November 2008

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Mourning Mumbai

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Taj Hotel in Mumbai, August 2008

The last several days my thoughts have been focused on the tragedy in Mumbai. I have only been to Mumbai once, and I have no family blood ties to that or any other part of India. But sometimes a place or a culture captures you inexplicably, and that is what happened to me last August.

India is an enchantress for a certain kind of person (me), and Mumbai was exceptionally sprawling, chaotic and beguiling. The legendary Taj Hotel where we sat sipping tea and soaking in all that 19th century soigné charm is now under siege, the wide boulevards of Apollo Bunder cordoned off. I have only just begun to dig into the layered complexity of the Indian culture, but in that beginner’s mind sort of way I am still longing to go back and uncover more of its secrets. But this is so unsettling.

This posting from Amardeep Singh‘s blog is from 2006 and was in response to a previous terrorist attack in Mumbai. It is hauntingly appropriate in 2008 so I am sharing it here.

Sea Breeze, Bombay

Partition’s people stitched
Shrouds from a flag, gentlemen scissored Sind.
An opened people, fraying across the cut
country reknotted themselves on this island.

Surrogate city of banks,
Brokering and bays, refugees’ harbour and port,
Gatherer of ends whose brick beginnings work
Loose like a skin, spotting the coast,

Restore us to fire. New refugees,
Wearing blood-red wool in the worst heat,
come from Tibet, scanning the sea from the north,
Dazed, holes in their cracked feet.

Restore us to fire. Still,
Communities tear and re-form; and still, a breeze,
Cooling our garrulous evenings, investigates nothing,
Ruffles no tempers, uncovers no root,

And settles no one adrift of the mainland’s histories.

–Adil Jussawalla

This poem is really a response to the Partition of 1947, but I think it has bearing on the questions people are asking a day after a particularly horrifying terrorist attack.

Jussawalla describes a rootless island city that is in some sense cut off from the “mainland’s histories” — that is on its own. But that sense of detachment has its limits, as Bombay has also been the destination point for waves of migrants and refugees from the subcontinent’s recurring troubles. These immigrant Bombayites (or now, Mumbaikars) bring new life and energy to the city (“restore us to fire”), and also tie the city tightly to the mainland’s darker episodes (the other meaning of “restore us to fire”). Some elite Bombayites have historically been ambivalent about their connection to the mainland, and even today, there are people who talk about instituting a kind of Hong Kong-esque autonomy to Mumbai, to prevent its being held back by the mainland’s elephant slowness.

The idea of Bombay paying for traumas occurring elsewhere was probably true in the case of bombing and riots of 1993, which were triggered by the razing of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, though it’s undeniable that local Muslim-led gangs and homegrown Shiv Sena thugs exploited that event for their own purposes. Something similar may be afoot now, if we assume that the bombers in yesterday’s Western Line attacks were associated with Kashmiri separatist militants.

And yet, through it all, though the trauma of the tearing and re-forming of communities, and the chaos of life in Bombay (even without terrorism), there is, as Jussawalla says, the reassuring constancy of a cooling sea-breeze, which “uncovers no root,/ And settles no one adrift of the mainland’s histories.” Rootless, and yet yet never detached — that’s Bombay.

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In the spirit of keeping things light at this time of year when the food and the body can start feeling just a little heavy, here’s the Guardian‘s update on one of my favorite annual awards—The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction.

You gotta love it, these laughable attempts to describe one of life’s greatest thrills. Ever since a writer friend confessed to me that she suffered from crippling fear while writing her novel that she would be nominated for this ignoble award, I have had a little more pity for nominees. Ouch. While of course some people treat it as just one more google hit.

At the end of the Guardian article I have also included an excerpt from Media Bistro’s GalleyCat blog flagging John Updike’s lifetime achievement award. The passage highlighted is just too good to not share. “Legs in an M of receptivity”…really John. John? Hello?

Thank you Sally Reed for being all over it and way ahead of me.

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‘Slightly tortuous’: Alastair Campbell. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Alastair Campbell’s depiction of a gauche sexual encounter in his debut novel All in the Mind has won him a place on the shortlist for the literary world’s most dreaded honour: the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award.

Campbell would join luminaries including Tom Wolfe, AA Gill, Sebastian Faulks and Melvyn Bragg if he wins the award – a plaster foot – on November 25 at London’s aptly named In and Out club. Run by the Literary Review, the bad sex awards were set up by Auberon Waugh “with the aim of gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels”.

