Saturday, July 31, 2010

Woody in Barcelona

Until yesterday, it must have been years that I hadn’t seen a Woody Allen movie, and probably would have been longer had I noticed his name on the DVD box I picked up at the library. Hard to remember now which one it was that finally turned me off Woody Allen movies. If I recall accurately, it was a string of ‘written by-directed by’ Woody Allen pictures made in the 1990s, full of his familiar Jewish angst and paranoia, and the overly nervous tics that define his type of New Yorker—It was these things that ultimately drove me away.


Without giving it much thought I checked out from the library a movie on DVD of something called Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Never occurred to me that it was a movie written and directed by Woody Allen and I was completely surprised when his name popped up on the opening credits. For a moment there I worried that I might not last through ninety minutes of Mr Allen’s mannerisms and directorial trademarks. Thank goodness he kept himself out of the acting this time. The only hint of his usual tricks in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the occasional scene in which the actors talk over each other in quick improvisational-like dialogue. This time he wisely kept it to a minimum. Perhaps he realized with the actors he had that noisy, naturalistic chatter-acting was unnecessary. Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall and Patricia Clarkson are each special and wonderful in this romantic comedy with complications.


My point is actually not to review the film, or tell the story, but more to applaud Mr Allen for his choice of music. After seeing the movie I went straight to Borders for a soundtrack CD. Since the entire picture is set in Barcelona, the obvious choice was a background of Spanish music. In the soundtrack liner notes Mr Allen writes, ‘I nosed around and picked up a few stray items here and there and by compiling the tunes of a few known players and composers with the tunes of relative unknowns, found myself with one of the most lovely scores in all of my films.’ I might agree with this last statement, and add that while his movies have often had components I didn’t care for, the music in any Woody Allen film I’ve ever seen has always been the strongpoint.


Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a delight, and definitely a memorable work among the long list of Woody Allen films. If nothing else, get your hands on the soundtrack. It’s one I predict you’ll want to play again and again.


Friday, July 30, 2010

Anoche cuando dormía

It often happens that when we least expect it, the day brings if not a revelation, then some incident, some words or thoughts that stick with us, provoking us to think on a deeper level—which then sends us back to replay or read again those words whose first contact scorched us with their heat.


Antonio Machado (1875-1939) was born in Seville and is acknowledged as Spain’s finest poet of the early twentieth century. I have a collection of Machado’s poems, and a second collection of different poets which includes one of his poems, one titled, “Last Night as I was Sleeping.” This is a poem which stung me with its power, not to mention the fine translation from the original Spanish by Robert Bly.


LAST NIGHT AS I WAS SLEEPING


Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a spring was breaking

out in my heart.

I said: Along which secret aqueduct,

Oh water, are you coming to me,

water of a new life

that I have never drunk?


Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that I had a beehive

here inside my heart.

And the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

from my old failures.


Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a fiery sun was giving

light inside my heart.

It was fiery because I felt

warmth as from a hearth,

and sun because it gave light

and brought tears to my eyes.


Last night as I slept,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that it was God I had

here inside my heart.


The emotion is similar to a mystic’s ecstatic experience. Machado discovers three delights in his heart, which seem to expand his being with a joy that fills everything. Notice the phrases, ‘breaking out’ and ‘secret aqueduct’ and ‘water of new life.’ These are all familiar to mystical ecstasy. He discovers a liquid that warms the heart, filling him with a new sense of life. Water from this spring that fills his heart has a sweetness that is later reflected in the sweet honey of golden bees that transforms all failure into triumph. There is next a light and warmth that seeps into his body, a fiery sun. Easy to imagine that with these discoveries coursing through his heart, he imagines it is God finding space there. Look closely and you will see that it resonates with the first line of Matthew 5:14, ‘Ye are the light of the world…’


The second line of the poem includes a key phrase that can be troublesome in going from Spanish to English. The original line in Spanish reads, bendita ilusión, and is translated by Bly as ‘marvelous error.’ On first reading this can be confusing. Another translation by Alan S Trueblood treats the line as ‘blessed illusion.’ Bly’s 'marvelous error’ is I think, meant to exclaim something like, ‘Can this really be happening?’ which avoids the use of ‘illusion,’ a word carrying the aura of 'self-deception’ or ‘fantasy.’ My guess is, the Spanish ‘ilusión’ is not synonymous with the English ‘illusion.’ I like to think the meaning is in a clumsy fashion something like, ‘I dreamt—or could it be real!—’


“Last Night as I was Sleeping” was written in 1903. It is translated and recited by American poet, Robert Bly. The film below is by Four Seasons Productions.


