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Friday, September 30, 2005

A New York City parable

Just so you have some background here, my boss is an extremely competent, composed, high-energy woman who has lived in Tel Aviv and in New York City for most of her life. She is a good, no-nonsense manager who generally gives the impression she can take care of everything. But as you will understand, she is deeply, typically impaired in that born-and-bred-city-person kind of way.

This afternoon, I walked into her office and noticed that her office plant, (one of those typical, anonymous office plants, with several thick dusty stems sprawled over on the desk from lack of water, light, and an ecosystem in general,) had actually completely lost one of its floppy dusty branches. The fairly substantial branch was just lying there on her desk next to the plant. While she was working on something on her computer, I wandered over and picked up the branch and made a "this is a bummer" gesture at her with it, like I would commiserate with anyone else over a failing plant. She gave it a quick, fairly uninterested glance.

"Oh, yeah," she said matter-of-factly. "I'm leaving that there for when the building people came by. I'm thinking maybe they can stick it back on or something."

"Why don't you --- yes, but..."

The very qualities that make self-help one of publishing's most despised genres -- its formulaic simplicity, its reduction of human beings to cartoonish types, its unrelenting optimism -- also make it popular with people who rarely read any other kind of book. Each new volume of advice promises life-changing lessons; each delivers more or less the same fistful of homilies.

But even despised genres can have a creative heyday, and for self-help the peak came in the 1960's and 70's.

Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships ... hovered on the best-seller lists for a couple of years.

Eric Berne ... provides the general reader with a field guide to "games," familiar patterns of interaction that rely on plausible cover stories to conceal ulterior, often unconscious, motives. In the game of "Why Don't You -- Yes But," players begin by bemoaning a problem and inviting others to suggest solutions, all of which will be shot down. The real object, Berne writes, is "to demonstrate that no one can give them an acceptable suggestion."

Cataloging such games necessarily fosters an ironic, if not outright jaundiced, view of human nature, evident in Berne's taxonomy; game titles include "Let's You and Him Fight" and "Now I've Got You, You Son of a Bitch." (The player of the latter game secretly welcomes being wronged: "Ever since early childhood he had looked for similar injustices, received them with delight and exploited them with the same vigor.")

Laura Miller

I read Games People Play long ago; "Why Don't You... Yes, But" was my favorite.

Extracted from Chapter 7 of "Games People Play."


Seven years after Natalie Phistie and Bill Winnerton got married, she and some friends are having a discussion over coffee while her husband is out bowling:
Natalie: "I'm so upset - I just don't know what to do about Bill. He doesn't seem to be listening to me any more and he is always running out on me."

Friend 1: "Why don't you sit him down and have a serious talk?"

Natalie: "Yes, I've tried that but he won't sit still."

Friend 2: "You probably have cabin fever. Why don't you take a vacation from each other?"

Natalie: "Yes, but we can't afford it."

Friend 3: "Well, why don't you just get a divorce?"

Natalie: "Yes, but what about the kids?"

Friends (thinking): "1 give up, this situation is hopeless.. ."

Natalie (thinking): "Nobody can help me."
This conversation is recurring: Natalie and her friends have been through it many times. As a matter of fact, much of their time has been spent playing Why Don't You, Yes But, and it is the type of conversation which occurs over and over again, especially in therapy groups.

The pay-off: it proves to Natalie she is doomed; it proves to her friends that there is no use trying to help people because they never accept advice anyway.

This game is played skillfully by many old folks, which is why I stopped volunteering at a local retirement home and decided to work with children instead.

Mrs. Schenktman, an extremely able woman, a former university professor and craftsperson, had decided it was now time for her to be truly retired - i.e. to do nothing but read, go to meals, and worry. Since she was still in possession of all her marbles, well, she was very bored. Her considerable grey matter had to be occupied with something so she turned to complaining.
  • The food was bad;
  • The residents were stupid;
  • The management was uncaring;
  • Her closet was too crowded.
I couldn't do anything about the first three items, but I thought I could make some headway on #4. I opened the closet door and we embarked on a months-long project of my making "constructive suggestions" about what could be done with the things in her closet and her shooting my ideas down.

The biggest space hog was a dismantled floor loom. Since Mrs. Schenktman had a bit of arthritis she had given up this hobby.

The loom was of no use to her only son, a 65-year old "artist" who had been living on disability insurance all his life because he was "unable to work." This quotation-mark skepticism stems from his being able to do a great many difficult - but pleasurable - things - it was only work that was beyond him. Well, and laundry.

"I keep having to buy sheets for my son and mailing them to him in California."
"Why don't you ask him to wash the ones he has, instead?"
"Yes, but I don't think he will."

The floor loom was quite the white elephant. Or, hmm, her bête noir.

"I don't want it in there any more."
"So why don't I sell it for you?"
"That seems too complicated."
"I'll take care of everything."
"But I don't want strangers in my apartment looking at it."

After several weeks of these debates she decided selling it was a good idea. I advertised the loom and found a buyer.

When the person came to pick it up, Mrs. Schenktman had changed her mind and I had to send the buyer away empty handed. The complaints began anew. "My closet is too crowded..."

I was a patsy for this game because I really wanted to help. Speaking of cartoonish types, below find a familiar patsy, unwilling to believe nothing can change. Signing off for today...

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Charlie Brown and Lucy and the football

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Thursday, September 29, 2005

zoning mysteries

Tonight I went out to see the excellent Corpse Bride. Puppetry is great and all, but unlike the delightful flexible drawn cartoons of early Disney or Warner Brothers, most of the characters are frustratingly plastic, stiff and blank looking (i noticed that most of the women puppets had conveniently long skirts so the animators could just glide them across the set at 32 frames a second). The dead bride herself is the only real character of the whole thing - full of emotion and very seductive, with little racy glimpses of her bones showing through her skin. Much better than most female love-interest characters created by script-writers these days, whether puppet or human.