The former spin doctor may take heart from the implication that his debut is an “otherwise sound literary novel”. Campbell of course has some earlier practice in depicting sex, having written pornography for Forum magazine under the pseudonym the Riviera Gigolo early in his career, but a passage set on a bench has catapulted Campbell onto the list: “He wasn’t sure where his penis was in relation to where he wanted it to be, but when her hand curled around it once more, and she pulled him towards her, it felt right,” Campbell writes. “Then as her hand joined the other on his neck and she started making more purring noises, now with little squeals punctuating them, he was pretty sure he was losing his virginity.”

But Campbell’s prose is considerably less purple than some of the other contenders for this year’s prize, including new age novelist Paulo Coelho for his novel Brida, in which the act of sex – on a public footpath – is described as “the moment when Eve was reabsorbed into Adam’s body and the two halves became Creation”.

“At last, she could no longer control the world around her,” Coelho continues, “her five senses seemed to break free and she wasn’t strong enough to hold on to them. As if struck by a sacred bolt of lightning, she unleashed them, and the world, the seagulls, the taste of salt, the hard earth, the smell of the sea, the clouds, all disappeared, and in their place appeared a vast gold light, which grew and grew until it touched the most distant star in the galaxy.”

Historian Simon Montefiore is also a strong competitor, singled out for his first foray into fiction, the Soviet saga Sashenka, in which a formerly prudish Communist woman enjoys an encounter with a bohemian writer. “He pulled down her brassiere, cupping her breasts, sighing in bliss. ‘The blue veins are divine,’ he whispered.” And later: “He’s a madman, she thought as he made love to her again. Oh my God, after twenty years of being the most rational Bolshevik woman in Moscow, this goblin has driven me crazy!”

Other writers in the running include John Updike, Isabel Fonseca, Kathy Lette and James Buchan, as well as first-time novelist Ann Allestree for her novel Triptych of a Young Wolf.

“It’s very heartening to see what a distinguished list of writers seem to be listed with me,” said Allestree. “I wrote the book because I had written memoirs and biographies, and thought every writer has to do a novel, it’s a force majeure. So I set off to do it, and thought I’ve got to put sex in – every novel’s got to have sex in it.”

She said her novel was “essentially quite a serious one”. “It’s about wolves,” she continued. “There is wolf sex, between my young wolf, my hero, and his girlfriend, who happens to be an Alsatian … they have hybrid sex.”

If an extract from Allestree’s novel – here depicting sex between humans, rather than canines – is anything to go by, she should be in with a good chance: few novelists successfully manage to combine soup and sex. “He raised himself to his knees and bent to roll his tongue around her weeping orifice. He was bringing her to a pitch of ecstasy when she heard Madame Veuve, on the landing, put down the supper tray. Whiffs of onion soup strayed over them as he engulfed her. ‘Don’t stop,’ she clamoured; she was nearly there, it was in the bag.”

Jonathan Beckman at the Literary Review said there had been “quite a lot of variation” in this year’s shortlist in terms of how, exactly, the sex was bad. “There are some which take the sex far too seriously, like Coelho, and some which have a grating change of register, like Buchan, and others that are just slightly ridiculous,” he said. “The Campbell seems quite Alastair Campbelly-bad, in the slightly tortuous logical path the passage takes … and also, we wouldn’t pass up the chance to put Alastair Campbell on a bad sex shortlist.”

Last year’s award was given posthumously to Norman Mailer for his final novel The Castle in the Forest, in which a male member is described as being “as soft as a coil of excrement”. “It was the excrement that tipped the balance,” admitted Philip Womack, assistant editor of the Literary Review, at the time.

Alison Flood
Guardian

And from Media Bistro’s GalleyCat:

Updike won the lifetime achievement award after being nominated four times over the course of his career. Here’s a link to Updike’s shortlisted passage from 2005 Bad Sex nominee, Villages:

“Faye leaned back on the blanket, arranging her legs in an M of receptivity, and he knelt between them like the most abject and craven supplicant who ever exposed his bare a** to the eagle eyes of a bunch of crows.”

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ganley
Barbara Ganley, near her home in Weybridge, Vt., thinks of blogging as a meditative art form.

The article below from the Sunday New York Times caught my attention immediately. Slow blogging. But of course! As aligned as my blogging efforts have been with the relatively new term “slow”, I must admit I had not heard about Todd Sieling and his Slow Blog Manifesto before reading the article. So now I pass the idea along to you too.

When Barbara Ganley wants to collect her thoughts, she walks in the Vermont countryside, wanders home and blogs about it. In a recent post, she wrote about the icy impressions left in the snow by sleeping deer. In another, she said she wanted to commute by bicycle and do more composting.

If her blog, bgblogging.wordpress.com, sounds slow and meandering, it is. But that’s the point. Ms. Ganley, 51, is part of a small, quirky movement called slow blogging.