The two collections of poetry mentioned above are here and here.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tea Time

Looking at one of my bookmarked websites a couple of years back, I saw this inviting description of a particular time in the workday…

‘Here at the nib works around three thirty each afternoon, we set aside all the focus and diligence required to outfit or restore pens and nibs. The sound of the tea kettle announces a time to slow down, and once the tea has brewed, we settle into conversation, discussing everything from books to politics, movies, friendship. Tea Time is the opposite of coffee time, it is the time to take time, not to regret its passing. The Tea Time fountain pen is an ideal pen with which to slow down, to allow thoughts to steep. A steaming cup of tea, a piece of good paper, your favorite ink and who knows what good ideas will flow from your hand.’


It felt almost as though the writer of these lines had me in mind while composing an effective introduction and stirring interest in a new fountain pen. The pen being introduced was a collaborative effort by Bexley Pens and Classic Fountain Pens, Inc of Los Angeles, a limited edition model named the Tea Time Limited Edition 2008.


The idea behind the design harkened back to the look of the 1920s and 30s, namely simple, clean lines in a hefty size. Bexley and CFP together settled on an odd number of pens produced, fifty-one of them with gold trim, twenty-nine with silver trim. Both models have a barrel of terracotta red, with black tip and cap. Apart from the trim, the pens are the same.


Interaction with, and feedback from customers led CFP to ask Bexley to give the pen a thick gripping section, and the result is a large grip 11.9 mm in diameter. The pen weighs 21.8 grams and is 5.17 inches long closed, and 6.69 inches posted. You might have seen another Bexley, the Poseidon with these same measurements.


Each pen is engraved with ‘Classic Fountain Pens 2008 Tea Time 09/29’ (the 09/29 is the number on my own pen). CFP offered the full range of Bexley nibs with this design, including fine, medium, broad and stub.


On what is a less than positive note, I have never felt completely satisfied with either nib (broad) or converter, both of which John Mottishaw at CFP would likely be happy to adjust, I’m sure. The broad nib writes dry with one ink and wet with another. The feeling is that this nib is especially sensitive to ink and reacts differently depending on the ink. We expect this in some degree in some of our pens, but there’s too much of it in my Bexley Tea Time 2008.


The converter that came with my pen is defective. It doesn’t take a firm bite or grip on the injection valve above the nib, and this makes drawing ink up into the converter troublesome. I usually opt for filling the converter manually with a small syringe.


But the pen is a good-looking one, and feels comfortable in the hand. I do enjoy using it from time to time, and always enjoy looking at it on a table, or laying atop a book. If I had it to do over, I would choose a medium nib. Bexley and CFP have collaborated on subsequent limited edition designs since release of the now sold out Tea Time, each bearing strong resemblance to their initial 2008 release. You might want to take a look at the White Tea, the Green Tea and Mandarin Tea designs, all on view at the CFP website link above.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Finger Food

In a dark room, “human” body parts lay stacked on shelves and hang from meat hooks. First thought is that you’ve stumbled into the lair of a serial killer, but in fact, it’s a bakery. What looks very much like rotting body parts are actually the bread sculptures of 28 year-old Thai art student, Kittiwat Unarrom. The artist-baker studied fine arts, mastered painting, sculpture and other media, then went back to his family roots finding fame and a true passion for his artwork. He uses dough as his medium, and has made a name for himself with edible baked goods molded to look like bloody body parts, including heads, arms, feet and legs. Realistic is an understatement. Kittiwat’s creations are so lifelike they look like something that might have been nicked from a crime scene or a forensics lab. To achieve a horribly authentic aesthetic of dismembered human body parts covered in blood, and packaged like meats in a supermarket, Kittiwat spent time studying anatomy and visiting forensic museums while working at the same time in his bakery to improve the taste of his artwork.


In 2008, Kittiwat baked fresh heads for the audience to eat at his Body and the Dead exhibition. One visitor to the exhibition said the tiny heads smelled and tasted fantastic, though it was a slightly uncomfortable sensation if you looked into the eyes before biting into the head. “The first series I did was edible, but not delicious. I don’t want my art to be merely an object of art without audience involvement. I try hard to make the baked art more and more flavorful,” says Kittiwat. Along with edible human heads crafted from dough, chocolate, raisins and cashews, Kittiwat makes human arms, feet, as well as chicken and pig parts. In creating realistic art of human parts, Kittiwat uses anatomy books and his vivid memories of visiting a forensics museum.


