Saturday, December 30, 2006


Following crusty loaves of life itself

“You have to cut it thick. That’s what he said about the bread, the round crusty loaf he called Campobasso bread, after the name of the store, which itself was named for a mountain town on the spine of Italy. The best bread, you cut it too thin, he said, it’s worthless. I watched him cut bread, holding the loaf on its side with one hand, thumb of the other hand, the knife hand, edging over the haft onto the back of the blade to guide the slicing, down through the crust and into the springy middle of the bread. –DON DeLILLO, Underworld

I first experienced bread like this – bread which is: a thing you eat and a city and a religion and a culture and a history – in the twisting, labyrinthine streets of Prague with Jennifer and the ghost of Kafka. Bread which you buy in quartered hunks from corner grocers with drooping untrimmed mustaches or if you are very lucky from a rotund baker in a white shirt and white apron. In the latter case the bread will be made to taste even better if the backroom business is right up front: the ovens, the mixing tables, the smells right there in front of your eyes.

New York is good for this. Last Saturday after Jennifer and I finished looking at the Brooklyn Museum of Art we wandered past the twinkling Christmas Tree made entirely out of tiny shifting lights in Army Plaza in front of Prospect Park and happened upon a Jamaican bakery which as it turned out to Jennifer’s glee specialized in vegetarian patties (patties are a sort of half-moon pastry stuffed with stuff). According to Melanie (who is Jamaican, so she should know), the proper way to eat patties is to stuff them in coca bread (which is similar to Haitian bread but not quite as heavy, sweeter, and with more butter). As we stepped into the bakery, the dreadlocked apronman was walking a big tray of oven-hot coca bread behind the counter. It was hot, sweet, good; the way it should be. Ten minutes later when we left, the tray of coca bread was half-way gone.

Mark Bittman, the Minimalist in the “Dining In” section of the Wednesday, New York Times, says that bread baking has not changed much in its 6,000 year-old history. We do it much the same as the Old Kingdom Egyptians, but in a near perfect world the flavor, the crust, the smell, the shape, should be different – not a pre-sliced homogenous mass in a plastic bag. Bread should take us to another place – it should tell us something about the people that eat it. Bread contains a history of taste; a drama of grain ground to white, sifted, and worked into shape. The turning of earth into the ration of life.

Understandably, most of us don’t have the time or spaces compatible with bread baking or buying from flour-coated rotund men with untrimmed mustaches, but using the Minimalist’s methods, Jennifer and I have been able to replicate the little round pieces of crusty history I and Don describe above in a (surprise!) minimal amount of time. Get the recipe for the No-Knead Revolution by clicking here

Saturday, December 23, 2006


Pure Sound

"Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was?" -Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Last night I pushed open the thick oak door of St. Thomas Church on the corner of 53rd Street and 5th Avenue against the babble of Christmas revelers. As the black parts of my eyes adjusted to the flickering decentered dimness of the cavernous sanctuary, a solid slowly-moving wave of unwavering sound struck me and the hundreds of spell-bound mutes lining the pews. At once delicate and declarative, self-conscious in its desire, John Scott was intoning Messiaen’s Nativite du Seigneur for a hushed audience of, from my wooden seat against a pillar, 31 candles. When I halfway closed my eyes – the back of my head pressed into stone, those lights became 5-sided pinpricks, pulsating stars of light and sound. When I looked at the massive arches framing windows of heavy lead glass stained in shades of incandescent light 100 feet above me I felt taken back to a place where the baroque was what was; or another way, a place incomprehensible to darkness.

To the incredulity of some, namely Harlan, I have fallen into the embrace of the Baroque sensibility – or what I want it to be: an intense longing for words, for sounds, which are Life, a romance much more real than the dramatics of the Romantic. Beginning with Monteverdi’s madrigal Lamento Della Ninfa and Scarlatti’s cantatas to the pipe organ I heard last night the Baroque (or things that sound like it) is an insanity of want: hands clawing at the sky, grasping at the ephemeral essence of Life. As it turns out the baroque was the first "classic" music I knew: Handel’s Messiah was a Christmas staple. This was followed by plenty of Bach and Vivaldi – all of which I sang or played on the guitar now stuffed behind my couch. Perhaps this is why I prejudiced it so quickly as ubiquitous pop as ostentatious fluttering around an empty center: like Rococo decorative arts, all elaborately adorned nymphs and ‘demon-possessed’ babies. Or rich people paying possibly-brilliant impoverished musicians to produce fancy theatre. And this often is the way the baroque sensibility is expressed: as an ornamental fashion exhibition (notice my breath control!), sans soul, which is precisely what it demands.

