Monday, June 18, 2007

-.i..', .o..l

Bloomsday 2007:

As the Dublin of James Joyce disappears under an avalanche of skyscrapers and sushi bars, one ghostly relic survives like a message from the past. High on the gable-end of a red-brick building overlooking Trinity College, large painted letters proclaim Finn’s Hotel. The sign advertises the dingy hotel on South Leinster Street where Nora Barnacle, red-haired and 20, worked as a chambermaid in 1904, when she was courted by the 22-year-old Joyce.

Their first date was 103 years ago today. Joyce considered it the turning point of his life, so much so that he set the entire action of his great novel Ulysses on June 16, 1904. Joyce-lovers around the world now celebrate June 16 as “Bloomsday”...

Joyce often came to Finn’s Hotel to collect Nora in the summer of 1904. They were in love, and she had agreed to leave Ireland with him. But, as she later told a friend, when he entered the hotel, shabbily dressed in canvas shoes and an old yachting cap, she wondered if she was right to entrust herself to him. But she did. As they left Dublin by boat on October 8, 1904, one of her main thoughts was of what people at the hotel would say when they found out that she had gone.

Five years later, when they were settled in Trieste where Joyce taught English, he returned to Ireland with some businessmen to found Ireland’s first cinema. Without explanation, he booked the men in to Finn's Hotel. It had not changed. “The place is very Irish,” he wrote to Nora. “The disorder of the table was Irish.”

Missing her, he was moved to tears by the sight of the room. In his emotional letter, he told Nora how he pictured her as she had been in 1904, “standing silently by the fire, or gazing out of the window across the misty college park”...

In time Trinity College came to own the five-storey building. Recently, however, Trinity sold it, along with several others, to the Dublin Dental College. The Dental College has just appointed the Dublin architects McCullough Mulvin to redesign the upper floors, paying special attention to preserving and possibly enhancing the lettering. But how to protect an alfresco icon? It is a difficult assignment. Repainting the words would take away their charm, yet time and the weather must take a toll.

Half a million visitors a year jostle past the Trinity railings to see the Book of Kells. They would be well advised to turn away from the tourist shops and to raise their eyes and cameras for a good look at Finn’s Hotel while it is still there.
- Brenda Maddox

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Forget About It

I didn’t think I would write about it, really, as so much is being said at the moment and, by and large, it’s being said rather well. But the continuing controversy doesn’t show any signs of abating, so I’m tempted to offer a few thoughts.

I haven’t seen this many people upset about a show’s last episode since The Prisoner and, frankly, they were only upset in the UK. No one here really noticed. Twin Peaks had a doozy of a finish, but it didn’t have that many viewers left to upset.

But everybody had a horse, and a theory, in this race. What’s astonishing to me is that there seems to have been so many viewers that, even after having watched season after season of a television show that made a point of playing by its own rules, somehow expected that David Chase would become a different animal entirely and capitulate when it came to the finale, delivering the trite old goods at last, perhaps some nice secondhand goods from the Houses of Scorsese and Coppola.

I’ve been sampling the reaction and although I think it’s safe to say that the positive comments outweign the negative ones, that negative club is still pretty sizable. There’s also a vocal contingent that insists on reading the end of The Sopranos in an intensely literal way (He’s dead! See that creepy guy? He whacked him! That's why the screen went black! I'm tellin' ya!), even though this theory depends on the show (as I said before) completely changing its narrative approach.

In a season that was so full of the violent and dramatic moments that many fans had complained were lacking in recent years, I suppose it wasn’t unreasonable to expect one last stinger at the end. But this had always been a show that went about its business so slowly and quietly that you didn’t realize where it was going until it got there, and then the result seemed so inevitable and perfect that you sort of sat back in awe.

Far from being the low-key letdown that many said, the last episode of The Sopranos deftly gathered up the threads it had unwound all season (or, maybe, all six seasons) as long-standing opposites finally converged and we all finally ended up in the Hell that Tony has so devoutly wished for.

The best of these may have been the revelation that Agent Harris, the FBI man who’s worked so hard these many years to put Tony away and who’s been working the anti-terrorism beat of late, is virtually the flip side of the same coin. Having him show up so frequently to pump Tony for possible terrorist info distracted us from the real story. These two like and respect each other. Towards the end and at his lowest ebb, Harris is the one person Tony can safely trust. His lifestyle turns out to be a mirror image of the mob boss’s, complete with goomah. He practically replaces Silvio as consigliere.

