october 2000

In case you haven't been paying attention, Modest Mouse is the best band in America right now. I would say the world, but Radiohead have thrown down the gauntlet with "Kid A" and I don't see anyone ready to challenge them yet. But Modest Mouse come close. They are better than the Pixies—and for those of you who think that's sacreligious, I would have agreed until I heard Modest Mouse for myself. If you're going to check them out, start with either "The Moon and Antarctica", their latest disc, or "Building Nothing Out of Something", a recently released collection of out-of-print singles and EPs. After these two, move on to "The Lonesome Crowded West" and then finally "This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About". They are all good, but some of them take longer to understand than others. Or maybe I'm just slow.

Their live show is amazing, too. I saw them in Baltimore on 9.26.00, the first concert I have been to in many years. Early in their career they had a rep for showing up drunk and playing half-assed shows, but that was mainly in their semi-hometown of Seattle, where they played almost every weekend. Since they have gained national attention and started doing serious tours, they have really disciplined themselves and are currently one of the best touring acts around. So, go see them, or go buy their records, or whatever. But make them a part of your life.

I have a friend named Sam who is in Africa now. Specifically, he is in Malawi, a very small country whose main attraction is a large freshwater lake: Lake Malawi. He went there to be with his girlfriend Miranda who has a 2 1/2 year Peace Corps commitment, of which she has only completed 1 year. Sam was a graphic designer when he was here, and I worked with him a two different companies. He is also a musician; his band released their first CD (almost entirely written, produced, engineered, and mixed by Sam, who is also the guitar player) a few months before he decided to go to Africa. Now he is hoping to teach music and computers at a school over there, which will compensate him by giving him a house with hot running water and electricity. That is actually a pretty big deal.

I have other friends who have gone to Africa in the past. Svati, my prom date, went to Tanzania one summer and brought me back an elephant carved out of soapstone. Regan, one of my best friends (named for the Shakespeare character from "King Lear", not the vomit-spewing devilchild from "The Exorcist", although Shakespeare devotees might argue that the difference is negligible) spent a while there as part of one of her friend's research projects. I can't remember if she went for a year or just six months; she used to travel often and impulsively, so that I would call her at home one month and she would be planning what classes to take next semester, etc., and the next month I would get a postcard that she was in South America somewhere and would be out of the country for while. This used to trouble me, because she means a lot to me and I didn't like not being able to contact her.

Anyway, Regan told me that when she was in Africa, her dreams became ultravivid; sometimes it scared her how real they were. I'm interested to see what Sam's dreams will be like, because his dreams were often prescient; he would dream of things before they happened, or dream of places before he had gone with sometimes astonishing accuracy. I'm curious to see if this effect will somehow be amplified by Africa, given Regan's experiences there. He is not a letter writer (neither am I anymore, thanks to email), but he will be able to exchange email with me once or twice a month, and he's going to occasionally send me CD-ROMs with video and pictures that he has taken of his experiences.

A really good book is Jamaica Kincaid's "My Garden (Book)", which my friend Regan showed me passages from when I went to visit her in May. I bought it a couple of weeks after I got back, and fell in love with the writing. Ms. Kincaid writes about gardening in a way that makes me want to be a gardener, although I know in my heart I'm much too impatient for gardening (I'm much better suited to the kitchen, where you can see the results of your work in minutes, not years).

But mostly I like the book because it feels so honest to me. Ms. Kincaid says things about other people in the book that are hardly flattering but seem true, and then you know that they must be true because she's just as hard on herself as she is on others. One of my favorite passages (and probably Regan's, too, since it's one of the ones she pointed out to me) is where Ms. Kincaid is describing a trip she took to China with several other gardeners and botanists. There was one man that no one got along with very well, and he left the trip about halfway through to see some things that he alone wanted to see. When he left, one of the other travellers said to her, "Now that Bob [or whatever his name was—I forget] is gone, who do think is the asshole?" And Ms. Kincaid answered sincerely, "Well, that would probably be me."

Mind you, this isn't a standard garden book, filled with tips and techniques to make your garden better; you shouldn't even think about it from that perspective. This is more of an autobiography/history lesson/personal narrative all filtered through the lens of Ms. Kincaid's relationship with her garden. I love this book because it's obvious that Ms. Kincaid loves her garden, and that she loves this book, despite both endeavors' technical flaws. They are a part of her, and through them she is able to uniquely express something very genuine about herself.

I'm going to talk like a robot.
I'm talking like a robot.
I'm a robot.