“My family is in the bakery business and I learned to bake when I was about ten. I want to speak out about my religious beliefs and dough can say it all. Baking human parts can show the viewer how transient bread and life are. But really, bread is still bread no matter how it looks.”


“I don’t think art should exist only in galleries or museums. I want to see my art in other venues. Every day when I bake, ideas come to me on how to use dough to make art. My next pieces will not be related to the human body as I want to do something different.”

No doubt the YouTube clip below was a special showing arranged to film his work, but interested bread and art connoisseurs should not bother making the trip to Ratchaburi, north of Bangkok to buy a freshly baked severed head. The family bakery produces only ordinary bread.


Curious about this art-bread? If you happen to be in Bangkok for the next week or so, you can check out a retrospective of Kittiwat’s 2008 Body and the Dead exhibition at Bangkok’s Whitespace Gallery, scheduled to run through August 8.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Exacompta Journal

Back in May, when I got a bottle of J Herbin 1670 Anniversaire ink from WritersBloc, I also got one of the Exacompta Club Leatherette journals, the ones that come in nine different colors, each an unusual and eye-catching shade. In writing a review of the Herbin ink, I mentioned the journal and promised to write more about it after having the time to give it a good trial, a good testing. Not really fair to say a whole lot about a journal before having the occasion to see how it reacts to, or interacts with your pens, inks and personal style of journal keeping.


The Exacompta journal measures 5x7 inches, with 192 pages of premium Clairefontaine 64 gr paper. Many of us are already familiar with Clairefontaine paper, but let me quote from the insert that came with the journal: ‘…the best paper in the world for writing. Our paper is chlorine-free. A gift of nature, a mineral called calcium carbonate, gives Clairefontaine paper its famous qualities of extra white paper and ultra smooth…We manufacture our own paper from sustainable forests with minimal environmental impact.’ I am unable to say much about calcium carbonate and sustainable forests, but the whiteness and smoothness are unmistakeable and make an immediate impression. I chose the mandarin orange leatherette cover, but the choice was not easy with the impressive collection of colors to choose from. While Exacompta and Clairefontaine are both French, these journals are labeled ‘Made in the USA’ and interesting to me, the leatherette cover has a large sticker inside saying, ‘Made in Poland.’


I mentioned back in May that the journal is a wee bit smaller than the A5 (5.8 x 8.3 inches) size I prefer. That doesn’t seem like a big difference from the non-standard 5x7 inches of the Exacompta, but the difference is immediately noticeable to one accustomed to the larger A5 standard. Unluckily for me, the Exacompta size will weigh heavily when time comes for a refill. But I realize the size issue may not be as critical to other journal keepers, and this is the only point I can find to grumble about.


The paper is everything and more that Exacompta says about it. Looking at the bottom photo showing the open journal, some might see smeared, sloppy pages, but that’s just my style of writing in a journal—usually smeared, crossed-out, tilted, stamped and multi-colored. For those who like neater pages, the Exacompta will serve beautifully.


A product I can happily give high marks to. Check it out at WritersBloc.

Monday, July 26, 2010

340 (3)

FINAL PART OF A SHORT STORY BEGUN ON SATURDAY, JULY 24.


I slipped the key in the front door, not sure what to expect. The last family renting the place had left three months earlier without giving any word of their move. Polite but vague over the long distance of telephone calls, the middle-aged housewife, used to say, “You gon’ get that rent check ’fore you know it, Miz Lillian. Don’t you worry none.” Her husband was a carpenter and was happy to fix things around the house whenever we paid for the materials.

Behind the front door was a still and lonely diorama of household deterioration. A living room smelling of dust, a room where countless Christmas presents once spilled their bounty, where I wrestled with dogs, and where on late nights my sisters made out with boyfriends in the dark. A floor that used to creak when a delinquent son came sneaking in after too much rum and Coca Cola at Sammy’s Lounge. But those presents, that dog, the creaking floor happened in another room. Couldn’t be this room that now stung my eyes with its show of dirt and neglect. A rancid hole of four walls scattered with the scrap, the trash of nameless temporary lives. Several bent and tarnished forks and spoons, a tilted chair without legs enough to stand, a half-melted toy robot, an old plate grubby brown with petrified spaghetti, the metal grit of old screws and rusted nails. Over the scarred mantelpiece an empty frame hung lopsided.

