is the episode in which Dominique Devereaux comes to Denver!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Just Shy of 400

25 mile interesting news to report...just a good ride that takes us to 395 miles for the season.

Monday, September 3, 2012

What Do I Want to Collect?

some of Greta Garbo's amazing collection
photo: Billy Cunningham, Architectural Digest
So now that I've decided to be an art collector, the question is what do I want to collect and why?

These are not academic questions. The world of art is vast, and it's important to understand what I want and even more important to be able to talk about why I purchased it. To just randomly buy whatever strikes my fancy at a given moment means that I will end up with a pile of unrelated paintings rather than a collection.

Of course, at bottom, my purchases would always have one thing in common: I liked them. This is bound to provide some sense of unity, but I feel it would only be a very loose sense of unity. It would be like going clothes shopping and just buying whatever looked good. When I go to get dressed, I'd find I have too many blue shirts (because I like blue) or that I can't pair up enough items into good outfits.

So the downside of 'flying blind' in my collecting is that I'm not really being intelligent about my purchases. I would never know if I was buying a painting for a good reason or just because something in the painting struck my whim or was a hot fad. And, as we sometimes learn the hard way in clothes shopping, today's whim/fad is tomorrow's 'what was I thinking?'

Developing a conscious aesthetic or strategy in my purchases has positive side effects beyond avoiding buyer's remorse. For example, as I have begun to think this through, I feel as though it brings me more in touch with my reactions to art in general, especially when I don't like something. Knowing what my cup of tea is helps me check myself to make sure my negative reaction to a work isn't limited to the fact that the piece has a different 'flavor' that what I prefer. This keeps me open.

Mark Rothko painting
photo: Karmic Voyager blog
An example of how this works is when I found an artist whose works I really liked but from whom I must never, ever buy anything. This artist does abstract paintings featuring several large shapes (usually rectangles) in different colors floating against a background using a third color. I liked the artist's work a great deal but will never, ever buy it. Why not?

The works I just described were painted within the last several years, but they strongly resemble the work of Mark Rothko (the picture of his work here was lifted from a post on the blog Karmic Voyager). Now, if I want to buy a work of this kind, why would I buy anything other than an actual Rothko? (Practically speaking, the answer to that question is that I'll never in my wildest dreams be able to afford it...but I digress).

All artists stand on the shoulders of someone (or several someones). However, I distinguish between someone standing on the shoulders of Mark Rothko and reaching for something beyond him or adding something of their own to translate his legacy into something new...versus a person who is regurgitating his vision and style. The latter is not good art (at least not good beyond the decorative sense). If I'm only responding to the work from a decorative standpoint, then I do not need to be paying fine art prices to get something that serves that need.

This is somewhat random smattering of thoughts on this subject, but deciding what I collect and why is necessary both to be a responsible buyer and to truly get the most out of my experience with what I buy (and out of art in general). Going to galleries and museums will help me evolve my thinking.

More on this as I start figuring things out...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Back to Art?

Self-Portrait, 1997 Peter Cholewinski
Oil pastel crayons on paper, 17 x 13"
As I've mentioned on this blog (more than) a few times, I'd gotten away from the arts and being creative several years ago. I've been more focused on athletic stuff: martial arts, swimming, lifting, biking, and trying new things like hiking, kayaking, and rock wall climbing.

This past year, however, I've felt my interest in the arts coming back. It's why I've been playing piano and consistently reading literature again. At the same time, my creativity also seems to be slowly returning. Every so often I feel an urge to draw. Not sure how to describe it; it's like a tingling inside of me when I see certain colors or shapes.

Perhaps part of it is the amount of reading I've been doing about painting and artists over the last year. In any case, I have some ideas about what I'd like to do and how I'd like to do it. So I bought a pad of newsprint and a black wax pastel crayon. I figured I would start with some contour drawing to retrain my eye. Then we'll see where things go.

The picture here is a self-portrait I did back in 1997. It was one of those pictures that just came out of me, and I think it only took twenty minutes to create. It had been a tense day, and the jagged loose technique I used with my oil pastel crayons was just what I needed as a release. While I'm not crazy about how I did the background and the shirt and hair are too flat, the use of color makes this one of my favorite things I've done.

