31 December 2010

Feeding the Homeless Self

Yesterday, at an impromptu meeting about our homeless meal, our office manager suggested the importance of ensuring that our clients “gave back” by volunteering. I agreed with her, but I view it in a slightly different context. I believe we need to do anything we can to blur the hard contours between server and served. The times the meal runs best are when we have “clients” and volunteers working side-by-side and a hierarchy is less present. I am not serving you—we are all serving each other.

Many of us working in this field have connected with our own internal sense of homelessness, and at the very least have empathy for the people who walk through our doors due to our own experiences—internal and external—of homelessness. But I’m talking about something deeper. I believe this is discussed in the Buddhist tradition as “no boundary,” a space in which self and not-self merge, almost as the ultimate in empathy—yet empathy still implies a subject and object. And an inherent greater/lesser distinction. E.g., “I feel sorry for you.”

One of the most profound moments at our meal comes when the volunteers and staff sit down with the attendees and eat dinner. When I first arrived in town several years ago, it felt very natural for me to do this and, while I felt the usual trepidation when sitting down in a group of strangers, I never felt fear. I have since been told that many people are afraid to undertake this sort of intimate contact. I’m not sure what they fear, but they would rather express their generosity from afar. To me this seems as frustrating as writing a check to a charity and never getting to meet the people to whom it provides benefit. Sending money into the void has never felt very satisfying to me.

As humans, we spend a lot of time constructing false boundaries. People whose lives on the surface appear different from ours are often construed as scary. This “smoke detector” is mostly likely hardwired into our brains, a survival mechanism that may have outlived its usefulness. Depending on our feelings of internal security, we may have hair-trigger alarms, which get flipped at the slightest provocation. Person has different-colored skin. BRRRRNNNGGGGG!! I cannot imagine begging on a street corner. BRRRRNNNGGGG!!

So, we go off a lot.

But if we can take a minute, breathe, and try to imagine a connection instead of a wall, the brain can absorb some new information.

If we can find it in ourselves to sit down and share a meal with others whose lives are externally different from ours, we come to realize that we all have very similar goals: to be safe, to be loved, to be sheltered, to be fed, to be understood. And to take it a step further, we understand that even those of us who are fortunate enough to have four walls sheltering us are still homeless in an ultimate sense, that the fortifications we see as solid can only protect us from so much. And though the whole carefully engineered, painstakingly constructed bank vault we may have built around us seems pretty solid in the moment, as those who have survived natural disasters can attest, no one is exempt from the truth of life's impermanence.

It is good to understand how to survive without a home. It is good to realize that we already do.

18 December 2010

Photo of the Day - Colestin Valley, OR/CA

Late November snows on Mt. Ashland, at the entrance to Colestin Valley Rd., the route to the Buddhist monastery

16 December 2010

Lights & Virtues

Here's to lights and virtues
Here's to truths yet to be known
Knowledge to light the darkness
The search for things of your own

Here's to lights and virtues
Here's to reaching higher ground
A life of hope and purpose
Here's to strength yet to be found
Honor - though it goes unrecognized
And truth - though liars abound

The pleasure of love and friendship
The courage to be alone...
Jackson Browne

26 November 2010

Photo of the Day

Lithia Park
Ashland, OR
November 2010

23 November 2010

Thanks Giving Story

Tonight my coworkers at the meal told me this story, and it’s 100% true:

For many years, a woman named Ruth came to our homeless meal and passed out cartons of milk and cookies. She was more than 100 years old, but every week she would get all dressed up, in fancy clothes, makeup, and high heels, even if there was snow on the ground. She told everyone that she “was going to work,” and called our head cook her “boss.” When she got her social security checks, she would immediately go to the store and buy these sandwich crème cookies that were a favorite with our people. However, she never sampled them. It got to the point where her dementia was so severe that she couldn’t recognize the couple who picked her up to go to the meal. Yet she was ready at exactly the right time each week. Finally, one of the volunteers said to her, “You should really taste one of those cookies.” She just smiled. The next week, she died at the age of 103...never having tasted even one of the thousands of cookies she gave away.

02 November 2010

Michele & Heidi's Excellent Adventure

Michele is my best, best, best friend. She has been laughing at my jokes and listening to me ramble on and on for the past 25 years. That alone should get her sainthood. But there’s more! She’s humble, wise, sincere as the eye can see, patient, gentle, kind, loving, brilliant, tender-hearted, funny as hell, and pretty much the most wonderful person you’d ever be lucky enough to have as a friend. I would go on for pages more, but she hates that sort of thing and would probably slug me.