Slowly from room to room, finding hardly more than garbage and shattered toilets. I lingered for ten minutes in my old room, running my finger over still legible pencil scratches on the wall. On some sweet with memory night long ago I lay on the cowboy patterned bedspread keeping count on the wall the number of times WLXK played an Elvis or Fats Domino record. The bedspread was brown and red and smelled like my Sabre, a dog I adored and who spent most nights on that bed.

“Wilmore, did you know that Mama threatened one time to burn this old house down?” Lillian stood in the door behind me.

“Didn’t know that. She should of.”

“Lemme show you something.” Lillian pulled on my sleeve turning me back to what had once been a bedroom, then later a dining room of sorts.

Faint, but still visible under several coats of dull paint, were six or seven scratches in the doorframe between kitchen and dining room. The lowest was at about knee level, and above that other scratches an inch or two higher, rising to something like three and a half feet. Lillian rubbed a finger over the marks.

“That first mark there low down is thirty-three inches off the floor. You were three years old. I remember mama standing right there at the stove frying okra, saying to me, ‘How tall is that baby brother now?’ This one at the top was the year you started school…can’t remember how tall you were then…What does that look like, about three and a half feet?”

“I don’t remember much of this here, but I’ll tell what I do remember from around that time. Can’t recall the details, but I do remember me running after you with a worm I found in Daddy’s garden. You were screaming and running, trying to keep a row of tomatoes between you and that long ol’ worm.”

“Oh, Wilmore! You did that to me so many times I got to where I was afraid to go out in the garden when you were in the back yard. I get the shudders just thinking about those nasty worms. Don’t you remember how L.T. from over at the shop used to come and ask Daddy for some worms outta his garden? Wanted to go fishing?”

“Yeah, I remember that,” I said, rubbing my own finger over those doorframe scratches. It was a small light in my memory, one that flared like a falling star, then disappeared. Lillian on the other hand had all the stories of my young childhood. It was she who spent part of each day looking after me, pulling me away from the shop trucks, picking me up when I fell off the bouncing red rocking horse. It was she who spanked me for licking all the glue off a roll of stamps, who cooked half the suppers I ate.

Most afternoons, when Mama and Daddy went off to the golf course I was left in Lillian’s care, an arrangement that continued for four or five years, until I was old enough to play in the shallow end of the golf course pool, and Lillian was old enough to have eyes for Glen Earl, the boy she eventually married.

Stepping over a rusted toaster at her feet, Lillian shook her head, saying, “Come on. Let’s get out of here. This place is depressin’ me.”

“Give me a couple of minutes to crawl up in the attic and see if there’s anything up there Annice Loyd left behind.” Something about the place was making Lillian nervous. Maybe it was her impatience with being in a house she had once said good-bye to years ago, never counting on being an eye witness to its uncomfortable demise. I would have stayed there for hours pouring over every surface and pawing through every corner, but I too knew that ultimately it would bring pain.

The attic was an ocean of brittle old cardboard boxes. The unstirred air was fetid and heavy and caught in my nose. A weak ribbon of yellow-gray light shone through a window at the other end of the attic, illuminating the only once-living thing still in this neglected loft, a silver Christmas bulb, still shiny and caught in a swirl of dusty angel’s hair. How long, I wondered, since this forgotten ornament in its dusty corner had been on a tree.

I locked the front door and moved down the front steps but then stopped, went back to the door and with a pocketknife pried loose from the gypsum siding the house numbers 340.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

340 (2)

SHORT STORY CONTINUED—THE THIRD AND FINAL PART WILL BE POSTED TOMORROW.


From the car we got a wide-angle view of the whole neighborhood from Florida Street right through to the end of the double horseshoe and its four streets. Coco Lumber, that childhood castle, was now miles away up in north Baton Rouge, and in its place, instead of the tall weeds I had imagined, lay a muddy checkerboard of staked yellow ribbon marking off foundations for things to come. Not a single house remained on that side of the street, all boxed and striped with muddy yellow lines. Earmarks for development into the new Park Hills, a neat geometry of streets and houses far beyond sight of either park or hills.

The house sat under a muddy sky, tired and beaten, waiting for a wrecker’s ball to end its misery. The sagging roof hid itself under fat brown pine needles thrown down from the overhang of a pine tree Daddy Clyde planted in the backyard some distant summer past, and the three magnolia trees that spread across the shallow front yard stood splayed and awkward on a ground of beer cans, old tires, scattered Styrofoam and patches of worn grass. Tiny smoke-like wisps of memory floated around collapsed porch steps still bearing the chiseled tattoos of my childhood play. In another time I had sat there on solitary afternoons pulling the wings off bees captured in a mayonnaise jar.

