Category Archives: Memoir

Much of my writing is either memoir or deeply based there. Here is where it gathers.

Old Friends

Day one and already out and about. J is happy to see me, and welcomes me into her home & studio. We haven’t seen each other in almost exactly two years, she being one of my last visits from my autumn 2019 stay. We catch up in her kitchen, tour her busy & messy studio, and then, following an intractable hunt for keys, are off to dinner at the De Beauvoir Arms, J’s local. I have lamb chops over an absolutely perfect mojadra, with celery and spinach, while J opts for the mackerel escabeche. Both meals very good.

Not the mackerel escabeche

Two of Pawn’s favourite places in London are Hundred Years Gallery and Bookarts Bookshop. The former in Hoxton, the latter by Old Street, not very far apart. Leaving with J from the pub, Pawn goes south towards the Kingsland Road and Hoxton whilst J has errands to run.

Hundred Years Gallery was open, as hoped, and empty, aside from G, the proprietor. Their current show is Nouns for Gabriel by Mary Lemley. This is a delightful series of large format sketches of objects the artist Mary Lemley has made for her autistic son, a suite of hand-made flash cards to help teach him vocabulary.

In the prints bin I quickly find several I cannot do without, and out comes the charge card. That didn’t take long. A bit more of a visit with G, and I’m out the door and winding my way down towards Old Street and Bookarts.

Bookarts Bookshop is a true gem. I’ve written before of its incomparable selection and broad reach. It’s a very tiny storefront on the corner of Pitfield Street and Charles Square, just north of Old Street tube stop. T, the proprietress and shopkeep, is likewise a gem. I had barely started to peruse the window display she had prepared for that day’s opening & book release party commemorating Thieri Foulc and the Oupeinpo movement, when, seeing me through the window, T waved her arms and beckoned me come in. In the small shop, perhaps three metres sqaure, she had erected a small table covered with books she felt I might like. T & I have similar tastes when it comes to artists books, hers being broader and more studied, to be sure.

Quickly my hands alit on A Book for Spiders, by Tom Alexander. This is a beautifully hand bound, octagonal volume, with brown covers, roughly 7cm across, with a small white loop of thread piercing the top cover. Lifting this opens the book, which is a helix, called Missing Limbs, written in Vox Arachnae, for spiders to enjoy. A translation key is included within the craftily constructed outer wrap.

Mine is #2 of and edition of 10. T was beside herself when I grabbed this; the shop had received only two copies, and she had bought the other one herself. She was certain I’d want one. Other volumes making the cut were a Blow Up Press edition. I’ll be back for more shopping. This being an opening, there were soon several people in the small shop, and I had to step out to make way for them. In these COVD times, one doesn’t want to crowd into a small space with maskless folk, no matter how well read they may be.

And that concludes the evening. Back at the flat Pawn relaxed for the first two episodes of Ridley Road, the BBC four-part series on the Jewish opposition to English nationalism cum fascism of the early 1960s. My family left here in August 1963, while these events were still playing out. My father was a teenager in the East End (Tower Hamlets) during the events which came to be known as the Battle of Cable Street, years prior. One wonders how much the return of Fascists to London’s political life had an effect on my relocation to America. Had the fascists kept to themselves, may this entire trip not have been necessary?

Home Again

After a nearly two year absence, Pawn fins himself back on the streets of London. Haunting the precincts of Angel this time around.

The trip here was both thrilling and frightening. After all these long months of lockdowns, re-openings, new variants, vaccines and anti-vaxxers, just masking up and getting onto public transportation was an act of both hubris and humility.

The bus ride from Milwaukee to O’Hare was fairly uneventful, but the failure to don masks, by the driver and at least one passenger, was daunting. Having opted for a later bus than normal, I had less time sitting in the terminal waiting for departure. Despite numerous entreaties from the airline to file all required paperwork, some passengers apparently hadn’t bothered doing so. Two of them claimed to have never been given physical CDC vaccine records cards, which led to pointless anxiety. I don’t think those two ended up flying, at least not on my flight.

Prior to departure, the seating charts had indicated a flight near 80% full, at least, but by takeoff we were at less than 50%. Even though most of my cabin was empty, I was seated next to a young woman furiously keyboarding away on her phone right up to the last minute. An enquiry of the flight attendant led to my re-seating two rows fore.

