Finding Moonlight

I wasn't older than 14 when it became clear there were never going to be enough hours in the day for everything I wanted to do.   I was dealing with blisters on my fingers from this new guitar that I talked my sister's boyfriend into giving me $20 to buy; even then there were stacks of books rising around my bed; it was becoming clear that girls were going to require a lot of time; and I was becoming obsessed with the fascination of scratching sentences into cheap notebooks everyday.  Oh, and there was school.

Not much has changed -- the blisters are thick callouses, but I'm not close to making that guitar do whatever I want it to do; the stacks of books & magazines get ever higher; the girls are fewer, but they take up even more time; and it feels like there's more sentences knocking around my brain everyday than I'll ever in my life get a chance to get out.  Oh, and there's libraryland.

This is my only excuse for taking until last night to get to Moonlight on the Mountain.   We managed to get to its previous incarnation, the Moonlight Music Cafe, several times during the few years before it closed in '06.  Always a fabulous experience.  And every time we went we told ourselves we were going to get there more often and then it was closed.

So when the new room opened last spring, we were determined to be better.  Still, it wasn't until last night that we made it.  We were wonderfully rewarded.  First set by Jason Harrod, short break and then a set by the Twangtown Paramours -- all original music, some sweet, some funny, some delicate, some rowdy.  CDs for sale.  Plenty of time to mingle and chat with the performers. 

Go to their websites.  Listen to their samples.  Buy their music.

The new Moonlight is stripped down.  Cash at the door, no food & drink.  A few chairs & tables.  A small stage and what must be one of the finest sound systems in the city.  It's all about the music.  I made some Parisian style ham & camembert baguettes to bring along with a bottle of wine.  The candles on the table made it feel like a chic underground cafe.   How could there be a better way to end a busy week?

So when will we get back?  No promises.  We're coming up against a hectic travel schedule.  We've got all that other stuff to juggle.  But surely, surely, we can be smart enough to find a few hours here and there to bask in the music and Moonlight?

 


City of Hogs

When Gatha Snowmoss, roving photojournalist, spent some time with the band in Memphis this spring, she showed her appreciation (no other reporter has been afforded the kind of no holds barred inside look at the Pigs that she got) by giving each of us a book -- a pig-related book, of course.  Each one perfectly tuned (or so it seemed to me) to our individual personalities.  I'm sure her ability to size her subjects up so quickly accounts for much of her recent success.

I'll leave the others to comment on their own books, but for me it was The Pig and the Skyscraper (Chicago: A history of our future) by Marco d'Eramo.  I've been reading it over the last couple of weeks and enjoying it tremendously.  D'Eramo is an Italian sociologist and the book was published in Italy in 1999 (translated into English in 2002).    So reading it is like eavesdropping on an Italian professor trying to explain America (through the lens focused on Chicago) to an Italian audience. 

I wonder, as I'm reading it, if Europeans, reading books about Europe written by Americans, have the same sort of reaction that I'm having -- some of it is wonderfully perceptive, but some of it just seems so bone-headedly wrong, like the anthropologist coming across a "primitive" culture and devising all sorts of esoteric explanations for what he or she sees, while the ostensible subjects are laughing behind their hands at the foolish scientists.  (Remember the Margaret Mead controversy of a couple of years ago?)

The fact that so much housing stock in the US is wood fascinates d'Eramo and he gives it great significance in explaining the American character -- in Europe wood is apparently seldom used.  He makes much of the American invention of the suburb, and exaggerates the social/cultural divides that occur in many parts of the States.  His description of race relations is extremely one-dimensional and diminishes the actual complexities that the country wrestles with.  In the America that he describes, Obama's ascendancy would simply not be possible.  There is always truth in his observations, and yet there is also a clear skewing of facts and interpretations in order to hammer home his rhetorical truths.  D'Eramo comes from a decidedly Marxist bent, and this lens opens up some wonderful observations, but also seems to blind him to some obvious contradictions between what he claims and what seems to me to be obviously the case.

At any rate, it is a great fun provocative and challenging read and perfect for these last few days before I spend a week in Chicago.  And it is another stark reminder that the way the rest of the world views us in the States is not necessarily the way that we see (or would like to see) ourselves.


Tokyo

Eleven stories below my hotel window, the bullet trains glide in and out of Tokyo Station.  On the other side of the station is the Ginza, where I went strolling yesterday after I got checked into the Marunouchi Hotel.  I'd imagined the Ginza as one broad avenue, lined with pricey stores, neon displays blazing, and jostling throngs filling up the sidewalks.  It certainly is that, but it's also a warren of little side streets, barely wide enough for a car to bump alongside the pedestrians.  Along these streets are the little specialty shops, restaurants and tiny bars opening out onto the street.  I wandered aimlessly for an hour, not too worried about getting lost -- all I'd need is for someone to point me back in the direction of Tokyo Station, after all.