Wandering around to the side, layers of flaking paint around the windows held my eyes, and I could practically taste the familiar green enamel. A green that colored much in those days, turning up on everything from yard furniture to Chevrolets. Toward the other end of the yard, the old iron clothesline T-poles were still there, showing rusty traces of that old household paint.

It was hard putting this backyard in place because of the towering pine tree, which was never a part of my growing up. The tree was now the dominant feature in a trashy mix of weeds, rubbish and a sagging tool shed. The Hagen storm fence, was surprisingly erect and still milky silver, still there enclosing the yard in its late 50s protective frame. We lived for years without that fence until suddenly one day it was there, and every day afterward dictated the way in or out.

I remembered the photograph I had seen a few years back, one taken of the scene I was now standing in. Between that time and now the house and yard had passed through a slow motion scene change. The lives of successive inhabitants, like a slow moving brush, had repainted day by day the colors and shapes frozen on that Kodak moment.

Here was the plot of ground that for years had been Daddy Clyde’s vegetable garden. Unlike the features of the old photo, something from those days remained. Slight bumps of what used to be rows of collards and bell peppers corrugated the ground, and feeling those ridges underfoot, my mouth filled once again with the taste of butter beans. I saw the tented poles wrapped in string bean runners, the staked tomatoes and shiny eggplant spotted with the orange and black quiet of sleeping ladybugs. Saw, too, Daddy Clyde lying among those rows on a Saturday morning, expelling his last breath into the dirt he loved, the aged and sweat-stained garden hoe fallen at an angle across his right leg.

While it was still habitable, we hadn’t expected much in renting the old house. It wasn’t a small place, but it was run down. Mainly it was in a neighborhood that had pretty much reached bottom. Over the years we held on because it was our family home and also because the money we could get from selling it would hardly be worth the trouble. For a long time we hoped that the hospital on the other side of Florida Street would one day need the property for expansion. That way we figured to one day get a good price. But it never happened and we got tired of waiting.

And so the house lived on, in a condition that only barely satisfied the insurers and which guaranteed it wouldn’t command much in the way of monthly rent. Any number of renters had come and gone in the last twelve or thirteen years. Up until his death Mr Pate always knew someone looking for a place, and with his help it stayed rented most of the time.


TO BE CONTINUED

Saturday, July 24, 2010

340 (1)

EXCERPT OF A SHORT STORY—THE SECOND PART WILL BE POSTED TOMORROW, THE THIRD AND FINAL PART THE FOLLOWING DAY.


“Rhubarb,” Lillian said, squinting at the blur of highway.

Through the rain streaked window glass a familiar waterway streamed by, stirred muddy brown by the late afternoon downpour. We’d been over ten hours of highway curling out of Florida flatland into Alabama, Dixie and the red clay pine hills of Mississippi on the way to Baton Rouge.

“Rhubarb? Mama never cooked that.”

The last two hours had been mostly rain and interstate monotony, with occasional recollections of the food Mama used to cook, a touchstone from earlier days punctuated by the slap and swish of windshield wipers.

“Burnt bacon,” I said.

We were selling the old family house in Baton Rouge, getting out from under before it fell on someone and dropped us headlong into a low-rent lawsuit. The house on Wabash Avenue was worn out, squatting in a neighborhood now at the bottom of a long slide, where even a lucky sale would bring no sense of financial inheritance. Over long years it had sat facing the lumber yard, turning year by year into a sad headache. We figured on looking it over, recalling a memory or two, walking once more under the giant magnolia trees shading the front yard and then putting it on the market for whatever we could get.

Curiosity as much as practical concerns lay at the heart of this return to Louisiana, all starting with three or four letters from a local redevelopment company asking that we donate our property on Wabash Avenue as a community gesture, as a tax write-off, the first step in a gentrification plan for the neighborhood. We were on our way to take a closer look at the old house and the rebuilding plan.

“Mama got her recipe for buttermilk pie from Flossie.” Lillian said.

“She must have made those after I moved out.” I glanced at Lillian. “She sent those at Christmas or something?”