The flight itself was fairly uneventful. People were mostly attentive to masking, and most of them fell right asleep in any event. Mine own mask was a US made N95 of the around-the-head strap variety. While earlier tests had me thinking this one of my least comfortable mask choices, it was actually better than I had any reason to expect. The choice to opt for contact lenses, something I had avoided all my life (my vanity has never rebelled against spectacles), proved key to sanity, as I never once had to contend with fogged lenses.

Dinner was served an hour into the flight, and brought with it a true joy, in the form of a real cloth napkin. Inspection revealed that, indeed, it bore a button hole in one corner. Over the top shirt button it went, and I felt suddenly invincible in a way I hadn’t for the entire trip up to that time. Especially in this environment, where I appeared to be one of the few trying to actually replace my mask in between each bite, as dictated by airline policy, I felt protected. Mask on my face, napkin across my chest, I was ready for whatever may come. Like a super hero, but with the cape in front. Bring it on!

Sunrise over Ireland

Heathrow was a more lightly populated version of itself, which was welcome. Still masked up — over twelve hours at this point — I made my way through the seemingly endless tunnels, escalators, conveyors and lifts from the gate to passport control. There have recently been several incidents where the touted automated, biometric, passport scanner-gates have stopped working, for hours at a time. And sure enough, as I approached I could see that fewer than half of them were functional. One of the biggest issues for those which were in use is that they often fail to recognize the faces of those wearing masks. No signage prompted the removal of masks for the facial recognition phase, so most failed to do so. This led to long logjams, and frustrated passengers and gate assistants to an equal degree.

The Indian family ahead of me just couldn’t get their matron (mother, aunt, not sure) through the gate, so I ended up slipping by them, into a functioning gate, and through onto baggage reclaim, and customs. Next thing I knew I was back to an endless sequence of tunnels, conveyors, lifts and escalators, on my way to the promised land of the London trains. My return ticket purchased, I heard the announcement for my train’s departure from platform 2, still a few minutes trudge away. That’s okay, by the time I got to the platform it was only 28 minutes until the next. Time spent coordinating with my rental hostess on meeting arrangements.

The train to Paddington was nearly empty. Nine coaches, and I the only soul in coach two all the way from Heathrow to Ealing-Broadway. By the time we arrived Paddington the coach had maybe a dozen people. I shuffled my way through the arrivals hall to the lift to the taxi ranks. There was nobody queued there! This was not a sight I was expecting. Without a queue to suggest where to stand and such, it wasn’t really apparent which taxi to approach. A questioning look at one cabby made this clear, and quick as can be I was on my way through Saturday morning traffic, towards King’s Cross and past that, Angel. My Irish cabby warned me that Prebend Street, being one of many already pedestrian-friendly streets, was now partially barricaded, making it hard for drivers to figure out the best approach for drop-offs. But his memories served him well, and in a blink I was ascending the stairs to my flat.

B, my hostess, greeted me and helped haul luggage up. The flat is nice, with views over a lush greensward out the windows and ample light. My home for the next two weeks is agreeable. A 2 hour nap, shower, and out the door. It’s now 1:30pm the day of my arrival, and I am heading out for some groceries. An hour later a short stroll takes me to friend J’s home, and the visit is underway.

The view out the windows

French Diversion

We interrupt this regularly scheduled holiday for some work.

Pawn scheduled these holidays last spring, prior to taking a new job. Then, during the summer, discovered that a conference, who’s topic is quite important for this new job, would be ongoing in Lyon, France, right smack dab in the middle of said pre-scheduled vacation. Being a good team player, Pawn offered to break his break and journey off to the conference.

A Eurostar trip to Paris Gare du Nord ensued, followed by a quick stumble across town to Gare de Lyon, and from there to Lyon, via the TGV high-speed train. These trains run full out at about 300 Kph, so make pretty good time. All in all, however, it’s still over five hours of travel, not including the connections.

The conference was good, weather was damp and in the low 60s to lower 50s F, which wasn’t too pleasant. I didn’t get to really enjoy much of Lyon, as my cold came raging back, along with aches & pains, stuffy head, coughing, sore throat; the whole shebang. But I did get to spend some time wandering about.

As written to friends, and lightly redacted, here’s a few contemporaneous accounts:

In any event, when I packed to come down here for the conference, I tried to edit a bit, and only bring what I absolutely needed for the three days here.  I’ve got the London flat for the duration, so I didn’t have to schlep everything here.  I have more power adapters than I need, since I now have dedicated UK versions of power supplies for my phone & computer.  I typically only need maybe one other adapter, and, since I suffer from sleep apnea, I also carry a flexible-plug power cord for the APAP machine I use to sleep with.

