Monday, December 19, 2011

2011 Life in Review

I hope the year's end finds you healthy and happy. We were among the luckiest families on earth in 2011. We had a warm place to sleep and a job that paid the bills. Our son Max is taller and heavier than he was last year; all good news.

Relaxing on a field trip.
The happiest time - redecorating the house.

Max is thriving because Misa keeps him going every day. She makes a gourmet lunch for him, which is nearly too pretty to eat.

Misa also began teaching Zumba dance this year, after a long time of study. She puts a great deal of care into her preparation. Max and I are proud of her.

I often think about life as a series of choices. There are good and bad choices, like a light switch flipping on or off. Clearly that understanding is primitive and incomplete. More often success or failure depend on what we do after we make a big decision. I do feel lucky to have married Misa, but she makes that decision good by taking care of Max every day. Max got placed in a good elementary school, and now he has to study every day and keep up with his homework. One minute of decision is followed by years of execution. In the best sense of the word.

My days ran together. I got up early and worked at my desk downstairs. On most days, I got a few minutes to exercise by riding my bike along the beach.

The painting project continued. This year was devoted to painting waves, and I'm still floating in the Bay. The land will get more color, eventually. 

Many people requested posters this year. I was thrilled to send them out to places like Russia and India.

I apologize for the delay in getting them shipped - they are still working, and I hope to get caught up to all requests early in 2012. On the other hand, they're still free. I can't attend to new requests now, but I will offer the poster again when I get caught up. Also, I'd love to hire someone to fulfill the mailings; if you know of a company who'll do it for money, please email me. 

Recently all three of us watched one of my favorite movies of all time, Breaking Away. We'll need Dave Stoller's spirit of adventure in 2012, when major changes are coming for us. 

Let us know how you are, what you'd like to see on the blog, and your plans for 2012.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Farewell, Christopher Hitchens

A great man has left us. Before I offer my meager thoughts about his life and work, I want to share his closing comments in a debate on religion, given at the Prestonwood Christian Academy in Dallas, Texas. Hitchens is addressing his opponent, mathematician and philosopher William Dembski, and the audience of students. Hitchens's speech is so important to me, I post in video and text also. One YouTube commenter described this passage as: "Some of the best few minutes of human speech ever uttered."

I'll close on the implied question that Bill [Dembski] asked me earlier. "Why wouldn't you accept this wonderful offer? Why wouldn't you want to meet Shakespeare?" for example. I don't know if you really think that when you die you can be corporeally reassembled, and have conversations with authors from previous epochs. It's not necessary that you believe that in Christian theology, and I have to say it sounds like a complete fairy tale to me. The only reason I want to meet Shakespeare or might want to is because I can meet him, anytime, because he is immortal in the works he's left behind. If you've read those, meeting the author would almost certainly be a disappointment. 

But when Socrates was sentenced to death for his philosophical investigations and for blasphemy, for challenging the gods of the city—and he accepted his death—he did say, "Well if we are lucky, perhaps I'll be able to hold conversation with other great thinkers and philosophers and doubters, too." In other words, that the discussion about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, what is true, could always go on. Why is that important? Why would I like to do that? Because that's the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on or not after I die, I don't know, but I do know that it's the conversation I want to have while I'm still alive. Which means that to me, the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can't give way is an offer of something not worth having. 

I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don't know anything like enough yet. That I haven't understood enough, that I can't know enough, that I'm always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn't have it any other way. And I'd urge you to look at those of you who tell you, those people who tell you at your age that you're dead, 'til you believe as they do. What a terrible thing to be telling to children! And that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don't think of that as a gift, think of it as a poison chalice. Push it aside, however tempting you think it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way. 

—closing a debate with William Dembski at Prestonwood Christian Academy, Dallas, November, 2010

Once in a while I discover a human achievement that makes me glad I'm living in this time and this place. The speaking and the writing of Christopher Hitchens are two of those achievements. He expressed himself with a powerful charm. He moved through his thoughts with that rarest of qualities: Style. I wanted to listen to him even when we disagreed. I could think of nothing more pleasant than to warm myself in the glow of his fire. Fortunately, all of us can still have this experience, by the grace of YouTube.

I dearly wish I could say something to adequately sum up Mr. Hitchens's impact on contemporary thought, but I can't. He does that himself, in these passages:

To be the father of growing daughters is to understand something of what Yeats evokes with his imperishable phrase 'terrible beauty.' Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened: it's a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else's body. It also makes me quite astonishingly calm at the thought of death: I know whom I would die to protect and I also understand that nobody but a lugubrious serf can possibly wish for a father who never goes away.

