Friday, April 27 2007
It's probably old news by now, but it's new to me: an animation of eight years of daily photos of one person's face. It was interesting to me because of a timelapse photo project I'm doing of the budding of springtime off the laboratory deck. I'm reminded of one of the reasons Rembrandt gave for doing so many self portraits over the span of his lifetime. He supposedly claimed he was trying to document the process of his own aging. I've also thought that it would be fun to animate all the photos I've taken of my face, which are usually from the same angle (with me making the same expression).
setting: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, New York
Recently Gretchen was published in an anthology of "emerging poets" called Best New Poets, 2006. "Emerging" means that none of these poets has yet managed to publish their own books of poetry. Gretchen, for example, has two complete manuscripts that remain unpublished. Best New Poets sells its anthologies in bookstores nationwide, and arranges readings in various places to promote the book. This evening there was a reading scheduled in Princeton, New Jersey, and Gretchen had agreed to be one of the readers. This meant a two and a half hour roadtrip. I was coming along, but the dogs would have to stay home and hang our with our neighbor "Aunt Andrea."
As we headed south down the Thruway and I-287, we were playing an Ellen Degeneres audio book on the CD player. I've seen video of ED's stand-up comedy and expected the book to be entertaining, but it seemed weak and disorganized. It also lacked necessary spice — I hadn't remembered her standup act being so G-rated.
Just for the additional brain capacity needed to drive in stressful conditions, we eventually had to turn off Ellen when I was searching for a gas station on a surface street somewhere in the jughandle hell of New Jersey. If I'd grown up in New Jersey, maybe I'd know to expect jughandles and not feel that desperate sense of being cut off from the entire left side of the Universe by an impenetrable wall of concrete Jersey barriers.
At some point along the way, Gretchen realized that her shirt, the one in which she'd intended to do her reading, was covered with cat hair and lint. This necessitated an emergency stop at a K-mart to obtain a roll of lint tape. It was a grim place, staffed and shopped mostly by people of Middle Eastern descent, one of whom wore a protective American flag croqueted across her chest. We hadn't been aware that K-mart was still an ongoing concern.
The first thing we did when we got to Princeton was park at the campus and tour the university's art museum, which was closing unusually early today to host an exclusive event to celebrate a Merrill Lynch-sponsored Pop Art exhibit. Actually, the only thing I knew about the upcoming event for sure was that Merrill Lynch was going to have something to do with it. Their logo was featured prominently on four large tripod-mounted flatscreens around the space where the event was to be held. Pop Art is, by the way, perhaps my least-favorite genre of visual art. If I see one more stack of Brillo boxes and determine they're not made of concrete, I'm going to give them a swift kick. How are those boxes any less irritating than the repetition of the Merrill Lynch logo on tripod-mounted flatscreens? Ooooh, that's right! It's art!
I should note, by the way, that the Princeton Pop Art exhibit has a distinctly nostalgic 1950s plasticy smell that I remember from other Pop Art exhibits. Back during the heyday of Pop Art, plastic was a revolutionary new substance barely out of the laboratory, and some of the kinks (carcinogenic and otherwise) had yet to be worked out. In my Art Since 1945 class back in Oberlin, I learned of at least one Pop Artist who died prematurely of brain cancer after a career of cooking plastics in her oven. I'm reminded of the wave of 50-something punk rockers dropping dead of the inevitable cancer resulting from their adolescent glue huffing.
My favorite part of the Princeton Art Museum was the collection of late-medieval paintings. The vast majority of these had been painted by unfamiliar artists and many of them were something less than masterpieces. They were there chiefly because of their antiquity and their amazing states of restoration. When one is looking at a wall full of unfamiliar medieval art by unknown artists, one is made acutely aware that there is far more to art history than the famous works one sees in art history books. This might seem like an obvious fact, but given the flawed logic system of the human brain, it isn't; it's easy to think that all streams in history are comprised entirely of their high points and greatest achievements, along with just enough rivalries to keep things interesting.
After we left the museum, both Gretchen and I were famished, so we parked on the main drag of downtown Princeton and looked for an open restaurant, preferably a Thai or Indian place (restaurant categories for which our home region is weak). Unfortunately, though, it was a little past 4:00 and none of the places we wanted to eat would open until 5:00 or 5:30. So we ended up in a brewpub called Triumph Brewing Company, where we ordered the a sampler of seven five ounce glasses of all the beers brewed there. To hold us over, we also got a large order of french fries. There's nothing quite as delicious as a french fry when you're experiencing low levels of blood glucose. It's like that first glass of water following a day spent biking across an arm of the Sahara. As for the beer, I didn't find myself preferring their hoppiest brew (as I do with Kingston's Keegan Ales) but did like their stout, which was much better than Mother's Milk, the Keegan Ales stout. You're going to have to excuse me for comparing everything microbrew to my hometown's microbrew's three beers.