Well, and this is the first time this has happened in 20 years, I somehow managed to edit out the European-plug adapter for the APAP machine.  Oops!  Of course I arrived after 5pm on Sunday, so no shops open to sell me the proper cord.  A mostly sleepless night ensues.  The other end of this cord is a standard IEC-320-C7; a two-prong thingy.  So after my early conference sessions, I search online, looking for a shop nearby that might have one.  Finally alighting on the search term “electronique” I find a smattering of locations.  One of them is Tedd Connexion, and I go for a nice walk through the Lyon business district to get there.

Well, Tedd Connexion has some fancy-schmancy audio gear in the windows, including Onkyo receiver with IMAX decoder(!), some stranger-than-B&O speakers, Sonos gear, etc.  I wander in and start browsing whilst the salesman finishes a hushed-tone conversation with a client.  I find the cable I’m looking for, as well as several other power and other cords.  The boxes all have two, three, and four digit labels on them, but no € symbol, so I assume these are SKU numbers.

Finally the salesman finishes with his client, and turns his attention to me.  I explain my lack of command of French, and in his own broken English (who am I to complain?) we converse.  I show him the plug-end I am looking for, and he shakes his head.  “Non, we do not have this cable.”  “But I see one right here,” I correct him. “Ah, yes, but this is a, how you say, Powerful cable; very powerful.”  “By ‘powerful’ I assume you mean ‘expensive’,” I retort, noticing the tag which reads “269.”  “Yes, powerful; expensive.”

Ha!  He directs me to an electrical goods shop down the street, which is closed (only two hours open on Mondays) so I search online again, walk another mile, and find a shop with exactly what I want.  A 1 metre cord for €3.90!  I didn’t have exact change, but the sales clerk was happy to take the close approximation I did have.  Now I can go take a nap, and catch up on the night’s sleep I missed.

And another, the next day:

…since this visit to Lyon was mostly just added on to the London trip, I didn’t really put much effort into it.  I booked everything in a flurry, months ago, when it was decided that I’d attend this conference, and then it was out of sight…

So I’ve just got my bad-movie French — please, thank you, excuse me, etc. — and had made zero plans to do anything outside of the conference.  Now part of that is that the conference does actually have evening events, until 9pm most nights.  But I’m not one for that “networking” stuff, so I don’t bother attending those, by and large.  Also, with this cold and the sleepless Sunday night, I’ve not really felt like hanging out with people.  Add to that my self consciousness about my lack of preparation, language wise, and I’m mostly just staying in, watching Peaky Blinders

I did try watching French telly, but an awful lot of it is dubbed American shows & films!  Sacre bleu!!

Today I went to the very first Keynote address, which was actually a “fireside chat” with Linus Torvald (inventor of Linux), which was good, and then came back to the flat.  There weren’t really any other sessions of interest to me.  (Tomorrow I have a pretty full day, so I don’t feel too bad about this.)  Instead I did some work which I wasn’t able to get done prior to leaving, so when I return, I’ll have a softer landing.  Then I went for a long stroll, found an actual French bistro for a late lunch — Affaire Du 6 — where I had a lovely prix fixe meal with an entree of quiche aux moules with a small salad, and a plat of poulet du creme with potatoes.  It was all soooo gooood.  I didn’t have wine with it, you know me, but the waitress brought me a small glass of Liquoer de Mandarine with the check.  Total cost?  €18, or $19.99.  Bravo!

So there’s my French interlude. Yesterday, Wednesday, I returned on the late train (arrived St. Pancras 21:30) following my 15:00 session. It was a good conference, a poor effort to enjoy Lyon by Pawn and now it’s in the past, and I can at least say that I’ve been to France, and that the best damn croissants I have ever eaten may be found in Lyon, in the little boulangerie downstairs from my flat.

Haptic Memories

Of Pixels and Voxels and nervous messes

In 1995 I was employed in exhibit development at Discovery World, a museum of science, economics and technology. My job led to my involvement in several vastly different technologies and scientific fields, from hydraulics and lasers to electricity and health. One particularly interesting piece of technology with which I became involved was a “Haptic” interface, called “The Phantom.” Haptic, from the Greek, means touch, and the Phantom was intended to provide the user with virtual sense of touch via a single finger tip.

It looked much like a miniature architect’s lamp, an arm with several degrees of freedom, terminating in a thimble-like cup at the end, which, in turn, was attached to an armature governed by priceless little motors and sensors. The entire design intended to allow the user to move their finger as freely in space as any of their other digits, until they encountered a virtual obstacle. This might be something as simple as a simulated piece of paper, or sandpaper, or perhaps something more complex, a billiard ball, or banana, a wrist, or a wrist with a pulse.