This is a mini diary of our trip to Portland and Seattle in October 2010, when she was nice enough to come out here and help me celebrate my birthday. It was, without exaggeration, a completely perfect week. I am incredibly blessed to have Micheley in my life. As I'm sure anyone who knows her will agree.

The City of Seattle, as reflected in the window of the Space Needle.
Sellwood district of Portland, where food carts rule and Buddhists make unagi in their Airstreams.

Standing on the dock of the bay, Portland
What a time we had at ol' Brick's. It's simply unimaginable to not stop when you see an octopus and a chicken outside a barbershop, and a mad Russian beckons you in for an eyebrow wax. Surrealism at its finest.

The hearse at the mausoleum. It was all going so well, until...I got snagged. And snagged by a mortician is harsh, I gotta tell ya!

An incredible store in Sellwood called Justin & Burks, a mom/gay son operation in which taxidermy and chandeliers huddle side by side. It's kind of like a date between Truman Capote and Annie Proulx...

27 October 2010

02 October 2010

Art Along the Rogue

Lions & Tigers & Bears, Oh My!
I spent this afternoon at Art Along the Rogue, an annual festival for young artists, who reproduce works of art—their own and others’--on the streets of Grants Pass. This year, the eighth, animals prevailed. 
For more of my images, see:

27 September 2010

Ashland Graffiti - Artists in the Alley

Shot in Ashland, OR, in September '10. I like the idea of bringing the natural world into graffiti art.

See the rest of my graffiti shots @ http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2090184&id=1438677225&fbid=1610576111150&ref=mf

18 September 2010

25 August 2010

Iraq War Protest - The Early Days

I've always really liked this photo. I shot it while I was in film school, making a short documentary called Peacekeepers, about the juxtaposition of the Santa Fe liberal/peace community and the nuke capital of Los Alamos, less than 30 miles away. This was a very early protest, shot in the months before the US invaded Iraq in March 2003.

20 August 2010

Lithia Park

Lithia Park
Ashland, OR
August 2010

19 August 2010

We Vacationed in Cambodia and All We Came Back With Was A Wedding Centerpiece and a Recipe for Viet Cong Flan

Perhaps I have worked a few too many weddings in my time. Seen a few too many spray-tanned CA girls dragging their new esposas by the ear. Watched a few too many garters being awkwardly removed by teeth and hurled toward waving bachelors. Seen a few too many overdressed middle-aged people attempting to dance coolly to Kid Rock's “All Summer Long.” And watched an extended series of $50,000 parties that no one would remember in any detail the next day.


My last gig just about broke me. It was held at an egregious vineyard staffed by oenocentric martinets, just outside of San Luis Obispo in the Edna Valley. That’s right, the EDNA VALLEY VINEYARD. Whose event coordinator, Tina, is probably one of the most hideously psychotic people one could ever work for. In fact, the entire staff is, verily, a psychiatric treasure trove just waiting to be tapped.

As I wended my way through the stream of Range Rovers and Mercedes SUVs, I could feel a certain tension start to build. I immediately sensed a snotty truffle-pig vibe, which, despite the cost of weddings here on the Central Coast, is more the exception than the rule. Unless of course you are visiting here from, say, the former Soviet Union, in which case the whole culture probably appears as one big batch of Coppertoned, blonde-highlighted bourgeois lunacy. (“Back in Russia, girl caught wearing Coppertone go to gulag for 10 years, split rocks with teeth!”)

As I walked through the kitchen door in my penguin suit, I was greeted by an alternately sullen and nervous collection of coworkers, all of whom looked like they’d rather be ironing in a Libyan sweatshop. My manager, who seemed ready to calve triplets, started plying me full of very, very, VERY specific instructions about things like what color pitcher to pour the iced tea into. Her eyes darted back and forth nervously across the kitchen like an animal spotting her own reflection in the crosshairs. When she informed me that my job was to keep the beverage pitchers full at all times, I could tell that this was a critical mission indeed and applied each and every one of my brain cells to the task.

But my first round involved setting up chairs in the postnuptial tent, where guests would be drinking, dining, and generally trying to impress a tableful of strangers with their rides, outfits, jobs, and knowledge of embarrassing incidents in the bride or groom’s adolescence. I glanced down at the centerpieces—usually a tasteful bouquet or petal-in-vase—and discovered that these kids had dreamed up something a little different. Special, if you will. Each table held a framed photo, taken at a remote point on the globe.