I'd slept about two hours on the plane, but that was about it in the last twenty-four hours, so my energy was flagging a bit, and I stopped into the Hills Bar for a drink.  They had two little tables outside, so I got a scotch and a glass of water and went to sit and watch and write.  There was a dress shop across the way, a grandmother and small child sitting in front of it, watching the street and waiting for mom to come out.  Many young couples out strolling, and the occasional black sedan slowly inching along with a couple of elderly ladies in the back, all dressed up and gazing impassively at the shops as they slid past.

The young bartender came out to join me.  He'd been to college in Seattle and we talked a bit about his days there and this being my first trip to Japan and the differences in the weather down in Alabama and other bits and pieces of small talk.

Back at the hotel, I had dinner in the French restaurant, curious about what a fancy French place in Tokyo would be like.  For my appetizer I ordered something that was translated as "just caught raw fish with shellfish and crustacean."  It turned out to be a bowl of various morsels of seafood in some kind of thick greenish broth topped with a lightly poached egg that had the reddest yolk I've ever seen.  Served cold, and with a variety of textures and tastes that puts it well in the running for the most unusual thing I've ever eaten -- certainly I've never seen anything like it in any other French restaurant!  Then onion soup and a rack of lamb -- these both much more familiar, although still with distinctive touches.  All of it quite delicious and marvelously presented.

Jet lag was finally catching up to me, however, so I skipped desserts or coffee and headed up to the room and to bed.  Nine hours of sleep and I woke to another gray, monsoonish Tokyo day.   This is the one day of my trip that I get to do some sightseeing, so one of my hosts is meeting me later this morning to take me around.  I have no idea what we're going to see.  I can't wait.


Rilke Would Have Loved It

I woke Saturday morning wanting most of all to see some Whistlers.  I'd ended Friday night the same way I'd ended  the night before -- up the block from my hotel, sitting at Al Tiramisu's bar sipping grappa with Luigi, under Adriana's watchful eye.  A little grappa goes a very long way, and I was cautious, but Luigi loves the stuff as I do, and he's always got something new to try.  So when I rose to consciousness, and called down for my pot of coffee, I still had a bit of a pleasant buzz around the ears.  And I knew the best thing for me was to spend an hour with Jimmy Whistler.

Friday had been a very long, and quite wonderful day, and frankly, I wasn't sure what my energy level for the rest of Saturday would be.  I'd come to DC strictly on holiday, for the express purpose of seeing the completed expansion of the Phillips Collection, and the newly (and finally!) reopened Smithsonian American Art Museum.  I'd taken a late flight on Thursday, so that I could put in a full work day, and it was after 10:00 when I got to the hotel and considerably later when I got back from Al Tiramisu.   But I'd gotten up eager to get into my day and cleared my head with a long, brisk walk through Georgetown, and then a light lunch of mussels and frites at Bistrot du Coin.  I'd spent hours at the Phillips, thrilled with what they'd done, making repeated stops in the renovated Rothko Room.  Then I'd walked down to American Art for a brief overview before heading back into Georgetown for supper at Bistro Francais, and then ending up for that grappa nightcap with Luigi.  Like I said, a long and wonderful day.

I had a ticket for the Saturday evening performance of Richard III, and I knew I wanted to spend some hours at American Art, and I really wanted to try to pace myself -- but I needed to see some Whistlers.  Ever since that revelatory retrospective back in the late eighties (one of the few art exhibitions that I can truly say changed my life), he's been among my pantheon of painters (the others being Goya, Daumier, and Rothko), and I knew exactly where to go.  For several years now, the Freer has devoted their long lower gallery to rotating exhibits of small Whistler works.  I wasn't sure what was currently up, but I knew I'd love it and that it would fill me with that sense of astonishment and wonder and delight that Whistler always gives me.

It turned out to be a series of his small oils, most of them from the 1880s.  These are remarkable pictures, mostly seascapes, punctuated by some wonderful urban scenes.  I've been looking closely at Whistler paintings for most of my adult life, and even the ones that I know well leave me breathless, thinking, "How does he do that?  How, in such tiny spaces, with just a handful of confident, seemingly careless, brushstrokes, does he evoke whole worlds and the deep and complicated hearts of the people who live in them?"  As usual, the placards emphasize that Whistler was all about art for art's sake and was only concerned with composition and color and line.  I suppose it's true to a point, but it's also an excessively academic way of looking at the work.  He is among the most deeply human painters I know, and to claim that in a painting like the little red glove, for example, all he cares about is composition, is to willfully ignore the life that he has put into that young girl's eyes.  Sometimes art historians annoy me to tears.