Via the thimble, the controlling computer system could convey texture, viscosity, pressure, vibrations, movement — the entire range of things we can feel with our fingers, albeit not heat nor cold nor the pin-prick of pain. But one might pluck an invisible guitar string, and feel its harmonics, or palpate the back of a virtual patient.

My group were unsure just what we would have the device simulate, nor how we would allow a visiting public to interact with it, given the inherent fragility of the device (and the largely reckless tendencies of the public). But as this was very new technology, having just been invented a year earlier by an MIT grad student, there was a scholarly conference about it, held near MIT, in suburban Boston, and I was to attend. In fact, when I received my conference credentials I was pleasantly bemused to see that I was credited, on MIT stationary, as Doctor Nic Bernstein. Doctor indeed!

Upon arrival at the conference assembly I was greeted by a curious assortment of engineers, scientists, investigators, doctors, physicists. Oh, and a three-star General from the US Army; Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same people who invented the Internet. Other than myself, and a geologist from Australia, everyone else there was, in some way or another, in the pocket of this General, something I pointed out during our plenary introductions. At the next meal break, said General sought me out as a dining companion. How, he needed to know, was I not also on his payroll?

There were several obvious implementations of the Phantom being discussed, such as a medical school using them, along with surgical dummies, to help physicians learn proper technique for administering epidermal injections & draws.

The Australian geologist was working with seismic stimulators to probe for deeply buried oil & gas deposits. This being done by amassing the vast amounts of three dimensional data produced by seismic stimulation — essentially carefully calibrated “shakers” attached by outrigger arms to long, low trucks, like massive insects, which would slowly advance along a grid work, shake the ground a bit, raise, advance some more, lower, shake, etc. Once a full grid had been worked, and the data assembled into a three dimensional model, the investigator would probe through the data, feeling his or her way along veins of ore or into voids filled with gas or oil; each substance represented with a different virtual viscosity.

During a field trip to the labs of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industry corporation, a friendly scientist showed me the system they were developing to help orthopaedists feel their way around (“appreciate” in the parlance) the knee joint of a prospective surgical subject, prior to wielding an actual knife.

Here’s how it was done. The patient would receive a scan — PET, CAT, MRI, whichever technology would best image the tissues involved — and the data would be loaded into a computer model. Rather than the pixels (Picture Elements) we think of from the two dimensional world of television or video, or printing, this data were rendered into Voxels, Volumetric Elements. In addition to the X, Y, & Z coordinates of a datum, there was also information on the density of the matter, rendered to the “viewer” as viscosity or resistance. A doctor could thus feel around the back side of a kneecap, for example, to appreciate the condition of the soft tissues there (if any remained), such as cartilage or muscle, each rendered in a different haptic manner.

It was fascinating. This was 1995 remember, long before these sort of things were depicted as routine in movies and on telly.

At a remove

Lunch today, 12:45 or something like that.  Sitting at a duce and just tucking into my meal.

A young couple are seated at a four-top nearby.  She slender, Asian, angular.  He buff, scruffy, hipster-ish.  They sit and glance at their menus.

I return to my meal.

Something catches my eye, a movement or something.  I look up.

He, on my left, has his right arm outstretched.  His hand holding her lower jaw.

She, on my right, is crying, sobbing.

His hand is holding her lower jaw still, as if by doing so, this very act of agency revokes whatever guilt or role he has in whatever has induced this tremble.

Her head is rocking, oddly.  Her sobs, though dampened by his right hand’s grip on her jaw, still rack her, and constrained in one axis, her head heaves in another.  How does he feel about this?  Is he responsible?  Has he just dumped her, for example, or just what?

This goes on.  I eat a few bites, but I do not look away.  She is unaware of my gaze.  He might be, I don’t really care.  I don’t care if he knows I am watching whatever it is he is doing to her — comforting, silencing, cajoling — I am not afraid of his reaction to my involvement.  I keep watching.

A drop, a tear drop, falls from her face and I imagine I can even see the splash as it hits the table.

She, in perfect profile, is not looking at him.  She is looking up, and to her right, so her gaze escapes my own.

He, likewise in profile, is alternately staring at her, and staring at the table.

She winces.  She squints her eyes and I see the tell-tale folds in the corner of her eye.  Another drop falls.  The table seems to shake as it lands.

He looks down, drops his arm, he is disarmed.