The first one I spotted was “Cambodia. Summer Vacation, 2007.” The next, “Oxford, Study Abroad, 2004.” And then, “Fiji and Auckland, Honeymoon, 2009.” The next, “Mediterranean Coast, Vacation, Summer 2005.” And then, “South Africa, January Semester, 2003.” On and on it went, this globetrot through Mr. & Mrs. Evolved’s trendy village, with each stop more precious and endearing than before. Clearly these 25-year-old jetsetters had climbed more 17ers in the Himalayas, tied more flys in saltwater flats in Quintana Roo, received more arcane transmissions and secret initiations from the highest-ranking Bon priests in Tibet, and built more road, bridges and tunnels for underprivileged vehicles in Maori settlements than FDR could shake a WPA Project at.

But little did I know that, lurking in the background behind the 5 photographers, 2 videographers, 2 DJs, 4 psychotic winery managers, and legions of other minions lurked another very special innovation. It was—can you stand it?--cieramarriestrevor.com. That’s right, Ciera marries Trevor dot com. A specially assembled site telling the Story of this adorable couple and the highly fascinating way they began dating as Cal Poly students and then got engaged on someone’s mom’s couch in Pismo Beach. A few clicks reveal complete footage of their Engagement Shoot, where we witness such delights as the bride-to-be’s hand-with-honking-rock resting against the groom-to-be’s jean-clad buttocks. Romantic Beach Sunset Strolls. Casual Fun Spontaneous Moments in the Great Out-of-Doors. And a close-up of their 2 feet in the sand, 2 Very Special Individuals no doubt bracing themselves against the high tide of narcissism, while revulsing Indian viewers everywhere.

I have to say that, after all of this hoopla, I felt compelled to get to know cieramarriestrevor.com and co. a little better. So after the wedding party had been seated at the nice long table for 50 of their nearest and dearest, I ventured over, ostensibly to begin filling water goblets.  Now, apparently there is a CA custom that involves potential brides not eating for at least 650 days before the wedding. This produces a long, lean look that not even Pilates can replicate. In this case, perhaps the calculations for required slenderness were based on the number of graven images to be struck: If video adds 10 pounds, then…5 photographers and 2 videographers could potentially add… OMG!! I need to lose, like, 70 pounds tonight! (I think a few smart brides should start filing suit against wedding photographers, claiming their trade as the reason for their anorexia. I believe this is a rich vein that a few good limo-chasers would be wise to tap.) 

Like many new brides, the royal celebration’s raison d’etre looked agitated, overwhelmed, adrenaline-fueled, thrilled, terrified, controlling, mildly ballistic, and, mostly…hungry. She looked quite distinctly hungry. By the time I returned to her chowing down on the main course, she had but one question for me, asked while chomping,

“What part of the cow is the tri-tip made from?”

Everything in me told me that I could not respond to this precious query in the way I wanted to:

“Mostly from its asshole, brains, and testicles.”

I simply smiled, knowingly, and replied, “You’ll have to ask our chef.”

As I moved toward her newly betrothed, I sensed the same slightly dazed look that all the grooms this season have worn, which though subtle and complex as a fine Edna Valley wine, combining many simultaneous notions:
1. Damn! I’m glad I’m not paying for all this. 2. I’ll bet the sex is gonna be great later. 3. Glad I didn’t have to do all the running around and plan this thing. 4. I’m still hung over from the rehearsal dinner. 5. Her cousin sure looks hot in that dress. 6. I didn’t screw up the vows too badly. 7. Whoa, steak! Awesome. 8. Wouldn’t it be funny if I smashed the cake in her face? 9. Dude, I get to go surf in Hawaii next week. Totally stoked!

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, my psychotic friend Tina was sharpening her teeth in preparation for taking a piece out of me. In the midst of all the commotion it seems that a few drops of iced tea had fallen on the floor and on their way down collided with a few unfortunate knives and spoons, “LOOK AT WHAT A FUCKING MESS YOU ARE MAKING! YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO TAKE OUT AND WASH EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF THAT SILVERWEAR YOU JUST RUINED. MOVE THE FUCKING ICED TEA SO YOU DON’T SPILL ANY MORE. WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU, ANYWAY, YOU STUPID IDIOT?”