This movie was showing in Times Square, where two vast, vast cineplexes face each other across 42nd street. these theaters are mystifyingly empty. the real estate is worth a gazillion dollars. but this freaking movie theater was about seven stories tall, and each floor had its own huge abandoned central hall with one or two films showing at each end. And since it wasn't opening weekend, each movie had about three audience members going to see it.

On the ground floor was a big abandoned concession stand, and there was an abandoned Applebee's on the open second floor balcony. how do these theaters, which are spangled and velvet and aim to look like palaces, how do they possibly stay in business? i've gone to them on friday nights when you can't walk through times square for all the people, and the attendance doesn't seem anywhere near what it would take to pay for all the space.

any theories?



An excellent idea.

This is the way I want to go.

Sweden's new funeral rite
Bodies freeze-dried, powdered and made into tree mulch

A town in Sweden plans to become the first place in the world where corpses will be disposed of by freeze-drying, as an environmentally friendly alternative to cremation or burial. Jonkoping, in southern Sweden, is to turn its crematorium into a so-called promatorium next year.

Swedes will then have the chance to bury their dead according to the pioneering method, which involves freezing the body, dipping it in liquid nitrogen and gently vibrating it to shatter it into powder. This is put into a small box made of potato or corn starch and placed in a shallow grave, where it will disintegrate within six to 12 months.

People are to be encouraged to plant a tree on the grave. It would feed off the compost formed from the body, to emphasise the organic cycle of life.

The national burial law is currently being updated to accommodate a practice that is expected to spread across the country over the next few years.

The technique was conceived by a Swedish biologist, Susanne Wiigh-Masak, 49, who said: "Mulching was nature's original plan for us, and that's what used to happen to us at the start of humanity - we went back into the soil."

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More on the commons

I'm too tired to pull this into a real post, but...

Zed read this advice to freshmen on a kid-created Wesleyan LiveJournal: "Don't bother bringing a chair from home - just steal one from the lounge, they're so comfortable."

These kids seem to see themselves as crafty hunter-gatherers, living off the land. Hmm, they sneak downstairs and steal chairs which were put there for their use. Shooting fish in a barrel, more like. Will they feel guilty as they go by and see their fellow students standing around because the chairs are gone?

In college I had a job at the law library and one of my tasks was to make sure students didn't cut articles out of books. (Motive: it was cheaper than copying them and also ensured that the NEXT kid couldn't read them.)

So many dorms are decorated by stolen road signs - meanwhile, somewhere, people are getting lost...

There's a modest mom-and-pop-owned homemade ice cream store near here which had a wonderful hand-made cow sculpture out front until somebody stole it.

Don't you hate it when people dig up ferns and dogwoods and redbuds growing by the side of the road and take them off to their own gardens?

At an outdoor wedding we played recently, I watched as throughout the ceremony a little red-headed kid methodically pulled the heads off every flower in the garden while his parents did nothing to stop him. Every one.

"If the fish population is crashing, somebody is going to get the last fish, and it might as well be me."

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" ...

The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons.

Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit -- in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

From The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin, 1968.

"Hardin illustrates the critical flaw of freedom in the commons: all participants must agree to conserve the commons, but any one can force the destruction of the commons."

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Intelligent Design (re-posted)

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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Carpe diem

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Some Days (Billy Collins)

Another poem by Zed's favorite poet, Billy Collins.

Some Days

Some days I put the people in their places at the table,
bend their legs at the knees,
if they come with that feature,
and fix them into the tiny wooden chairs.

All afternoon they face one another,
the man in the brown suit,
the woman in the blue dress,
perfectly motionless, perfectly behaved.

But other days, I am the one
who is lifted up by the ribs,
then lowered into the dining room of a dollhouse
to sit with the others at the long table.

Very funny,
but how would you like it
if you never knew from one day to the next
if you were going to spend it

striding around like a vivid god,
your shoulders in the clouds,
or sitting down there amidst the wallpaper,
staring straight ahead with your little plastic face?

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Finding inspiration at home

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Quote of the Day

From the New York Times:

"When you're 25, you can eat hamburgers and pizza and drink beer and stay out all night and come out the next day and drink a couple cups of coffee and just play. If I did that today, my heart would stop and I'd need a stretcher and an IV."

MIKE PIAZZA, the 37-year-old Mets catcher

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

I'm distressed by "distressed jeans"

Extracts from
When Expensive Jeans Unravel
Denim made to look like it's falling apart may do just that.
Some women are paying hundreds to repair their "distressed" denim.

by Rachel Dodes for the Wall Street Journal
September 24, 2005

Abercrombie & Fitch's "premium destroyed boot" model, sold for $168 under its new Ezra Fitch label, has an average of seven holes in the legs and four on the back pockets ... True Religion's $216 "destroyed wash" jeans, a top seller at Neiman Marcus, are rubbed raw from knee to hip so slits of skin show through when viewed from up close.

As jeans become more distressed, some wearers are turning to their tailors to repair new holes that develop or reinforce existing ones. Sometimes costing $200 or more, these repairs can surpass the price of the jeans themselves.

Distressing on premium jeans is generally done by hand: At factories used by Abercrombie & Fitch, workers may use grinder stones, small power tools, sandpaper, bleach splatter and razors on various pairs of jeans, according to the company.

Judy Wasserman, a Dallas homemaker who describes herself as "over 50 but extraordinarily chic," has spent more than $200 repairing a pair of distressed jeans she bought two years ago. Last month, she purchased a $160 pair of AG Adriano Goldschmied jeans with holes in the knees and upper thigh. Before wearing them, she spent $30 at the tailor, who carefully shortened the jeans without sacrificing their intentionally frayed hems.