She shrugs and says something, but I cannot hear. I don’t care to, either.  This is pantomime to me.

Just as he raises his arm to once again grasp her jaw (whatever compels this act??) the waitress approaches.  They both miraculously collect themselves and order.  She a fish fry, and shrimp bisque.  He, a sandwich with fries.

The waitress leaves.  I am willing her to offer a napkin, a tissue, something with which this young woman, Asian and angular, sad and dripping, may dab at her face.  I am willing it, but I am powerless, acting at a remove.

Fog Horn Memories

Out in the bay, the fog horns are sounding, their long, low, throaty wails echo lazily off the high rise buildings of Yankee Hill.  Occasionally they are answered by a ship asea, like some love lorn animal seeking its mate.  These horns bring back such fond autumn memories for me, of my childhood growing up on Hackett Avenue.

Every fall we would build forts from the leaves, my brother, sister and I, and shoot up the neighborhood from the safety of our burrows within them.  We had few firearms.  Our parents were pacifists, as it were, and housed Students For McCarthy one election, and supported our efforts on behalf of a certain Senator four years later.  But this time of year out would come the rat-a-tat-tat mechanical plastic machine guns — M16 or AK-47, I could tell you not — and we’d dust off the old cap pistols from the cowboy and Indian sets.

Upon settling in the house on Hackett, in 1966, my father went exploring at Boerner Botanical Gardens.  The rose gardens there being modeled after Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens at Regent’s Park, London.  He loved those roses, and was determined to find some which would acquit themselves well in this climate.  He selected some Florabunas, tho he didn’t know it yet.  He wrote to the chief grounds keeper, describing the flowers he wanted, and their location within the grounds, and received back by return post the specifics and where to buy them.

The graft roots in hand, the next season he planted them along the front walk; a line of thorned sentries to guard against stray pets (and their clumsy owners).  These florid red roses would all be gone come October nights, of course, but their skeleton were perfect structural support for the siege walls of our leaf forts.  To this we would add cardboard boxes dragged from the curb, and branches felled by those city crews who waged war against the Dutch Elm Disease which was to decimate, many times over, the ranks of our formerly cathedral-esque streets.

From the safety of our forts, under a sanguine, weighty and magnificent hunter’s moon, we waged war against our foes, real and imagined.  It may be the Smirle boy from down the street, or the Clarks, two doors to the south.  Maybe the Litzaff kids would venture our way (always ill advised) but we would hold them at bay, our rat-a-tat rifles springing to life under our seasoned command, our incongruous tri-cornered hats perched on our heads.

As the years crept by, however, those accouterments were first joined then supplanted by the various bits of Vietnam war paraphernalia which found its way to our house, from the rummage sales of the veteran-students who lived amongst the families on our street.  Along with this gear came a growing realization, too, that the very thing that our earnest student house guests — and even ourselves — were protesting about, war, was what we were playing at.  Gradually, then, the games of war fell away from us.  The great piles of leaves in the front yard went back to being prospective mulch in my mother’s compost heap, and our attentions turned to the unlikely election of one Senator McGovern to the Presidency, hoping to put to an end this reckless and ridiculous war which even in our little corner of Milwaukee one saw evidence of.

There had been the marches, of course, the uprisings at the university, and as the body counts on the nightly news began to crack into our childhood consciousness we were soon in full confrontation with the weightiest of issues, and our childhood was ending just as our political lives began.  We carried on an English tradition of Guy Fawkes Day.  We kids would fashion an effigy out of newspaper, leaves, old rags and paper bags.  My father would choose the political scourge of the day from the cover of the Saturday Review, Newsweek, or the rotogravure and plaster it onto the paper-bag head of our Frankenstein Guy.

We would load the Guy into the Radio Flyer wagon and parade him around the neighborhood on November 5th (which conveniently fell near to election day) and sing our little song, “Please do remember on the fifth of November that poor old Guy Fawkes was reduced to an ember!” then our plea, “Penny for the Guy, penny for the Guy!”  For Unicef, of course — Even in such dark celebration we maintained our liberal political correctness.  When we returned home we would place the Guy on the fire grate and commit him to the pyre.

But before that, all back through our young histories in Milwaukee, living as we did by the water, were the fog horns, those stoic sentries of the water, those siren guardian whose unflinching, signal wails would guide the ships to safety and away from peril.  As a youngster my favorite nights were those with the still cloak of fog heavy in the air, that Hunter’s Moon a mere smudge in the sky, and my mother and I reading bedtime stories to each other — H.G. Wells most often, but C.S. Lewis or others, too — as the fog horns wailed in the back ground.