I spun around and stared at her, realizing that I’d just been spoken to like a 12-year-old and trying to decide what the jail time might be for punching her straight in the jaw and/or potentially splitting her head open. In true Scorpio fashion, I opted for a longer range plan that would include well-timed acts of retribution that would affect her life, children, transportation, home, business, and leisure pursuits in small-but-powerful ways.

To be continued...

14 August 2010

On Letting Go

Excerpted from Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert

[Elizabeth Gilbert is in an ashram in India, talking about her lingering feelings for her ex-partner, David, with her friend Richard.]
“What’s got you all wadded up?” he drawls, toothpick in mouth, as usual.
“Don’t ask” I say, but then I start talking and tell him every bit of it, concluding with, “And worst of all, I can’t stop obsessing over David. I thought I was over him, but it’s all coming up again.”
He says, “Give it another six months, you’ll feel better.”
“I’ve already given it twelve months, Richard.”
“Then give it six more. Just keep throwin’ six months at it till it goes away. Stuff like this takes time.”
I exhale hotly though my nose, bull-like.
“Groceries,” Richard says, “listen to me. Someday you’re gonna look back on this moment of your life as such a sweet time of grieving. You’ll see that you were in mourning and your heart was broken, but your life was changing and you were in the best possible place in the world for it – in a beautiful place of worship, surrounded by grace. Take this time, every minute of it. Let things work themselves out here in India.”
“But I really loved him.”
“Big deal. So you fell in love with someone. Don’t you see what happened? This guy touched a place in your heart deeper than you thought you were capable of reaching. I mean you got zapped, kiddo. But that love you felt, that’s just the beginning. You just got a taste of love. That’s just limited little rinky-dink mortal love. Wait till you see how much more deeply you can love than that. Heck, Groceries – you have the capacity to someday love the whole world. It’s your destiny. Don’t laugh.”
“I’m not laughing.” I was actually crying. “And please don’t laugh at me now, but I think the reason it’s so hard for me to get over this guy is because I seriously believed David was my soul mate.”
“He probably was. Your problem is you don’t understand what that word means. People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that’s holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life. A true soul mate is probably the most important person you’ll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then they leave. And thank God for it. Your problem is, you just can’t let this one go. It’s over, Groceries. David’s purpose was to shake you up, drive you out of your marriage that you needed to leave, tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light could get in, make you so desperate and out of control that you had to transform your life, then introduce you to your spiritual master and beat it. That was his job, and he did great, but now it’s over. Problem is, you can’t accept that his relationship had a real short shelf life. You’re like a dog at the dump, baby – you’re just lickin’ at the empty tin can, trying to get more nutrition out of it. And if you’re not careful, that can’s gonna get stuck on your snout forever and make your life miserable. So drop it.”
“But I love him.”
“So love him.”
“But I miss him.”
“So miss him. Send him some love and light every time you think about him, then drop it. You’re just afraid to let go of the last bits of David because then you’ll be really alone, and Liz Gilbert is scared to death of what will happen if she’s really alone. But here’s what you gotta understand, Groceries. If you clear out all that space in your mind that you’re using right now to obsess about this guy, you’ll have a vacuum there, an open spot – a doorway. And guess what the universe will do with the doorway? It will rush in – God will rush in – and fill you with more love than you ever dreamed. So stop using David to block that door. Let it go.”
“But I wish me and David could —“
He cuts me off. “See, now that’s your problem. You’re wishin’ too much, baby. You gotta stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone oughtta be.”

For my review of her latest book, Committed, see:

26 July 2010

My Tour de France article

This just in... Please check out my Tour de France recap at: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/5622236/contador_edges_out_schleck_to_win_2010.html?cat=14

25 July 2010

Photo of the Day

Jackson County Fair, Central Point, OR, July 2010. This little guy seemed
to be begging me to take his photo,  in his goatlike way. How could I
refuse him?

07 July 2010

Photo of the Day

I didn't shoot this one, obviously, but I wish I knew who did. I found it as a B&W and Photoshopped it.

21 April 2010

Quote of the Day

There is an ancient Zen scroll that shows heaven and hell. In hell, the hungry ghosts are all sitting at a great banquet table filled with all kinds of delicacies, trying to feed themselves with very long spoons. But no matter how hard they try, they cannot reach their mouths.