Some women spend as much as $300 for repairs on a single pair of distressed jeans, says Dallas tailor Bea Harper, who charges $30 per half-inch repaired.

... Mr. Yaghi encounters another type of client as well -- those who feel their jeans are not distressed enough. For them, he will custom shred new jeans for up to $200.

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You too can write a term paper...

I've joined the Duke Collegium Musicum (a cappella early music group) because I wanted to be part of some musical project I was not the boss of. What a great learning experience, and what beautiful music! We rehearse in the Duke music building and of course all the professors have funny sayings etc on their doors. I liked this one particularly.

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Monday, September 26, 2005

Documents in National Archive dumpster

Gordon Smith of Scrutiny Hooligans was a day (or two, jeesh) late sending his entry for the Tarheel Tavern, but I thought it was worth bringing to your attention anyway! Go read more of National Archive Dumping Documents in which he writes:
"Federal officials are investigating how National Archives documents of interest to Indians suing the Interior Department were found discarded in a trash bin and a wastebasket."

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16 mm Shrine

One of my guilty pleasures: The 16mm Shrine, subtitled thus: "An examination, exploration, and celebration of what drives society to create things like Rocky and expect us to watch them. God, I hate movies. And now you will too." Ash Karreau usually reviews dvds so awful I would never see them. Warning: ugly nastiness abounds, enter at your own risk.

From review of Dark Water:
Finally, a movie about the horrors of plumbing. I’ve been waiting for a film like this ever since moving into my apartment, which has pipes like a heroin addict has veins. The water leaves a brown residue, and tastes like copper and dysentery, which I use as an excuse to make Kraft dinner with Coca Cola. Plus, the perpetual gurgling reminds me of an old person dying, which does not help with my insomnia.

That’s not the only problem with my place, either. The hardwood floors are warped, I can hear the neighbors yelling at American Idol, and any corpses I try to stack in the closet eventually liquefy due to the poor ventilation and stifling heat.

From review of House of Flying Daggers:
Foreign films, in particular, contain a great deal of information for the attentive viewer. Not only do they visit upon the audience the ultimate message of the film, they also provide a peek into the particular culture that created the work.

En Folkenfiend, for example, taught me that Norway has a significant portion of the population who aren’t church burning sociopaths.

Canadian cinema, on the other hand, is so boring I finally understand why the country’s the size of maybe two-thirds of the known world yet contains roughly the population of a particularly well attended Patriots game.

House of Flying Daggers is no different. Not only was I deeply touched by its message of the addictive and destructive nature of love, I also learned that Chinese people can fly.

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Walnuts and Pumpkins

Here is an excellent story I saw on Pearl's interesting Humanyms site:
One hot day, Nasruddin was taking it easy in the shade of a walnut tree. After a time, he started eying speculatively the huge pumpkins growing on vines and the small walnuts growing on a majestic tree.

- Sometimes I just can’t understand the ways of God! he mused. Just fancy letting tiny walnuts grow on so majestic a tree and huge pumpkins on the delicate vines!

Just then a walnut snapped off and fell smack on Mullah Nasruddin’s bald head. He got up at once and lifting up his hands and face to heavens in supplication, said:

- Oh, my God! Forgive my questioning your ways! You are all-wise. Where would I have been now, if pumpkins grew on trees!

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

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Viennese Chocolate Torte

My ex-grandmother-in-law Anda Sachs was a Jew whose husband had been one of Stalin's favorite engineers. They had lived in luxury, even having a dacha in the Russian countryside, but the tables turned, the couple was separated, and Anda fled to Vienna with their only daughter, my ex-mother-in-law.

Anda was a great cook; this is her no-flour torte recipe which I made yesterday. I've cut the recipe in half because I bake it in a 7" springform pan instead of the original full-size pan. Note: if you want to go back to the full sized version, cook it for about 40 minutes.

Anda's chocolate torte

3 eggs, separated
1 c. sugar
juice & rind of 1/2 lemon
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons of butter
1-1/2 cups of ground walnuts
3 ounces of bitter chocolate, melted and cooled

Preheat oven to 350. Butter the springform pan and coat with breadcrumbs, ground walnuts, or flour.

Cream the yolks, sugar, salt, and softened butter; add melted, cooled chocolate, lemon juice and rind.

Whip the egg whites and fold them in.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes. Very important not to overcook - it will continue to firm after it comes out of the oven.

Glaze with rasberry jam while still hot. Do not eat till the next day.

(You can also glaze it with 3 oz bitter chocolate melted and mixed with 1 teaspoon of butter and two tablespoons of milk, but in this day and age I think that's overkill.)

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Tarheel Tavern #31

Welcome to the 31st week of the Tar Heel Tavern, blogging from or about the Triangle area. Let's get right down to it.

At Ogre's Views, a post about gas taxes in North Carolina and gas station profits.

Guarino blogs on Changes in Disaster Response due to Katrina: "The national discussion regarding the response to Hurricane Katrina will likely lead to some significant changes in the manner in which hurricanes are handled..."

Bora at Science and Politics sends "Have you not learned yet: Never Underestimate John Edwards: "... you KNOW that response to Katrina and the exposure of the folly of conservatism will be at the forefront of the campaign. War on poverty will be the main theme. Now, you may say that Edwards is out because he's not on TV much right now. Well, he is not in DC. While the others are preening to the cameras, he is busy working..."

iddybud agrees with Bora about John Edwards: "Democrats need a liberal populist with solid and innovative ideas; who is not afraid to be himself (or herself); an eloquent-yet-straight-shooting communicator; someone who will stick by his (or her) own convictions without hesitation or equivocation. If you ask me, that leader is John Edwards."

Ron at 2sides2ron offers Family Funeral: "Observations about tradition, funerals and personal feelings that may or may not have ever been real."