Watching the post-debate reactions of the various media-gathered clusters of undecided voters that have become such a popular part of this year's election coverage, it was pretty clear to me that most of them had, in fact, already decided who they were voting for, they were just pretending to waffle so they could get on the panel and say good things about the candidate they supported. Either that, or both choices just suck so much that even though you already know which party you're going to vote with, you're somehow hoping that a new candidate for that party will miraculously appear and justify your decision.

Most telling were the issues cited for why these supposedly undecided voters had now made up their minds: one man cited personal integrity (a conservative buzzword for "I didn't have anything to do with Clinton") and 2nd amendment rights, meaning guns. I knew as soon as he said those words that he was for Bush. Another lady said she was for the environment and a woman's right to choose. Again, it was pretty clear that she was going to support Gore regardless of the outcome of these debates.

Anyone who claims to be undecided at this point has only themselves to blame; there is a wealth of information about both of these candidates' records and their proposals available from a variety of media sources, as well as the candidates' own websites. The only reason that you could not know who you're voting for is because you don't know what you believe in or what you want from a president—or you've just been too lazy to do the research. So just make up your minds already.

Related election rant: it's really irritating to me when I find out that people aren't going to vote. Why not? Do you like others making your decisions for you? One of my coworkers refuses to vote because he "doesn't like to be involved with government things". Do you pay taxes? Does your child attend public school? Do you plan to retire someday? The answers to all of these questions are "Yes", so you're already involved with the government because it's the government that spends your taxes, controls how schools are run, and decides who gets how much in Social Security retirement benefits. And these are just a few of the issues.

My brother is a Public Policy major at Duke University who is not planning on voting. That's right, he's in the Public Policy school and he's not voting in this election. He wants to go to law school and he even talked about getting into politics at some point. But he's not going to vote. This is just bewildering to me, the same as when I found out that Dick Cheney hasn't voted in the last several presidential elections. Is it really that tedious to participate in the electoral process with the rest of us? Certainly you don't trust us to make that decision for you, right? So what's the deal then?

Believe me, I know America's not perfect, and the conspiracy theorists among you (who I side with more often than most people find comfortable, or even funny) would argue that we're not really choosing anyway, that the two candidates are almost identical and that the corporations don't really care who wins since they have both candidates in their pockets already. Even if this is true (and it is, in some measure), it's still not going to kill you to look at the candidates, make a decision based on what you believe in, and show up at the polling place for five minutes to vote.

One of my favorite paintings is "The Tower of Babel", by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (his son was also a painter of some renown). I have a fairly large reproduction of it hanging on my wall in front of me at work. I don't know much about the artist—even the two or three biographies available on the web don't go into much detail about the individual, and they even have contradictory theories.

I'm not sure why I like this painting so much. I know that my obsession began when it was used by Paul Auster in his first novel, "Squeeze Play", which he wrote under the pseudonym Paul Benjamin. At the time that I found out about this book, I was studying for six months in England, planning to return to America for my senior year of college and write a dissertation on Auster's "New York Trilogy". Most Auster fans were aware that he had written a pulp detective novel under a pseudonym, but since he refused to divulge its title, it remained unread by most of those who would have been most interested in reading it. My thesis advisor, Dr. Gail Gibson, found out through her many and mysterious sources (she had connections at both Princeton, where Auster was teaching that year, and Auster's publishing company) that the name of the book was "Squeeze Play", and that it had been written under the pseudonym of Paul Benjamin (Benjamin is the name of Auster's oldest son). Luckily, the book was still in print in England, and I was able to go and purchase a copy from a local bookstore the same day that I received Gail's letter.

I devoured it, loving it mostly because I loved everything of Auster's then, and because it did hint at many of the themes that were to drive his first few novels, including "The New York Trilogy" books that I was going to write about in my thesis. One of the few details I remember from it now (I haven't read it in years) was that the protagonist had a reproduction of "The Tower of Babel" that he'd gotten from a local bookstore (I can't remember if it was part of a display or part of a giveaway for buying books, but I seem to remember that it was by one of those two means that he acquired it). The idea of the Tower of Babel featured fairly prominently in the structure of "The New York Trilogy", particularly in "City of Glass", the first book in the trilogy, so I was pretty excited to find a reference to a painting whose subject was the Tower in Auster's first novel (he had written primarily poetry and essays up until then, with a few ventures into interviews, book reviews, and even movie scripts).