After the last chapter of the night, my mother would pack up the book, tousle my hair, and tuck me in with a wee peck on the cheek.  “Go to sleep now,” she’d say, “and no staying up with that flashlight!”  Such admonition was hardly necessary, though, when the fog horns were sounding.  I would burrow deep into my covers, pulling them as high up around me as I could, and imagine myself at sea, with those taciturn fog horns wailing, the waves crashing, the rocks threatening, and my own future uncertain with peril.

Much of this memory comes crashing home this year — the foggy fall, the political currents, and the timely (it would seem) death of that brave Senator from my past.  George McGovern probably never had any chance, back then in 1972, but to my young eyes and to those of my siblings, he was a hero.  My politics were forever forged in the furnace of Vietnam, the 60’s, the races riots and body counts and fair housing marches and assassinations.  But it was those childhood nights of echoing fog horns which forged my soul, in the dark, under the covers, the words of H.G. Wells still resonating inside, feeling safe under my parent’s roof and wrapped tightly in their love.

Send me a picture of something Baton Rougian

I went on a mission to find something, “Baton Rougian.” Just what that may be escaped me, but I thought the first line of attack might be to find some genuine nature to photograph. Not as easy as it sounds down here.

I asked the client. “Oh I would go Downtown, to the casino, ‘Belle of Baton Rouge.'” she said.  “There’s that place there, arbotarium…no arbortari..” “Arboretum?” I offered. “Yes, that’s it. That’s were I go when I want to take some pictures.”

A little more discussion, and she said “Yeah, I would never go outside.” “Oh, so it’s an indoor arboretum?” “Oh yes, it’s just too hot to be outdoors!”

Okay, scratch that. I’m not going to a casino to take pictures of trees under glass, and try to pass that off as Baton Rougian!

My first destination, given that all I have so far seen is highways and hotel, was the Waddill Wildlife Refuge. Wrong! Closed Sunday and Monday, so that’s out.

Next up? “BREC Frenchtown Road Conservation Area” a few miles further east. Oops! Strike two! There is a rather permanent looking sign explaining that Louisiana is closed (as far as I can tell) until further notice. You can call or visit some offices, during very proscribed hours, to request permission to visit.

Oh well. At least along the way, I found much to admire about nature in Louisiana. It is certainly hardy. Despite all the indignities mankind seems to hurl at it, it just keeps slogging along. There is an air about things here, everything seems so… verdantly disheveled.

There were plenty of interesting views along the way, but given the prevalence of signs proclaiming, “Posted!” “No Trespassing!” “No Parking!” I decided discretion is the better part of valor after all. More so than in any of my foreign travels, I feel I cannot say for sure that the locals and myself share a common idea of civil behavior and other such norms. I do not mean to impugn the Baton Rougians, but I am not really in Baton Rouge, after all, but actually out of the corporate limits, in the backwoods (in a sense) and this is their turf, after all, so I just slink off.

Now, back at the hotel, after an hour or so of searching for nature, outdoors, that’s open… I gave up. I bought a screw-top bottle of Pinot Grigio (no corkscrew) and settled down to rest and catch up on news, etc.

Moving Things

Back in 2009, Pawn saw a piece of art which was particularly moving. Days later, he brought friend L back to see it, and she, too, found it moving. Finally, on the last day of the visit, he met up with new friend A, and she convinced him to buy it. Shortly before leaving for the airport, Pawn returned one last time to the Crypt of Saint Pancras Church, and uttered the fateful sentence, “If you can figure out how to ship it to me for a reasonable price, I’ll take it.”

Short Stories in crate

It took several weeks, but the intrepid Claire Palfreyman, maker of said artwork, found a shipper worthy of the task, and Short Stories, Volume 1, was on its way across the Atlantic, safely ensconced in a custom made crate, protected from buffeting. Shortly thereafter it was installed in Pawn’s state-side offices, and he has shared an office with it ever since. Pawn LOVES this piece of art, and is proud to have it in his collection.

Short Stories, Volume One 2009

Also on that last day in London, May of 2009, was fortunate enough to meet Claire, creator of Short Stories and to have a brief chat with her. Upon returning this year, I reached out to see if she would be up for a visit, so that I could see her other work, and chat about art. Yes, and yes, and today that happened.