Mostly because it opened a half hour before either of the two Indian restaurants, we took our early dinner at a Thai restaurant. Mine was a bowl of noodles containing two different phyla of unfortunate sea creatures. I made the mistake of getting the Thai iced coffee, which came absurdly sweetened. Come to think of it, that bowl of noodles had been much sweeter than it had any need to be.
Gretchen's reading was to be at a Barnes and Noble in a shopping mall out on the edge of town. You know the scene. The Barnes and Noble staff, as efficient as hangmen, had set up an array of chairs on one side of the vast store. It appeared to be the same number they'd set up whether the author was an unknown emerging poet or Stephen King. Tonight there would actually be three poets reading, and a larger audience than I would have expected developed considering the randomness (and anti-poetic) nature of the venue. It seems absurd to listen to poetry with a cup of Starbucks in your hand, but that's what I was doing. I had to do something to flush out the lingering, cloying remnants of that Thai coffee I'd foolishly tried to drink.
You can hear Gretchen's reading for yourself, though I didn't record anyone else.
Somehow Gretchen missed the episode of screaming child that happened during the reading of the guy who followed her, Chris.
After the reading there followed a few minutes of booksigning (yes, it turns out that even authors only represented in anthologies can sign the books that contain them). Then Chris, the second author who'd arranged this reading, invited us all back to his place for a low-key party.
It turned out that Chris was an instructor at an elite Princeton boarding school, and he lived on its campus with his wife. One of his duties was serving as in loco parentis for a dorm full of senior girls. He had a generous suite with a huge sun room and two floors of rooms outfitted with absurd white shag wall to wall carpet.
Other people showed up, all of them either from tonight's reading or neighbors in the weird "who knew it even existed" boarding school in loco parentis subculture. The conversation kept coming back to that subculture, and how it interfaces with the boarding school around it. The boarding school and its terminology is derived from similar elite schools in Britain. The students, for example, are in "forms," not "grades." Chris's wife, a French teacher at the school (and recently made head of its language department) showed up late to tonight's party, grabbed a beer, and joined the conversation. We already had her backstory: she is a little older than me, but, with one brief exception, had never lived anywhere but at boarding schools. Her parents had taught at one, and she'd graduated from college directly into teaching at one. Vast swaths of normal civilian experience had eluded her.
One of the guys who randomly showed up at tonight's party was the school's head of IT, and he came bearing a bowl full of cubed jalapeño cheese and a half gallon of cheap vodka steeped in cinnamon sticks. As an indication of how well-endowed the school is, he told us about their participation in RoboCup 2007, an international challenge to field the world's first robotic soccer team. A high school that can afford to field soccer-playing robots must have run out of ways to spend money.
We'd be spending the night in Princeton, and by the end of our time at the party, we'd gotten recommendations for a cheap, sleazy motel. Chris and his wife suggested the Howard Johnson and suggested we steer clear of Sleep-E Hollow, where it was supposedly possible to rent rooms by the hour.
But out in the hotel-rich fringe of town, we saw a sign that advertised low daily rates in the sub-$30 range, and this led us to abandon our HoJo-bound trajectory. When we got closer we realized we'd come to Sleep-E Hollow, and by now we were curious enough to want to see just how sleazy it was. When Gretchen signed in and got her key, she commented on how "bad" the manager's office smelled. "Bad, in what way?" I asked. "Old tobacco," she replied.
Our room, #44, was unassuming and unremarkable from the outside. It was part of a row of motel rooms made of brick, and the parking places were home to a smattering of ordinary-looking cars from a variety of states.
It was inside out room that I had my eyes opened about just how sleazy a motel room can be. First of all, there was the overpowering smell of bleach that took awhile to get used to. And then there was the fire engine red hot tub right there beside the bed. But the kicker was the mirrored ceiling and walls, which made it possible to watch seven different copies of the television screen in various directions.
While Gretchen was in the bathroom "slipping into something more comfortable," I turned on the teevee. It was already tuned to a porn channel, with one girl licking another girl's pussy while some dude with a limp dick gradually rose to the occasion. This had to be the worst porn ever, with one scenario after another opening somewhere in mid-action, with everyone already naked, penetrated/penetrating and moaning. It was that kind of porn that features lingering close-up scenes of a penis going into and then out of a shaved vagina (or asshole), which (for me at least) is about as erotic as watching wrestling calamari.
A sculpture outside the Princeton University Art Museum. It's by Magdalena Abakanowicz and is called Big Figures (20).
The poster advertising tonight's reading.
Gretchen reading tonight at the Princeton Barnes and Noble.
The ceiling of our motel room at Sleep-E Hollow Motel, Princeton, NJ.
The hot tub in our room.
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