After filling myself up for awhile with those paintings, I was ready for some lunch before continuing on to the major event of the afternoon (I had another french bistro in mind, of course), but wanted to take a quick stroll through the rest of the Freer first, and that's when I came across the most unexpected revelation of the entire trip --  Gwyn Hanssen Pigott's  Parades.   I'd never heard of Pigott, but she turns out to be a well known Australian ceramicist, who, in her own work, arranges her pieces in very precise still lifes, so that the relationships of one to another creates a whole that is much more than the individual pieces.  She was invited into the Freer's ceramic storerooms to see what she might do out of their collection.  I find the results absolutely astonishing.  Because she was looking at the pieces from the standpoint of an artist, looking to create a new work from what she found, she wasn't interested in provenance or history or type of piece (all of that stuff that the art historians dote on), but on how the forms could relate to each other.  The beauty of what she has accomplished brought me to tears.  (The online exhibition is useful, by the way, but it doesn't give a hint of how powerful the arrangements are in real life).

I walked out of the Freer about noon and headed across the mall, feeling, quite literally, as if my feet were barely touching the ground.  That hour or so would've been worth the trip to DC all by itself, and my Saturday was barely underway.  As it turned out, it wouldn't end until some fifteen hours later, when I'd walked back to my hotel from the Dubliner,  after a long talk with the bartender Joel and the guitar player Conor Malone, but that, as they say, is another story...


 


Going Home (To One Of Them, Anyway)

When fall comes, and the travel season heats up, it's hard to look forward very much because I'm so focused on the tasks immediately at hand.  So while the St. Louis trip has been planned for months, it was only this morning that I woke up full of excitement that we are actually going to be there in just a few hours!  I've been sitting here having a salami sandwich and glass of wine for lunch, browsing the Riverfront Times and the Post-Dispatch online, and looking up websites for clubs and bands and restaurants old and new.

Tomorrow we'll go to the Missouri Botanical Garden with Lonnie & Emily, and I plan to stop at the Venice Cafe to play a few songs with Ranger Dave.  Kenny O is in town and will be sitting in on Tuesday night at the Broadway Oyster Bar.  The chance to hear Kenny & Brian trade choruses is something worth travelling a good distance for.

It's been two years since the last visit that I made, and so the city will be even stranger and more distant.  The town that I lived in for seven years is long gone -- I remember the trip back when I realized that for sure, and it was a relief that I didn't have to try to hang on to it anymore.  Many of the people remain, but they're all a decade further into their lives as well.  Some are gone and won't be seen again.  One learns to embrace those aches.

Much of the best parts of my life happened in St. Louis.  I was finally formed into the man that I am there, finally managed to find my way back into my own heart.    Oddly enough, I never developed a real affection for the city as a whole -- not in the way that I feel about DC, or Chicago, or Birmingham.  But the people and the individual places -- the clubs and restaurants and musicians and artists that I spent my time with...  those are indelible parts of me, and getting ready to get on the plane to head back for a few days reminds me of how deeply intertwined a part of me they are.


Josie Loves Barney -- Matthew Barney

I've read about a researcher who did a series of experiments to determine how long it takes for your eyes to adjust to a Rothko painting -- 35 seconds minimum, which is actually a long time for the typical museum goer to stand in front of a piece.  But if you get up fairly close to one of those magnificent late fifties or early sixties pictures, so that it encompasses your entire field of vision, and gaze at it, the colors begin to unfold and ripple in an amazingly sensual way.  What might appear, from a casual glance, as flat sheets of color, become deep and luminous and rich. 

So when I saw one of those big pictures at SFMOMA, I rolled Josie up to it in her stroller and crouched down next to her to tell her some stories about the magnificent Mark Rothko.  She pointed into it, in the way that she does when she's intrigued with something, and grinned.  Dimly, I heard a voice chattering about Rothko's early years and his lessons with Albers, and gradually realized that the docent had brought the tour group up behind us and was just off to my left continuing with her tour, while the group was arranged semi-circularly around Josie and I.  We moved on.

I wasn't at all sure how Josephine would take to the museum.  When we've been out walking the streets (her in her stroller), she takes everything in very seriously and will then see something that makes her point and laugh and kick her legs with delight.  Whether she'd see things that affected her that way in the museum, I didn't know, but I want her to grow up feeling that going to museums and looking at unfamiliar things and finding out what intrigues and inspires you about them is just a very normal thing for people to do, in the same way that reading books and listening to music and behaving well in restaurants are already part of her daily experience.