I hopped the train, first the tube to Paddington and then the Heathrow Connect to Hanwell, where Claire and Charlie, her Parson’s Jack Russell, met me and led me to her home. We chatted over tea in her lovely kitchen while she told me of her current craft projects, built around her We Make Here classes, “Workshops where you meet, eat and create” as her website touts. We discussed her ceramics work, of which Short Stories is but one component, and about how art moves life just as life moves art.

In her studio, Claire shared sketches of work both realised and not, as well as stories of the late, missing partner to Short Stories, and a photo of this poor, ceramic soul. I admired the maquettes of work planned but not (yet) made, and, back in the house, some beautifully realised works.

Some more chat, and a lovely stroll, with Charlie along, back to the station to wait for the train back to London. I treasure making friends abroad. Claire was an artist whose work I bought, but after an afternoon of chat and shared appreciation of the role art can play in our lives, I’d like to think she’s a friend, too.

Friendship, and thing which move us, is also at the heart of tonight’s entertainment, Port Authority, at the Southwark Playhouse Vault. If there is a theme to our shows, last night and tonight, is of hidden vaults, dank and beautiful in their decay. Last night it was Old Vic Tunnels, under Waterloo Station. Tonight it was the vaults under London Bridge Approach. Southwark Playhouse has been using this space for some time, so it is not as “fresh” as OVT, but OMG what an atmosphere!

Port Authority - Southwark Playhouse

The play, by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, is entirely constructed of long soliloquy, a McPherson trademark. It wasn’t that long ago that both X and I saw The Good Thief, presented by Theatre Gigante, with Malcolm Tulip in the sole role, making a 60 minute address to the audience seated around him in the pub, as though he were merely talking to friends and acquaintances. Tonight we watched as Dermot (Ardal O’Hanlon), Joe (John Rogan) and Kevin (Andrew Nolan) each, separately, and with no regard or even awareness for each other, told us of those with whom they were close, loved, idolized or ignored.

Kevin is a young man, telling us of his first attempt to fly the coop, and of the woman he loved, and the woman he shagged, and of the difficulty of maintaining that distinction, all whilst following his mate’s bands and drinking to blinding excess.

Joe is an old man, living in care, who has a secret, well almost a secret, with which he has lived for over 40 years. He knows he is near the end of his allotment, and he knows his God will judge him (He knows), but he has a totem now, a keepsake, which speaks to him of a road not taken.

Dermot is a likeable buffoon, a poor, pitiable man whose life takes an unexpected turn, and then doubles back to leave him just where he was. His life has been full of these types of turns, but he hasn’t even realised it until he finds his head falling, falling into…

Well then, that would be giving it all away, wouldn’t it? No, the text is too good, the acting too real, the space too perfect and the production too effing well done. Go see it yourself!

New York — Ides of April Edition, 2010

Sun shapes on stairway

“Are you an artist too man?”

The question came innocently enough. That was James, our erstwhile bartender, after learning that I once knew Carri Skoczek, yesterday at Clem’s.

“Was, I was an artist.”

“What you mean, ‘was’? You don’t just stop being an artist. Maybe you aren’t making any art, but if you’re an artist, you’re an artist.”

“I was a lighting designer,” I told him. “You can’t just pick that up and do it anywhere, you know. You need a stage, and performers, and lights, and…”

“Ooh, I get it. Yeah, you kinda need a lotta help to get that done, doncha.”

“Yeah, you need a lot of help. I make art that needs a lot of help, so I don’t make art anymore.”

“That sucks, man. Shit.”

Okay, that was yesterday, and doesn’t really belong in today’s gazette, but it’s here for a reason. To whit: today we went to the American Museum of Folk Art. This lovely little institution, tucked in next to MoMA and The Modern, hosts one of the nicest collections of naïve, folk and self-taught art around, and although they have precious little space to show it in, they do so in a loving yet erudite manner.

When I look at this kind of art, I find myself always pondering the question of motivation, drive, inspiration… This seems inadequate to my point. Let’s try this; when someone grows up and goes to art school and starts to make art and exhibit it, or perform or what have you, it seems that there is a path, a trajectory, that gets them there. The motivation and drive are clear. For the self taught, the naïve, there is no such path. These are just normal work-a-day people who feel some compulsion to, at the end of a long day laboring over a plow or a broom or a stove, they decide to pick up a paint brush, embroidery needle, or what have you, and start making art.

I never “made art” in the sense of making a durable thing – painting, print, etc. – which one could take away from the experience and hang on a wall. I made art which was of its very nature ephemeral, transient, fleeting. My art was formal, in that it sprang from formalized structures and norms, it followed rules, to some extent, and it had a place in history in so far as it was informed by those who came before me, and was crafted with the tools and instruments available to me in my time. The naïve artist, on the contrary, is working out of time. Their work is singular and apart. Or, at least to my uneducated and impressionable eyes, it seems so.