Erin Monahan at Poetic Acceptance sends a poem called Fall is a Beautiful Liar:
The cicada song grows wearisome and
he sings despite his wings
being seared away by August...
Billy The Blogging Poet sent (past deadline!) a request for AOL CD Boxes! Man, I used to get one of those every week and I, too, thought they were awfully magnificent to be slung into the trash. Billy says: "I've got an idea for a recycled art project that will require thousands of those AOL Cds and I want you to mail your discs to me so I can complete the project I have in mind..."

Then I plucked a couple more entries from

At ah-has: in looking for help networking, Strangers Will Amaze You, Friends Will Disappoint

Kenju at Just Ask Judy is a very supportive blogfriend. In Golden Oldies #6, Good Memories and a Rant! she writes: "in my home town there was a wonderful store - The Fife Street Shoe Shop - where in addition to repairing shoes, purses and luggage, they steamed and blocked hats that had gotten stretched or had sustained water damage. I loved the smells in that store: leather, polish, steam, wet felt..."

Rick Cecil is working on Developing social interaction skills and one of his many good points is: "Be interested. Take responsibility for being interested in what the other person is saying. If you’re not interested in them, it’s your fault. Ask yourself: what can I do to make this conversation more interesting?"

Before you leave, maybe you'd like to see my review of the movie Junebug, which takes place in North Carolina and was written by two Winston-Salem natives.

That's it for this week! Come back soon!

ps oops, one more. The proprietess of Captivated by Mandie just skidded in to suggest you visit her shot of Alyssa...

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Saturday, September 24, 2005

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Review: "Born into Brothels"

Yesterday I saw "Born into Brothels," Best Documentary at the Oscars this year. American Zana Briski and collaborator Ross Kauffman, intending to make a movie about prostitution in Calcutta's Sonagachi red light district, did manage to get some furtive shots of weary, angry women on the line and men sauntering by. But everything in this world is illegal and sex workers understandably tried to avoid cameras.

Unexpectedly, the children born to these women and men, raised haphazardly in these brothels, came tumbling out of alleyways to adopt Briski and take over her project.

From kids with (a site where you can purchase some of the kids' pictures):
In Calcutta's red light district, over 7,000 women and girls work as prostitutes. Only one group has a lower standing: their children. Zana Briski became involved in the lives of these children in 1998.

Living in the brothels for months at a time, she developed a relationship with many of the kids who, often terrorized and abused, were drawn to the rare human companionship she offered ... Zana thought it would be great to see the world through their eyes. It was at that moment that she had the idea of teaching photography to the children of prostitutes.

Zana held weekly photography workshops between 2000 and 2003. There the children learned camera basics, lighting, composition, the development of point-of-view, editing, and sequencing for narrative. To Zana's delight, equipped with inexpensive point-and-shoot 35mm cameras, the children produced incredible work. Their images are explosions of color: self-portraits, family pictures, street scenes, stunning tableaus of Bengali life.
Briski challenged the kids to get the pictures she never could; in response they blossomed, bouncing out into the streets with their cameras and bringing their world back to the darkroom. They heatedly discuss the contact sheets, squinting at them like pros, marking favorites with crayons.

This optimistic story is balanced by forces that pull them back towards darkness, just as joyous excursions to the zoo and the ocean are followed by weary trudges back into squalid courtyards. How wearily the kids accept their reality: they are sworn at and beaten; they wash pots in dark stairwells; they feel doomed.
My father tried to sell me - if my sister didn't come to get me ...

I'm worried I'll become like them.

She'll end up on the street - she'll do drugs and snatch peoples' money.

Talking about his father, now addicted to hash, a boy says proudly but sadly: In the past my father was a very good man.

Her great-grandmother is a prostitute, her grandmother is a prostitute, her mother is a prostitute, and she will be one too.

People here live in chaos. Nobody lives as filthily. Wherever there are dirty plates, we find shoes right next to them.

Briski, an earnest woman, stops observing and becomes a player after one student is married off at 11 and another is put "on the line" at 14. She feels compelled to get her young photographers out of the brothels. So begins an arduous journey through antiquated bureaucracies - each tiny step requires scores of stamped applications, and few schools will take children of sex workers - and a series of exhibitions in international photo galleries to raise money for the schooling.

Time runs short. One boy loses heart after his mother is burned to death by her pimp in her kitchen. The girls, growing up before our eyes, are increasingly pressured to contribute to family income by joining the line.

Briski works frantically to get the kids into boarding schools and is eventually successful. An honest epilogue, though, reveals that while some of the kids do stay in school, others run away, some are taken away by their mothers, and the ripest of them was never allowed to leave the brothel at all.

The movie's luscious cinematography sates the eye with gorgeous, grainy, smudged images shot hurriedly in dark alleys; flashes of cerulean and emerald gleaming out of stygian stairwells (if it didn't sound so pompous I'd use the word chiaroscuro); intensely saturated colors, vibrant in juxtaposed scenes of sunlight and shadow; jewel-like silks - even men wear saffron and turquoise - richly illuminating gritty, rough surroundings. Ambient light pools in children's huge, liquid, wistful dark eyes.

Through the film Briski advises the kids: fill each frame with information, with layers of images, with "environment, details, shutters, wires hanging, angles" - she practices what she preaches.

Particularly breathtaking are moments when kids climb out of claustrophobic courtyards to dance on the rooftops, flying their kites and watch birds soar.

Maybe my takeaway thought is that children everywhere can have magnificent spirits and minds; they should never be underestimated, and they must be given a chance.

p.s. - Wonderful music - I would even buy the soundtrack -

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Friday, September 23, 2005

Fine rules for living

At "nobody asked…BUT…i’m gonna say it anyway" a post about a neighbor nicknamed the Bird Lady of Versailles:
This is about the four rules she lived by and passed on to me. I found them to be quite adequate, neatly summarizing in few words the complexity that had over the years become my own personal philosophy of life and code of conduct.