It may seem a little LitCrit 101 (Good and Evil wear the same tieclip! Ooh!) but in the context of The Sopranos, a program that has insisted from the beginning that there are no such things as moral absolutes, merely different degrees of corruptibility, it just enforces the general feeling of hopelessness. Thank god it does it with a sense of humor – one of the episode’s high points is when Harris, having been informed of the death of Tony’s rival Phil Leotardo, throws away his last remaining vestige of being a lawman and blurts out like a Bush/Cheney cheerleader, “Damn! We’re gonna win this thing!” Harris has stared into the abyss too long and we leave him as mad as Ahab or Kurtz. The show has never been shy about who it thinks the real crime family is and having our guy from the anti-terrorism squad unabashedly rooting for the murderer that he personally likes, babbling crazed bromides about the success of a mission he’s completely lost his moral compass on, is the program’s final parting shot.

In that sense, the series was sort of a throwback to the films of the 1970's that featured protagonists that found themselves floundering in the depths of moral ambiguity, specks in an amoral universe that no longer believed in right and wrong. If post-Watergate films like The Conversation, Night Moves, and Chinatown (which may have gotten a brief shout-out last Sunday night when Butchie found himself suddenly lost) were born out of our disillusionment with the cultural heroes of the previous generation, The Sopranos found us with amnesia once again. Feeling nostalgic for an America long gone, that Reaganesque dream of straight-shooters (no pun intended) and men's men (is it a coincidence that the ascendency of The Sopranos occurred in tandem with the rise of cigar smoking clubs and lad's mag culture?), we wanted a brute who'd read the riot act to our new touchy-feely landscape.

Who better than a gangster trying to get in touch with his feelings?

Conclusion: Tony Saw Quark’s Million Pets, or: The Infinite Googootz

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Hail To The Cheese

It was a brutal blast furnace of a day here in the Cradle of Liberty.

Things melted on contact with the air. There was a heat advisory up and people were warned to put off any outdoor physical activities until the weekend.

Hey, you don’t have to tell me twice.

Because of the briefness of my lunch break, I had little chance to grab anything substantial. Instead, I opted for something chocolate and I tried to eat it while I was driving. Even with the AC going, the chocolate was quickly melting by the time I got to the end of it.

So having eaten such a poor lunch, it seemed prudent to try and consume a healthy dinner. Which is how the subject of cheesesteaks came up.

It is, of course, the gooey ambrosia that every Philadelphian is brought up to cherish. Some favor the steak from their neighborhood joint, the tourists line up at Pat’s, but among those in the know, there are a handful of shops that offer the real experience: meat, cheese, onions, and sauce, laid out on an Italian roll as those who consume it will soon be laid out.

Truth be told, I don’t have them as often as I used to, but it makes for a nice treat on occasion. So we headed out for our favorite cheesesteak place, a little hole-in-the-wall just minutes from here that knows how to balance the delicate elements involved just so and at a very reasonable price. There’s very limited seating at a small counter, but most of the business is take out. The counter itself is awash in tubs of various peppers and chiles, to be added according to taste.

Shoulder to shoulder with our fellow steakaphiles, we huddled stoop-shouldered on our stools as we waited for our meals to arrive, cramped against the crush of the line of take out customers and biding our time with sodas.

It seemed to be taking a lot longer than usual, though, and at one point, Fate intervened and decided to entertain us.

Apparently a young couple recognized a group of friends who were also waiting for their taste of authentic local cuisine. Pleasantries were exchanged.

“So what are you doing here, dude?”

“Well, my friend Vermin here came all the way from Pittsburgh to see the bike race tomorrow!”

I can’t imagine anything more boring than driving from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, unless it’s watching a bike race in Philadelphia.

“You should stop by, dude. We’re having a kegger all weekend, man!”

“Dude, that’s so awesome!”

“What are you guys doing?”

“We don’t know. We just bought this case of beer, man!”

“That’s so righteous, dude!”

And then there was this laughter that seemed to come out of our deeply primordial past, a gut-rumbling blast that seemed to suck all the intelligence out of the room.

“Well, later, dude!”

“Later, man! Stop by some time this weekend! We’re gonna be wasted!”


Our cheesesteaks arrived and we ate them in a respectful silence. After all, it isn’t every day you get to meet a future President of the United States.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Judas Sheep

Never thought Marc Riley got the credit he deserved. I always thought he was more than caretaker of the Fall sound circa 1980 and his songs were sharp and sarcastic. Here's a favorite track of mine (is it that banging piano?) that I'm delighted to find has a video.

Laid back activists, roll me another
About as radical as my dear mother...


Thursday, June 07, 2007


Having been brought up Protestant and then converting to Judaism late in life has given me plenty of opportunities to theorize about what happens to us after death.

Here’s the curious thing about it:

Although I have become more and more established in my belief that we do not continue on in any comprehensible form after we die, I find that I am just as irritated as I ever was by those who scorn the possibility of an afterlife.

You know, the Amazing Randi, Penn and Teller-types who are so proud of themselves when they debunk a spiritualist.