In heaven, the hungry ghosts are sitting around the same banquet table. But these hungry spirits are feeding each other with their long spoons, so that they all can eat.

This is the way to transform our world from a hell to a heaven. Only when we offer a portion of our food to our fellow hungry ghosts can we satisfy our own deepest hunger.
-Bernie Glassman
Instructions to the Cook

30 March 2010

Photo of the Day

"Queen of Hearts"
Arroyo Grande, CA
May 2008

25 March 2010

The Beaches of Agnès

 Granted, I am a huge fan of Agnès Varda’s work—and persona. And granted, one of my favorite moments as a journalist came when I was standing in the newsroom at the Santa Fe New Mexican and picked up my phone to hear the “Godmother of the French New Wave” calling me from Paris. (I was writing a long retrospective of her career when she received a Santa Fe Film Festival award.) I’ve seen most of her American releases, which are, unfortunately, far fewer than the 46 films she’s directed. Sorry to report that even Netflix only stocks 8 of her films; my local video store and library system, not even 1. Then again, the latter failed miserably in the catalog of Jean-Luc Godard as well (0), making me wonder if the French New Wave was simply a figment nested in the imagination of my film school peers.

Eighty-one-year-old Varda is, first and foremost, a poet who happens to be holding a videocamera. And with The Beaches of Agnès, her autobiography, she quickly brings us into the stream of consciousness of her brilliant mind, regaling us with both fantastic images, filmic experiments, and words rendered so quietly and sweetly that it belies their utter veracity. With the fluidity of a Russian ballerina, she weaves still photos, clips from her films, present-day documentary footage, and fictional re-creations.

A viewer with a familiarity of her oeuvre will obviously take away greater understanding and enjoyment of this recounting of her life and work. Yet, I believe it’s accessible even for the uninitiated, as a tribute to an artist and iconoclast who sustains a strong vision and keen insight into life and art. And a great big heart.

“ ‘If we opened up people, we’d find landscapes.’ If we opened up me, we’d find beaches,” she begins, an apt conceit for the half-Greek filmmaker who has lived her life near the sea--even living aboard a boat during WWII. And thus, in the film’s opening shots, she constructs a web of mirrors propped on easels in the sand, reflecting the incoming waves. These are fancy, gilded, furniture mirrors, large and small, capturing both la plage and Varda’s reflection as she begins the narrative of her childhood. In and of itself, it’s a beautiful installation piece—greatly enhanced by the reflexive quality of a sea of cameras filming themselves. 

Moments later, she sets up family photos on blades of grass in the sand. While discussing an image of herself and her sister in their bathing suits, two little girls appear in current time, wearing the same sorts of suits. “I don’t know what it means to re-create a scene like this. Do we relive the moment?” Varda wonders. But her answer seems less about reconstructing the past (this is not a wistful film like Bergman’s Wild Strawberries), but more about delight in her powers as a magician with a camera. “For me, it’s cinema, it’s a game,” she says.

Some of the film’s sweetest moments derive from shots of her family—her two children and late-husband, fellow New Wave auteur Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). She obviously has great affection for the “peaceful island,” as she describes them. In one lovely scene, the extended family is dressed in white gauze, frolicking with the sea at their backs, while she is attired more formally, in a black dress and jacket. “Together they're the sum of my happiness. But I don't know if I know them, or understand them. I just go toward them.”

Varda employs an unusual technique of re-creating the major moments of her life/films while bringing her current self into the proceedings. In the age of social networking a la Facebook, with gambits toward entering the past as we simultaneously dwell in the present, this seems a very contemporary notion. With the gift of memory, we both do and don’t inhabit all of the times of our life at once. As she states, “I live. And as long as I live, I remember.”

One of La Varda’s most lovable traits is how utterly herself she can be. Her 8-decade-old hair sports its trademark bowl cut, yet in some scenes is colored almost parfaitlike (sans cerise) with white on top and deep red around the ends—gloriously unconventional, and wry. And indeed her sense of humor is continually present. (Watch for the naked old lady.) She also has the good sense not to take herself completely seriously. After revisiting her early home in Brussels and discovering that it is now inhabited by an avid train collector who prattles on about his collection, she concludes, “The ‘childhood home’ part was a flop.”

