What the whole ballgame is about

January 9th, 2008 § Comments off § permalink

At the end of the documentary I Like Killing Flies, New York restaurant owner Kenny Shopsin crams a year’s worth of talk therapy into this monologue:

This is, like, another one of my half-baked philosophies. The first duty of everybody in life is to realize that they’re a piece of shit. They’re selfish, they’re self-centered, they’re not very good. And that you’re willing to sacrifice 20,000 people in another country just so that you can go to a Wings concert. [to the director:] You’ll sacrifice the lives of 100,000 Chinese female babies just so you can rent this fucking camera and do your stupid art project.

No problem! You’re a piece of shit. Once you realize you’re a piece of shit, it’s not so hard to take. Because then you don’t have this feeling that you’re a good person all the time. And lemme tell you something: Feeling that you’re a good person all the time is like having a brand-new car with no scratches on it. It’s a real responsibility which is almost impossible to live up to. Being a piece of shit and then occasionally doing something that’s good and true—it’s a much easier place to be.

I think that’s really important, and I always tried to raise my kids to understand that they’re not that terrific. And that not being that terrific—that’s okay, ’cause most people who say they are terrific—Bill Clinton, Cardinal Egan—anybody you want to talk about, they’re not so terrific. Martha Stewart! They’re not so fuckin’ terrific either, and there’s nothing wrong with being not so terrific, you know. In fact, it’s what the whole ballgame is about, is about being not so terrific and accepting it.

If the government trusts them, maybe I could

October 7th, 2007 § Comments off § permalink

When one of my friends mentioned that it was Fleet Week in San Francisco, and that the Blue Angels would therefore be coming to town, I immediately got on the highest horse I could locate on such short notice. “It’s unconscionable,” I complained. “Does it make any sense for jet fighters to fly in close formation above a densely-populated city? No, it does not. Can you imagine if an accident happened? I don’t think I could ever watch the Blue Angels. I’d feel horribly guilty.”

By the time I wound up in San Francisco this afternoon, I had forgotten this conversation entirely. So it came as a complete surprise when, as I walked south along the Embarcadero, I heard a thunderous roar overhead. Looking up, I saw four jets arcing through the sky in a diamond formation, maybe a half-wingspan apart; they swung out over the water, then curved around and flew over the Financial District.

I still think it’s completely reckless to conduct an air show above downtown San Francisco. However, I am forced to concede that it is also totally awesome.

I am not Shakespeare, nor was meant to be

September 26th, 2007 § One comment § permalink

I cannot say how long this has been so, but lately I have found that when I think,
my thoughts are in iambic—what’s the word? Pentameter; that’s it. And I am vexed
by all the sing-song thoughts that I must think because of this affliction most bizarre.

How can I keep blank verse out of my head? I’d be most grateful, readers of my blog, if you could help me end this nasty curse.

I do it to myself, I do, and that’s what really hurts

September 23rd, 2007 § Comments off § permalink

A coworker walked up to me as I stood in front of our office’s supply board, writing an order for yellow legal pads. She noticed that I was taking the time to copy the appropriate product number from the supply catalog, which, in theory, we are always supposed to do and, in practice, almost nobody ever does.

“Do you need a special kind of legal pad or something?” my coworker asked me.

“Well,” I told her, “if I don’t specify which ones to order, I find that we usually wind up getting white legal pads, or legal pads printed on really crummy paper.”

She stared at me for a moment before saying, “Sometimes it must be really hard to be you.”

Me, I want a hula hoop

August 11th, 2007 § Comments off § permalink

A woman next door is trying to summon her son by repeatedly calling his name, which is “Alvin.” It’s all I can do to keep from throwing open my window and singing “Christmas, Christmas time is here…

Doppelgänger

June 18th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

In the past two weeks, three of my friends have told me that they saw an almost-exact double of me somewhere in San Francisco. I have no idea what to make of this trend. Do I have a heretofore undisclosed identical twin who lives nearby? Is the Bay Area converging upon some sort of Hipster Event Horizon, at which all middle-class, twenty-something, skinny white males take on a single appearance? And is Wikipedia correct to say that these doppelgänger sightings may “bring bad luck, or indicate an approaching illness or health problem”?

My best guess is that San Francisco was hosting a convention of Louis Theroux impersonators.

Coming up for air

April 19th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

Hi, everyone. I’ve been working ten to twelve hours a day, nearly every day, for the past month. That’s why I haven’t been returning phone calls or emails.

My ridiculous work schedule will improve soon, I think, at which time I look forward to hanging out with all of you again. Until then, please accept this pathetic apology.

Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees

March 19th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

Tobias Meyer, the worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, has an uncommon knack for inciting art appreciation in others. John Colapinto describes Meyer’s method in last week’s New Yorker:

In the Antonello [da Messina] gallery, Meyer walked over to an Annunciation on the far wall and explained that the painting was rare in that it depicted only the Virgin Mary, and not the announcing angel. “You, as a viewer, are put in the position of Gabriel, who comes to tell her of the miraculous birth,” Meyer said. He stopped in front of the painting, which was made in about 1475 and is not much larger than a page of this magazine [about 8 inches by 11 inches]. Mary gazes out, past the viewer, her left hand holding her blue robe closed in what Meyer pointed out was a “protective” gesture. “Because you are a stranger,” he said. Then he fell silent. Something about his focussed presence facilitated a deeper absorption in the work, a greater attention to its delicacy, its quiet grace, and its reserves of understated emotion. I could not recall being so moved by a painting. Only when I turned from the canvas did he smile at me and say, with an arched eyebrow, “Amazing, no?”

Lawrence Weschler, one of my favorite authors, has a similar gift but very different methods. His new book, Everything That Rises, is a collection of what he calls “convergences”—visual rhymes that he has noticed between two photographs or paintings—which he uses as a jumping-off point for a vertiginous chain of free association. It sounds a bit like late-night dorm-room bullshitting; at his reading tonight at Cody’s Books in San Francisco, Weschler said one reviewer had described the book as “bong literature.” But Weschler’s erudition and relentless curiosity save the book from that trap. Instead, each page offers a new way to see the world.

Every museum should employ someone like Meyer or Weschler. That someone should neither be featured in a $10 audio tour nor responsible for leading people around hourly. Ideally, visitors would not even know of that someone’s existence until a mysterious stranger sidles up to one of them in a gallery and murmurs a few words that fill the lucky visitor with a sense of wonder.

(Incidentally, Weschler is not at all the timorous intellectual one would expect based on his old book jacket photo. He’s as bold and confident when he speaks as he is when he writes. A more recent photo comes closer to capturing who he is; image and personality would match even more closely, though, if he got a pair of contacts and a clean shave.)

Where it’s at (I’ve got two neologisms and a portmanteau)

February 27th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

An article in today’s New York Times Magazine about Broken Social Scene, a Canadian musical collective that’s all the rage with the kids today (including me), described one Toronto musician as having “an interest in hipsterish pursuits like urban planning.” I’ve long known that I am one trendy, trendy bastard, but there it was in black and white, and in the Times no less: My very profession is a hipsterish pursuit.

As I sat reading the article, wearing my favorite American Apparel hoodie and sporting black plastic glasses, slightly shaggy hair, and a day’s worth of stubble, I thought about commemorating the moment by taking a photo of myself using my cellphone camera. Thankfully, I stopped myself at the last possible moment, thus averting what would surely have been a cataclysmic hipstersplosion.

The power of visions

February 2nd, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

Ken Greenberg, one of North America’s most gifted urban designers, isn’t shy about high rises. Tonight at UC Berkeley, he gave a talk that focused on how cities can create great public spaces and attract high-quality private development by developing a vision that the public supports; implementing it in the public spaces that it controls; and insisting that private developers follow suit. Much of his audience was composed of mayors from Central Valley cities, most of which are about as suburban as it gets, but Greenberg showed them examples from major metropolitan centers, including Vancouver, Saint Paul, Boston, and Toronto. I have no idea what the mayors thought of, say, the residential towers in Coal Harbour, and sadly, there was no chance to ask them (nor, perhaps, would it have been prudent to do so). They’re in Berkeley for a workshop about city design, which will take place over the next few days. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those meetings. Of course, Greenberg’s point wasn’t that it was appropriate to build 40-story towers in, say, Fairfield; it was that cities can create urbanity and lively centers when they value those qualities enough to insist upon them.

One of the techniques that Greenberg emphasized is putting forward a really great concept at the very start of the planning process, something that captures people’s imaginations and gains widespread support (ideally with some juicy watercolor renderings to back it up). In Saint Paul, for example, the architect Ben Thompson provided a vision in 1992 of the city as a “Great River Park,” oriented towards the Mississippi River. The vision continues to inspire new plans, and actual development, today.

Of course, it takes more than just a great vision to make change happen; lots of different people, even just within a city, have to get on board. In Saint Paul, a powerful nonprofit, the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, started a design center where city officials and staff mingled and informally discussed how the goals of traffic engineering, public works, and urban design could fit together. I don’t know that that organization could be replicated elsewhere, but it’s an interesting example of how public officials can move past the political divisiveness and differences in professional training that often keep city departments from working in concert with one another.

As I left campus after the talk, I was delighted to see how foggy it was outside. I love foggy nights; they create a wonderfully noirish atmosphere in even the most banal places. Every cobra head streetlight becomes pregnant with meaning. I pedaled away from campus and flew down Telegraph Avenue on my bicycle, watching the wet mist swirl about in floating pools of light.

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