Friday, August 29, 2008

Shitty Art

[The facts in this post come from today's edition of the New York Post.]

The artist (not what I call him), Andres Serrano, who brought us Piss Christ, a crucifix thrown into a backlit jar of the artist's urine, is back with a new exhibit.

This time it's "Shit: An Investigation." Yes, you heard that right. And if you instantly got an idea of what it might include and then dismissed it as some crazy mental leap, then you'd be wrong. Sixty-six portraits of feces, each priced between $30,000 and $40,000 dollars (for those who don't know what to do with their excess cash) will be on display. Most are animal samples. Ah, but there are three human samples, as the New York Post reports: Freudian Shit (from his therapist), Holy Shit (from an unnamed priest), and Self-Portrait (guess who?).

He says, "The smell is the worst part. I would just, you know, take it--either with a glove, or someone would put it on the table for me--and then I'd turn it around and look for something. You want to wear a mask."

He was delighted when he found a face in one of the samples. Just like cloud gazing, huh?

It was at about this point in the reading, as I was eating my lunch, that I noticed the four, full-color photographs in the upper-right corner of the page. I jumped back in my chair and threw my sandwich down on the plate, but then I found myself leaning in again . . .

Great Scott, if that jaguar sample didn't look like a turtle with a little beady eye.

Serrano thinks he is making a statement against pretension in art. "This show, it's like the circus coming to town. It's, like, the emperor has no clothes."

I wonder how many art snobs will miss the message and take the serious essay in the show catalog at face value and then pay face value for a framed piece of shit.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Nature: From bathroom wall scribblings to Cape Henlopen dolphins

I'm back from a family camping vacation. Danny and Jon successfully separated me from Inked-In for five days. Our trip started out just fine, aside from the red bandana fuzz in my mouth. (Okay, when I said they successfully separated me from Inked-In, there was a bit of a scuffle and a gag was involved.) A few hours in, we stopped at a rest stop and Jon, my eight-year-old, got his first taste of bathroom wall poetry. My dad heard him in the next stall reading aloud: Truckers, if you want a bj . . .

Yikes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The angels of mercy must have been in full force because not a question was asked about what that meant.

We proceeded to Philly for lunch and a duck tour. Lunch was a wiz wit handicap, of course. Translation: a Philly cheese steak with Cheese Wiz (wiz), onions (wit), sliced in half (handicap). For those who have never been, the duck tour starts off as a bus tour and then the "bus" drives into the Delaware river and becomes a boat. The vehicle is based on the WWII DUKW.

The next morning, we set out for our real destination, Cape Henlopen, where we camped under pine trees at the very peaceful state campground. Upon arrival, my mother unpacked a bag of insect bite products. Apparently, she went crazy at Target and $87 later she had balms to ward off the bite, balms for after the bite. Hell, I think she even had one in there for balm before the bug decides to bite. I'm not into the lavish spreading of chemicals on my skin, so I watched as they all balmed up and proceeded to get bitten as I sat there unbalmed and unscathed. I guess I'm not sweet enough. :-)

Some people go through life with a black cloud over their heads. I go through life with a man with a cigar just upwind, blowing white clouds down at me. It never fails. If there is a man with a cigar, he will find me. The latest one found me on the beach, where we spent three otherwise glorious days. The weather was sunny but not too hot. The water was cold but refreshing. No waves, so I was happy. Best part was the dozens of dolphins (porpoises?) that passed by every afternoon. Some came within 20 feet. Really amazing. I had a feeling we would see them since we weren't too far from Wildwood where they always make an appearance. We spent 2 hours building a massive sand castle. Actually, it was more of a community with upper-class condos on one end and affordable housing down the river. A giant hot tub sat out front. Things were going great until a 21-month-old boy decided to play Godzilla. His mother grabbed him just before the condos were wiped out.