In 55 years of making films, the director has clearly spent ample time pondering the art of her craft. As she notes, “I think I've always lived in it.” This is obviously so, and without traditional tutelage. She claims to have made her directorial debut, La Pointe-Courte (1955), after having taken in just 10 films in her first 25 years. “I used my imagination and took the plunge.” This greatly flouted convention within French filmmaking of the time, in which training and credentials were paramount. Much of the film concerns images and the context of their creation— the process of birthing, what prompts images into being, the results of their existence, the ripple effects of the filmmaker’s art, and the inextricable link between maker and film.

Although Varda includes reenactments in this walk backward, she also allows the viewer to be in on their making. It’s as if she hopes to underscore the artifice and revels in the fact that we will knowingly suspend our disbelief anyway. In one scene, she sets up a production office atop sand dumped on a city street.

In addition to her calculated manipulations, however, Varda has also wracked up a good deal of documentary work. Early in her career as a photographer, she traveled to China to document the first stirrings of the Cultural Revolution. Later, she and Demy lived in Cuba, where she shot 4,000 stills, which she later animated for her film Salut les cubains. During the 1960s, she and Demy lived briefly in Los Angeles, where she shot a documentary about the Black Panthers and also the hippie-themed Lions Love. Having worked in the realms of both real and fabricated, she seems to beg the question, What is the true nature of reality?

The movie’s final scene reveals Varda’s “shack,” a studio she’s recently built on the beach. The filmmaker-as-architect metaphor made real, its walls are constructed of strips of celluloid from a 1966 film in carefully chosen colors, bathed in light. The structure is fragile yet appears solid. This is a wondrous metaphor, one that seems to encapsulate the artist’s spirit and life. "In here, it feels like I live in cinema," she notes. 

In a 6/25/09 New York Times interview, Varda recalled, “At one screening, there was a young man, maybe 22-years-old, who said about this film: ‘It gives you the desire to grow old.’ ”


Photo of the Day

The Dresser
Arroyo Grande, CA
May 2008

24 March 2010

Photo of the Day

"Memory in the Key of White"
Arroyo Grande, CA
May 2008

23 March 2010

Photo of the Day

"chaumière de cimetière"
Ferndale, CA
September 2009

22 March 2010

Photo of the Day

Watching the Waves Roll In
SeeVue Motel
Yachats, OR

Photo of the Day

Bodhi Tree
Newport, OR
February 2010

20 March 2010

Photo of the Day

leaning in
Newport, OR
February 2010

18 February 2010

Love and Grief, Singularly Expressed

The elegance of Tom Ford’s new film, A Single Man, has stayed with me for days. Based on the Christopher Isherwood novel of the same name, the picture studies a day in the life of George Falconer, a gay college professor whose partner has recently died in an accident. As we might expect from Ford, the renowned Santa Fe-based fashion designer, it proves a work of art in every respect, with close due paid to subtlety and nuance--right down to the glowing tip of its pink cigarettes. And the sets, costumes, and musical score are, of course, divine.

Cinematographer Eduard Grau has lensed the film with a palette ranging from highly saturated color to soft, brown-filtered grain. The action would seem to happen in pastel. Ford’s people are so very pretty, from Colin Firth’s impeccably groomed professor, to Nicholas Hoult’s wide-eyed schoolboy, to Julianne Moore’s gin-soaked fading flower. In stark contrast to the film's grief-infused theme, each surface, everywhere we rest our eyes, is lovely, pointing toward one of Isherwood’s meditations: Sometimes in great pain lies great beauty. As George discovers, grief can slow the world's pace, offering appreciation of the many details we may have otherwise missed: the sensual grace of a mouth, the buoyant spirit of an all-too-honest child, the aching heart of a lonely young man yearning for connection.

Having lived the typical life of a gay professional man in midcentury America, George has been walled behind a web of facades. His upper-class British background has wrought a template of strictures. He has successfully hidden a 16-year relationship with a much-younger man from all but his closest friends and family. And in his obsessive devotion to the surface details of his life, he appears to be even a mystery to himself. The film is set during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when fear and paranoia have spiked to epic levels, and even in Los Angeles, a gay professor at a small college can be given no quarter. But curiously enough, he and his partner have built an elegant glass house in Santa Monica, bringing the light of day into their quiet existence and allowing those who would look to glimpse the truth.

This is just one of many metaphors Isherwood puts forth in his deceptively simple story. Himself a gay man, he seems to have clearly understood and reckoned with the apparent necessity for walls in a hostile environment, and the deep sensitivity they sequester.