The practice is inspired by the slow food movement, which says that fast food is destroying local traditions and healthy eating habits. Slow food advocates, like the chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., believe that food should be local, organic and seasonal; slow bloggers believe that news-driven blogs like TechCrunch and Gawker are the equivalent of fast food restaurants — great for occasional consumption, but not enough to guarantee human sustenance over the longer haul.

A Slow Blog Manifesto, written in 2006 by Todd Sieling, a technology consultant from Vancouver, British Columbia, laid out the movement’s tenets. “Slow Blogging is a rejection of immediacy,” he wrote.

“It is an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly.” (Nor, because of a lack of traffic, is Mr. Sieling writing this blog at all these days.) Ms. Ganley, who recently left her job as a writing instructor at Middlebury College, compares slow blogging to meditation. It’s “being quiet for a moment before you write,” she said, “and not having what you write be the first thing that comes out of your head.”

On her blog, Ms. Ganley juxtaposes images and text as she reflects on the local landscape. She tends to post once or twice a week, but sometimes she can go a month or so without proffering something new.

Some slow bloggers like to push the envelope of their readers’ attention even further. Academics post lengthy pieces about literature and teaching styles, while techies experiment to see how infrequently they can post before readers desert them.

This approach is a deliberate smack at the popular group blogs like Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, Valleywag and boingboing, which can crank out as many as 50 items a day. On those sites, readers flood in and advertisers sign on. Spin and snark abound. Earnest descriptions of the first frost of the season are nowhere to be found.

In between the slow bloggers and the rapid-fire ones, there is a vast middle, hundreds of thousands of writers who are not trying to attract advertising or buzz but do want to reach like-minded colleagues and friends. These people have been the bedrock of the genre since its start, yet recently there has been a sea change in their output: They are increasingly turning to slow blogging, in practice if not in name.

“I’m definitely noticing a drop-off in posting — I’m talking about among the more visible bloggers, the ones with 100 to 200 readers or more,” said Danah Boyd, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies popular culture and technology. “I think that those people who were writing long, thought-out posts are continuing, but those who were writing, ‘Hey, check this out’ posts are going to other forums. It’s a dynamic shift.”

Technology is partly to blame. Two years ago, if a writer wanted to share a link or a video with friends or tell them about an upcoming event, he or she would post the information on a blog. Now it’s much faster to type 140 characters in a Twitter update (also known as a tweet), share pictures on Flickr, or use the news feed on Facebook. By comparison, a traditional blogging program like WordPress can feel downright glacial.

Ms. Ganley, the blogger in Vermont, has a slogan that encapsulates the trend: “Blog to reflect, Tweet to connect.” Blogging, she said, “is that slow place.”

Another reason some bloggers have slowed down is sheer burnout. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor at the University of Virginia, shuttered his popular blog, Sivacracy, in September, in part because he was exhausted by the demands. “When you run your own blog, there’s a lot of imaginary pressure to publish constantly, to be witty, to be good, and nobody can live with that,” he said in an interview.

These days, he fires off short, pithy comments on Twitter, but has another blog that he says is “more of a specialized project for in-depth thought.” Here, he shares ideas for an upcoming book, which posits that Google has infiltrated our culture to a worrisome extent.

Andrew Sullivan, perhaps the world’s best-read political blogger, talked about the burnout factor in an article in November’s Atlantic magazine called “Why I Blog.” He said in an interview posted on the magazine’s Web site that during the election, his readers became so addicted to his stream of posts that he sometimes set his blog to post automatically so he could go to lunch. When he took two days off to make sense of “the whole Sarah Palinthing,” his audience flipped, thinking he was dead or silenced.

“You can’t stop,” Mr. Sullivan said in the online interview. “The readers act as if you’ve cut off their oxygen supply, and they just flap around like a goldfish out of water until you plop them back in.”

Slow blogging is something of a philosophical rebuttal to this dynamic. While some bloggers may just be naturally slow — think of the daydreaming schoolmate who used to take forever to get the assignment done — others are more emphatic about the purpose of taking their time.

Russell Davies, a new media consultant in London, has started what may be the ultimate experiment in slow-blogging: Dawdlr. He has turned the instantaneousness of Twitter on its head by asking readers to send him snail-mail postcards answering the question posed to Twitter users, “What are you doing now?” He scans the postcards and puts them up, once every six months, on his site, dawdlr.tumbler.com. A recent postcard contained whimsical line drawings of cats and the words, “Trying not to look back.”

Mr. Davies said his goal was to see if slowing down promoted a greater thoughtfulness. It did, he said, but then again, because Dawdlr is updated so infrequently, few people have heard of it.

“It is an investigation into the Internet’s attention span,” Mr. Davies said by telephone.

Even Mr. Sieling, the writer of the Slow Blog Manifesto, gave up his personal blog because he felt no one was reading it. “I called it the Robinson Crusoe feeling of blogging,” he said by e-mail, “and I think it’s common.”