When I listened to John Scott in that voluminous space last night, I was taken to variations of Philip Glass, to Medieval chants, to Haitian hymn singing, to the lyrics of Italo Calvino’s Baron in the Trees, to the most sacred of music. According to Rousset: ‘to the intuition of an unstable and moving world, of a multiple and inconstant life, hesitating between being and seeming, fond of disguise and of theatrical representation, there correspond, on the expressive and structural level a rhetoric of metaphor and trompe l'oeil, a poetics of surprise and variousness, and a style of metamorphosis,’ of dynamic spread and dispersion in unity, an action constantly beginning over and never completed, a perpetual transmutation which is central to the work: the baroque. The music I describe is the sound twisting through time and space of humans speaking to God: a trace of Truth. Close your eyes like I did last night and see sounds leap in a variegated stream of convoluting arcs always upward, renewing again, stretching, sucking the breath out of your chest: reaching for you soul.

Hear a short version of Monteverdi’s Lamento Della Ninfa here

Friday, December 15, 2006


Occurrences of Being

I’m feeling a bit loopy as is the result of a head filled with snot and Tylenol four. An eventful week has past, my long-time wife of 19 months (nearly) is off in a small town one hour north of Pittsburgh making friends with toddlers who belong to old friends of hers. I am here at home sipping flat Sprite, and avoiding the 200 pages that need to be read. I’m not sure why. Why anything?

Other events (my wife leaving is an event) include two dental carries filled by a limping Jewish dentist who is a big fan of the Dallas Cowboys and quickly drilling holes in people’s mouths – making them practice zen contemplation so as not to gag. It smelled hot, like rubber burning, or maybe like brakes on a 1979 motor-home screeching down a mountain somewhere west of Canon City, Colorado. I have another cavity to fill next Monday, a root to be canalled some time next month. I learned how to floss even the back ones this week.

My sister and her Richard and their two small ones came to see us last weekend. It was fun to see them, read them stories, hoist them on my shoulders for rides, talk photos and cameras. We went to a pale mint green Pakistani restaurant for Microwaved curry. A visiting Muslim asked us to move our stroller off of the green carpet in the back which was reserved for cattycorner prayers toward Mecca. We ate well, the tea was good. Shannon gave me a hug when they left; not sure why but it reminded me of the time she kissed me on the cheek when I was about 13. Taken by surprise and for lack of a better response I said something like: gross!
While they were here we made this picture: Gabriel, Shannon, Rich, Anastasia the Ear Licker

Josh and Terri came too, last weekend. We had a good time, Josh and I, looking out the back glass of the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center at the gaping hole made by hijacked airplanes. We talked about what it means to work/live in a tower, how once you reach the top floor there’s no where else to go. We saw a white plastic bag floating high above the city which Josh thought looked like a kite. I thought that was one thing you could do if you were stuck in the top of a tower – fly a kite. Josh thought about what it must have been like to see people jump out of the melting towers that day. I’m going to remember to stay low to the ground so that if I need to jump I don’t make a sickening thud.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


The time-space of the counterworld

The human world gets smaller at night. Or the night limits the relationships out of which a society can get constituted. New York becomes more understandable – a small town that exists in the middle of a sleeping city. The trains run on a schedule. Since it is too cold to ride my bike (I deign), every working night I get on the A train at 11:29. I ride in the south end of the second car next to the black man with over-sized glasses – leftovers from the 80s – who listens to music on non-I-pod in the ear speakers while he assumes a dozing position. Things are copasetic, normally, until we get to 125th street at which point the Hispanic, heavymetal listening 86th street doorman who recently moved to the Bronx from New Jersey climbs into the south end of the second car too (the south end of the second car opens up to the stairs at the 86th street stop hence our choices of postionality). We exchange greetings and make small talks, or fall asleep, in which case we sometimes miss our stop until one of us wakes up. He told me his name one time, but that was a long time ago. Mostly we talk about how unenthused we are to be going to work. He usually says he’s not "feeling it" tonight. I usually nod along, not because I’m feeling the same but because it seems like the empathetic thing to do.