Perhaps this is something to tackle during the Pete Retreat Staycation?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Pete Retreat 3: The Staycation

The last two Pete Retreats were a week alone in a cabin in the Michigan woods. There was no phone or cell service, no internet, no cable (I unplugged the tiny TV and shoved it in the closet anyway), and since it was fall there was no one around. It was a great experience because I had no work commitments, no chance to hang with friends, and no way to entertain myself. There was literally nothing to do...and a whole week of it stretching out in front of me. I ended up slowing my pace way, way down and filling the time with hiking in the woods, making art, writing, reading, and self-reflection.

In September, Jim is going to a conference for about a week.  I usually go with him and bum around whatever city we're in. (In past years, we went to Vegas and Montreal). However, this year, the conference is in San Antonio and...well...sorry San Antonio but I'm just not interested in hanging out alone with you. So I considered going on a Pete Retreat.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of having the house all to myself.  I'd also be able to schedule a long evening or two with some close friends, as opposed to completely sequestering myself. So I decided to take the week off from work and have a Pete Retreat Staycation!

Once the idea had occurred to me, I was in love with it because it fits with something I've come across in my Zen studies. It's encapsulated by the koan Tozan's Sixty Blows from the Mumonkan. This koan is about how we don't need to travel to find rightmindedness; it's inside us all the time. There's no need to journey or go to holy places or seek gurus. We simply need to stop running away from it. The staycation will help me put this concept into action.

So I'm making a list of things I'd like to do during my staycation. I have to be prepared because I will have lots of electronic temptations around me. If I'm not carefeul, the week could easily become a vegfest of truly sloth-like proportions.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Serenata Concertante op. 105

The Serenata Concertante is absolutely one of my favorite pieces of any genre. The 22-minute composition in six movements was written by Anton Diabelli (1781 - 1858) and makes use of flute, guitar, and viola. I've found that in classical music I gravitate towards material performed by small ensembles featuring interesting combinations of instruments, so it's no surprise I responded to this work.

Diabelli was an Austrian music publisher and teacher (both guitar and piano), who achieved a great deal of success (he discovered Schubert). Diabelli was also a composer. I first heard of him when I began learning to play one of his sonatinas on the piano. It's one of my favorite pieces to play and, because it's a longer piece, I got a wonderful sense of accomplishment after taking the time to learn it. However, from what I gather, classical music aficionados regard Diabelli as a minor composer.

Be that as may, I fell in love with the Serenata Concertante and several other pieces he wrote when I purchased the pictured Finnish CD recorded in 1997. The music on this CD has the further attraction of being played on period instruments: a copy of a flute from around 1800, an 1838 guitar, and a viola form 1817.

I usually play the Serenata Concertante just as Spring starts.  For me, the opening flute lines in the first movement suggest leaves just opening or flowers poking up out of the soil. There is a light feel to the composition overall that suggests the gentleness and warmth of a Spring breeze, and the piece often becomes joyously carefree. Just the way I feel after we emerge from five or six months of winter and snow!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The First Acquisition

Buying 'Summer' and 'Fall' at the Timmel Collection, Saugatuck, MI
Jim and I spent the past weekend celebrating our 16th anniversary in Saugatuck, Michigan. We hadn't been there in over a decade, I believe, so it was a good time to go back for a short getaway. We had a very nice stay, but what the most memorable part of the trip will be that - after a good deal of reading up on art collecting and consideration about actually doing it - I finally took the plunge and made my first purchase!

Or I should say 'purchases'!  I picked up two paintings by Chicago-area artist Darren Jones. I hadn't planned on buying anything of this kind during this trip. I'd just figured I was going to bum around the shops and have a nice anniversary weekend. Although we were planning to gallery hop, I figured I would do my usual lurker routine: walking around, salivating over a few items, but not daring to buy anything.

Of course, I'd been giving collecting serious thought after it occurred to me that I would be interested in it as a...passion ('hobby' seems like such a poor word for this). I'd also done a good bit of reading on the subject, as well as getting back into learning about what was going on in contemporary art. How do people collect? What things do you keep in mind in choosing a piece? A big part of this was reading interviews with major fine art collectors and hearing them relate how they got started and what drives them. Still, each time I considered making a purchase, there was this hesitation and I'd walk away empty-handed. Art is not cheap, and I feared a painful bout of buyer's remorse if I regretted my purchase later.