Sharon Otterman
New York Times

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flowerben
Flower Ben, by Elizabeth Peyton

I have had a long relationship of ambivalence with Elizabeth Peyton’s work. And I’m not alone. As famous as she is–she is a true art world “darling”–there are many like me who cannot find their deep way into her work, to that place where you really feel connected. Sometimes a work will seduce me into engagement (like Flower Ben above), but mostly I am in between.

Some of my artist friends are big fans. But I keep asking myself, what it is about her work that usually keeps me outside of it?

It has a particular flavor of charm, to be sure. A deftness of the hand. And it presents itself as easy, accessible, light. It isn’t dark or brooding, which is its own refreshing change of pace. But I’m on the lookout for art that takes my breath away right there on the spot; the kind that I can feel deep inside, making me dizzy with feelings I can’t describe in words. Being with art you love is like having great sex: It should involve every part of your body, and the feelings should be outside the range of human language.

In the end it is highly subjective, this “like/don’t like” business. But the best part of this in between state is that you get to change your mind. Sometimes that happens all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a potentiality I love having around me.

Regardless of my yes and no regarding Peyton’s work, I did enjoy reading Sebeastian Smee’s review of her current show at the New Museum in New York. I like Smee’s writing. He isn’t afraid to be emotionally exuberant and titillated by what he sees and what he likes. Not one to stand back, he is neither cool nor detached. I find his reviews engaging and fun.

I posted the full Smee review on Slow Painting, but a few excerpts are included here, ones that can be meaningful as stand alone passages:

Elizabeth Peyton attracted attention in the mid-1990s not because her work was any good – that would take years – but because it catered to certain hankerings (for beauty, for human connection, for the rush of infatuation) that up until then the art world had grimly suppressed. People were disproportionately grateful.

***

It’s almost always wonderful when artists dare to be shameless – to go ahead and paint what they want. The trouble was, little of Peyton’s early work rose above the standard of lackluster fashion illustration, or of those saccharine, on-the spot portraits made by street artists in tourist traps.

Still, we can be thankful that she was encouraged by the kind reception extended to her early work, because she has gone on to produce one of the most daring and exquisite oeuvres in contemporary art. I fell completely for Peyton as I ambled through “Live Forever,” the retrospective at the New Museum here, feeling more and more like a mopey, heart-struck teenager every minute.

Many of you will not want to give in to such feelings, deeming them indecently frivolous.

***

In the end, I love the unlikeliness of Peyton’s success. Who would have thought that one of the most acclaimed and closely watched artists of our time would be a young woman who paints small, unabashedly girly portraits in oils on board – pictures that have no tough-guy conceptual underpinning to speak of?

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Lewis Hyde, Poet

Desert

“We have to be in a desert,
for he whom we must love is absent.”
–Simone Weil

Early morning and the mist, saturated with light,
obscures the disappearing powerlines. A damp obscurity
but a desert nonetheless: birds that fly into it
lose their bodies and survive
as the songs of birds, the tallest locust
is nothing but the rustle of its leaves.

Slowly the sun cuts and burns the haze away
to re-embody each in a seedy yellow sleep.

–Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde is better known to me as the author of The Gift and Trickster Makes This World. His volume of poetry, This Error is the Sign of Love, was published in 1988.

For more about Hyde’s work and outlook in the realm of the “cultural commons,” see the posting on Slow Painting from Daniel Smith’s article in the New York Times.

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Dorothea Tanning, painter and poet

Evening

He told us, with the years, you will come
To love the world.

And we sat there with our souls in our laps,
And comforted them.

–Dorothea Tanning

Tanning is that rare being who embodies gifts in the poetic domain as well as the visual. A woman with a long history in the American art world of the 20th century, Tanning began branching out into other forms of expression later in life. (Ah, that “later in life” theme again!)

This poem has a simple power and suggests to me the single minded intentionality of a bold stroke of paint across a large canvas. One movement of the arm, but it says so much.

A bit of background about Tanning, from Poets.org:

“It’s hard to be always the same person,” reads the epigraph for A Table of Content, Dorothea Tanning’s first book of poems, published in 2004. After half a century of acclaimed drawing, painting, sculpture, collage, and set and costume design—with pieces in major museum collections, including the Tate Gallery, London; the Centre Pompidou and the Musée de la Ville de Paris, both in Paris; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Chicago Art Institute, among others—Tanning turned her eye (and ear) to poetry, reinventing herself after retiring from visual mediums.

As W. S. Merwin put it: “She goes out of the room, comes back, and she’s someone else—and after a few hours I think, Phew, that’ll do for a while!” Tanning has long been known as a friend of poets, and her public shift toward poetry may very well have been due to years of private collaborations and intimacies.