It was thus that I gazed upon the self-made personal art collection of Henry Darger, on display at AMFA, which shows over 80 pieces of this significant 20th century self-taught artist’s own works which had hung on the walls of his tiny hovel in Chicago for the 40 years he lived there. It is a departure of a show for this museum, which holds the largest collection of Darger’s work in the world. I am used to coming here and being confronted with rooms of his mural sized hallucinatory fantastical ramblings, paint and tracery works, filling the whole of one or two floors of the museum. Not today, now it is these small, 16” x 20” average, pieces. Why? I wonder. What led this man, who worked 10 hour days in Catholic hospitals, sweeping and mopping, to then return home and write 4, four, 15,000 page epics about his fantasy world, backed by thousands and thousands of paintings?

Anyway, I don’t mean to dwell on this anymore than I already have. I just wanted to share that I realize that there are many reasons people make art. I know that people will probably chide me about this post, like, “Duh? Don’t you get it man, people want to make art!?!?” Yes, I get that. It is just the scale, sometimes, which causes me to ponder this. I guess. Whatever.

I can’t make my art, or I gave up on doing so, in the face of the challenges I faced. These people, these people whose work fills AMFA, likely never even felt that challenge, they just knew they wanted to make art, and they did so. They likely would have regarded me and said, “Huh? What of it, get off yer arse and express yourself!” The thing is that I do, of course. I express myself, now, in words rather than stage paintings. I use the tools of metaphor and simile instead of lekos and fresnels. I use a word processor instead of a light palette. I still make art, I guess, but I paint my pictures in words rather than those fields of light and shadow and color and smoke.


Runaway Vampires

Pawn just read this over at the Gray Lady:

Kristen Stewart, the 19-year-old co-star of the “Twilight” blockbusters, plays a New Orleans stripper in “Welcome to the Rileys,” which also stars James Gandolfini as a damaged businessman. Mr. Cooper noted that Ms. Stewart also has a noncompetition entry: in “The Runaways,” directed by Floria Sigismondi, Ms. Stewart plays a young Joan Jett.
Sundance, With a New Leader, Hones Its Indy Edge –

Pawn has a warm place in his heart for Ms Jett.  Not only for her great contributions to Rock and Roll music, but for her stand up performance back in Iowa during the 2004 Presidential campaign.  As I journaled then…

Jeneane Garofalo is in town, as is Joan Jett. They are doing a show, kind of an Iowa Perfect Storm USO show to thank and bolster the Dean faithful. Seems that just one floor up is a meeting of the Young Republican’s Caucus Organizing Committee. You have to ask yourself if the facility scheduler had thought this through or not. Anyway, once the YRs find out that the Dean people are downstairs they take a vote of the organizing committee and have a unanimous vote of seven yeas (I’m not making this up, the head of the organizing committee boasted about it on TV) to go down to the Dean rally and do what they can to disrupt it!

Jeneane Garofalo addresses the crowd (photo courtesy

This is unreal, these guys have taken compassionate conservatism to a whole new level! They head down to the rally, armed with Bush/Cheney campaign signs (so there is no doubt who to blame…) and start trying to inspire a melee. The Dean folks simply block the B/C signs with their own, not a tough task given the numbers involved. There is a large contingent of Planned Parenthood folks and “Stand Up for Choice” there as well, which further skews the balance of power.

No one is taking the bait, however, no one is rising to fight, nor do anything other than try to block the B/C signs. Then, Joan Jett starts to play the National Anthem. This is apparently too much patriotism for the YRs and much like the effect of Slim Whitman music on the Martians in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, their heads simply start to explode.

Well, okay, not exactly, but it’s almost the same thing. One of the more compassionate conservatives decides to give Ms Jett a really good shove, while she is playing. Our portly protector of family values seemed to have misjudged his target, however, as Joan (about one third this guys size, and more than twice his age) shrugs off his shove and then comes back swinging. She manages to land a few good ones before Dean people separate the two.

Joan Jett immediately after the altercation (photo courtesy

This is all captured by several TV cameras, including that of Joe Jensen, the guy who trained us on Friday. This is a lead story on all of the local news. You just can’t make this stuff up!

Okay then, the gloves are off in the Republican camp at least.

I haven’t rushed out to see the Twilight films, but I can’t wait to see Miss Stewart in The Runaways.