So I went to the library to find a reproduction of this painting, just so that I could have something a little firmer in my mind to connect with when reading about the painting in the book. I did eventually find a small reproduction in black and white, which didn't really do it justice, since it's the little details that really pull you in and let you discover something new in the painting each time you look at it. But at least I had the basic idea: the shape of the Tower, it's dominance of the landscape, and the scale.

The school system in England for higher education is, to me, weird. They have two semesters like most American schools, but that's about where the similarities end. They essentially take one class at a time, focusing on a subject for around 8 weeks and meeting in various class formats (lecture, 2 or 3 person discussion groups, 8-10 person seminars) 3 or 4 days a week. Each semester they take two of these 8 week classes, with a fairly long holiday in between. The net result is that you get to immerse yourself in a subject for a couple of months with few other academic distractions. And for someone used to a much heavier workload, it meant that I finished all of my reading and writing for each course within the first two weeks, leaving me lots of time to read other books, go into town and wander around, or feed the many and various species of waterfowl that had made the university campus their home.

It also meant that I had to find something to do with yourself for the midterm holiday, which in my case lasted five weeks, starting at the beginning of March. The obvious thing to do was to go to the European mainland and visit some of the countries there, which is exactly what my future wife and I did. We started in Paris, moved down to the French Riviera, and then to Florence, Pisa, and Venice. After Venice we went to stay for a couple of days with Pablo (his real name was Paul, but I had met him through Regan when I went to visit her at Dartmouth. Her name for him was Pablo, and that's all I knew him as), who was doing postdoctoral work in physics in Trieste, in the very northern part of Italy. It was very beautiful and very serene, and I don't remember much else about it except the large palace where someone important had once lived and hiking in the hills above the city.

Our next stop after Trieste was Vienna, which was significant to me because that is where Regan had spent a year taking a break from school doing au pair work. She had written me many letters describing the city, and most of what I was interested in seeing were things that she had loved while she was there. Pablo came with us, which was very cool because he could speak German and he also knew the city decently well. He took us to a tiny restaurant one night where they had wine (great wine) that you could only buy in Vienna; the local vineyards sold it only to Viennese establishments; it was never bottled and sold elsewhere. He also took us to some of the cooler museums that we otherwise might have missed (at that point we were thoroughly sick of our travel books, which often contained outdated information or raved about things that we didn't think were all that great. For example, they went on and on about the Matisse museum in Nice, which was closed for renovations, but didn't mention the Chagall museum at all, which I fell completely in love with).

It was in one of these museums that Pablo took us to in Vienna that I encountered Brueghel's "Tower of Babel" again. It was in a smallish room, and I remember the canvas was smaller than I thought it would be given the size of the subject it was trying to depict. It took me by surprise; when I first looked at it, it took a few seconds before my brain caught up with my eyes and realized what exactly I was looking at. I could have stared at it for hours. So many details. Some of the biographies mention that Brueghel is an offshoot of the Dutch painters (such as Jan Van Eyck) who prized detail and realism; they were rumored to paint some of the more detailed elements of their compositions with brushes that were made up of but a single horsehair. In art history class I remember being fascinated with these painters, even though it is usually the more emotionally expressive painters who speak to me (Van Gogh, O'Keeffe, Klimt, Chagall). I loved looking for all of the hidden scenes, the minuscule details that were far more compelling to me than the overall composition of the piece.

Even though the influence of the Dutch painters was evident, that wasn't what really makes me love this painting. I do enjoy the details, but it's the way that the Tower dominates the scene, I think, that really differentiates it from other paintings in that style. That's what I am thinking about when I look at it now: who are these people who live in the shadow of this great tower, who presumably are the builders of this tower? How long have they been building it? How much higher can it grow?

I also think about the people who would have been viewing this painting at the time it was created, how the Tower must have looked like an unbuildable monstrosity to them, almost fanciful in its impossible size. If it were built today, I'm sure that we would still be impressed by it, but impressed in the same that we're impressed with any other piece of oversized architecture; it would no longer seem the deity-defying work of insanely large dimensions that it must have seemed to contemporaries.

So, I don't know why exactly I love this painting so much. I have a lot of memories tied up with it, but I think that I would love it even without those, love it for the composition and the details and the way the paint was applied to the canvas. I don't know why I love most of the things I love. I just know that I do.

If I was ever to become ridiculously rich, one of the things I think I would do is buy a house with a ton of land around it and populate it with my favorite species of domesticated birds: greylag geese, ravens, and peacocks.