Another Language of Flowers, a book published in 1998 documenting Tanning’s last paintings, what she calls her “foray into imaginative botany,” can be seen as another of the artist’s points of transformation. Tanning believed that she was finished with painting until she discovered a collection of blank and very valuable Lefebvre-Foinet canvases she’d bought in Paris twenty years earlier.

Determined to use the fine canvases, Tanning spent almost a year—between June, 1997 and April, 1998—sketching and completing twelve large paintings of imaginary flowers. Those paintings, and her preperatory sketches, are reproduced in the book, with each image given a fictional name—such as “Victrola floribunda”—and accompanied by a poem. James Merrill, who had been a kind of mentor to Tanning and had died three years before she began the flowers series, provides the lines for the first image: “A wish. Come true? Here’s where to learn.” John Ashbery, Richard Howard, J. D. McClatchy, Anthony Hecht, Adrienne Rich, and others also give voices to the flowers.

Within a year of completing her flowers series, Tanning, at eighty-nine, began publishing her own poems, and within another year was being recognized for poems in Poetry, Parnassus, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Plougshares, and others. Now, with a full collection of startling and perceptive poetry, which C. D. Wright has called “a meal not to be late for,” Tanning has fully transformed her career and earned her a place among American poets.

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Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst (they were married in 1946)

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stoppard

Tom Stoppard in Manhattan! Here, there, everywhere. This update on several of his sightings was filed by Terry Teachout on behalf of Gwen Orel. For readers of this blog, it would be the ultimate in redundancy to say that Stoppard is my favorite playwright, bar none. So redundancy be damned. What a guy.

Worth the quick read, here’s the posting from About Last Night:

Tom Stoppard, who might just be the greatest living English-language playwright, is in Manhattan on business, and made a couple of public appearances last week. Alas, I was unavoidably elsewhere, but my friend Gwen Orel, who writes about theater and Celtic music for all sorts of publications on and off line, was present on both occasions, and filed this report.

Back in the twentieth century, around 1989 or so, some Serious Theatre People averred that “Tom Stoppard is over.” The Real Thing was his Tempest, they said, his farewell to the stage. Fast forward to Rough Crossing, Arcadia, The Invention of Love, The Coast of Utopia, and Rock and Roll. Some farewell! By now Stoppard, who’s in town to rehearse his new adaptation of The Cherry Orchard at BAM, has morphed into a sort of playwright-rock idol. Accordingly, he appeared in pale (though not blue) suede shoes at two public talks last week, both of them quickly overbooked. Though he was funny and charming as usual, it was fascinating to observe what a difference a moderator made.

At CUNY, Stoppard was joined by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Derek Walcott for a Great Issues Forum moderated by David Nasaw, the university’s Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of American History. The topic was “Cultural Power,” and the press release said that Stoppard & Co. would be exploring “the power of culture and art in a globalizing world.” Instead, they considered the Impact and Influence of Art. Yep, said Walcott, art’s impact cannot be easily counted and measured. Yep, said Stoppard, culture is what distinguishes us as human. All interesting, but…power?

The professor was smart but all too clearly awed by his celebrated guests, who seemed in turn to adore one another. He began, promisingly, by considering the way “the world changed last Tuesday,” showing a slide of Barack Obama with a book in his hand, which turned out to be Walcott’s Collected Poems, 1948-1984. Then the poet read us Forty Acres, his new poem about Obama, commissioned by the Times of London: Out of the turmoil emerges one emblem, an engraving –/a young Negro at dawn in straw hat and overalls,/an emblem of impossible prophecy…

Asked for his reaction, Stoppard said that the poem “silenced” him–but, of course, it hadn’t, and he self-deprecatingly remarked that he could go on “speaking like a wind-up toy.” At one point he mentioned a recent New York Times article about the New York City Opera which pointed out that the Paris Opera’s budget is larger than that of the entire National Endowment for the Arts. Provocatively, he then suggested that the patronage of the rich American may “get the government off the hook.” This was power! This was culture! This was another ball dropped.

The next day, Stoppard was interiewed at BAM by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker and author of Lenin’s Tomb, who may be the only editor in New York who hadn’t rushed out to read Isaiah Berlin just to prepare for The Coast of Utopia. Remnick actually out-Stopparded Stoppard with his wit and erudition, and the result was a chat that unlike its predecessor was fascinating, insightful, and over too soon. When Remnick said “For our last question…” Stoppard looked at his watch and looked truly disappointed.

The topic was Chekhov, but the conversation managed to get somewhere near…well, cultural power. Asked what niche his new version of The Cherry Orchard would fill, Stoppard said that directors like to have a new text in rehearsal: “Theatre is a storytelling art form–plays are palimpsests of maps on different scales.” He was “constantly looking for that elusive place where the natural utterance functions as a narrative utterance.”