This time, however, things were different. Of course I really liked the work by Darren Jones that I saw at the Timmel Collection in downtown Saugatuck, but I'd liked a lot of other things too and not pulled the trigger. The difference was that, after we left the gallery the first time and I had not bought, I was filled by a sense of futility and frustration. Like a diver at the end of the springboard, afraid to take the plunge. We've been in our house 14 years and there are a lot of walls with no artwork or artwork that I'm not all that crazy about. Why was I allowing this? What was I waiting for?

Spring, 2010 Darren Jones Mixed medium, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24”
While Jim and I were at lunch I talked the whole thing through with him. One: I had done a quick web investigation and checked out Jones' website and artist statement. Liked what I read. Check.  Two: I'm not being a flake about this. I have a god deal of art education, and I know what I like (and, far more importantly, why I like it), so I'm not going to buy something dreadful. Check. Three: All the collectors I read about emphasized you have to start with what you like, even as they each evolved their collections into something with a (sometimes very tight) focus. These paintings definitely fit with what I like about and respond to in art. Check. Four: I was not buying these paintings as an investment or with the dream of making a fortune when Jones became the next Big Artist, died, and all his works soared into the six-figure range for auction estimates. I was buying them to have something in my home that I enjoy, that has personal meaning for me, and that I think are beautiful. Check. Five: I could think of several places in the house the paintings could go, so there was a definite functional aspect to this purchase. Check. Six: The idea of two pieces of a similar style and yet with the sharp color contrast these two works have adds to the appeal. Check. Lots of good reasons.

Done. Went in, made the purchase, and I have to say I had such a rush afterwards! Buying a painting may not seem like a big deal but, if you love art and are serious about what you are buying, I assure you it is a very big deal! I made the artist working at the gallery who helped us with the purchase (he's not Darren Jones) get into the picture above with me. Yes, I geeked out. But this is a first step into a larger world, so I had no desire to restrain myself from geeking out. I've made a life-long passion into something concrete, and that makes me very happy.

Fall, 2010 Darren Jones
Mixed medium, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24”

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ten Questions by Bernard Pivot

James Lipton closes each interview he does on Inside the Actor's Studio by asking ten questions of his subject. He's quite open about the fact that he lifted the questions from a French TV host named Bernard Pivot. The answers these questions evoke can be impressive, funny, even wistful, but always personal. The answers reveal so much about a person, yet they intrigue us by what they leave unanswered.

As a game I tried to answer the questions about myself and found that it took a lot of thinking to feel I was answering them deeply. Once I had my answers I thought there's no point in not sharing. Maybe if I post on Facebook, I can get my friends to share their answers?

What is your favorite word?
'Phoenix'. It’s a symbol I’ve held dear most of my life. It’s the idea that at the end of a phase in my life, or when things get really bad, something fantastic will come out of the ashes if I just keep going.

What is your least favorite word?
‘Perceived’. There’s too much concern about how things are perceived. People get so wrapped up in it that they don’t spend enough time thinking about what ‘is’.

What turns you on [creatively, spiritually or emotionally]?
The alien, the other, the taboo, the unfamiliar, the untested, the unknown. These things run opposite to what’s popular and accepted; they mess up established order. Growth comes when we are challenged and when we reach beyond.

What turns you off?
People who embrace mediocrity and just sort of idle there.

What is your favorite curse word?
‘Jesusmotherfuckingchrist!’ Said like it’s one word. What a release!

What sound or noise do you love?
Whatever sounds are there when I am just silent with myself. The sounds we tend to tune out: the creaking of a tree, the distant echo of a train at night, a squirrel hopping by (yes, you can hear that!). These sounds make me feel very present in the moment, and that feeling refuels me on every level.

What sound or noise do you hate?
Ringtones. 99% of cell phone conversations I end up having to hear are clearly meaningless. It’s like people have them just to fill time. It makes me wonder if people are afraid of what they’d think or feel if they stopped ‘being busy’ for even a minute and spent that time quietly taking a good, hard look at their lives.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
An artist, specifically a painter.