Thirty years since leaving Louisiana. Blurred memories. Faces and lives from back then a mix of memory and imagination. In the half-light at the heart of my childhood was the old house, falling apart year by year, now being hustled by developers. With its rotten porch steps and black tape electric wiring, this old house was the ark of my childhood, filled with ghosts, recollections, shadows, snatches of words, the yearnings and confusions of long days and nights defined by the smells of sugar cane, fresh cut lumber, the magnolia trees and the honeysuckle right outside my bedroom window.

I recalled a recent photograph of the house showing it in strange, bucolic colors, an almost-farmyard with no connection to the pictures in my head, real or imagined. Riding in the car, closing the gap between present and past, and listening half to my sister, half to the lulling drag of windshield wipers, I kept wondering how the place would look without Daddy Clyde pulling weeds from his eight-rowed vegetable garden, without Popee coming across the vacant lot with a bowl of the reddest strawberries. And old ‘Shine’ cutting through the same vacant lot on his way home from work in the shop. Would Bootsie be there? And where was Coco Lumber Company in this picture? Strong mix in the Louisiana gumbo I thought of as childhood was a rough grained and sweet scented lumber yard facing my old bedroom window.

Going backward to that place now, I knew that Coco’s was no more a part of the neighborhood. I hadn’t seen the blank stretch of Wabash Avenue with all its emptiness and tall weeds, but knew the buildings were long pulled down. Still Coco Lumber and its place in my childhood could not be erased, and standing with two feet among the vacancy, the tall weeds and the absence of what used to be would do little to erase that childhood castle.

Over the years, the house at 340 Wabash sat snug in its community of family. The idea of suburban living came into vogue, and people began to want homes isolated from business and shop. Homes laid out along curving streets with Indian tribe names and surrounded by Bermuda grass were the early powdered and primped residential communities. Broadmoor was the first, and families fled their old houses and rushed to subdivisions spurred on by the dream of new homes low to the ground, painted in earthy pastels, and featuring in each front yard a faux old-timey lamppost wrapped in English ivy and lighted during evening hours in a forty watt colonial glow.

In time the streets and neighborhood around Coco Lumber became something different, became a place where people parked primer coated cars diagonally across front lawns and threw beer cans out of windows. It became a temporary stopping place for the young and unconnected. It became a place merely to sleep at night.


TO BE CONTINUED

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tribute to Saitô Sensei

I wish I were able to say more about the artist Motomu Saitô, but any real facts at hand are scant. The reading of his first name is not even certain to me, and I may be wrong in giving it as ‘Motomu.’ My distant and unimportant relationship with the man was conducted through his grandson, a young man of my acquaintance for some years. I felt honored to be recognized by the artist and his family. I don’t have the cards now, but for sixteen years Mr Saitô sent me a hand painted New Year’s card each January first. I suspect the cards were his way of thanking me for helping his grandson. One day the grandson arrived at my door with a large, wrapped package. It was a painting his grandfather had asked him to deliver, the painting shown at the top here.


The picture is titled ‘Small House’ and I’m guessing when I say it is from around 1985-90. It is a landscape, a house in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture, the artist’s home. The sketch is a primitive, a pastel done in five basic colors: blue, green, pale brown, black and yellow. There is the feeling that the scene is something from Saitô’s youth. A house sits atop three rice paddies surrounded by trees. The single window is lamplit, suggesting the time of day. Directly behind the house is a large mountain rising into a yellow sky, where three birds fly from the picture.


The second painting shows a sharp contrast, a turn in another direction for the painter. This one is a 1975 work titled ‘Woman in a Dress Shirt.’ Very probably, that bold three point focus of face, breasts and vagina has already gotten your attention. There is no question Saitô knew he was making a bold statement. The woman stares out of the canvas and you don’t know if her look is threat or expression of desire. Perhaps both. The woman is big, bold and beautiful. Saitô did numerous paintings of female nudes with huge, masculine hands, women of healthy bodies, from gorgeous to grotesque. In most of these paintings the eyes are large above swollen plum-like lips. Saitô favored blues and purples and they are here prominent in the background, and in the figure of the woman, both in vertical planes. The woman wears a long and flamboyant, gauzy shirt of blue, purple and yellow.