Gracefully segueing from a consideration of Solzhenitsyn and Stalin to literary influence, Stoppard described his aesthetic response to newsprint and his early ambition to be a foreign correspondent and live a glamorous life. “It can be arranged,” Remnick murmured. For once Stoppard was speechless–briefly. Remnick added, “There’s a 10 p.m. to Kabul.” Then Stoppard recovered. “The St. Tropez kind of correspondent,” he replied.

Asked how working in America was different than at home, Stoppard admitted that he was less comfortable here, explaing that there was “more a sense of heavy pressure to succeed–perhaps there’s more shame in failing than there ought to be.” (Maybe that’s because they don’t publish the West End grosses every week.)

What next? Stoppard said that he’d had just about decided to start working on a screenplay for Arcadia that he would then direct when the BBC came up with the idea of adapting some novels from the nineteenth century and the Twenties–something he says that he really wants to do. Me, I hope it’s Waugh. I can’t imagine anybody channeling the glamorous war-correspondent author of A Handful of Dust better than Tom Stoppard.

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Artist Agnes Martin, 1912-2004

Another thank you to Pam Farrell for leading me to artist Susan York’s account of her relationship with the legendary Agnes Martin. I’ve included the text at the end of this post. It offers a compelling window into Martin’s way of seeing the world.

Martin is a quirky but powerful presence in contemporary American art. She was one of several extremely talented women artists of a certain generation who came to the art mecca that was New York City in the 40′s and 50s only to eventually flee to other climes. That group also includes Joan Mitchell and Lee Bontecou.

Martin found her connection in the deserts of New Mexico, living out her life in a simple, monk-like manner. The story circulated that she didn’t read a newspaper for 50 years. One of her statements captures something about the way she lived: Perfection is in the mind.

Her writings have a Koan-like quality to them—metaphysical, mysterious, sometimes contradictory—but her work continued to explore a quiet intensity that never dissipated. She was painting right up until her death at the age of 92. When a writer for the New Yorker came to visit her just a few years before her death, Martin was still spending her mornings working in her studio. As Martin emerged from her morning session, she made this simple but profound pronouncement: Painting is hard work. That’s a truism that holds whether you are a nonagenarian or not.

I have been moved to tears several times standing in front of an Agnes Martin painting. They do not reproduce well. Dia Beacon has a room dedicated to her work, and there are fine examples in a number of leading museums. But they must be experienced in the flesh, first hand. The delicacy of her graphite lines, the respect for the imperfections of the canvas—those are all impossible to capture in a photographic image.

I first saw the artist Agnes Martin lecture in 1982 in Albuquerque. She said: “My paintings are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.” I thought she was speaking directly to me.

It took me a year to find the courage to call her. I wrote out a script of what I would say and laid my yellow legal pad with the dialogue printed in blue ink in front of me.

“Hello,” answered the plain, flat voice.

I couldn’t think of what to say. My heart began beating faster; the silence continued. Finally, I read from my paper: “Hello, Ms. Martin, this is Susan York.”

“Oh, yes, hello.”

“I sent you a postcard for a show I’m in,” I said, following my lines.

“Yes, I got it,” she said. “And I can’t decide.”

Can’t decide? I frantically scanned the yellow paper, looking futilely for the right words. “Can’t decide?”
“No. Can’t decide if you’re ready to be internationally recognized or not. Won’t be able to tell that until I see the work.”

I kept searching my page.

“Well, uh, would you like to come see the show?”

“No, never do that.”

I was trying to come up with a reply when she finally spoke.

“You can come for tea,” she said. “At 3.”

The next thing I heard was the dial tone.

The road to Galisteo cut across a wide mesa. In the distance, layers of blue mountain ranges rested behind clouds, trees and ancient petroglyphs. Agnes, in her early 70′s on that afternoon in 1983, stood in the doorway of her house. Her short salt-and-pepper hair framed red cheeks and blue eyes that sometimes seemed to be on the earth and other times beyond it.

The small home resembled a New Mexico tract house with a white generic interior. Everything was spare and tidy; three rocking chairs in the living room and one picture that looked like a Georgia O’Keeffe print.

As in her books, she spoke in absolutes. “Never have children. Do not live the middle-class life. Never do anything that will take away from your work.”

Opening the door to her studio, she said, “Never let anyone in your studio.” It was a long, simple adobe building that Agnes had built by hand. She had no electricity in there and worked only from the morning until 3 p.m.