The beach is a funny place to me. You lie around mostly naked with total strangers within what would normally be your too-close-for-comfort zone if you were wearing clothes. Words carry over the breeze and people never factor that in as they engage in all kinds of conversation. It's a writer's dream. My favorite line this trip was from the husband who, as he huffed and puffed through the sand, loaded up like a pack mule, with his wife flip-flopping in front him, screamed out "Where ya goin' hun? The beach is the beach."

Riding back from the beach two afternoons, we saw three deer hanging out together in a meadow with people very close by playing ball. I guess they're used to seeing wildlife because they didn't seem particularly impressed. Me, I've gotta save up those wildlife moments and hold them close to my heart for when the only wildlife around are the winged rats (pigeons to you non-NYers) diving down for Burger King leavings.

This morning, as we packed up to come home, a turtle walked across our campsite. My niece fed him some of her breakfast cereal. I had just asked her what kind it was when the turtle jumped up on his hind legs and broke out into a jig. With a damn good brogue, he exclaimed, "Pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, and green clovers. They're Lucky Charms and they're magically delicious." My sister admitted they probably weren't a very healthy food for a turtle. I told her they probably weren't really healthy for a human either.

My favorite silent laugh moment came as I was brushing my teeth in the campground bathroom this morning. I glanced to the right and the girl next to me was curling her eyelashes. Now I've seen a lot of primping go on in campground bathrooms over the years and it always make me laugh, but an eyelash curler was a first. I glanced into my mirror--my hair featured that insert-finger-in-socket look that I tend to sport in the summertime when you can't pay me enough to use a blow dryer. The only make-up I brought was a tube of Chapstick. My skin was pink from the sun. I glanced over at her mirror--her hair was perfectly straight, not a frizz to be found. Her skin tone was a perfect beige--I must have missed the concealer and foundation application. Her eyelashes looked like she had just taken off teeny hot rollers. I spit and rinsed, and my straight eyelashes and I made our way back to camp to take down the tent.

Home, sweet, home. I'm unpacked, the laundry is going, the mail has been opened, the junk emails deleted. It's time for Inked-In.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Overcoming Perfectionism

My son was born almost nine years ago and in his first year I took almost 600 photos of him. After carefully dating them, I placed them in a box in chronological order. Every time I stopped at Barnes and Noble, I'd pick up a scrapbooking magazine. Soon, I had a stack of them and a box full of scrapbooking equipment and supplies. One day, I finally had the courage to spread it all out on my dining room table.

I had given a great deal of thought to how I wanted to structure my scrapbook. Maybe a bit too much thought. I created my first page, then a second. I was pleased with the results. The next day, I was at it again. Soon I had a dozen or so pages completed. And then I got stuck. Some of the perfect little categories I had thought up for the scrapbook suddenly didn't mesh with the photos I had. Worse, one of my categories required a two-page spread, leaving a blank page before it. I couldn't bring myself to fill that page with photos that would now be out of chronological order. Heavens to murgatroid. I left the mess on the table for months without touching it. Finally, I packed it all away, along with the photos I had never placed in the scrapbook. I didn't even bother to put them into regular photo albums.

Fast forward 8 years. I've spent my summer working on my third novel and the momentum has got my creative circuits sparking. I sit outside and write in my notebook as I watch my almost 9-year-old son ride his bicycle up and down the block. I realize he hasn't really ever seen his baby pictures. How sad. When I'm ready for a break from the writing, I go inside and pull out the box of photos. I find the photo albums I bought months ago and never used. I sit down and start making piles of my favorite photos. Before long, I have filled an album with 200 photos from the first six months of his life.

While I take a quick break to stretch and get some water, I decide to take a look at the abandoned scrapbook project. I open it to the first page and my breath catches. It is beautiful. So is the second and third. So is the two-page spread that I was never sure I liked way back when. What changed? Why do I suddenly love my scrapbook? Why is it so easy today to put those photos into albums?

Time has given me a fresh perspective and the objectivity I need to identify the good photos and pack away the rest. Back when I was a new, very hormonal mother, every photo might as well have been the baby himself. I couldn't choose one over another. A bit of distance has helped. There's no need to document every waking moment. Yawn. The days I do document mean all the more.