I never launch any little essay without the hope—and the fear, because the encounter may also be embarrassing—that I shall draw a letter that begins, "Dear Mr. Hitchens, it seems that you are unaware that . . . " It is in this sense that authorship is collaborative with the reader. And there's no help for it. You only find out what you ought to have known by pretending to know at least some of it already.  —Hitch-22

On drinking:

What the soothing people at Alcoholics Anonymous don't or won't understand is that suicide or self-destruction would probably have come much earlier to some people if they could not have had a drink. We are born into a losing struggle, and nobody can hope to come out a winner, and much of the intervening time is crushingly tedious in any case. Those who see this keenly, or who register the blues intently, are not to be simplistically written off as "dysfunctional" cynics or lushes. Winston Churchill put it very squarely when he defined the issue as, essentially, a wager. He was a lifelong sufferer from the depression that he nicknamed his "black dog," but he could rouse himself to action and commitment and inspiration, and the brandy bottle was often a crucial prop. I have taken more out of alcohol, he said simply, than it has taken out of me. His chief antagonist, Adolf Hitler, was, I need hardly add, a fanatical teetotaler (though with shorter and less wholesome life span). The most lethal and fascistic of our current enemies, the purist murderers of the Islamic jihad, despise our society for, among other things, its tolerance of alcohol. We should perhaps do more to earn this hatred and contempt, and less to emulate it. —Vanity Fair, March, 2003

In debate with former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair:

I mentioned earlier our [mine and Tony Blair's] attachment to the labor and socialist movement in our lifetimes. For a very long time, we had in that movement a challenger, apparently from the left, the communist movement, which has only been dead a very short time now. Actually it hasn't died everywhere yet. And which said it had a much more comprehensive and courageous and thorough-going answer than we did, to the problems created by capitalism and imperialism and other things, and really proposed a fighting solution. And if I was to point to you the number of heroic people who believed in that, and the number of wonderful works of fiction, of novels and essays written by people who believed in it, you could probably, all of you, mention one of your own. If you were Canadian—I hope they still teach you about him in school—the great example of Norman Bethune, heroic doctor, who went to volunteer in China during the civil war, on the communist side. He did amazing work, invented a form of battlefield blood transfusion, just one among many examples. 

It was the communists in many parts of Europe who barred the road to fascism in Spain, and kept Madrid, for many years, from falling to Franco and Hitler and Mussolini. Ghandi may take credit for the Indian independance movement—too much, in my view—but no one would deny the tremendous role played by the Indian communists in doing this, in helping to break the hold of Great Britain on their country. As a matter of fact—some people find it embarrassing to concede this, but I don't, as a supporter of it myself—the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela's party, at least half the members of its central committee were members of the communist party until quite recently, very probably including Mandela himself. 

There is no doubt about it. There was real heroism and dignity and humanism to those people, but we opposed it. We said, "No, it won't work." Why won't it work? It's not worth the sacrifice of freedom that it implies. It implies that all these great things can only be done if you place yourself under an infallible leadership, one that, once it's made that decision and you are bound by it . . . .  you might conceivably notice where I'm going here. Its why many of the brilliant intellectuals who did leave it left it very often for as high reasons of principle as they joined it for in the first place. And the names of their books are Legion and legendary. The best known is called 'The God That Failed,' precisely because it was an attempt at, a bogus form, a surrogate of religion. But let no one say—when the history comes to be written, no one will be able to say—that it didn't represent some high points in human history. But I repeat, it wasn't worth the sacrifice of mental and intellectual and moral freedom. 

That was the purpose of my original set of questions on the metaphysical side. Consider this carefully, ladies and gentlemen: Are you willing, for the sake of certain elements of the numinous, perhaps for a great record of good works, are you willing to say that you give your allegiance to an ultimate Redeemer? You're not really religious unless you believe that there's a divine supervision involved. You don't have to believe it intervenes all the time, but if you don't believe that, you're already half way out the door. You don't need me. 

But are you willing to pay the price of a Permanent Supervisor? Are you willing to pay the price of believing in things that are supernatural? Miracles? Afterlives? Angels? Are you willing to admit, most of all, that human beings can be the interpreter of this Divine Figure? Because a religion means you will have to follow someone who is your religious leader. You can't—try as you may—follow Jesus of Nazareth. It can't be done. You will have to follow His vicar on Earth, Pope Benedict XXVI presently; his own claim, not mine, the apolostolic succession, the vicar of Christ on earth. You have to say, "This person has divine authority." 