There are many question marks in my mind regarding Mr Saitô, who I regard as an extraordinary artist. Everything I ever got or now know about the man came from his grandson, Atsushi. It makes me proud knowing he has gone on to become an architect working in Tokyo. Now I must admit that it was very foolish of me to misplace those New Year cards, or that I didn’t encourage Atsushi to talk about, to tell me more about his grandfather.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Okuribito

Listened to one of my favorite film scores today, one by the Japanese composer, Joe Hisaishi. Mr Hisaishi has written the score for a string of Takeshi Kitano films, among them the award winning 1997 picture, Hana-bi (Fireworks), but in 2008 he ventured out to work with director Yôjirô Takita. The film was Okuribito, known in the US as Departures, winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Numbers of filmgoers, both industry professionals as well as average movie fans have described Okuribito as one of best movies in years. That certainly reflects my own opinion. (To hear a short soundtrack clip, click on the YouTube link below.)


The story… Cellist Daigo Kobayashi plays in a symphony orchestra in Tokyo until the orchestra is dissolved. Without job or prospects, he sells his cello and with his wife returns to his hometown in Yamagata Prefecture. In need of work, he answers an ad in the classifieds, believing it to be a job in the travel business. To his surprise and horror, he learns the available position is actually one of preparing bodies of the deceased for cremation and burial. Despite the shock of his wife and friends, Kobayashi unexpectedly finds meaning in this work of serving as a kind of gatekeeper between life and death.


The theme of the movie weaves in and out of emotions surrounding the death of loved ones, yet writer and director handle this theme so gracefully it becomes a thing of rare beauty. And through it all Mr Hisaishi’s score provides strong support of story, action and emotion. It is an alternately funny, sad and touching story, and oddly enough teaches the viewer much about the almost theatrical Japanese art of the nokanshi, or undertaker. We learn too, to see death from unexpected, sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful angles. The last scenes of the movie are especially poignant as Kobayashi comes to a late-in-life reconciliation with his long lost father. I won’t offer any details on this; see the movie.


Watching the growth of this man is a marvel of storytelling and character building, to see him overcome the social stigma of his job, as well as those cruelly personal aspects of the work. It is this new job of preparing bodies for cremation that leads him back to his cello and the joy of playing.


By all means, rent, borrow or buy this DVD. Naturally, an English sub-titled version is available at retailers and rental stores.


Okuribito (Departures) 2008

Director: Yôjirô Takita

Writer: Kundô Koyama

Score: Joe Hisaishi

Stars: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Composite Flashbacks

THE FOLLOWING NARRATIVE IS NOTHING MORE THAN A COMPOSITE OF RECOLLECTIONS ABOUT PROSAIC WANDERINGS AROUND THE PLACE I LIVED FOR MANY YEARS. A COMBINATION OF DIFFERENT MEETINGS OR OCCURRENCES ARE HERE SPLICED TOGETHER INTO ONE AFTERNOON. BEST NOT TO IMAGINE IT IS THE STORY OF ONE SINGLE DAY.

•••

Going out, I meet Hattori-san on the stairs, a bird-like woman of 94 years who lives in the neighborhood and climbs three flights of stairs each day to eat dinner with her son and daughter-in-law living in the apartment next to mine. She doesn’t see well and is unaware of me until we are face to face, and in a loud voice I remind her again of who I am. We have been meeting on either stairs or street for years now, but her eyes and memory aren’t what they used to be. I worry she may get lost one day between home and our building, wandering Kugayama until meeting someone who can show her home. She makes me think at times of an unbreakable oversized sparrow.


My train pass is all but used up, no more than a few yen on it and I go to the ticket machines and buy a regular ¥170 ticket for Shibuya. I make my way to the platform to wait for an express.


Luck is not going my way, and I squeeze into a crowded car made worse by the endless paraphernalia of my fellow riders. Oversized bags, guitars, a baby stroller and one high schooler with enough equipment for World Cup soccer stacked around him. Nothing ever changes, I think, as I adjust my body to the available space and try to ignore the tennis racquet handle boring love-nothing into my back. Not a long discomfort to bear, but it’s made no better by the pungent smell of hair tonic, and the thick coating of dandruff on the shoulders just under my chin. The possibility of fan-blown flakes swirling upward makes me edge backwards, pushing harder into the racquet handle. At Shimokitazawa I’m tumbled out of the car by the crowd getting off, then bulldozed back inside. This time I am face to face with a young woman of movie star looks who seems afraid I’m going to grope her beneath the crush of bodies.


Shibuya Station has the usual five million commuters, shoppers and fun-seekers, and I dodge through runners, dawdlers, chatting pairs and cell phone text zombies, finally reaching the long escalator down to street level. I push past the dozen or so people handing out tissue packs and head for Tower Records. Just as I reach Shibuya Crossing—arguably the busiest intersection in the world—I look down to see a homeless man free of his cardboard shelter, seated on a railing picking at the life forms in his exposed crotch. Not an occasion for staring.