By the time I finish the second album, I realize I have eliminated one third of the photos. No nervous ticks. No feelings of guilt for not including them. My son runs into the room to ask me a question and sees the albums. When I show them to him, he breaks out into a smile and laughs at how cute he was as a baby. It's been a good day. I've managed to locate and extract a festering perfectionism lesion. I'm feeling courageous. I think I have some good scrapbook pages left in me. My son will come to believe he didn't just appear on earth at the age of six.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Walk That Way

Just got off the phone with my mom. She and my dad went to see a show last week and then went to a Mexican Restaurant in NYC. As they were eating their dinner, (I quote here) "an old guy with wrinkles, long hair, and lots of bracelets walked in" and was seated near them. Mom says he strutted in with two younger guys like he thought he was someone famous. After a bite of her mole poblano, she glanced up again, noticed his full lips and suddenly thought he was a cross-dresser and looked away, not wanting to stare at him. (Is that who's buying all those wax lips in the candy store?)

But then on the ride home, the name Steven popped into her head and she asked my sister if there was a rock musician named Steven Van Zandt. My sister told her that Van Zandt was indeed a musician but that my mother probably knew him from the Sopranos. Then, she suggested the surname Tyler and went on-line to show mom a photo of Steven Tyler.

"That's him!"

Poor Steven. I thought the Botox was working out so well for him. I guess not up close.

This reminds me of another sad story. In the late 80's, maybe early 90's, my parents were in a bar when a Stevie Nicks song started playing. The young girl standing next to my dad asked "Do you like Stevie Nicks?" My dad replied, "Who's he?"

Ugh. Gotta get these two to some remedial courses. They're only 63 for pete's sake.

A Sorry Attempt at Poetry in the Year 1993

One of my unofficial duties at my job is writing poems (and I use the word loosely) for people who are retiring. Most of them I've never met. Someone will come to me and give me some details about the person and then I'll sit and rearrange words on a page until I have some light-hearted rhyming lines that I hope will honor the retiree.

I know I am not a poet. However, I recently discovered I didn't always know that. I was looking through some old files and found a few poems from 1993 that were written by someone who thought she was a real poet (ahem).

In a spirit of fun and self-mockery, I hereby present to you a truly sorry attempt at poetry. I look forward to your evil comments :-) (And let me say how much I admire those of you who can write a real poem.)

Gravy Train?

Running late
staccato sprint
to catch the uptown train

as token slides
in turnstile slot
sounds Doppler's sad refrain

lonely platform
but for a man
bending o'er black case

stuffing change in
blue-jean pockets
wool hat pulled low on face

a few bars more
may bring a bonus
yet he stares at me

guitar in hand
i'm not enough
he doesn't play for free

suddenly strumming
triads deep, while
fingers pluck notes high

a melted chocolate melody
soft thanks his
harmony line

the metallic clink
of dinner resounds
within his felt-lined case

soup du jour
prime rib au jus
on a table cloth of lace

approaching rumble then
deafening silence
still he sings in key

a few more coins
buy pastry and some tea

homeward bound
yet back i glance
on half a song we're weaned

the gravy train
brings dreams of supper
then carts away his means

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Raving of a Germaphobe

I don't know what's happened to me. I've become a germaphobe. It's surprising considering I once interned at a microbiology lab and streak-plated bacteria-laden samples onto petri dishes in between bites of a sandwich. My father cannot wrap his brain around this fact--he knows the freak I've become.

Somewhere over the last decade my mind has been taken over by a demon of sorts. To be politically correct, he's a large, hirsute man. But since I break out in hives after long periods of political correctness, let's just call him Big Fat Hairy Man.

Disclaimer: There's nothing wrong with being a big, fat, hairy man. I've loved many over the years. So, embrace your big, fat, hairy man-ness. Oh, and no Big Fat Hairy Men were killed in the creation of his post.