I maintain that that, and what goes with it, is too much of a sacrifice of the mental and intellectual freedom that is essential to us, to be tolerated. And you gain everything by repudiating that and standing up to your own full height. You gain much more than you will, by pretending that you're a member of a flock, or in any other way, any kind of sheep. —debating Tony Blair, November, 2010

Farewell, Christopher. You left us a treasure of inspiration and clarity. We are grateful.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Modern Icons: Girls and Hair

I don't understand women. You can put that on a long list of things I don't "get": skateboarding, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, String Theory, and the allure of NASCAR racing. I want to understand women, however. Well I want to understand them well enough to keep them around. 

One of the thousand things about women that baffle me is the vicious abuse of their hair. I went to art school with a tall, pretty young woman who wore luscious hair down past her waist. Most of us experimented with our looks during that time, and Miss Wonder Hair decided to shave her head bald. I never knew why she did this, or if the result satisfied her. Her action shocked me, nonetheless. I felt like I'd just watched her flush diamonds down a toilet. 

Later I worked with another woman with exceptionally beautiful hair. Because of—boredom? self-hatred?—she started coloring, cutting, and waving it. After two full years and many hundreds of dollars, her hair reached a kind of terminal state, wherein it was indistinguishable from cat feces. 

Years ago I subscribed to Vogue Magazine. Every issue had a section I called, "Rats' nests in zero-gravity." I didn't see a direct example in the latest issue, but there were plenty of heads that looked like road kill. 

Granted, some women have "problem hair." They need help, and thank god the industry is there for them. I don't know why women with healthy hair undergo severe treatments that often make them significantly less attractive to me. They really ought to consult me first. 

Men don't seem to figure in this sport at all. I've never heard a guy say, "I'd ask her out, if only she put some highlights in," or "Cute girl, but she should cut her hair shorter." 

The other odd thing I've noticed is the absence of satisfaction for the subject. During my co-worker's two-year transition from Dream to Nightmare, I never once heard her say, "I like my hair now." She went from Mary-Ann pigtails to a seven-color Mohawk without experiencing one happy day. 

The theme of this series is the triumph of culture over nature, and the War on Hair is another example. We depend on nature and respect it, else we could not survive. At the same time, we want to conquer and master nature. Relentlessly, we bend nature to our will, even when that bending results in the destruction of nature. 

My meagre guess is that women experience this struggle in miniature, on the battlefield of their scalps. Women all but deify their hair, but also change it and kill it. 

Last night I watched the original Star Wars movie with my son. It's been about thirty-four years since that movie was first shown. After all that time, Carrie Fisher's hair still fascinated me. Even on a movie set, how was it possible to keep those two cinnamon buns in perfect shape on the sides of her head? In the final scene, Princess Leia bestows medals on Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Her hair is different now, bound up in a braid, her crown. Maybe that's the seduction of restyling one's hair. It's the illusion of supernatural power. We want other people to think that we can become someone different, anytime we want to. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Modern Icons: September Vogue 2011

Every year I am drawn to the September issue of Vogue, even though it comes later—and to fewer outlets—each fall. I like to observe the soaring twists of glamour. The original meaning of glamour has been watered down in my mind. It's a noun, meaning magic spell. Glamour is not natural. It is anti-ordinary. September Vogue has some articles; none of them interested me, and the issue is all about the ads anyway. 

The photograph above is a dramatic example of the fight against nature which glamour requires. If you look closely at the model's eyes, you'll notice her pupils are enormous. It is highly unlikely that this effect was achieved naturally. To do so, the image might be shot in darkness, then over-exposed. It is more likely the photographer put dilation drops in her eyes, or fell back on the magic of PhotoShop.

In the "Clothes No One Will Ever Wear" genre, we get a circus trainer in the woods.

Everyone wants to know what to wear when you're struck by lightening. Alexander McQueen has just the dress, and it appears to be twenty feet long. Let's call this 'The Tsunami Train.'

Don't forget your Artemis boots, perfectly matched here with Greek toga and feathers on her shoulders. 

In between Earth and outer space, we see a new model who looks remarkably like Anna Nicole Smith, who was famous for looking remarkably like Marilyn Monroe, who was probably famous for looking like somebody else, but I'm getting confused already. 

These are clothes I would like to see women actually wear. Miu Miu gives us this magnificent, dignified ensemble. Yes, the model looks only twelve years old, but trust me, when she grows up she'll rule the world. 

Girls in skirts on marble stairs. All Italy is theirs for the taking.