I fell in love with the idea of peacocks after reading Flannery O'Connor's book of letters, "The Habit of Being". Flannery was diagnosed with Lupus in her mid-20's, the same disease that had killed her father. Although she learned to live with it for the most part, it severely restricted her ability to do physical activity and even to maintain the mental focus that it took to write. She could only write fiction for 3 or 4 hours a day, and since there wasn't much else to do at the dairy farm where she lived with her mother, she would spend the rest of her time writing letters and raising various species of fowl, including her favorites, peacocks. She wrote about them often in her letters, and as you grew to love the woman who was writing those letters, you also grew to love the things that she loved, especially her peacocks.

The first actual experience I had with peacocks was when I was studying abroad in England. I was at the University of York, in northern England (about an hour from the Scottish border). In the city of York, they had several remnants from medieval times, including the old wall that used to surround the city, a couple of castles, the York Minster (an enormous gothic cathedral), and the ruins of an abbey that had been dismantled by Henry VIII. The park that these ruins stood in was inhabited by a flock of about 20 peacocks, along with your standard squirrels and pigeons. You can hear peacocks from about half a mile away; if you've never heard a peacock's call, it is fairly unnerving—a bloodcurdling screech repeated over and over. This particular park was frequented by tourists, so the birds generally stayed in the parts of the abbey where people weren't allowed to go, but every now and again they would deign to descend from their perches and mingle with the masses in exchange for a few breadcrumbs.

It was also during my stay in York that I began to develop affection for ravens and greylags. The campus of the University of York is fairly large, and has several smaller ponds as well as a decent sized lake which serves as the heart of the campus around which most of the important departmental buildings are arrayed. These lakes are home to several species of waterfowl, including coots, Canadian geese, swans, mallards, and greylag geese. The greylags were by far the most populous and pushy of all the birds; there were several flocks of 12-20 individuals who roamed the campus freely. There was just something about them that I liked; the imperious look in their eyes, the disdain for the other species of birds, the haughty arrogance with which they would approach you when they thought you might have something they could eat. I spent enough time outdoors that I began to recognize many of the distinct individuals in each flock, their personalities, their places within the flock hierarchy.

The first ravens that I thought were really cool were the ones at the Tower of London. Long ago they used to use the ravens as watchdogs; they were trained and cared for by one individual, the Ravenmaster. They were trained to attack all other humans, which they are actually better at than you would think. They are smart, especially for birds, and they can be both tricky and mean. There was one that I saw in a zoo in Innsbruck, Austria, who would take a stick and poke it through the bars of his cage when people were standing nearby. Most people thought he wanted to play, but when they would bend down to face him and take the other end of the stick, he would quickly pull the stick back and then peck them with his beak. Their beaks are large and sharp, and I can easily see a small flock of them causing a great deal of damage to a person if they wanted to.

My long-term love of peacocks was cemented during the two years that I lived in Keswick, VA, outside of Charlottesville. We lived on a non-working farm, in one of four residences. There was the main house (an old mansion that needed a lot of work but still had an elemental grace and charm), a small cottage behind the main house where another couple of renters lived, and a barn that had its top floor converted into living space where the mother of the owner of the property resided. We lived in another small house (1 BR, 1 bath, small kitchen, study, and living room) that was off to the side a little, right next to the field where the donkey and the horse lived. There was also a small herd of llamas, about 15 females and children and two adult males who had to be kept separated from the females. And some peacocks, about 3 or 4 each of males and females (technically, only the males are known as peacocks; the females are peahens and the generic birds are referred to as peafowl, but I use peacocks because that's what most people understand).

Peacocks return to the same location to roost every night; I learned from Flannery that when you move them to a new location, you must encourage them to roost in a tree their first night or else they will end up just sleeping on the ground, where they are easy prey for predators. The peacocks in Keswick slept in a large old tree next to the main house, which they got to by way of an awkward flight to the roof of the cottage and then a jump from there to the branches of the tree (peacocks have the ability to fly a short distance; I have seen them fly up to the top of a tree that is about 50 feet tall without a problem). As I mentioned earlier, peacocks scream bloody murder when they are startled, which happens fairly frequently, even at night. It was not at all uncommon to wake up at three in the morning to all of the males shrieking in unison at some perceived danger. You never got used to it. After a couple of months I would sleep right through the trainwhistle (there were tracks that ran right behind the farm, less than two hundred yards from our house), but the peacocks always woke me up.

Still, they are gorgeous birds, and I love them. I think that you would have to live out in the country at least half a mile from your closest neighbor if you wanted to have these animals, because I don't think that someone who didn't adore them would tolerate their screeches for very long.

Christopher Walken is one strange man.
december 2000
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october 2000

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