Ford has wisely selected his cast, all of whom turn in outstanding performances. Each is pitch-perfect and skillfully directed by the fashion designer, who solely funded this project after years with Yves St.-Laurent and Gucci. Foremost is Colin Firth, who's received an Oscar nod for his adept rendering of the complex character behind the horn-rims. And young actor Nicholas Hoult positively glows in his white mohair sweater and crème-colored jeans, the epitome of twink naivete.

A film littered with such seductive trappings is a pleasure to watch. But observing what lies beneath as it bubbles to the surface like a lily bursting through blacktop is the real joy of this subtle masterpiece.

17 February 2010

Photo of the Day

"Phasmatis Lux Lucis"
Santa Fe, NM
November 2005

16 February 2010

Taking the Waters of Mt. Shasta

February 16, 2010

“Shasta: lonely as God, and white as a winter moon”—Joaquin Miller, Life Amongst the Modocs

It almost feels as if a new phase of my life is beginning. It began yesterday, with a scalding—a sudden, excruciating burn that I had certainly not anticipated. Because I’d been feeling so bad about Valentine’s Day, I decided to take myself to Stewart Mineral Springs in CA near Mt. Shasta and drown my troubles on Ladies Night. The trip here on my birthday had been such a lovely, sensual occasion that I wanted nothing more than to replicate it exactly.

I should have known better. Sophomore experiences with anything one has placed on a pedestal are generally a huge disappointment. But I was very much in the mood to sit around with other women in a beautiful natural setting and “take the waters.” I thought maybe these world-renowned springs could heal some of my psychic distress, wash over all the depression, anger, and sadness I have accumulated these 2½ years, somehow soften me and help me move forward from this rut I’ve been stuck in.

The drive down was beautiful, as Shasta and several other flanking mountains artfully pierced the sky with their snowcapped peaks. My first glimpse of 14,179-foot Shasta took my breath away, as I’ve never seen it so large and snowy, filling the whole frame of my view. It is a solid, vastly comforting, godlike presence that makes me feel both huge and small. Its generous spirit and snow-covered warm heart are massive. I swoon when I see Mt. Shasta. Swoon that anything could be so large, muscular, and handsome. Swoon that nature can assert itself so dramatically—allowing time and force to burst forth with such powerful cone of earth, brimming with life and swirling with the internal energy of a volcano.

On the road to the springs, cows were out grazing in the field, and young baby calves stared at my car with stunned fascination as I passed them, my eyes meeting theirs in gentle observance. We were fresh sights to each other. They were tiny and still-fuzzy, little brown cotton balls with legs, huddling close to their mothers, grazing away. I slowed down to take them in. On my right was their big open pasture holding an iconic red clapboard barn. To my left, an empty field that seemed almost necessary to allow the enormous presence of Shasta.

As I approached the springs, I noted a fallen squirrel in the middle of the road. He was flat on his back, almost pinned upright, and looked frozen in time except for one trickle of blood spurting from his mouth. So very typical of our world, I thought. Great natural beauty, new life, fresh death—somehow all coexisting on the same plane. As Jackson Browne puts it so well, “With its beauty and its cruelty, with its heartbreak and its joy. With its constantly giving birth to life and to forces that destroy. And the infinite power of change, alive in the world.” [from Alive in the World]

As I crossed the bridge, I looked up to see a beautiful naked woman with long brown curly hair and lovely breasts serenely bathing in the creek water. For a moment, she became a magnificent still life, an angel in the pines surrounding this pond. A sprite.

I was ready to enjoy a wonderful, healing late afternoon, to fully surrender myself to the sensuality of this amazing place—a hot spring resort tucked into pine-covered rolling hills. A chance to spend a few hours in another, almost Edenic time, when people walked in harmony with the landscape and dipped into mountain streams as they presented themselves.

I was greeted by the woman at the front door, who told me that they’d seen my car approaching and had started running a mineral springs bath just for me. “Wow!” I said, “That’s service.” The bathhouse is subdivided into small rooms, each with its own tub and dressing area. The attendant guided me toward my room, and with a few prefatory comments, left me alone with the waters surging against the white porcelain tub. Last time I’d been here, I’d had an exquisitely warm bath awaiting me, its tranquility softly lit by a votive candle set atop an antique shelf. This time, there was no flame, and the room smelled musty and overlooked the Dumpster.

Ah, well.