I mean, talk about shooting fish in a barrel. Seances are bunk? Well, duh.

What position is easier to take than to say that you can only believe in what you can see?

I find it easier to sympathize with people whose faith leads them to believe in something bigger, even if I don’t agree with them.

At least they’re taking a shot.

I’m striding a strange fence here, I suppose. The fact is that I cannot believe that any of us has a personality so original and individual that it will survive the death of the body. That is, I don’t think I’ll be bumping into anyone I knew after the fact, swapping stories about the good old days.

And where’s that $5 you owe me?

On the other hand, I think the possibility of transcendence, of engaging the world in an ecstatic fashion, is available to us while we are here.

That death is ultimately meaningless because of the strength and beauty of the human spirit, which is eternal.

That the grace and song of us lies in the human condition, trying to find the best way to go as creatures struggling to be something between animals and gods.

That all of this is dross and anything of value is invisible.

I attended a funeral Mass yesterday and much of what was said assumed that we go somewhere after we die, that a place has been prepared for us, an eternal home.

Each time the point was made, I thought of how comforting it would be to believe it. But this always seems to me to write off what we did while we were here, the ordinary, often unpoetic rituals of living which are, to my mind, all that counts. All there is.

What if they gave you the choice? Would you want to live forever?

Each time we were told to stand up, I found myself balancing on my fingertips which were just grazing the pew in front of me. It reminded me of the way you’re supposed to set your fingers on the planchette of a ouija board as you try to encourage the spirits to spell out some ghostly communiqué.

I listen for voices, the sound of curtains rustling and windows opening, the faint whisper of breath from the other side.

Reaching out from my trench, I find the world.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

How To Cook Your Own Goose

It was two years ago yesterday that, in an inaugural post entitled Oh Brother!, I wrote the following:

Another wild goose needs chasing.

I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, as I wasn’t quite sure what the purpose of this project was. But I hoped it expressed what I was feeling about this latest endeavor.

To put it another way, here we go again.

And if you’ve stuck with us for any length of time, you know what I mean.

This was to be the latest in a long line of thankless and foolhardy tasks, perhaps the most useless and cosmically disposable of them all.

And, as it turned out, I then proceeded to tell you about many of them.

Stories of the last chance, the lost opportunity, and the least resistance.

It slowly found its way, but I have not been as prolific as I would have liked. Last year, particularly, provided slim pickings for anyone who stumbled in.

Hopefully, though, there were moments that made a visit worthwhile.

I made that first post as a dare to myself, to see if I could do it, to see how far I could go.

A lot of the results were sloppy, but some of them were pleasant surprises, things I’d never have done if I hadn’t posted that initial sigh of undisguised tedium.

For those presents, I am thankful.

After that first post, it was sink-or-swim. I guess what happened is that in writing about sinking, I learned to swim better.

I have learned that everything works better and more efficiently when you exercise it.

And sometimes chasing that goose is the only exercise I get.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


There’s an old saw about becoming bitter and more discouraged as you get older: something about having seen it all and done it all and suspecting that nothing new is coming up on the horizon.

It was a place I never wanted to be. In fact, I can remember at one point thinking that the worst thing about dying would be not getting to see things play out, see where mankind goes from here.

There’s a famous line some critic wrote about the work of Nathanael West. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist was that there was nothing to root for in his books, and what is worse – no rooters.

I always wanted to be a rooter. Truly.

I wanted to be an encouraging sort, someone who’d try and convince you that it was all worth the effort.

Because they’re out there. I’m jealous of them when I find them.

They’re well-adjusted types who generally have a good focus on things and aren’t easily disturbed by small setbacks.

They’re generally successful, as well. I think that sort of disposition is a real help in making one’s way and creating a good social and support network.

But I can’t help it. There’s just too much evidence that supports the opposite attitude.

Now, I’d rather not see the endless ways that mankind will continue to repeat its mistakes, or see the fakes, phonies and poseurs that will continue to be rewarded for thievery and mediocrity, or watch every decent impulse get slapped down and spat upon as the next generation of kids learns not to be too clever or smart or original.

And towering over it all, the almighty dollar bill: weapon, solace, endgame.

Well, sure. What else is new?

But I only suspected it before, in a callow, youthful way. Now I’ve watched it all happen, a lifetime of it.

There’s something else, though: there’s knowing that my turn is over and now all I get to do is watch what the next bunch do with theirs. No age lines, no responsibilities. An endless weekend of parties and promises.

I’m not going to tell them the truth about any of it. Why ruin it? They’ll find out soon enough.

Unless, of course, one of them manages to escape and become happy and successful. You can bet I’ll be there in a flash to sit them down and tell them where they went wrong.

Hip hip hooray.