I was struck silent by a 6-by-6-foot painting composed of horizontal lines and washes of gray. Did she tell me it was geese flying, or did I dream it that night? Infinite washes of gray paint held by graphite lines, the painting made me think of the almost steady line of a child’s pencil meeting watery Japanese calligraphy.

She told me she wanted to preserve the work of the Abstract Expressionists. She asked me about the Zen center where I lived and had a studio. I had no way of knowing it then, but for the next several years I would meet her nearly every month for tea or dinner. I learned about the artist’s life from her, long before I had found my own. I was just a few years out of college, but I thought time was running out. “I didn’t get my first show until I was 45,” she said, fixing her penetrating gaze on me. “If I could tell you anything, I would tell you that you have time.”

Over the next decade, I continued making my art, but as Agnes often told me, I was frustrated. Something was missing in my work that I still hadn’t been able to grasp. She told me she had once worked as a dishwasher, saving enough money to spend an entire year solely in her studio. She thought I should do the same; instead, I entered graduate school.

In my work there, I sieved powdered pigment onto the floor, filling rooms with giant arcs and rectangles. Afterward I was pleased to have nothing left but a bag of swept-up pigment.

When I met Agnes the following summer, she thought the new work was ridiculous.

“How are you going to sell it if it ends up in a garbage bag?” she asked in that flat voice that sounded like the truth. And in fact, it was the truth.

But I knew this work held the missing piece: I realized that I wanted to distill thousands of miles into a single inch. Today, I cover whole rooms in graphite, rubbing the walls with my hand until the flat black carbon turns infinitely silver.

My hand was covered in graphite when I heard that Agnes had died. It was around this time last December, and I remember the world became quiet.

(This piece was published in the New York Times Magazine in 2005 after Martin’s death in December of 2004.)

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Thinking about the transformation of the Lower East Side (see the posting below from November 17) has put me in a neighborhood state of mind…Boston/Cambridge, my home for over 20 years, made for entertaining reading in Ethan Gilsdorf’s recent piece about Boston for the New York Times‘ “American Journeys” series. Focusing on the Main Street neighborhood in Cambridge near MIT, he titled his article, “A Science Lover’s Kind of Town,” featuring the ice cream shop that my children have loved all their lives—Toscanini’s:

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When you run an ice cream parlor down the street from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you expect your customers to chat about stem cell research or trade theories about neutrinos between licks of burnt caramel. But Gus Rancatore, whose Toscanini’s shop in Cambridge, Mass., is renowned as much for its deep-thinking clientele as for its sundaes, discovered long ago that catering to the technology-minded crowd could have unforeseen advantages.

One day, two M.I.T. students who were “working in superconductors,” Mr. Rancatore said, took a good look at his ice cream machine, visible through his shop window, and were “distressed by the poor engineering.” So they took it back to their lab and transformed its inefficient gear-drive mechanism into a lean, mean, belt-driven machine. That was 23 years ago. “We still use the machine,” Mr. Rancatore said. “Another generation of M.I.T. engineers just tuned it up this summer.”

In metropolitan Boston, including Cambridge, home of Harvard and M.I.T., and the technology corridor out on Route 128, the story is amusing, but not particularly surprising. At least since the early 1700s, when its cutting-edge physicians first offered smallpox inoculations, Boston has been a leader in sciences both theoretical and applied. Today, it’s still a town for science lovers, and the mood can be either serious or playful. If you’re the kind of person whose idea of fun is probing the structure of DNA or designing a faster toy bobsled, Boston is an inspiring place to spend a few days.

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What Gilsdorf couldn’t fit into his science theme but is big news from just a few doors down on Main Street is the long-awaited opening of Craigie on Main. This restaurant is both new and old—a revamped and relocated version of the famed Craigie Street Bistro formerly of Harvard Square.

For me and many of my foodie friends, the Craigie Street Bistro has been a site for devotional dining (because there is, after all, a palatable solemnity and religious ecstasy associated with this activity when done right.) This slightly out of the way, slightly cramped, basement bistro served up some of the best meals we’ve ever had.

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Award winning chef Tony Maws is a gifted culinarist and food visionary, and he brings a religious fanaticism to his commitment to only use biodynamically raised foods, in their season, raised locally. Night after night Maws adjusts his menu based on the availability of the best ingredients. Whether it is the to die for trois foie pate, eggs on cocotte, octopus a la poelle or his sweetened grits dessert (sounds a bit off kilter but you can’t believe how delicious it is), this is food like no where else. And you have to love a chef who has his wife AND his mother on the staff.

The time eventually came for the Craigie Streeters to leave the too tiny kitchen and subterranean dining space for a space that can give the cooking and the eating the room they both deserve. It’s a scary and fragile thing, moving an operation both up and out—to street level and into a much larger space. But perfectionism has its rewards. We had our first meal at the new Craigie on Main last week and it was fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. Built around a large, open kitchen, the new restaurant feels scaled to spend the entire night amid the warmth, the bustle and the smells. The staff is, as they have always been, cheerful and welcoming. They even remembered that our family prefers olive oil with our bread. Wow.