Big Fat Hairy Man shows up in all kinds of places, but I see him most often when I have to stay at a hotel. Even good hotels. I walk into the pristine bathroom with its beauty pageant sash draped over the toilet bowl and I feel his presence. Those perfectly aligned wash cloths get my attention and I imagine Big Fat Hairy Man using them in a vigorous act of dingleberry disengagement. Sure they've been put through an industrial wash cycle, but that visual is a residue clinging to their bleached, white fibers.

I've seen too many police shows to doubt what a black light would reveal on the lush comforter. This doesn't stop my husband though. He kicks back and plops himself down right on top of the paisley plushness to click through some channels in search of the latest Islanders score.

My husband isn't the only one who threatens my sanity. There was the family member who let her toddler crawl on the Bates-like motel rug in Wildwood. (Okay, there was a sheet beneath her, but still.) When our toilet bowl backed up the next night and seeped out onto the rug, the instantaneous connection in my mind set my body aquiver for at least twenty minutes. That same vacation I watched one of our group make a sandwich on the dresser. No plate. Just dresser top (where Big Fat Hairy Man's naked ass could have sat while pulling on tube socks), Wonder Bread, 3 slices of bologna, two of Swiss cheese, a dab of mayo, Wonder Bread topper and voilà--lunch.

Alas, spiritual solace is not possible--even the Gideons bible is off limits. God knows there could have been a power outage during Big Fat Hairy Man's stay that precluded his watching the porn channel. Isn't it possible he turned to the Song of Songs while the cable company was managing the repairs. (Please, no letters. I'm aware that Song of Songs is not pornography, but Big Fat Hairy Man is a figment of my imagination and my mind says he isn't aware of the distinction and wouldn't know allegory if it grabbed a hold of his matted chest hairs and yanked.)

Every year we take several camping trips and they are the joy of my summer. When people wrinkle their noses and say "Ewww, the bugs, the dirt, yuk, how do you do it?" I reply "Hotels. Ewwww, the bed bugs, the shower fungus, the God-knows-what on the comforter, yuk, how do you do it?" At least with camping, it's me and my own DNA evidence in the sleeping bag.

Whew. I've gotta go. This topic's made me want to take a shower . . . right after I antibacterial-wipe my mouse.

On Cookbooks and Writing Books

Back in the days when I was the cook in the family, I'd bury my nose in a cookbook all day. By 6 PM I'd realize I hadn't started dinner, so we'd order out.

Funny part was, I have never followed a recipe to make dinner; I just enjoy reading cookbooks. I'm more of a spontaneous, intuitive cook. The exception would be baking, which I've always heard is an exact science. But I'm beginning to doubt that. My grandmother's handful surely couldn't be the same amount as your grandmother's handful, right?

In a crazed technical writer's attempt to capture the recipes of my elders, I once suggested transferring those handfuls into measuring cups so I could write up an accurate recipe. The withering glance I received taught me it's not about the amounts of ingredients, it's about "feeling it." And to feel it, you've got to get your hands in the mix.

What is it about cookbooks that make them as addictive as novels to me? Appetizer as Prologue? Butternut Squash Soup leading up to Plot Point One? Braised Short Ribs to get you over the hump in Act Two? A dessert of Casquitos de Guayaba con Queso Blanco as Climax? After-dinner drink as Epilogue?

I used to sit around reading writing books all day, too. By 6 PM, I'd realize that not only was dinner not ready, but I hadn't put a word to paper.

I quickly learned I had to ban the purchase of writing books until I started putting some of their advice into practice. (My husband quickly learned that if he wanted to eat, he'd have to learn how to cook.)

Recently, I've been better about writing regularly, so I treated myself to a new one: Write Away by Elizabeth George. I'm enjoying it and I've already used a few tips.

Here are some of my other faves:

  • The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray (an oldie but a goodie - make sure it's the original version)
  • How to Write a Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey
  • The First Five Page by Noah Lukeman (he's a literary agent in NYC who tells you why you get rejected within the first 5 pages)
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
  • Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
  • Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction
  • Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block
  • Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
  • How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein
It won't be long before I'll need another fix. So if you have any favorites, please send some recommendations.