I disrobed and took a moment to revel in the sensuality of being publicly naked on Ladies Night, with other equally undressed women in the rooms around me. It felt a bit like heaven’s waiting area. After enough water had flowed into the tub, I decided it was time to begin. But as I plunged my right foot in with all my weight on it, I felt the greatest searing pain of my life. It was as if I’d pushed my tenderest bare skin directly into a raging fire. I withdrew it immediately, shrieked, held it for dear life, trying desperately to stop the pain. I couldn’t believe how incredibly sore it continued to be, sending waves of agony up my entire leg. I finally remembered to run cold water over it, but that only anesthetized it for a short while. Quickly it dawned on me that I would not be able to tolerate even the slightest bit of heat near my foot. Not-so-hot springs, anyone?

I told myself that I would not let this incident spoil my time. But pain has an amazing way of focusing the mind. I could only think of one thing, and that was how to amputate the white-hot poker that had become my right foot. I suddenly had great compassion for burn victims, those enduring torture, abused children—for all who had unrelenting physical pain and had to somehow cope with it day after day.

Several large blisters emerged from the redness, signaling second-degree burns. I should seek treatment. Surprisingly enough, although the bath attendant was very sweet, the facility had no burn ointment, just liquid aloe vera, which did very little. Stubbornly wanting to have the experience I came for, I hung my foot out the side of the tub and immersed the rest of myself in some (very tepid) bathwater. I then hobbled to the next room, where CA’s only extant wood-fired sauna held court. I wanted desperately to take in the soothing cedar fragrance, and carefully wrapped my foot in a towel. But as I stared into the previously romantic woodstove flames, all I could feel was their heat, searing my foot alive. I then walked out to the creek, where surely a dip in the nigh-frozen water would ease the agony. But ice against freshly burned skin felt almost as vivid as the 180-degree bathwater, and I could tolerate it for only seconds.

From there, I made the rounds several more times, bathing in pain and little else, then at dusk decided to hobble myself home. I had intended to stay over, but I knew that the beautiful setting would be wasted on my podiatrically obsessed mind. I honestly wasn’t sure how I was going to drive up an often-gnarly pass in the dark with my accelerator foot so perturbed. But I popped an Advil, tucked an imaginary piece of leather between my teeth, and started driving.

As the pain eased a bit, the evening took on a kind of mystical quality. Shasta and the other mountains seemed to hold me snugly, reassuring me with their soft strength, like a room full of huge white pillows. They seemed to suggest that in time, both my seared skin and broken heart would heal. That if I treated myself kindly and with compassion, took time and care with my wounds, fully felt all that I needed to feel, I would someday come back into harmony with a notion called serenity and carry myself perhaps with something vaguely approximating the dignity and equanimity of a mountain.

Mountains possess both great strength and great humility. They exist in Zen-like states where all impingements—glacial scars, erosion, avalanches, the vagaries of human activity—are endured silently and ably. Even a 593,000-year-old peak like Shasta, which contains a center of molten lava constantly bubbling at its core. It is, as we are, simply a vessel, a container for a myriad of states that ultimately don’t mean anything at all—though humans have invested our emotions with all kinds of import. In the words of the Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

Why did I scald my foot? I think that question leads directly to another: Why does pain exist? Why can we be going along minding our own business and suddenly be engulfed by a tidal wave of anguish that seems to overwhelm our ability to cope? Some suggest the answer is to make us appreciate the times we aren’t in pain, but that seems a bit simplistic. One thought that occurred to me last night is that pain stops us. It stops us and causes us to slow down and reconsider. It helps call into question the road we think we’re on, and open up to the perspective of the totality. How many times do we say, “I stopped doing that because I got really burned”? Even when the pain doesn’t seem to be apropos of anything specific, it can serve as metaphor for all the other painful situations in our life, drawing our attention toward their resolution.

My friend Paul asked me what was my first thought when my foot was plunged into the boiling water. “MAKE IT STOP!!!!!!” I replied. And maybe this is the point with other sorts of pain, which those of us inured to painful lives are not always able to see so clearly. Sometimes the point is simply to change the pain we are in. To make it stop where we can. To act as our own rescuer, pulling ourselves from the burning buildings of life and treating ourselves with kindness and compassion as we salve our wounds.

13 February 2010

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Photo of the Day

"For Ever"
Portland, Oregon
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Shop Window, Nob Hill
Albuquerque, NM

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Al's Backyard
Dixon, NM
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A view from the inner/outer landscape of my favorite NM potter, Al Tyrell.