What profession would you not like to do?
A politician.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
I’d be disappointed if there was a god waiting there or if there were any pearly gates or if there was anything like that at all. If there’s anything beyond the grave, I’d hope it would be something that I can’t even imagine right now. Maybe some higher form of existence where I’m free to explore everything and learn everything.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Speeding Towards 400

Yesterday, Jim and I did a 25-mile loop on Saturday, starting in downtown Wheaton (see map). We took the Illinois Prairie Path east through Glen Ellyn. Lombard, and downtown Villa Park to the junction with the Great Western Trail. This junction is well-marked, although there is a detour right now in the course of the GWT that forces you through an annoying intersection or two.

The Great Western Trail isn't as well-travelled as the IPP is between Wheaton and Villa Park. The solitude and quiet is a plus, but the reason the trail is not used as much is that for a good stretch, roughly between Lombard and Wheaton, it's not all that pretty. Not ugly by any means...just kind of okay.

As we got closer to the junction with the IPP Elgin Spur (by County Farm Road), natural beauty made a come back. I bet the GWT in Wheaton is beautiful during the fall. Then we rode the Elgin Spur south back into Wheaton. Overall, a good ride!

Today we did another 17 miles here in Naperville. That gave us a weekend total of 42 miles, bringing the season total up to 370 miles. Within spitting distance of 400! Looks like this is going to be a good season - in terms of mileage - after all.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Rediscovering The Future Sound of London

One of my favorite bands was/is The Future Sound of London, even though their output comes after long breaks and not everything they put out is for everyone who listens to them. They even have an alter-ego band (Amorphous Androgynous) under which some of their music is released.

A little background is required as to why they hold such a place in my heart and mind, aside from their challenging, brilliant music. Back in the early to mid 1990's, I was in my twenties and living in the city. It was an amazing time of liberation for me. For the first time I was truly independent and on my own. No school, no teachers, no parents, nothing. I was free to explore life, ideas, my sexuality, my writing/performing, and to define my identity entirely free of any outside influence or controls. I read massive amounts of early 20th Century literature, went crazy publishing my poetry and doing open mics, built new friendships, got my career going in the direction I wanted, dove deep into the latest thinking in particle physics, quantum mechanics, and astrophysics, ate up all the independent theatre in the area, and spent free time in coffeehouses all over the place soaking up every kind of input from new people I was meeting.

Independent music stores like Evil Clown and Reckless Records allowed me to swim in a sea of non-mainstream, non-major label music.  I was exposed to acid jazz, afropop, trance, goa, gangsta rap, downtempo/lounge, and trip hop. I was able to hear classical jazz through the ears of people who understood it, experienced music by artists from all over the world not just the stuff record companies spoon feed the masses here in the US, and I got to see amazing live performances.  One guy took me on a date to see Sir George Solti conducting "Bolero". Another highlight was seeing Guru perform live at the Metro after the release of his second Jazzmatazz release (with Vanessa Daou opening).

In this setting, FSOL's 1996 album Dead Cities was one of the first techno releases I ever bought, and it blew me away completely. It's a mixture of a sonic collage mentality, an aesthetic that bends and twists sounds like silly putty, a dark/dystopian tonality, and savage beats juxtaposed against ominous ambient vibes. I'd never heard anything like it or even dreamed anything like it could exist. So it was one of my first "wow!" moments as I dove into new sounds and musical sensibilities.

After that eye-opening moment, I purchased several other offerings by FSOL from time to time. Their maxi-single for the track "My Kingdom" off Dead Cities is an amazing release on its own merits and it takes the idea of a maxi-single into an entirely different universe. There was something almost akin to classical music in the 'movements' presented in the maxi-single. I also bought Lifeforms, the maxi-single for the electrifying "We Have Explosive", and the maxi-single for "Cascade". Loved them all and became very much into their approach to music.

Since then I have been exploring electronic music genres of all kinds and have heard some really phenomenal stuff but, as always happens, sometimes the album that 'breaks us in' to a style of music holds a special place in our heart. However, I also am glad that my first listen for this kind of challenging techno or IDM was a masterpiece like Dead Cities. Very lucky. Just as I was lucky my first gangsta rap album was Gangstarr's Daily Operation. Always good to hear something phenomenal at the start!

More recently (in 2002), FSOL put out their follow-up to Dead Cities (The Isness).  I bought it without listening to it or knowing anything about it, got it home, tore it open, and put it on the CD player. I was hungry to be taken somewhere unbelievable all over again. And then...I hear a bunch of retro sounding hippie music! WTF! I hated it! I gave it a few more spins, reminding myself that you can't judge a band based on what you expect them to do, but I could not get into it. Into the closet it went. 