Originally intended for interpersonal relationships, the four rules needed enhancement or expansion for application to business and worklife. So I added my own four rules to make a total of eight. They have served me well over the years and I recommend them here for your consideration.

Show Up
Pay Attention
Be Honest
Play Fair

Work Hard
Take Responsibility
Honor Commitments
Mind Your Own Business

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Crane Maiden

Isabella of "The Magnificent Octopus" wrote: "You can understand a lot about yourself by working out which fairytale you use to present your world to yourself in ... What fairytale are you?"

For this decade I choose the Japanese "Crane Maiden" because it contains the lesson I've been trying hardest to learn.

(This illustration, by the way, is by Chihiro Iwasaki, from a book version by Miyoko Matsutani.)

Classic tellings can be found here and here but here's my Cliff Notes version:

For many years a poor couple hoped to have a child but had pretty much given up. One day the husband freed a crane from a trap and, coincidentally, a few days later a child just showed up at the door, and stayed to live with them. Their dream had been fulfilled.

Seeing as how the couple is so hard up, the kid goes into a room each night, closing the door and weaving beautiful fabric which they can sell at market. Things are good.

The child requests they not peek when the door is shut. But of course one night they can't resist, and through the door they glimpse a beautiful white crane sitting at the loom. When the crane sees them, it flashes them a sorrowful, reproachful look and flies away forever.

So what's the moral?
  • Jobekah: "There are times when we must accept the mystery of a person."
  • A Japanese psychiatrist: it's about protecting the child from the mysteries of the mother.
  • "Not every story has a happy ending."
One might, also, see this story as a warning to do as you are told (see Lot's wife leaving Sodom and Gomorrah), but I think it's mainly about accepting peoples' boundaries. About realizing, more generally, that it's dignified and prudent to understand and abide by the limits of good things. To be grateful for what is offered and not hanker for more. Something I've been working on, hard. Something I now notice has been a continuing theme at Pratie Place:

Why The Americans Are So Restless In The Midst Of Their Prosperity: "Besides the good things that he possesses, he every instant fancies a thousand others that death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation, which leads him perpetually to change his plans..."

It will all work out: "The word kiasu comes from Hokkien. It means always wanting the best for oneself and trying hard to get it. ... We are ... fearful and greedy, for no good reason."

Wallowing in Excess: "When is enough, enough? ... Rather than savoring the pleasures of affluence we have achieved, we have abandoned the laws of thrift and embraced insatiable desire."

Thoughts on "enough": "I've gotten enough in this life. If I don't get more, it's ok ... Isn't this also known as, 'everything else is gravy?' ... Current challenges: ... To welcome people into my life, enjoy them for whatever time there is, and then say goodbye with generosity and without pain, grateful for the happy moments and not being regretful if there aren't more. Down with kiasu."

One of Pratie's very first posts was this Yiddish proverb:
Oyb men est nit keyn beyner, tuen nit vey di tseyner.
If you don't eat bones, your teeth won't hurt.

Finally, just for fun, here's a sweet translation by Tsururin of a variant called "The Crane Wife." (Tsuru no Ongaeshi)

Once upon a time, a poor guy was living all by himself.
In winter it starts snowing so heavy.
He heard some sounds on the way home in heavy snow.
When he went to where the sounds came from, he found a crane caught in a trap.
He felt sorry for the crane and released it.

At the night he heard someone was knocking the door.
When he opened the door, wondering who came at this late night, he saw a beautiful girl.
She told him she got lost and asked him to let her stay one night.
Then he let her stay at the night and the next.
As they stayed together, they decided to get married.
They were poor but happy together.
But they became out of money and food because of the long winter.
One day the wife decided to weave a cloth and told the husband
"Never look inside while I'm weaving."
After she kept weaving for three days, she came out in fatigue.
However the cloth was so great to go for a good price, they became out of money and food again.
Then she decided to weave again and kept weaving for four days this time.
The cloth was so much greater to sell at better price.
He became to want to make more money and to wonder how she wove without any threads.
Therefore he asked her to weave again and opened the door to look inside.
Then he saw a crane weaving with her own feathers.
When he was so surprised to shout "crane is weaving!!" the crane changed into his wife.

The wife told him that she was the crane he helped and she has to leave
because he saw her weaving, despite she asked him not to.
However he regretted for breaking a promise, it was too late.
She changed into a crane and flied over the sky.

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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Stupid Tax and Failure Magic (Ambivablog)

Reproduced in full from the enjoyable Ambivablog:
Stupid tax is sort of like the wages of dumb. It's the well-deserved consequences you have to accept as the price of having done something without thinking.

Stupid tax is sometimes paid in dollars (I paid a substantial stupid tax for leaving our Russian visas for the last minute because I wasn't sure we'd be able to go), but it can also be exacted in kind.

Nick bought a lovingly maintained old Porsche Boxster, and became so manic about taking care of it that he fixated on a dangling wire he absolutely had to remove from his garage because it might scratch the car. He then yanked out the wire in just such an impatient way that a little bit of metal flew off at high speed and nicked the car's paint.

When you pay stupid tax with your life, you get a posthumous Darwin Award.

Failure magic is some people's amazing ability to materialize failure out of nothing, or even out of the most promising conditions for success. You probably know someone who's so dead set on failing that they would manage to drop a winning lottery ticket into a subway grating.

We once helped a Romanian couple come to the U.S. on temporary visas during Communist times, in the 1980s. Under the stress of immigration, job frustrations, and a bad marriage, the man descended rapidly into alcoholism.