We get off at our stop and go upstairs to say hi to Nogi, the Egyptian who sells coffee all night at the corner of 86th Street and Central Park West. The doorman goes to his door, and I talk to Nogi while I wait for my bus. Nogi notices if I don’t show up for a few days (which is often as 75 cents per day for coffee adds up after a while). I told him about my Thanksgiving and he told me about his. He works seven nights a week, in his coffee stand, because the Moroccan who had just started working for him two nights a week, quit after one of their customers got robbed at knife point. Nogi smiles anyway and says the weather is changing and tells me to “have a good night my friend.”

I’m smiling when I get on the M86, giving an unacknowledged nod to the bus driver, who always drives the 11:58 bus. When the bus stops for the light at 5th Avenue, he opens the door for me without asking. I tell him thank you and wish him a good night.

After I change into my Dickies, I swipe a New York Times and sit down to read about the world that (for now) I don’t miss at all. Maybe this is what it means to be in the world but not of it! By organizing my time and space in opposition to the regular, I’m able to be part of a little community where people have names and aspirations in the center of the world.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


The New Glasses Have Arrived

I now read things as ten percent blue. Jennifer reads without shades of gray.

Friday, December 01, 2006


In Other news

HOUSTON, TEXAS – Ending a monthlong strike, the union representing 5,300 janitors in Houston and the city’s major cleaning firms reached a tentative contract that raises their wages by nearly 50 percent over two years and provides them with a medical plan.

The organizing of the janitors last year by the Service Employees International Union was hailed by the labor movement as a major victory. The contract would gradually increase wages, which now average $5.25 an hour, to $7.75 by Jan. 1, 2009. The employers agreed to increase a janitor’s typical shift to six hours a day, from four, and to provide a medical plan. For a 30-hour week, a janitor would earn $232.50 in the final year, about $12,000 a year. “It’s a moment of great victory,” said Mercedes Herrera, a janitor for five years who earns $5.15 an hour. “I’ve earned the same ever since I started, so the raise is great.”

RONGCHENG INDUSTRY ZONE, TIANJIN, CHINA – At the end of a dusty road, we turned into the shower-curtain plant. Bao Jijun is in his early forties, tall, lean, and vigorous. He'd started his business three years before in a Beijing apartment with his wife and two other workers; within six months he was renting space at another factory; within a year he had leased this place. Now he had a hundred employees. We wandered through the workrooms, watching kids – almost everyone was between eighteen and twenty-two, as if the place were some kind of shower-curtain college – smooth long bolts of polyester onto huge tables, sew hems and grommets, fold the finished curtains into plastic bags, pack them into cartons. It's hard to imagine a much simpler product than a shower curtain.

Because of the summer heat, everyone worked from 7:30 to 11:30 and then again from 3:00 to 7:00. We'd been there for only a few minutes, in fact, when all labor ceased and everyone poured down the stairs into the cafeteria for lunch. Rice, green vegetables, eggplant stew, some kind of stuffed dumpling, and a big bowl of soup: 1.7 yuan, or about 20 cents. While people ate, we wandered into one of the dormitory rooms for girls (the boys were off a separate hall). Each room had four beds stacked on top of each other, one of which was for storing suitcases and clothes. The others were for sleeping, six girls to a room. There were stuffed bears, posters of pop singers, stacks of comics, little bottles of cosmetics. One desk to share, one fan. Next to the dormitory was a lounge with a giant TV and twenty or thirty battered chairs; the room next door had a Ping-Pong table. "Any of my workers who can beat me," Bao said, "gets a bottle of beer."

Virtually all of Bao's employees come from the province where he grew up, a couple hundred miles to the south. He let me interview as many as I wanted, with Wen acting as interpreter. The second worker I talked to was Liu Xia, eighteen years old, a lovely young woman nervous about talking to a strange American who inexplicably and impertinently wanted to know about her life. "There are four people in my home. My parents, my elder brother, and me. My parents aren't healthy. They do farm work, but my father has a bad knee, so my mother carries most of the load. I really wanted to help her. And my brother could go to college, but it would cost a lot. He is in the Shandong University of Science and Technology, studying mechanical design." In fact, it turns out, he had graduated just a week before, thanks to her earnings here at the curtain factory. I asked her if she had a stuffed bear on her bed like everyone else. Her eyes filled ominously. She likes them very much, she said, but she has to save all her earnings for her future.

From the New York Times and Bill McKibben in Harper's Magazine