While the food is THE thing, there is more to creating dining magic than just a feast of exquisite tastes. When Ruth Reichl was the New York Times food critic, she dressed up as several different characters so she would not be recognized at the restaurants she was reviewing. She has written about how her experience of the meal was colored significantly by how she was treated by the wait staff. When she showed up as the flirtatious blond bombshell, complete with big wig and fake fingernails, her dining experience was significantly better than when she was the mousy, middle-aged Midwesterner.

Mastery of food and context, now that’s something special. And my guess is that at Craigie on Main, you’ll be treated swell no matter who you come as—blond bombshell, mousy matron or MIT superconductor engineer. It’s that kind of a place.

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Thirty years ago today more than 900 people died Jonestown, a settlement in the jungle of Guyana. Often called a “massacre,” the victims in Jonestown participated in their communal demise willingly. They had practiced dry runs of this mass suicide several times before they did it for real on November 18, 1978.

The Jonestown community consisted primarily of people from the San Francisco Bay Area. Originally called the People’s Temple, the church was founded by James Warren Jones, a man who had no official theological training. He based his ministry on a blend of religion, socialist philosophy and bucket loads of fear, isolation and blind obedience.

Jones was a powerful presence, and his flock grew rapidly in the early 1970s. When mounting negative press and a pending IRS investigation threatened his unquestioned hegemony, he decided to move his congregation far from American jurisdiction. He bought a tract of land in Guyana and then in 1977, the community began a mass relocation to South America to live on an agricultural collective and practice their communal principles.

Responding to the concerns from many of his constituents about what was going on in Jonestown, California Congressman Leo Ryan flew down to the Guyana settlement in November 1978. After one of Jones’ followers tried to kill him his first day in Jonestown, Ryan decided to return to the U.S. immediately, bringing some Jonestown residents who wanted to leave with him. As the group boarded their plane, guards sent by Jones opened fire on them, killing Ryan and four others.

When Jones learned that some members of Ryan’s party had escaped alive, he told his followers that Ryan’s murder would make it impossible for their commune to continue functioning. Rather than return to the United States, they could preserve their church by making the ultimate sacrifice and offer up their own lives. Jones’s 912 followers were given a deadly concoction of Kool-aid mixed with cyanide, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Jones apparently shot himself in the head.

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Georgia Mae Catney (1917-1978)

Georgia Mae Catney moved to California from Arkansas when she was a young woman and found work as a domestic. She came into my family’s life when I was a small child, and she quickly became a steady and loved member of our extended family.

Georgia Mae was a Clydesdale. She was very strong physically and a tireless worker. My mother, also raised on a farm in rural America, shared her “work, don’t whine” approach to life. The two of them were a formidable team, working side by side to whip our house and the 7 resident children into shape every week. We learned early on that crossing Georgia Mae wasn’t a good idea. Her mother used to punish her by making her kneel on beans, and she could do much worse by you without a second thought. We got that, and all of us had a quiet respect for her tough, take no prisoners approach to childrearing.

Her good for nothing husband (by her reports) had left her some time before, so as a woman on her own she was frugal and cautious about money. And even though she could neither read nor write, she quoted the Bible constantly. Raised in a strict southern Christian tradition, she loved to talk about Jesus. When I was still a teenager, she took me with her to her local church. The crowded meeting hall was full of singing, swaying, exhuberant devotion, a far cry from the understated Christian tradition of my family. She joined the others in singing out her deep love of Jesus, thanking him for saving her.

I moved to New York City in the early 70s so I only saw Georgia Mae occasionally during my visits home. Sometime after I left California, my mother mentioned that Georgia Mae had joined a new church and was very excited about the minister. My mother also noticed that all the checks she wrote to Georgia Mae were now being endorsed directly to the People’s Temple, something that she found peculiar but did not raise as a question with Georgia Mae.

In August of 1977 with no prior warning, Georgia Mae announced to my mother that she was leaving California for good. Surprised and saddened by this news, my mother couldn’t get much information out of her about why she was moving away or where she was going. Georgia Mae’s only response was that her minister had told her that because she was black, it was not safe for her to stay in America. He was creating a place where she and her friends would be safe from harm.

When her name showed up on the list of Jonestown dead, everyone in my family was deeply grieved. As hard an outside shell as she appeared to have, there was a purity and innocence in her that made her terribly vulnerable. Her sad end still haunts me. On this, the 30th anniversary of that horrific day, I stop to take a moment to remember and honor her life.

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