Tower is a short walk, and I quickly skip around the entrance crowd and the noise of promotional music videos to the elevator, and zoom upward to the seventh floor in a graffiti-scared glass cubicle. Whatever can be said about the Shibuya Tower store, complaints about their inventory of books isn’t in it. Someone there has a good eye for books, and keeps their shelves filled with titles that are never dull or pedestrian. This time I’m caught by a large book called, The Secret Language of Symbols by David Fontana, which I carry to the front desk and buy. The guy who checks me out has a four inch, stiff red Mohawk haircut, half a dozen rings or studs in his ears, a sliver ring through his bottom lip, and a sample book of tattoos down both arms. He is very friendly and efficient and has an attitude that blurs the physical presentation. I can't help wondering if his mother is crying.


I have an easier ride home on the Inokashira Line, and back in Kugayama take myself and new book up to the third floor of Doutor Café. Iced coffee in hand, I discover my favorite table is occupied by the Chinese sensei (everyone’s a teacher in Japan), a Japanese housewife who teaches Chinese to other housewives. A table in Doutor is her regular classroom. I take a table in the corner and for a minute sip my coffee and sink into the familiar atmosphere of a favorite place. The light is good, the snatches of Chinese unobtrusive, and the piped in Yusen this time is a Bill Evans album. All seems right with the world.


A glance at the street clock visible though a window rouses me from my book of symbols and tells me time is up. Outside on the street I dodge a bicycle, nod a greeting to someone and point myself for home. Early evening in August and the Kugayama sky is full of nacreous light.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Breakers

Before coming to live at the beach in Florida, my visits here were frequent. For a long time I’ve felt like I have a good handle on this small town and what it has to offer. But until yesterday I was ignorant of what that pink restaurant on the beach, at the end of Flagler Avenue was all about. It’s a well-known restaurant and bar three miles north, straight up the beach from me, and it’s called The Breakers. The name clearly comes from the fact that the windows all look out onto the Atlantic surf breaking on the white sand beach, and from almost anywhere inside the ocean views are endlessly postcard pretty. But all this is new to me, because until yesterday I had never been to The Breakers and was unfamiliar with all but the name and location. Somehow, in my eleven or twelve years of coming here, I had never eaten there.


For that reason, yesterday became a landmark day for me personally when a friend took me to lunch there. Stories from a handful of people had always included mention of the great burgers served at The Breakers. I have my own favorites and so never gave much thought to trying a Breakers burger. After yesterday, I realize my former attitude of little interest was my loss. No doubt about it, any of the burgers on the Breakers menu can stand up against any burger, anywhere. They are that good.


Eating in a large crowd of people is something you have to expect. Lunch or dinner at The Breakers on a day when the weather is good (and it very rarely isn’t) the restaurant will be wall to wall with people, many of whom want to pass the afternoon or evening at one of the window counters looking out at the ocean, sipping a beer, eating a burger. My friend and I were lucky and stumbled upon a couple of seats at the bar just as we arrived; perfect seats, perfect view.


Ask some locals and they will tell you that The Breakers has been here forever, but forever turns out to be no more than twenty years. A Boston family took over the beachfront property and built the restaurant in 1990. But it didn’t take them long to gain notice—apart from the reputation of that premier view of the ocean. The restaurant won a Star of the South Beach - Best Burger award for the first time in 1993. They went on to win the award in ’94, ’95, ’96, 2004, ’06, ’07, ’08 and 2009. The Breakers Burger won the Best Burger in Central Florida award in 1995, ’99, 2000 and 2005. No foolin’, this is a burger not to miss!


A full menu is offered, including dinners, all priced at $14.95, though the choices are limited to seafood. Apart from burgers, sandwiches come in the familiar varieties of chicken breast, BLT, tuna salad, chicken salad, turkey and fish. If a burger is on your mind, you will have to choose from a list of seventeen. I had the Bacon Burger and wish I had another one in front of me now. All burgers are hand-shaped with a half pound of lean ground beef, char-grilled to order, and served with lettuce, tomato & onion, and a choice of fries, potato salad or cole slaw. All are priced at $9.50. The bar offers twenty different beers on tap, and thirty brands bottled.


If you ever find yourself anywhere remotely near New Smyrna Beach, it’s worth going out of your way to spend an hour or so at The Breakers with a great burger and a dazzling view of the deep blue simple.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America