Another classic look, slightly wavy. The shoes could go right or wrong, but in the end I just don't care, the rest of her is turned out so well. 


We proceed into the Disturbing Section with a look at Stella Tennant. She's been a top model for twenty years now. I imagine she's somewhat attractive in person, but in every shot she glares at the camera as if she were a ghost. When I see these, I want to run away and protect my man-parts. There is danger in her a-sexual eyes. 

Finally we come to Marc Jacobs, whose advertising shouts the slogan, "Ugly is the new Pretty." I'm really in the dark here. Is he hoping to provide welcome relief from all the beauty in the world? My wife says his handbags are quite sumptuous, but I don't know how anyone could be induced to buy one through these images. They do fit the theme of conquering nature, though, because it takes effort to make Helena Bonham Carter look this bad. Note her tortured hair. I'll have more to say about hair in the next post.

Over all, 2011 was a let down from last year's issue. We'll hope for better things in 2012. If you like this post, you may check out the earlier posts in the Modern Icons series here: #1  #2  #3  

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cafe du Nord and The Fabulous Juan

Everything must end. Meanwhile, we must amuse ourselves.—Voltaire

During the late 1990s I went to Cafe du Nord almost every Sunday night to swing dance. The Cafe operates in the basement of San Francisco's Swedish American Hall on Market Street, near Castro. It was a comfortable scene for an aging guy like me, because the music and fashion were "retro." I already looked "retro" every day, so I didn't need to do anything different to fit in. I discovered the place on a date with a young communist girl. She spent most of the evening dancing with her girlfriends, and I never asked her out again, but I liked the environment and returned by myself.

At 8PM we had a dance lesson in East Coast Swing, which goes with the Big Band Sound of the 1930s and 40s. At nine there was usually a live music act. Lee PressOn and the Nails were perennial favorites.

Dancing presented a unique opportunity for me to touch women I didn't know, without getting arrested. I took lessons at a couple of ballrooms, but I was lazy. I only learned to dance a little better than a rank beginner, because that was enough to get action in the Sunday night crowd. 

My strategy was to spread around during the dance lesson, then dance with a girl I fancied. Then I'd ask her to come out to the bar and sit while I did a drawing of her. If she had an escort, I'd draw him and talk to him too. If things went well, I might give her the drawing and/or ask for her phone number. I was pushing forty already, and most of the women were considerably younger. I was surprised and reassured at my success rate.

Our dance instructor was an older guy also, a tall, skinny Spaniard who called himself "The Fabulous Juan." Juan had a rich, throaty voice, like a pipe organ. His accent was rich also, so that when he walked us through the basic step: "One-two-three, one-two-three, back step," what we heard was, "Whan-two-three, whan-two-three, bock step!" During the lesson, we danced to the Glen Miller Orchestra's famous recording of The Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Flawless Asian girls sang along. It was a hell of a paradise. 

Juan often dressed in elaborate drag outfits. He charmed me, which was surprising, because I'm sick to death of men dressing as women. It was radical in 1820, but today it's been done to death, and in San Francisco, it's become pathetic and creepy, like wearing a Nixon mask.

Juan transcended all that. He made that tired medium fresh and sweet. My favorite outfit was a black party dress that Juan accented with thick yellow wrist bands. On closer examination, the wrist bands revealed themselves as live snakes. Juan was so charming, no one cared. Young women gladly danced with him, while the yellow snakes sniffed around their bare shoulders.

Over many weeks, I developed a kind of partnership with Juan. He saw me operating with the girls and we respected each other's work. He would come watch me drawing a new prospect in the bar and say, "He is the artist! I am the dancer, and he is the artist." He turned to the girl I was drawing and said, "I want you to only dance with him. You look good with him."

All good things must end. One night Juan came told me the Sunday night swing program would be terminated. In its place, the Cafe did something that sounded like a lesbian prom night. We were in the Castro, and many college girls danced with each other on Sunday nights. Few of the young women were actually gay. This was mostly play-acting, getting a tingle, thinking, "If Mommy could see me now!" I referred to them as "Lesbian Try-Outs," but they deserved their time on the dance floor, like anyone else. We were all playing, all pretending. 

The Cafe is still thriving. I did not see Juan again, but I often drive through the Castro with my wife and little boy in tow, and I always keep an eye out for a tall, thin Spaniard in turtleneck and slacks. The dresses were only for performance; I don't expect to see Juan walking out like that. If I ever see him, I plan to yell out, "Woo, woo, Chattanooga there you are!"