The woman, by contrast, seemed to lead a charmed life. She had been a doctor in Romania, and through connections of my aunt's, she got a physician assistant's job working with AIDS patients in a hospital prison ward for over $40,000 a year. That sounds about as glamorous as Hannibal Lecter's promised "vacation" on the Plum Island Animal Disease Reservation ("supervised at all times by S.W.A.T. teams . . . of course"), but in fact it was a golden opportunity. For a foreign physician to be able to work in her field at all before passing an onerous exam, and to make that kind of money, is almost unheard of.

Well, she managed to fall madly in love with a prison security guard, who treated her so poorly that she had a florid psychotic break on the job and was fired when she refused a psychiatric consultation.

Back in Romania being tended to by her mother, at a time when the demand for both her experience with AIDS and her excellent English was exploding, she preferred to stay at home brooding about the incomprehensible conspiracy that had robbed her of her American dream.

You'll say I'm being heartless toward someone who was obviously mentally ill. But I knew her well, I witnessed her romantic determination to immolate herself, and I call it failure magic on a grand, operatic scale -- though I didn't have the words for it until just now.

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The History Teacher (Billy Collins)

Another poem by Zed's favorite poet, Billy Collins.

The History Teacher

Trying to protect his students' innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
"How far is it from here to Madrid?"
"What do you call the matador's hat?"

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom
on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

UPDATE:I have disabled comments for this post because students who have been asked to think about this poem on their own came to this site and asked "what is the meaning and tone of this poem" and then insulted each other. Hey, kids: give it a try yourself. Don't be afraid. What do YOU think it means?

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

An evening alone

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Review: Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake

We visited newly-reopened Memorial Hall at UNC last night for a Schubert recital by tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake. Tomorrow night they will be at the Kennedy Center.

Hall: the improvements (primarily airconditioning, appreciated on a muggy, rainy night though an HVAC hum could be heard during hushed moments) cost $13.9 million. The brightly starry new carpet made one person in bifocals stumble. Nice paint job!

Sound: the announcer's voice was distorted through his cordless mic. After that, things looked up. Bostridge was blessedly clear and audible even at his quietest. On the other hand, from orchestra row N - or was it P? we had a peaceful debate about that with the older couple who were sitting in our seats - the sound of the piano was muffled.

Texts and translations were provided and the house lights were left up so we could read them.

The singer: Bostridge, who has an atypically dark voice for a tenor, was vocally stiff at first, forcing an edgy vibrato at the ends of phrases, but right off the bat he was fun to watch. Tall and thin (one comment: "Just to see him was to want to offer him a sandwich"), he struck a rotating sequence of languishing poses while channeling the extreme, miserable, narcissistic introversion of these German romantic poets, about whom more below.

Bostridge: "I try to bring a sense of theater to what I do on a Lieder stage — it's really like a minimalist, monologue theater."

Speaking of the singer he emulates, Fischer-Dieskau, Bostridge said admiringly: "You never feel that he is preening himself over his voice: he's always trying to tell you something really urgent."

He only looked right at us once, while singing the word "death." Perhaps his manner has changed in response to reviewers' comments that he frightens audiences with his beady stare. The rest of the time he faced the floor, the ceiling, the far distance, his inner angst.

The quiet passages were enchanting. His diction is beautiful; every syllable could be heard. Semi-swooning over the Friedrich Rückert songs at the start of the second half, so full of colors and emotion, I understood why Bostridge has fanclubs full of adoring young girls.

However, at the other dynamic extreme (the overwrought one), Bostridge had only the "loud" crayon in his box.

To switch media, here is a remembered caution from a long-ago art class: if you are using a light pencil, most of your drawing needs to be light, because as dark as your pencil will draw is all the darkness there is. You don't get it darker by scribbling over and over the same spot. Bostridge does not have power and wildness, but goes frequently to his max and bellows away - lightly.

"You can't stand there singing prettily," he said. "You have to seize the audience and not let go until you leave the stage. You have to burn. If you don't, it's a waste of time. Why bother?"

Burning suits this German romantic poetry, probably written by idle young men who were not getting enough sex. If I'd been their mother I would have suggested: change out of that silly velvet smoking jacket and go get a job. Or play a rousing game of basketball with your other miserable friends. Or why don't you ask that nice girl you keep mooning over if she'd like to go have some ice-cream with you?

No. They wandered anguished and alone along mountain paths - or maybe they lay limply at the spa at the foot of the mountain and merely looked up at the peaks. This last was the suggestion of my companion, who had hoped in these nature lyrics to find an iconic fisherman-poet or two. However, I felt sure these lads had never fished when I read:

With his song the fisherman bids the golden sun awake.
He sings at his work from a full, vigorous heart.

No! Fishermen, sneaking off to their jealously-guarded secret spots in the dead of night, insist on complete quiet. I have never seen a singing fisherman.

As for my friend, he gave up on the fisherman-poet idea at this point:

An angler with his rod stood on the bank
Cold-bloodedly watching the fish's contortions.
As long as the water is clear, I thought,
He won't catch the trout with his rod.

But at length the thief grew impatient. Cunningly
he made the brook cloudy and in an instant his rod quivered,
and the fish struggled on it.

Even I, who don't fish, know the "Cloudy Brook Technique" doesn't work.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

a public service announcement

there is NOTHING IN THE WORLD cuter than the panda cub right now. i watch him EVERY DAY. you can watch him about 12 hours a day live... but look at this still shot!!!



Sorry for the Inconvenience

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Old but still good

A friend recently reminded me of this one.

A journalist was assigned to the Jerusalem bureau of his newspaper. He got an apartment overlooking the Wailing Wall.

After several weeks, he realized that whenever he looked out at the Wall, he saw the same old Jew praying there.

The journalist wondered whether this might make a publishable story. So he went down to the Wall, introduced himself, and said, "You come every day. What are you praying for?"

The old Jew replied, "What am I praying for? In the morning I pray for world peace, then I pray for the brotherhood of man. I go home, have a glass of tea, and I come back to the Wall to pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth."