She liked the Rothko, and a few others of the big expressionist paintings on the 2nd floor, but what really set her off was when we went up to the 4th floor for the big Matthew Barney exhibit.   I was carrying her at this point so that she'd have a better view, and as soon as we came around the corner from the elevators to see the first of the large sculptures that comprise Drawing Restraint 9 she started pointing and squirming and squealing with delight.  I let her lead us through the rooms by her pointing, and we spent quite a bit of time there.  I have no idea what she found so intriguing in those big shapes, but she was quite clear about which ones she liked.

Today I think we'll walk over to North Beach.  I want to stop by the City Lights Bookstore and let her pick out something.  We've been to the farmer's market at the Ferry building, and seen the sea lions (which she loves to imitate).  Friday evening we'll do an Alcatraz tour.   I suppose it's doubtful that she'll actually remember any of this as she gets older, but we're still trying to give her the full San Francisco experience.


Morning Tour of the Chinati Foundation

I thought that I knew what to expect when we went into the first building at the Chinati Foundation to see Donald Judd’s aluminum box installation.  There were half a dozen of us, along with our guide, Amelia, an art student from San Antonio.  I’m familiar with some of Judd's other work from museums, and I’ve seen pictures of this particular setting.  Pictures don’t come close.  It’s not about aluminum, it’s not about repetition.  It’s about light and space and endless variation.  For the first time I really understood the affinity that Judd had for the neon sculptures of his friend Dan Flavin.  Judd was using the aluminum boxes to sculpt with light, just as Flavin was doing the same with light directly. 

The sides of the buildings are floor to roof glass, so the spaces are flooded with natural light (and on a sunny July day here in far west Texas, that is a lot of light!), and the reflections pick up all the variations of color from the landscape surrounding us.  To be immersed in that space is to be in a spiritual realm, contemplative, remote from day-to-day concerns, and yet very much a part of this world (just outside a pair of rabbits playing, and a little further out a family of deer -- the three fauns prancing around some of Judd's concrete installations in high spirits, while from time to time one of the adults nips at their heels).  It was one of the most remarkable artistic experiences I’ve ever had.

Marfa itself is a kick.  The main street leads from the highway three blocks up to the courthouse building, a wonderfully beautiful and ornate structure.  My hotel, in all its 1930s grandeur, is on one side of the street, facing the old Palace Opera House on the other.  In the lobby is a display dedicated to those exciting days when the cast of Giant hung out here while filming.  Scattered about the town are a dozen art galleries – I walked into one and was treated to a dozen or so pieces from Andy Warhol’s Last Supper series – the last major work he completed before he died.

Tucked into an old corner gas station is the Pizza Foundation, where I had lunch – big slices of excellent pizza with a great Greek salad.  Bring your own beer and wine.

The weather is better here than it was in Clarksdale, or my first couple of stops in Texas.  Upper eighties instead of upper nineties, and much dryer, so walking slowly around town is much more tolerable than it was trying to move around a few days ago.   The Chinati mountains in the distance are quite beautiful.  An awareness of the great spaces around us pervades everything. 

I can't quite get over the sense of quiet and calm.  At the moment, I'm sitting in the Marfa Book Company with a glass of wine and a good wireless connection, watching the shadows slowly lengthen.  Lucinda Williams sings softly in the background.  I've done a little email -- the library is never far from my mind -- but mostly I'm trying to give my mind space to come to a stop, to take in the beauty of the vast landscape around me, to move very slowly and to pay close attention to everything that is here.  The challenge is to be in this moment, and not constantly fretting about what needs to come next or what I don't have enough time to get to.  So far, I'm doing a  pretty good job.

This evening, dinner at Jett's Grill.  A new novel to start reading.  Tomorrow, the afternoon tour of the Chinati Foundation.



Back In The Desert

Weatherbug was reading 106 degrees when I walked out of the hotel yesterday afternoon to explore Phoenix a bit.  I wasn't the least bit uncomfortable.  Heat in the desert is a qualitatively different thing from the swampy, humid soup that we deal with in the deep south.  Back home, once the temperature starts climbing into the eighties, I avoid being outside at all if I can.   The muscles in my back kink up, and it feels as if the air itself is smothering.

Completely different here.   At home we're used to looking at the heat index to see how many degrees hotter it really feels than what the thermometer reads.  Here, it's the opposite.  The heat index is generally lower than the thermometer reading.  (For example, right now, at 8:35 in the morning, it's 88 degrees, but weatherbug tells me it feels like 83).