This past week, after listening to some of the sitar influenced work by Bombay Dub Orchestra on their 2008 album 3 Cities, I recalled some of the sounds and textures on The Isness and thought I'd give it a try again. For whatever reason, I immediately was able to enjoy the album. Not even sure exactly why it was so objectionable to me in the first place. Well, that's not entirely true. The shift in tonality and style from Dead Cities to The Isness is pretty neck-snapping, but in fact the approach FSOL takes to music is apparent in both albums, and I can see that now. (The fact that the tracks like "Elysian Feels" and "Divinity" hit me in my sonic-emotional g-spot doesn't hurt either).

Every so often, this happens with music or art or literature (or even food - see my entry on falling in love with sushi). We are exposed to something and we just can't get into it, but much later we suddenly 'get it'.  Perhaps I just needed more time to amass the experience or information needed for The Isness to make sense to me? Whatever the reason, I'm listening to The Isness right now and finding myself as enthralled by it as I was all those years ago when I first gave Dead Cities a spin.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The End of a Giant Tree

32 mile ride yesterday! That takes us over 300 miles and sends us almost a third of the way to 400 miles. We're at 328.

I mentioned in a previous post that going north on the path out of Wheaton we saw plenty of evidence of the storm from several weeks back: broken trees, dead branches, trees with bark ripped off. Must have been really crazy!

For scale: I'm 5'10"
Up closer towards Elgin we came across this sight, and I had to have Jim get an image of me with it this time (big picture, so click to expand). Was this huge tree really uprooted during the storm?! At first, I couldn't believe it. Maybe someone did it on purpose. But the tree's been lying there for a few weeks now, and why would anyone uproot a tree and then leave it there? When people get rid of trees, they usually do so to get them out of the way.

I also noticed that on the other side of the path, there was evidence of the tree causing damage. Two clearings where there used to be brush and a taller tree that has had its bark scraped off from the base to above fourteen feet up. Usually, when people take out a tree of this size, they cut off the upper branches. They don't just knock it down. Someone did cut the branches just to the right of what we show in this photograph, probably to keep the path clear, but this would have been after the tree fell. So I guess it really was the storm that did this.

Jim counted at least 36 rings at the cut which, again, was at a branch to the right of this photo. That would be at least twenty feet from the base of the tree. This was a powerful tree, but an even more powerful storm. Amazing example of the forces of nature.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Jean-Paul Sartre - 'The Wall'

The Wall is a collection of five short stories that Jean-Paul Sartre published in 1939, the year after he published his electrifying novel Nausea - one of the key works of fiction in Existentialism. This post is about the first story in the collection, also titled 'The Wall'. It's about a man - Pablo Ibbieta - who captured during the Spanish Civil War. He and two other prisoners are sentenced to death by firing squad. How the prisoners handle their impending death is the launch pad from which Sartre expounds his Existentialist creed, and the story is chock full of imagery and loaded language. I definitely won't do the story justice, but here's some of what I pulled out of it.

The story begins with a mock trial, and the first line is: "They pushed us into a big white room and I began to blink because the light hurt my eyes." This image evokes a meeting with God in the afterlife and the judgement religion says we will face. However, the judgement here is a military tribunal with no concerns for morality or justice, good or evil, innocence or guilt. Sartre is clearly likening this irrational procedure to our illusions of divine justice. Given the randomness of existence - who lives and who dies - how can God be much different than these bureaucrats?

In their cold cell, Pablo and two other prisoners - Juan Mirbal and Tom Steinbock - try to make sense of their impending death. Tom tries to warm up by exercising, but fails to do so. He just winds himself. His futile efforts are a metaphor for the futility of any action that attempts to avoid the 'cold' reality of death (the 'wall' of the story's title). Our actions do not change the fundamental fact of our reality: that we will die.