The journalist was captivated by the old Jew's sincerity and persistence. "You mean you have been coming to the Wall every day to pray for these things?"

The old Jew nodded.

"How long have you been coming to the Wall to pray for these things?"

The old Jew became reflective and then replied, "How long? Maybe 20, 25 years."

The journalist was flabbergasted. "You mean you have been coming to the Wall every day for all those years to pray for all these things?"

The old Jew nodded.

"How does it feel to come to the Wall to pray every day over so many years for these things?"

The old Jew replied, "How does it feel? It's like talking to a wall."

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Monday, September 19, 2005

Poor candidates for retirement

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From "Mill on the Floss"

Mrs. Glegg had both a front and a back parlour in her excellent house at St. Ogg's, so that she had two points of view from which she could observe the weaknesses of her fellow-beings, and reinforce her thankfulness for her own exceptional strength of mind.

From her front windows she could look down the Tofton Road, leading out of St. Ogg's, and note the growing tendency to "gadding about" in the wives of men not retired from business, together with a practice of wearing woven cotton stockings, which opened a dreary prospect for the coming generation; and from her back windows she could look down the pleasant garden and orchard which stretched to the river and observe the folly of Mr. Glegg in spending his time among "them flowers and vegetables."

For Mr. Glegg, having retired from active business as a wool-stapler, for the purpose of enjoying himself through the rest of his life, had found this last occupation so much more severe than his business that he had been driven into amateur hard labour as a dissipation, and habitually relaxed by doing the work of two ordinary gardeners.

The economising of a gardener's wages might perhaps have induced Mrs. Glegg to wink at this folly, if it were possible for a healthy female mind even to simulate respect for a husband's hobby. But it is well known that this conjugal complacency belongs only to the weaker portion of the sex, who are scarcely alive to the responsibilities of a wife as a constituted check on her husband's pleasures, which are hardly ever of a rational or commendable kind."

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Space-saving computer...

From Queen Michelle via ZeNeece:

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Corporate-Sponsored Biographies of the Great

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Ant farm

From the mouth of Terry Teachout's trainer:

"You know, I think God is like a little kid with an ant farm.
Sometimes he squashes you,
sometimes he only pulls off a couple of legs.
Or caves your tunnel in. Or sprays you with Raid."

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Saturday, September 17, 2005

Welding practice

Today my welding-and-sing-lessons exchange continues. I have to admit the welding worries me a bit. Though at least if I burn the house down, there's nobody I have to answer to.

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Here's the first post, from April of this year, to Live By the Foma. A new word for me, evidently from Vonnegut:
What are Foma?

Foma are the harmless untruths that get us through our life. Things like:
  • Hard work gets rewarded.

  • Anybody can grow up and become President.

  • Your mother really likes the art you bring home from summer camp.
These lies are different from the three biggest lies (check's in the mail, etc.) because we need these lies. In a world of six billion people, who thinks their job, family role, social position, is unique and necessary? No one is irreplaceable, yet we all deserve some dignity and mutual respect. Even if that is just a foma as well.

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Friday, September 16, 2005

From the Achenblog

Joel Achenbach writes:

"In his speech from the French Quarter, Bush decided not to mention that his party wants to make cuts to Medicaid, or that he has championed and enacted tax cuts that benefit the richest Americans.

"He didn't mention that he has committed the nation to a long and costly overseas war with no end in sight. He didn't, in fact, say anything that would identify himself as a conservative Republican.

"He didn't even look like the President of the United States! He might have been a basketball coach, or a dentist. Let's just say it directly: He was in disguise. He might as well have worn a dashiki." More.

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Grey Gardens

Again not keeping up, I just saw the 1975 documentary "Grey Gardens," made by Albert and David Maysles about Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter "Little Edie," women who were aunt and first cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Wow. No wonder the movie was recommended to me so vigorously by a wealthy, narcissistic woman who lives alone in a huge house with a lot of animals...

Here follow quotes from juicy online reviews - I was more interested in learning how to do screenshots of the dvd than adding to these entertaining summaries...

"The movie loosely tells the tale of ... a pair of misfits who lived for decades at Grey Gardens in East Hampton, Long Island. Beginning with newspaper headlines screaming about the estate's unsanitary condition and its condemnation by the Suffolk County Health Department (The New York Post stated that the two were "living in a garbage-ridden, filthy 28-room house with 8 cats, fleas, cobwebs and no running water"), the movie indulges the viewer with the offbeat and spellbinding lives of mother and daughter Beale.

... Dressed in an assortment of ensembles ranging from a bathing suit worn with fishnet stockings and white high heels to towels, curtains and tablecloths, Edie is never without a turban and a dramatic gesture, look or utterance.

Once a ravishing beauty ... with a sharp wit, Edie mysteriously left a promising career as a dancer, model and actress to live with her aging mother...

Big Edie ... in her youth bore an uncanny resemblance to Uma Thurman. The sister of 'Black Jack' Bouvier (Jackie Kennedy's father) and former wife of Wall Street lawyer Phelan Beale, Big Edie was the black sheep. Once at Grey Gardens, she was free to pursue the pastimes that brought her great joy and a bohemian reputation: singing, playing the piano and hanging out with her artistic, mostly male friends.

Their strangely witty dialogue would do Tennessee Williams proud.

Is the film cruel or simply truthful? Both the Maysles brothers and the Beales thought the latter, and both staunchly defended the film. Those who leave this film thinking of the Beales as mere freaks are missing Grey Gardens' major questions ... one may echo Little Edie misquoting Robert Frost: 'Two roads converged in yellow wood. Pondering one, I took the other... Isn't that beautiful?'" More.