I've never been to Phoenix before, but I've spent a fair amount of time in this part of the country, and I've found that I love the desert.  I love the arid spookiness of it.   The last time I was out here I was camping at Hatch Point, and I took a hike up to the Delicate Arch.  It was 102 degrees and a moderately strenuous hike of a couple of hours.  I drank two liters of water during it, but had a wonderful time.

Drinking water is the key.  The air is so dry, it sucks the moisture right out of you.  For someone from the south, who is used to having a slick sheen of sweat all over when you're outside, it feels like you're not even breaking a sweat.  Your skin is dry because it evaporates that fast.  So your body pushes out more and more, trying to keep you cool, and if you're not replenishing constantly, you'll dehydrate astonishingly fast.  And heatstroke is no fun.

From my hotel room I can see a ridge of low mountains.  I didn't realize there were mountains this close to Phoenix.  They're brown and jagged.  Ancient and mystical.  I'm sure that many people would consider them ugly, but I find 'em fascinating.

I don't have a meeting until 2:00 this afternoon, so I've got time to do some more exploring.  There are museums within walking distance.


Vulcan

When I started coming to Birmingham to see Lynn, my Dad told me that the only thing he knew about Birmingham was Vulcan -- when he'd been in the Navy in Pensacola, he and some buddies had come up one time on leave.  He didn't remember much else about the trip, but he remembered that big iron statue.

Today is the tenth anniversary of his death.  I got in the habit, after I moved here, of going up to Vulcan on the 23rd, and looking out over the city, just thinking about him.  Sometimes I'd tie a little pouch of Indian tobacco to the rail.  A little prayer for him.  To him.

Vulcan's been undergoing rehab for the last couple of years, and hasn't been receiving visitors.  When the the park reopened last March, my first excited thought was that I'd be able to come back again at Christmas... honor my dad... just spend some quiet time with him at this most marvelously somber and gloriously giddy time of the year.

It's been unusually cold this week, even below freezing, and when I stopped at the park early this afternoon, there were a few snowflakes drifting down.  I huddled in my big black coat, and looked at the memorial brick that we bought for him, and then walked, slowly, up around the tower, pausing to look out over the city that has become so much home.  As I turned to go back to my car I was grinning, thinking how appropriate it was that on this anniversary, even down here, we'd be having something not unlike Wisconsin weather.

Each of my parents gave me wonderful things.  From my mother, the intellectual curiousity, the taste for philosophy and great art and music.  From my dad, the passion to be scrupulously honest and true, to live each day simply, faking nothing.  From both of them, to meet my responsibilities, to be joyous in friendship and family, and to be grateful for the gifts that I've been given.

I am a ridiculously lucky man.  My father walks alongside me every single day.   


Sacred Spaces

We huffed up the tower at the Mount Auburn cemetary and saw the city of Boston spread out before us.  An astonishing view.   It was a little chilly, but there were no clouds and the sun lit up the trees below us magnificently.  We had walked over from Harvard Square, after a delightful lunch at Sandrine's Bistro.   Walking briskly in the sun kept the chill off.  Lynn is reading a novel, the central plot points of which take place at Mount Auburn, so she wanted to see it.  The walk was just the thing after some  trout & frites & a bottle of Crozes-Hermitage.

Truly sacred spaces exude a calm that touches the receptive heart as soon as you approach.  At Mount Auburn, with all of the monuments and gravestones, one doesn't feel at all surrounded by death; one is surrounded by life and the love of friends and family.   Their literature claims that it is the most beautiful cemetary in the world.  Walking from the stunning consecration dell, where a little pond at the bottom of the path feels like a baptismal font for an entire city, up to the top of the tower, one is certainly inclined to agree.

The feeling of magnificence and the upwelling of spirit was similar the day before when we stopped in to visit Trinity Church.   My interest in the church was sparked two years ago when, in reading up on Henry Adams in anticipation of spending some time in Boston, I found that one of his best friends, H.H. Richardson, was the architect.  Then, in investigating further, I found what an important role in the life of the city the Trinity congregation has continued to play.  So I was delighted when we checked into our hotel room to see that we were looking out on the church, and on our way to lunch the other day we stopped in. 

They're doing some massive renovations, so the vault itself is obscured by heavy scaffolding, but you can still get a sense of what it's going to be like when the renovation is done.  And the stained glass windows, with designs by LaFarge and Burne-Jones are truly stunning.   

I don't think one needs to be a Christian to know that there is something profound happening in these spaces.  It is something that human beings need -- the true sense of connection to the deeper mysteries of life and death and community.   Sacred spaces provide the physical manifestation of that spiritual world.