Tom deals with his sentence the best - on the surface. He almost seems to go on as normal with no pronounced reaction, but Sartre soon shows us something different. When Tom seeks to comfort the horrified Juan, Sartre asserts he is doing so because "it would have passed his time and he wouldn't have been tempted to think about himself". Again, Sartre's words are full of meaning. Tom is simply ignoring the issue; he's in a kind of denial. Later, when Tom references the wall they will stand against when executed, he seems to begin dealing with his death. As he imagines the firing squad, he says, "I'll think how I'd like to get inside the wall, I'll push against it with my back...with every ounce of strength I have, but the wall will stay, like in a nightmare." Tom cannot avoid the fact if his own death no matter how hard he tries.

In contrast, Juan is a young man who never really accepts or faces his death.  Because of his youth, both Tom and Pablo reason that he will be spared. But when the prisoners learn they are to be shot in at dawn, Juan's reaction is shocked disbelief ("Not me...I didn't do anything."). The jailer responds with a shrug, and we even get the impression that the wrong sentence has been attached to these three men through some clerical error. Age and innocence mean nothing in the face of death. As Juan emotionally breaks down in response to his death, Pablo thinks critically: 'the kid made more noise than we did, but he was less touched." As the story progresses, we see that Juan's reaction to death is paralysis. Complete fear. He is passive and neither resists nor accepts his mortality.

Meanwhile Pablo offers up gallows humor about death. He refuses to cry, because he "wants to due cleanly". He also rejects the comforts offered by his captors: cigarettes and alcohol. He avoids all physical, philosophical/spiritual, and emotional means of comforting himself about his mortality. He thinks: "Several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal." Of the three men, only Pablo survives. I won't how or why, but it's enough to say that he escapes through a completely random chance event. This blackly humorous ending underlines Sartre's point that there is no fairness about existence, no justice. This lack of overarching morality is one of the hallmarks of Existentialism.

'The Wall' is a very short story and a cool little read if you enjoy early twentieth century literature. There's a lot to think about and read into this brief story; well worth a read.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Zen Buddhism and Existentialism

I've always found Existentialism fascinating, although I don't agree with what seems to be a consistently negative view of the world and life that comes from it (if you take the literary output as any indication).  I guess I get past that and remain attracted to Existentialism because some of its underlying principles seem to echo Zen Buddhism.

In fact, I often think Existentialists are just depressed Zen Buddhists!

For example, both systems rely on the experience of the individual as a road to truth. Of course, I suppose existentialists might disagree with the idea of there being 'truth' of some kind out there. As a corollary to this, they both reject the role of the supernatural or canned 'moralities' as substitutes for our own direct perception of reality.

Another similarity is that both schools of thought seem to believe our reality is very much driven by what we make it. I guess the major difference along these lines is in how we deal with that reality. Zen Buddhists feel that we create much of our own sorrow through undisciplined thinking. So, by disciplining our minds, we can avoid delusion and shape our reality in a positive way, although we are not actively trying to root out unhappiness. For Existentialists, I get the impression they feel there is a certain sorrow or emptiness innate in life and/or that we have to work against the emptiness of existence to create happiness or serenity.

Another similarity is that both systems stress epiphanies as fundamental to a true understanding of the world around us and our place in it. In Zen Buddhism, we have moments of satori or kensho. In Existentialism, there is the 'Existential Moment' in which a person comes face to face with the absurdity of life.  In both cases, it is a kind of enlightenment. It changes us. The difference seems to be that for Zen Buddhists this epiphany can lead to freedom and a sense of serenity, while Existentialists gain a sense of freedom but with a very stiff chaser of angst. It may also be true to say that Zen Buddhists believe we gain knowledge from satori and kensho, while the Existential Moment doesn't seem to impart knowledge. It's merely the way the Existentialist comes to terms with reality; it's about accepting existence, not learning about it.

Maybe these differences - despite some of the similarities it has with Zen Buddhism - is why Existentialism seems so depressing and bleak.  Again, I guess I'm going mainly by what I find in novels written by the movement's leaders (e.g., Camus, Sartre). The moment of 'enlightenment' - for them - leads to darkness or nausea (to steal the title from Sartre's first novel) not something innately positive. Not to say it's hopeless for them, they do seem to feel you can create that meaning through passionate action.

So while there are a lot of similarities that strike me, I guess there are also as many differences. This makes the comparison that much more interesting for me.  Of course, I'm no scholar when it comes to Existentialism so I may have this all wrong. But these thoughts struck me as I was reading a short story by Sartre (The Wall). More on that in a later post!