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

11 February 2010

Photo of the Day

"For Ever"
Portland, Oregon
January 2010

08 February 2010

Photo of the Day

Shop Window, Nob Hill
Albuquerque, NM

05 February 2010

Photo of the Day

Al's Backyard
Dixon, NM
November 2006

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

03 February 2010

Digital Nation

Did anyone catch PBS’s Frontline documentary Digital Nation last night? It was one of the more sad and sobering docs I’ve watched in a long while. Although I use computers far more than I’d like, I keep a few toes in the Luddite camp on the issue of digital technology and how it has severed some key elements that used to make life fun. To wit, the tangibility of physical objects and the joys of eye contact and in-person human relating.

Much of this program focuses on children and how steeped in technology their lives have become. In one extremely sad segment, young South Korean Internet addicts were filmed at a “detox” facility, trying to learn how to be kids again because Net gaming had taken over their lives. Digital Nation showed them learning how to jump rope and go outside to play in the 3-D landscape. Wow. These kids had been manipulated so very far from their instincts that they truly did look like they were being tortured by having to pry their fingers away from their keyboards. Apparently PC Baangs, arcades in which kids can play video games in stacked cubicles, are very popular in Asia—to an extreme extent. One child actually died because he played for 50 hours straight without bothering to pause for food or water. Just what we need—another source of addiction in the world.

Another segment examined the in-class behaviors of both grade school and college students. Obviously I am way out of the loop on this one, as I had no idea that children were allowed to bring both cell phones and laptops to school and use them while the teacher tries desperately to convey information. Once upon a time, this would have been considered extremely rude and distracting--probably because it’s extremely rude and distracting—and would have been banned. Producer Rachel Dretzin interviewed one vice-principal who seemed to be spending his days monitoring students’ Internet surfs during class. Give me a break! We’re paying educators to cyber-babysit?? How ‘bout either issuing students dumb terminals so they can’t be chatting on Facebook during class, pulling the plug on the school’s router, or….imagine this!...not having individual computers in the classroom? Is it really such ignoble idea to teach kids how to pay attention to one thing at once, instead of 5?

One high-schooler from affluent Chatham, NJ, proudly boasted that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d read a book. Couldn’t remember…. He was shown referring to an online version of Spark Notes for Romeo and Juliet, as he simply “didn’t have enough hours in the day to read the whole thing.” He seemed quite pleased with his “accomplishment” of having ingested the summary version in less than 5 minutes. No doubt the demands placed on him by Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, and MySpace are so onerous that he has no time to consider the pedestrian words of one of history’s greatest writers. Would anyone like to join me in slamming him up against a wall and shoving the complete works of Shakespeare through his smug little eyeballs?

And thus we stumble upon the popularity of books with titles like The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30).

As old, cranky, and out-of-touch as I may sound, it’s hard to be middle-aged and have known another way. Life used to have much more time in it. Much more serendipity. And much more pleasure. Relating the majority of our time to a machine has made us, as a society, much colder. More calculated and pragmatic. We want exactly what we want, and we want it NOW.  Just as technology serves our every whim, we expect people to do so as well. It has fashioned us into digital creeps.

I'm not sure where we're heading with all this. I try not to be xenophobic toward these "natives" of cyberspace, but it's tough to not feel some apprehension sneaking in. If we have ostensibly gained so much from the glut-of-information age, then why don't I feel happier? Smarter? Kinder? As effervescent as pink champagne? Why do all my most cherished memories not involve sitting around staring at a screen? Yesterday I stood on a long line at the PO, where everyone had tried to endure the wait by whipping out their smart phones. A 6-year-old boy whose mom had left for a few minutes was wandering up and down the line aimlessly, searching in vain for someone to look up from their screens and acknowledge him.

Some days it feels like that for me, too.

 [I like this topic. For further info, see my November blog entry, “Apocalypse How?”]

02 February 2010

Photo of the Day

I like this one because it looks like a coupla rolled-up snakes. I think I found it at Jake Harwell's place on NM 68 in Embudo, on the road to Dixon. It’s one of the best spots to shoot--you can find anything there…

Photo of the Day

Tattoo Shop Window
Albuquerque, NM
August 2006