Acknowledged as one of the finest documentaries ever made, Grey Gardens visits the decaying Hamptons mansion ... to find these examples of American royalty living in squalour and madness, all the while bickering, flirting and confessing like characters in a Tennessee Williams play. So many moments here resonate in the memory - from 'Little Edie' cavorting coquettishly in some of the most bizarre outfits in human history, to 'Big Edie' belting out songs in her ruined voice. More.

I think Edith's voice sounded quite fresh - not much different than the recording made decades earlier. It was just old fashioned and out of shape.

Anyway, to continue - Grey Gardens was included in Entertainment Weekly's Top 50 Cult Movies:
Proof positive that when an aristocratic American family gets big enough, some relatives will wind up shut-ins at an overgrown, feline-infested East Hampton mansion belting out shrill show tunes and feeding wild raccoons whole bags of Wonder bread in the attic. This bizarre, sad and touching portrait ... instantly became one of the most talked-about documentaries of all time.
Cult members (there is a Yahoo fan club) can chant the quotes in unison:

But you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn't know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there's anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman... S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There's nothing worse, I'm telling you. They don't weaken, no matter what.

This is the best thing to wear for today, you understand. Because I don't like women in skirts and the best thing is to wear pantyhose or some pants under a short skirt, I think. Then you have the pants under the skirt and then you can pull the stockings up over the pants underneath the skirt. And you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape. So I think this is the best costume for today."

'Oh, look. That cat's going to the bathroom right behind my portrait.' 'Ughh, how awful.' 'No, I'm glad. I'm glad somebody's doing something that they want to do!'

Apparently Mrs. Beale was so bored with the strictures of society that she hired an accompanist and started singing in New York nightclubs. This simply wasn’t done, especially by a woman from a prominent family with a husband and children. Instead of reining her in, Mr. Beale threw up his hands and moved out to his hunting lodge. Mrs. Beale’s father was less aloof. After threatening several times to disown her for her bohemian behavior, Major Bouvier finally cut her out of his will after she showed up, outrageously dressed, halfway into her own son’s wedding.

... All they really wanted was to show the world that they were just talented, misunderstood artists. All they really wanted was a chance to tell their side of the story. Along came the Maysles brothers, their camera loaded with film and flea collars around their ankles.

The Beales are in charge of the whole show. Mrs. Beale sings her favorite tunes, boils corn for everyone on a Sterno stove on her bed, and generally berates Edie ... Edie shows off her eccentric outfits ... and performs her famous Virginia Military Institute dance.

By participating, nay, collaborating in the film, the Beales lifted a great middle finger to the village of Easthampton, to the press, to their disapproving relatives, and to anyone who would dare tell them how to live their lives. Every song, every dance, every "costume," and every slice of Wonder Bread fed to a raccoon is a brazen act of defiance.

...there is a lot of pain, need, and regret between these women that remains unresolved. Arguments unsettled for thirty years continue on as if the outcome still mattered. Betrayals of decades past resurface as if they had been committed yesterday. The two women, united in their struggle against family and society, are divided by their own personal power games between each other. ... Edie resents her mother for having taken up with a drifter who was eventually found dead in their kitchen. The speed with which a loving exchange between the two can turn into a heated row is practically head-spinning.

One of the most shocking moments in the film comes, however, not from one of the many contretemps between the two women, but from a quiet moment of reflection as they look through old photographs.

Edie holds up to the camera a few pictures of youthful, happy, stunningly beautiful women. More.

[The Beales are] continually addressing the camera or rather, the microphone. They use it as a judge, an ally against each other and, in the case of Edie, as something more. "Darling David, where have you been all my life? Where have you been?" she calls out as she finishes a painful drum majorette routine. "All I needed was this man, David. David - I wish I'd had David and Al with me before this." More.

"Mother trained me to do without men" was Edie's nonchalant explanation of her life without a husband. "I didn't want to be left all alone" is her mother's equally nonchalant explanation of why she chased away the suitors.

"Raccoons and cats become a little bit boring," sighs Edie Beale towards the end of Grey Gardens. "I mean for too long a time."

The [movie] was an amazing slow psychic train wreck ... a surreal sleight-of-hand ... Edie's lunatic confidences & scarves & flesh & animals & old eerie debutante photographs all seemed like broken shards of a psyche gaily tossing itself bit by bit into psychosis.

Big Mama Edie sometimes helped out a bit (kind of like the Red Queen when for a brief moment here or there she says something congruent to Alice and seduces her, falsely, into thinking she's not in hell) -- by contrast to the imploding people and house surrounding her she seemed to offer an iota or two of clear-eyed commentary ...

It was the coziest experience. Big Mama's voice calling from her bed, squealing for her daughter (while Edie mused in her "decorated" room, attempting to affix that silver mask to the painted plaster, "I can't get the thumb tack in the wall -- I've got the saddest life") ... "Let the kitties in. Give them luncheon." More.

Edie's mother, "Big" Edith Bouvier Beale is ... Yoda-like and semi-exhibitionist ("I'm gonna get naked here in a minute, Edie..what do you think of that?"), with a vulgar sense of humor that clashes with her society-lady poses. Big Edith and Little Edie rant and shriek at each other all through the movie, and any time Edie dares to sneak into a room to speak with the documentary crew alone, one can easily hear Big Mama Edith screaming in the background, "YOO-HOO, OH EDIE! EDIE, YOO-HOO!" More.

What none of these reviewers discuss is mental illness. Jacqueline Kennedy unsuccessfully tried to deal with the two Edies by having their home condemned and forcing them out; defeated, she then just let them be.

As a modern viewer I contemplate Edie restlessly adjusting her headscarf, making random (though charming) comments, accusing the handyman of stealing - I flinch as Big Edith sets out newspapers on her bed for the cat to poop on - and I wonder, why weren't these women getting help? The Maysles just walked away when the footage was shot and left them like this?

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